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The State of American Agriculture

The other night the President addressed Congress and America for one final State of the Union address.  Among his special guests, sitting alongside the First Lady, was a small business owner from Colorado.  She runs a nearly 100 year old, family-owned business committed to selling American honey and honey products.

Our country’s beekeepers might not be the first business owners that come to mind when one reflects upon the state of our union. Beekeepers are admittedly not the biggest job creators.  And there is certainly no threat that the honey industry will ship itself offshore for tax breaks.  But, nonetheless, the story of the beekeeper is a story worth paying attention to. Because while beekeepers might not leave America for the prospect of economic gain elsewhere, they are at risk of disappearing from the American landscape altogether if current trade and bee health decline trends continue.  That would be a major problem for all of us.

America’s beekeepers don’t just supply honey. They are the lifeblood of some of our most nutritious crops, responsible for pollinating a full 1/3rd of our diet. Much like the honey bee itself, the American beekeeping industry is small but mighty. At less than $1 billion in total market cap, the beekeeping industry is nonetheless responsible for $20 billion in agricultural output as a result of pollination services. And that’s just counting dollars at the farm gate. A retail measurement would be exponentially higher. A significant percentage of that output comes from almonds alone with more than 80% of the world’s almond supply grown in California and 100% of that crop reliant on honey bees for pollination. In fact, some estimates place more than 70% of all commercially managed honey bees in California at the same time during the almond bloom.

Impressive as this is, American beekeepers and their honey bees are facing enormous and unsustainable pressures. Since 2006, honey bees have been dying off at alarming rates, averaging about 35% over winter mortality per year. Honey bees are faced with chemical pressures like never before, new diseases, treatment-resistent parasites, and a declining food source as more and more conservation land moves into non-pollinator-friendly agricultural production.  Add to these pressures nearly two decades of market destabilizing illicit trade schemes, perpetrated mostly by Chinese exporters, and you have an unsustainable operating environment. The result? The American beekeeper is spending more time and money than ever to produce less honey and provide weaker bees to growers of almonds, apples, pears, berries and the more than 90 fruits and vegetables that rely on commercial pollination.

All of that said, there are some reasons to be optimistic about the future. Americans as a whole have stepped up to the plate, raising the collective conscience and calling for preservation of pollinators and the landscapes they rely upon. And since 2008, Congress and the Department of Agriculture have provided financial support to American beekeepers when their losses have reached unsustainable levels. They have also increased funding for honey bee health research, expanded data collection, and spent millions of dollars in grower outreach to promote better habitat. More significantly, in June of 2014, President Obama took the unprecedented step of using his executive powers to establish a multi-agency task force on the issue. That task force released a ten year national strategic plan in May of 2015 to promote the health of honey bees, and implementation is now under way, supported by a great deal of private sector interest.

These White House and Congressional actions are a great down payment on the solution. But the work, in some ways, is just beginning.  Failing to solve this problem will not just impact beekeepers.  It will mean declining crop production capacity across America, rising prices for consumers, and more reliance on foreign food production than ever.

For more information about the commercial beekeeping industry and what the White House, USDA and EPA are doing to address honey bee health, see the following links:

White House: more info here

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: more info here

USDA Agricultural Research Service: more info here

USDA Farm Services Agency: more info here

American Honey Producers Association: more info here

** North South Government Strategies represents the American Honey Producers Association (AHPA) and proudly advocates for the interests of the honey production and pollination services industries

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