Q: I recently heard that growing almonds requires more water than producing beef. I want to improve the sustainability of my diet. Should I give up tree nuts like almonds?
A: Timothy Griffin, PhD, an associate professor and director of the Agriculture, Food and
Environment program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, answers: “There is some debate as to whether or not, pound-for-pound, almonds actually require more water to produce than beef, but they do require a lot of water, so your question is a good one. Your concern is encouraging, because it shows you link your consumption (the demand side) with the impacts of production (the supply side).
“All products that come from agriculture use a lot of natural resources, like land and water, and have a range of environmental impacts. Almond production relies on irrigation, almost entirely in California, so concern about water use is very appropriate. Comparing the environmental impact of almonds or other tree nuts to beef directly is difficult, however, as they play very different roles in our diets and use resources in very different ways.
“In light of the complexity of this issue, here’s what I recommend: Rather than looking at your decision as a light switch that is either ON or OFF, think about it as a dimmer on your light—in other words, moderating consumption based on your concerns.”