The other day I was promoting veganism – handing out booklets about cruelty-free eating – when a nonvegan came up and asked me about honey.
My first response to the honey question is generally something along the lines of:
I don’t really care too much if you eat honey or not. I’m mostly interested in trying to help you think about cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and fish in a way that is more compassionate and respectful.
This booklet has more information about that and about vegan food choices you can make instead of eating animals.
But he insisted, “What’s wrong with honey? Why don’t you eat honey?”
After asking him a few questions about his diet and confirming that he was not vegetarian or vegan (or even leaning that way), I tried to redirect the conversation to the cruel foods that he eats most often: eggs, cheese, chicken, pork, beef, and fish. What happens to these farmed animals would be illegal if it happened to a dog. (And dogs don’t receive much protection!) Farmed animals are literally treated like meat before they become meat.
I reminded him that neither of us eat cats, dogs, dolphins, kanagaoos, leopards, elephants, giraffes, or apes. I joked that there are plenty of things neither of us eat – nails, wood chips, puppy placentas, crickets, monkey brains, and vomit – yet our individual reasons for avoiding eating those things aren’t the basis of our ethical philosophies. So why should my feelings about honey matter so much to him? He wouldn’t give up. He demanded to know why I avoid honey.
Though I didn’t have time to go into great detail with him about the issue, and so I simply said that honey is an animal product, you and I now have the time to consider it. So let’s consider the honey issue.
(If, in fact, you haven’t got the time, just print out this article and read it later.)
To me, the honey issue has always been simple and clear. Vegans avoid animal products (as much as possible and practical). They do so for the benefit of animals, the environment, and their health. Honey comes from bees. Bees are animals. Therefor, honey is an animal product. (Honey is also both possible and practical to avoid.) Thus, vegans avoid honey. Simple.
Ah, but that’s almost too simple. It’s certainly too simple for most people. Like the nonvegan who questioned me, people usually ask, “But why?”
Let’s start here:
Why vegans avoid animal products.
As stated earlier, vegans avoid animal products for the benefit of animals, the environment, and their health. Each vegan is unique and each has his or her own reasons. But in general, vegans care about these things:
- eliminating cruelty to animals
- reducing animal suffering
- ending animal exploitation
- protecting the environment
- preventing disease
Preventing Animal Cruelty, Suffering, and Exploitation
It’s a well-documented fact that most animals – certainly the animals most commonly consumed as food – feel pain and can suffer. They can suffer physically from pain endured through beatings or mutilations like tail docking, debeaking, or castration. They can suffer when they are ground up alive. They can suffer when their heads are slammed against concrete floors. They can suffer when they are hung. They suffer when they’re transported in extreme temperatures without protection. They suffer when they’re boiled alive.
Animals can also suffer emotionally from pain endured through the loss of their loved ones such as when dairy cows‘ calves are removed and turned into veal. Or they can suffer emotionally from the absence of a stimulating environment such as when egg-laying hens are confined in battery cages and cannot walk, spread their wings, perch, nest, or explore.
Animal have their own interests and desires. They do not want to become food for humans. They do not want to suffer in our food system. And they don’t need to. We can choose vegan options.
Protecting the Environment
Current animal agricultural practices are terribly destructive to the environment.
Animal products – as currently produced – are not sustainable. Modern fishing methods are literally draining the oceans of fishes. Beef has a huge “carbon footprint.” One estimate shows that leather is 20 times more environmentally destructive than synthetics.
Simply stated, vegans are better for the environment than nonvegans. As the PB&J Campaign states, “each time you choose a plant-based meal you make a difference, just like taking out the recycling or taking public transportation to work instead of driving.”
Protecting Human Health
As the ADA states, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
Vegans tend to have lower incidences of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and some other diseases. Moreover, vegan food is less likely to cause of food poisoning – like Salmonella and e coli – than animal products.
Switching from individual health, let’s look at the public health. Animal agriculture is responsible for the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA. And animal agriculture poses a human health risk by polluting waterways, poisoning our drinking water.
Ahhhh, but I still haven’t fully covered the issue of honey. You may be asking, “Are bees really animals?” or you might wonder, “Do bees feel pain? Are they sentient?” You’re probably wondering how honey is collected. You might even have questions about the environmental impact of bee-keeping or you could be wondering whether honey is a health food or not.
On point one: Yes, bees are animals. Bees are insects and insects are animals. In fact, insects include over a million species and represent more than 50% of all known living organisms. Insects are among the most diverse group of animals on the planet.
Their scientific classification is Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Arthropoda, and Class: Insecta. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just think about it. Where do bees fit best: animal, vegetable, or mineral? They’re not rocks, right? They’re not plants, right? So they must be… animals!
“Do bees feel pain?” That’s a good question. On this point I will refer you to the expert on bees and why vegans avoid honey: Noah Lewis. He maintains an entire website that explains the issue of honey and veganism. On the issue of pain, Noah says, “why wouldn’t bees feel pain? They are animals with a large nervous system capable of transmitting pain signals.” (Bees are not oysters.)
Perhaps you’re unconvinced. You don’t like Noah’s studies and citations and/or you doubt their conclusions. You just don’t believe bees feel pain.
OK, you’re free to believe what you want. I can’t stop you from thinking our moon is made of cheese or the Earth is flat, that’s entirely up to you. It would be nice if everyone’s ideas about things corresponded with reality, but that’s not always the case, is it? So let’s just move on, shall we?
Honey was traditionally collected by killing the bees and removing the honey. Modern bee-keepers generally remove honey and replace it with sugar water, which is an inferior food source for bees. Bees make honey for a reason and that’s because honey, not sugar, is an ideal food source for bees.
What about the environmental impact of bee-keeping? Well, today’s kept bees don’t just make honey, they are “employed” to pollinate crops. In fact, honey is no longer the primary “product” of bees in industrialized farming, pollination is the “product.” Bee-keepers make a living by charging farmers to “rent” their bees. Today’s bees are shipped around to pollinate here and then pollinate there, many getting lost or killed along the way.
Modern bee-keeping is so stressful to bees that the compounded stressors of transportation, the limited diet of monoculture crops, and pesticides are resulting in Colony Collapse Disorder. I’m sure you’ve heard of CCD. The bees are dying and it’s having a ripple effect on the environment because kept bees have replaced many other native pollinators.
The honey bee – introduced to the Americas by European settlers and transformed into a for-profit pollinator – is just one more example of how industrialized farming of animals is not only bad for animals and the environment, it’s also unsustainable and is likely doomed to failure. (If you’re concerned about the issues caused by industrialized bee-keeping, the things to do are to buy organic and attract other pollinators.)
Lastly, there’s the myth of honey as a “health food” and thus the related misconception that honey is a necessary component of a healthy diet. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humans do not require honey and in fact, honey can be dangerous to infants. Never feed a baby honey! There is simply no nutritional need for honey. Suitable alternatives to honey include agave syrup or maple syrup. Or we can forgo liquid sweeteners entirely if we want.
As in the case of virtually all animal products, we can choose a plant-based option instead.
So, then what is the answer? Why do vegans avoid honey?
In my mind, an avoidance of honey is mostly symbolic but still worth doing. It’s so easy to avoid honey, so why not? Avoiding honey is a gesture that symbolizes a respect for animals, the environment, yourself, and other humans.
But for something more substantial than a mere symbolic gesture? For an action that more concretely expresses respect for animals, the environment, yourself, and other humans. Well, I think you know the answer by now: GO VEGAN!
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