Plant milks seem to be something of a new invention that have become incredibly popular, but the truth is that they have been around for thousands of years. Coconut milk is made from the shredded flesh of coconuts and has been used in cooking in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Caribbean and northern South America for centuries and even longer than this in India. Soy milk is first recorded being used in China in 1365, rice milk is newer with a history of at least 100 years. Almond milk has been used for centuries though, it was used in the middle ages as it was easier to digest than dairy and was also used by Muslims during Ramadan. In the last decade the popularity of almond milk has exploded, becoming more popular than soy milk, but with this has come grumblings that almonds are bad for the environment, sucking up all the water and exploiting bees. Is this true or is it dairy agriculture fighting for the money that they have lost?
Most of the world's almonds are grown in California, USA. The climate in this area is perfect for the nuts to grow and there is a lot of land available, but almonds are also grown in Spain and Australia. In California several types of almond are grown to take full advantage of the growing season. When the trees start to blossom, honey bees are recruited to pollinate the flowers so that fruits grow that then develop the seed that we call almonds. The bees are sent across America to pollinate whichever crop is flowering and almonds are the same. The bees are brought in within their hives with thousands of hives being trucked hundreds of miles. The hives are opened for the bees to get to work, then once the blossoms have been pollinated the bees are packed back onto the truck to the next farm.
The almonds are taken from the tree by being shaken. Huge machines grab the tree and forcefully shake them until the almonds fall. The almonds are collected from the ground and processed to be sold. Almonds are used in many different ways, not just plant milk, you can buy loose nuts to eat, ground nuts for cooking and baking, almond oil can be used in cooking or as a beauty product.
So, What Makes Almonds So Bad?
There are three main problems with the almond industry:
Growing almonds produces a huge amount of waste as it is only the seed inside the fruit that is required, the rest of the fruit and the shell of the almond are not needed. Efforts have been made to find uses for the waste so that it becomes a product of its own. These uses include burning the shells and fruit to produce electricity and feeding them to farm animals.
Almond farmers want us all to believe that sending bees to their farms to pollinate the almond blossoms is great for the bees, that the nectar from the flowers is the perfect food for them. This isn't entirely false, the nectar from the almond flowers is good for the honey bees, however, eating only the nectar from these trees isn't natural or good. Honey bees, in the wild, will travel miles everyday, visiting the flowers of many different plants as each plant produces nectar that has different nutrient profiles for the bees. It is the same for us, we need to eat a variety of foods to get all of the nutrients that we need, eating one type of food all of the time will lead to illness, eating just one thing isn't good for us or the bees. Then there is the transportation, shutting bees into their hives, stacking them up and trucking them across the country, it's no different to how cows, pigs, chickens and other animals are locked into vehicles and transported, it is cruel, it also causes the bees stress. Also, it is not natural for bee hives to move, bees will leave their hive to start another one elsewhere, but this is the bees travelling together to set up a new home, imagine stepping out of your home to find you are hundreds of miles away from where you were when you went to bed. Bees develop a map of where they live, they are incredibly intelligent in this way, able to remember where good food is, go back to the hive and tell the other bees where to find it. Every time the hives are collected up and moved this map is gone, the bee has to figure out where it is all over again.
It is becoming common knowledge that growing almonds uses huge amounts of water and in an area like California this puts a massive strain on natural resources, a state that becomes so dry that wildfires can burn out of control. Each almond takes 1.1 gallon of water to produce, on average it takes 74 litres of water to produce one 200g glass of almond milk. Nuts, require a lot of water to grow, it's not just growing the nut, it is growing and supporting the tree, producing the flower, the fruit and then the nut. Because of this growing process almonds take a long time to mature and need water at every stage. Almond growers are trying to reduce the amount of water that they are using by changing the way that they water the trees and irrigate the fields and, so far, they have managed to cut back on water use by 33%.
Almond Milk Compared To Other Plant Milks
The plants that are used to make different plant milks all need resources to grow, sunlight, land and water, there are also energy use and waste produce to consider. The environmental impact of a plant milk is a measure of how much of each resource is used. Almond milk is considered to be the worst offender by many due to the amount of water that it requires, however, when the greenhouse gases emitted are compared, almond milk doesn't seem quite so bad.
Producing almond milk produces less CO2 than oat milk or soy milk, it also uses less land. So, compared to dairy, almond milk is good, however, overall it may be a better choice to use a different plant milk. For some people there may not be many options available, if you live a food desert or a rural area you may have to take what is available. At the end of the day, it is about weighing up your options and making the best choice that you can, the choice that you are comfortable with. If you don't like other plant milks but love almond milk you are still making a positive decision for the environment, the animals and your health. If you want to try something new then give another plant milk a go, it's all about taking baby steps to make positive changes.