Chase J. Wittbrodt ’23
The water scarcity crisis in the American West is an imminent threat that directly affects more than 78 million people. As climate change unleashes its devastating impacts, the local groundwater supply is drying up and creating optimal conditions for droughts, wildfires, and desertification. Although California Governor Gavin Newsom has not yet ordered statewide water restrictions, many local municipalities have instated limitations on water usage guidelines. These restrictions prevent the non-essential use of water, such as washing a car, landscape irrigation, and drawn-out showers. As California residents have had their water usage restricted and their lives threatened by wildfires and droughts, local governments must turn their heads to an industry that has continued to use exorbitant amounts of water to cultivate their crops: the almond industry.
California has greatly benefited from the small tree-grown nut, as it rakes in nearly $5 billion annually. California boasts a staggering 83% of global almond production and nearly 100% in the United States. The demand for almonds has exponentially increased, as consumers are moving away from dairy in favor of plant-based beverages, such as almond milk. While the shift from dairy to plant-based products has proven environmental and health benefits, the production of almonds is taking a toll on California’s water supply. The cultivation of a single almond requires one to three gallons of water, and the production of one gallon of almond milk requires anywhere from 80 to 100 gallons of water. Unsurprisingly, the major almond-producing counties in California’s Central Valley are also the worst drought-stricken and have the most depleted groundwater tables. Why is one of the most water-intensive crops only grown in a region clearly threatened by water scarcity?
As people across the United States watch California’s majestic landscape succumb to raging wildfires and incessant droughts, the east coast has been left flooded by sweeping amounts of unprecedented rainfall. Moving the almond industry from California to locales with more rainfall, such as the Southeast, would ease California’s water crisis by mitigating the impacts of substantial agricultural water usage. California’s Central Valley has a unique Mediterranean climate, which provides optimal growing conditions for almonds. Although the southeastern United States does not have a Mediterranean climate, advancements in genetically modified agriculture can engineer almond varieties to withstand the temperature and precipitation fluctuations that are prevalent in the south. In 2019, the United States government gave American farmers more than $22 billion in taxpayer’s dollars, indicating that the federal government has no financial reservations when it comes to supporting domestic agriculture. When the taxpayer’s contribution is coupled with the USDA’s annual budget of $146 billion, the task of genetically modifying an almond seems to be more easily accomplished.
As someone who has driven through large swaths of south-central Alabama, I can say that cultivating tree-nuts is not a new concept to them. Rows of towering pecan trees extend for miles in almost every direction, with many growers possessing the infrastructure for responsible cultivation. The primary machine in the cultivation process is a tree-shaker, a simple, yet highly effective way to responsibly harvest tree-nuts. The human-operated machine grabs ahold of the tree’s trunk or branches and gently vibrates until the nuts have fallen, all without damaging the tree’s structure. Since pecan growers already possess the necessary tree-shakers, all they need to do is apply the technique to almond trees. Compared to pecans, almond cultivation in the financially-strapped deep south can provide a steadier stream of income, as almonds are more versatile and visible to consumers. Pecans do not have a wide variety of uses, as they are mainly purchased for consumption. On the other hand, almonds’ versatility transcends the bounds of a trail mix ingredient, and can be used as a milk alternative, as animal feed, and even as a skincare product.
Although abandoning almond cultivation threatens California farmers’ livelihoods, the Central Valley could retain its rich agricultural heritage by producing less water-intensive, but still niche crops, such as citrus, olives, and grapes. Shifting away from almonds would allow Central Valley farmers to benefit from agritourism, an industry long dominated by the Napa Valley wine industry. Cultivating niche crops would also allow Central Valley growers to promote their unique yields in a lucrative, but still personable way, such as hosting farm tours, wine tastings, or even selling goods at local farmers’ markets and festivals.
Although moving almond cultivation from California to the Southeast will not solve the imposing water crisis, it will mitigate the effects of water-shortages, depleted water-tables, droughts, wildfires, and desertification. Additionally, it will lead to less austere water-usage restrictions. Even if the impacts of water-shortages driven by almond cultivation are not felt by all, the crisis in California is a startling reminder that the effects of human-induced climate change are real, imminent, and grave. Now more than ever, we need to come together and utilize modern agricultural advancements that could quite literally save a state on fire.