Bees, and ethical veganism

Should vegans avoid avocados and almonds? That’s the question at the heart of a new online debate sparked by an Oxford academic, who has encouraged vegans to consider the fact huge shipments of bees are transported to help pollinate superfood crops, such as almonds and avocados.

The traditional definition of veganism is avoiding food produced by animals, including honey as a product of bees. But Dominic Wilkinson, director of medical ethics at Oxford University, says that, under this definition, perhaps vegans should consider other roles required by bees in modern farming practice.

Almonds are not self-pollinating, and while avocados technically can self-pollinate, they require ‘help’ from pollinators as the male and female parts of the flower aren’t open at the same time. As a result, bees are imported in huge numbers to help pollinate these crops.

The large majority (around 80 per cent) of the world’s almonds are produced in California, where sunny weather and mild winters provide perfect conditions, and has led to a monoculture-type crop cultivation to satisfy the huge demand for almonds in anything from confectionary, cosmetics and dairy alternatives.

According to Wilkinson, speaking to The Times, 31 billion bees are transported to Californian almond farms each year and research showed that the journeys affected their health and shortened their lives, and this strain on bees is what has prompted the debate around ethical vegan choices.

Avocados are another crop that has seen an unprecedented rise in popularity across the world, fuelled by a millennial generation, Instagram and healthy eating, with farmers across the world racing to switch land into avocado production. The huge demand is leading to a monoculture crop system in some countries, leading to a need for ever-greater numbers of pollinators.

Shifting bees around to pollinate crops is not a new practice in farming, and it’s something even organic farmers benefit from, but it may well become more common as bee populations continue to decline.

This year, a landmark decision saw the EU expand a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in all fields, citing evidence that the chemicals pose a “high risk” to wild and honeybees. Last year, a major study done in Germany found that 75 per cent of all flying insects have been lost. The evidence is stacking up, and it’s clear that the problem is much bigger than how to pollinate our orchards of monocultures.

Meanwhile, a recent study by a Dutch university looked at how robot bees could help fill the gap when their real-life counterparts eventually die out. A chillingly pragmatic response to what is already becoming a huge threat to global food production.

On a more positive note, there is clearly an appetite for a more ecological approach to food production, both from farmers and consumers. Organic farmers have long known the benefits of farming without chemicals, with organic land shown to have up to 50 per cent more wildlife and biodiversity, according to the Soil Association. A petition to ban neonicotinoid pesticides, run by campaign group Avaaz, received over five million signatures from across Europe, while an opposing campaign from the agriculture industry fought to maintain access to one of their most-used tools.

As always, any issue around food and farming is multifaceted, and will only become more so as the question of what it means to live ethically continues to gain momentum. And as the recent climate change report by the IPCC highlighted reducing meat and dairy intake as one of the best actions someone can take, the impact of any dairy alternative, including almonds, is a discussion well worth having.

Prioritising one ethical debate over another shouldn’t require a trade-off, but ultimately the vital role of pollinators and bees should always remind us of the need for better farming systems, using fewer chemicals and more diversity to mutually benefit both crops and insect life.

15 responses to “Bees, and ethical veganism

  1. I wonder why they don’t grow the almonds and avocados where there are plenty of bees?

  2. You raise an interesting point here. As a vegan now, I do not agree with farming bees. I used to be a beekeeper on a very small scale and didn’t take much honey from the bees. Eight years ago, I removed the queen excluders from my two hives and have left them to it. Both hives are thriving and neither have been opened at all. I do put some crumpled chicken wire over the hives in winter, as Woodpeckers are inclined to make holes in the hives. I would really encourage people to have a wild hive, preferably not near farms than use pesticides.

  3. It would be great if Riverford gave practical information to its readers, such as where to buy organic almonds from Spain that have neither the pollinator, the high water requirement nor the transport emission problems of Californian almonds, for instance here: http://blog.naturallygoodfood.co.uk/2014/10/12/buy-organic-spanish-almonds-save-bees/. In fact, in the South of England those with a big enough garden can grow almonds themselves! Some varieties survive our wet winters well enough to produce big delicious almonds, though probably not commercially (but who knows, it could be a good niche market. I, for a start, would buy them at a high price). And of course in the UK we could and should grow all kinds of other nuts that are perfectly suited to our climate, such as different types of walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts for flour, etc.. And if we can’t grow them ourselves, let’s buy them locally (here for instance – and there are other nut farms elsewhere, in Wales for instance : https://www.kentishcobnuts.com/shop/kentish-cobnuts/). As to avocados, again Riverford would be in a good position to inform readers and customers on the seasonal window and sourcing of organic European avocados, from Spain again, but also possibly from Israel etc.

    I get tired of the expression ‘ethical vegan’ being used with a very narrow meaning. I choose a whole food plant-based diet because it’s probably the most potent action I can take to combat climate breakdown and many other environmental catastrophes (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth?). I do that because I care for all life on Earth – all animals, including humans, as well as plants. Isn’t that ethical? I also do it for my own health, partly because I want to stay slim and not add extra travel emissions nor extra pressure on the NHS. Isn’t that ethical? As I do it, I help create a demand that will help producers transition and decision-makers shift their policies. As climate chaos progresses, livestock farmers are likely to be hit even harder than crop, vegetable, fruit or nut farmers. So despite the fact that they are currently receiving more subsidies and support, this perverse form of assistance will not help them in the long term. Time to change! (See for instance http://changingmarkets.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Growing-the-Good-report-v3.pdf and https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/10/we-label-fridges-to-show-their-environmental-impact-why-not-food and https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/10/huge-reduction-in-meat-eating-essential-to-avoid-climate-breakdown and http://www.futureoffood.ox.ac.uk/news/fresh-start-framework-healthy-and-sustainable-diets).

    • Hi Annie, thank you for your comments and yes, a return to nuts being grown in the UK even if just on a very small scale or in peoples gardens would be very welcome.

      Regarding Almonds, We get our almonds from Essential Trading who specialise in ethically produced food, with a particular emphasis on provenance and sustainability.

      A huge proportion of the world’s almonds come mono-culture style farms in California, where a lack of diversity means there are not enough local bees to pollinate the huge orchards, so they have to truck in thousands of bees.

      Organic farms tend to be much smaller and diverse in terms crops, and because no artificial chemicals are used, have up to 50% more wildlife and biodiversity. This means there is naturally more pollinating insects.

      Essential get their almonds from Italy and Spain and from small producers.
      You can find them here: https://www.riverford.co.uk/ndv/shop/farm-shop/dried-fruit-nuts/almonds-125g

  4. May I recommend Dave Goulson’s “Bee Quest”, recounting his travels in search of rare bees. Told with passion and a deep knowledge of science and ecology (He is a professor of biological sciences), he shows how the commercialisation of bumblebee rearing, and the consequent transportation of these bees to other countries and continents, is having a devastating effect on native bumblebee species. Despite its message of potential gloom, it is also a highly entertaining read – and very funny in parts.

  5. Oh bummer – another ethical worry! I suspect bees would not choose this but does anybody know if this practice causes pain or distress? I’m still drinking milk (organic if course) but worry about the male calf issue too – rose veal ‘helps’ sort of but I guess the calves would disagree. Sometimes I wish I could just be ignorant and/or heartless.

  6. I so agree with Andrea! I thought I was doing ‘a good thing’ by trying to buy clothes made from natural materials instead of synthetic because of the plastic disaster only to discover that cotton has huge environmental impact. I am beginning to feel whatever I do, clothes, food, fuel, hurts something, and then it hurts me too. Oh to be heartless and ignorant!!!

  7. About the cotton it is possible to buy organic cotton clothes and then you can stop worrying about that. Or just buy all secondhand clothes and then you are reducing total demand for new ones, got to be eco-good.
    About the nuts, maybe we should look at using UK grown hazelnuts and walnuts? -I don’t even know if organic ones are available but if not there’s a market for someone to supply – rather than buying kinds of nuts for vegetable protein that must always have had a big carbon transport cost because they need a warmer climate. We all need to get back to using UK pulses for protein just like we did here in the middle ages I guess.
    And Guy, would sweet chestnut trees grow and fruit on the French farm?

  8. This is an interesting topic. I would love to see more people switch to organic in all areas in our lives and one side effect would be to help support the bee population. I eat plants with exception to organic honey on rare occassion. For those of you who have talked about textiles then also watch the film ‘True Cost’ which shows what happens in the textile industry. It looks also at the impact of fairtrade v unfairtrade and organic v non organic cotton and the chemicals potentially added to textiles amongst a lot of other things. We love to use People Tree and Noctu for clothing and John Lewis for bedding amongst others for organic fairtrade cotton things. And also We also try to buy organic local flowers too and love the Cardoon Flowers that Riverford offer from time to time. As far as I am aware there are little to no regulations around the amount of preservatives and pesticides that can be used for non edible flowers and plants (non organic) which could be harmful to the growers and farmers as well as wildlife and insects.

  9. So – how are the avocados you sell ( and which I love!) pollinated?
    If you cut out any food that is pollinated by insects from your diet, you would not be able to eat much! The ethical issue is the ill-treatment of bees, carting them round over long distance to work on monocultures.
    So what is the practice of the avocado growers you buy from?

    • Ricardo a castro

      That’s a very bright and well-informed comment. Such ill-treatment should be the focus. From an environmental point of view, monoculture is bad as much as raising the same species of bees is. We need to think about it.

  10. ‘Robot bees’ ! It’s getting really scary now.

  11. Hi Penny,
    Our growers are extremely knowledgeable about their organic avocados. Depending on the season,they are grown April – October in Spain, and the rest of the year in Peru.There, they grow four different varieties of avocados – only one type, Hass, make their way to us via boat. The rest are used for pollination.
    https://www.facebook.com/riverford/photos/a.117817535814/10156696704580815/

    • Thanks for this. It is reassuring to know that there are founr different varieies grown, so the areas of monoculture are minimal – or maybe they grow them mixed up together? And what water sources do they use>
      I recognise that nothing in this world is perfect. But maybe I should be cutting back my avocado consumption, ordering fortnightly instead of weekly…

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