How almond milk was supposed to save the world but might suck California dry

I explore my relationship with almond milk through the lens of WhiteWave, a responsible producer who must consider even further steps to be truly responsible to the state of California.

The Context

I have been vegetarian for most of my life and try to live a mostly vegan lifestyle today. While I certainly have ethical motivations in regards to animal life, I decided to go vegan in part to reduce my environmental impact. The thinking was that, by adopting a vegan diet, I would further reduce my consumption from the livestock industry which contributes to 18% of greenhouse gasses.[1] However, since last summer, I have been torn, unable to trust even my vegan consumption habits.

It’s unclear to what extent global climate change is responsible for the current drought in California, but here is what we do know: the period between 2011 and 2014 has been the driest in California history since record-keeping[2], and the governor has mandated that water agencies reduce their water consumption by 25% since the summer of 2015.[3]

The California drought has given rise to a unique set of problems around the growing of almonds, especially for the production of almond milk – a dairy substitute that boasts environmental benefits – including lower water usage – over traditional dairy products like milk and other vegetables like tomatoes.[4] However, the problem remains that, unlike other products that are sourced across diverse geographies, nearly 80% of almonds are sourced from California where they absorb 10% of the state’s water supply.[5]

WhiteWave’s current dilemma

One company facing the problems associated with using California’s water to produce almond milk is WhiteWave Foods. Known for their market-leading Silk brand, WhiteWave commands 13% of the dairy and dairy alternatives beverage market.[6] With increasing pressure on Californians to save water and increasing media coverage on the issue, WhiteWave’s brand is at stake, and they are starting to make operational changes including improving geographic diversity. In a May 2015 earnings call, President of Americas Fresh Foods at WhiteWave claimed the company is looking into “geographic diversity of our land with a focus on well water, groundwater access, so [it has] no concerns in the short term.”[7] Next, WhiteWave invests in Water Restoration Certificates (“WRCs”) to balance its water consumption from the Silk brand.[8] While it has not explicitly connected its philanthropy to the drought, WhiteWave has also donated 2% of its pre-tax profits to nonprofit organizations focused on sustainability in addition to hunger relief.[9]

While it is doing more than most companies, WhiteWave understands that demand for almonds continues to increase globally and that it has an obligation to ensure that its sourcing of California almonds must be responsible. If it doesn’t move to action and the drought gets worse, WhiteWave knows that it places not only its brand on the line[10] but also leaves the door open to further regulation that could prohibitively increase the cost of production for its almond-based dairy alternative products.

Next steps for WhiteWave

Given its brand and production cost risks, WhiteWave must consider the following additional steps:

  • Develop strong supply chain relationships outside of California – In the short-term, WhiteWave must consider sourcing more of its almonds from nearby regions in the US and Spain. By doing so, it can reduce its short-term consumption of California almonds in its production while keeping transportation costs lower than if it sourced almonds from countries that are further away. While this may be costly, WhiteWave will clearly demonstrate a responsible approach to neutralizing its contribution to the drought.
  • Invest in WRC projects focused on drought solutions – WhiteWave should use the WRCs it buys to invest in projects that seek to increase groundwater production rather than invest in a general portfolio of WRCs that benefit global projects. By aligning the uses of its water with the contributions of its WRCs, WhiteWave can ensure that it employs a locally-balanced production system. Doing this further reduces the likelihood of regulation against the company and similar producers since California directly benefits from investments in WRCs.
  • Fund research to identify friendly growing climates for almonds – In the long run, WhiteWave will inevitably run into sustainability issues as long as California is responsible for 80% of the world’s almond production. As such, the company should invest in research to identify new growing climates for almonds. Doing so will communicate to customers that the company is invested in ensuring a sustainable source of dairy alternative products for decades to come.

By considering the above suggestions, WhiteWave can keep consumers like myself who want to ensure their consumption habits do not contribute to negative environmental impacts.

(Word Count: 792)

Sources

[1] Vegan Outreach, http://www.veganoutreach.org/whyvegan/environment.html

[2] Ellen Hanak; Jeffrey Mount; Caitrin Chappelle (January 2015). “California’s Latest Drought”. PPIC.

[3] “The California drought: What would you ask Gov. Jerry Brown?”USC News. 8 June 2015. Retrieved10 June 2015. https://news.usc.edu/82464/the-california-drought-what-would-you-ask-gov-jerry-brown/

[4] “Almond Milk Is Not the Problem”,  http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2014/07/almond_milk_bad_for_environment_tom_philpott_and_mother_jones_are_wrong.html

[5]  “The Thirsty West: 10 Percent of California’s Water Goes to Almond Farming” http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/05/_10_percent_of_california_s_water_goes_to_almond_farming.html

[6] http://qz.com/407281/not-even-a-drought-can-hold-down-the-mighty-almond-milk/

[7] http://qz.com/407281/not-even-a-drought-can-hold-down-the-mighty-almond-milk/

[8] http://www.whitewave.com/who

[9] http://www.whitewave.com/who#our-community

[10] http://services.corporate-ir.net/SEC.Enhanced/SecCapsule.aspx?c=251507&fid=14241356

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21 thoughts on “How almond milk was supposed to save the world but might suck California dry

  1. A very interesting post. I wonder what the difference in environmental impact between dairy and almost milk is? Given this and soy are most likely the main competitors to almond milk, that could be a great comparison to make. All three options seem like good directions to take, I would also have been really interested to know whether WhiteWave or any of their competitors have already made any moves in that direction?

    1. Great post, Bhargav and a very interesting reply – I’m also curious about the environmental impact of soy and traditional dairy milk. I’m yet to come across “almost milk”, Cathal, however I’m always open to trying new, sustainable alternatives. I’m curious as to why almond production has remained so concentrated in California over the years and where alternative growing locations may be found that can efficiently and sustainably shift the needle of supply.

  2. Great post. I guess the fact that the merger with Danone failed is a good thing for the environment (https://www.ft.com/content/9ab78f12-43db-11e6-9b66-0712b3873ae1).

  3. Given that global warming is a global phenomenon and given that we don’t know for sure if the drought in California is the result of local activities I wonder whether the appropriate solution is to shift production of Almond elsewhere?

    1. Great post, Bhargav!

      And interesting question, Lama. I’m not sure if shifting the production of almond milk outside of California would be a sustainable solution. Because almonds require so much water to grow and almond milk requires additional water to produce, it seems like it would be an inefficient use of water no matter where the almonds are grown or where the almond milk is produced. I wonder if there are other milk alternatives that require less water. For example, coconut milk and soy milk may be more environmentally friendly.

  4. Very interesting post, Bhargav. I do think it is important to consider the alternatives – dairy or soy. My understanding is that cows are very inefficient animals in that they require significantly more inputs (food, water) than what we get out of them (meat, milk), so I do not think you should be so hard on yourself for choosing Almond milk. I do think incremental research around the optimal growing climates for almonds and the minimum water required will be helpful in making sure we are using our resources sustainably in order to provide ourselves with the nutrients we require.

  5. Great post Bhargav! I found it interesting that there were some commonalities between almond milk with my own findings about the banana industry. Water access/utilization seems to be a common pain point across food/beverage/agriculture industry. The other observation was that geographic diversity is a key risk item for these companies.

    I also found it interesting WhiteWave is donating 2% of their pre-tax profits to organizations focusing on sustainability. This reminded me of IKEA, who is trying to overhaul its supply chain practices and align itself with sustainable organizations, but ultimately the organization in and of itself is not sustainable.

  6. Thanks for sharing this post, Bhargav! I had no idea almonds consumed so much of California’s water. The impact of climate change on many companies’ geographic footprints will be interesting to see played out. Many agricultural businesses are placing bets now about where they should shift operations to given how the climate is changing. I think this is necessary, but as you pointed out, not sufficient. These companies should also contribute to slowing climate change. It sounds like WhiteWave is taking steps to lead that movement.

  7. Great post, Bhargav! As a fellow vegetarian, I was also alarmed at the stats I’ve heard about the amount of water it takes to grow almonds. Two things I found comforting 1) Research on how to improve efficiency in the water required to grow almonds has been going on for decades and they’ve already improved efficiency by 33% since the early 1990s 2) The water used to grow almonds doesn’t just go into almonds themselves. It goes into lots of almond by-products for example the outer covering feeds cows and shells are used for energy production. So don’t feel so bad about about consuming it! I would also wonder if they should start placing more of a focus on cashew milk since cashews take less water to grow than almonds. I know Silk already makes a cashew milk but perhaps they should start advertising it more to get consumers to switch.

  8. Very interesting, Bhargav! As someone who often falls into the marketing trap of buying “organic” for a feel-good factor, these statistics alarmed me to dig a little deeper when I make purchasing decisions. My question would be if we were in the scenario where WhiteWave vertically integrates and secures more stable demand in other geographies, I wonder what are the political levers the Californian government would pull? In Australia and Europe, the farmers carry significant regulatory sway!

  9. Awesome post to read – especially relevant as I am currently drinking an almond milk smoothie! I lived in CA, and the state is incessant in its messaging around water conservation. However, I solely focused on direct water consumption (turn the faucet off while brushing my teeth, water the lawn less, etc.). I never took the time to think about how much water is consumed to process the food I eat. I would love to get a better understanding of:
    – Regular milk vs. alternatives (for those who can consume lactose) – health contributions vs. resource consumption to produce
    – Resource consumption to produce various milk alternatives – soy, almond, coconut, lactaid
    Glad to see WhiteWave is conscious of the issue!

  10. So interesting to read how geographically concentrated WhiteWave’s almond production is. I can imagine lack of geographic diversification being a concern for a number of other factors outside of excessive water consumption including, for example, resiliency in the face of other natural disasters.

    I do also wonder how much WhiteWave is investing in operational improvements to increase water efficiency of its plants and its suppliers. For example, other companies like Pepsico as part of their Performance with Purpose strategy plans to improve water-use efficiency by 15% among direct agricultural suppliers in high- water-risk sourcing areas by 2025 and since 2006 reduced water use per unit of production by 25.8%.

  11. Very interesting post, Bhargav. I too am troubled by the significant water needs of almond crops. When reading your post, I started to think about creating genetically modified almonds to consume less water. This is a long-term solution, however, because almond trees take 20 years to mature and to start to produce nuts [1].

    What about a demand-side intervention – adding a tax per pound of almonds. The proceeds of the tax could be used to reduce water consumption in California broader (e.g., training farmers on better irrigation techniques, infrastructure spending, etc.) while also reducing almond consumption.

    [1] https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/01/30/gmo-fixes-for-californias-drought-stricken-almonds-will-not-come-easy/

  12. What a difficult subject. Well done Bhargav. There is no greater advocate than I when talking about the movement away from fresh dairy products like milk and cream, however it seems as though Almond milk will cause harm whee its intentions were all good. I would be very curious to know what strategy these companies are seriously considering, given the overwhelming production impacts skewed towards California. I am also wondering if we would be able to make a similar non-dairy milk substitute with a cover crop like a legume rather than a tree nut.

  13. Thank you for sharing, Bhargav – really interesting read! Having spent the last three years in California and witnessing the drought issues first hand, your post definitely helped put certain issues in perspective. Being a big consumer of almonds myself, it was especially intriguing to learn about their impact on the environment, specifically water consumption. It seems like WhiteWave has actually made strides in recent history with regards to its sustainability practices – would be great to hear your thoughts on the following:

    WhiteWave has earned its position on the index by disclosing high quality carbon emissions and energy data through CDP’s climate change program. The reported data has been independently assessed against CDP’s scoring methodology and marked out of 100. Those organizations graded within the top 10% constitute the CDLI. WhiteWave has scored 99B out of a 100A. (http://www.whitewave.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Climate-Change-Transparency-of-WhiteWave-Recognized-by-CDP_12.14.15.pdf)

  14. Nice work Bargav. I wonder, as the dairy-free market is expected to reach $35B by 2024 (http://vegnews.com/articles/page.do?pageId=8285&catId=1), how will the issues you covered above impact Silk marketshare growth? If Whitewave is able to maintain or even grow Silk’s position in the dairy-free market, I’d be interested to see what tactics they used to combat the water issue.

  15. Thank you for a very interest and insightful post! I like the additional steps you proposed for WhiteWave. Do you WhiteWave’s competitors in the almond-milk production business should adopt a similar strategy? In addition, would it be even more effective for WhiteWave to get buy in from other major almond milk producers to work together in developing strong supply chain relationship outside of California? It would be interesting to see the economic impact of sourcing almonds from other regions outside of California on WhiteWave’s almond milk business.

  16. Great Article. California happens to be a major food producing state in the U.S. Would there happen to be any research that also addresses water usage practices in the cultivation and procession of other major crops within the state?

  17. You’ve raised a host of interesting questions, Bhargav. Thanks for sharing your expertise in the matter.

    I agree with your point regarding the potential for brand harm should the firm do nothing. That said, I’m curious of your opinion if the firm begins moving to another state (or even country). Since some 80% of almonds are grown in California, there could be a negative consumer bias against non-Californian-grown almonds, potentially perceiving them to be of inferior quality. After all, it’s only Napa wine if it’s from Napa!

  18. Thanks for a great post Bhargav. Your last suggestion is especially interesting. Why is it that California is responsible for 80% of the world’s almond production? Looking at the list, it seems that Spain, Australia, and Iran are the next three biggest producers. These are very different geographies. I would be curious to see more research on what makes for fertile almond production, and as you suggest, I suspect the production can be diversified well beyond California (either within the US or outside).

  19. Great post, Bhargav!

    Maybe the solution here is…. Planters Peanut Milk?

    Just kidding. Sort of.

    Couple comments:

    – You didn’t mention anything about R&D with regards to more water-efficient farming techniques, but I wonder whether that is also under consideration. Water recycling, drip irrigation, and other methods have been used quite impact fully, to my knowledge, with other crops.
    – You hinted at this, but I would reiterate: From an environmental perspective, the possibilities to increase geographic diversity should be weighed against the increased carbon footprint from transportation requirements. The latter also involves externalities to almond growers, and it’s important to consider this given that the drought is largely a symptom of the carbon footprint.

    Finally, a high-five from another environmentalist vegetarian. Who needs meat when you’ve got those magic burgers Steve advertised??

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