California Almond Industry Tackles Cross-Sector Sustainability Issues at Statewide Summit

The Almond Board of California recently convened other state-based agricultural groups, food processors, and interest groups to identify potential solutions to the ongoing sustainability challenges impacting the state, including California’s current historic drought. Although many sectors have implemented successful sustainability programs, the meeting represented the first time that these groups have joined forces to discuss cross-sector sustainability-related challenges.

Many of California’s leading agricultural producers attended the meeting, including representatives of the almond, grape, tomato industries in addition to many other fruit and vegetable producers. Twelve different organizations participated including Campbell Soup Company, Del Monte Foods, PRO*ACT (Greener Fields Together), SureHarvest, Sustainable Conservation and the Almond Board of California.

“If we are going to continue to successfully grow healthy and nutritious food in California, we need to extend our sustainable growing practices,” said Dr. Gabriele Ludwig, Director of Sustainability and Environmental Affairs at the Almond Board of California. “We’ve all made great strides in our individual sectors but, by sharing information about how our programs work, we can uncover new opportunities and areas to explore.”

As California suffers through a fourth year of drought, many questions have arisen about the sustainability of agriculture in the state. However, this concept is nothing new to the groups involved in this meeting. “The groups gathered here today have been working to increase the sustainability of their crops and California agriculture far prior to the current drought,” said Dr. Ludwig.

“While the drought is a poignant reminder of our natural resource limitations, sustainability encompasses much more than just water. We are all working toward an environmentally sound, economically viable and socially responsible future for California agriculture, and today we’re more united than ever.”

Many of these programs have already reported making progress. The Almond Board of California, for example, has enacted a robust self-assessment and grower education program, the California Almond Sustainability Program, which allows growers to review their current growing practices while learning about other sustainable opportunities. According to the Board, data collected through this program so far has been representative of the California Almond industry, and provides vital information on how practices are being adopted and used across the growing community.

Additionally, the Sustainable Conservation program has been working with a variety of agricultural companies, farmers, and government agencies to evaluate and promote new approaches to manage water and nutrients in order to preserve water quality and availability for both farmers and consumers.

As issues surrounding the current drought crisis heat up, many reports have singled out almonds and other key California commodities as water hogs, claiming in some instances that California’s almond industry uses ten percent of the state’s water resources. The famous factoid floating around the web and cricketed by many consumers is that it takes one gallon of water to produce a single almond.

Competing reports, however, have highlighted other commodities that use equal–if not greater–amounts of water. Alfalfa, for example, requires a substantial amount of water during production, but almonds seem to attract more criticism. According to Carissa Sauer of the Almond Board of California, the controversy over almond’s water usage “has been filled with misinformation and bad facts.” Sauer and the rest of the Board are working to set the record straight.

Recently, the Board released a video on its website, which states: “Over the past two decades, almond growers have reduced the amount of water used per pound of almonds by 33 percent.” Whether this is true or not, almonds, like all orchards, present unique challenges in the production dynamic. Unlike row crops that can be fallowed during drought periods, orchards remain standing.

California’s $6.5 billion almond industry has experienced an economic boon in recent years, with reports indicating that people around the world are eating over 1,000 percent more California almonds compared to just a decade ago. In 2014, almonds were California’s largest export crop. As a result, almond orchards cover roughly one million acres in California, with many farmers making the transition to almond production in recent years to take advantage of the burgeoning demand.

The recent summit may serve as a further attempt by the California almond industry to mitigate these reports and statistics, and to take a more proactive approach to finding solutions to the many sustainability issues facing agricultural producers in the state.

According to California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, the industry is being targeted unfairly. “California is about a $45 billion agriculture economy, and almonds account for about 15 percent of that. So, you’re looking at almost $7 billion in economic activity,” said Wenger. “I always like to joke that agriculture is the only area where everyone is an expert.”

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