Of Bees and Almonds

Posted: September 19, 2014 in ANIMAL LIBERATION NEWS
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On Wednesday evening, I intended a short film viewing session hosted by Food First’s Real Food Media. Food First is a group that advocates for socially conscious and sustainable food choices. The event featured seven of the ten finalists in Real Food Media’s sustainability video contest, which drew participation from a variety of US states as well as roughly ten different countries. Each film was approximately four minutes long, and dealt with a different issue.

The first video shown, while touching, wasn’t very informative; it seemed simply to celebrate those who work hard in the food industry and appreciate fresh produce. The film didn’t even indicate a specific problem, much less a solution. Many of the films that followed raised an issue, but again failed to point the way to any concrete solution. My personal favorite was the one shown last, which featured a program called the Green Bronx Machine. The Green Bronx Machine brings gardens to schools in the Bronx and teaches kids not only how to grow plants, but later how to cook or otherwise prepare them. This was the only video, in my view (slash memory), that not only pointed at a problem but also illustrated a solution. The problem: kids in low-income neighborhoods seldom get enough fresh produce, and even when said produce is available kids know little to nothing about it and so are wary of it. Solution: teach kids how to grow and cook fresh food themselves so that not only will it be available to them more often but they will also grow a greater appreciation for healthy eating and begin to prioritize it.

The secondary problem this film addressed—the problem-within-a-problem, so to speak—is that many kids in low-income areas, particularly those with academic handicaps, fail to graduate. One former Green Bronx Machine member declared definitively in the video, “If it weren’t for this program, I probably wouldn’t have graduated.” He claimed to have missed eighty-plus school days of his freshman year and pointed to drugs and gang activity in his neighborhood as other factors that may have eventually led him astray were it not for his enrollment in Green Bronx Machine.

That was my favorite.

My least favorite was a video about a pig-farming family. It showed how kind the humans were to the pigs, how much space they had to roam around, play, eat…but ultimately, this family intends to slaughter each and every one of the precious pigs whose company they claimed to enjoy so much. Not only did I feel sorry for the pigs in the natural, sympathetic way; on an intellectual level, I failed to see how this video could have been a frontrunner in a contest about sustainability. Eating animals is not sustainable! Meat consumption is one of the largest contributing factors to global warming that there is; and global warming poses one of the largest threats to agriculture as we know it. So how does a video about a family that engages is this wholly unsustainable practice earn recognition as one of the best videos submitted in a contest about sustainability?

The video that struck me the most on an intellectual level, tapping into something I knew vaguely about but to which I had not previously devoted sufficient attention, was entitled “Who Keeps the Beekeepers?” It was about the roll of bees in the farming of various crops—almonds in particular—and the struggle of modern beekeepers to stay afloat, travelling cross-country several times a year to the places where bees are most needed and losing many of the bees in the process. I knew that bees were central to many types of produce, which grow in different parts of the country; I did not know that there were so few beekeepers in the country and that these individuals shlep themselves and their poor bees from state to state as the seasons change.

I also didn’t know, until a speaker at the event said so (this information was not disclosed in the video), that the state of California produces 80% of the world’s almonds. That’s not a typo; I don’t mean America’s almonds, or even the West’s almonds. I mean the world’s. So we have 80% of all almond in the world growing here in California, and I wonder how many bees it takes to sustain that? I imagine that there aren’t enough bees naturally living here for this to be the case; the bees must be imported, in the manner described in “Who Keeps the Beekeepers?”

Of course, humans didn’t invent almonds; so, how did the almonds come about in the first place, before we started shuttling bees here, there and everywhere? The answer lay in the centralization of production. Almonds weren’t always so exclusive to California; once upon a time, as was the case with many other crops, almonds were grown regionally in small operations—and pollinated naturally by the bees that inhabited those places.

Then two things happened. First, the bee population became threatened. Threats to naturally occurring bee populations include, but are not limited to: habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation; the introduction of non-native species to their habitat; pollution (including the use of pesticides), and climate change.

The Great Pollinator Project offers the following insight on the Bee Issue at the turn of the twenty-first century:

The serious decline of several native bumblebee species was largely a mystery until 2007, when it was linked to non-native parasites introduced to the U.S. from abroad. Subsequent studies have found that the declines are most likely caused by commercially reared bumblebees used in greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes and a variety of other crops. The parasites were probably introduced in the 1990s when colonies of North American bumble bees were taken to Europe for rearing and became infected by parasites common to bumble bees there, and brought them back home when they were reimported for agricultural use. When commercially reared bees harboring pathogens escape from greenhouses, native bees can become infected.

The second change in the almond market (and others as well, but almonds form among the strongest examples of this) is that it became centralized; over time, smaller almond operations shut down while bigger ones grew. California is now the last man standing: absolutely the only place in all of North America where almonds are grown commercially. While it’s no secret that recent droughts in California (beginning at least in 2013, if not earlier) have threatened various crops—becoming so severe at times that some California restaurants felt compelled to post notices declaring that they would only serve water to customers upon request—California’s annual almond yield has quadrupled in the past thirty years.

Almonds are the seventh largest US food export, with over ninety nations currently importing California almonds. They are also incredibly nutritious and especially important to anyone who has decided to stop imbibing on animal flesh and other byproducts. Almonds also form the base for my preferred milk substitute, almond milk—on which I imbibe daily, if only a few splashes in my coffee.

To put it mildly, almonds are mad important.

So here on the one hand we have this super-important, super-nutritious crop that everyone wants—indeed, needs—and on the other we have hundreds, thousands of bees being tormented by long days and nights on the road, unable to properly roost anywhere because they never know how long they will stay. I’m not suggesting they endure any form of existential crisis; but fear of being handled, being moved, at critical moments, causes stress. Confinement in trucks for long hours can contribute to illness, to violence. Bees aren’t meant to live that way.

Humans also aren’t meant to live as the beekeepers live, moving themselves and their families here, there and everywhere that bees are needed. Beekeepers are human victims of the Animal Holocaust.

Once again, we face a gray area of our own creation. Just as we now “have” to have pets because we’ve disabled cats and dogs from living in nature, so too have we created a bee deficit that threatens our existence almost as much as it threatens theirs. Almonds, apples, okra, onions—you name it, bees pollinate it; except that we’ve hardly any bees left, so we’re overworking them—them, and their keepers.

So, what do we do? The video did not provide an answer. I’m not sure I can, either; but I’ll try:

• Support native bee populations.

There are lots of small, simple ways you can contribute to supporting your native bee population—especially if you live in a fertile, temperate area like most of California, where growing stuff is easy-peasy. One way is to grow native plants such as cherries, blueberries and cranberries. You can also refrain from using pesticides, which you really shouldn’t anyway as they are bad for pretty much everyone: us, the bees, other animals, and the environment as a whole. Provide a breeding place for native bees: pesticide-free water or mud near your native bee-friendly plants. Clean water in particular is a “bee need” that is often overlooked; it is especially essential during the hot summer months. Finally, provide a nesting area for native bees. This can be a tilled spot on your lawn for soil-nesters, a handmade “bee house” or a standing dead tree.

• Decentralize almond production (and that of other crops).

Supporting small produce farms, particularly in regions where they are few and far between, may take some pressure off of the main production points for crops; however, in the case of almonds, given the extremity with which California dominates that particular market, I’m not sure this is a realistic solution. Can any small almond farmer anywhere else in the country hope to compete with the Almond Giant? Not sure; but there may be more room for the little guys with less centralized crops. While we may not be able to entirely reverse the mistake made here, we can certainly at least learn from it, and avoid repeating it. It’s our responsibility to do so—for our planet and for our children.

GASP! Does this mean almonds aren’t vegan? Technically, yes, it does; it requires animal labor, just as silk is not properly vegan because it requires worm labor. Am I going to stop eating almonds or drinking almond milk? Hell, no; but I will try my hardest to make myself care enough about bees to pay attention to how and where my almond products are being sourced.

I say “make myself” care because to be honest, I’ve been holding a serious grudge against bees since I was a child. In one day, I both stepped on a bee and sat on one, resulting in painful stings on my five-year-old foot and five-year-old butt. I’ve hated bees ever since; but we must have charity, mustn’t we? It’s that which we like least for which we ought to have the most sympathy. Bees serve a crucial function on this planet—one that is vital not only to the survival of my own species but that of many others besides. No one can replace them; indeed, no one ever will. So it’s important that we support them in their native roosts and help those populations grow; with a concerted effort in this direction, the day will dawn on which the hectic, hellish lifestyle of both kept bees and their keepers will be wholly unnecessary.

Great; but what about right now? What about the bees suffering right now? What about the keepers suffering right now?

I wish I had an immediate solution; I really do. The best I can do is outline something of a plan: support the natives and the small-time farmers. I don’t know how long this plan would have to be in effect for it to “work” in any tangible sense; indeed, I didn’t just invent these solutions yesterday and these plans have been underway by countless organizations for nearly a decade already. Beyond being serving as ideas or desires, however, plans like these need to become a national priority. They need to be discussed not strictly within the animal liberation community or even strictly within the agricultural community, but at every dinner table in America—and beyond.

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