Updated: Nov 11, 2020
To follow-up on my last post that looked back at two decades of almond pollination, I want to offer some thoughts about where the industry’s at right now. I’ll focus this post on the current situation and hold off on discussing where the industry’s headed until my next post. Back in 2005, Joe Traynor warned us that “the real crunch for bees will come in a few years when bearing almond acreage hits 730,000 acres.” We eclipsed that number in 2009, and 10 years later we’re sitting on 1,170,000 bearing acres with another 300K non-bearing. With new trees being planted faster than ever, you have to wonder: will the bubble ever burst?
As we all know, the problem isn’t with demand for almonds—they sell like hotcakes that have a longer shelf life. The problem is with the finite resources required to produce the nuts, most importantly, bees and water. I always chuckle when I read things online about how people should boycott almonds or that vegans shouldn’t eat them because they’re “harmful” to bees. In reality, almonds are the reason why beekeepers can afford to treat for mites 5, 6, even 7 times a year. If beekeepers only had honey revenue to rely on, bees would be in serious trouble. But the additional revenue from pollination isn’t enough to grow the commercial beekeeping industry to meet the consumer demand for almonds. After all, the costs of extra mite treatments and added labor basically wipe out any profits for beekeepers. There’s no reliable estimate for the total number of beehives in the U.S., but it’s somewhere near 2.6 million. If almond pollination requires 2 hives per acre, quick math tells us that we only have the capacity to pollinate 1.3 million acres if we deploy every single hive in the nation. Keep in mind, there are nearly 1.5 million acres of almond trees currently in the ground.
Then, there’s the water issue. This excellent study (that's totally worth the read) looked into water consumption of almonds and other crops, and charted the market value versus water footprint of the major crops grown in California (see image). There’s been more than enough media coverage on the water intensity of almond production, and since I’m a bee guy—not a water expert—I’ll cut my analysis short here.
ADVANTAGES OF ALMONDS
Aside from being highly nutritious, almonds are a strategically sound crop because they have an excellent shelf life. Compared to the fruits and veggies that grow alongside them in the Central Valley, there’s no real rush to get almonds to the end consumer. That’s a huge perk for growers—who can afford to play the market and sell when prices are high—and for retailers—who can get the product on their shelves at a lower cost.
Along the supply chain, almonds also offer environmental benefits. Unlike fruits and veggies that are susceptible to crushing and bruising, almonds can be piled high without reducing their value. There’s no need for plastic clamshell containers or refrigerated shipping units for almonds to stay fresh before they reach the end consumer.
Here’s another chart from that study I linked above. This one compares water footprint to nutritional value. Notice how the most water-intensive crops are the ones with the longest shelf life?
The continued growth of the almond industry is a complex issue. Almonds are a nutritious food that can reach end consumers with relatively little environmental impact. Consumers demand more and more almonds each year, so expanding production makes sense. Except for the fact that the two most critical inputs for production are in increasingly short supply. I’m not saying the Central Valley is about to run out of water, nor am I suggesting or that the nation is on the verge of a bee apocalypse. I’m simply noting that the availability of water and bees is not compatible with consumer demand for almonds.