Every few months, articles calling the sustainability of almond milk into question — and subsequently evoking fear in almond milk-drinkers — seem to circulate the internet. That cycle may have peaked on Wednesday when The Guardian published a lengthy article about the connection between the almond industry and the honey industry titled "'Like sending bees to war': the deadly truth behind your almond-milk obsession.'" The topic went viral in the U.S. after The Cut picked up the piece, publishing a summary under the title "Almond Milk Is Even More Evil Than You Thought." The sensational story angles are causing heated discussions online, leaving people with a few questions. Namely, why are so many bees dying due to the almond industry? And is it ethical to eat almonds and drink almond milk?
The Guardian's story discusses beekeepers who make significant revenue from taking their honeybees to almond farms, where the bees pollinate the almonds. The process is mutually beneficial for the almond farmer and the beekeeper, because almond trees require cross-pollination, and because honeybees need to collect plant nectar (a honeybee chews on nectar for about 30 minutes and then spits it up to form a honeycomb, aka make honey).
Unfortunately, this codependent process is pretty unsustainable in every sense of the word. Not only does it have a fairly high environmental impact, but it's becoming harder and harder to maintain this relationship given the high rate of almond production humans are demanding.
Arizona beekeeper Dennis Arp told The Guardian that his business is struggling because many of his once-healthy bees got sick and died in October, a few months before he planned to take the bees to the California almond fields. The Guardian cited a recent survey which found that in the U.S., 50 billion bees from commercial farms died within a few months during the winter of 2018-19 — that's about 40 percent of the country's honeybee colonies.
Why Are So Many Bees Dying?
According to The Guardian, 35 million pounds of pesticides (including glyphosate aka Roundup) are used on almonds in the U.S. every year — more than any other crop. Additionally, the bees are all brought to California at the same time each year, which increases the risk of spreading diseases (amongst the commercial bees and native bees, therefore hurting native bee populations).
Beekeepers also wake honeybees from winter dormancy a month or two before they would naturally, so they can bring the bees to almond farms, as per The Guardian. Not to mention, the demand for almonds has clearly grown in recent years, meaning this whole relationship has scaled up and grown a bit out of control.
All of these factors together have led to massive declines in bee populations (both commercial and in the wild), and an increased demand for beekeeping partners from almond farmers.
Are Almonds Ethical?
“The bees in the almond groves are being exploited and disrespected,” Patrick Pynes, an organic beekeeper and environmental studies professor at Northern Arizona University told The Guardian. “They are in severe decline because our human relationship to them has become so destructive.”
Entomologist Bob Curtis, who is the Almond Board of California's pollination consultant, agreed that the relationship between the almond industry and honey industry has gone too far. “The bee mortality rate is too high and is unacceptable,” Curtis told The Guardian. “It is only because of the hard work and creativity of beekeepers that [almond growers] have gotten the bees they need.”
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, a popular vegan author, addressed the issues surrounding almonds in an episode of her podcast, Food for Thought. "As long as there are crops, there is manipulation," she says. "That's what agriculture is. Manipulation of natural systems. Unless you forage for all of your food ... you are dependent on agriculture. We all are. Period. Full stop."
The problems outlined in The Guardian's piece are not exclusive to the almond industry — rather, they are abundant across the commercial agriculture industry. Boycotting almonds and relying on another high-impact crop is not going to solve the industry's problems — what needs to happen is a shift in the agriculture industry as a whole.
What About the Honey Industry?
Almond industry aside, the honey industry is very unsustainable in itself. Interestingly, honey is food that bees make out of nectar for themselves to eat. In one bee's entire lifetime, that bee will produce just a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey, and it takes 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey, according Perfect Bee. The honey industry also involves a lot of direct cruelty to bees — beekeepers keep bees in captivity, take their honey away from them, feed them high fructose corn syrup or sugar water, selectively breed bees, and exploit the queen bee by artificially inseminating her and cutting off her wings so she can't fly away.
So if you don't like the way honeybees are being treated in commercial agriculture, the most productive step you can do is to stop buying honey (and other bee-derived products, such as beeswax, bee pollen, mead, propolis, and royal jelly).
Are Almonds Vegan?
Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude the exploitation of animals as far as possible, and all foods that come from plants are technically vegan. So while honey is not vegan, almonds are vegan. As the above experts pointed out, exploitation of bees is definitely present in the almond industry — but as Patrick-Goudreau notes, that exploitation is "not a vegan problem to solve, it's a human problem" — specifically a problem with the commercial agriculture industry.
"Should I eat steak and chicken wings because fruit and nuts are pollinated by insects?" Patrick-Goudreau muses in the podcast episode, explaining why imperfections in the almond industry are not a justification for not being vegan. "The idea that we should do nothing because we can't do everything is illogical and self-defeatist."
Not to mention, if one were to boycott almonds for sustainability reasons, by that logic, they may also want to consider boycotting the entire commercial agriculture industry — which would be nearly impossible. According to Patrick-Goudreau's podcast, "apples, avocados, beans, broccoli, carrots, onions, lettuces, tangerines, watermelon, pumpkin, squash, cherries, cucumbers, tomatoes, and hundreds of other crops all currently rely on commercially-raised honeybee colonies for pollination."
Almond Milk vs. Dairy Milk
This #veganuary @BBCScienceNews asks scientists 'Which are the best vegan milks?' @oxfordgeography DPhil researcher Joseph Poore has some graphs to help us understand the impact of the milk we drink https://t.co/rb982WwObY pic.twitter.com/HQLOWMLfGf— School of Geography & Environment, Uni of Oxford (@oxfordgeography) January 9, 2019
Almond milk always has a lower environmental impact that dairy milk. According to data from a 2018 study conducted by the University of Oxford, dairy milk is responsible for significantly higher emissions, land use, and water use than almonds.
I have personally seen people use sensational articles like The Guardian one in question to justify drinking cow's milk, which is a bit puzzling. In comparison to almond milk, cow's milk has a far higher environmental footprint, involves much more cruelty to animals, and has far worse health effects on humans.
Which Non-Dairy Milk Has the Lowest Impact?
While the environmental impact of almonds may be higher than the impact of other plants used to make non-dairy milk, almond milk is still more sustainable than cow's milk — so as long as you're buying a non-dairy option, you're making a positive choice. Click here for a guide to the most eco-friendly non-dairy milks.