Thursday, November 6, 2014

Dr. Greger from 2005: Why Honey Is Vegan

2023 Update: for more (on this and many other topics) please check out Losing My Religions. You can read for free ("Start Reading Now")

Thanks so much!

I recently submitted an article for an online project of Satya's, and it reminded me of this gem by my longtime friend Dr. Michael Greger:

Honey hurts more than just bees. It hurts egg-laying hens, crammed in battery cages so small they can’t spread their wings. It hurts mother pigs, languishing for months in steel crates so narrow they can’t turn around. And the billions of aquatic animals who, pulled from filthy aquaculture farms, suffocate to death. All because honey hurts our movement.

It’s happened to me over and over. Someone will ask me why I’m vegan—it could be a new friend, co-worker, distant family, or a complete stranger. I know I then have but a tiny window of opportunity to indelibly convey their first impression of veganism. I’m either going to open that window for that person, breezing in fresh ideas and sunlight, or slam it shut as the blinds fall. So I talk to them of mercy. Of the cats and dogs with whom they’ve shared their lives. Of birds with a half piece of paper’s worth of space in which to live and die. Of animals sometimes literally suffering to death. I used to eat meat too, I tell them. Lots of meat. And I never knew either.

Slowly but surely the horror dawns on them. You start to see them struggling internally. How can they pet their dog with one hand and stab a piece of pig with the other? They love animals, but they eat animals. Then, just when their conscience seems to be winning out, they learn that we don’t eat honey. And you can see the conflict drain away with an almost visible sigh. They finally think they understand what this whole “vegan” thing is all about. You’re not vegan because you’re trying to be kind or compassionate—you’re just crazy! They smile. They point. You almost had me going for a second, they chuckle. Whew, that was a close one. They almost had to seriously think about the issues. They may have just been considering boycotting eggs, arguably the most concentrated form of animal cruelty, and then the thought hits them that you’re standing up for insect rights. Maybe they imagine us putting out little thimble-sized bowls of food for the cockroaches every night.

I’m afraid that our public avoidance of honey is hurting us as a movement. A certain number of bees are undeniably killed by honey production, but far more insects are killed, for example, in sugar production. And if we really cared about bugs we would never again eat anything either at home or in a restaurant that wasn’t strictly organically grown—after all, killing bugs is what pesticides do best. And organic production uses pesticides too (albeit “natural”). Researchers measure up to approximately 10,000 bugs per square foot of soil—that’s over 400 million per acre, 250 trillion per square mile. Even “veganically” grown produce involves the deaths of countless bugs in lost habitat, tilling, harvesting and transportation. We probably kill more bugs driving to the grocery store to get some honey-sweetened product than are killed in the product’s production.

Our position on honey therefore just doesn’t make any sense, and I think the general population knows this on an intuitive level. Veganism for them, then, becomes more about some quasi-religious personal purity, rather than about stopping animal abuse. No wonder veganism can seem nonsensical to the average person. We have this kind of magical thinking; we feel good about ourselves as if we’re actually helping the animals obsessing about where some trace ingredient comes from, when in fact it may have the opposite effect. We may be hurting animals by making veganism seem more like petty dogmatic self-flagellation.

In my eyes, if we choose to avoid honey, fine. Let’s just not make a huge production of it and force everybody to do the same if they want to join the club.


Unknown said...

As a passionate vegan who is open to criticism about advocacy, I appreciate Dr. Greger's comments. However, I have a different opinion. Let me first preface this by saying that as a holistic nutrition student with a science background, I deeply respect and admire Dr. Greger. I have had the pleasure of working with him and he is a very knowledgeable and kind man, doing amazing things.

However, the honey issue isn't only about killing bees. From an animal rights/liberationist view, the main problem is the elitism of the human race. We rule over everything around us taking what we want whenever and however we please. The honey belongs to the bees. They make it so they can survive the winter when food sources are low.

Also, from an environmentalist's view, the farming of honeybees is killing our natural bee population and harming our environment, not to mention killing the farmed bees. Without bees, we won't be able to have any pollinated produce i.e. nuts, berries, many vegetables. This is a dire, and current issue. We artificially create colonies, spray them with chemicals, take their honey and replace it with cheap sugar water, and truck them across the country over and over. This is causing what is known as 'colony collapse.' (please google or watch a documentary like 'Vanishing of the Bees').

So in summary, great article but there is much more behind the honey story. Vegans don't only care about 'not killing' animals. Many vegans have intersectionalist views about oppression, elitism, speciesism, environmentalism, etc. We must be constantly educating ourselves about all aspects of veganism and ethical living so that we can accurately educate our friends and family and be the best advocates for change that we can be.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this article wholeheartedly. Even though I do carry the large cockroaches out of my house, I don't talk about it at work. I am trying to get them to understand that pigs are feeling creatures and that cognitive dissonance is an option. I don't want to blow my argument by insect advocacy. It is just a matter of framing but it will make or break a person's willingness to accept this as a valid lifestyle. I may be a nutter, but if I choose not to be a honey-nutter I will keep it quiet because advertising it does not help anyone.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, once again, for being the voice of reason. I understand the environmental impact concern Law states, but when we start talking about oppression, elitism, speciesism about INSECTS--when most people won't even think about it when it comes to animals as sentient as pigs and cattle--we look like a bunch of loonies. Let's keep those philosophical debates on the Vegan Philosophy pages for navel gazing time. The animals, people and earth don't need us to be right (in the "let's examine all the logical corollaries of our beliefs" way) so much as they need us to be seen as reasonable and science-based. Because we are.

Anonymous said...

Jacqueline Law describes exactly how I feel about honey - along with beeswax, bee pollen, propolis, the bee bread they make to feed themselves and their larvae, and even royal jelly, which is a rare substance that makes a bee into a queen. All for sale.

At first, I didn't understand why honey is not vegan. I thought it was funny that bees are considered "livestock" because they're not killed, except incidentally. But I looked into it and learned that taking the bees' honey etc ignores the fact that the bees are fed sugar water to get them through the winter, because everything they worked so hard for all summer long was stolen. And the sugar water is usually laced with the antibiotic tetracycline.

I was a beekeeper many years ago, and that is how I was taught to take care of the hive. I loved my bees, and thought honey was a healthy and natural part of a good diet. Today, I follow many different Pinterest boards made by people who also love bees. Clearly, bees have been revered throughout history (even though the old-fashioned dome-shaped skeps were crushed to extract the honey, along with the hive and everybody who lived in it).

Because of my new understanding about honey, I no longer use it. Just like I don't use dairy any more, or eggs. It's tough to see people eating meat and using honey and all those things I gave up because I don't want to be part of animal abuse or environmental degradation. But it has taken me years and years to get here, and I don't feel that I'm in any position to lecture people about veganism. That's how I came to this site. To understand the best way to advocate.

(Trucking the bees to this or that orchard definitely stresses the bees, but I think what's pushing them over the edge is systemic insecticides called neonicotinoides, which poison entire plants, including their flowers and pollen.)

Anonymous said...

"truck them across the country" to grow the food vegans eat. calorie for calorie local organic honey causes far less harm to animals than almond milk.

"cheap sugar water"

the idea that this harms bees is nonsense. sugar syrups are often used to treat sick colonies. moreover, many apiaries use sugar sparingly.

i've never met an abolitionist/liberationist vegan who decries honey consumption but also abstains from shellac. apparently, the secretions of bees are verboten for vegans but the secretions of lac beetles are OK.

Unknown said...

It's compleyely hypocritical for vegans to preach about honey consumption being so wrong while they themselves are killing tons of bees with their vegan diet (massive pollinator commercial operations). It's so arrogant and makes veganism look ludicrous and I could not agree more with Dr. Greger. Vegans (and I consider myself a person who happens to practice veganism, don't just classify and call myself "a vegan" bc I'm more than that) need to stop being so damn judgy and arrogant and maybe more people will get turned onto it.

Anonymous said...

I reckon this piece is spot on. Vegans turn so many people off (whether at the start or partway through). If I hadn't already been mainly-vegan for quite a while 'solo' (because I read about it) before I learned about many of these other vegans I'd have been turned off!! I agree with the person who commented above me, they're really judgy and arrogant. Even when they make like they're "supportive" of others "taking steps" it's too-often done in a condescending way... And sometimes intensely out-of-proportion aggro. It reminds me of some religious cult of 'the belonging' and not belonging, with people shaming dissenters and the rest.

Anonymous said...

From David at raptitude: "Now it’s clear to me that it’s the label that’s the problem. Not the labeling of food, or shoes, but of people. I think it creates animosity on both sides, it defines the wall itself, and that prevents that wall from moving much. It seems that generally, vegans love their label, and love to deny it to non-vegans. If you were to tell a group of vegans that you’re a vegan who enjoys a tiny cube of cheese once every leap year they’ll say, “Oh so you’re not vegan then.” And technically they’re right."