Honey, I’m A Vegan

honeyThanks 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.


  1. I especially liked this post, particularly the quote from Daniel Engber about the majority of fruit and vegetable crops relying on pollination by domesticated bees. Surprising how many people don’t realise this 🙂

  2. I have never heard of rental hives before, will have to read up on the subject. For me, I choose not to eat honey, but having said that it’s not a huge sacrifice as I’m not that keen on it anyway.

    “Vegan” as a label is useful for identifying foods (and other goods) that contain no animal products and have not been tested on animals. Therefore I would not expect to find honey in a food labelled as vegan.

    However, using “vegan” as a label to self-identify and pillory others whose commitment varies from your own seems limiting to me. Everyone is a person with their own opinions, their own take on what is acceptable to them when it comes down to personal ethics. Labelling people is rarely productive.

  3. Interesting post. It’s funny how much heated debate comes from honey. I don’t eat it, though I have been reading about how eating locally grown honey can help protect people from seasonal allergies. Interesting. I agree with Kate, though, labelling is quite often counterproductive. People who enjoy wearing the vegan label, but then go out and wear leather, eat dairy, eat fish, etc. frustrate me because they give the message to critical omnis that vegans “can’t live” without these things.
    I guess we all need to fight our own battles.
    Thanks for the link!

  4. Great post!

    I wholeheartedly agree with you but would add one thing: I wish we had “accepted” definitions that were better understood by the general public. When I first went vegetarian not too long ago many people (I live south of Nashville) asked me if I eat fish or chicken. To southerners apparently giving up meat entirely is difficult to conceive! When there is pork in all the vegetables as a matter of course, being vegetarian is hard.

    Thanks for your terrific post. Eating honey once in awhile and dairy once a year shouldn’t exclude you from the vegan label. I like the speed limit analogy. If I eat one little piece of bacon in my green beans a year (accidentally) does this make me an omnivore? No!

  5. I’m a vegan and I have two hives of honeybees and I totally agree. The anti-honey thing makes my head explode. Life is rough for migrant beehives, but that is not an inherent quality of honey production. Honey can be gathered from happy bees without causing them any hardship. Unlike milk or meat or eggs.

  6. PS I just went and read that actual article, and let me just say, that whole paragraph of reasons why people think beekeeping is “cruel and exploitative” is ridiculous. Keeping bees is the same as having a dog. We manage the hive in order to keep it strong and healthy, and it is not cruel. I mean, my dog thinks it is cruel that I don’t let him eat all the filthy hamburger wrappers he finds but it is for his own good.

  7. My Dog eats honey bees! When my herb garden is in bloom she sits there waiting for some harmless bee to stray from the pack.
    She has been stung – but continues…
    Bad Dog!!!

  8. Quote:

    “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.”

    I disagree with many points you have made but as the sentience of honey bees has yet to be determined, such disagreements are more emotional then a matter of ethics. (Although I absolutely do not eat honey because I don’t need too; therefore, why would I take their honey from them just because I like the taste? Which, of course, makes your termite example strained.)

    However, this quote is somewhat stunning to me. By what definition of the term “vegan” are you relying on that allows you to eat a slice of cheese pizza and still remain a vegan? The latter half of your statement – the number of meals – is a non-issue in ethics. Perhaps we can aggregate and say that you are a low-end exploiter, however, if you consume cheese because you like it you are an exploiter nonetheless. If “veganism” can manifest itself in occasionally consuming dairy and still be a meaningful term, where does this end I wonder? If I only eat cow when I’m in Texas, but I otherwise avoid (as a means to gastronomical satisfaction, for example) all nonhuman products, can I still reasonably call myself vegan? This excludes non-intentional actions, etc., but your statement is explicitly intentional.

    I think not, lest we make the term “vegan” somewhat meaningless. A bigot who only attacks homosexuals (just because it’s fun to attack gay people) when they are in San Francisco, is still a bigot. This holds even if said bigot marches in “gay pride” parades every other day of their life.

    This all turns on how “veganism” is defined. However, the controversy aside (as you argue well in the post), when you make the choice to consume a nonhuman or their reproductive excretions because you enjoy the taste, I think you are defined out.

    It’s curious that you make it a point to specify that you will only be eating pizza with cow milk on it – “no other toppings.” Why does this even warrant a mention? There seems to be an implied assumption about a hierarchy of “badness” between different forms of exploitation. Which, again if “veganism” is to be meaningful, doesn’t follow.

  9. I had the same perspective about NYC pizza too for the first two years I went vegan. Then one time I had an upset stomach, providing me a visceral reason to stop.

    Later, as I became more committed to activism, I realized that my behaviors really needed to be consistent with my beliefs. I realized that I had previously prioritized my own pleasure over the suffering of others.

    I salute you for being 100% vegan 99.9% of the year, and hope that you will do even better in the future, either because of intestinal discomfort or just the desire to eliminate any last shred of cognitive dissonance.

    With respect to honey, there may be a difference in the moral question when an insect threatens you or your property, when its killing is unintentional, and and when it merely has products that you find tasty. The former two situations may, but certainly do not unequivocally justify the killing; the latter seems to present a less-compelling moral claim. These three are uniquely different circumstances, and so I respectfully disagree with your assertion that to not kill bees for honey would be hypocritical. Whether bees are sentient, however, is admittedly a grey area and I don’t see anything wrong with you calling yourself vegan. But that said, using agave is certainly the more cautious route.

  10. Good post. I learned a lot. I will eat honey if it’s an ingredient in something that is otherwise vegan and there are no other varieties available, but I don’t buy bottles of honey. I use agave nectar instead, which is wonderful because its sugars are supposed to enter your bloodstream more slowly.

  11. I avoid honey because my understanding is that the bees’ honey is theirs, not ours, it takes them a lot of time and effort to produce it, they have their own uses for it, I respect bees and want them to have their reward (not sugar-water), agave nectar tastes just like honey to me, and I never ate it that much anyway.

    I have little doubt that bees are sentient. I believe they think, have interests, and experience some version of contentment and fear, and possibly many graadtions and variations in between, even though all those experiences may be at a simplistic level. More broadly, given our severe underestimation of animal sentience and capabilities in general over the years, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to nonhumans who may be sentient but whose sentience status is unproven.

    I greatly respect Matt Ball and Vegan Outreach, and hand out their pamphlets regularly, and generally agree that it does the animals no good to turn away a prospective vegan – or any interested person – because of the honey issue. OTOH, in my outreach, I express my opinions on honey when the subject comes up , and it never seems to turn people off or make them think that veganism is too difficult. More often, my impression is that it makes them think twice about honey and consider agave nectar.

    Just a predicti0n – I could be wrong : When you get to New York, you won’t have that pizza. You know too much about how dairy is made – your conscience will stop you, and the vegan pizza will never have tasted sweeter.

  12. I don’t get the honey thing. Sure bees are animals, but they’re insects… and they don’t have a developed sense of pain. Not to mention the fact that bees aren’t killed for honey, and live the lives they’ve pretty much lived all along.

    If you want honey, eat honey. you’re still a vegan in my book.

  13. How do you know bees don’t have a “developed sense of pain,” David? The answer is you don’t; you are assuming they don’t. I believe such an assumption is most likely valid; however, as I don’t need to consume honey (I want too), I find very little justification for doing so as it involves forcing the bees to produce for my palates benefit.

    Furthermore, honey is produced for a reason – given that honey is, in fact, produced by the bees, as opposed to magically appearing. It follows, then, that there must be some purpose for it. It’s highly unlikely that that purpose is for your gastronomical pleasure.

    They are not “pretty much living as they’ve lived all along.” You are making another assumption. Surely the honey was produced absent our interference – it’s not produced for us. Further, if we weren’t around, that honey would go to whomever or whatever it was intended. We necessarily must interfere with their lives; therefore, we are not respecting them but partially enslaving them because we enjoy the taste of honey.

    From your rational David, non-vegans could justify all sorts of exploitation, which, again, belies the very concept of “veganism.”

  14. Hi Tempyra,
    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. We were both shocked when we read that too. The image of truckloads of bees rumbling down the highway was not something we’d ever imagined!

    Hi Kate,
    We’re looking forward to reading Engber’s book.
    I agree that using the word “vegan” to identify what is in food is very helpful. I have been noticing a trend on some packaging… after the ingredients there is a bold notation “Includes: Soy, Wheat…” I believe this convention is to protect the manufacturers from lawsuits regarding allergenic foods. Honey could be listed this way too. This would make it easy for people to identify it if it is an offending product. (I don’t expect this will happen, and understand why it wouldn’t. However, as I do consume honey, I wouldn’t mind if it did.)
    Regarding labeling people. I absolutely agree. But we’re labeling ourselves, and that opens the door for this type of criticism and “you’re not doing it right” finger-pointing.

    Hi Shellyfish,
    Yes, the controversy seems almost out of proportion to me. But since I’m coming at it from a health perspective first, perhaps my point of view is different than most others.
    I do agree with you that people who wear leather or eat dairy or other animal products can send a bad message to the more critical folks out there, but they’re already critical anyway. I do believe that it is perfectly acceptable to step off the path on occasion. It just depends how you handle it. I would never walk into a pizza parlor and proclaim “I’m vegan, give me a slice of cheese pizza.” But when I next go to NY and have that slice, I will tell my companion/s that I’m stepping off the path. The people I associate with will accept that and not translate it into something other than what it is — a momentary desire for something I don’t normally consume. If a dialog ensues, I will certainly admit that vegan cheese leaves a lot to be desired, but I choose not to eat it for a variety of reasons, the exception being that slice of pizza. It’s funny to me how much condemnation this brings down on my head from the vegans. My omni friends are far more compassionate. (This is a general comment, not directed at you 🙂 )

    Hi Kem,
    Thanks for that vote of confidence. I can only imagine how difficult it must being vegan in your situation. It’s amazing what people do to food. I recently learned from one of our readers, that Mexican rice is often prepared using chicken stock. As for avoiding that pork, it sounds like quite the challenge. My personal belief is that it is the intent that matters most. Keep up the good work!

    Hi Heather,
    Thank you for chiming in. I don’t know that much about honey production, and beekeeping, so I appreciate hearing from an expert.
    Interesting to hear you relate keeping bees to keeping a dog. Certainly no one would condemn you for prohibiting your dog from eating whatever he finds on the street.

    Hi Kara,
    Bad dog!!! Silly dog?

  15. Hi Alex,
    I agree with you, in the strictest sense, the definition of vegan does not include ingesting honey as it is an animal product. However, I am drawing the line at insects. I identify myself as vegan, because I do not eat the typical vegetarian things… milk, eggs, and cheese. (Just for clarification, the amount of honey I consume is negligible, but because I am documenting my vegan journey, I include this discussion.)

    As for my termite argument being strained… how do you stand on the issue of rental hives? This seems a far more anti-vegan practice to me, and if that’s the case, then what is there to eat? Not much on a global scale. It appears that there would not be a way to produce enough food for everyone the way things are managed today.

    Regarding the pizza… First, I identified the cheese pizza to alleviate any confusion. I once referred to sushi as something I missed and received many comments that I could have vegan sushi. I meant I missed fish based sushi. I was trying to pre-empt the “you can have cheese-less pizza” comment, and never thought about the meat (because I’ve never ordered meat on a pizza… olives or mushrooms once in awhile, but 95+% of the time it’s been cheese pizza). However, I do believe there is a “hierarchy of badness.” I unequivocally believe it is far worse to torture and kill a sentient animal than to eat something that is collected from a non-sentient being in a manner that is considered unobtrusive.

    Your arguments are valid, but I think you extrapolate out too far. I think you can reasonably call yourself vegan if you are predominantly vegan. Overwhelmingly, I eat vegan. The once or twice a year I deliberately choose to eat vegetarian doesn’t preclude me from calling myself vegan in my book. Labels are subjective though, and I would have a hard time identifying myself as vegan if I went out and had a steak once a week, even if I ate vegan at every other meal.

    By your arguments, it would appear to me that no one living in this society could call themselves a true vegan. Where do you draw the line? My dentist uses latex gloves… casein. My house is painted… casein or marine oil. I drive a car. I’ve read that anti-freeze and brake fluid contain animal products, as do tires. I go to the movies on occasion… gelatin. Do these things mean I’m not vegan?

    Finally, in my opinion, your definition of vegan is potentially off-putting for most people. It makes “vegan” too difficult to attain. If the goal is to truly reduce animal suffering, having the other 96% (generously assuming vegans are 4%) of the population give up meat one day per week would make more inroads than insisting that those of us who eat honey or even outright consume a non-vegan meal once in awhile call ourselves vegetarians or omnivores.

    It’s late, I hope I addressed everything…

    Hi Jason,
    Yes, I’ve been warned that my system may no longer tolerate cheese. Especially since we’re eating less fat than before. It will be interesting to see if that is the case.
    Jane and I have both noticed that the further along our path we’ve come, the more important the animal rights issues are to us. The turning point for her was when she watched Earthlings. I don’t really have a defining moment.
    As I mentioned earlier in comments, I can certainly concede that in the truest definition of vegan, honey is not a vegan product. However, I personally do not feel a conflict consuming honey. Perhaps that will change as I continue along this path. Although I doubt it. I simply cannot place the same value on insect life. Call me a speciesist, tell me I’m not a true vegan. That is the line I have chosen to draw for myself. And again, if consuming honey is a non-vegan action, how is consuming produce pollinated with rental hives considered vegan? Those insects are living in far more harsh conditions.
    As for agave nectar, I’ve read conflicting things about it, including this warning… the Food and Drug Administration notes that “in the past, agave products may have been ‘economically adulterated or misbranded by adding corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup [HFCS].’ Chronic shortages of the plant make this a real concern.”

    Hi Lindsey,
    Glad you found the post valuable. Regarding agave nectar, see the previous paragraph. I haven’t come across anything negative about brown rice syrup though (that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything negative to be said… I just haven’t seen it 🙂 )

    Hi Gary,
    Thanks for the input. When I use the sentience argument, I’m always a little leery myself. I agree, there is so much we don’t know. If you look at ants, you’d have to agree there is some kind of intelligence there as well.
    However, I feel comfortable with this line for myself. And since I’m “documenting” my experiences/thoughts about what it mean to be vegan to me, I need to cover my stance on honey.
    I am simply not that strict about anything. I believe, that as human beings, most of us are not consistent 100% of the time. I believe that it is okay to do something that deviates a bit from what you normally do, provided the deviation isn’t that radical. But that is my definition for myself. We all have to decide what we feel is right.
    I have no doubt that your outreach is effective. You have a very compassionate approach.
    As for your prediction, you’ve made it before 😉 We’ll have to wait and see!

    Hi David,
    Thanks for the support.

    Hi again Alex,
    Since you’re pointing out my flawed arguments, I figured I’d return the favor 😉 — “Furthermore, honey is produced for a reason – given that honey is, in fact, produced by the bees, as opposed to magically appearing. It follows, then, that there must be some purpose for it. It’s highly unlikely that that purpose is for your gastronomical pleasure.”
    Fruits and vegetables aren’t produced for our gastronomic pleasure either. Plants grow these things without our intervention.
    Of course if you argue that we have intervened, then you have to argue that we’ve interfered with natural selection in the breeding of bees as well as produce. Hybrid strains are cultivated for desirable traits (although the genetic manipulation of bees is much more recent than that of plants). And if that is the case, then you could argue that we have bred both the bees and the plants to produce for us.
    Clearly we have drawn our lines in different places. I respect your opinion, I just don’t agree.

  16. “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. ”

    I have observed the meaning of the word “vegan” shifting from the original definition. For more and more people now – especially those who come to a vegan diet for health reasons – “vegan” is coming to mean “what you eat.”

    But I choose to call myself a vegetarian (who eats a vegan diet) because even with the shifting of meaning, “vegan” has particular political implications that I don’t hold. Also, while I have come to share in much of the animal welfare beliefs pertaining to the philosophy of veganism, I do not share the entire philosophy and my primary reasons for eating a vegan diet are still religious and health reasons with animal welfare and the environment lower on my personal list.

    Thus, for me, the label of “vegetarian (who eats a vegan diet)” is the most suitable. Eating only vegan food does not make me a vegan any more than eating only Chinese food would make me Chinese — there is more to being a vegan than what one eats.

    That all being said, I respect the right of others to self-label and I respect the labels they choose. I value my autonomy of identity and would not want to deny the same to others. People know what they are and choose their labels accordingly. My choice of self-label should not be construed to indicate any level of attempted coercion of others to label in any way other than the way that feels most true to them.

    In short: you, Lane, are a vegan. End of story. You know who you are and I respect that and have no reason to challenge your acknowledgement of self-identity.

    Good blog entry!

    (As for the insect/pain issue, I’m not a scientist nor a philosopher, and definitely not an insect so I have no authority to say one way or the other. I have observed insects taking actions to avoid locations, substances and activities that would be damaging to them so I tend to extrapolate that their behavior is based on a sense of pain. However, amoeba also recoil from damaging stimuli in a way that would tend to indicate a sense of pain yet were I to contract amoebic dysentery I can assure you that I would feel no qualms about doing what I could to kill those little critters.)


  17. Quote:

    “As for my termite argument being strained… how do you stand on the issue of rental hives? This seems a far more anti-vegan practice to me, and if that’s the case, then what is there to eat? Not much on a global scale. It appears that there would not be a way to produce enough food for everyone the way things are managed today.”

    Unless we grow our own food, which I do to a point, however, as I live in Washington D.C. certain practical restrictions apply, I am compelled out of necessity to consume plants grown in these ways. Consuming honey is not a necessity, it is a preference; therefore, again, your analogy is strained. This is a common argument against veganism, which is easily defended against.


    “By your arguments, it would appear to me that no one living in this society could call themselves a true vegan. Where do you draw the line? My dentist uses latex gloves… casein. My house is painted… casein or marine oil. I drive a car. I’ve read that anti-freeze and brake fluid contain animal products, as do tires. I go to the movies on occasion… gelatin. Do these things mean I’m not vegan?”

    If alternatives are available, and you have the means to avoid these products, and yet you choose the alternative, exploitative option, then yes, I don’t believe the concept “vegan” would apply. You can identify these objects; however, similar to the termite extermination example, honey (and cheese pizza) is not a valid analogy due to practical constraints.

    If perfection were demanded from ethical systems, no individuals could live up to such a standard. However, your implied argument – that I am demanding “perfection” – is flawed because I am, in fact, not doing so. I am saying that you can refrain from consuming honey (and cheese pizza), unlike anti-freeze (?) unless you can avoid driving or find an alternative brand. Honey fulfills a desire that may involve harming a sentient creature; therefore, you are consciously selecting that option, which veganism explicitly rejects because it is a prejudice that compels us to do otherwise.


    “Fruits and vegetables aren’t produced for our gastronomic pleasure either. Plants grow these things without our intervention.”

    Are you arguing that it is reasonable to assume that both plants and bees are sentient? If yes, I disagree, and would argue instead that such an assumption isn’t sound. Isn’t one a more sound assumption than the other given the evidence? However, assuming that it is (bees and plants are sentient), we require plants to live, unlike honey. Therefore, if we must fail to respect the interests of another as a means to survive, we should only do so in situations where there is a “need” demanding the failure – versus a desire to eat honey.

    I still believe my argument (and analogies) hold in regards to your choice to consume cheese pizza when you are in NYC.

    Thanks for the dialogue.

  18. Further, it should be taken as a given that I don’t agree with “renting hives” for pollination purposes. But this is the world in which we currently live, therefore, it’s unfair to identify this as a flaw in my argument.

    Consuming their honey as well, takes this exploitation unnecessarily farther, which I believe we ought to avoid because we don’t know if honey bees are sentient. I say, assume otherwise and act accordingly because it is not a major harm to any of your interests to do so. “Taste,” of course, being a minor interest.

  19. Hi Sparrow,
    Interesting comments. I would suspect we’re more in alignment with your philosophy. In reality, I really hate all of this labeling. It’s convenient though, to identify myself as vegan when eating away from home. But other than that, it sets you up to be criticized for being inconsistent, in some way or another.

    Re the insect/pain issue… I read conflicting information. I’m happy with my lines as they stand right now.

    Hi Alex,
    We could go back and forth forever. You do present some interesting thoughts, and I understand where you are coming from.
    My bottom line is that you do the best you can and make decisions that are right for you. I wholeheartedly believe that it is acceptable to consider yourself vegan and behave with the occasional inconsistency. Clearly, you don’t.
    Regardless, I will continue to consume honey and call myself vegan. And if I do eat that cheese pizza in NY, I will still call myself a vegan, albeit one who ate vegetarian that day. Feel free to call me a vegetarian if you desire.

  20. I agree that inconsistencies are acceptable if the actions cannot be otherwise avoided. I think that this is a reasonable requirement to make. My entire argument is predicated on this belief – a fairly uncontroversial belief I believe. Therefore, honey ought to be out; as should cheese pizza in New York.

    I’ve enjoyed, as always, our conversation 🙂

  21. Quote:

    “However, amoeba also recoil from damaging stimuli in a way that would tend to indicate a sense of pain yet were I to contract amoebic dysentery I can assure you that I would feel no qualms about doing what I could to kill those little critters.”

    If you encounter an insect that is going to kill you – as with human beings – I think you can reasonably defend yourself without extrapolating beyond that to define an ethical principle. Nor does it make you a hipocrite if you otherwise believe that human beings shouldn’t be killed.

  22. Alex,

    Over the course of my life, I’ve known several pacifist vegans who would disagree with you about that. I have met people who would rather let an animal – human or non-human – kill them than to engage in violence themselves.

    I am, most definitely, not a pacifist. Which automatically puts me at odds with a large percentage of vegans and vegan philosophy.

  23. Hi Sparrow,

    While there are some extraordinary pacifists who would not use any retaliatory force to defend themselves against humans or animals who were imminent threats to their lives or health, I think it is generally accepted, even among devoted pacifists, that in dire circumstances where one’s life or health is in serious, immediate danger, it’s ok to use self-defense tactics in order to escape that fate.

    Of course, we should endeavor not to use excessive force or engage in gratuituous violence even in those circumstances.

    And granted, there is no shortage of borderline cases which present ethical dilemmas.

    But I suspect Alex’s larger point was that there is a distinction between defending yourself from immenent harm and engaging in exploitation.

    Hi Lane,

    With respect to film, I would say that honey is a more direct exploitation. In commercial honey production, bees are used explicitly for their utility value, and their food is taken from them for profit and pleasure.

    Re: comparing fruit and honey. The bees have a sentient interest in consuming the honey, and may derive pleasure from consuming it and disappointment from having it taken away or from having none. Also, unlike the case with bees and honey, many plants require that the fruit be eaten by animals in order to propogate the species.

    With respect to language, it’s interesting that you chose the word “gay” before. Does this sentence make sense (spoken by a man): “I’m heterosexual; I only have sex with men a few times a year?” More broadly, labels have different degrees of elasticity.

    But I would say let’s not get hung up on labels. I witness too many arguments about “you’re not really vegan.” Some of the people who say this drink non-vegan beer, when vegan beer is right on the menu or store shelves.

    If we try to refrain from exploitation as much as practical, try to remain honest about our avoidable contributions to exploitation, and try to practice compassion to all sentient beings, including fellow humans, I think those guideposts will get us where we all want to go.

  24. BTW, just to be my own critic, the argument that fruit often needs to be ingested by beings other than the producer in order to spread seeds is, IMHO, fairly weak. I can think up lots of counterpoint.

    OTOH, we have to eat fruits and vegetables in order to be healthy.

  25. Hi Sparrow,
    I would have to say that most of the vegans I know are pacifists to a degree, but it is a far lesser degree than allowing themselves to be harmed by another being….

    Hi Gary,
    Jane and I have been talking about this quite a bit over the past few days. If you use the example that a person who commits murder, even once is then deemed a murderer – then I am not a vegan. If you use the example of a kosher person who eats chinese food (not kosher) periodically, they are still kosher – then I am a vegan.
    I think the basic difference in opinion here boils down to how you approach veganism. For Jane and me, the decision to go vegan was based primarily on our health, which probably explains our tolerance for the rare slice of pizza.

  26. i am a pretty strict vegan
    but welcome anyone making some effort at least to cut back on animal products. theres no point of being devisive about this we need all the help we can get. if we encourage people to make small changes instead of rebuking them i think it will encourage them to eventually make larger changes. i think you made some positive comments here

  27. Hi vernon,
    Thanks. You’ve pretty much summed up our philosophy. Small changes are easier, and once someone is comfortable with the small changes they’ve made they may be willing to continue along the path and make some larger changes (when things are less intimidating).

  28. I personally have vowed that, although I AM now vegan; I refuse to push my version of vegan onto anyone else. I don’t eat honey anyway, I don’t like really sweet stuff. Some might eat soy cheese that has milk proteins in it and not flinch, I personally feel if they’re going to put milk proteins in it then it might as well be cows’ milk cheese. Thats MY opinion. I won’t tell another vegan (IF I ever meet another one here in the south…lol) that they’re not vegan because they ate that soy cheese with the milk protein in it. I just read all labels, the only thing I will allow is if it says that it was produced in the same factory as a milk or egg product, but doesn’t contain any knowingly. I just do my research on a brand before I buy it to know if I trust that they’d do their best to not contaminate.

  29. Hi Jayme,
    We believe that you are more likely to “convert” someone if you don’t try to shove your philosophies down their throat, but rather live your life well, and answer any questions that are asked of you. Our philosophy. (But you know that already after reading some of this blog 🙂 )
    As for what people eat, it is our stance that it’s better to have people eating mostly vegan than alienating them and suggesting they may as well be carnivores.

  30. Hi
    Chiming in with the pizza argument, I think as the definition of vegan is exclusionary then a slice of cheese pizza once a year or so does stop you being vegan. Perhaps 99% vegan
    Consider teetotalism. A person who mostly abstains from alcohol but every year has a couple of beers (perhaps when he visits friends in NYC) is not a teetotaller. 99% teetotal, perhaps, though I wouldn’t expect that argument to cut any ice with AA.
    Regarding the way words change their definitions, I take the point about how gay now means something different to what it meant in 1913, but gay is not a definition, unlike vegan. It’s not unreasonable to say the the people who belong to a certain ideology/lifestyle can define that ideology. Vegan has been so defined.
    Consider other examples – Anarchism or Communism, for example. Anarchism, to most people, means Social Disorder and breakdown. To Anarchists, however, it means a non-hierarchical society based on co-operation and mutuality. And it has meant this since they invented the word in the 1850s. Don’t Anarchists have the right to define their own beliefs, even if the majority of people would disagree with said definition?
    So, too, with Veganism

  31. Hi Stephen,
    Thanks for your input. I do agree that a group has the right to define itself. However, over time, those definitions tend to change a bit. Language is organic.
    Interestingly, Jane and I consider ourselves teetotalers, but neither of us is 100% in this either. We do have the occasional drink, usually on holidays or when we’re out. But if you ask any of our friends or family, they’ll tell you we’re teetotalers too.

  32. But honey is, basically, an animal product and bees are irritated and intruded upon for the honey.
    People are always looking for loopholes:(

    Pacifism does not make so much sense to me.
    No one is happy for something like war and violence and all of that except for crazy people.

    On the other hand I had a roommate some years ago, her boyfriend was being violent with her, if I had not interceded and helped her, if I was worried more about some idea of pacifism, how could I have lived with myself?

  33. There doesn’t seem to be much sense to me in digging up definitions of veganism because I always thought I was making the choices I make to reduce my net damage on the planet environmentally and ethically not to earn the title “vegan”. And if product doesn’t increase my net damage but doesn’t fit a dictionary definition of vegan I’m not going to be too bothered by it.

    I do agree that insects are creatures with a personal interest in staying alive and avoiding pain and I don’t want to interfere with that simply for bannana-honey sandwich, but from what I have seen of the beekeeping in my area I don’t think my sandwich is in conflict with their interests.

  34. “Speeding,” means you are not a law abiding citizen.
    It does not make you a mugger or an arsonist, but it is against the law.

    You can decide for yourself if that is okay or not, but don’t pretend speeding is legal or eating pizza is okay for a Vegan.

    Since honey is gotten in ways as to agitate and disturb the bees, it is not Vegan in my book. Maybe you should say you are vegetarian and just eat your sandwich and enjoy it.

  35. Hi Addie,

    Many people make that same argument. And I’ve replied to that point above. Basically, it’s your prerogative. Jane and I have spent time considering this and have concluded that we will continue to consume honey. You are, of course, entitled to do as you feel.

  36. Hi Hannah,

    Enjoying your insightful comments. I like the point about not earning the title “vegan” — However, we’ve put ourselves out there as “Vegan Bits” and so we have to have some kind of definition for ourselves since we are often challenged on our beliefs.

    As for the insects. Yes, all the insects I’ve personally come across seem to have an interest in staying alive. However, I’m going to actively kill mosquitoes and termites. And I’m going to passively kill many insects driving, or simply living my life and that makes it kind of hard to put the honey bee aside and say it is wrong to eat honey. Also, as you point out, it doesn’t appear that the bees are particularly bothered by most honey gathering efforts. And the two bee keepers I know personally tell me bee keeping is fairly innocuous.

  37. A word’s meaning can change for someone just to suit their comfort.

    I see your point about the pizza. If you pretty much are a vegan, but then have one slice of pizza, suddenly changing the whole definition of the way you eat seems extreme.

    I worry for myself about being too casual and making exceptions because it is hard to be Vegan right where I am and it would be easy to get lazy about it and start making a lot of exceptions, but also I try my best not to because then why am I reading all of the damn labels all of the time and doing all of the other stuff?

    There are local farms that grow fruit that do not harm bugs, no?
    And I don’t know about bugs, but honey seems like a deliberate, direct swipe at them.

    I take back anything I have said about driving. From what I understand driving outside of NY (and Vermont, really) is much different. lol

  38. Why don’t all vegans unite and redefine what vegan means.
    Vegan – A term used to refer to a group of people who mostly eat vegetables but occasionally dabble into cheese pizza, ice cream and honey when cannot resist the temptation.

    That will make everyone happy and this debate will go away.
    The argument against drinking milk holds also against honey. Bees don’t collect it for humans. It is for their little ones. How much hard work those tiny things need to put in to collect a jar of honey.

    And yes, occasionally speeding and going over the limit still breaks the law even if you don’t get a ticket.

  39. If the term “vegan” is confusing to non-vegans, that is because of people like yourself, who say you are vegan when you are not. Your definition of a vegan as someone who occasionally eats cheese is ridiculous. Please stop muddying the waters for those of us who actually are vegan. You gain nothing by doing this, and hurt many, many people and animals in the process.

    Please stop lying to yourself and the world, either by becoming a vegan in truth, or by calling yourself “a vegan-friendly omnivore.”

  40. p.s.–for those of us who are vegan for ethical reasons, claiming to be a vegan who “occasionally” eats cheese is pretty much the same as saying, “I’m a feminist–I think rape is only o.k. if the rapist limits himself to one rape a year.”

    See how ridiculous that suddenly sounds when you change the context?

    I used to be a 90% vegan person myself, for two solid years, in fact, before becoming vegan. I have no problem with you NOT being vegan. All I’m asking you to do is please stop confusing the rest of the world about what veganism really is.

  41. I very recently became vegan and have been researching the honey issue. I am currently a honey consuming vegan until I find a strong argument against it. So far, the arguments I have found seem fundamentalist. There is nothing in this world worse than fundamentalism in my opinion. But I will keep reading about it… Thanks for the post!

  42. You are not vegan. Sorry.

    Stop riding on our coattails for the ego trip. Accept that you are a vegetarian who eats a mostly vegan diet and live with it. Leave “being vegans” for vegans who want to walk the talk.

    Stop confusing non-vegans as to what being vegan is.

    The bee question is about ethics. Yes, bees are exploited to make honey. It is deliberate exploitation for self-gratification and financial benefit of humans.

    Look at it from the abolitionist point of view using the ‘Black people as slaves’ metaphor. You are not anti-slavery if you still keep slaves. You are not anti-slavery even if you only whip black people twice a year. Vegan means no.

    Look at it from a child abuse metaphor. You are not anti-child abuse if you only abuse children twice a year when you go on holiday to Cambodia. Vegan means no.

    It comes down to intention. Abuse or exploitation for self-gratification is not vegan … and it is simply not necessary.

  43. I have been a vegetarian for 25 years (or so I thought), recently making the decision to become vegan. It is a slow process. I do not consume or purchase any animal-based food or products. The reason it has not been an immediate conversion is because I still have dietary supplements in pill form that are encased in gelatin that I am not going to throw out. Once they are gone, I will switch to a vegan form of these supplements. Oh, and a few marshmallows. And… well, who knew how many seemingly “non-meat and non-dairy” foods actually contain animal derivatives? I now study the ingredients labels of all the foods I purchase. Labels can be deceiving – unless you know that oleic acid or calcium stearate are derived from sheep, hogs, and cattle, you would innocently think you are eating “vegan.” And now I read in this blog that driving my car goes against my ethics! Who’da thunk?

    As far as the discussion at hand, I do not believe that eating cheese or honey “allows” you to be vegan. The argument for cheese not being vegan has been discussed (the worst offender in abusing animals is the factory farm); the best argument I have found for bees is that bees are enslaved by humans. An excerpt from “Why Honey is Not Vegan” (http://www.vegetus.org/honey/honey.htm) explains this: “Most honey comes from full-time factory bee farmers. A successor queen is selected by a human instead of the reigning queen – both of whom may have been “artificially inseminated.” Queens can live for as long as five years but most commercial beekeepers replace them every two years, and oftentimes, yearly. “Replace” is a euphemism for killing the queen. There are several reasons for this, which boil down to exerting control over the hive. It is done to prevent swarming, aggression, mite infestation, and to keep honey production at a maximum.”

    Anyway, why eat an animal product when there are plenty of vegan substitutes (i.e., agave nectar in place of honey)? The argument that
    one does not have access to vegan products is a lazy excuse. It may take a little effort on your part to read labels or cook your own food or develop your own recipes in order to ensure you are eating ethically, but then most things that you strongly believe in are worth that effort. I’m not saying I am perfect nor am I one to judge (think: gelatin supplements and marshmallows), but why do people feel compelled to label themselves as vegan if they are consciously going to eat cheese or honey, even if it’s only on “special” occasions?

  44. Hey Lane (and Jane)!

    I just got a notice of a post on a blog I’m subscribed to (It’s Not East to Be Green) and it made me think of this post of yours (and all the controversy it stirred up!) and I thought you might like to see her post. She’s a vegetarian who eats clam chowder once a year and she talks about labels and controversy and the (lack of) value of criticizing our fellow veg*ns.


  45. Mistreatment of Queen Bees


    Vegans eating honey sounds as stupid and contrary as vegetarians that eat eggs.

    Sometimes it is very hard/impossible to avoid a product, but honey is not hard to avoid.

    If a, “label,” annoys you and you use animal products, you do not have a problem, ” omnivore,” is not used a lot. lol

  46. I must say I am still torn between all the information on being a Vegan. There is too much confusion and there are too many people making a big deal out of everything. In my personal opinion I think bee keeping is just fine and there is nothing wrong about it. The bees are doing what they naturally do the only difference is the beekeeping makes sure that the hive is in good shape and are able to produce honey. Just my thoughts!

  47. It is not what the bees naturally do. They make their own food to eat through the winter. The beekeeper takes away their natural food and feeds them sugar water over the winter. They build up a harvest that is stolen from them and replaced with something that has calories but none of the important nutrients their original product had. Malnutrition is not what the bees “signed up for.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.