Is Honey Vegan?
Dr. Michael Greger, in a
celebrated article "Why
Honey is Vegan" in Satya in September 2005, said that
vegans should rethink their position on honey. Nonvegans sympathetic to
the suffering of animals on factory farms find the avoidance of honey
puzzling and inconsistent. "Our public avoidance of honey is
hurting us as a movement. . . . In my eyes, if we choose to avoid honey,
fine. Letís just not make a huge production of it and force everybody
to do the same if they want to join the club."
Most non-vegans are going to be bewildered by this controversy. They
will roll their eyes and conclude that, despite our assurances, we
really are from planets circling the Vega star system. On the
other hand, most vegans who have anything to say about this have
evidently already made up their minds: they donít agree with Dr.
Greger on this point. Whatís the fuss about?
Letís back into this problem by looking at what Dr. Greger says and
what the responses say.
Dr. Gregerís Argument
Greger makes two points:
(1) While not eating meat, dairy products, and eggs out of compassion
for animals makes a certain amount of sense to sympathetic non-vegans,
abstaining from honey does not.
(2) The vegan abstention from honey because of concern for insects
isnít consistent; other activities almost universally practiced by
vegans kill more insects than bee-keeping. The general public
understands this lack of consistency at an intuitive level, and this
explains their negative reaction towards our abstention from honey.
What should we do about this, according to Dr. Greger? The title of
his short essay, "Why Honey is Vegan," implies that we
should redefine "veganism" to allow consumption of honey. The
conclusion of his essay gives a slightly different solution -- "if
we choose to avoid honey, fine. Letís just not make a huge production
of it and force everybody to do the same if they want to join the
club." This would allow, for example, veganism to continue to be
defined as excluding honey consumption, but "our club" would
only require abstention from meat, fish, fowl, dairy, and eggs, with
honey left as an optional item. Perhaps we would call ourselves the
"ethical vegetarians against factory farming." In any event,
despite the title of his article, I think that Dr. Greger really leaves
it open as to how we should package our advocacy. He just wants,
somehow, to get away from the mindless insistence on doctrinal purity.
This difference may seem like an excessively subtle point, but itís
actually critical to understanding what is going on here. The term
"vegan," which twenty years ago was almost totally unknown,
now has cachet. It is worth fighting for. It means something to a lot of
The "Overwhelming Number of Respondents" Who Disagree
I donít want to be overly critical of these responses -- after all,
what can you say in a paragraph on this subject? But alas, even as a
very general viewpoint, they are completely inadequate. If this is
typical of the reasoning of vegans, then I do not see much reason for
hope for the vegan community.
Notice that I have italicized the references to "extreme."
All of the objectors attack the view that eating honey is perceived as
"extreme," even putting the term in quotes, suggesting this it
might be a direct quotation from Gregerís article. But Greger
nowhere uses this term in his article, it is only in the VegNews
description of his article.
Which brings us to the next problem: the VegNews summary of
Dr. Gregerís article is slightly misleading. They state that Dr.
Gregerís article "suggests that publicly abstaining from honey
harms the veg movement by presenting it as too Ďextreme.í" In
defense of VegNews, it is fair to point out that Dr. Greger did
say that "our
public avoidance of honey is hurting us as a movement."
What does Dr. Gregerís phrase about "public avoidance of
honey" actually mean? Itís a bit ambiguous. Two scenarios
immediately spring to mind: (1) it could refer to talking about
honey: Dr. Greger is explaining his philosophy of compassion to a
potential convert, and says that to be compassionate one may either
consume or not consume honey; or (2) it could refer to eating
honey: Dr. Greger is eating with a potential convert and they say,
"honey sandwich, Dr. Greger?" and Dr. Greger accepts it and
Obviously, the second scenario could arise, whereby actually ingesting
honey might assist in converting someone to near-veganism, possibly
saving various cows and chickens at the expense of the particular bees
that died for this particular bit of honey. It's rather unlikely,
because declining to eat honey (non-dogmatically) probably
wouldn't make people think that badly of your ideas. But suppose
it were the case: then one might have to
perform a bit of quick ethical calculus figuring the number of bees
killed for this particular bit of honey, the number of cows and chickens
that might be saved, the probability that this act might actually
increase the odds of making a convert, the relative worth of bees versus
chickens, and so forth.
But this sort of "your child or the dog" dilemma is not the
question Dr. Greger is raising, and this is obvious if you read the
whole article. Heís not talking about ingesting honey, and he has no
objection to principled refusal to eat honey. Itís making an issue
out of honey which is the problem -- the insistence on the advocacy
of abstaining from honey. VegNews has excerpted a phrase from his
article which gives the impression that Dr. Greger is saying that we
should actually eat honey in order to convince people that weíre
Sure enough, two of the three critical responses assume this very
thing. "Why should vegans ingest honey?" asks one; the other
queries "some people think that not eating meat and/or dairy is
extreme; should we eat it twice a week to appease their weary
minds?" These people have both read the VegNews synopsis,
but have not read Dr. Gregerís article, where he specifically says
"if we choose to avoid honey, fine. Letís just not make a huge
production of it."
There is more evidence that the respondents did not read the original
article: none of the negative responses address Gregerís second point.
Objecting strenuously only to one form of insect-killing, but not to
others, is capricious -- and non-vegans know it. This is really the
heart of Gregerís argument. Why do the objectors not respond to this?
Most likely, for the same reason they use the term "extreme,"
and the same reason they assume that heís talking about eating honey:
because they havenít read the original article.
The responses do at least attempt to engage Dr. Greger on a factual
question, that omnivores will think the worse of us because of our
stance on honey. Omnivores will not be affected by our position on
honey, they already think weíre too "extreme." This
is a pretty grim rebuttal of Gregerís thesis; the argument appears to
be, in effect, that omnivores are hopeless and will see our point of
view as "extreme" no matter what we say or do. So we might as
well go ahead and be "extreme"; outreach is doomed to failure.
VegNews observes that "the overwhelming number of
respondents disagreed with Dr. Gregerís position." Iím not sure
how this ratio would be changed if VegNews had given a bit more
accurate synopsis, but still this does not bode well for future
discussion. It is reasonable to assume that VegNews picked the
best responses, not the worst; and if this is the case, we have
established is that "the overwhelming number of respondents"
either have not read the article or have not really thought about the
Bees and Chickens
So is this a big deal? How big of a deal? Is it true, as one of the
critical respondents said, that "to bring harm to a bee is just as
significant as harming a cow or a chicken"? It might be worthwhile
to take a moment and consider the non-vegan point of view comparing bees to (say) factory-farmed egg-laying
chickens. From such a point of view, it might easily appear that bees and chickens occupy rather
1. Bees are insects and chickens are animals. In fact, some would say
that insects are not animals at all. This is a semantic issue reflecting
an underlying reality: pigs, chickens, horses, and squirrels have a lot
in common, and a lot of obvious differences between them and spiders,
termites, ants, and bees. It makes sense to say that humans are animals.
It does not make sense to say that humans are insects.
2. Bees kept for honey are not 100% killed by humans. In fact,
bee-keepers do not necessarily have to kill them directly at all, but
even to inspect the hives it is unavoidable that some bees will be
killed. However, factory farmed egg-laying chickens are 100% killed by
humans when they cease being productive (if they donít die first).
3. During their lives, virtually all factory farmed egg-laying
chickens lead a horrible existence, being kept in small cages and
suffering untold brutalities. Many bees, however, lead a relatively
ordinary existence, essentially living out their natural lives doing
their bee thing. In relationship to the corresponding life that it would
reasonably expect to live in the wild, a "kept" bee has a much
better chance than a "kept" chicken.
Bees As Pollinators
Thereís another significant issue concerning bees, and that is
their role as pollinators. Domestically
managed bee colonies have dropped by half since 1945. Feral
essentially disappeared in the United States. The value of bee pollination for both
humans and wildlife is hard to quantify but is probably immense.
One-third of U. S. crops depend on pollinators; some
plants on the endangered species list are endangered precisely because
they lack pollinators.
Beekeepers now migrate from place to place in the country performing
pollination services for farmers, which helps human food supply but
masks the impact of the decline of honeybees on wild plants (and the
animals which depend on the plants). Beekeepers may make just as much or more
money from pollination services as from selling honey. One emerging
practice among hobbyist beekeepers is "top bar" hives, which
produce much less honey but also requires much less disturbance (and
killing) of bees.
In any event, the use of bees as pollinators raises a significant
problem for those objecting to honey on the grounds that bee-keeping
kills insects. To be consistent, one would also need to object to all
bee-keeping, and then how are we going to pollinate our crops, and how
are wild plants on which wild animals depend going to be pollinated?
Of course, this is not to say that a consistent point of view
attacking both honey and bee-keeping couldnít be defended. Itís crop
monocultures, bioinvasions, and pesticide use that have led to the
decline of wild honeybees -- not vegans boycotting honey. But this
raises a whole series of new issues which are not easily addressed. Does
consistent veganism now involve opposition to crop monocultures,
restrictions on travel to combat bioinvasions, and worldwide organic
standards? If it doesnít, then how are you going to pollinate your
crops, and how are wild plants going to be pollinated? Wouldnít an
abolition of bee-keeping lead to many more deaths of animals and humans
than the number of bees inadvertently killed in the practice of
bee-keeping? We are getting further and further from the core issue of
compassion to animals, and it isnít even clear that abolishing
bee-keeping would be increasing rather than decreasing the total amount
of compassion in the world.
problem is the one that Dr. Greger is more concerned about: the
"consistency" issue. If vegans are against killing bees, and
they are making such a big deal about it that they are including it in
their definition of "vegan," then does that mean that we
should strive to stop killing all insects? Why do we object to the
rather small matter of bee-keeping and ignore the huge matter of
pesticide use? Would we refuse to eat a vegan meal if some of the
ingredients were not organic? Would we declare that vegans who
occasionally ate a meal with non-organic ingredients were not "true
vegans"? If not, why not?
Thereís a more general problem here; itís not just whether honey
is vegan, but how do we know whether anything is vegan? Does veganism
mean anything consistent at all? It is very difficult to formulate a
definition of veganism which excludes honey according to a consistent
global principle that most vegans actually follow. This whole issue has
been discussed (mostly informally) at length since the term "vegan"
was coined in 1944. Numerous definitions have been put forward; they all
-- Veganism could be defined in terms of a global prohibition:
"a vegan is someone who does not use animal products or cause harm
to animals." But this would make it virtually impossible to be a
vegan at all. Cars, the streets, and sidewalks all have animal products;
you canít walk anywhere without occasionally stepping on an ant or
other insect; to raise food, even if you are "organic" and do
not directly kill insects in the process of tilling the ground, some
insects are bound to be inadvertently harmed.
-- Veganism could be defined in terms of intention and effort.
Perhaps a vegan is "someone who usually avoids animal
products," or "someone who tries to do the least harm
to sentient creatures," or "someone who does not use animal
products, whenever practical." This goes to the heart of
what veganism is about but as a practical matter leaves open the
question of what is usual, what a reasonable effort would be, and what
-- Veganism could be defined in terms of a list. A vegan is
"someone who does not use the following items," followed by a
list. This would be practical and would resolve disputes arising over
whether particular items are (or are not) vegan; but it would provide no
intrinsic underlying reason as to why some items are on the list, and
others are not on the list.
The British Vegan Societyís Articles of Association define veganism
in terms of intention and effort -- "Ďveganismí denotes a
philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude ó as far as is
possible and practical ó all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to,
animals for food, clothing or any other purpose." This does not
specify that insects are animals; but if one takes it that way, one
could plausibly argue that not eating non-organic food because of
pesticide use is far more important than not eating honey because of the
The American Vegan Societyís definition mixes all three strategies
-- the global prohibition, the "list" strategy and the
"intention and effort" strategy. There is a global prohibition
on eating any animal products, with honey specifically mentioned; then
there is a list of certain items used for certain purposes (leather,
fur, etc.); and finally there is a vague declaration about intention and
effort to cover everything else ("Vegans usually try to avoid . . .
animal oils, secretions, etc. . . .")
While this rather complicated definition works well as a political
way of defining veganism, it is very awkward to explain to a non-vegan.
The basic definition being offered is actually, "A vegan is someone
who avoids animal products as much as possible, and this is what we
think is possible." To avoid arguments, a specific list of the most
contentious items are given.
Most non-vegans and even some vegans, on hearing all this, are just
going to roll their eyes and walk away. What happened to compassion?
What happened to ethics? What happened to reverence for life? These have
all gotten lost in a shuffle of words. Why is this fanatical attention
to detail necessary? Isnít basic compassionate action enough? Well,
that is basically Dr. Gregerís point -- and it is evident that there
are a lot of people, the "overwhelming number of respondents"
according to VegNews, who are interested in this fanatical
attention to detail, and do want to make a big deal out of it.
Clearly, vegans have a problem.
Can the Definition of "Vegan" Be Changed?
What should we do?
The crux of the problem is not how we define veganism, but who
exactly who "we" are. Dr. Gregerís concluding sentence is:
"Letís just not make a huge production of it [abstaining from
honey] and force everybody to do the same if they want to join the
club." What is this "club"?
Iím not sure what Dr. Gregerís intentions are, but if we accept
his analysis (and I do) we could do one of two things: (1) we could
redefine "vegan" so that honey consumption is optional; or (2)
we could accept the definition of "vegan," but define our
"club" in some other way -- perhaps as "ethical
vegetarians against factory farming," which would exclude dairy and
eggs but allow honey.
The idea of a strong movement which agreed on the rejection of meat,
fish, fowl, dairy products, eggs, fur, and leather, but did not
agree on the honey issue, appears to be so threatening to at least some
people that they rise up in outrage to denounce the very idea. I have a
certain amount of sympathy for this position; I donít think we should
arbitrarily redefine our terms on the grounds of convenience. It is
certainly possible that, despite all this, one could overcome this
opposition and change the definition of "vegan."
But I think we have to squarely face the possibility that the
definition of "vegan" couldnít be changed even if we wanted
to. To undo the definition of veganism, weíd not only have to cross
the path of an animal rights movement dominated by activists intent on
keeping the movement as radical as possible, but also ironically the old
guard, the American Vegan Society, which is perhaps more than any other
group responsible for cementing the prohibition on honey in the
definition of veganism in the first place. Where does that leave us?
Veganism and animal rights are no longer obscure topics. This is a
mixed blessing; it is the radical animal activists who are largely
responsible for this, and they have also shaped public perceptions of
our movement. Today, so many people have heard of animal rights that
they have usually already heard of it, and formed an opinion one way or
the other -- often negative. They donít want to hear about it or talk
about it any more, thank you very much. Animal rights has become a new
kind of "culture war," which has made persuasion more
difficult; veganism is in danger of suffering the same fate.
How can we escape from a "culture wars" deadlock? The real
question is not whether vegans eat honey, but whether "we" eat
honey. Maybe this "we" needs to be redefined. Maybe we should
talk about "compassion for animals" instead of "animal
rights." Maybe we should seek "to inspire people to choose a
healthier, greener, more peaceful lifestyle" (the Toronto
Vegetarian Association). But whatever option we pick, we need to choose
a path which is non-dogmatic, consistent, plausible, and appeals to
people at a variety of different levels and in a variety of different
ways. The lead-fisted insistence on abstention from honey is not that
May 24, 2006