Honey vs Agave Syrup: Who’s the Culprit?

Before I start, I just want to state for the record that there are no grey areas when it comes to the question of whether honey is vegan. Honey has been produced by bees, therefore it is not ours to take, and by raising them just for their products, we are exploiting them. Someone who avoids meat, dairy and eggs but yet will happily drink honey tea should be labelled as a plant-based eater, not a vegan.

That being said, there still seems to be a lot of confusion amongst people – particularly critics, or environmentalists – who say that they would choose to eat honey every day over agave syrup, due to the unsustainable way in which it is grown. In their eyes, honey causes less environmental destruction than agave does, so therefore honey is the more ethical choice. As both of these products are sweet-tasting syrups often used in similar contexts, I thought it would make sense to make a side-by-side comparative post.

Also, researching and writing this post will serve as a form of education for me. It was only recently that I made the connection to agave syrup potentially being environmentally problematic – when I read someone’s post about how they avoid it as much as palm oil. (Why should one avoid palm oil? Find out here). So it just goes to show that even vegans aren’t “perfect”. Everything is about learning, educating yourself, and adapting to what you believe to be the most sustainable manner of living.

'Bee-apis' by Maciej A. Czyzewski is licensed under CC 4.0 international

Honey

The honey industry is not okay. I don’t care how many people claim to buy their honey from small-scale beekeepers, it’s still not for you to take. Locally-sourced honey or whatever just reminds me of phrases like free-range eggs. It’s just fancy words to try and draw people’s attention away from the damage that is actually happening.

It’s common knowledge that bee populations are drastically dwindling and have been for a few years now. Even from personal experiences I am very aware of this. When I was a child I have memories of seeing lots of bees in the summer around the flower beds. Now, as an adult, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I’d only seen two this year. If bees go extinct, that is bad news for us mere humans. Bees pollinate up to 70% of our crops, so if they were no longer around, human labourers would have to take over. This would mean hard work, long hours, an increase in food prices, and a decrease in food availability.

'Honey-benefits' by Lama Raheem is licensed under CC 4.0 International

Honey – aka Bee Food

Bees are so vitally essential to our ecosystem … essential enough that we … enslave them and take their food? That doesn’t add up.

Humans should be doing everything they can to save and restore bee populations, and this can be done without taking their honey. Using less pesticides on crops, leaving weeds and wildflowers to grow, and planting bee-friendly flowers would be a good start. And of course, there’s the trend of leaving small basins of water/ sugar water outside for bees when they get tired. Support the beekeepers that don’t exploit them for their honey, if you can find any like that.

And of course, if you liked eating honey with your foods, there’s an abundance of other options. Brown sugar, maple syrup, rice syrup and agave syrup are all potential alternatives. Speaking of agave…

Agave Syrup

The syrup comes from a plant which grows primarily in Mexico (and now other countries with similar climates), and it is very sweet (many people don’t consider it a good/”healthy” food because of its fructose content). However, it has been marketed as a health food by companies claiming  it is better than sugar, and for this reason, its popularity has vastly increased.

This is problematic. The agave plant takes around six years to grow before it reaches maturity, and only then can it be harvested to make the nectar. A growing popularity for the syrup means that many more  must be planted – and fast, in order to keep up with consumer demands. These farms, or plantations, will take up a lot of space which of course will eventually run out, especially as they can only grow in certain climates.

Undoubtedly, this will not only impact the landscape, but the surrounding flora and fauna. In its very nature of being a succulent, the plant has been labelled as being ‘invasive’, as its presence makes it difficult for other, more vulnerable, plant species to thrive.

'Agave-Fields' by Hispanoamerikano is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Worldwide consumer demand for agave means that the transportation of this plant will yield a high carbon footprint. That being said, the same can apply for many food-types (such as bananas).

I think the main issue with the agave plant is that it is unsustainable to grow for the masses. A combination of land required to grow the plant and the time it takes to grow makes it an unwise product for people to latch on to.

What do I advise?

Well, like with anything, the advice I suggest is first and foremost to do your own research and generate your own opinions. As I was researching agave (not nearly as much information was provided in comparison to the sustainability issue of palm oil!) I came across debates on whether agave was better for the environment than cane sugar.

I didn’t research this as I didn’t want to make a dissertation on the sustainability of sweeteners … but I think that these arguments just imply that there are many different perspectives that can be brought to the table about this.

So, my advice: Please don’t buy and consume honey. It’s not yours to take, and whilst local honey will have almost zero carbon footprint/environmental impact, that doesn’t mean that the bee’s life and well-being is worth any less. Call me a sappy hippy if you like, but that’s just the moral baseline of veganism.

When it comes to other sweeteners, I would advise avoiding or limiting your agave syrup consumption, except perhaps with the exception of citizens living in Mexico or South America. With cane sugar, I’d advise purchasing it Fairtrade, that’s what I always do. Or I buy it from an Oxfam. Charities are problematic, but I’d rather fund a charity than a business only out to make money… With everything else, the only suggestion I can give is to do your own research. Rice syrup and maple syrup seem like good options, but I haven’t looked into those products thoroughly.

 What do you think? What sweeteners do you use? Are there any that you particularly avoid? Let me know in the comments! Don’t forget to share this page and subscribe to the website for new content. You can also find me on YoutubeTwitter,Instagram, Google + and Tumblr for even more!

Image Attribution

‘Bee-apis’ by Maciej A. Czyzewski is licensed under  CC BY-SA 4.0

‘Honey-benefits’ by Lama Raheem is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

‘Agave-Fields’ by Hispanoamerikano is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

 

Palm Oil: The Ethical Dilemma

Whilst palm oil is technically vegan (it contains no animal-derived products), it is not a product that vegans should be consuming. There are two main reasons for this.

If you’re an ethical vegan, then you want to minimise the damage and effects that your actions have on the animals around you. That’s obviously why you don’t eat animals, or any animal products. Nor do you fund zoos, preferring to support animal sanctuaries where the sentient beings are not being locked up and exploited against their will. And whilst I know it’s impossible to be 100% animal cruelty free (for example, if you’re on neccesary medication), it is possible to greatly reduce your palm oil intake.

If you’re vegan for the environment, well, the connection is simple. You are aware that 136 million rainforest acres are cleared for animal agriculture, so by going vegan you’re playing a significant role in decreasing this. And, if you’ve seen Cowspiracy, you’ll know that in comparison, the rainforest cleared to grow palm oil is tiny. In fact, it’s only 26 million. But that statistic alone is still huge, and in order to do all you can for the environment, cutting out palm oil is a good step.

'Riau palm oil 2007' by Hayden is licensed under CC BY 2.0

So, what is palm oil and why is it bad?

Palm oil is the most popular type of vegetable oil, due to it’s quick growth speed and its versatility (you can find it in foods, cosmetics, even household cleaners). Of course, like everything that is grown on a large scale, destruction is never too far behind.

Rainforests and jungles are home to many different species of animals, most of whom have their habitat compromised by the deforestation that takes place to make room for palm plantations. I’m not going to list every animal who has been affected by the palm oil industry (there’s over 300,000), but these following animals are an example of how human interference can greatly endanger species. Orangutans, Sumatran Tigers, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bears, Pygmy Elephants, Clouded Leopards and the Proboscis Monkey have all felt the impact of palm oil. Another thing that many of these animals have in common is the increase in poaching, again, influenced by deforestation, which makes hunting easier.

'Borneo-sepilok-proboscis-monkey' by Casen. Available on CC0 Public domain

Many animals are affected by the palm oil industry, including the proboscis monkey

Is it all bad?

The short answer, is no. As a vegan, environmentalist, or wildlife conservationist, I would definitely advise people to boycott palm oil. But that doesn’t mean you should cut out all types of it.

Sustainable, ethically sourced palm oil is something that we should actively be supporting. At the moment, I’d say it’s less common than ‘regular’ palm oil, but you can still find the RSPO logo on many supermarket products. Funding this shows your support for Indonesian people who work on the plantations. Turning palm oil industries sustainable has greatly improved their quality of life. On top of this, sustainable palm oil actively fights to conserve and protect the animals and the rainforest. They understand the demand and need for palm, but at the same time, they are aware of worker’s rights, animal rights and the importance of the rainforest on our ecosystem.

What can I do?

We, the people, the consumers, are funding the industry with our dollar. In a way, we are the most important piece of the puzzle. If we collectively stopped buying products containing unsustainable palm oil, there would be no need for the industries to carry on. Even more so, if we actively funded and supported the growth of sustainable palm oil, we would also be supporting conservation, animal protection and many worker’s rights.

So, the following list contains a few examples of things you can do to help influence the palm oil industry for the better.

  1. If you haven’t done so already, go vegan. In addition to saving rainforest acres through the consumption of sustainable palm oil, ditching the dairy and the meat will significantly add to the positive impact you are having on the environment.
  2. Boycott companies that use unsustainable palm oil. This goes without saying, really. And when it comes to food, it’s easy enough to check labels to find out the ingredients. If you’re living in the UK, Sainsbury’s products seem to almost always be made with sustainable palm oil.
  3. Eat more whole foods and live minimally. If the majority of your diet comes from fruit, vegetables, legumes, and grains, then you’re unlikely to come across many foods containing palm oil. The bulk of palm oil ends up in processed foods. Buy less makeup/cosmetics, and when you do make a purchase, do some research and buy from an ecofriendly/sustainable/vegan company. Palm oil production has increased because consumer demands have increased. Let’s rethink and reduce our demands.
  4. Buy eco-friendly household products. Ecover is a good example, their products contain sustainable palm oil, are vegan, and cruelty free. Their brand is available in the UK, Europe and North America (and also online).
  5. Educate your family and friends. If you reduce your palm oil intake, that’s wonderful, but if you inspire others to follow in your footsteps, that’s even better!
  6. Use your power as a consumer to get your voice heard. Email companies, tell them what you want from them. Ask them why they don’t use sustainable palm oil. Praise the companies that do (this is just as important, positive reinforcement is good!). You can also sign petitions, as strength in numbers often pushes through change. Sending an email or signing an online petition won’t take more than a few minutes out of your day, but it could get your voice heard.
  7. Always remember, that even if you feel like you are alone in this, you are making a difference. Every individual has a voice, and every individual can make an impact. In times like this, I like to turn to this story to remind myself of this.

'Oil palm plantation in Cigudeg-03' by Achmad Rabin Taim, licensed for use under CC BY 2.0

That’s all I’m going to be writing about this topic for the time being. If it becomes popular, I may do a more in-depth post about the specific animals that the palm oil industry effects, or on specific products that I use which are palm-oil free.

Do you think it’s important to boycott unsustainable palm oil? What do you do to try and minimise the negative impact you’re having on the planet’s wildlife and environment? Let me know in the comments! Don’t forget to share this page and subscribe to the website for new content. You can also find me on YoutubeTwitter,Instagram, Google + and Tumblr for even more!

Image Credits:

Riau palm oil 2007‘ by Hayden is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Borneo-sepilok-proboscis-monkey‘ by Casen is available for free use on CC0 Public Domain

Oil palm plantation in Cigudeg-03‘ by Achmad Rabin Taim, licensed for use under CC BY 2.0