Story at a glance
- California is the world’s greatest producer of almonds, although the crop is not native to the region.
- Almond farmers rely on pollination from bees, but past practices have endangered the very insects they depend on.
- KIND is committing to sourcing more of its almonds from farms with bee-friendly practices and will help fund further research.
Almond growers rent about 1.5 million colonies of honeybees per year for around $300 million, according to researchers, bringing pollinators from all over the world to California to produce about 80 percent of the world’s almonds.
Bee pollination is essential to coaxing fruit from almond trees. But between the stress of relocating, the increased exposure to disease from other populations and the lack of other food sources in the region, entire colonies have died in the process.
“The high mortality rate creates a sad business model for beekeepers,” Nate Donley, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Guardian earlier this year. “It’s like sending the bees to war. Many don’t come back.”
Now, KIND Healthy Snacks, which sources 1 to 2 percent of the world’s almonds, wants to become the first snack company to exclusively source the almonds for their namesake KIND bars from bee-friendly farmland across the globe by 2025.
BREAKING NEWS ABOUT THE CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES
“We have been energized and inspired by the leadership demonstrated by some of our peers and partners to more actively protect pollinators. We are also incredibly proud that many of our almond suppliers have led the way, proving that incorporating more bee-friendly practices is not just good for pollinators, but also good for business,” said Daniel Lubetzky, KIND’s Founder and Executive Chairman, in a release. “But we can do more to make these practices central to the way the almond industry does business. While we know we can’t do it alone, we are proud to lend our voice and scale to call for this much needed change.”
The company is working with almond suppliers and researchers to encourage bee-friendly practices, including reserving 3 to 5 percent of farmland for a dedicated pollinator habitat and eliminating neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos, pesticide treatments that are harmful to pollinators, like bees. The KIND Foundation is also making a $150,000 investment in the Williams Lab at the University of California, Davis “to help answer critical questions about bee health and track the efficacy of these farm-level improvements.”
“We do hope that what we’re doing in trying to provide options for diversification of landscapes and working with grower partners and others to develop really practical strategies for implementation will help move the dial in the right direction and away from practices which are more harmful to ones which are more regenerative,” said Neal Williams, an entomology professor at the Williams Lab.
In 2014, about 80,000 colonies, or about 5 percent of bees brought in for pollination, had adult bee deaths or a dead and deformed brood, while some entire colonies died. Researchers from Ohio State University found pesticides, especially particular combinations of insecticides and fungicides, were the culprit.
“With all agricultural production really or most of it, we’re using some kind of pesticides whether that be herbicides, fungicides or insecticides,” Williams said. “The reality with almonds is that current guidelines are very helpful with reducing the amount of pesticides that are applied, and that's industry wide, but there are some [farms] that use more and some that use less.”
Williams and his team are studying high pesticide risk areas across the state to learn where particular chemistries on a particular crop might prove a risk. In California, pesticide use is a matter of public record, Williams said, allowing the researchers to identify even down to the specific day where a chemical is being applied.
"We have people working on water and soil health, pests, weed management and on pollinators all as part of the same team working on almond landscapes, [looking at] where are the opportunities for greatest impact, where are areas where we might not be able to do much at this point, areas where we can make progress, areas where we might need to try different strategies," he said.
While California produces most of the world's supply of almonds, the United State’s largest specialty crop export isn’t native to North America. Originally found in the mediterranean, almond trees grow well in the Golden State’s fertile Central Valley — but they flower early, and when the season ends, pollinators aren’t left with much to feed on. Of the state's nearly 1.53 million acres, less than 20,000 acres are verified as bee-friendly. And with wildfires to the north and much of the state in drought, the thirsty plants are becoming unsustainable.
In the past two decades, however, improved production practices and efficient micro-irrigation technology have helped farmers reduce the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent, according to the Almond Board of California. And at the Williams Lab, researchers are looking for drought-tolerant plants to introduce to the area to diversify food sources for bees.
“We can do some things through regulation but it seems like in the United States people prefer things to be consumer driven,” Williams said. “It’s really helpful to see a commitment to research for strategies [from KIND].”
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