Eight years after beekeepers first started reporting massive honeybee die-offs, the problem is still getting worse. If pollinators play a role in producing one in every three foods we eat, what does that mean for future meals?
To illustrate the scale of the issue, a Whole Foods store in Berkeley, California temporarily took pollinator-produced foods out of its salad bar. With no pollinators doing their jobs, customers would have to say goodbye to tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, beets, strawberries, broccoli, onions, parmesan cheese, Caesar dressing, and pretty much everything else they might put on a salad other than greens.
The grocery chain also attempted to make a fruit smoothie without pollinators. A standard recipe of blueberries, strawberries, apple juice, milk, and almond butter would be reduced to nothing but ice. A bowl of guacamole would lose the avocado, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, and you’d be left with a little salt and lime juice.
The experiments are part of the chain’s ongoing Share The Buzz campaign, an attempt to raise awareness about the role that bees and other pollinators play in the food we rely on (a couple of years ago, the campaign went even farther and took every pollinator-related food off store shelves).
“Pollinators are among the most important stakeholders in our supply chain,” says Errol Schweizer, Whole Foods’ global executive grocery coordinator. “They produce one-third of the world’s food crops–like almonds, chocolate, coffee–one in three bites of food. There really is no grocery business without pollinators. We need to figure this out. Anyone who eats should really care.”
To address the problem in its own operations, the store is working with suppliers to try to increase farming practices that can support dwindling bee populations. While organic food is the obvious choice–both because it eliminates pesticides that are linked to pollinator deaths and can also increase overall biodiversity–the chain is also helping conventional farms take steps to improve.
After meeting an almond farmer who planted native wildflower habitat and hedgerows to support bees and butterflies, Whole Foods decided to launch a new line of “pollinator-friendly” almonds and nut butter.
“I flew out there to the almond groves, talked to the growers and some other folks, and on the spot I said ‘If you can do this, let me know how much I need to buy–we want to make this happen,'” says Schweizer. “Without understanding the input price, the yield, all the normal stuff a buyer would do. Then I came back to Austin and said I just committed to all of these almonds, we need to figure out what to do with it.”
By selling the new line of almonds, the store hopes to encourage other growers to take the same steps. “What we’re trying to do is raise the basement,” he says. “We’re trying to address where the most concerns would be by making the conventional practices better. We want to disrupt the conversation about almonds. You should be thinking about pollinators when you’re thinking about almonds.”
The changes are relatively simple for farmers to make. “In conversations with the folks who are doing this work, it doesn’t seem to be a huge shift,” says Schweizer. “You’re not going to have to plant wildflowers every year, once you get those going they’re perennial. So we’re hoping people seeing there’s a greater upside than the initial investment.”
Of course, planting flowers alone is probably not enough to save pollinators, especially as evidence continues to mount against pesticides as the primary culprit. The ranch will also be working with experts from the Xerces Society, a nonprofit that works to protect insects like bees, to avoid spraying crops at times when pollinators are especially active, and mapping out certain no-spray zones.
And, as Schweizer says, “Organic is still the gold standard.” In another rating system, the store ranks produce and flowers “good,” “better,” and “best,” depending on how well growers protect wildlife and how much they’ve eliminated pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, which are thought to be a particular threat to bees.
Still, even just planting wildflowers can play an important role to support pollinators. “It’s amazing to actually see an almond grove and how vast the changes can be,” says Schweizer. “I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of acres. It’s pretty compelling.”
Whole Foods is working with the Xerces Society to create a new “pollinator-friendly” standard that they hope can spread throughout conventional agriculture, and donating a portion of sales of the new almond butter to plant more wildflower habitat elsewhere.
The store hopes that consumers will want to support the new standard and products. “Ultimately, we’ll see how well they sell,” Schweizer says. “I hope this spurs some action.”