Almond milk is the latest food product to come under scrutiny as a destroyer of the environment and killer of honeybees. But the reality is that almond milk is just one of many manmade food crises decaying the planet’s ecology and eradicating populations of wild pollinators across the globe.
The scrutiny surrounding almond milk began a little under a decade ago as a rise of veganism and society’s move away from mega-dairy saw consumers seek plant-based alternatives to cow milk. In 2011 alone, sales of almond milk increased by 79%, and the popularity has only continued. As with anything new, this nut-based alternative began to attract attention and it wasn’t long until reports pointed to the environmental impact of the product. Since almond trees only bloom for two to three weeks, the huge groves needed to sustain the demand have a detrimental impact on local pollinators that are forced to contend with a food desert for the rest of the year.
But as Stephen Burke, member of the board of directors on the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association, explains: “Take almonds out of the equation, and the same thing will continue to happen.” And that is because almond trees are but a scapegoat. Instead we must look at a much larger, far more damaging and near-universal enemy: industrial monoculture. Originating in the mid-20th century, industrial monoculture is a widespread form of mega-farming that gives over huge areas of land to a single crop while neglecting to plant other supporting species of flora in fear that sharing space and nutrients will impact the bottom line. Certainly, the model makes sense in the irresponsible world of columns and ledgers, but the practice is rapidly leading us toward an unprecedented ecological disaster.
Natural balance requires seasonal diversity in which different plants produce pollen at different times of the year. But monoculture means no pollen outside cash crop season. No pollen means no pollinators. And no pollinators means no food production. It’s really that simple and really that devastating. To meet the demand left unmet by the decline in wild bees and the sheer volume of product expected by consumers, monoculture mega-farms import pollinators from elsewhere in the country (or the world).
“Eighty percent of the country’s commercial bees are in California for almond season,” reveals Burke, “and then they are transported to another location, the northeast for cranberry season, the Pacific northwest for apples, etc.”
As Burke explains, the transportation of honeybees is widespread in monoculture. But as with many practices involving the animals as tools of mega-farming, transporting bees across long and varied geographies is deeply neglectful of their wellbeing. Honeybees have a range of around two miles, but take them from California to New England, and the colony has now travelled a staggering 3,000 miles. Honeybees also thermoregulate, relying on temperatures between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain homeostasis, and deviations outside this range can prove fatal. Above 95 degrees, colonies suffocate and die, and while they can survive below 90 degrees, exposure to the cold can cause developmental abnormalities in developing broods. Considering the differences in climate between the various geographies in the United States, a very grim picture begins to emerge. And that’s not the half of it.
“Anything that travels around the country in large groups brings geographic diseases to the entire country,” continues Burke, “some of which aren’t even native to North America.”
Of particular concern is VDV1, a fatal deformed wing virus native to Asia that first arrived in the United States in 1987, but was largely unrecorded until the early 2000s. However, a boom in monoculture and advent of mass honeybee transportation in the early part of the century caused a dramatic spread of VDV1 to all corners of the nation. A six-year study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland revealed that as recently as 2010, VDV1 was only recorded in Pennsylvania and Iowa, but by 2016, the disease had spread to more than 35 states in all areas of the country, including Rhode Island.
Pathogens and parasites, such as VDV1, need to be transferred from one colony to another to maintain their presence in a host population. The process, known as inter-colony transmission, typically occurs when honeybee workers enter a foreign colony and bring the pathogen with them. With industrial honeybee transportation now widespread and commonplace, the spread is only set to accelerate. In 2018 alone, 40% of the nation’s honeybee colonies died, and the pattern is set to continue.
But there is more. Due to the single season nature of industrial monoculture, the soil upon which the growth of these plants depends spends the majority of the year starved of the essential nutrients required to maintain a healthy and stable host environment. The US Department of Agriculture reports that more than half of the nation’s soil erosion comes from slightly more than a quarter of total cropland acreage. Furthermore, it takes an average of 20 years to for a millimeter of soil to naturally replenish, with pesticides and fertilizers actively destroying the organisms that the soil depends upon for survival. According to a study conducted by Cornel University, soil disappears 10 times faster than it naturally replenishes (at a rate of nearly 1.7 billion tons of farmland per year), with the economy losing roughly $37 billion in productivity annually and $1.1 billion in health costs associated with pesticides.
The real issue here is human greed and gross irresponsibility by mega-farmers and everyday consumers. Unlike every other animal on the planet, humans no longer live by seasonal availability, and we don’t care to either. There is no reason for us to expect strawberries in November, nor should we be eating the amount of food that we do. Just think about the volume of “unlimited wings” sold at local dive bars across the nation, or the six layers of ham stuffed into sandwiches on sale at gas stations. The average American consumes more than 3,600 calories daily (a 24% increase from 1961), and a whole 1,000 more than we should be. Our consumption of water is far too low (drink an ounce of water for each pound you weigh, every day), which leads to the stomach confusing thirst for hunger. Together, we are eating – and by extension wasting – vast amounts of food, out of season and without a single care for the ultimate effects.
And the effects are as simple as this: Keep eating the way we are and Homo sapiens face the real possibility of extinction. Global pollinator populations have dropped by an average of 30% at the same time as global temperatures continue to rise and play havoc on a precarious ecological balance. Pollinators are responsible for approximately one out of every three bites of food, but their decline while climate changes and human population continues to rise can only lead to one devastating conclusion.
So, keep all that in mind the next time you mindlessly snack on something or order an extra plate of sushi. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry, or am I contributing toward the extinction of not only bees, but humanity as a whole?” It’s time to face some very difficult and very real decisions.