The truth behind our almond milk
In the United States, in California’s monoculture almond plantations, the game is played on a whole other level. No other place in the world requires as much pollination — from 1.5 to 2 million hives annually. Our collective appetite for almond milk, almond flour, and other by-products hasn’t lessened in the past 20 years. It’s a fad that’s largely been determined by The Almond Board of California, including Blue Diamond, a co-operative of producers who grow, transform, and market more than half the almond harvest in California. Blue Diamond “did a really good job marketing outside the U.S. and within the U.S.,” explains Brittney Goodrich, Assistant Co-operative Extension Specialist in Agricultural Economics at UC Davis.
Let’s not delude ourselves. If blueberries have topped blackberries and elderberries as antioxidants, and if almonds have outpaced hazelnuts or cashews as vegan alternatives to cow’s milk, it’s because the harvests have buyers, and because the markets have been developed.
Result: 80 per cent of the world production of almonds is concentrated in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. Fruit and milk producers have traded in their orchards and their cows for more profitable almond plantations. And the trees are still being planted.
Nut and fruit production in California
1985 to 2015 (in acres)
Source: California Department of Food and Agriculture, 2015
Market shares of almond production in the world
(in metric tons, 5-year average)
Source: International Nut & Dried Fruit (INC), 2017/2018 Statistical Yearbook
Annual sales of plant-based milks in the United States
(in millions of dollars)
Source: Nielsen, juillet 2018
“I don’t think all of California will convert to almonds,” says Goodrich. “The cost of almond production has been increasing substantially over the last decade due to the price of land, and we have this water scarcity issue,” she adds. “It’s going to level off eventually. It’s just a matter of when that happens.” But the landscape has already been transformed. The almond tree monocultures, sprayed with glyphosate, have taken precedence over biodiversity.
In February the spectacular blooming of the almond trees kicks off the season for beekeepers. The colonies are sent across the United States, from producer to producer, to end their journey in Southern States in November where they will spend the winter. There, too, the bees are prey to parasites and sickness.
It’s a reality few consumers are thinking of when they order their almond milk matcha latté. Thefts, such as the one that happened to the Labonté family, are recurrent. Some beekeepers even negotiate their pollination contracts against better protection for their hives on the plantations. Bee brokers make the link between beekeepers and producers.