Or mainly, almond milk. Yes, that surprisingly pleasant milk-substitute beloved of Clean Eaters everywhere.
As more of us drift towards a meat-free life, it beckons temptingly. You’re almost elevated to dietary sainthood the moment you whisper with a shudder, “Oh! I don’t do dairy, do you have any almond milk?”
Yes, it’s hugely popular, not just with vegan converts and bearded hipsters, but those unlucky enough to be lactose or dairy intolerant. When I was young, no-one had ever heard of lactose intolerance. I suppose people just suffered in silence and wondered why a milky coffee made them fart like an ancient Morris Traveller.
However, there is nothing virtuous about almond milk. Nothing at all.
Are Californians drinking dirty water?
Most of the world’s almonds come from California, so there’s quite a carbon footprint too. According to the Almond Board of California, and they should know, the state “produces about 80% of the world’s almonds and 100% of the U.S. commercial supply. Almonds are California’s #1 agricultural export.”
All trees that produce crops of any kind need a constant supply of water, so when there’s no rain, farmers irrigate their crops with water taken from wells drilled deep down into the aquifers. These are layers of permeable rock containing groundwater.
In normal times, aquifers are refilled with rain. But after 10 years of drought, the higher aquifers are empty. So farmers are drilling deeper and deeper. This means the quality suffers. Why?
- Salinity increases the deeper you go. Salty water isn’t good for the soil and it’s not nice to drink.
- In some built up areas, groundwater basins are contaminated by industrial chemicals.
- Away from the towns, nitrates from fertilisers often pollute local drinking water supplies. This should worry people a great deal more than it does as it can have severe health consequences: hypoxia/hypoxemia***, cancers and thyroid problems.
- Near the coast, salt water flowing into yet more aquifers doesn’t help crops – and again, it’s not good for drinking.
What drought really does…
We think of drought this way – it dries up what we can see in front of us – brown grass, curling leaves, failed crops etc.
What we don’t realise that it affects the land in a much more frightening way.
There is huge subsidence in the vast San Joaquin Valley, where most of the almonds are grown. The aquifers are slowly collapsing deep underground, and when aquifers collapse, so does the ground we stand on. Land that sinks – no matter how slowly – is dangerous for roads, bridges, levees, buildings – infrastructure of every sort.
In turn, this makes the mountains ranges running alongside the valley higher, and this increases the likelihood of earthquakes.
Remember, this is in California, which you might call Earthquake Central. This massive subsidence been identified as the largest human alteration of the Earth’s surface. Wow.
In fairness, this is a process that has taken 150 years of sucking the water out of the ground to create farmland out of marsh. But the rush to cash in on the almond milk boom has led to almond acreage in California increasing by over 80% in the decade between 2009 and 2019. Trees need much more water than cabbages.
Thus groundwater depletion is happening quicker and quicker, which means the land is sinking faster and faster, “nearly 2 inches (5 centimeters) per month in some locations“. (NASA).
Eek. Eek, and thrice eek.
You can’t grow almonds without bees…
Almonds are actually fruits, and fruit trees need bees for pollinating.
Let’s hear from the Almond Board again.
- About 1.6 million colonies of honey bees are placed in California almond orchards at the beginning of the bloom period to pollinate the crop.
- After almonds, honey bees move throughout the United States, pollinating over 90 other crops and making honey.
This is what’s known as migratory beekeeping, and it leads to bees being stressed.
Actually, the term, “migratory beekeeping” makes me cross because it’s wilfully misleading. Bees are most definitely NOT migratory, In normal circumstances, they feed on a wide variety of nectars.
What it means in reality is that hives are trundled from crop to crop as each needs to be pollinated in turn. While the bees are being driven, perhaps hundreds of miles, they’re in closed cartons, unable to fly.
In addition, transporting them from one monoculture to another deprives them of a balanced diet. Almonds are grown in great monocrops – acres and acres of nothing but almonds. Come on, you’d get sick if you ate nothing but chocolate for three weeks and then moved on to baked beans for a month, followed by a fortnight on eggs. This is basically what is required of these “migratory” bees.
Shunting them about the country also increases the risk of spreading parasites and diseases, not only amongst managed hives but also among the depleted wild bee populations they might just encounter round the edges of these monocultures.
In fact, all crops are more effectively pollinated by a mix of honey and wild bees than by honeybees alone. But there are no other foods for the bees, so the farms rely 99% on these “migratory honeybees” with virtually no extra input from other pollinators.
Slave bees, more like.
And then there’s insecticides, upon which almond growers are so dependent. A study last year which looked at the toxic combination of insecticides and fungicides on bees in almond orchards reported the following:
- increased larval mortality,
- increased deformed brood
- a significant number of colonies completely dead.
The decline of bees around the world should make this a matter of deep concern.
While I’m at it, let’s not demonise farmers. They’re making a living, and many of them are at their wits end as to how to improve farming. The safety of bees, the absurdity of monocultures and the use of groundwater needs to be dealt with by legislation at state and national level.
But St Gwynnie of GOOP drinks it!
Yes, the fragrant Gwyneth Paltrow, the not-as-vegan-as-you-thought goddess with the noxiously idiotic lifestyle website GOOP, apparently has a smoothie made with almond milk every morning – whether or not she is detoxing! So it must be the superest of super things evah, hey?
Oh yes, the internet is awash with any number of clean eating influencers promoting the virtue of replacing dairy with almond milk.
So how nutritious is it?
Go to the Alpro website and you will find this list of the benefits of drinking “almond original”. My comments in italics.
- Naturally Lactose Free
- 100% plant-based
- Vegetarian (er… isn’t that the same as 100% plant based?)
- Naturally low in fat
- Naturally low in saturated fat (Surely that’s just a subheading under “fat”?)
- Low in sugars (But since you can get unsweetened almond milk, I think we can assume the these sugars are added…)
- Rich in Fibre (except all the nut is taken out)
- A source of calcium. Contains vitamins B2, B12 and D.
- Source of calcium and vitamins D and B12. (Sorry guys, you just said that!) Vitamin B12 contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue.
Search as I might, I can’t find any evidence to say it’s any better for you than old-fashioned cow’s milk or, for that matter, any other non-animal milk.
Lactose intolerance and veganism
Some people are lactose (dairy) intolerant. Others hate the milk industry and make a moral choice not to drink it. For both groups, doing without milk is a serious nuisance. And this isn’t a perfect world and frequently we have to make quick choices that we know aren’t good for the planet.
But if you do decide to change from almond milk, and I hope you do, oat milk and coconut milk seem to be a wee bit less damaging, even though they come in Tetra Paks which are much less eco-friendly than you might think. (But that’s for another time…)
Better still, make your own almond milk. Buy almonds grown near you (they’re grown in Australia, Europe, Asia and North Africa) and get bottling. Here’s a handy recipe to start you off. Chefs don’t like the pulp, I gather, but there are any amount of recipes out there for using the by-product. Or use it to make an exfoliating scrub.
My final question…
Is it worse for me to buy cow’s milk delivered in a glass bottle which will be used again and again (yes, we still get ours like that!) or a Tetra Pak of almond milk that goes on fouling the planet long after you’ve finished with it?
Ahh, life is so complicated!
***Request for my brother Frank
*** Frank, am I correct in stating that hypoxia and hypoxemia (low oxygen in your tissues/blood) will occur when the mechanism by which methemoglobin is formed is affected, “thereby inhibiting the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood“? My research seemed to point to this.
Note to the rest of you. My brother Frank is an eminent surgeon, and therefore a proper Man of Science. And yes, I could have asked him before publishing, but I don’t think it hurts to show my areas of ignorance and my efforts to redress this! And besides, I’m off on tour any minute, and want to get this out there!
Meanwhiles, welcome to all of you who have joined recently, and thanks to chuttersnap on Unsplash for the photo of the almonds at the top. Honestly, without the wondrous Unsplash’s free photos, this blog would be very dull to look at.
But of course, the best picture of all is the one of the… yes… wait for it… the One And Only beloved Mutt who has a starring role in this blog.
Quite rightly. She is a very eco-minded Person-Dog as she loves to lick the plates in the dishwasher before the cycle starts, thus extending the life of the machine. She firmly believes that hygiene is less important than waste.
What a clever dog!