You may have noticed a sudden surge in interest in almond milk over the last months. Why? Well there are a lot of forces at work here from health-crazes to allergies to those peculiar latte liberal sensibilities that sniff out the Apple products and almond products of the world to hold up as the highest standards of modern life. But the almond milk phenomenon comes down to climate science and economics. Actually this topic is about as cut and dry as a bathroom tile in Bakersfield, CA, yet the craze over this stuff is driving me nuts. Let's examine.
We started offering this as a milk alternative at my coffeeshop in late September. Using it regularly on request, I personally think it's pretty nasty. Compared to other milk substitutes like soy or coconut this stuff looks exactly like what it is, a filtered precipitate of almond oils and, I dunno, dust. So of course it has to be mixed with a ton of solutes to keep it milky and mixed with sugar to make it palatable. Gross.
Unlike soy, I've noticed almond milk separate in the fridge. I think that in the almond milk that I've used there's probably a lot of stuff to keep it homogeneous when it's sitting overnight in the fridge. Probably as addictive as crack and as dangerous for your heart as trans fats. I always feel icky when we take a drink at my coffeeshop that can't be too healthy and make it worse for you for health reasons. If you want something kinda fall flavored and almond milk is all you can drink, I'd rather make you something with steamed apple juice! It is what it says on bottle and can taste great! This is an anecdote, but in two days into using almond milk, I had a request to open a fresh carton because it's inconsistent. That's the consumer being wasteful with almond milk, not drinking something that takes 1.1gal per nut to make.
I'd like to just note briefly here, there are a lot of reasons not to drink cow's milk either. But none of them have to do with it being an inferior product for your cappuccino. I can make a great cappuccino with soy because it steams much the same way whole milk does. I think it's important to note here, also, producing cow's milk is also water intensive, but the product itself is not water dense. Same could be said of soy. By comparison, average almond milk has more in common with bottled water or lemonade than it does with milk or soy.
But that's just the day to day with a second rate product. Ultimately the customer is usually right and I don't pay for the almond milk, so who cares? Honestly, the places I've lived (Minneapolis and Chicago) have been fortunate to have an abundance of fresh water. And these are places where they make the cow's milk. Wisconsin is not drying up feeding it's cows even when they probably could be more efficient at producing cheese and give better protection to more Wisconsinites (though who needs more of them).
I could feed my petunias 1.1gal of potable water per fruit! Plus I like a nice creamy cappuccino. And even when the biological machines we call cows may never reach fusion reactor levels of efficiency, they're just engines which covert things I can't eat (like grass and water) into things I can eat (like beef and milk) which is more than I can say for almond milk producers.
As you might do with milk substitutes, I aim for more sustainable and ethical food sources if I can, fully aware that I, personally, could do a better job. At least I don't ask my barista to open a new gallon of milk for my drink. So let's get down here, the progressive's truest rallying cry today is that this problem in institutional. And it is.
Precipitates, solutes, sustainability, aesthetics, allergies, taste. Who cares? You are who you are and even Starbucks has that figured out. They make you your special drink. Go ahead, get double white chocolate sauce in your venti heavy cream latte, jackass! But an even worse thing about almonds in liquid or non-liquid form is also how ham strung farmers are to make this stuff that is going to be over processed anyways. The institution of farming is ultimately a problem here.
It's a serious bummer that all the almonds are in California where water doesn't seem like it should be wasted on the almonds at the rate of 1.1gal per fruit, more per gallon of milk. But here's the thing, farmers there are being pushed to grow these kinds of crops because of the economics of the industry. The more water they can waste the better economic sense it makes.
In an NPR piece done for Planet Money they discuss the drive to move from growing less water intensive crops and deepen wells to grow nuts. And it is a matter of simple supply and demand economics. It's harder to grow these crops and and the demand is pushed up globally. But this demand is also being forced up by products like almond milk which is a great way to charge more per almond than raw almonds.
Needless to say, almond milk is a nice word for advertisers. It's way better than "homogenized almond detritus precipitate" just like soy milk rather than soy juice. Not that you'd see billboards for almond milk everywhere, but that branding is driving demand. That's why we're seeing so many latte liberals asking for this stuff at the point of sale.
Let's go back a little further though. Looking back at the objective of farming since 7500BCE--making more food more efficiently--we have a bit of a problem here because, under the current climate, economic and climate-climate, the more inefficient the farmers can make almond production the better it is for the almond industry's bottomline.
You're going to get way more nutrients out of eating 30 raw almonds which each take 1.1gal of water to produce than drinking a cup of almond milk which takes the same amount of 1.1gal almonds to make and more water and processing to finish. But that's not what they want you to do! The craze for almond milk must be driven by an industry that is making money on the fact that it is hard on the people of California to make almonds. The more dilute they can make the nuts, the better!
Bottom line is, almonds are bastards! Drink what you want! Reform farming so that it doesn't incentivize the opposite practices of what farms and domestication are for. On the surface, this is the problem, capitalism has broken the institution of farming morally. Watch the drought in California spread and it's hard to imagine why it would be "okay" to be drilling for more water for these water intensive crops. Obviously as the drought gets worse, the amount of almond products we see, particularly products distanced from the raw almond which require more labor are going to dominate our conscious.
But there is a solution albeit one we've reached far too late--electric, self driving cars. This drought is just one of any number of data points in global climate science which shows the Earth warming. And self driving cars have a role in both decreasing global climate change which has made these water intensive crops so lucrative and better allocating land.
A shocking thing watching the drought spread is how rapidly the entire state moves from "abnormally dry" to "exceptional drought" in the LA Times graphic. Cut emissions and develop more efficient drivers starting in 2003 and maybe we turn the tide of the encroaching drought. Delay it to say the least.
But more over, these cars could drive more efficiently than any human could, they don't have gears as part of their acceleration process, and this means more ergonomic highways. We could allocate more workers to revamp America's crumbling infrastructure for these cars, create jobs in the process and gain land out of the deal.
Maybe the best way to source almond milk is, counter intuitively, to ban carbon emitting vehicles by 2003 and move toward autonomous electric vehicles to be implemented in all major metros by 2011. Then we could stop the drought that made almonds more profitable and open up more arable land by decreasing road infrastructure for more sustainable crops nationwide. And we could probably do it with the money it'd cost to wage two foreign wars diverted into private sector R&D, which is what conservatives wanted for America anyways. Doing all that would create high-paying technical jobs for people with dietary restrictions to be able to afford the only milk they can drink, which is what liberals wanted too. And the technology needed to get people to Mars by 2020 would might be developed at the same time because we've seen a close connection between the development of technology for travel at home as well as in space. Needless to say, these strides would thereby really cement America's legacy as a nation of innovation and opportunity, not to mention answer if we are alone in the universe and pave the way for more arable land for generations of millions of people thousands of years in the future.
Wait, what year is it?