Plants, Pollinators, and the Price of Almonds

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Bes pollinated the flowers that preceded these growing almonds, ripening on the tree. Photo by Stepheye

Could a shortage of pollinators increase the price of produce worldwide?

The almond tree (Prunus amygdalus) is native to the Middle East and South Asia. However, most of the world’s almonds are grown by farmers in the United States, primarily in California, where almonds are the third leading agricultural product and the top agricultural export.

The almonds we eat are the seeds of the tree. They are drupes, not true nuts: the seed nestles inside an outer, fleshy exocarp and inner, hard endocarp. Almonds are a tasty, nutritious food popular around the world.

Lately, the price of almonds has been increasing for the classic economic reason: Supply cannot match demand. There are a number of reasons for this increase, including drought. Another reason is a shortage of pollinators.

Farming with Friends

Despite what we might think, we don’t do our farming alone. About a third of crop plants need to be pollinated by animals to produce the goods we want, from the obvious (apples and oranges) to the less obvious (coffee and tequila). An astonishing 71% of the top 100 crop plants are pollinated by animals (bees, butterflies, birds, and so on).

Pollination for life

Plants (including almonds) must be pollinated to set seed: pollen must somehow get from the male flower organ (anther) to the female organ (stigma), preferably on another plant of the same species. This poses a problem for plants, as they don’t move independently. But animals searching for food (nectar or pollen) unwittingly transfer pollen from one plant to another as they travel.

Plants harnessed this activity for their own benefit about 100 million years ago, with many growing specialized flowers to cater to their preferred pollinators. Humans jumped on the bandwagon more recently— approximately 10,000 years ago. It should be noted that not all plants are pollinated by animals. Some, like wheat, are pollinated by the wind; others are self-pollinated, but animal pollination gives plants a higher seed/crop yield.

Although early farmers knew something about pollination, they didn’t realize how important insect pollinators were until the late 18th century when monocultures (large areas of just one crop) began to dominate the landscape, cutting into the habitat of wild pollinators and making it harder for them to reach all of the plants.

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