Monday, June 2, 2014

Vegans and the Honeybee

I've been meaning to write a blog post for a while now about why vegans don't eat honey. According to the American Vegan Society, the short answer is that "vegans eat solely from the plant kingdom: vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds." For a long time after I went vegan, I continued to eat food that contained honey, if honey was the only non-vegan ingredient in the dish. Somehow, eating food that exploits an insect didn't seem quite as serious as eating food that harms or exploits other types of animals. Lately, though, I've stopped eating any items containing honey.

One reason for the change is that I've spent a lot of time lately worrying about honeybees, not because I want their food, but because they pollinate mine. You may have read about the disappearing honeybee population and the sudden onset of colony collapse disorder in recent years. The honeybee is currently facing so many problems that I don't want to do anything to add further stress to their already alarming situation.

What are some of those problems? I've been doing a little research on the subject, and at the risk of oversimplifying things, here's what I've learned:

1. At the top of the list would have to be the proliferation of pesticides used for insect control, especially a category of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. My understanding of these insecticides is that they can affect the nervous system of honeybees, causing them to become disoriented and making it difficult for them to find their way back to the hive. Alone and away from their colony, they die from exposure. Many European Union countries, following the precautionary principle, have placed a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids unless and until they can be proven safe. In the United States, unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn't follow the precautionary principle, choosing instead a method called risk assessment, which means that the use of these insecticides will be allowed if the EPA deems the risks to be reasonable. One of the problems with that is the issue of who does the research to determine whether the risks are reasonable or not. Apparently, the EPA relies on reports received from the insecticide manufacturers. Can you imagine? The question of whether a particular pesticide is safe is decided by the EPA based on information they receive from Monsanto or Bayer CropScience or Dow or some other corporation whose interests likely are not the same as the consumer's interests. Neonicotinoids are apparently going through another review at the EPA, where they will consider the potential effects on honeybees and other pollinating insects. However, this review won't be completed for another two to five years. How much harm will these insecticides do in the meantime?

2. Another major stressor for the honeybees is that most of them are factory-farmed. What does this mean in the context of bees? It means that there are industrial beekeepers with thousands of beehives who truck them across the country to whatever crop requires pollination at that moment. Instead of eating their own honey, which has likely already been collected by the beekeepers and bottled to sell, they are often fed sugar water or high-fructose corn syrup, which leads to malnourishment. When they arrive at their pollination destination, they are faced with a monoculture crop, rather than the diversity of crops that would be better from a nutritional standpoint. These stressors contribute to the weakening of the honeybees, making them more susceptible to harm from parasites and pathogens.

How does this play out with respect to the foods eaten by those of us who have adopted plant-based diets? The answer will vary with each type of crop, but one of the most honeybee-dependent crops, almonds, is already facing a honeybee shortage. According to a recent article in Mother Jones, California's almond industry requires 1.6 million honeybee hives in order to pollinate their crops each year, and 1 million of those hives must be trucked in from out of state. There was a significant die-off during this year's almond grove pollination, which many are blaming on the fact that monoculture farming is particularly reliant on the use of pesticides. The demand for California's almonds continues to increase in the global marketplace, but there are fewer and fewer honeybees to pollinate the crops needed to meet that demand.

I don't know about you, but I can do without almonds, if necessary. But honeybees are also responsible for pollinating apples, avocados, grapefruit, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, and lots of other foods that are mainstays of my diet. The declining honeybee population is a problem for those of you who aren't vegan too, as honeybees pollinate many of the crops that feed your food. The biggest concern for me is that I don't know what can be done on a large scale to help the honeybees. Sure, I can buy produce from organic farms that plant a variety of crops and don't rely on pesticides, but that won't help the vast majority of the world's people who don't have that option available to them. The reason that industrial agriculture practices monoculture farming is because it's the most expedient and cost-effective way to grow food for a population that has become used to relatively cheap food. Industrial farmers and industrial beekeepers need each other, and unfortunately, most of the world seems to need them.

The research materials I've used, such as Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, a book by Rowan Jacobsen, or the film Vanishing of the Bees have painted a rather dire picture of what's in store for us. My next step will be to review more solution-oriented materials, such as Gunther Hauk's Toward Saving the Honeybee or the film Queen of the Sun. I'm hoping to post a future blog article with suggestions for things we can all do to help address this problem.

I know that vegans all over the world read this blog, and I'm hoping you'll share your thoughts on the honeybee crisis and any suggestions you may have for helping us all get out of this mess. Please use the comments section to tell me what you think should be done. I'd love to hear from you!

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