UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, January 2018

Almond Milk is Taking a Toll on the Environment

Is There a Problem with Your Almond Milk Latte?

According to the Mic Network, “Almond milk, the ever-popular soy-free, dairy-free, vegan-friendly milk substitute now found everywhere from hip restaurants to coffee shops, is ruining the world.”

Almond milk’s consumption as an alternative to dairy milk for vegans and lactose-intolerant coffee drinkers alike has surged in recent years, becoming more popular with the American public than other non-dairy milks, according to an article in Fortune Magazine. Between 2010 and 2015, the market for almond milk surged by 250 percent.

Many people choose almond milk for having a smaller carbon footprint when compared with dairy milk. What may be surprising, though, is that almond milk takes a toll on the environment in other ways. The main issues associated with almond milk production are water use and pesticide use, which may produce long lasting effects on the environment in drought-stricken California, where more than 80% of the world’s almonds are grown.

The Key Issues

Commercial almond production in California requires diverting ground and surface waters from the state’s aqueduct system for irrigation. As cited in an article in the New York Times, it takes approximately 15 gallons of water to produce just 16 almonds, making almonds one of the most water-intensive crops in the state. Critics of almond milk’s status as a healthy alternative say that there aren’t enough nutritional benefits to justify the gallons of water necessary to grow almonds.

Since there are more than two billion almonds being produced in California, it’s easy to see why the amount of water being diverted for this purpose is large enough to be cause for alarm. And because many almonds are being grown on land that has been converted from natural lands or farms growing low water crops to meet the rising demand for almonds, the resulting increased irrigation needs have been dramatic.

According to Forbes, “23,000 acres of natural lands have been converted to almond farms. 16,000 of those acres were land previously classified as wetlands. Additionally, some agricultural land has been converted from lower-water crops to almonds.”

The ground in the San Joaquin Valley, where most almonds are grown, is already sinking each year due to groundwater depletion, so additional wells farmers are building to irrigate new orchards may have devastating long-term impacts for California and its residents who rely on groundwater as a source for drinking water.

This problem is compounded by pesticide use in the production of commercial almonds, which has been known to contaminate already limited water sources and contribute to the toxification of drinking water for people in California’s farming communities. According to the Pesticide Action Network, the USDA Pesticide Data Program has found residues of nine different pesticides on almonds, five of which are toxic to honey bees, posing yet another threat to the environment.

A final concern is that some store-bought brands of almond milk have carrageenan, which is used as a stabilizer and thickening agent, and has been linked to digestive troubles.

Working Toward Solutions

The Almond Board of California reports that the almond industry is making efforts to promote sustainable water use and increase its water use efficiency, so there are some attempts at solutions being made. And, though only a few million almonds are currently certified organic, there are more farmers now choosing to take this route and an increase in products on the market made with certified organic almonds.

What Can you do to Ease the Impact?

  1. Consider your options. You might try alternating between different non-dairy milks since each type of milk has its benefits and its impacts. Goat’s and sheep’s milk are good nutrition-packed, less allergenic options to cow’s milk.
  2. Make your own. If almond milk is in your life to stay, try making your own at home with organic almonds. You can at least control how much water is used in the milk making process and will turn out a purer product as well.
  3. Purchase certified organic. Certified organic almond milk means no pesticide use, and often less water use, too. Choose this when shopping. At the café, ask if certified organic is used, and if not, suggest they make the switch.
  4. Avoid brands that contain carrageenan. If you buy your almond milk, make sure to read the label and avoid brands that contain carrageenan.

Learn More

8 Nondairy Alternatives you can Drink Instead of Almond Milk

Environmental Working Group Almond Milk Scores

Dairy Farmers Think Almond Milk is Bogus, but Americans Love It

Lay Off Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters

It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?