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Almond milk and bee health

posted on Thursday, June 7th, 2018

A Karma member recently approached the Food Issues Committee with a concern about the connection between the almond milk industry and bee decline. Since Karma carries two different brands of almond milk — Blue Diamond, which is conventional, and Pacific Foods, which is organic — it’s worthwhile to consider whether buying one over the other makes a difference. Both milks are sold at similar price points.

Here’s a quick background on the almond industry. The vast majority of the world’s almonds are produced in California (over 80 per cent, according to the Almond Board of California). In the 2012–13 crop year, California produced 1.88 billion pounds (850 million kg) of almonds, almost 70 per cent of which were exported, contributing $11 billion (US) to the state’s gross domestic product. It takes 800,000 acres (320,000 hectares) of land to grow all those almond trees, all of which must be pollinated by bees — 1.6 million bee colonies. The bees are vital to the success of the industry, which is why it’s all the more troubling that the very practices of conventional almond farmers could be contributing to bee decline. How is this so?

When spraying trees, conventional almond farmers use a mix of pesticides and additives called adjuvants. Adjuvants ensure that the pesticides coat the almond leaves evenly, thus making the spray more effective. In recent years, we have seen improved adjuvants hitting the market that allow the pesticide to not only coat the leaves but actually penetrate them, thus preventing the pesticide from getting washed away. Adjuvants are considered inert by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and are therefore not subject to regulation the way pesticides are. However, a 2012 study published in the journal PLOS ONE showed that the new-and-improved adjuvants may be contributing to a decline in bee health by giving the pesticides a pathway inside the bee. Tank mixing of pesticides and adjuvants (the practice of mixing many pesticides and adjuvants together) is suspected to be the major reason behind the 2014 bee die-off, when 80,000 bee colonies were either destroyed or damaged after almond farm pollination.

So does buying organic rather than conventional almond milk make a difference? Well, if we’re concerned about bee health (and we should be: a third of our food comes to us courtesy of bees and other pollinators, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council), buying organic is the way to go, since organic almond farmers don’t use the kind of synthetic pesticides and adjuvants that conventional farmers do. (It’s important to note, however, that the issue of bee decline is complex and there are many more hypothesized causes than adjuvants alone.)

If you have any concerns or questions regarding any of the products carried at Karma, please reach out to the Food Issues Committee at foodissues@karmacoop.org.

submitted by Martyna Krezel

First published in The Chronicle (Spring 2015)