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Almonds, blended and strained in substantial quantities to satisfy our collective thirst for nut milk, have travelled a great distance to become a coffee shop staple.
Native to the Tian Shan Mountains of Central Asia, California’s Central Valley produces more than three-quarters of the world’s supply. Grown in mega-farms wholly reliant on honeybees for pollination, it’s the insects that now must do the travelling.
As with more than one-third of our food species, almonds require pollination. And with blossoms of blush and white blooming on millions of trees simultaneously, local pollinators simply can’t keep up. Packed into boxes, loaded onto trucks and transported en masse to a vast artificial forest, California’s $14-billion almond industry depends on bees-for-hire, which are dying at unprecedented rates.
Fifty-billion bees — 40 per cent of America’s honeybee colonies — didn’t survive last winter, according to a nationwide survey. “The high mortality rate creates a sad business model for beekeepers,” Nate Donley, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Guardian . “It’s like sending the bees to war. Many don’t come back.”
Mass pollination of monocultures — once deemed an efficient and high-yielding process — is stalling. And as The Guardian reports, while beekeepers have previously blamed exposure to pesticides and parasites for the record losses, organic beekeepers and environmentalists believe the issue is more fundamental.
“The bees in the almond groves are being exploited and disrespected,” Patrick Pynes, an organic beekeeper who teaches environmental studies at Northern Arizona University, reportedly said. “They are in severe decline because our human relationship to them has become so destructive.”
Used with a heavier hand on almond orchards than any other Californian crop, researchers have found that pesticides — such as glyphosate (an active ingredient in Roundup) — are the leading cause of colony collapse disorder, but they’re not the only threat facing the pollinators.
In Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food , Lenore Newman refers to a bee hive as “a delicate and complicated organism.” Disrupting the bees’ winter dormancy to transport them to the seat of the global almond industry puts them under stress, and concentrating them in a restricted area facilitates the spread of disease. A lack of diversity puts them under even more strain: as true for bees as it is for us, variety is key to healthy eating.
While we don’t fully understand the underlying causes of colony collapse, she explained in a 2019 interview with the National Post , we do know that shipping pollinators from crop to crop is part of the problem.
“We have to think about how we grow monocultures. And that is much bigger than an individual issue. We have to look at regions, like the Central Valley of California where we take billions and billions of bees to pollinate the almonds and say, ‘Okay, what could we plant here so that we could have bees here all the time?’ Because ultimately, bees are not supposed to move. They build a colony, they stay there, they map out where everything is … they’re like us, moving into a new city,” said Newman. “The solution might be diverse enough agriculture in the region so that the pollinators don’t have to move.”
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