Almond Joy?

Almonds are a booming business in California these days. 82% of the world’s almonds are grown there, and production has more than tripled since the late 90s.   Over the last five years almond prices have nearly doubled, and growers have been abandoning other crops (mainly cotton) to plant almond trees. This year almonds surpassed wine as California’s #2 agricultural product (dairy is #1).

Seventy percent of California’s almond crop is exported every year, primarily to China. Almonds are California’s #1 agricultural export, by far (2 1/2 times greater than wine).  Almonds are a favorite snack food in the emerging world and California is about the only place to get them.  So the California almond industry has been able to continue increasing production while sharply raising prices at the same time.  It seems to be a good time to be the almond business.

But is this sustainable?

California is experiencing the worst drought in its history.  Water is rationed to farms and there is a serious question (drought or no drought) of whether there will be enough water to supply both the cities and the farms.  The same is true of Texas these days and I expect water shortages, and fights over how water is distributed, will be one of the most vital issues we face in the future, making some of the things we spend our time fretting over these days seem petty by comparison.  Is it really wise to use so much of California’s limited water supply to irrigate trees growing snack food for China and India?

And of course 800,000 acres of almond trees in a 400 mile area is unnatural. Almonds require pollination and nature doesn’t provide pollinators for such an unnatural monoculture (and even if it did they likely wouldn’t survive in an ecosystem contaminated with so much industrial agricultural poison).  So every year well over half the honeybee hives in the U.S. (close to 1.5 million hives) are trucked to California to pollinate the almond trees.  That being insufficient to get the job done (and because of the increasing mortality rate in the hives) since 2005 beehives have also been imported from Australia every year to assist.  Just stop and think about that a second.  Hives of honeybees are flown across the Pacific Ocean to pollinate almond trees in California, which are growing almonds that will someday be floated back across the ocean to be eaten in China.

When I was telling Cherie about this, she responded “And they call homesteaders and organic farmers crazy.”

So it seems that these happy days for the California almond industry are dependent upon a diminishing water supply, a diminishing bee population (and the ability to transport them to California for a few weeks every year), and a globalized transportation system dependent upon cheap fossil fuel.

Just another reflection of the strange thing we call American industrial agriculture.