Andreas Späth

Why are almonds so expensive?

2015-02-09 07:51

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Almonds and other tree nuts have soared in popularity in recent years. Identified as valuable sources of essential nutrients and proteins by proponents of paleo, Banting and other fashionable diets, they’re now available in bulk buckets at your local supermarket.

If you’re as fond of nibbling at these tasty kernels - is it just me or is the cracking sound they make when you split them into two perfect halves with your teeth one of the most satisfying things in all of eating? - you’ll have asked yourself more than once why they are so darned expensive.

The growing global demand has, of course, contributed to skyrocketing prices, but the reason why they are not likely to come down any time soon and are, in fact, tipped to keep on going up, has as much to do with the way almonds are grown as with their appeal as a healthy treat.

For the most part, global almond production is an industrialised, water-hungry, mono-culture business that is environmentally unsustainable and damaging.

More than 80% of all almonds sold worldwide come from a single US state: California. That state’s Central Valley is now home to an estimated 380 000 hectares of almond orchards, an area that has doubled since the mid-1990s as more and more farmers, inspired by the promise of higher profits, have made the switch from annual crops like lettuce, carrots and tomatoes. At nearly $5bn, annual almond sales are second only to California’s famous grapes when it comes to agricultural crops.

The annual pollination of the state’s vast almond orchards depends entirely on honeybees, which aren’t native to North America (neither is the almond tree itself, which has its original home base in the Middle East and South Asia). Every January and February, about a million hives are trucked to California for the job in what is the biggest artificial pollination operation on the planet.

Unfortunately, the US honeybee industry has been significantly impacted by colony collapse disorder in recent years. As elsewhere around the world, countless commercial honeybees have mysteriously disappeared from their hives, never to be seen alive again. Widely-used pesticides are now thought to be the most likely culprits behind the phenomenon.

None of this helps in keeping almond prices down. However, the most important environmental factor linked to the rising cost of producing almonds isn’t related to honeybees, but to a growing water crisis.

The Central Valley is technically a desert and the entire state is currently in the grip of a climate change related drought that has been described as "severe", "extreme" and "exceptional". The worst on record. The worst in 1200 years, with 2014 the driest year in a century.

Almond trees need a steady supply of water (about a third more than grape vines) to grow and produce a good yield. It takes more than four litres of water to produce a single almond and together, California’s almond orchards guzzle up nearly two billion litres or about 10% of the state’s total consumption every year.

The region’s water comes predominantly from the snow-capped mountain tops to the east, winter rains and underground aquifers, but the snow reserves are shrinking and groundwater levels have been dropping precipitously as Central Valley farmers drill more and more boreholes. And the cost of water keeps rising.

Is it any wonder that almonds are so expensive? They’re costing the earth.

The story of the world’s almond crop is symptomatic of a system of agriculture (and of commerce and industry in general) in which ecological wellbeing and sustainability have been sacrificed to an impossible dream of endless growth and boundless profits. Think about that when you next chew an almond.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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