Almond killjoy

Does eating an almond mean choosing between your health and the welfare of California?

It's not the food that will kill you, it's the guilt.

You can't eat red meat, then you can eat red meat. No sugary sodas, then no diet sodas either. Saturated fats are bad. No, wait, they're not that bad. Fish oil is good unless your fish is filled with mercury then better limit your intake. Eggs are great, then terrible, then great again.

We've done kale, blueberries, nonfat Greek yogurt. We make smoothies in a blender powerful enough to pulverize a cell phone. No sugar or white bread touches our lips (not when the local food police constable is looking, anyway). We eat a lot of vegetables, whole grains and nuts. And there, alas, is our latest quandary in a proverbial shell.

Have you heard about almonds? Great for you but maybe bad for California's drought. According to Mother Jones, it takes a flood of water to produce the Golden State's almond crop — nearly 3.5 billion cubic meters, which is more than three times as much water Los Angeles needs for all its homes and businesses each year. One almond translates into one gallon of water. That water doesn't grow on trees, or something like that.

As you may be aware, California is suffering through its worst drought in modern history. What does that have to do with someone living on the East Coast? Potentially, quite a bit. Pretty much every almond you buy, every gallon of almond milk or any other derivative of almonds, came from California. The state not only produces most of the nation's almonds, it produces about two-thirds of all the almonds on the planet.

So, here's the question: If we eat almonds, are we indirectly contributing to California's environmental catastrophe by encouraging the planting of more almond orchards? A case can clearly be made. As it happens, the counties in California that are big in almonds also happen to have the most "over-pumped" wells in the state, or at least so the magazine informs.

But wait, those almonds look really, really good. Recent studies have linked them to improved cardiovascular health, to a lowered incidence of diabetes, to lessening the severity of arthritis and preventing cancer. (And here you always thought the "joy" in Almond Joy candy bars came from the chocolate.) And, oh yeah, they taste pretty good. That's why demand for the nuts has increased ten-fold over the past half-century.

Eat them and feel better or abstain and feel better about your willingness to promote sustainable food choices?

Fortunately, some have risen to the nut's defense. As the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out, almonds are far from the most water-intensive product available to California farmers. You want to waste water? Then raise cattle. The water footprint of livestock, particularly beef, puts nuts to shame. Of course, Marylanders don't have to buy California beef, but what if, by boycotting almonds, farmers simply earn less or switch to even more destructive crops? Then the state's economy suffers along with the environment.

And that's not even factoring how we should be buying more of our food close to home, promoting local agriculture and sustainability, less sprawl and more farms. What's the cost in greenhouse gases to ship so much food out of California anyway?

Working out the pros and cons of almonds can make your head spin. Feeling a bit queasy yet? Probably just as well. Nausea is a good way to cut down on the calories — and the guilt.

—Peter Jensen

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