Next time you’re thinking about ordering an almond latte, it might be worth considering how eco-friendly that particular plant-based choice really is.

Key points:

  • A single almond needs about 12 litres of water to grow
  • Australia is the second biggest exporter of almonds in the world after the US
  • Cow’s milk has more nutritional value than almond milk

University of Sydney associate professor Alana Mann has nutted out the implications of “planet-friendly” foods in her book, Food in a Changing Climate.

She said consumers should be looking beyond the hype of almond milk and taking into account the environmental, social and economic impacts of growing the nut in the Australian climate.

Her research within the Sydney Environment Institute, at UoS, comes at a boom time for almonds in Australia.

About 123,000 tonnes are expected to be harvested this year in what will be the biggest crop on record.

Murray-Darling Basin goes nuts

Nut plantations have become the dominant crop mix amongst horticultural crops in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Alana Mann says the water consumption of almond crops is only one among a host of sustainability issues.(Supplied: Jamie Loveday)

Dr Mann said that while annual crops like rice, cotton and dairy were also farmed in the Basin, they did not require permanent irrigation water.

“Annual crops or dairy are more flexible with water use than nuts that require water year-round,” she said.

But the Almond Board of Australia’s market development manager, Joseph Ebbage, said Dr Mann “fell into the trap” of thinking that water used on almond orchards only had a single use.

He said the water used to grow almonds created value in multiple ways.

“Yes, it grows kernels for human nutrition, but we grow the hull and shell, which goes for animal nutrition. And we’ve got 15 million trees, which are converting CO2 into oxygen and storing carbon,” Mr Ebbage said.

“Everything we do nurtures the local community and in fact now is a significant contributor to our national economy.

The Murray River narrows at the Barmah Choke.(ABC News: Peter Healy)

Impact on biodiversity

Almonds are a thirsty crop Dr Mann said — water consumption is estimated at 12 litres per nut.

But she was also concerned about other sustainability issues with the crop.

“What you also have to do is take into account the impacts on biodiversity, the impact on pollinators – as almonds require a lot of bees to be moved around Australia — as well as the impact of pesticides that are needed for almonds that have a profound impact on the environment,” she said.

“While water is one problem, there are many others associated with almonds in the unsustainable monocultures that many of them are grown in.”

Industry response

The Almond Board of Australia reported in 2020 that almonds are grown with between 12 and 14 megalitres of water per hectare on mature orchards to produce 3.2 tonnes of almond kernel.

From that, six tonnes of hull and shell is used for cattle feed, and compost and biochar improves soils, saving water.

Recent research funded by the industry is responding to criticism and grow more water-efficient and breed self-fertilising trees.

Data from the Almond Board of Australia showed the industry recorded a more than 15-fold increase in orchard area over the past 20 years, from 3,546 hectares in 2000 to 53,014 in 2019.

But Mr Ebbage said the industry was sustainable, paid for its access to water and produced a healthy product.

“We know that water is scarce and precious and the sustainability revolves around the fact that we are producing a food that is very healthy, nutritious, highly versatile,” he said.

An almond orchard in the Riverina sold for a $98 million last year. Permanent water entitlements boosted its sale price.(Supplied: CBRE)

Profits head overseas

Exports were booming but Dr Mann said that was compromising the Australian environment and farmers.

“By embracing these export crops it’s at the expense of our rural communities, we are risking the livelihoods of farmers and food security in Australia,” she said.

“As COVID has shown us, we need to have resilient local food systems, because we cannot rely on a fragile global supply chain.”

Furthermore, Professor Mann found the profits from Australian grown almonds were also heading off shore to Japanese insurance funds, Canadian and US retirement funds as they were major investors in almonds.

“That money isn’t coming back to communities,” she said.

“It’s also not respecting the value of our river system for traditional owners and rural communities that don’t think in economic terms and [they don’t] make any personal gain from profits that are made by companies exporting the products overseas.”

All of the nutrients in cow’s milk can be obtained elsewhere in the diet.(Pexels)

Industry proposed changes

The Almond Board itself called for a moratorium in 2019 to put a halt on issuing new water licenses in the southern Murray-Darling Basin states until a review into the river system’s ability to meet current demands had been completed.

Mr Ebbage said it was important to get a deep understanding about what had been planted across all agricultural industries that required irrigation water reliant on the Murray-Darling Basin.

“We are one of the partners for the One Basin Cooperative Research Centre for the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin, so, we firmly believe that there needs to be a holistic approach that is based on science that looks at the needs and requirements of all the orchards that have gone in the ground.”


What’s the alternative to nut milk?

Oat milk has also gained traction in the alternative milk range — but Dr Mann was not convinced it was the best option.

“Oat milk is one of the more sustainable milks, but there is a lot of evidence that I present in my book about the fact the nutritional benefits of dairy milk can not be beaten.

“We need to think not just about the environment, but also our own health when we make some of these choices, and not necessarily just buy into the hype,” Professor Mann said.