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Bees and other pollinators play an important role when it comes to the survival of creatures on this planet. Indeed, three out of four crops that produce either fruit or seed, rely on pollinators in one way or the other. Bees are therefore essential not only for our food security but also in conserving our biodiversity. Almond milk has been in high demand lately and its high water consumption has raised concerns.
Seen as a substitute for dairy milk, the production of almond milk has recently been perceived as one of the products that have a harmful effect on the environment. This is particularly true if you consume it outside the main producing countries. This then begs the question, is the demand for almond milk killing honeybees? Well, that’s exactly what we’ll discuss in this article.
What is Almond Milk?
Almond milk is a plant-based product that substitutes dairy milk. It is popular among vegans, the eco-conscious, and the lactose-intolerant population. This being a low-fat product makes it a great choice for those striving to lose weight or maintain a lean body physique.
Almond milk, as the name implies, is made from almonds and it has a nutty flavour and creamy texture. The product contains micronutrients and water. Almond milk is free from cholesterol, lactose, and saturated fats. It was first discovered in Italy around the 12th century and its early records are available in Mediterranean cookbooks dating back to the 13th century and later years.
Almond nuts are a delicacy to many and are consumed on most occasions including special religious events. Almonds thrive best in a mild climate with rich soils, abundant water supply, and plenty of sunshine. In the USA, it is produced mainly in California, particularly in the Central Valley.
Almonds are widely grown in the United States, unlike any other part of the world. Indeed, the US is the leading producer of almonds in the world. Spain and Italy come in second and third place. California is the main producer of almonds for commercial purposes. It produces enough almonds to feed the US and export to other parts of the world. The Middle East and European Nations are other major exporters of almonds. The rest of the countries produce it for home consumption. Some of the biggest importers of almonds include Japan, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Benefits of Almond Milk
Almond milk is rich in healthy and beneficial nutrients. It is however lacking some beneficial fiber that is lost during processing. Almond milk is available in your local stores and you can prepare one at home as well. Some of its benefits include:
1. Rich in nutrients
Enriched almond milk is highly nutritious. It contains vitamin D, Protein, and calcium. It also contains vitamin E, phosphorus, magnesium, Riboflavin, carbohydrates, and traces of fat and calories.
2. Ideal for weight loss
Almond milk is beneficial for those who want to lose weight. When compared to skim milk which has 78 calories, a cup of almond milk has half of that. It is however important to check the label before making a purchase of the factory-made almond milk.
3. Low-carb beverage
Almond milk has less than 2 per cent of carbohydrates, making it one of the best beverages for those with diabetes. It does not contain added sugar and will not raise blood sugar. It is thus ideal for those on a low-carb diet regime.
4. Free from lactose
Almond milk does not contain any lactose since it is plant-based. It is, therefore, the best option for those on a vegan diet or anyone that is allergic to milk or is intolerant to lactose. Some of the symptoms associated with dairy intolerance include diarrhoea, bloating, and discomfort. All these come about as a result of bacteria buildup within the colon. Almond milk consequently makes the perfect substitute for dairy milk.
5. Friendly to the heart
The fact that almond milk contains low fat makes it one of the best for countering heart disease. Nuts are generally recommended as a healthy diet whose benefits cannot be ignored. Almond milk contains healthy fats and contains about 1 per cent oil, out of which 90 per cent is unsaturated. It has oleic acid which has a beneficial effect on blood lipids.
6. Good for the bones
Vitamin D plays an important role when it comes to strengthening the bones in the human body. Some of the main signs of a lack of Vitamin D include brittle bones, weak muscles, and fatigue. Unfortunately, there exist very few natural sources of Vitamin D asides from the sun. Almond milk, therefore, provides a great solution since it contains added vitamin D. Furthermore, almond milk is enriched with calcium since it does not contain it, helping build and maintain bones.
How is Almond Milk Made?
Almond milk is produced commercially and you can make it at home. It is made by blending almonds with water. The resulting mixture is then passed through a strainer to remove solid material. Almond milk can also be formulated by mixing water with almond butter. The resulting product has a signature texture and flavour.
Commercial or industrial production of almond milk is quite complex and takes a number of steps before the final product is packaged and delivered to the stores. The factory makes use of professional and highly sophisticated equipment that guarantees a good quality product with a longer shelf life.
Some of the steps followed in the industrial production of almond milk include:
Step 1: Grinding
This entails the use of a colloid mill that grinds the almonds mixed with water in a ratio of 10:1, water to almonds.
Step 2: Screening and Mixing
This involves sieving the mixture. Preservatives and additives come in at this stage.
Step 3: Sterilization
This is required to keep the almond milk safe for human consumption.
Step 4: Packaging
A filling machine is used for bottling the almond milk which is then sealed in readiness for shipment.
Target Market for Almond Milk
Almond milk is in high demand since it is a plant-based product. This demand has been aggravated by the fact people are becoming super conscious about what they consume You will find almond milk almost everywhere, from supermarkets, coffee shops, restaurants, drift stores, and many others. Many people prefer almond milk to other products for a number of reasons:
- Diet restrictions.
- Could be a personal choice.
- An allergy to other products.
- Environmental concerns.
Almond milk has a number of applications that include mixing with cereals, coffee, pancakes, porridge, and many others. The demand for almond milk and other plant-based milk has been on a high trajectory since 2018, and its market is estimated to be worth USD 12 billion by the end of 2023, according to Innova Market Insights.
How Almond Production is Affecting Honeybees
Almond production relies on both wild and domesticated honeybees for pollination. The main concern for beekeepers is the effect of the pesticides used in almond production. Exposure to these pesticides has a huge impact on bees. The fact that almonds are also grown in monoculture, meaning a single crop grown on a large scale over huge tracks of land, also affects the honeybees negatively.
Here are some of the effects on honeybee colonies as a result of almond nuts production:
1. Use of Pesticides
Almond nuts have been grown for so many years, especially in the USA. The popularity of almond milk took center stage in the year 2000s and almonds became a top delicacy consumed by Americans. Presently, its consumption has far surpassed any other nut, with the exception of peanuts that is leading. Pesticide usage in almond fields is what has raised serious concern with regard to the safety of honeybees and other pollinators.
According to a report published recently by the Guardian, farming practices have caused monumental damage to pollinators, just to produce a glass of almond milk. Both domesticated and wild bees are affected without exception.
Almond fields require honeybees for pollination services and in the process, many of the honeybees die as a result of pesticide exposure and other factors. With about 1,000,000 acres of land worldwide under almond production as of 2018, and the demand for almond milk continuing to balloon, it is expected that more serious impacts will be felt in beekeeping. The number of natural pollinators are not enough on the orchard fields and without due care, there is the risk of losing entire honeybee populations as a result of pesticide exposure.
California almond growers that produce about 80% of the world’s almonds, enlist commercial beekeepers to provide pollination services during the flowering seasons. This is done in an effort to keep the almond trees more productive. Since this demand for pollination services keeps growing, we risk losing honeybees if measures are not undertaken to secure them.
The use of pesticides in California is much more on almonds than any other crop. Some of the chemicals used in almond trees such as glyphosate, used for killing weeds, have been found to harm bees. Another popular pesticide used is neonicotinoids, that has been proven to have some harmful effect on honeybees. Researchers have linked honeybee deaths with the use of pesticides in areas where pollination services are provided to almond growers. This is according to research that was conducted by Ohio State University in early 2019. The effect of chemical usage is not only felt within the orchards where the chemicals are used, but also within the surrounding environment.
The practice of monoculture in almond nut production is another factor affecting the honeybee population. What this means is that the crop is grown in an expansive space and without any other crop allowed to grow. This practice does not take into consideration biodiversity but focuses on the maximization of production from a single crop.
The effect of monoculture is the rapid growth and spread of weeds. It also leads to a heavy infestation of pests, ants, spiders, and many other insects. The farmers are therefore forced to use chemical pesticides and herbicides in an effort to get rid of these unwanted pests and insects. All this results in a huge loss of honeybees. It is reported that between 2018 and 2019, beekeepers within the US lost around 40 per cent of their stock during winter. On average, beekeepers lose 30% of their bees every year, as per a report published by the Guardian.
Another effect of monoculture is in restraining honeybees from enjoying biodiversity, a phenomenon that is vital for their survival. Both domesticated and wild bees require a wide variety of trees and flowers to survive and thrive. Therefore any form of limitation will result in massive die-offs of honeybee populations, if not in the short term then certainly in the long run.
3. Exposure to Pests and Diseases During Migratory Services
As earlier mentioned, almond nut-producing fields are not sufficiently pollinated by the wild and domesticated honeybees within the area. Consequently, growers are forced to seek pollination services elsewhere in an effort to keep up with the growing demand for almond milk. Consequently, the migratory beekeeping practices lead to the gathering of bees from diverse regions resulting in exposure to pests and diseases.
With the 2/3 of US commercial beekeepers gathering in the Central Valley of California every year in February, there is a big risk of exposing the bees to pests and diseases. Remember honeybees are social insects that will freely intermingle, thus making it impossible to control the spread of pests and diseases during this period.
It is also worth mentioning that the intermingling of bees from different regions brings in unfamiliar pests and diseases. Since the bees have not developed immunity against them, it becomes impossible for them to counter the pests and diseases. This greatly weakens the sick bees which then carry the disease along to the next destination where it is spread to other honeybees. It, therefore, becomes almost impossible to break this cycle of disease spread.
Is Almond Milk Production Sustainable?
This is an excellent question especially when it comes to commercially produced almond nuts, of course. In order to answer it, it is important to check out some interesting stats from credible sources regarding the sustainability of almond milk.
Here are some stats regarding the production of almond milk:
- Europe is ranked as the second producer of almond nuts, according to Statista, ranking second after the US.
- Spain and Italy are the leading producers of almond oil within the EU, with Italy producing about 12,800,000 metric tons of the nuts in 2018. Spain on the flipside produced 71,622,000 metric tons during the same period. This is according to the Global Agricultural Information Network.
- Morocco, Greece, Tunisia, and Portugal are also among the top producers of almond nuts, as per data sourced from FAO.
- 80 per cent of the global almond production is produced by California, with the United States producing 10,341,000 metric tons in the 2018/2019 financial year. This is produced within an area occupying about 1% of the total land within Colorado.
- Almond nuts are grown in monoculture, just like other commercial crops such as avocadoes, palm oil, and coffee. This practice is intended to make the crop more profitable. It facilitates the intensive production of the crop that can cater for many people. Unfortunately, the monoculture has some negative implications, including soil depletion, low resistance to plagues, and others.
- The average American consumes 2 pounds of almonds every year, according to the Guardian. It is also reported that almond sales increased by 250% between the year 2013 and 2018. The demand has been rising since then and it is expected to continue on its upward trajectory until 2023 and beyond.
With that said, it is worth mentioning some of the environmental impacts of planting almonds commercially. These include:
- Intensive production of almond nuts demands an excessive supply of water, making its footprint much larger when it comes to water usage. When compared to dairy milk, almond nuts require 20 times more water. On average, one California almond will require about 3.2 gallons or 128 liters of water. Further studies point out the difficulty of utilizing the by-product of almond milk, that is, the pulp b-product. This is rich in fiber and other nutrients however it is not yet possible to reuse it. The ultimate effect of this huge demand for water is the serious drought experienced within the areas in question.
- In terms of Global Warming Potential (GWP), almond nut production comes below dairy milk in terms of overall impact. On average, the GWP for dairy milk is 4.5 times that of almond milk, in the USA.
- The carbon impact of almond milk on the environment also ranks lower when compared to dairy milk. Whole dairy milk has about 1.6 kg/l whereas almond milk has about 0.36 kg/l.
- The overall environmental impact of almond milk becomes much higher when it is consumed outside the production countries. This effect is associated with the impact resulting from its transportation.
Considering all these factors, is almond nut production sustainable? Well, the answer to that is “Yes” and “No”. Yes if proper strategies are put in place in order to secure the well-being of honeybees and other pollinators. No, if we do not put in place measures to protect honeybees and other pollinators.
Almond Production Sustainability Strategies
The Almond Board of California and almond farmers have not ignored the concerns being raised with regard to the production of almonds. They have come up with some sustainability strategies that include:
- The use of solar energy when processing almond nuts.
- Education and training about almond sustainable practices.
- Food safety.
- More engagement and support for scientific research to find out the potential effects of almond consumption.
- Job development.
- Tree and soil health.
- A focus on bee health.
- An effort to achieve zero waste from almond production through the use of waste biomasses.
- Availing irrigation guidelines to almond producers.
- Ensure dust production is minimized during harvest.
Almond milk has a huge demand globally and it enjoys a ready market unlike any other commercial crop. A huge investment in technology and large-scale farming makes the US the leader when it comes to the production of almond nuts. The market for nuts is highly competitive in terms of quantity and quality, making it difficult for smaller producers to engage in the business commercially.
Nonetheless, other countries in the Mediterranean produce substantial amounts making it possible for them to participate in the global export market. Almond nut production directly impacts honeybees, especially within the US Central Valley, California, where large-scale commercial farms are common. Current production practices are killing bees and not the almond themselves.
Almonds have been cultivated for centuries and have never been a problem to honeybees for all those years. The problem came in when growers began supplying the product as a supermarket staple, forcing the growers to strive to meet its huge demand. This has led to monoculture practices and the use of chemicals that hugely affect the honeybee population. To counter this negative outcome, growers should adopt new ways of growing almonds.
On top of the list is to avoid the usage of chemicals, encourage biodiversity, and control pests and diseases to avoid their spread. The consumer also has a role to play. First off, minimize the consumption of almond milk to reduce its demand.
Secondly, buy certified almond products with a clear label showing it is “bee-friendly” to show the growers have put in place measures to secure honeybees. Finally, you can choose not to buy almond milk in entirety for a while, to keep its demand down. The decision is up to you.
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