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The Almond Conundrum

The advantages of a plant-based diet are manifold, ranging from social justice and health benefits through to animal welfare and environmental and resource conservation. But also existing plant-based solutions can turn out to have adverse environmental impacts if relied upon exclusively.

Humans have cultivated about 6000 species of plants for food, and yet only 9 of those supply two-thirds of our global harvest. This focalised attention and over-reliance on only a handful of crops has depleted the genetic diversity of the plants we eat and resulted in the collective oblivion of regional knowledge about edible plants.

The same applies to the 520 edible nut species in the world, of which only 10 are being significantly utilised, with the peanut, Arachis hypogaea, ranked first as the most consumed nut, followed by the conventional almond, Prunus dulcis, the most consumed tree nut worldwide. The tropical almond, Terminalia catappa, is one of the many neglected edible nut species.

Our reliance on the conventional almond as the main source of nut milk has turned it into a staple in grocery stores. Out of all plant milk options, the conventional almond milk is the most popular, making up two-thirds of all plant-based milks consumed worldwide. However, the intensive cultivation of almonds is resulting in the depletion of scarce water resources and affecting honey-bee populations used to pollinate almond orchards.

A water-intensive crop, the average water footprint of 1 conventional almond is 12 litres, one of the highest water footprint values per unit weight. But while its water requirements are among the highest, so is the nutritional benefit per unit weight, with high market sales demonstrating its popularity.

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