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California’s almond crisis

Almond orchards in blossom in Sacramento Almond orchards in blossom in Sacramento Doug Raphael
29 Jan
The current drought hitting the west coast of America is giving the nation’s almond growers a particular headache

Last week, California’s drought became a state of emergency. ‘We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas,’ said Governor Edmund Brown in his official declaration of the emergency.

California’s state government wants to see a 20 per cent reduction in water usage. It’s a challenge, and not least for the state’s thriving almond orchards. California produces 82 per cent of the world’s almonds. The annual crop takes around 493 million gallons of water to produce, a big strain on a drought-hit state.

Almond trees are not native to California, but thrive in the state’s climate. California’s long, hot summers and limited rainfall in the winter mimic the almond tree’s native Mediterranean climate, according to David Doll who studies almond production at the University of California.

shutterstock 155026757Better get to Waitrose, these are about to be rarer than hen’s teeth (Photo: Silverjohn)

The problem comes with the almond’s water requirements. One kilogram of kernels – an almond’s edible part – needs 110 gallons of water. ‘Although this may seem like a lot, it is important to consider the amount of calories and protein in that,’ says Doll.

Almonds offer 2,608 calories and 96 grams of protein per 450 grams compared with beef’s 1,136 calories and 117 grams of protein. Almonds might offer large nutritional returns for each gallon of water, but California’s vast orchards stretch water resources. Almond orchards take up ten per cent of the state’s water supply, according to Slate.

Some orchards have resorted to pumping groundwater. ‘This is a serious concern,’ says Doll. Pumping groundwater is a common practice during a drought, but the current drought has been exceptionally long, straining groundwater reserves.

‘There are impacted groundwater basins that have experienced subsidence, while others still have high capacity pumping,’ says Doll. ‘The water source, recharge rate, extraction rate, and of course, long-term sustainability are all unknown.’

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 12.29.36Who eats California’s almonds? (Credit: Almond Board of California)

Water use per almond tree acre has decreased over the years. ‘We term this water use efficiency, or “crop per drop” and it has increased over 30 per cent over the past 30 years,’ says Doll. New technologies have allowed farmers to now tell when a tree is stressed to better time irrigation.

Impressive efficiency has not offset massive almond orchard expansion. Farmers have a strong economic incentive to reduce water use, with around 20 to 30 per cent of production cost spent on water, but there’s a limit to technological fixes. ‘We don’t currently have the capacity to breed an almond variety that has a higher water use efficiency,’ says Doll. Unlike drought-tolerant wheat strains, new almond strains are still far away. It takes around 20 years for a new almond tree variety to be matured. ‘The complex genetics and the lack of acceptance of GMOs make it is a large challenge,’ he adds.

shutterstock 191969795Water irrigation pipes in the dry Southern California farmland (Photo: Eddie J. Rodriquez)

Whether California will see more orchards planted is a question of economics and environment. ‘When prices are higher, farmers can afford to produce fewer almonds because they make more money per pound. This means they can plant marginal ground and still make money,’ says Doll.

World almond prices reached a nine-year high last autumn. How California’s farmers will react to high prices, environmental constraints and the state’s drought prevention measures will change almond consumption across the world.

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