Some foods (e.g. almonds) are 100% reliant on animals (e.g. bees) for pollination.

Are foods that are pollinated by animals regarded as vegan friendly?

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Yes, plant foods pollinated by bees and other animals are suitable for vegans.

After this subject was recently discussed on the BBC comedy television quiz show `QI' many news media producers started to raise alarm that almonds and avocados are not vegan because...

Vegans eschew not only products made from animals, such as bacon and leather, but also products made by animals -- most obvious examples being milk and butter.

This is correct, but lacking in nuance. To illustrate how, let's consider two other examples. Krill-eating whales play an important role in the nutrient cycle of the ocean, and their fecal plumes directly contribute to the growth of phytoplankton. Many species of rainforest trees spread through zoochory, the process of seeds being consumed and later released by animals. What do these examples have in common? Both examples require the participation of non-human animals, and these two examples are responsible for much of the oxygen available on Earth. In this way, the oxygen we breathe is 'made' by animals in much the same way that fruit is 'made' by bees. Pollination is a byproduct for bees; it's not like they were planning to come back later to harvest the almonds and avocados. Honeybees (and other bees) gain their benefit immediately from interaction with the plant, not from the plant that results.

Simply put, it is unreasonable to label something as non-vegan because animals were involved or participated at some point. Veganism is not a rejection of the natural environment.

When Participation Becomes Exploitation

The modern horror of animal agriculture started to take hold in the 1960's and later, but long-distance migratory beekeeping actually started much earlier, around 1920's. For a closer look at migratory beekeeping, take a look at the modern practice of migratory beekeeping this 2013 article from Scientific American. Here's an excerpt:

In all, more than 31 billion honeybees converge on California’s Central Valley each February to pollinate the almond trees. [...] California's almond orchards are the most important stop on a massive annual migration of around 1,600 of the nation's beekeepers and their colonies.

And this isn't just limited to California or almonds. The exact same approach with honeybees is copied in Canada, the world's second-largest producer of blueberries. But this abnormal manipulation of bees lives is harmful, and is driving a growing rift between agriculturalists and beekeepers.

Veganism is not only the practice of abstaining from animal products, but also a philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals and the exploitative relationship that humans have forced upon other species. So after learning about this, some vegans wonder if they expand their boycott and abstain from a larger category of foods in order to protest our current exploitative relationship with bees.

It's Not About You

For vegans who are motivated by concerns about our relationship with animals, the practices of abstention (not consuming) and boycott (not purchasing) are intended to help grow social change which builds momentum toward a larger social change away from exploiting animals. The animal products which are most closely associated with veganism fall into very well-defined categories with understandable boundaries.

  • Any consumption of animal meat depends on slaughter; the exploited animal will definitely be dead.
  • Any consumption of dairy or eggs requires humans to manipulate the reproductive systems of cows, chickens, or other birds.

These categories have clear boundaries, and that makes them more effective for abstention and boycott. But in contrast, concerns about unfair relationships with honeybees does not have a clear boundary. Surely we can think of some other unfair relationships?

  • The expansion of palm oil plantations often comes at the cost of destroyed wildlife habitat. Isn't habitat destruction an unfair relationship?
  • Aren't temporary foreign workers exploited as agricultural hands for low pay? Why should we worry about unfair labour relationships with bees if we are ignoring unfair labour relationships with humans?
  • Most organic farms use animal manure as fertilizer. There's nothing wrong with cow dung itself (especially on grasslands) but the collection and storage of dung strongly suggests animal confinement and exploitation.

There are countless examples like these. Truly, we would be hard pressed to think up any kind of food production that is truly cruelty-free, except for the food that we grow in our own gardens. This is what people are talking about when they say "there is no ethical consumption under capitalism."

If we decided that avocados and almonds are not vegan because of how bees are exploited, then the only logical conclusion would be to label most other food as non-vegan as well. In this way the vegan label loses meaning and loses power for driving abstention and boycott.

It is very much in the interests of some wealthy business people to weaken the vegan movement by making it appear inconsistent or impossible to follow. When you hear stories about avocados and almonds not being vegan, take a close look at who is saying that, and why. Do they have a history of advocating for bees and other animals? Or are they just trying to make vegans look bad?

What Can Be Done For Bees?

Now that we have established an uneasy truce with ourselves, we're ready to ask... what can be done to help change the way that humans exploit bees?

This is where I feel that ethical consumption has reached its limits, and if we really care about this issue then we need to direct our attention to ethical production. If you are able to establish a garden and grow your own food, you'll be doing a great service to both yourself and any species of bees that live nearby. You can go a step farther and start learning about polycultures and permacultures, new agricultural systems that don't depend on the current practice of migratory beekeeping.

Bonus Round

We aren't really 100% dependent on bees for pollination. Not only are engineers working on tiny pollinating drones but also some apple crops in China are already being pollinated by hand.

Many vegan-labelled honey substitutes are made from apples, a crop which requires pollination by bees.

Honey has, at various points in the history of The Vegan Society UK, been considered both vegan and non-vegan depending on who was leading the organization at the time.

  • Wonderful answer, thank you for your efforts – Zanna Oct 23 at 18:08

This one is technical, and will probably come down to personal sensibilities. I will however try to explain my personal reasoning and several other ways to think of this question.

To start with a more general reflection, before coming back to the case you mentioned, we can ask ourselves: Is a product an animal participated in producing without the said animal being exploited to do so vegan?

I would tend toward a "yes" for this question. If there are worms that participated in the aeration of the ground where the vegetable I eat are grown, is it really a problem? No exploitation here in my book. You could argue that agriculture in itself is harmful to the worms. It will really depends on your personal views on veganism (anti exploitation or minimal harm to animals).

Anyway if you answer no to this question, than the case of bees being a subset, you have your answer.

However if your answer is yes, we have to ask ourselves are the bees that pollinated these vegetables exploited?

If the bees are wild: no

If the bees aren't wild but not exploited (a beekeeper got them from a house and is just providing them a place to live without being disturbed), I would tend toward no. (depends also on your takes on pets)

If the bees aren't wild and the beekeeper harvests their honey: yes the bees are exploited, however are they exploited for the vegetables or the honey? Do you, in buying the vegetable, participate in their exploitation? I would tend toward yes.

However, since it's pretty much impossible to know in which case we are when buying vegetables, or just growing them ourselves. I would say that this question is a purely intellectual one with, as of today, no way to be applied, and could not be used as a rule when considering consuming vegetables or textiles.

You can't survive without animal pollinated food and everything you own or more specifically eat depends on pollinating animals living their lives. Everything. Your entire life, and the lives of all animals and plants you know, with few exceptions.

So unless you wanna die, it's sensible to regard animal pollinated food as vegan-friendly in principle.

Of course this doesn't mean you shouldn't look for food where the pollinators were treated well (if domesticated pollinators were used), you are required to as a good vegan. But as far as I know, there are no labels to look for and this is still an area where activism and work is needed. For example activism could lead to labels which would make it possible to have more of an impact through consumer decisions. I assume most "organic" certificates would allow for domesticated pollinators to be used with no restrictions.

Also a much bigger problem is the use of pesticides and stuff that harms wild pollinators. Those would be used for foods that appear clearly vegan (though not "organic" according to any sensible standards) and don't directly involve any animals in production.

  • "bees were treated well" - farmers don't keep bees to pollinate crops, but rely on bees that just happen to be around, for whatever reason. Most bees are wild. Bees are not the only pollinators of course (some plants are wind pollinated. Some plants reproduce asexually, blah blah) but we do need bees. And vegans should probably, as I think you are broadly suggesting, support efforts to protect bees from crop pesticides rather than refusing to eat products because an animal has been involved in their production. Interdependence is not the same as exploitation. – Zanna Oct 18 at 12:40
  • @Zanna I was thinking of those cases where the beehives are trucked to the fields, let roam for a couple of days and then brought somewhere else. That is done sometimes. I wouldn't expect those bees to be treated well. Also that is only done for bees, not other pollinators, to my knowledge. Also I guess interdependence would be exploitation according to some (imo) bad definitions of exploitation and I don't care if that's morally wrong or right, but if it's right then our very life would need to be immoral. – Nobody Oct 18 at 15:53
  • @Zanna I elaborated a bit, I was on my phone previously. – Nobody Oct 18 at 15:58
  • Downvoting because your argument is based on an incorrect premise. The most essential staple food crops on the planet, like corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and sorghum, need no insect help at all; they are wind-pollinated or self-pollinating. Source – Nic Oct 22 at 1:48
  • @Nic And you think that means the ecosystem wouldn't break down completely without bees? Because it would, there have been studies done. And then there wouldn't be any of those staple foods either. – Nobody Oct 22 at 6:34

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