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The almond water footprint in California: myths and realities

with Dave DeFrank, Senior Vice President – Almonds, US

Much has been written about California’s water challenges in recent years and almond growing is sometimes portrayed as a drain on the state’s water resources. This is simply untrue, and the confusion and debate mainly arises from inconsistent measurement and reporting over key metrics like water usage, impact of usage and economic productivity of water.

The Californian agriculture industry has improved tremendously in terms of water usage over the years as its water use has fallen by 20% over the last 40 years[1]. This is further supported by evidence from the California Department of Water Resources, which states that the total amount of agricultural water has held steady since 2000, while the value per gallon has increased quite significantly.

The almond industry has independently been heavily involved in water efficiency research since 1992, (well before the current cycle of water shortages), and the results have been significant.

Almond growers in California have improved their water use efficiency by 33% since the ’90s by adopting various advanced production practices such as demand-based irrigation, which tracks farm inputs and characteristics such as soil moisture, tree status water and weather conditions. I’m heartened to share that 83% of all almond growers in the state practise this form of irrigation, including Olam.

Another efficient irrigation method often co-opted is micro-irrigation, which looks at a precise timing and rate of irrigation to eliminate runoff and ensure that the tree is receiving water directly in its root zone. This is another widespread practice, taken up by 70% of almond growers in the state, again including Olam.

Olam is proud to be part of the ABC industry group. Its research and recommendations have informed our approach to optimising water efficiency across our 8,000 acres of almond orchards in California and adapted into our larger 30,000-acre almond operations in Australia.  Olam is committed to its two key recommendations on demand-irrigation and micro-irrigation.

It is also meaningful to take a broader view of water used for almond cultivation in comparison to other common protein staples in the context of changing lifestyle impacts and health concerns.

We know for a fact that one ounce of beef requires about 105 gallons of water to produce, and lentils consume about 70 gallons of water per ounce of production, whereas almonds take a much lower 22 gallons of water to generate each ounce of output.

While this comparison supports the relative sustainability of almond production, the more important focus is on the need for diversification both in agriculture and consumption.  There is demand for diversification generated by global health trends.  For example, not everyone can consume dairy milk and almonds are now providing a new source of protein and energy through almond milk.  Not everyone wants meat for their protein intake so some look to almonds and other nuts as alternatives.

Water required to produce proteins Water required to produce crops
Product Gallons / Ounce Product Acre Feet
Almonds 23 Almonds 3.4
Peas 45 Pasture 3.8
Lentils 71 Alfaalfa 4.6
Beef 106 Rice 5.0
Pork 50 Processing Tomatoes 2.5
Soya 14 Onions 2.7
Chicken 35 Cotton 2.9
Potatoes 2.0

Of course, much more still needs to be done to improve water efficiency. True to its status as the industry’s leader in promoting sustainable growth, the ABC has recommended three ways to do so: real time crop evapotranspiration, managed deficit irrigation and cover cropping. Olam is adopting these methods for better yield and improved water efficiency.

With significant research and development support, backed by a strong track record of innovation for conservation, we expect more players in the almond industry will adopt these new recommendations in the near future, leading to further improvements among California growers in terms of water use. It is also our hope that adoption of further refinements in regulations and best practices will lead to even stronger management of water as a precious natural resource.