The Almond

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Assessing the Future of Water Resources Through Food in Times of Climate Change

In the middle of December 2020, The Soft Protest Digest was invited to the Food Art Film Festival 2020, run by the Food Lab of the Jan van Eyck Academie; to create a project on food and hostile environments. Wealthy countries from the Western world, like the USA, generally don’t come to mind when thinking about agriculture; but no economy escapes from climate change. The collective used California and almond production as an exemple of a place where water is becoming a scarce resource because of climate change and land management:

  • Before the event date, an edible pastry in the shape of an almond was sent in a box, filled with nut species calling on less water.
  • The screening online, while eating the almond dessert, of The plow that broke the plain, Pare Lorentz, 1936.
  • A text making a bound in time between the Dust Bowl crisis and almond production: farmers who lost their eroded soils in the 30’s often migrated to California, where almond monocultures are now competing for local water resources.


From the Dust Bowl…

Introduction to the movie The plow that broke the plain

“On Thursday, the 17th of December at 5 p.m, the plow will break the plain again.
Again, the native American civilisations of the Great Plains will have been purged from the grasslands along herds of buffalos.
Again, hopeful white settlers will take over the high treeless country, where there are no rivers nor streams.
Again, wheat will replace grass on those stolen soils, thanks to machines’ deep plowing.
Again, the country of high winds and sun will turn the soil into flying dust.
No rain will fall, no grass will held moisture against the drought.
Farmers will lose all hope.
Again they will migrate further West, away from desertified lands.
Towards almonds and California.”

Set of movies about the Dust Bowl

…to the Almond

What was in the box sent to participants to the screening?

The Almond dessert

This vegan dessert refers to subtleties, a middle age tradition of luxurious sculptures built with sugar. It is made out of a biscuit akin to the fortune cookie, perfumed with benzaldehyde (almond extract). This shell hides a layer of torched aquafaba marshmallow and wild rosehip jam.

Nuts and seeds to grow

Nuts:[1] walnuts and hazelnuts. Why importing irrigated crops to Europe (almond, cashew, macadamia) when other types of nuts are grown locally with rain water?

Seeds: buckwheat, amarante and quinoa. What about promoting the cultivation of drought resilient seeds native to the American continent, in California’s Central Valley?

A bound in time between two agricultural crisis

One century ago, the “Dust Bowl” was forming on a vast strip of land cutting the United States vertically, from Montana to Texas. Intensive farming encouraged by the State led to erosion of the soil and blizzards of dust burying houses and lungs. F. D. Roosevelt’s government answered to this crisis with the Soil Erosion Service in 1933, though no amount of subsidies were sufficient enough to counter it. Unsustainable farming technics prevailed, helped by the so-called Green Revolution; paving the way for industrial farming as we know it today.

Few lessons were learnt from the Dust Bowl: the US are today still facing ecological issues as a result of these practices. Yesterday wheat, today almonds. Both these plants shine a light on the disastrous ambiguity of the ultra liberal agricultural system. As for the Dust Bowl, water is once again at the heart of the following story.

Native to Iran, in the now desertified Fertile Crescent, almond trees are now dominating the landscapes of California’s Central Valley. The old floodplains of the Sacramento River have been tamed since two centuries to produce as much food and gold as possible. Today, the valley faces a major decline of pollinators paired with a growing water stress. As a result, water markets and climate-conscious food trends favour the growth of an almond monoculture in California.

But claiming more than half of the World almond supply comes at a price:

  • The decline of wild pollinators and honeybees leads Californian almond producers to rent out more than one billion beehives from beekeepers every winter.These hives are transported across the country to pollinate almond trees — a necessary step to ensure almond production. Unfortunately, these orchards often become clusters for bee related diseases which later spread all over the states.
  • There is plenty of water in the Central Valley, but the agricultural sector is using it in an unsustanable way (it exceeds 40% of the available resource). This water stress was answered by the monetisation of water, by allocating water rights and the creation of local water markets. Consequently, the agricultural activities calling on the use of vast amounts of water, such as dairy farming, were soon penalised by its cost; while almond producers were less affected.[2] Indeed, when it comes to water use, almond production is more sustainable than dairy, but still ranks high in the “nuts” category.
  • Almond being one of the most profitable crop to grow despite its pollination and irrigation cost; nothing seems to be able to stop its monoculture from colonising the Central Valley. By sacrificing 400.000 hectares of land to farm almonds orchards and harvest its profit; California proves that episodes such as the “Dust Bowl” have been evidently forgotten by the actors of late capitalism.

We can however stay hopeful, as environmental policy makers and the goodwill of citizens could have the power to lessen dairy farming without increasing almond production to an unsustainable extend. The diversity of crops available to “replace” animal based milk is large enough to avoid supporting new monocultures such as almond or soy.

Type of milk Average water use (L) per litre of milk
cow milk 628L
almond milk 371L
rice milk 270L
oat milk 48L
soy milk 26L

[3]

Notes

  1. Refer to the page “How to grow plants from seeds” on wikiHow.
  2. *For more information about water markets, visit “Future extreme dynamics of water use” on our wiki.
  3. J. Poore and T. Nemecek, Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, Science magazine, 2019.