“The Dark Side of Almond Use” – Really?


The online Atlantic is funding some excellent journalism on California water use — this story is in-depth and worth the time to read, for example.

On the other hand, it is also publishing some of the silliest alarmism on the topic I have seen. First we have “Why Bottled Water Comes From California, Which Can’t Spare Much,” a concern troll of story — bottled water, which uses about 0.01% of California’s water supply (and most of that replacing tap water which would also come from the same sources), is decried as if the water is shipped to places where it is bountiful (most isn’t.) Failure to do math or have any understanding of true problems (like using water for irrigating crops that a very water-thirsty, like rice, in a dry state.)

This week The Atlantic gave us this concern troll: “The Dark Side of Almond Use,” by James Hamblin, (a very young) M.D. and editor there. Clickbait, even high-minded clickbait, is deadly to true understanding — our journalist wants us to feel guilty about eating almonds, a (not especially thirsty) irrigated crop in California’s central valley which supplies much of the world with almond-y goodness. He doesn’t present much evidence of how much water is used to irrigate almond crops or compare the value of that crop with the value of the water used to give us a sense of whether this irrigation is a consequence of the ultra-low rates irrigation users pay for their water, or if it is a reasonable use for the value of the crop:

This week another large study added to the body of known cardiovascular benefits of eating almonds. Every ounce eaten daily was associated with a 3.5 percent decreased risk of heart disease ten years later. Almonds are already known to help with weight loss and satiety, help prevent diabetes, and potentially ameliorate arthritis, inhibit cancer-cell growth, and decrease Alzheimer’s risk. A strong case could be made that almonds are, nutritionally, the best single food a person could eat….

This follows a massive study released last fall from Harvard that found eating nuts decreased mortality rates by 20 percent, and it builds on Jenkins’ work done more than 10 years ago which suggested, in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, “Almonds used as snacks in the diets of hyperlipidemic subjects significantly reduce coronary heart disease risk factors.”

That’s all wonderful, but coverage of almond-nutrition research necessarily affords a narrow vantage on health. It seems like every day someone asks me to dichotomize a health trend: good or bad. Almonds are a great example of why I’m terrible at doing that…. [Ed. note: indeed!]

The only state that produces almonds commercially is California, where cool winter and mild springs let almond trees bloom. Eighty-two percent of the world’s almonds come from California. The U.S. is the leading consumer of almonds by far. California so controls the almond market that the Almond Board of California’s website is almonds.com. Its twitter handle is @almonds. (Almost everything it tweets is about almonds.)

California’s almonds constitute a lucrative multibillion dollar industry in a fiscally tenuous state that is also, as you know, in the middle of the worst drought in recent history. The drought is so dire that experts are considering adding a fifth level to the four-tiered drought scale. That’s right: D5. But each almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to produce, as Alex Park and Julia Lurie at Mother Jones reported earlier this year, and 44 percent more land in California is being used to farm almonds than was 10 years ago.

That raises ecological concerns like, as NPR’s Alastair Bland reported last weekend, that thousands of endangered king salmon in northern California’s Klamath River are threatened by low water levels because water is being diverted to almond farms. Despite the severe drought, as of June 30, California’s Department of Agriculture projected that almond farmers will have their largest harvest to date. If more water is not released into the river soon, Bland reported, the salmon will be seriously threatened by a disease called gill rot. If there’s one disease I never want to get, it’s gill rot…. [Ed note: he places water use for almonds in opposition to water used to preserve salmon runs, as if there are no other uses, like for animal feed, corn, rice, etc., much lower value crops.]

[and now he drags in concern for honeybees, which are not natural but brought in by honeybee keepers]

California’s almond industry is also completely reliant on honeybees to pollinate its almond trees. The industry requires 1.4 million bee colonies, according to the USDA, most of which are brought to the state from across the country. Because of colony collapse disorder, honeybees are a commodity. The almond farmers’ requirements represent approximately 60 percent of the country’s managed colonies. This year many of the mercenary pollinating bees brought to California died due to exposure to pesticides.

Anyway, when I buy almonds, I don’t think about having a hand in killing bees or salmon, or getting someone’s truck stolen or collapsing a road. It’s just a jumble of what’s “good for me,” what I feel like eating, and how much things cost. Michael Specter’s feature on GMOs in last week’s New Yorker gets into how seven billion people on the planet will be 10 billion by the end of the century, and feeding that population might well be the greatest challenge to humanity ever. Thinking about going easy on almonds is sort of analogous to GMO dilemmas or buying organic, where the point isn’t really nutrition, it’s environmental consciousness and sustainability, which always come back to water. Thinking about that side of food makes it hard to write about nutrition in isolation. Anyway, almonds are good for our hearts.

[“I’m very confused but I wanted you to know the whirl of considerations I keep in my head when I’m choosing food. I have no idea how important each of them is proportionally, but my guilt and sensitivity over choosing what foods to eat makes me a good person.”]

For more on almonds and other good supplements for life-extension:

Almonds: Superfood, Eat Them Daily for Heart Health
Getting to Less Than 10% Body Fat Like the Models – Ask Me How!
Low-Dose Aspirin Reduces Pancreatic Cancer
Daily Aspirin Regimen Reduces Cancer Rates
Fish Oil Supplements Ward Off Dementia
Lower Back Pain: Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Paracetamol) Useless
Cleanses and Detox Diets: Quackery
Gluten-Free Diets: The Nocebo Effect
Scams: Multi-Level Marketing, Herbalife
Fish and Fish Oil for Better Brain Health
Vitamin D: Anti-Dementia?
Salt: New Research Says Too Little May Be Unhealthy

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