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.
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.
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…
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.
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 Youtube, Twitter,Instagram, Google + and Tumblr for even more!