Why vegans can't decide whether they're allowed to eat honey.

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 30 2008 2:20 PM

The Great Vegan Honey Debate

Is honey the dairy of the insect world?

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The flexitarians counter that if you follow the hard-line argument to its logical extreme, you end up with a diet so restrictive it borders on the absurd. After all, you can't worry over the ethics of honey production without worrying over the entire beekeeping industry. Honey accounts for only a small percentage of the total honeybee economy in the United States; most comes from the use of rental hives to pollinate fruit and vegetable crops. According to food journalist Rowan Jacobson, whose book Fruitless Fall comes out this September, commercial bees are used in the production of about 100 foods, including almonds, avocados, broccoli, canola, cherries, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, pears, plums, sunflowers, and tomatoes. Even the clover and alfalfa crops we feed to dairy cows are sometimes pollinated by bees.

Life for these rental bees may be far worse than it is for the ones producing honey. The industrial pollinators face all the same hardships, plus a few more: They spend much of their lives sealed in the back of 18-wheelers, subsisting on a diet of high-fructose corn syrup as they're shipped back and forth across the country. Husbandry and breeding practices have reduced their genetic diversity and left them particularly susceptible to large-scale die-offs.

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Even the vegans who abstain from honey end up dining on the sweat and hemolymph of exploited bees. There isn't really an alternative: We can't replace our insects of burden with machines, as we've done for the mules that once pulled our tractor rakes. You might try to do right by seeking out wind-pollinated grains and fruits tended by wild insects. But what about the bugs that inevitably perish in the course of any large-scale agriculture? Even the organic farmers are culpable: They may not spray synthetic pesticides, but they do make use of natural chemicals and predators to kill off unwanted animals.

In the face of this insectile carnage, vegans fall back on a common-sense dictum that animal suffering should be "reasonablyavoided" as opposed to "avoided at any cost." By this logic, it's not a sin to treat a termite infestation that's imperiling your house, nor should you worry over the gnats that get squashed on your windshield whenever you drive to the farmer's market. But that doctrine won't absolve us for eating honey. In the first place, honey is quite easy to avoid—especially compared with everything else in the Vegan Society's codex of forbidden foodstuffs. (A scrupulous eater must also attend to calcium mesoinositol, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, disodium guanylate, and dozens more unpronounceable, animal-derived chemicals.) Honey doesn't fill any nutritional gap, nor is it the only acceptable vegan sweetener.

From a practical perspective, all this back-and-forth doesn't help anyone (or any animal). You either eat honey or you don't; to debate the question in public only makes the vegan movement seem silly and dogmatic. According to Matthew Ball, the executive director of Vegan Outreach, the desire for clear dietary rules and restrictions makes little difference in the grand calculus of animal suffering: "What vegans do personally matters little," he says. "If we present veganism as being about the exploitation of honeybees, it makes it easier to ignore the real, noncontroversial suffering" of everything else. Ball doesn't eat honey himself, but he'd sooner recruit five vegans who remain ambivalent about insect rights than one zealot who follows every last Vegan Society rule.

That may be the most important lesson to come out of this debate: You'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

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