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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

Dr. 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 people.

The "Overwhelming Number of Respondents" Who Disagree

Vegans, apparently, arenít buying Gregerís argument. Satya got a large volume of mail on the subject, mostly in opposition. VegNews asked for responses and published some of them in the May/June 2006 issue. They commented that "the overwhelming number of respondents disagreed with Dr. Gregerís position." They then published a sampling of the opinions, which included three who were sharply critical. Here are key excerpts from the three letters critical of Dr. Greger:

"I can see Dr. Gregerís point . . . but people are going to think we are really Ďout thereí anyway. . . . I would rather be thought of as Ďextremeí than not committed to not causing harm to other beings."
"Omnivores already tell vegans that refusing to eat dairy and eggs is too Ďextreme.í"
"Vegans are not engaged in the lifestyle to appear a certain way to others; therefore, being told that avoiding honey causes others to see me as Ďtoo extremeí is irrelevant. We must cause the least harm to animals possible."

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 eats it.

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 authentic.

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 problem.

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 different categories.

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 honeybees have 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.

Defining Veganism

The second 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 have flaws.

-- 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 is practical.

-- 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 bees killed.

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 path.

Keith Akers
May 24, 2006