Vegan ethics and bee products - an issue more complex than it first appears

We rely on the work of bee-keepers for a large proportion of our food.

We rely on the work of bee-keepers for a large proportion of our food.

The vegan lifestyle is on the rise all over the world, with animal welfare, health and environmental impacts the biggest driving forces behind the movement. This increased uptake of the vegan lifestyle aligns with everything we stand for at Mokosh. However, because we use certified organic beeswax in two of our products, our range is sometimes questioned by vegans because beeswax, an animal product, is considered unethical. A vegan friend recently asked me why we don’t switch to vegan waxes in those products? It would simplify our marketing, we would probably sell more products, and it could be a great business decision. To be honest, we were tempted. So why are we not ready to let go of certified organic beeswax? 

Vegans rely on farmed bees

Agriculture in our modern world is under pressure to produce as much food as possible as cheaply as possible. Making a profit as a farmer in today’s world relies on extremely efficient farming. That means growing enormous crops of one or a few species, and relying on the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. To maximise profit, arable land cannot be wasted, and uncleared land is kept to a minimum. With this farming practice, any crops that need insect pollination are in trouble for two reasons. Firstly, the lack of nearby native vegetation means that local insect pollinators are scarce, and secondly, the heavy use of synthetic chemicals, particularly pesticides, means that the insects that do make it onto the crop are at risk of being poisoned. 

In Australia and particularly in the USA, farmed bees are relied upon to carry out pollination of important food crops, including avocados, almonds, apples, pears and stone fruits, and they are also important pollinators of pumpkins, zucchini, cucumber, blueberries, mangos, macadamias and others. In many cases honey bees have to be trucked into orchards to perform this pollinating task, and it has been estimated that the Australian beekeeping industry includes around 600,000 managed hives and is worth around A$100 million to the economy (1). 

There are estimates that as much as one third of food crops rely on honey bee pollination, while others say the figure may be as low as 10%. Either way, without farmed honey bees, we’d have a significant reduction in the variety and quantity of some of our most important plant foods. We all rely on farmed bees to some extent for our food - even vegans.

The health of our bees, and our other insects, is failing

Because the world relies on farmed bees for food, bee welfare is critical to our food security. Bee health is now recognised as an urgent issue world-wide following the identification of Colony Collapse Disorder in the USA over 10 years ago. It is now understood that the drastic decline in the population of bees is due to a range of factors, many of which are caused by intensive farming - pesticides, pollutants, parasites, diseases and malnutrition have been identified as the key stressors killing our bees (2).

The sad state of health of farmed bees is just a symptom of the poor health of our planet’s ecosystem: insect populations worldwide have undergone a catastrophic decline. The collapse of insect populations has been attributed to human factors including habitat loss, pollution - particularly from pesticides and fertilisers, biological factors - including pathogens and introduced species, and climate change (3). In one respect, bees are the ‘canary in the coal mine’. Their fragile state is a symptom of the potential collapse of our ecosystem. As one scientist points out, we need insects to pollinate, recycle nutrients, and form the base of the food chain that supports life on our planet. If we remove the bottom of the food chain, the whole system collapses (4).

Rethinking conventional agriculture - what’s the true cost of our food?

Looking after the health of farmed bees is simple - they need access to a diet from healthy, mixed vegetation, and they should not be poisoned with pesticides and other pollutants. Providing a healthy habitat for our precious bees also provides a healthy habitat for the rest of the insect population. Currently, the only farming practice that reliably provides these conditions is organic farming. Organic farming conserves biodiversity, while most conventional farming destroys it. Conventional food may be cheaper than organic food, but it comes at a huge cost - it is literally killing our ecosystem.

What is a truly ethical diet?

In our view, the most ethical diet is a vegan diet made up of certified organic foods. To eat conventional food of any kind, vegan or not, supports the continued indiscriminate killing of our already vulnerable insect population, including the honey bee. Some believe that the threat to the planet by the catastrophic drop in insect numbers is greater than the threat from climate change or plastic pollution, and that our entire ecosystem is at risk (5) .

Beekeepers need to make a living

Beekeepers earn their living by selling bee products - honey and beeswax, and/or offering their hives for pollination services. It is known that transporting hives for long distances stresses bees, probably because they cannot feed properly, making them more susceptible to disease (6).  Supporting the work of beekeepers by buying bee products at a reasonable price means that the work of bees is valued as it should be, and beekeepers are not forced to submit them to unnecessary stress to make a living. We believe the most ethical bee product is certified organic - it guarantees that bees are fed on healthy, poison-free food. Also, certified organic hives must be kept to higher welfare standards as part of the National Organic Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce (7). 

Avoiding bee products simply because they are animal products does not consider the broader perspective.  Supporting a healthy prosperous bee industry supports a healthy ecosystem, and helps safeguard the supply of food.

Abandon the bees to insectageddon?

It’s clear that humans must change the way we think about many things. Plastic is one. The size of our carbon footprint is another. Conventional farming and its effect on life on our planet is another. Like it or not, to feed the world we need farmed bees right now, and we need them to be healthy. Currently the best way we can support insect health is with our buying choices: choosing certified organic food and other products is choosing life for the planet’s insects. We believe that supporting certified organic beekeeping results in a healthy population of bees, a thriving bee industry and a healthier insect population. What other choice is there?

  1.  https://theconversation.com/the-farmer-wants-a-hive-inside-the-world-of-renting-bees-94904

  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534716302439

  3. https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2019-02-12/insect-species-in-decline-and-facing-extinction/10804094

  4. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/20/insectageddon-farming-catastrophe-climate-breakdown-insect-populations

  5. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature

  6. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/psyche/2012/193029/

  7. http://www.agriculture.gov.au/export/controlled-goods/organic-bio-dynamic/national-standard