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November 2005
All This Talk About Honey
By Catherine Clyne

 

We received numerous letters responding to Michael Greger’s article “Why Honey Is Vegan” (Satya, September 2005), mostly in opposition. Greger’s piece and those letters inspired the following.

It’s about intention. It’s about consistency. And it’s about causing the least amount of harm possible.

If you need me to elaborate, I can.

Intention
With all this flap over honey, you’d think there were legions of smug, self-referential vegans out there shoveling down soup bowls of honey every day.

Need I disabuse you of this absurdity?

Casting the First Stone
Pesticides. Herbicides. What do these have in common? The suffix cide means to kill—you know, to poison. If you call yourself vegan and don’t insist on organic as part of your definition of vegan and accuse others of hypocrisy or worse—hijacking a sacred definition—for consuming honey... Well, need I spell it out for you?

Some vegans eschew honey because its production inherently exploits bees. Its extraction also causes harm, trauma, even death to bees when humans take what isn’t theirs, the fruits of labor of hundreds of individuals. Others shun it because it’s actually an animal product. Whatever gyrations you want to go through, bottom line is: honey is bee vomit. Enough said.

No one is giving the green light for vegans to gleefully lick the honey jars clean, or include bee oppression in their definition. But if we’re going to be casting stones about who or what is vegan, let’s at least be consistent.

Consistency
No one is arguing that honey is not an animal product. And I’m not arguing that nonorganic vegetables and fruits are animal products. For instance, I’m not suggesting that broccoli is actually the dead flesh of a living, breathing, blood-filled creature, or derived from one. But the number of animals—insects, birds, mammals—harmed and murdered by vegans who eschew honey while blithely consuming industrially produced fruits and vegetables are wearing bloody blinders.

I’m not going to get into the body count. I’m sure your vegan imagination, once you get past the denial and anger (What?! I’m not not vegan!), can do a much better job.

I’ll just remind you of the two words mentioned above: pesticide and herbicide. Their intention is to kill. And they’re wildly, famously effective. Chemical empires flourish on their global profits. Although organic eschews the more lethal of the cides, I’m not ignorant enough to suggest that organic production doesn’t kill or harm animals or that the USDA standards guarantee that no poisonous chemicals are used at all. I’m also not naive enough to dream that the process of fruit and vegetable growing itself doesn’t harm and kill critters. However, let’s get a little perspective here. The sheer numbers of animals directly slaughtered by industrial pesticides and herbicides are formidable. Bugs: millions upon millions upon millions dispatched by the routine application of chemicals to keep them from nibbling on our pure vegan fruits and veggies. So many, they’re uncountable. It’s a regular insect holocaust. Pesticides kill “pests”—billions every day.

They kill birds, too. Just read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to get the general idea. (Though the particular chemical she wrote about—DDT—which silenced the birds has since been outlawed in U.S. food production, there are equally powerful variations and sister chemicals doing as good of a job. Oh, and DDT is still produced by U.S. companies for use abroad, so if you consume imported produce...)

Poisons sprayed onto crops kill mammals too. We all: breathe in pesticides and herbicides used by industrial agriculture. We absorb them through our skin, eat them, drink them—live them. These chemicals leach into the soil and groundwater to contaminate our drinking and bathing water. It’s not the outright slaughter millions of poisoned insects experience, but the combination of chemicals directly contribute to: premature mortality, neurological disorders, and rising incidences of cancer, among many other worrisome, potentially lethal things.

The human animals who toil in the fields picking our vegan produce for us are directly in the line of fire and demand our concern, too.

Being Vegan/ Ahimsa
Being vegan is about doing our very best to cause the least amount of harm. It is a process. I wish it were as black and white as a list of ingredients. That would make it so much easier. But life isn’t like that.

Some vociferous vegans seemed to miss Michael Greger’s primary point, which is: if you’re talking to nonvegans about veganism and you’d like them to be receptive to your message and maybe plant some seeds of compassion, what is most likely to be most effective? If you’re not interested in planting seeds and just interested in talking about yourself and your code of purity, say whatever you like and turn the page now.

But if you’re interested in driving home the daily reality of billions of animals and introducing people to the concept of ethical veganism in a tiny window of opportunity, talking about animal suffering in factory farms is one major way to touch hearts and minds. In such instances, the gross suffering of farmed animals speaks loudly for themselves, at the same time serving as quiet representatives for the birds and the bees.

If someone seems receptive or asks me about them, I’ll talk about honey, and silk and wool and casein and leather and down pillows and vegan cosmetics that use animal testing. I’ll listen to their concerns and I’ll talk about the vegan imperatives of reducing, reusing and recycling; organic; fair trade and sweatshop-free. If prompted, I’ll discuss the ahimsa of using mass transportation and not having a driver’s license; of the simple matter of carrying your own reusable shopping bags and choosing products with the least amount of packaging. I’ll discuss chopsticks, cotton, and the importance of eating and acting locally. If they seem open to it, I’ll let them in on my philosophy of the personal responsibility to not reproduce and the big elephant of human overpopulation. I’ll talk about why I prioritize consuming from vegan, woman-owned, eco-conscious eateries and businesses, and the fun of thrift store shopping and clothing swaps.

I’ll listen to their responses and hopefully we’ll agree on the simple approach of being kind and setting a positive example. Maybe we’ll talk about the importance of doing the very best each one of us can, and allowing that absolutely none of us is perfect; and acknowledge the wisdom in the survival skill of energy conservation and economy—of our physical and psychic energy. Of being aware of my failures and shortcomings, trying better next time, and celebrating our successes. How often do we congratulate ourselves on actually getting something right? Oh yes, and the life-giving aspect of a healthy sense of humor.

A big part of this is about community, and expanding our circles of compassion to include other creatures, experiences, and ideas. And to acknowledge that none of us has all the answers.

What I hope for most is that all of this talk translates into action, on my part especially. Intention is important; practice is crucial. And that’s why I call it a practice. It’s a process, a constant learning endeavor, and a continuous shaping of integrative philosophy that’s translated into a way of being.

Those are all part of being vegan to me.

So, what does being vegan mean to you?

And, while I listen, would you like a spoonful of Suzanne’s Specialties’ “Just Like Honey” in your tea?

 


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