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Almond Orchards May Have Small Carbon Footprint

Let's be honest: It has not been a pretty year for the California almond-growing industry. As the drought continues to ravage the state, the nut has become a scapegoat of sorts, with the stat that it "takes one gallon to make one almond" shouted and spread throughout across the internet. A lot of the vitriol may be because almonds have the unfortunate luck of having a easy-to-remember number associated with production. In contrast, one quarter-pound of beef requires about 660 gallons of water, but that statistic is harder to recall.

But the tide may be shifting with a recent series of pieces telling folks to calm down on the almond hate. And now thanks to a new study published in the "Journal of Industrial Ecology," science is showing the crunchy nut in a whole new light.

A pair of reports put together by researchers at UC Davis -- first funded by the Almond Board of California and since supported by the California Department of Food and Agriculture -- looked at the carbon footprint of almond orchards. The findings? The footprint is not very big at all.

"We found that one kilogram of almonds results is less than one kilogram of [CO2-equivalent] emissions, 0.9 in fact," co-author Dr. Alissa Kendall, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said. "Relative to other nutrient and energy-dense foods, almonds look pretty good in terms of the impact categories we assessed."

 

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To compare, beef has roughly 20 kilograms of emissions for everyone single kilogram produced. Eggs have a two-to-one ratio. Being able to produce more kilograms of material than CO2-equivalent emissions is a pretty big deal.

A big reason for almonds' low footprint has to do with how its by-products are used. The biomass, hulls, and shells from the almonds, once harvested, are often utilized in other capacities, such as feed for dairy cows, or to generate electricity. "If you provide those trees to the electricity system, you avoid the need to produce electricity other ways," Kendall said.

Which isn't to say that all almond orchards are at this level of sustainability. A study from the California Almond Sustainability Program shows that 74 percent of orchards are using their various by-products in sustainable ways, leaving 26 percent of them with work left to be done. These studies, in part, are trying to figure out the exact methods of sustainability that orchards should enact.

So, okay. Almonds are great in terms of carbon footprint. But what about all those warnings about almonds sucking up huge amounts of water during the drought?

Water usage is a big factor in contributing the the carbon footprint of almonds. "[Irrigation water] ended up being nearly a quarter of all sources of emissions, so quite large," Kendall said. Irrigation was only second in terms of its contribution to CO2-equivalent emissions to fertilizer.

But how are consumers supposed to use this information? What's more important, the environmental impact or the amount of water that is being used?

"It totally depends on what choice they're making," Kendall said. "You always want to look at a plurality of environmental impacts, because most of the time there are going to be trade-offs with environmental impacts. So, it shouldn't necessarily change how people think about almonds and water, but it should change how people think about the broader impact of environmental food choices."

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