An Abandoned Almond Orchard in Newman, California. Photo Credit: Terry Chea/AP
It is not a coincidence that both the Southwest and California, agricultural centers of the U.S., are increasingly water stressed. Though megadroughts are now a characteristic of the region, California alone produces more than 90 percent of some U.S. agricultural products, including broccoli, almonds, walnuts, kiwis, plums, celery, and garlic.[i] Notably, almonds are California’s top agricultural export: California produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds and 100 percent of the U.S. commercial supply.[ii] Given that the farming of almonds is especially water-intensive and both domestic and global demand for them continues to grow, investigating how almonds are contributing to California’s drought is increasingly important.
From almond milk beverages to almond butters, almond-based products are rapidly gaining momentum in the U.S. market. Nevertheless, it is important to consider what is the actual “water cost” of farming almonds? Are almonds truly the sole cause of California’s water woes? Will increased legislation surrounding water restrictions and usage in some water-stressed regions ameliorate these issues?[iii] Considering increasing drought and water scarcity issues across the Southwest and California, this article will dive into these questions and unearth whether almonds are truly the national security threat of our day.
Federalism and U.S. Farm Bills: the friends of climate change?
Before digging into the question of almonds and water scarcity, it is essential to survey the role that the U.S. political system plays in the agricultural landscape of the Southwest and California. While the representative federal democracy of the U.S. successfully maximizes individual liberties, the short political cycles and keen focus on states’ rights make it challenging to address widespread environmental security issues in the long-term. Election cycles, like two-year terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, lead policymakers to think in the short-term and prioritize re-election.
Since favorable economic conditions usually keep officials in office, a representative will likely vote against strong environmental security legislation if voting positively could have negative economic impacts for constituents or jeopardize their re-election. This is especially true when it comes to the extremely sensitive topic of farming and the protection of farmers, as farmers are seen as the “backbone of America.” In 1870, for example, farmers made up 50 percent of the workforce.[iv]
Today, however, only 1.3 percent of the workforce are farmers.[v] Regardless, given the historic economic importance of agriculture across the U.S. and the continued need for vast quantities of affordable produce, there have been numerous federal measures taken to protect farmers and provide U.S. food security, notably through U.S. Farm Bills.
U.S. Farm Bills are an extensive package of legislation renewed every five years; the current farm bill is expected to expire in 2023. These bills, with roots in the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, are extremely important because they provide protections for farmers and safeguard affordable food prices for low-income households.[vi] Farm Bills also aim to encourage sustainable agricultural practices through conservation.[vii] However, these bills have put strong effort into the marriage of agricultural policy and food production with little prioritization of the environmental cost of such water-intensive farming practices.[viii]
In the 2018 Farm Bill, 76 percent of funding is allocated for nutrition, including food subsidies, while only 7 percent of funding is devoted to conservation.[ix] Of course, nutrition programs and low-cost food are important for food security; however, without adequate funds devoted to safeguarding biodiversity and clean water and air through a substantial investment in environmental preservation and sustainability, human security will be impossible in the long-term.[x]
Currently, one third of freshwater used annually across the U.S. is used for irrigation applied to agriculture for crop production.[xi] In the Southwest and California more than 80 percent of water used annually is used for agriculture,.[xii] Additionally, there are few regulations surrounding pesticide use in the 2018 Farm Bill, which pollute water and are connected to health issues in humans.[xiii] The notable proponents of pesticide use that advocated for these reduced regulations on the use of pesticides are large agribusinesses that profit from the limited regulations.[xiv] These federal policies, which focus on large-scale food production with little consideration for the means of production and its impact on the environment, have surely contributed to the water problem across the Southwest and California.
The almond industry in California illustrates the water scarcity issues across the Southwest well. Currently, 80 percent of almonds produced globally are grown in California.[xv] Between 2017 and 2019, almonds were ranked number three for the top commodities produced in California, just behind milk and cream.[xvi] Almonds are in high demand: they rank the highest in export value of all agricultural products in the state and number one for commodity rank, acreage, production, and value.[xvii]
Notably, almond trees consume 1.07 trillion gallons of water annually across 1 million acres in California, which is equivalent to one million gallons per acre per year.[xviii] The two counties in California that are the largest producers of almonds are Kern and Fresno, which produce 21.1 and 20.1 percent of the state’s almonds, respectively.[xix] Both counties are suffering from major droughts.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, as of October 2021, 100 percent of the Fresno county’s 930,450-person population are impacted by drought, and 2021 has been the thirteenth driest year to date in the last 127 years.[xx] Kern is experiencing a similar phenomenon, with 100 percent of the county’s 839,631 person population affected by drought, and the county is experiencing the seventh driest year in the last 127 years.[xxi]
The water use in the farming of almonds in these counties is surely contributing to this situation, and there does not seem to be any sort of drive to halt production given the high demand for the nut. Almonds are extremely profitable for the countries and for the state, having generated $1.12 billion in profits for California farmers in 2020.[xxii] At the end of the day, the long-term impact of water-intensive almond farming on the environment is being sidelined in favor of these profits. However, what is the environmental cost of water? What will we do when these water-intensive crops are the major cause of the depletion of groundwater resources across California?
Fresno has been especially damaged by its agriculture and water-intensive crops. According to the City of Fresno’s water division, pumping groundwater has become increasingly expensive because the ground water is depleting at an astonishing rate: in the last 80 years the water level has dropped 100 feet.[xxiii]
Unfortunately, almonds are just one example of a water-intensive crop that is exacerbating water stress across farming communities. While other agricultural goods also have water-intensive needs, they are less discussed as there is far more momentum around the latest almond-based food trends, such as almond milk, almond ice cream, and almond butter. High demand also exacerbates their use of water resources. It is important to note, however, that they are not the only water-intensive agricultural product. The following chart illustrates how almonds compare to other common agricultural products.
Figure 1: Average Retail Price (USD) and Water used per fresh product in the USA in 2021 Sorted in Descending Order by Gallons of Water Per Pound
|Product||Average 2021 price per pound||Servings Per Pound||Gallons of water per pound|
|Cow Milk||$3.56 (gallon)||16||122|
Source: Retail prices above are approximate figures based upon available data from the USDA Economic Research Service,[xxiv] the Bureau of Labor Statistics,[xxv] and U.S. Department of Agriculture,[xxvi] Water Footprint Calculator,[xxvii] the National Peanut Board,[xxviii] West Coast Nut,[xxix] and Tridge.[xxx]
Clearly, almonds are extremely water-intensive, even when compared to other products. Given their high demand and the lucrative nature of the product, however, halting tree nut production appears impossible. We should therefore ask ourselves: what else should and can be done to safeguard the livelihoods of farmers while also preserving groundwater resources across California? Almonds are not the only trigger to this environmental disaster; they are merely one example of the detriment of our system that completely separates environmental cost from production and economically lucrative commodities. This is a human problem in a system that does not adequately place a price point on environmental cost. If we were to price almonds and other water-intensive products proportionately to their environmental cost, fewer consumers would be willing to buy the nuts. This approach would preserve environmental security, or at least groundwater resources, in the long-term, yet would impact almond farmers negatively in the short-term. If the government were to provide subsidies to farmers to transition to less water-intensive crops and better monitor water-usage and irrigation sharing mechanisms, this could seriously improve some of California’s water woes.
The issues of water-intensive crops, including almonds, should be addressed in the 2023 U.S. Farm Bill, as we no longer have the luxury of time. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), between January 2020 and August 2021 most areas in the Southwest and California had record-low cumulative precipitation rates and record high average temperatures.[xxxi] By the end of August 2021, most of the Western U.S. states were in some level of drought. Basins, like that of the Colorado River, are depleting. This is causing major tensions between Nevada, California, Arizona, and Mexico, where 40 million people altogether depend on the Colorado River for freshwater.[xxxii] For the sake of the water and even human security in the United States, our government needs to balance environmental conservation with support for our country’s farmers into federal agricultural policies.
Water Security Issues are Nuanced
It would be easy to use almonds as a scapegoat and to blame all water-usage issues on the product and their consumers, but that is neither true nor productive. Almonds are exacerbating drought conditions due to their water-intensive needs, but they are also being grown in already water-stressed regions. Furthermore, while almond farming does require large amounts of water, other products, including beef, require drastically more water. The true national security threat of the moment, therefore, especially considering increasing, farming-induced water scarcity across the Southwest, is lack of strong state and federal legislation surrounding water usage and farming practices, and the failure to price products according to their actual environmental cost.
The federal government should work to create stronger regulations on the kinds of crops that can be grown in regions, like Kern and Fresno, and support farmers financially in the short- and medium- term to transition to less water-intensive crops. Adjusting the price point of foods to be proportionate to their water usage would also reduce demand for water-intensive products and encourage consumers to transition to other, less water-intensive goods.
Moreover, there should be an increase in federal efforts to lessen the almond, and broader agricultural, footprint of the U.S. In the 2023 Farm Bill there should be decisive action to support strong water security policies in the Southwest and California by bolstering federal funds for water irrigation and environmental conservation programming. The federal government should also prohibit growing water-intensive crops in regions that are water-scarce or in conditions of should and should support farmers to transition to less water-intensive crops. Finally, the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill should also support legislation for more accurate pricing of water-intensive crops at their actual “cost”, considering the amount of water used in their production. Though it may take years of incremental policy changes to make strides toward productive change, we must start the transition to more sustainable water practices, especially in California and the Southwest, at a speed proportional to the water security threat.
[i] “What happens if US loses California food production,” Farm Progress, accessed October 2 2021, https://www.farmprogress.com/tree-nuts/what-happens-if-us-loses-california-food-production.
[ii] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Statistics Review 2019-2020,” accessed October 13, 2021, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Statistics/PDFs/2020_Ag_Stats_Review.pdf.
[iii] Ian James, “California will consider mandatory water restrictions if dryness continues this winter,” Los Angeles Times, September 30 2021, https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2021-09-30/california-to-consider-mandatory-water-restrictions.
[v] This is said with the caveat that 10.9 percent of U.S. employment is in the agriculture and food sector, however, the number of hands-on farmers is merely 1.3 percent. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy,” accessed October 11, 2021, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy/.
[vi] National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “What is the Farm Bill?”, accessed October 10, 2021, https://sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/campaigns/fbcampaign/what-is-the-farm-bill/.
[viii] Kaitlyn Spangler, Emily K Burchfield, Britta Schumacher, “Past and Current Dynamics of U.S. Agricultural Land Use and Policy,” Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, July 21, 2020, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.00098/full.
[ix] National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “What is the Farm Bill?”, accessed October 10, 2021, https://sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/campaigns/fbcampaign/what-is-the-farm-bill/.
[xi] United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Irrigation & Water Use,” accessed October 10, 2021, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use/; United States Geological Survey, “Total Water Use in the United States,” accessed October 20, 2021, https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/total-water-use-united-states?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
[xii] California Department of Water Resources, “Agricultural Water Use Efficiency,” accessed October 16, 2021, https://water.ca.gov/Programs/Water-Use-And-Efficiency/Agricultural-Water-Use-Efficiency.
[xiii] Matthew R. Bonner, Michael C. R. Alavvanja, “Pesticides, human health, and food security,” Wiley Open Access, August 28, 2017 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/fes3.112.
[xiv] Courtney Lindwell, “The Farm Bill is Chock-Full of Anti-environment Policy Riders,” Natural Resources Defense Council, June 28, 2018, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/farm-bill-chock-full-anti-environment-policy-riders
[xv] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Statistics Review 2019-2020,” accessed October 13, 2021, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Statistics/PDFs/2020_Ag_Stats_Review.pdf.
[xvii] Ibid., 8.
[xix] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Statistics Review 2019-2020,” 19, accessed October 13, 2021, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Statistics/PDFs/2020_Ag_Stats_Review.pdf
[xx] National Integrated Drought Information System, “Drought Conditions for Fresno County,” accessed October 12, 2021, https://www.drought.gov/states/California/county/Fresno.
[xxi] National Integrated Drought Information System, “Drought Conditions for Kern County,” accessed October 12, 2021, https://www.drought.gov/states/California/county/Fresno.
[xxii] John Holland, “Income dipped for Stanislaus farmers in 2020. How did drought and pandemic affect it?”, September 28, 2021, accessed October 14, 2021,
[xxiii] City of Fresno Water Division, “City of Fresno Water Resources,” accessed October 12, 2021, http://www.rechargefresno.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/FINAL_Fresno_Poster_Water_Web-1.pdf.
[xxiv] United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Fruit and Vegetable Prices,” accessed October 11, 2021, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/fruit-and-vegetable-prices.aspx
[xxv] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Average Retail Food and Energy Prices, U.S. and Midwest Region,” Mid Atlantic Information Office, assessed October 9 2021, bls.gov/regions/mid-atlantic/data/averageretailfoodandenergyprices_usandmidwest_table.htm.
[xxvi] Economic Research Service and the United States Department of Agricutlure (USDA), “How Much do Americans Pay for Fruits and Vegetables?”, assessed October 9 2021, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/42549/15151_aib790d_1_.pdf?v=42061#:~:text=In%20summary%2C%20although%20retail%20prices,5%20servings%20for%20most%20fruits.
[xxvii] M.M. Mekonnen, A.Y. Hoekstra, “The Green, Blue, and Grey Water Footprint of Crops and Derived Crop Products: Volume 1: Main Report,” UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, December 2010, accessed October 9, 2021,https://www.waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report47-WaterFootprintCrops-Vol1.pdf
[xxviii] The National Peanut Board, “Treading Lightly: The Water Footprint of Peanuts,” accessed October 25, 2021, https://www.nationalpeanutboard.org/news/treading-lightly-water-footprint-peanuts.htm.
[xxix] David Magana, “No Salty Feelings for the U.S. Pistachio Outlook,” September 7, 2021, accessed October 25, 2021, https://www.wcngg.com/2021/09/07/no-salty-feelings-for-the-u-s-pistachio-outlook/#:~:text=The%20average%20price%20in%202020,22%20to%202025%2D26%20period.
[xxx] Tridge, “Pistachio Kernel U.S. Wholesale Prices,” accessed October 25, 2021, https://www.tridge.com/intelligences/pistachio/price.
[xxxi] Rebecca Lindsey, NOAA-led drought task force concludes current Southwest drought is a preview of coming attractions,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), September 27, 2021, https://www.climate.gov/news-features/event-tracker/noaa-led-drought-task-force-concludes-current-southwest-drought-preview.
[xxxii] Abraham Lustgarten, “40 Million People Rely on the Colorado River. It’s Drying Up Fast,” New York Times, August 27, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/27/sunday-review/colorado-river-drying-up.html