Thanks to Nash Veggie for tweeting me this article on Slate entitled “The Great Vegan Honey Debate.” I really enjoyed reading this. There are so many things to quote from this article, I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps I should just say, read the article.
One of the things that hooked me right away was this:
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.
I thought vegans comprised somewhere around 3-4% of the US population these days, but it’s pretty hard to get a real statistic. But what about the semi-vegetarian comment? Before we went vegan, Jane and I considered ourselves “semi-vegetarian.” But to say we ate meat with less than half our meals would be a gross understatement of how much meat we ate. That holds true for the people we know who categorize their eating the same way, unless the statistics include snacks…
Then there was this comment:
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.
Now, I’m a self-respecting vegan, and I fully expect to have a slice of pizza next time I’m in New York, deliberately. (BTW, pizza in NYC means a slice of cheese pizza, no other toppings.) Some people say it is this attitude specifically that excludes me from being a vegan, but I disagree. I consider myself to be a law-abiding citizen, but I occasionally exceed the posted speed limit (note: this is hard to do… I live in Los Angeles). One or two slices of pizza out of 1,095 meals (365 * 3) still makes me a vegan, in my book.
But let’s get to the heart of the matter, or the article…
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?
Well, I’ve weighed in on this before… I am a vegan who eats honey. Again, a stance that has some of the vegan community pointing fingers and saying “You’re not a real vegan.” To that I say, you’re entitled to your opinions. I consider myself a vegan. Yes, in the animal, vegetable, mineral categorization, bees are animals. However, they are insects. I would not hesitate to have my house tented or sprayed if I had termites; insects are killed collaterally in the harvesting of my produce… If I’m willing to kill insects in these instances, is it not hypocritical to forego eating honey? If my point of view isn’t sufficient enough to sway you, here’s what Vegan Action, has to say:
Many vegans, however, are not opposed to using insect products, because they do not believe insects are conscious of pain. Moreover, even if insects were conscious of pain, it’s not clear that the production of honey involves any more pain for insects than the production of most vegetables, since the harvesting and transportation of all vegetables involves many ‘collateral’ insect deaths.
(This group has been established for over 10 years; they are a vegan outreach group. They’re calling it an acceptable vegan behavior. This is the party line I choose to follow.)
It’s also been pointed out to me that the original definition of vegan, according to the Vegan Society who coined the term back in 1944: “. . . eats a plant-based diet free from all animal products, including milk, eggs and honey.” To this I reply, (unfortunately) language is organic. In the 1913 Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of “gay” was:
1. Excited with merriment; manifesting sportiveness or delight; inspiring delight; livery; merry.
2. Brilliant in colors; splendid; fine; richly dressed.
3. Loose; dissipated; lewd. [Colloq.] Syn. — Merry; gleeful; blithe; airy; lively; sprightly, sportive; light-hearted; frolicsome; jolly; jovial; joyous; joyful; glad; showy; splendid; vivacious.
Today, Merriam-Webster defines “gay” as:
1 a: happily excited : merry b: keenly alive and exuberant : having or inducing high spirits
2 a: bright, lively b: brilliant in color
3: given to social pleasures; also : licentious
4 a: homosexual b: of, relating to, or used by homosexuals
But if you use the word “gay” in conversation today, it will be understood to be definition #4. Language is organic; definitions change.
Some people complain that the fact that some vegans eat honey, while others don’t (refined sugar too), causes confusion in the non-vegan sector. Perhaps it does. But “vegan” is confusing for most non-vegans anyway. Do you eat eggs, milk, fish? What do you eat anyway? Before you condemn those of us who eat honey, remember, there are no perfect vegans out there.
Reading the Slate article further, the author, Daniel Engber, points out:
…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.
So, are you vegan if you exploit insects in this way? Would this treatment of mammals be acceptable?
Mr. Engber ends with this:
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.
Which brings me to my final point. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… There is a small, but vocal, minority of vegans out there who think that if you eschew animal products for any reason other than animal welfare, then you are not a vegan. Or that if you’re not being vegan to the extreme (by this I mean scrutinizing the ingredients and processing of every food item you’re going to ingest) then you may as well eat meat. We emphatically disagree. Every little bit helps, and if that means embracing the omnivores who choose to “eat vegan” one or two days a week, I say welcome to the fold! Yes, you can be vegan one day per week. If you choose to eat honey, I believe you are not “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” And I have to ask the less flexible members of the vegan community, what exactly is the goal here? Because it seems to me, if you are coming at veganism from an animal rights or environmental perspective, every little bit helps.