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Vegan or Vegetarian? Choosing a Label

Vegan honey? The Great Debate

Post written by VegBlogger. Follow me on Twitter.

I have been an ethical vegetarian since 1995. For years the biggest thing that kept me from meeting the "vegan" definition was honey (I still don't usually call myself a vegan!). It is not that I loved honey, specifically bought it, or ate it by the spoonful, but there were trace amounts of it in the chai that I would drink (I love a Starbuck's iced chai with soy).

I have always been a bit on the fence about honey. However, I felt the pressure from vegans and vegan groups to ditch the trace amounts of honey that I was consuming, and looked for an alternative.

Low and behold, I was finally able to find a vegan chai that was devoid of any honey. And it is great! However, I am still a little on the fence about the honey.

I think it would be wonderful to not use bees at all in a perfect world. But we don't live in a perfect world, and I can't help but to wonder why so many vegan activists and groups focus their attention on honey, but not all the things that bees pollinate. After all, exploiting bees for pollination goes against the definition of a vegan:

According to The Vegan Society, a "Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose."

Bees are exploited by the millions each year to create many crops around the world. They are trucked into places to help with growing seasons and provide cross pollination.

According to Wikipedia:

The largest managed pollination event in the world is in California almond orchards, where nearly half (about one million hives) of the US honey bees are trucked to the almond orchards each spring. New York's apple crop requires about 30,000 hives; Main's blueberry crop uses about 50,000 hives each year.

I for one, am not going to stop eating all the foods that these bees are used (or exploited) to produce. There are leaders in the vegan community shaking their finger and saying that vegans do not eat honey. But are they giving up, or advising that others give up, all the foods that these exploited bees are producing? How could it be vegan to eat almonds if you know that a MILLION hives were trucked in specifically to make the crop?

Honey has been an ongoing debate in the vegan community for quite some time. Why such a sticky mess? Research has shown that bee populations are drastically dwindling and without them, humans would have a hard time eating, because so many of our foods require bee pollination.

Perhaps bee keepers may be the saving grace in helping to keep the bee population going, if the numbers continue to decline due to climate change and other factors. Even then, it would be exploiting them, which is not vegan by definition (and even then, they can contaminate the ones left in the wild). Bees may very well be the one living creature that we must exploit to survive. Whether it fits the definition of vegan or not.

How about you? Are you willing to give up eating all the foods that these exploited bees are forced to pollinate in order to be 100 percent vegan (or at least actually adhere to the definition, which includes not exploiting)? Here's a brief list of the foods that bees pollinate:

 

...almonds, blueberries, apples, cucumbers, melons, squash, broccoli, onions, carrots, avocados, etc....

 

 

Notice a pattern? It's all vegan food. Quite possibly the "vegan" cannot exist without the exploitation of the bee, which renders the definition of a vegan a bit off.

So why so much focus on just the honey? If honey is not vegan because of bee exploitation, then how can almonds (and the rest of those foods) be vegan? The bottom line is that people who want to be vegan, but find the honey part a bit of a stretch, shouldn't worry about it. Be a vegan who uses honey, because you will still be doing great for the animals! Honey is really an issue that we shouldn't be debating when it comes to veganism. I think Dr. Michael Gregor, from NutritionFacts.org, has a wonderful piece on this issue, which you can read here

March 2012 - I wrote a follow up post to this, which looks at the vegan honey debate and bee exploitation. Please read it here.

Pollination_hives_california 
(Bee hives being trucked in to California for almond crop pollination. Is this vegan?)

 



Comments

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Jessica at vegbooks

I agree with Vegan Outreach's approach: I don't think this issue should be a defining one.

Here's what VO has to say -
http://www.veganoutreach.org/guide/qa.html#whatabouthoneyandsilk

Jacqueline

Great link, Jessica, thanks for posting it. I read it over and I concur! :)

Denise Glover

I believe that a big part of being vegan is doing what is avoidable. Some things in our society are not avoidable, like bee-pollinated foods. However, products with honey ARE avoidable.

Jacqueline

Denise, thank you for your comments. I believe you completely could choose to avoid all the foods I listed that are purposely pollinated with bees. But it's a matter of whether or not you WANT to do so. Avoiding almonds is as simple as not buying them, just as you wouldn't buy a jar of honey. But the line becomes fuzzy for "vegans" because they don't want to give those items up. So they ignore the fact that bees are trucked in and exploited for pollination purposes.

Mark

I feel you've definitely raised some good points, but I still feel that honey is not vegan, and that there is no arguing this fact. The reason I still feel that honey is not vegan is that it's very easy to eliminate honey from one's diet. Sure, it may mean giving up soy lattes from Starbuck's and not buying certain breads, etc., but taste or convenience shouldn't enter into one's dietary choices if they truly believe in causing the least harm possible to animals. It is not, however, easy or even possible to eliminate all vegetables from a vegan diet. Therefore, the use of bees in the production of some vegetables is what I consider to be a necessary evil in some case, which is more than can be said about honey.

Jacqueline

Mark, thanks for your feedback. I don't completely disagree with your thoughts. I think honey is usually easy to give up if someone wants to. But that's not the point of my post. The overall point is that vegans should not stand around wagging their finger about honey when they are still munching on almonds. One is not much better than the other in terms of bee exploitation. And since both do exploit bees, neither would be considered "vegan" according to the actual definition of the word. :)

Mark J

Commercial honey production and commercial pollination are not the same--the bees that produce honey are not the ones doing commercial pollination.
http://www.vegetus.org/honey/ecology.htm

Why Honey isn't vegan (animal exploitation):
http://www.vegetus.org/honey/honey.htm

Jacqueline

So what you are saying, Mark, is that it is okay to exploit some bees (for pollination) and not others (for honey)? I think your point was lost here...

Stephanie

this is why I am completely turned off to labeling myself as a vegan and promoting a "mostly" vegan lifestyle to everyone I know. Purists can pat themselves on the back all that they want, but this piety only serves to discourage people from making any changes at all.

Jacqueline

Stephanie, I completely agree with you! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. On that note, I have a post about choosing a label, you can read it here:
http://www.vegblogger.com/blog/2009/12/vegan-or-vegetarian-choosing-a-label.html

Mark J

As there are so many Marks, not sure who is being referred to. My only point is that you can't eat honey and pretend it is a byproduct of pollination (and thereby justifiable unless you don't eat pollinated crops). As has been mentioned: reduction of animal exploitation is the vegan goal. It is like people that say "animals get killed in agriculture!": yes, but 70% of our crops go to feed animals for milking and slaughtering. So, while we all have blood on our hands, it is reducing the blood (and dead insects which may or may not bleed) as much as possible that is the meaning of compassion.

Jacqueline

Mark (I didn't even realize more than one Mark was posting), I understand your point. I really do. But what if the purposeful exploitation of bees for pollinating crops (I'm talking about all those being trucked in) actually causes more or the same amount of exploitation? Then how can it be justified that people should avoid one and not the other? I say these things as someone who does not consume honey anymore, but I still find it a bit daunting considering they are trucked in and exploited to pollinate things that could easily be avoided. Perhaps, as I have pointed out in the post, the original defintion of "vegan" is a bit off. Because if you were true to the original definition, things that are purposely pollinated by these trucked in bees would NOT qualify as being vegan.

Mark J

"But what if the purposeful exploitation of bees for pollinating crops (I'm talking about all those being trucked in) actually causes more or the same amount of exploitation? Then how can it be justified that people should avoid one and not the other?"
-It can be justified in that avoiding honey is easy (and has lots of alternatives (like agave)), while avoiding pollinated crops is virtually impossible. It doesn't make sense to not avoid one form of animal exploitation because by living you can't avoid all forms of animal exploitation/harm.

I think the real question is: How can you justify an easily avoided harm to animals (and the environment), honey, by stating that you can not avoid all harm to animals, (eating pollinated crops)?

I feel the working definition of "vegan" is someone that avoids all animal products; "products" defined as flesh/bodily fluids/body parts. I would think "avoiding any animal exploitation whenever possible" is included (enter issues such as this, at the extreme end of avoidance). It comes down to where you draw the line on "whenever possible."

Avoiding honey is easy, and to "o.k." it's consumption because bees also pollinate crops smacks to me of searching for a justification for animal exploitation because you like an animal product. (not saying anyone on this thread does this, speaking generally)

Jacqueline

This to me is one major example of how vegans, or those that want to use the label, bend the definition to conform to what is convenient for them. I personally don't justify the use of honey. My questions lie with the actual definition of what a vegan is and if people follow the defintion as it has been written by the founder of the word. If you read my post on choosing a label (I put the link in the comments above) you will see that I don't believe there is any way to be completely vegan, at least according to the definition as it reads.

If you agree that trucking in bees to pollinate almond crops is exploitation of bees, than the logical conclusion is that eating said almonds would not be vegan. Even if that is uncomfortable or unsavory. It's the definition.

Mark J

[bend for convenience/taste buds, definitely]

Yes, I see your point, that if "vegan" means "absolutely no animal exploitation" you can not be vegan unless you sleep outside (and carefully at that)[house/apt. build on habitat and killed animals when digging foundation, etc.] and only eat non-animal product food that was not commercially pollinated (and eat it carefully at that).

So, while the people that first defined veganism were probably thinking of obvious and easily avoided animal exploitation (like flesh, milk, eggs, honey, etc.), the definition theoretically includes no-commercially pollinated crops. And so then we have the reality of modern day life and how to best reduce your impact on animals. Not eating honey is an easy way to do this.

Jacqueline

I'm glad to see you actually agree with me. The problem lies with the definition. It may be bent to conform to what people want it to be, but it is why I live what is considered to be a "vegan" lifestyle, but still refer to myself as an ethical vegetarian. The definition has set people up to strive for something that is not actually possible in the world in which we live.

Mark J

http://www.goveganic.org/

There are farms that do not need commercial pollination -smart planting and rotating (including attracting wild pollinators).

Jacqueline

Awesome, so then all "vegans" would need to do is make sure their almonds, blueberries, onions, etc. come from that practice, rather than trucking in bees for exploitation, or I mean pollination. Easy enough, right? Debate settled... As long as all those goods were coming from "smart planting and rotating" then the food would fit the vegan definition. But I have sneaking suspicion that most would not come from this source and almost all "vegans" would avoid even tracing it to ensure it.

Eric M

If all you slip on is honey and do your best not to cheat on anything else, I think you qualify and should call yourself vegan. I don't eat honey myself, but who cares. You're close enough. There will be purists who balk, but when they do tell them this: If someone eats only vegetables from their organically grown garden they would be exploiting far fewer animals then the typical vegan. Whenever we eat non-organic food we are not only killing millions of insects and rodents through pesticides, we are also polluting our environment which no doubt also kills and sickens some number of humans. And then there's wildlife displacement and killing of animals during harvest in the combines, and god knows what else. Its impossible not to contribute to killing and exploitation because as a universe we are all interconnected. We all know the basic meaning of vegan. For me its purchasing or using no animal products and doing my best to avoid exploitation of all beings. If you choose to let honey slip into your definition, I for one still welcome you with absolutely open arms. I celebrate the love you have discovered and choose to share with the world. I mean seriously, what a beautiful thing to choose to live and eat as you do. Let it spread far and wide.

Dave Shishkoff

Hi Mark, i don't think there is any debate. According to the Vegan Society since the term "vegan" was coined by Donald Watson, honey has not been considered vegan. There is no debate.

Using the logic that bee-pollinated crops allows us to use honey would justify vegans eating meat, since these animals are used there too to fertilize the vast majority of crops.

You ignore a key phrase in the definition of vegan: "as far as [..] practical".

It is practical to give up a Star Bucks beverage because it contributes to animal exploitation.

It is not practical (and barely "possible" for most of us) to avoid crops pollinated with imported bees. This phrasing was thoughtfully included, recognizing that a vegan 'perfection' is really impossible. Ignoring this portion of the definition would mean walking on the street is non-vegan, since (i believe) animal fat is often used in tarmac, etc..

Further, just because this is the way it's currently done doesn't mean it's the only way. Just as veganic (vegan organic, Google it) addresses the use of animal fertilizers, it would be entirely possible to set up permanent hives near fields. They would allow bee communities to live on their own terms, leaving the honey for them. And while we still benefit from their pollination habits, our influence is minimal, other than providing them with potential homes, and a large supply of food.

A little imagination and we can make good things happen!

For more reading on bees, check out this excellent article from Lee Hall of Friends of Animals:

http://www.friendsofanimals.org/actionline/spring-2008/Making_Space_Bees.php

Peas out,

- Dave

Mark J

Whoa, just saying that there are some plant and vegetables that are not dependent upon commercial pollination and hopefully those sources will continue to grow and thus decrease the commercial exploitation of bees. To me the decision is an easy one: honey = bee exploitation (death, harm, likely suffering), commercial bee pollination = bee exploitation (death, harm, likely suffering); therefore, part of doing my best to reduce exploitation and suffering means not eating honey (easy). I am still part of bee exploitation because I eat commercially harvested fruits and veggies. But that doesn't mean I eat honey and add to that exploitation. I think you have reached the same conclusion. O.K., by the original strict definition, no one is vegan (that I know of). By the working modern definition, there are millions of vegans (they don't eat honey, which is easy avoidance of animal exploitation).

Matt

Honey aside, why are you giving money to Starbucks in the first place?

Mark S.

You emphasized the wrong part of this quote:

Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.

The emphasis belongs on "as far as possible and practicable." We don't live in a vegan world. The tires on the cars we drive aren't vegan. When we drive those cars, we kill bugs. Animals are killed by crop production. Bees are used to pollinate crops. Vegans are well aware of this. It still doesn't mean that it makes any sense to consume honey. For one thing, it is itself an animal product, whereas almonds (which keep coming up, for some reason) clearly are not.

Jacqueline

It seems to me that most of these responses are amounting to the same thing - the person is adapting the vegan definition to fit what they want it to be. This to me is no different than the "vegetarian" who tries to bend the definition to include fish, or whatever other non-vegetarian items they find more convenient or tasty to continue consume.

If you read my original post carefully you will find that I agree that honey is not "vegan." But my issue is with the rigid definition of what a vegan is and the fact that so many "vegans" wag their finger about honey as they are munching on almonds (or other such purposely pollinated foods). Both involved the exploitation of bees. And both can practically be avoided. It's just that one is something one wants to avoid and the other is not, so they call it impractical. What is impractical is highly subjective.

Why go to Starbuck's? Why not? Because liberal group has placed them on a top 10 list somewhere of places not to patronize? You can find things wrong with every business in America. And the larger and more successful they are, the bigger targets they make. It's not likely that everything YOU buy comes from a small independent fair trade shop, so it's kind of silly to even debate it.

andre cholmondeley

Great discussion! Good points all around and I think it's clear to most of us vegans that there's no way to be 100% perfect on this -- nor should it be the point.

I'd like to add couple things. For perspective let me say I'm a 25 yr+ vegetarian, vegan for most of that time, did 100% raw for 2 years (the best 2 yrs of my life!!) - but I do consumer BEE PRODUCTS like honey. Like many here -- I don't seek it out or keep a jar, but if it's an ingredient I have come to terms with that. I buy only organic produce and as many products as possible, but will eat non-organic. Which brings up my first thought--- I see people saying, basically "Oh well it's easy to avoid honey so that is why you should be absolutist about it". Well-- do you eat 100% organic??? It's easy in 2010 to do that -- yet many vegans make up excuses, usually monetary, while they buy tons of processed soy foods that they could make from scratch organic for 1/2 the price. But I digress.

Now -- I haven't seen anyone raise the issue of pollen, royal jelly, propolis etc. These are AMAZING PRODUCTS FOR NATURAL HEALTH and that can't really be argued. They are also all PLANT BASED FOODS-- simply assemble, collected or processed enzymatically by...the bee.

It's your decision whether supporting your immune system with optimal substances is trumped by an *imaginary* goal of being 100% free of animal suffering.

The 2nd item I don't hear enough vegans getting to (and I saw it once here--Dave Shishkoff says it well --what about the idea of NATURAL, COMPASSIONATE bee-husbandry (BTW --until someone in the PC-police decides to change THAT name....LOL). In other words-- what we should spend some time on is -the TREATMENT the bees get in mainstream "golden blossom" type of honey gathering.

However Dave - I disagree when you say "Using... honey would justify vegans eating meat, since these animals are used there too to fertilize the vast majority of crops..."

That argument doesn't really work because you don't have to KILL the bees to "get" the results of their work, as you do with a cow or pig. But I get what you're trying to say there, good point but it highlights the fact that our bee issues as vegans are unresolved.

The 3rd concept I'd like to urge you to think about is --ISN'T HONEY REALLY A PLANT PRODUCT?? Think about it -- and please be intellectually honest here. Isn't honey really PROCESSED POLLEN?? It is quite simple regurgitated, enzymatically-processed PLANT MATERIAL. As some people like to say : "BEE VOMIT".

Yes indeed folks --so - honey is really just....PROCESSED by the bees. It's plant matter. I submit that -- unlike, say MILK which is a completely "new" and unique cholesterol-containing substance literally made inside a cow --honey occupies some grey area.

This is IMHO, a pretty clear distinction. I'm not saying that means you should or shouldn't eat it -- but let's get clearer in the Veg'n community about what is what.

I've had a lot of chances to discuss this with 100s of vegan, vegetarians, macros, meat-eaters etc. I was part owner and manager of a natural foods store for over 10yrs, a store that won national awards. Before that I worked in an organic co-op, and have lectured in the USA and Venezuela about environmental impact of food --and have taught classes on healthy eating and organic foods. And I was a HARDCORE vegan who gave people hell over honey, wool etc, until I read 'vegan outreach' promo material. I love that guy, have talked to him on the phone, he is so real-world and realistic. You do EVERYTHING you can, but no need to make yourself crazy. That's all we can do.

So in conclusion --indeed -- rethink the whole role of bees. And it seems like enough people have raised the obvious question "What about the mice and worms killed for your beets, onions and ginger to be harvested", and "Do you kill flies?"

FACTS:

We need bees and other pollinating organisms like birds and bats for human survival.
Humans and bees have centuries of co-operative living.
In compassionate bee-keeping, the bees ALSO receive a lot in the deal.
The bees do not have to be killed or fed sugar water. THIS is what we should be fighting against.
ALL the bees' honey, propolis etc does not have to be taken.
Bee products like royal jelly, etc are simply some of the best immune-enhancers we know of. On a planet that is getting increasingly sick, with super bugs and new (usually meat-industry created) diseases popping up every day -- shouldn't we be looking at immune-enhancing foods?

And besides --- what about the bone-char, sugar issue.?? Most sugar -- even organic types, are purified at some point by a substance that is VERY EXCELLENT for this use -- bones that have been burnt into charcoal. Is this vegan??

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