The High Price of Almond Milk

There are many “alternative” milks on the market that have been pushing cow milk aside.

In the case of the most popular alternative, almond milk, it is said to be healthier than dairy, is lower in calories, and it is by far the favorite of vegans and vegetarians. Almond milk sales have exploded with over 250% growth in the past five years. You can buy it now almost anywhere, from grocery stores to coffee shops.

The dark side of the story is the environmental costs. The number of honeybees pollinating the almond orchards that die are in the billions, in a matter of months. Demand for the ultra-popular almond milk is growing at such a rate that the California almond industry can hardly keep up with it.

This 4:04-minute video is about almond pollination in California:

One commercial migratory beekeeper, Dennis Arp, told the Guardian that his yard is full of empty bee boxes that once contained healthy hives. His loss is 30% or more of his bees every year now, since nearly half his income is from renting out his hives for almond pollination. A recent survey found that 50 billion honeybees belonging to commercial beekeepers were wiped out in a few months during the 2018-2019 winter.

There appear to be several contributing factors to this unfolding bee tragedy. Many beekeepers believe that this high mortality rate for almond-pollinating-bees is due at least in part to the vast quantities of pesticides used on almonds.

Central Valley, California is responsible for over 80% of the world’s almond supply. Most of the almond groves are sprayed with Roundup, an herbicide glyphosate. In addition to much more pesticide being used than for other crops, disease spreads easily due to the high density of bees pollinating in such a small area. In order to pollinate almonds, honeybees must venture out of their hives in around February, up to two months earlier than they normally would. Winter is not always over at that time, so they would normally stay dormant in their hives longer except for the almond pollination. This causes many bees to be weak, so the work is challenging. Another problem is mono-nutrition and malnutrition. Bees feed exclusively on the almond flower for months and then when they are packed up to move on, they subsist on sugar syrup and manufactured pollen fed to them by their beekeepers as they are trucked away to another destination.

An organic beekeeper named Patrick Pynes teaches environmental studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He told the Guardian that the bees are in severe decline because our human relationship with them has become so destructive, and the bees in the almond groves are being disrespected and exploited.

This 3:46-minute video by Fortune Magazine shows the profitable almond pollination business in California:

There is a “bee-friendly” movement now, where certain groups are hoping to protect bees and let consumers know to support those using bee-friendly methods to accomplish pollination. Xerces Society, a non-profit, launched “Bee Better” and they partner with almond farmers that create biodiversity in their groves, which means planting clover, mustard and wildflowers between the almond trees. Haagen-Dazs ice cream was the first to carry Bee Better products.  

This is not the only environmental footprint we find in the almond groves. Why are almonds grown in California? According to Mother Jones back in 2014, each thirsty almond drinks a gallon of water, and California is a drought-riddled state.

For those that prefer buying organic almonds that are chemical-free, look no further than 81-year old Glenn Anderson and his Anderson Almonds company. They sell direct to individual customers. Anderson believes in letting nature take its course, and that’s exactly what he does on his 20-acre orchard that is now 40 years old. He is one of the few organic almond growers in San Joaquin Valley, California.

Anderson hires a “beekeeper hobbyist” every spring to set up about 20 hives in his orchard. This beekeeper brings tired bees down to regenerate on Anderson’s rich land, where trees grow amid rich undergrowth that nourishes the soil and strengthens the trees, inviting in biodiversity.  

The price he pays for not using pesticides is that his annual crop yield is typically around 10,000 pounds. Much lower than commercial almond growers. He’s not interested in expansion, he wants to manage the orchard’s wildness, so he likes keeping it the size it is.     

As for commercially-grown almonds, he thinks they taste like cardboard.

How about trying a glass of oat milk?