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Stop Hating On Almonds, You Ignorant Hipsters

Stop Hating On Almonds, You Ignorant Hipsters

Felt a stab of guilt recently as you snack on a handful of almonds? Been denying yourself the joy of almond butter? Maybe you’ve taken Tom Philpott’s (editors') advice to heart to: “Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipster.”

If eating almonds and almond-derived products leaves you wracked with guilt, you aren’t alone. Over the past year, almonds have been vilified by the media (largely spearheaded by Mother Jones) as water-hungry monsters practically single-handedly “sucking California dry.”

But here’s the thing, and it might come as a slight shock: Almonds are not the enemy.

Repeat it with me: Almonds are not the enemy. Take in a deep breath. Relax. Breathe. Almonds are not the enemy.

I know, I know. It’s nice to have an enemy. It makes big, scary problems easier to grapple with if you can single out one force to rally against. As Grist’s Nathanael Johnson, a journalist who has produced some of the most nuanced and thorough reporting on GMOs and is beginning to shine in his coverage of California’s drought, puts it: “We’ve entered uncharted territory: Never in recorded history have we gotten this dry. There’s an innate urge to seek out a villain — you know, put up the bat signal, catch the bad guy, and live happily ever after.”

The drought is scary. It’s going to cost the agricultural industry $1.8 billion dollars this year. Taps in some towns are running dry. Overpumping aquifers is causing the San Joaquin Valley to literally sink by almost a foot a year. Farmers are pumping up water that entered aquifers during the Pleistocene Epoch over 10,000 years ago. And more and more experts are telling us: get used to it. This isn’t an anomaly -- it may be the new normal.

Something has to give. The almond-dominated media narrative have led many to believe that something is almonds, which account for 10 percent of California’s non-environmental water use.

It might be comforting, but it can be dangerous to oversimplify complex problems. It causes us to focus our energy on the wrong problem, and to work towards false solutions. Johnson notes: “When dealing with a complex system like California’s water cycle, you have to think holistically if you hope to make positive change. While the system is complex, there’s something very simple driving California’s water system off the rails: stupid laws.”

And it's not just California with stupid water laws. The American West was built on stupid water laws. 

In fact, paradoxically, it actually makes economic sense to plant high-value crops like almonds during a drought if water is cheap, or free. And farmers are, despite the drought, planting more almond trees. Why? As Philpott explains “Surging demand—both from Asia and in the United States—have kept almond prices high even as the state expands production. Between 2009 and 2013, almond prices doubled and even tripled, depending on variety.” But it isn’t just demand that encourages farmers to continue planting. Lax rules governing ground-water and a convoluted and under-priced water market are making almond orchards a good bet for high profits. Johnson explains, almond farmers are “just acting out of common sense, following market signals. It’s those market signals — warped complex water laws in some cases, and no rules at all in others — that we need to fix.”

So let’s focus our energy on creating laws that strictly regulate groundwater pumping. That encourage an elastic water market that responds to supply, and, more importantly, lack-thereof. Advocate for laws that encourage sensible water use, agroecological farming practices, and keep profiteering billionaires who care more for growing profits than food from California’s land from buying it all up. Urge your representatives to make reforming our laws governing water regulation and encouraging ecological farming practices a top priority. Work to make sure mitigating climate change is a top national priority. And if they don’t listen? Replace them in 2016. Don’t trust politicians to craft ecologically sound policy? Advance a proposition. They’re easier to get on the ballot in 2016 than ever before. It’s called democracy, you ignorant hipsters.

No, it’s certainly not a sexy, fun, or easy solution. And it’s not perfect -- putting a price on environmental resources is inherently imperfect. But let’s be real: we aren’t going to smash capitalism before the drought is over, so let’s put a reasonable market in place that discourages rampant exploitation of our water. Changing our laws and regulations to make exploiting California’s natural resources unprofitable, and encouraging support for ecological farming practices, will do worlds more for fixing California’s ecological crisis than skipping the almond milk.  

One solution: Have the government stop subsidizing agricultural operations that cannot support themselves financially and are not environmentally sound.

One solution: Have the government stop subsidizing agricultural operations that cannot support themselves financially and are not environmentally sound.

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