By Tara Alderson, PhD, Resident Writer, FMG HK
I was quite shocked to learn that 80% of the world’s almond supply comes from the Central Valley of California, from large monoculture farms that cover over 1 million acres. That’s nearly four times the land area of Hong Kong! A quick look in any of our supermarkets confirms that the majority of our almond milk brands are, in fact, American too.
I write this because in the last few years significant attention has been brought to the plight of the honeybees, and the world’s insatiable appetite for almond milk has had a direct impact on declining populations, particularly in the US. In 2018/19 US honeybee farmers experienced a 40% loss in colonies, the biggest collapse on record. How this has happened is quite multifaceted but it can be boiled down to the mechanization and chemical inputs of industrial agriculture.
It all starts with farmers quickly replacing field crops with huge swaths of almond orchards that force out native bee populations. Bees struggle to find adequate nectar in monoculture farms to begin with but add on the fact that almonds only bloom two months of the year in the winter and they are out of there. They either die off or just leave and don’t come back. Due to this lack of natural pollination, almond farmers are forced to import honeybees from all over the country, and they prefer the common European species for their efficiency in mass pollination. Corralling one type of species into a relatively small area greatly increases the risks of spreading disease and parasites. For example, the varroa mite has been considered the biggest threat to the European honeybee. It attaches to the bee, sucks its blood and often transmits and activates viruses. In response, farmers are then forced to use a class of pesticides called varroacides, which are claimed to be harmless to the bees but detrimental to the mite. It’s all a vicious cycle with a series systemic issue.
If that wasn’t bad enough, combine habitat loss and parasites with a chemical cocktail of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides commonly used in industrial agriculture and you get a habitat completely inhabitable for healthy bee populations. Insecticides, in particular, have been well studied, and it is clear that they are a crucial factor in seriously messing with a bee’s development and the development of their hives, as well as their foraging, feeding and learning abilities. Many beekeepers have also reported dead and malformed offspring during and immediately after providing pollination services in California. Neonicotinoids are a prime example of a class of insecticides that are still widely used in the US and have been directly linked to the widespread decline in bee abundance and diversity. As such, the European Union enacted a complete ban of neonicotinoids in 2018.
What can we do about it though?
We love almond milk! And with trends in healthy eating, flexitarianism and veganism on the rise, the demand for this plant based cream is going to continually drive this ‘efficient’ large scale method of production. This also goes for many other plant based milks that are on the market today, such as soy, rice and oat, and while they are all primarily produced by industrial methods, they are still unanimously an improvement on conventional factory farmed dairy milk.
The first thing we can do is to start seeking out and supporting sustainable almond producers that value the health of the land, it’s pollinators and its people. For consumers, the easiest way to do this is to look out for certifications such as Organic and Bee Friendly. Our friends at Green Common have an excellent variety of plant based milks to choose from or you can pick up some organic bulk ingredients from Live Zero or Edgar and make your own. Yes, this means that your ‘milk’ might be a bit more expensive, but considering that 70% of the world’s agricultural crops depend on bees for pollination, I think it’s a small tradeoff.
For industry, we can diversify the dairy-free milks offered to customers, rather than relying on a single type, which exacerbates the demand for a product that may be supporting monocultural practices. For a nuttiness similar to almond milk, you can consider milk made from hazelnuts, which are pollinated by the wind and are seen as a new rising alternative, packed with nutrition. Niche crops such as hemp and flax are still grown in small quantities which make them more environmentally-friendly and are rich in protein and healthy fats. Don’t forget the humble soybean and the goodness of soy milk. Most soy is overproduced as feed for livestock but look for soy milk made from organic soybeans. And last, but definitely not least, the new star of the show is oat milk! There are plenty of oats to go around and they require cooler climates so less water and no association with deforestation. Be aware of potential pesticides containing the possible carcinogen, glyphosate, but shop around and you can easily find oat milk in Hong Kong made with oats that are certified glyphosate-free.