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?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to enlarge.

There's never been a better time to be a half-assed vegetarian. Five years ago, the American Dialect Society honored the word flexitarian for its utility in describing a growing demographic—the "vegetarian who occasionally eats meat." Now there's evidence that going flexi is good for the environment and good for your health. A study released last October found that a plant-based diet, augmented with a small amount of dairy and meat, maximizes land-use efficiency. In January, Michael Pollan distilled the entire field of nutritional science into three rules for a healthy diet: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." According to a poll released last week, Americans seem to be listening: Thirteen percent of U.S. adults are "semivegetarian," meaning they eat meat with fewer than half of all their meals. In comparison, true vegetarians—those who never, ever consume animal flesh—compose just 1 percent.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

The flexitarian ethic is beginning to creep into the most ardent sector of the meat-free population: the vegans. In recent years, some in the community have begun to loosen up the strict definitions and bright-line rules that once defined the movement. You'll never find a self-respecting vegan downing a glass of milk or munching on a slice of buttered toast. But the modern adherent may be a little more accommodating when it comes to the dairy of the insect world: He may have relaxed his principles enough to enjoy a spoonful of honey.

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There is no more contentious question in the world of veganism than the one posed by honey. A fierce doctrinal debate over its status has raged for decades; it turns up on almost every community FAQ and remains so ubiquitous and unresolved that radio host Rachel Maddow proposed to ask celebrity vegan Dennis Kucinich about it during last year's CNN/YouTube presidential debate. Does honey qualify as a forbidden animal product since it's made by bees? Or is it OK since the bees don't seem too put out by making it?

Old-guard vegans have no patience for this sort of equivocation: Animal products are off-limits, period. Indeed, the first Vegan Society was created in 1944 to counter the detestable, flexitarian tendencies of early animal rights activists. Founder Donald Watson called their namby-pamby lacto-vegetarianism "a halfway house between flesh-eating and a truly human, civilized diet" and implored his followers to join him in making the "full journey." That journey, as the society has since defined it, takes no uncertain position on honey—it's summarily banned, along with bee pollen, bee venom, propolis, and royal jelly.

The hard-liners argue that beekeeping, like dairy farming, is cruel and exploitative. The bees are forced to construct their honeycombs in racks of removable trays, according to a design that standardizes the size of each hexagonal chamber. (Some say the more chaotic combs found in the wild are less vulnerable to parasitic mites.) Queens are imprisoned in certain parts of the hive, while colonies are split to increase production and sprinkled with prophylactic antibiotics. In the meantime, keepers control the animals by pumping their hives full of smoke, which masks the scent of their alarm pheromones and keeps them from defending their honey stores. And some say the bees aren't making the honey for us, so its removal from the hive could be construed as a form of theft. (Last year's animated feature, Bee Movie, imagined the legal implications of this idea.)

So, any vegan who eats honey but avoids milk is making the tacit assumption that the pain experienced by a bee counts for something less than the pain experienced by a cow. It's exactly the sort of compromise that so appalled Watson and the early vegans. Once you've allowed yourself to equivocate on animal suffering, how do you handle all the other borderline cases of insect exploitation? What about silkworms and cochineal bugs? Come to think of it, does a bee feel any less pain than a scallop or an oyster? Why can't we eat them, too?

(For the record, pearls aren't vegan. Oysters are killed during the harvest and often suffer the indignity of having a hole cut into their gonads.)

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.

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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