Is brewing and drinking mead ethical? A few people have asked me this question when discussing my upcoming book. Much of it comes down to personal choices and ethics. What’s the issue with honey? There are two concerns. First, is mead vegan? In addition, there is the question of the bee industry.
Weighing Whether Honey Is Right For You
I wrote last week about choosing ethical wine based on your personal choices. One of the biggest parts of people’s ethics, when it comes to eating and drinking, is choosing to avoid animal products. But as I discussed last week, it can be tricky to figure out what meets your ethical views. Here’s a few different answers to the first question.
Is Mead Vegan?
Answer #1: No. Mead is made by fermenting honey and honey is made by bees. Under a strict definition of veganism one must live a life “without exploiting animals.” That goes far beyond “no food with a face”. Vegan, by strict definition, means zero animal products whether the animals was killed or not. So: no leather shoes, no wool sweaters, no honey.
Answer #2: No. For people who “keep a vegan diet” vs are actual vegans (not a judgement, just distinguishing the definitions) mead still isn’t okay because even though honey is made whether or not we collect it, it is still an animal product. Bees use honey as their food during winter, so the “they make it anyway” argument forgets that strictly speaking, we are stealing from them and, quite possibly, decimating the population of bees by eating commercial honey. Commercial beekepers replace the honey with a sugar solution that is not as beneficial to their health as their own honey.
Answer #3: If you want it to be. A few years ago I was in the car with two friends. One said, “I didn’t know you’re vegetarian!” and I said, “She’s not. She eats bacon and chicken.” I was quickly admonished. Apparently one can still be a vegetarian but eat chicken and bacon. When I tried to point out that that was not the definition of vegetarian, in fact it was the OPPOSITE of the definition, I was met with, “I have a friend who is a vegan but eats chicken nuggets.” At this point I simply gave up.
At the end of the day, you have to decide whether or not honey meets your definition of vegan because that definition is different from person to person. The ethical question of honey, though, goes far beyond whether or not it is “vegan”.
Is Honey Exploitative?
Honey is a controversial food stuff. The honey industry is one of the most cruel.
- Queen bees often have their wings cut by producers. This keeps her in the hive.
- Many commercial beekeepers use artificial insemination. They kill the drones and extract their semen and then inject it into queens. Queens birth far more frequently this way. Generally a queen only mates once in her life. Drones die after mating, which makes some think artificial insemination is okay. But what is done to the females is highly unnatural. (I’ll spare you the gory details)
- Commercial beekeeping does not leave room for rest. Bees forage and produce naturally but not at the rate of commercial production. It’s essentially factory farming. Commercial honey means bees produce on a human schedule, aiding in ill health and death.
- Bee transport is killing bees. Outside of commercial bee keeping some producers rent their hives. Hives are loaded into tractor trailers and trucked cross country. The bees are are stressed, and when released have no idea where they are. They often find their way to places treated with pesticides. This adds to the declining number of honey bees. Many bees die during and after transport.
But YOU Make Mead!
That’s right, I do. But I do so ethically. And you can, too! While cheaper, commercial honey is highly exploitative, and downright cruel. Commercial honey is not as good. I make small batch mead from local honey. The beekeepers I buy from keep their bees happy.
I am not vegan. I tried it for a while but I’ll admit my love of dairy makes it impossible. That said, I am always aware and measured in where I shop and what I buy in order to reduce the amount of cruelty I’m funding. Find a local bee keeper and produce your own ethical honey by avoiding commercial honey. You’ll feel better, the bees will be happier, and your mead will taste better.