In late February, California’s almond orchards awaken from their winter dormancy, transforming more than a million acres of fertile valley soil into a low canopy of pink and white blossoms ready for pollination and another season’s harvest.
Commercial almond production accounts for $5.3 billion of the state’s $47.1 billion in agricultural output (2015), second only to milk and cream. If you eat almonds, it’s likely they came from here.
But almonds face many stressors. Finally emerging from a protracted drought, California’s water challenges are far from over. Arguably even more foreboding a challenge than water scarcity is the case of the missing wild bee.
“Bees are critical to the environment, supporting one-third of the world’s crops, including ingredients that are used in more than one-third of Häagen-Dazs ice cream flavors,” said Alex Placzek, director of the Häagen-Dazs ice cream brand.
Unlike water, there are relatively simple, effective and literally shovel-ready strategies to help bring the bees back.
“By being proactive and getting involved on the farms of our suppliers,” Placzek said in a press statement, “We are staying true to our journey that began nearly 10 years ago to ensure that bees can continue to thrive and enrich the planet.”
TriplePundit recently sent one of its intrepid reporters to find out more about the plight of the pollinator, its impact on agriculture, and how key partnerships between researchers, farmers and food brands like Häagen-Dazs are beginning to reverse the troubling trend of vanishing wild bee populations.
A city boy goes to the country
I meet my group in Oakland, California, for the two-hour drive into the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Along with Placzek, we are joined by Eric Lee-Mäder and Dr. Hillary Sardiñas, both from the Xerces Society, a global nonprofit focusing on invertebrate conservation working closely with Häagen-Dazs on pollinator habitat restoration.
The day is bright and sunny, perfect for a high-noon almond investigation at Russell Harris Farms of Chowchilla, California (a.k.a the “Almond Company”). The 9,000-acre operation started when Francis Harris moved his family from Alabama to California during the Depression-era migration of farmers from the Dust Bowl plains of the American Midwest.
The far moved from Francis to his son, Marion, and now his grandson, Russell. The Harris enterprise has since grown into a large, vertically-integrated farming operation, but Russell and his family remain hands-on in its day-to-day operation. Russell believes “the best fertilizer on a farm is my own footsteps.”
It’s good for a city boy, given the opportunity, to see firsthand where his afternoon handful of almonds comes from.
Monocrop mismatch: Pollinators in a catch-22
If the American Midwest is the breadbasket of the nation, the Great Valley of California is its Garden of Eden, producing most of the country’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. California’s geology and range of habitat make it among the best places on earth to grow food. Endemic to the region are an estimated 1,600 species of native bees, pollinating a vast wilderness of flowering plants, a rich tapestry of diversity unique to California and the West Coast. Or so it was.
Pressed into an intense cycle of intense agriculture, for seven decades the loamy soil of the valley has been the foundation of the region’s growing industrial-scale agriculture. Pollination is the linchpin to this formidable economic and agricultural engine, but the very intensity of the agricultural output threatens the wild bee population upon which it ultimately depends.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences (PNAS), entitled “Modeling the status, trends, and impacts of wild bee abundance in the United States,” researchers mapped trends in wild bee abundance based on recent land conversion and overlayed that data on agricultural demand for pollination services across the country. What they found was a pollinator catch-22. The crops that depend most on pollination directly correlate to low wild bee populations.
“Between 2008 and 2013,” the researchers wrote, “modeled bee abundance declined across 23 percent of U.S. land area. This decline was generally associated with conversion of natural habitats to row crops.
“We identify 139 counties where low bee abundances correspond to large areas of pollinator-dependent crops. These areas of mismatch between supply (wild bee abundance) and demand (cultivated area) for pollination comprise 39 percent of the pollinator-dependent crop area in the United States.”
To make up for this mismatch, farmers are forced to import bees. Lots of bees.
Bees on the move
As much as 90 percent of the available U.S. commercial honeybee hives are imported into the valley for pollination (some reports put that at nearly 100 percent for this season’s crop). Concentrating so much of the bee population into one region risks the entire nation’s supply of bees to viruses, pathogens and disease.
A thriving wild bee population maintains essential biodiversity vital for sustaining agricultural production. As Debra Chase put it in an article for The David Vanguard, we are “flying on the wings of pollinators.”
The “forgotten species”
While the cute, cuddly, and charismatic species attract much of our conservation attention, Lee-Mäder cautions that without greater efforts to conserve invertebrates and their habitats, the larger struggle to perpetuate biodiversity will fall short.
The cause of the sudden onset of Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006 remains a bit of a mystery, a phenomenon where working bees abandon their hive and its queen. But part of the mystery may be due to our own disregard to their critical ecological niche. A study co-authored by researchers at the University of California, Davis, points to this dilemma of neglect:
“Despite their high diversity and importance for humankind,” the researchers report, “invertebrates are often neglected in biodiversity conservation policies.”
Among the several impediments to pollinator conservation, the report states three key areas of concern:
- “Invertebrates and their ecological services are mostly unknown to the general public (the public dilemma”
- “Policymakers and stakeholders are mostly unaware of invertebrate conservation problems (the political dilemma)”
- “Basic science on invertebrates is scarce and underfunded (the scientific dilemma)”
Häagen-Dazs uses its unique position in the marketplace to take on each of those points. Starting in 2009 with the Häagen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees campaign, the company supported research and public awareness, and is now working closely with key stakeholders to put into action solutions.
“Premium” is a core tenet of the Häagen-Dazs brand. Sourcing the best ingredients for customers to enjoy is its unique sales proposition. It’s what loyal customers come to expect. A healthy brand directly correlates to healthy, functioning ecosystems — even in the midst of the vast mono-crops of the Central Valley.
It can start with a hedgerow.
Hedgerows, stacked benefits
Meandering for six miles along the dirt road bordering plots of almond trees at Harris Farms stretches a hedgerow made up of 11,000 native and drought-tolerant plants, one of the largest privately-funded native pollinator habitats in the country.
Native plants for native bees, among the almond trees. Everybody wins. These are what Lee-Mäder referred to as the “stacked benefits” benefits of implementing “habitat-based intervention” strategies. It seems deceptively simple, but the simplicity is based on science, he told 3p.
For centuries, hedgerows have been home to bees and native wildlife of all sorts. Hedgerows provide natural pest suppression. Less chemical pesticide offers a healthier environment for more wild bees to come to the hedgerow.
As it matures, the hedgerow also protects from wind and soil erosion.
Whatever the risks of planting the six-mile hedgerow, Harris Farms is willing to enthusiastically take them on. Typically, the return on investment in planting such native habitat takes only a few years. The benefits will accrue indefinitely.
As for Häagen-Dazs, the company can tell customers exactly where the almonds in their favorite ice cream come from: right here at Harris Farms. And it’s all supported by science, giving researchers like Lee-Mäder and Dr. Sardiñas access to real-world trials of restorative intervention.
Sustainable agriculture: Back to the future
The message of the day wasn’t just about almonds, but the very future of agriculture. Much of California’s $47 billion in agricultural output depends on pollination. If ever there were a canary in a coal mine, the wild bee in the almond patch is it.
Maybe the big secret is that it wasn’t always this way. The decline of wild bees didn’t start 10 years ago with Colony Collapse Disorder. Gene Brandi, president of the American Beekeeping Federation, says that bee populations declined by 50 percent in the past 50 years. Habitat loss, poor nutrition, toxins and the stress of long-distance forced migration are the chief causes.
The most consequential change in our food system, at least as far back as the start of agriculture, has happened since the end of the Second World War. In our rush to industrialize agriculture, we started to neglect the services that nature already provides.
So, in the end, the “future of agriculture,” says Lee-Mäder, is partly taking a step into the past.
Full disclosure: the ice cream bar was delicious!
Images courtesy of Gani Pinero Photography LLC./Häagen-Dazs, Jessa Kay Cruz/Xerces Society. Used with permissions, all rights reserved.