‘Like sending bees to war’: the deadly truth behind almond milk
Don’t be fooled… vegan products also involve a massive cost in animal and insect lives, to wit this article that looks at the annual sacrifice of billions of bees in pollinating California’s rapidly expanding almond orchards.
Dennis Arp was feeling optimistic last summer, which is unusual for a beekeeper these days. Thanks to a record wet spring, his hundreds of hives, scattered across the central Arizona desert, produced a bounty of honey.
Arp would have plenty to sell in stores, but more importantly, the bumper harvest would strengthen his bees for their biggest task of the coming year.
Like most commercial beekeepers in the US, at least half of Arp’s revenue now comes from pollinating almonds. Selling honey is far less lucrative than renting out his colonies to mega-farms in California’s fertile Central Valley, home to 80% of the world’s almond supply.
But as winter approached, with Arp just months away from taking his hives to California, his bees started getting sick. By October, 150 of Arp’s hives had been wiped out by mites, 12% of his inventory in just a few months. “My yard is currently filled with stacks of empty bee boxes that used to contain healthy hives,” he says.
This shouldn’t be happening to someone like Arp, a beekeeper with decades of experience. But his story is not unique. Commercial beekeepers who send their hives to the almond farms are seeing their bees die in record numbers, and nothing they do seems to stop the decline.
A recent survey of commercial beekeepers showed that 50 billion bees – more than seven times the world’s human population – were wiped out in a few months during winter 2018-19. This is more than one-third of commercial US bee colonies, the highest number since the annual survey started in the mid-2000s.
Beekeepers attributed the high mortality rate to pesticide exposure, diseases from parasites and habitat loss.
However, environmentalists and organic beekeepers maintain that the real culprit is something more systemic: America’s reliance on industrial agriculture methods, especially those used by the almond industry, which demands a large-scale mechanization of one of nature’s most delicate natural processes.
Environmental advocates argue that the huge, commercially driven proliferation of the European honeybees used on almond farms is itself undermining the ecosystem for all bees. Honeybees out-compete diverse native bee species for forage, and threaten the endangered species that are already struggling to survive climate change.
Environmentalists argue a better solution is to transform the way large-scale agriculture is carried out in the US.
Like all bees, honeybees thrive in a biodiverse landscape. But California’s almond industry places them in a monoculture where growers expect the bees to be predictably productive year after year.
Commercial honeybees are considered livestock by the US Department of Agriculture because of the creature’s vital role in food production. But no other class of livestock comes close to the scorched-earth circumstances that commercial honeybees face. More bees die every year in the US than all other fish and animals raised for slaughter combined.
“The high mortality rate creates a sad business model for beekeepers,” says Nate Donley, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s like sending the bees to war. Many don’t come back.”
Nuts for almonds
California’s $11bn (£8.4bn) almond industry has grown at an extraordinary rate. In 2000, almond orchards occupied 500,000 acres. By 2018 that had more than doubled – almond groves in the Central Valley now blanket an area the size of Delaware, producing 2.3bn lb (1m tonnes) of almonds annually sold around the world.
The average American eats 2lb (900g) of almonds every year, more than in any other country. US almond milk sales have grown 250% over the past five years to reach $1.2bn, over four times that of any other plant-based milk, according to a 2018 Nielsen report.
“We don’t see a cap on growth at this point, especially with the incredible versatility of almonds in foods,” says Richard Waycott, president and CEO of the Almond Board of California, a not-for-profit advocacy organisation representing the majority of farmers.
But these enormous orchards can’t function without bees….
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