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?