Milk

Cow’s milk & almond milk head toward shootout over water access

Almond and dairy farmers holding a glass of milk.

Almond and dairy farmers holding a glass of milk.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Both dairy & almonds are big water users.  One California industry or the other has to go.

SACRAMENTO, California––The California watershed may not be big enough for its two most profitable farm commodities,  cow’s milk and almond milk.

Already engaged in a shootout for consumer preference on grocery store shelves,  either the dairy industry or the almond industry may bite the dust,  at least in California,  if other agricultural production and the Sacramento River salmon runs are to survive.

Dana LyonsDana LyonsCows with guns

Dairy farmers and almond growers are not yet literally facing off with loaded six-shooters in the legislative corridors of Sacramento,  the California state capital,  but––heading toward another in a long series of dry summers occasioned by global warming––a showdown may be just ahead as state agencies and government are forced into hard choices they would prefer not to make.

Both the California dairy and almond industries are already gigantic and getting larger.

Wild cow milking

Wild cow milking

(Beth Clifton collage)

How big is dairy in California?

With 1,300 dairy farms and more than 1.7 million dairy cattle,  California produces nearly 20% of the total U.S. milk supply.

If California was a nation,  not a state,  the 41.8 billion pounds of milk produced in 2022 would make California the sixth largest milk-producing nation in the world,  right behind China,  with fiscal 2023 output of 42 million metric tons of cow’s milk.

The dairy industry contributes $6.6 billion to the $42.5 billion total value of California farm production.

That––about one dollar in six––sounds like a lot.

Dairy cow and a girl.

Dairy cow and a girl.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Nuts to that

Yet the even faster growing almond industry already produces annual revenue of $21 billion,  nearly half of the California agribusiness total,  including $4.5 billion worth of exports.

Altogether,  California produces more than 80% of the total global almond supply.

This figure is expected to decrease as newly planted almond orchards in other states and other nations mature.

However,  because almond demand is steadily rising,  especially for making almond milk,  California almond revenue is only expected to increase.

“The U.S. plant milk market is a $2 billion industry that grew by 6.4 percent last year,”  reported Katharina Buchholz for Statista on August 22,  2023.

Retired cow

Retired cow

(Beth Clifton collage)

Two-thirds of the growth was almond milk

Two-thirds of the growth was in sales of almond milk.

“According to the National Consumer Panel,”  Buchholz wrote,  “4% of U.S. households purchased plant-based milk alternatives in 2022 and 76% of these customers turned out to be repeat purchasers,”  even though “plant milks were on average 87% more expensive than traditional cow’s milk.”

From a humane perspective,  the growing consumer preference for almond milk,  in direct competition with cow’s milk,  is good news.

Old lady drinking seltzer.

Old lady drinking seltzer.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Greenhouse gas & water

From an ecological perspective,  Buchholz suggested,  it is a mixed blessing.

Almond milk production generates only 0.7 kilograms of the “greenhouse gas” carbon dioxide per liter,  Buchholz explained,  compared to 3.2 kilograms per liter of carbon dioxide generated per liter of cow’s milk.

But producing almond milk “uses almost 60% of the water that is needed for an equal amount of cow’s milk,”  Buchholz said,  “compared to just 43% for rice milk and just 8% and 4% for oat and soy milk,  respectively.”

(Seltzer,  incidentally,  is all carbon dioxide and water,  but the total carbon footprint of producing it,  compared to producing either cow’s milk or almond milk,  is almost too low to calculate,  and the water involved is mostly what you drink.)

Holstein cow

Holstein cow

(Beth Clifton photo)

Pasture is most water-consumptive crop

The cow’s milk to almond milk water use ratio has shifted in favor of almond growing since Santa Rosa Press Democrat writer Matt Pera in June 2021 summarized a 2015 Pacific Institute analysis of California Department of Water Resources data,  “the most recent year for which the department has published water-use estimates,”  Pera mentioned.

“On average, California crops used 2.97 acre feet of water per acre that year,  the data show.  An acre foot is equal to about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land one foot deep,”  Pera explained.

“The analysis ranked pasture first among California’s top 10 most water-intensive crops, followed by nuts and alfalfa.”

Redneck hillbilly with pit bulls and marijuana

Redneck hillbilly with pit bulls and marijuana

(Beth Clifton collage)

Save water;  drink wine!

Pasture,  including clover,  rye,  bermuda and other grasses,  came in at 4.92 acre feet of water per acre.  Alfalfa consumed 4.48 acre feet of water per acre.

Almond and pistachio production required 4.49 acre feet of water per acre.

Pera noted that wine grape production needs only 2.85 acre feet of water per acre of land,  and that cannabis can be grown with only 1.4 acre feet of water per acre of crop.

Drinking wine instead of either cow’s milk or almond milk,  and smoking dope instead of eating food might therefore be sound choices,  if saving water happened to be one’s sole priority.

Maintaining personal,  societal,  and ecological health of course requires further considerations.

Salmon

Salmon

(Beth Clifton collage)

Cows kill salmon?

Already a casualty of political crossfire,  the salmon fishing industry “faces extinction — not because of drought,  but government policies and politics,”  alleged Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik on April 18,  2024.

Both commercial and recreational salmon fishing are closed in California,  due to several years of failed salmon runs,  but “In 2022, the last year of salmon fishing in California,”  Hiltzik reported,  “the fleet consisted of 464 commercial vessels,  down from 4,750 in 1980.”

Fishing boat with salmon.

Fishing boat with salmon.

(Beth Clifton collage)

“Drought is not most important factor”

Drought has drastically cut the flow from the Sacramento River and tributaries in recent years,  contributing to the failure of California salmon runs,  “but drought isn’t the most important factor in the survival of the species,”  Hiltzik charged,  instead blaming “the management of water supplies so that they’re balanced among users,  and serving irrigation demand from farmers does not wipe out competing interests,  especially during dry years.”

Low Sacramento River tributary water levels,  Hiltzik explained,  results in abnormally warm water.

Salmon and salmon fry

Salmon and salmon fry

(Beth Clifton collage)

Salmon eggs cook

“At water temperatures of 54 degrees,  [salmon eggs] start being cooked to death,”  wrote Hiltzik.  “In recent years, water in the spawning beds has been measured at 70 degrees or higher.

“In 2021, state biologists reported, 99% of winter-run Chinook salmon failed to reach the San Francisco-San Joaquin River delta and the bay.

“Meanwhile,  the water demands of California growers became less flexible,”  Hiltzik continued,  saying nothing about the water demands of the dairy industry.

Monopoly guy salmon

Monopoly guy salmon

(Beth Clifton collage)

Salmon value not counted

“Crops that could be fallowed during dry spells,  leaving more water for the environment,”  Hiltzik said,  “were supplanted by almond and pistachio orchards,  which require water in wet years and dry,”  to keep the trees alive.

“California almond acreage,”  driven by rising demand for almond milk,  “rose to 1.38 million last year from 418,000 in 1995,”  Hiltzik recounted.

Pistachio cultivation meanwhile rose from 60,300 acres to more than 461,000.

“Officially valued at $1.4 billion a year,”  Hiltzik recounted,  “the salmon fishery can’t hope to compete with agriculture on a dollar-for-dollar basis.  The market value of all agricultural products in California was $59 billion in 2022,  according to state figures;  salmon were not counted.”

Seagull and a salmon.

Seagull and a salmon.

(Robert Aglow photo)

Salmon scarcity impacts wildlife

Almond milk-drinking vegans and vegetarians may not play any violins for the salmon fishing industry,  but salmon scarcity also impacts wildlife from bears in the Sierra Nevada mountains to orcas offshore and eagles in the air everywhere in between.

Just keeping enough water in the Sacramento River to preserve endangered species,  as mandated by law,  suggests one or the other of the two biggest water-using farm industries­­––dairy and almonds––may have to go.

The only alternative would be across-the-spectrum cuts in water allocations that would devastate producers of dozens of other farmed products,  including fruits,  vegetables,  and rice.

Teddy with veggies and Miyoko butter

Teddy with veggies and Miyoko butter

(Beth Clifton collage)

“Most farm revenue comes from irrigated crops”

According to Water Use in California’s Agriculture,  a fact sheet published in April 2023 by Public Policy Institute of California scientists Caitlin Peterson,  Alvar Escriva-Bou,  Josué Medellín-Azuara,  and Spencer Cole,  “California’s agriculture sector produces over 400 commodities,  generates more than $50 billion in annual revenue,  and employs over 420,000 people.  Most farm revenue comes from irrigated crops.

“Total irrigated acreage has remained relatively stable since the 1980s,”   Water Use in California’s Agriculture says,  “but the potential for high returns has spurred rapid growth in perennial fruit and nut crops (especially almonds),  and a decline in field crops like cotton.

“Perennials increased from 22% of irrigated acreage in 2000 to 46% in 2018.

Dairy cow kicks the bucket.

Dairy cow kicks the bucket.

(Beth Clifton collage)

“Feed crops are 27% of farm water use”

“Feed crops—including alfalfa,  pasture,  and corn silage,”  all grown primarily for the dairy industry—”cover a quarter of acreage and 27% of farm water use,”  Water Use in California’s Agriculture continues.

“The revenue share from these crops is small (5%), but they support the state’s large livestock industry.”

Beth and Merritt

Beth and Merritt

Beth & Merritt Clifton

This is not just where the water to grow more almonds to produce more almond milk can come from;  it is where the water must come from,  if the rest of the California agricultural sector is to remain healthy,  and the salmon spawning streams and fish-eating wildlife are to recover.

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