consumerism environment food

Vegan honey and our relationship with nature

This week I came across an intriguing company called MeliBio that has developed a vegan honey. They have broken down the process that bees use to make honey and then replicated it using fermentation. It’s not a synthetic alternative to honey. It is biologically identical, even though no bees were involved. It is ‘animal free’.

Why? Because people have an unsustainable appetite for honey. Commercial bee-keeping threatens to overwhelm other bee species, reducing overall biodiversity and risking pollination. By making honey without bees, people get to enjoy the product without harming biodiversity. Especially vegans, who would welcome the product into the rapidly growing vegan foods market.

There’s no doubt that this is very clever, but I have a few hesitations.

For one thing, this strikes me as something of a first world solution. Like Bill Gates and his hydrogen fuel cell toilet, it assumes the solutions lie in science and technology, rather than in something simpler and perhaps more obvious. It’s also a consumerist solution, looking to solve the problem of unsustainable supply rather than asking if people should moderate their consumption. Honey used to be a delicacy, after all. It wasn’t an everyday food.

But then if you’ve got the science and technology, and people willing to fund the research and bring the novel honey to market, then there is also the question of ‘why not?’

I’m certainly not against biotech food solutions. I’m in favour of cultured meats, for example. But this is different, and there are reasons why we ought to think a little more about this honey.

Humans are part of nature. We are deeply embedded. Every time we take a breath, the outside world physically enters our bodies. We all contain as many bacterial cells as human cells, possibly more, blurring the edges of what we consider to be ourselves. Human life is about relationships.

Rather than seeing the world as a network of relationships, we often try to break the world into neater black and white categories. Such as honey that is an animal product, and honey that is animal free.

In reality, honey could be made by bees in an entirely ethical way. My mum is a beekeeper, and the honey that she produces is the result of a reciprocal arrangement between her and the bees. They get a home, treatment against disease, and a garden full of plants. The honey is taken from them, but they get something in return, in a relationship of care and respect. I am mostly vegan myself, but I have no problem with this honey.

Animal free honey, on the other hand, seeks to prise apart the relationships that bring us honey, inserting industrial processes for natural ones. Ultimately it still depends on relationships with nature, but these are now obscured. There is the relationship to the bacteria in the fermenting process. And how were the plants grown as inputs into the process? Were the soil bacteria, the worms, the insects and the birds in the fields respected in the production of those plant inputs? We don’t know, but the honey will still be marketed as ‘animal-free’ because the bees weren’t involved.

If our ethics are grounded in the idea of reciprocal relationships with other forms of life, then the idea of bee-less honey throws up another problem. MeliBio are congratulating themselves for replicating honey without the bees, but what have the bees received in return for their secrets? Is the chemical recipe for honey ours to take? What gives us that right? For all the good intentions, is cutting bees out of the process actually respectful to apian-kind?

I don’t necessarily have answers to those questions. They’re philosophical considerations. But there is a practical matter too, especially for a firm that is motivated by a desire to save the bees. And that’s this: if humanity can now make honey without bees, is that going to lead to better or worse outcomes for bees?

If we were to fast-forward 50 years, what would we find? Would all honey be fermented, as more companies work out the science and bring their products to market? Even if it’s a significant portion of honey created that way, what is the consequence for total bee numbers? And how are they perceived? What value do bees now have, absent their honey? Do humans in 2070 have an affection and admiration for bees, or they viewed like wasps?

Again, there are no right answers to those questions. They are questions I am asking myself.

To put all of that another way: humans have partnered with bees for thousands of years. In recent decades, that partnership has become exploitative, putting bees at risk. The MeliBio solution is to break off that relationship, and fundamentally separate bees from the product that we value them for.

Wouldn’t it be better to stop exploiting bees, restore the reciprocal arrangement, and repair that relationship instead?

15 comments

  1. We need to look for more solutions that embed us in nature rather than remove us from it. Because you’re right: breaking the bonds make it more likely that we will ultimately disrespect and dismiss other animals.

  2. Great commentary, thanks so much. I was interested to hear recently that Will Steffen (of ‘climate tipping points’ fame) is now actively working on the interface with societal changes, and he feels that indigenous people (particularly those in Australia where he lives) have much to teach us all about the ‘whole systems thinking’ (and attitudes that go with it) which I think you are alluding to in your article:
    http://www.thesustainabilityagenda.com/podcast/episode-94-interview-with-will-steffen-climate-scientist/
    Interesting also that people like Anne Poelina are combining quite rigorous academic reseearch with an indigenous Australian perspective: http://www.thesustainabilityagenda.com/podcast/episode-100-interview-with-anne-poelina-indigenous-australian-and-nyikina-traditional-custodian/
    I feel sure this is an approach we should all learn from, and I think it shows that what you advocate in your article also has wide applicability to many other areas.

    1. Yes, the interconnection of all things, and seeing the world as a network of relationships is common in indigenous thinking. It’s a way of thinking that seems to have been lost, though there are branches of science that lead us back in that direction.

      1. Yes I feel keen on a convergence of good science and traditional knowledge, done respectfullly etc. Hopefully helps avoid twin dangers of prejudice; premature dismissal and romanticising. And regarding your other response on relationship and reciprocity, that seems something traditional hunter-gatherers have a good handle on: a respectful awareness they are taking and (hopefully) keeping it in balance.

  3. A wonderful piece, Jeremy – yes indeed, what we need to do is re-establish proper mutual relationships with all of nature. I find it disturbing that so much of what I read about veganism is based on so many artificial and highly processed ingredients. My own exploration of vegan cooking and eating is to find ways to prepare tasty appetizing and nutritious foods from what is growing around us, using, where appropriate, traditional processes, such as fermentation for kimchi and sauerkraut – and to get that all important ‘umami’ taste with miso and such like.
    We are vegetarian and have been for over thirty years, but I have the greatest respect for proper highly relational animal husbandry – which is invariably based on ancient practices. I have recently been exploring Biodynamic Agriculture, as we have growers near Sheffield, and find that at least in northern Europe, animal husbandry is central to the complete balanced relationship with the land required of biodynamic practice. In the same way that honey can be made (or rather taken from the bees) in an entirely ethically way, so can dairy and meat (and leather for that matter). A sure sign that this is happening is that the produce is firstly way more expensive, and secondly way more tasty – or at least from my own experience, the vegetables, dairy produce and eggs are.
    I wonder just what this artificial honey tastes like – I am no fan of honey myself, but I know that you can smell the flowers the bees used with produce such as heather honey. We have cheese from tiny herds that are entirely grass fed, and you can taste the meadow, and the taste changes through the seasons – or usually the farmer does not make the cheese unless the milk is just right. I am told that the same applies with meat.
    And the price? – spend twice as much on half as much and fill up on vegetable and grain staples – we humans desperately need to cut our meat and dairy consumption, and I know that we have too much dairy, hence paying more attention to plant-based diets.

    1. Good points. I’ve been eating vegan for the last six months or so, moving from a very low meat and dairy diet, because my son wanted to try full veganism. As I’ve read up on it and learned more about its origins, the more I think it works well as a symbolic rejection of industrialised and exploitative food systems, but less well as a sustainable and potentially universal diet. It is itself a product of modernism, being codified in the 1940s.

      I also prefer the unprocessed and creative aspects of vegan food, though my children disagree! We have had to compromise somewhere in the middle.

  4. One element not mentionwd is that we love hony because of its medicinal qualities yet i dustrial fermented honey will not have the synergistic qualities of all the “whole system” of plants air water nd soil co ntributaing to its creatíon and creating a location specific immune system builder.

    Great article and totally in agrewment. It avoids himans from having to deal with reducing consumption!
    Thank you

  5. As a vegan in principle, I don’t have a problem with taking honey as long as it is a win-win. But many anti-honey vegans argue commercial hives take too much honey stressing the bees making them work far too hard. It would be interesting to come up with a figure of how much to take how often that keeps them from being overworked.

    1. Yes, there’s no question that commercial honey farming is exploitative, but I’m not convinced that it can’t be done well. There are, after all, many ways to keep bees. I don’t think it follows that rejecting commercial honey farming means rejecting natural honey altogether.

  6. It depends on the health of the bees. Bees need to be rewilded to dteengthen their immune system and learn how to defend the.selves from new attackers due to globalisation and clinate change.
    Strong bees that swarm (ie not queens being reproduced and fertilized and replaced (yes ut sound slike rape)) need as little himan interference as possible in terms of medicine to evolve biologically.
    Also the issue is when we take honey they believe they have to work harder. So wild bees actually do not collect as much nectar as farmed bees as they do not need to. They produce what they need. So if you live with a ‘predator’ that takes honey you produce more. The theory is to take as little s possible (1/8) amd use honey as medicine and a luxury item. We are rewilding and we do not take any.

    1. It’s an interesting one, because in a way all harvesting from nature is ‘taking’. I’m growing mushrooms at the moment, and when I pick them I am essentially appropriating the fungus’ means of reproduction. Everything I harvest from my garden is taking something that the plant had a use for.

      This is why I like to think in terms of relationship and reciprocity. What do I give back to the fungi, to the soil, to the plants? What is other side of the equation? And is the relationship in balance, or tilted in my favour?

        1. A good example of seeing nature as units rather than relationships. Shortage of pollinators? Release more pollinators! Rather than asking what wild bees need to thrive, and why they are in decline.

          1. yes – shows how we need to learn ‘systems thinking’ rather than being over-reductionist and thinking of things in isolation, as we’ve tended to do in recent centuries in Europe…

  7. Interesting point of view. I’ve never been a fan of vegan honey and prefer agave when sweetener is needed but in moderation. I can’t even remember the last time we bought it because it’s so scarcely used. I think humans are overwhelmingly addicted to sugar and stimulants (coffee, energy drinks, etc.). If we can address that, then perhaps our consumption will be more conscious as a whole. We can get all the energy we need from plants and our bodies are better served with water & and rest in between!

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