BUSINESS
09/10/2014 07:39 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2014

Dunkin' Donuts Is Fueling Our Almond Milk Obsession At Just The Wrong Time

Dunkin Donuts

Is our obsession with almond milk sucking California dry?

Dunkin' Donuts announced last week that it will start offering almond milk at most of its U.S. locations, just the latest sign that Americans' obsession with the nutty drink is reaching a fever pitch.

The coffee and pastry chain said it will start stocking Almond Breeze milk, made by Blue Diamond Almond Growers, the biggest almond producer in the world. The move could give Dunkin' a leg up on its competitor Starbucks, which says it doesn't stock almond milk because of concerns about allergens.

"One reason why we chose almond milk is that it's one of the country's most popular non-dairy alternatives," Dunkin' Donuts said in a statement.

That's putting it mildly. Almond milk, which is made by mixing crushed almonds with water, is now the single most popular non-dairy milk in the country. American consumption of regular dairy milk has been declining since the 1970s, due to rising prices, concerns over how healthy it is, and our growing preference for other beverages like sports drinks. At the same time, almond milk has grown more popular as an alternative for lactose-intolerant consumers and for health-conscious shoppers who want to consume fewer calories. While many of those people have traditionally opted for soy milk over the years, disputed studies linking soy to reproductive disorders and breast cancer have pushed consumers into the almond milk market instead.

All of this means that almond milk is a growth industry. In the twelve months ending in July, U.S. sales for the nutty drink totaled well over $700 million a year, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

But the nation's thirst for almond milk presents a unique environmental concern. Blue Diamond is a privately held cooperative of about 3,000 almond growers, many of whom are situated in California's Central Valley. Right now, that area is in the midst of one of the worst water shortages it's had in a century. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, more than 81 percent of California is currently experiencing an "extreme drought." Conditions are such that residents can now be fined up to $500 for excessively watering their lawns.

What does that have to do with non-dairy beverages? Almonds need a massive amount of water to grow. Mother Jones reported earlier this year that a single almond requires over a gallon of water to produce. Although the almond industry disputes this finding, pointing out that the study Mother Jones used to arrive at that figure is about a decade old and that almond growers have since increased their yields, there's no question that almonds -- like many tree nuts -- are a water-intensive crop.

"Almonds, like walnuts and pistachios, are a very dry, concentrated product," said Dr. Timothy M. Spann, a tree nut expert at California State University's Fresno campus. "Typically it takes about 500 gallons of water to produce one pound of almonds."

Because the crunchy nuts fetch a higher price on the market than some of the state's less water-intensive crops like spinach and tomatoes, California farmers are reluctant to get rid of their almond groves, even as the state descends deeper into its water crisis.

As demand for almonds keeps climbing, almond groves are taking up more and more of California's farmland. The crop used 44 percent more land in 2012 than it did a decade earlier, according to The New York Times, although the change was not accompanied by an increase in water consumption.

All these trends have the potential to grow more pronounced with Dunkin' Donuts' new partnership with Blue Diamond. It's going to take a lot of almond milk to stock Dunkin's nearly 8,000 U.S. stores. The chain sells a serious amount of coffee and other beverages -- almost $4 billion worth in the U.S. last year, which accounted for about 57 percent of Dunkin's overall sales.

Meanwhile, business appears to be booming for Blue Diamond, whose 2012 sales exceeded $1 billion, according to a company press release. Last year, Blue Diamond broke ground on a 200,000-square-foot plant in Turlock, California that it says will double its production capacity. Company press material boasts of "record demand" and "exploding" revenues. Its exports to lucrative Asian markets have skyrocketed in the past few years.

Blue Diamond spokeswoman Susan Brauner told The Huffington Post that Dunkin Donuts' use of Almond Breeze products will likely account for no more than 0.1 percent of the total California almond crop.

Dunkin' Donuts' partnership with Almond Breeze "will NOT exacerbate the California drought impact," Brauner told HuffPost in an email. "Almond milk's growing popularity has heightened the visibility of almonds but there is no correlation between that popularity and the drought."

Dunkin' Donuts did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

CLARIFICATION: Language has been amended to reflect that the state of California, rather than Blue Diamond, produces 80 percent of the world's almonds, according to the Blue Diamond website. Language has also been added to make clear that the growth in almond acreage between 2002 and 2012 did not correspond with an increase in water use.

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