Almonds and almond-related products, such as almond milk and almond butter, are often considered to be vegan staples. As such, it may seem strange that many people question whether almonds (and therefore anything made from or with them) are actually vegan at all. So, let’s answer the question: are almonds vegan?
Well, to most peoples’ minds the answer would have to be yes. Prunus dulcis, or the almond tree, is part of the plant kingdom, and the edible nut that we call an almond is actually the seed of this tree. The almond is not, botanically speaking, a nut at all, in common with several other “nuts”, such as the walnut or pistachio. However, in culinary terms and in the way most people talk about them, almonds are considered to be nuts.
Call them what you will but as part of the kingdom Plantae, rather than Animalia, there is no doubt that almonds pass the number one test for flying the vegan flag (there actually is a vegan flag if you’re interested!).
The Vegan’s Society’s Take on Almonds
Equally, whilst the Vegan Society are in no way official arbitrators of such things and there is no fixed legal definition of “vegan”, the fact that they include almonds in many of the recipes they feature and indeed some of the products they sell, would suggest that they certainly consider almonds to be vegan.
The Vegan Society was founded in 1944 and whilst they have of course modernised, in some regards, they still view things through the lens of simpler times. When they began, being a vegan essentially meant little more than not eating meat, fish, eggs or dairy and not using animal products, such as leather or silk, for clothes or furnishing.
We now live in far more complex times where food is more heavily processed, farming is a giant industry that can have huge ramifications beyond the field itself, and thus ascertaining exactly what is and isn’t vegan can be incredibly difficult. We look at many of the confusing and complex issues in various areas of the site, chiefly our Is It Vegan? pages.
Definition of Veganism in Relation to Almonds
As we have quoted many times in those pages when looking at the vegan credentials of a food or product, the Vegan Society definition of veganism, widely accepted, is thus:
A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
There are lots of key phrases within that definition that we shall return to but let us now look at why some people might think almonds are not vegan.
The Ethics of Almonds
Whether almonds should have a place in your kitchen or not is one of the many issues where you will have to decide for yourself. We will now present the facts about the argument though and explain why some people feel they are not suitable for those following a plant-based diet for ethical reasons.
Before we do, it is worth noting that if you have adopted a plant-based diet purely for the health benefits of being vegan, then crunch on. There is no doubting that almonds are one of the healthiest foods around and a great vegan source of protein, as well as fibre and micronutrients, such as vitamin E and manganese.
If your route to veganism was environmental concerns, then there may be some issues too but for now we will focus on the ethical issues, which is to say, we will focus on how and why the cultivation of almonds might be bad for animals.
Most Almond Cultivation Relies on Animal Exploitation
Let us start by saying that almonds themselves are in essence vegan. As said, they are the nuts (or seeds if you’re a botanist!) of a tree, so they are basically plants. If you are lucky enough to have a productive almond tree in your garden, or even a small orchard, then eating the bounty from these represents no ethical dilemma.
However, the majority of the world’s almonds, a whopping 60% in fact, come from the United States of America. More specifically they generally come from huge almond farms in the state of California. Around a million acres of land is used to grow almonds in California (for reference that’s an area that is about 10% larger than the county of Essex!).
The key issue raised by those who feel that almonds cannot be seen as vegan is the way the trees are pollinated. Whilst the USDA Agricultural Research Service has had some success developing self-pollinating almond trees, most production comes from trees that rely on insects for pollination.
In much the same way as avocados and indeed many other commercial crops, such as butternut squash, almond production replies on what is called “managed pollination”. Many, many different fruit and veg farmers use this system to maximise the yield from their crops by making sure as many plants as possible are pollinated and therefore produce the desired flowers, which in turn produce seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables.
Whilst managed pollination has the distinct feel of euphemism about it, those who argue against it and as a conclusion against vegans consuming almonds (to name just one crop), would rather call it the exploitation and slave labour of bees. They see it as no better than consuming honey, which most vegans totally accept is off the menu, and state that anyone who consumes almonds is, therefore, not really a vegan.
What Is Managed Pollination?
Quite simply, there are not enough bees in general and certainly not enough for the huge task of pollinating the many crops that rely on them. As is the case with palm oil & deforestation, when it comes to the plight of bees, almonds have the unwanted and unwarranted status of being the negative poster crop. Almonds are singled out as if they are the only major crop that uses managed pollination but, as we have said, this horticultural process is very widespread.
Managed, targeted pollination uses mostly honey bees to improve the yield and quality of a given crop. Soft fruits, rapeseed, apples and plums are just some of the fruit and vegetable plants, in addition to those already mentioned, that often use this practice.
The Natural Environment Research Council on Honey Bees
Due to a whole range of environmental issues, the population of honey bees and wild pollinators, such as bumblebees, hoverflies, solitary bees and many other species of bee, including red mason bees, has decreased massively. The Natural Environment Research Council made the following comment on the status of the population of these honey bees in relation to the increased demand for their role as pollinators:
Honeybee populations have nose-dived so dramatically in recent years that they can only do half as much pollination as they did in the early 1980s. Where honeybees used to provide around 70 per cent of the UK’s pollination needs they now only pollinate a third. At worst, that figure could well be more like 10 to 15 per cent. Paradoxically over the last 20 years, the proportion of UK crops that rely on insects for pollination has risen from just under 8 per cent in the early 1980s to 20 per cent in 2007. And over the same period, yields of insect-pollinated crops, which include oil seed rape and field bean, have gone up by 54 per cent.
Natural pollinator numbers also tend to be lowest when the crops most need them in spring. In contrast, honey bee colonies tend to be much larger at this time of the year. The NERC information above relates to the UK where the picture is a little different and honey farming tends to be done on a smaller scale. In the US, the keeping of honey bees is done on an industrial scale.
That said, in the States, the same issues occur, with declining numbers of honey bees, as well as natural wild pollinators. Due to human population increase, our need for food is higher than ever, whilst we are also eating more and more foods that require pollination. Farms are getting bigger and bigger, with huge fields and orchards that simply cannot be maximised using only wild pollinators.
Managed pollination, very much a nascent industry in the UK as honey bees are not kept on a large scale, is far bigger in the USA. There are several huge companies and even brokers that will help arrange the complicated logistics of transporting hundreds of thousands of beehives from their base to California specifically to pollinate almond trees (although the same process is used in various states and countries with various other crops for the same purpose).
These companies will typically bring bees from all over America and will bring more than 30 billion honeybees to California specifically to help pollinate the state’s vast almond plantations.
The hives are spread out along the rows of trees and the bees will go about moving from tree to tree and flower to flower collecting pollen and nectar for the hive and, crucially, pollinating the trees in a way that is far more efficient than would be achieved by a combination of wind and wild insects.
Managed pollination means more almonds can be produced per tree and that quality is higher, with fewer misshapen or malformed nuts (or fruits, or whatever is being grown). The window for pollination of an almond tree is very narrow, with a mature flower only receptive for around five days. The bees will have around 3 trillion flowers to visit. That’s 3,000,000,000,000!
The scale of this operation is hard to imagine and it should be reiterated that the mass transportation of honeybees goes on for many months of the year, to many parts of America (and in other countries) for a whole range of crops. There are around 1,600 beekeepers in the US (though don’t think of these “beekeepers” as avuncular types with a couple of hives out back – many are operating on an industrial scale) and California’s almond groves are just one stop they will make while renting out their hives.
Is Managed Pollination Bad?
As with many things, this is a highly complex issue with many interrelated factors. At first glance, it would seem hard, or impossible, for a vegan to maintain that honey is off the menu and yet suggest crops that rely on managed pollination are fine.
Beekeepers are now thought to make approximately half of their profits from honey and half from selling the services of their bees for pollination. If the former is exploitative and harmful, then surely the latter is just as bad, given that it involves moving the bees thousands of miles and constantly switching them from dietary/pollen abundance to near-starvation.
What’s more, many experts believe that migratory beekeeping and managed pollination are key contributors to colony collapse disorder (CCD), something that is destroying bee populations. Bees are kept in far greater proximity to other bees than would be normal, meaning viruses and disease spread easily from one hive to another. In addition, the bees are forced to subsist on one specific set of nutrients from a single crop, rather than the wider range of pollens and nectars they would typically get from foraging on multiple flowers and plants.
The picture with regards CCD is unclear and migratory practices are likely to be one of a number of causes. However, there is more suffering for the bees to consider, with their diet during transportation being particularly poor (sugar syrups and pollen formulas can match a bee’s macronutrient needs but they do not contain the range of micronutrients bees would normally get). On top of that, they are unable to roam and forage whilst being moved about the country and have nowhere to defecate given they cannot leave the hive.
Going back to our definition of veganism, it would seem self-evident that transporting bees en masse in order to carry out pollination is both exploitative and cruel. And given it may contribute to their death as well, it would appear that those claiming that almonds are not vegan have an incredibly strong case.
Are Almonds Vegan “As Far As Is Possible And Practicable”?
The phrase “as far as is possible and practicable” features in the aforementioned definition and may as well be signposted with “Greyest of grey areas up ahead”. Whilst it is certainly “possible” to get close to, or aspire to Level 5 veganism, is it practicable or practical?
Almost all medicines & vaccines have been tested on animals but we certainly don’t advise avoiding taking them when they are required or recommended by medical professionals. Whilst the almond issue isn’t as clear cut as that, any vegan wanting to avoid all produce that has used migratory beekeeping will find their diets massively restricted.
Of course, not being able to eat the same foods that non-vegans can clearly doesn’t mean migratory beekeeping automatically gets the green light but the list of foods that may use this technique is lengthy:
- Canola (rapeseed)
This list is not exhaustive and in the US almost 100 different crops use managed pollination. Equally, just because a plant features here does not mean that every apple or every strawberry has used migratory beekeeping. That in itself highlights another issue though: how would we know whether or not a given food has relied on non-wild bees for pollination? As well as all of the items above, there are the countless more products that use these in them.
Right now it is hard enough to get producers to use the term “vegan” on labels so it seems likely we are some way off growers and processors labelling and marketing their goods clearly with regards whether or not managed pollination has been used. As such, even if a vegan did want to avoid such foods, it may well be far easier said than done.
That brings us to a point that we have made many times with regards to veganism and that is that sweating the tiniest details is quite possibly counter-productive. The law of diminishing returns means that the greatest impact you can have (in terms of the treatment of animals and indeed limiting damage to the environment) will come from eliminating meat, fish, eggs and dairy from your diet.
How far you go beyond that really is up to you and is a personal choice. However, we are certainly moved by the argument that time spent worrying about the minutiae of whether the tiny amount of sugar in your tomato sauce has been processed with bone char could be better spent persuading others to go vegan, or even to just reduce the amount of meat they consume.
Likewise, whilst you could, in theory, contact the Kentish farmer who grows your favourite apples to check if they use bees, perhaps that time would be better spent on vegan activism or even just making your friends some brilliant vegan meals that could encourage them to give the plant-based world a whirl.
Are Almonds the Best of a Bad Bunch?
In what is increasingly a post-truth world it should be no surprise that many arguments against veganism try to undermine it using specious and disingenuous arguments – or sometimes just outright lies.
We can’t be sure of course, but we suspect many in the “almonds aren’t vegan” camp aren’t themselves vegan. People like Piers Morgan have tried to claim that foods, such as avocados and almonds, are not vegan and that, therefore, in a fairly huge leap of logical reasoning, vegans are hypocrites who should be ignored.
This sort of argument ignores so many facts as to be laughable; if people like Morgan didn’t have so many people listening to him (7.1m followers at the time of writing) we might actually be laughing. Such vegan-haters like to complain about soy & soya products causing deforestation but happily ignore that the vast majority of soy goes not into soy milk, tofu or edamame production, but into livestock feed.
Similarly, they target almonds and avocados as these are seen as symbols of veganism but ignore alfalfa, which also uses targeted pollination. And, guess what? Alfalfa is predominantly used to feed animals.
In a related argument, those critical of the impact of crops such as almonds on bees tend to do so from an absolute position. They state that it harms and/or exploits bees therefore is wrong. Whilst we cannot compare the value of different animals’ lives, eating almonds, apples and the various other plants that may use managed pollination is obviously less harmful to animals than eating them directly. People need to eat something and so whilst almonds may not be vegan in an ideal world, they are certainly “more vegan” than obtaining the same protein from consuming an animal.
People also try to undermine veganism by being critical of the various milks that plant-based eaters use instead of dairy. But whilst consuming almond milk may have an impact on bees and soy milk can have environmental issues, both remain better overall than the alternative. Non-dairy milk is said to use a lot of land and water but it remains far more efficient than keeping cows.
Environmental Issues with Almonds
Thus far we have looked chiefly at the ethical issues with almonds and veganism but, as alluded to above, there are environmental concerns too. California has suffered extreme droughts and deadly fires in recent years and whilst climate change (to which animal husbandry has been a big contributor) has played a massive part in that, it has also drawn attention to the water that is needed to grow one of California’s key crops, the almond.
Once again, this is a hugely complex issue but there is no escaping the fact that whilst almonds may use a lot of water and other resources, they are a much better, greener option than dairy. Relative to other vegan milks, almond milk does use a lot of water, even more than rice milk. It does better in terms of overall CO2 emissions and much better when it comes to land use but in all three it is streets ahead of the ecological needs of producing dairy milk.
Conclusion: Almonds Are Vegan But Improvements Should Be Made
Much as we say that there are grey areas and personal decisions to be made with almonds and many aspects of vegan life and that people shouldn’t get overly worried about smaller issues, we certainly are not saying that vegans should be complacent and accept the status quo. To our mind, vegans should continue eating almonds as they are a great plant-based source of protein and many other nutrients. However, we in no way wish to demean or doubt those that argue against this, as long as they are doing it from a position of genuine interest.
In our opinion, the best course of action right now is to pressure supermarkets and producers to ensure their almonds are as sustainable and bee-friendly as possible. Bodies, such as the Almond Board of California, are well aware of the issue and have taken some steps to make their products better for bees and the environment in general.
From a purely selfish point of view, they would absolutely love to rely on wild pollinators and local honey bees. It costs an almond farmer around $200 per hive to bring bees to their crop and with each truck holding around 400 colonies it is clear what savings producers could make.
They are also aware of the PR issues and growing concern, interest and awareness about the issue of pollination management. As such, they have been, at least in theory, trying to improve honey bee health and local populations since 1995 when the Honey Bee Health Taskforce was set up.
They undertake a range projects and carry out a lot of research, including, for example, encouraging almond farmers to “plant pollinator habitat in or adjacent to their orchards as additional food sources… Beyond providing additional nutrition for pollinators, these plantings can help farmers improve their soil health, water infiltration and more”.
Much more work can and needs to be done, both by and for almond farmers and also in terms of the wider environment so wild bees and other pollinators can recover. So, eat almonds but also ask your favourite brand, supermarket or even the Almond Board of California what they are doing to minimise the impact on bees.