Vegans: the dime-store idealists

by Alethea Morrison.

I am a beekeeper and proud of it. The hobby has changed me in ways that I can only understand as positive. I now understand wildflower honey as an ecstasy, a chameleon that changes flavor with every harvest, depending on its composition of nectars. I now respect honey bee colonies as complex civilizations, complete with language, social organization, and fascinating behaviors. With the bees and chickens in our yard and our involvement in community-supported agriculture, I now teach my son that growing food and raising livestock is not inherently cruel to either animals or the environment, but that other realities exist on factory farms.

With the health challenges that my bees suffer season after season, I now see, immediately and tragically, what havoc that chemicals and climate change are wreaking in the natural world. I now make an effort to support a species in crisis — a species that happens to pollinate a third of our food supply. My effort is small and in all probability insignificant. I am like a hummingbird bringing drops of water to a raging fire. Yet I try to convince other hummingbirds to join me. Maybe if there are very many of us, it will be enough. Or perhaps the elephants, who can carry so much more water, will take notice and together we can put out the fires that threaten the future of this planet.

By all rights I should be ideologically aligned with vegans. We share a concern for animal and environmental welfare, a desire for healthy food, and a determination to listen to our conscience at a level that rises to activism. And yet, veganism makes my blood boil.

Reason #1: Evangelical Vegans
To these crusaders, there are vegans, vegan flunkies who are not quite pure, and the rest of us — an immoral, benighted horde who are ripe for conversion to the true faith. Here is my faith. Whether you advocate for local food, organic food, or food that only comes from plants, you are not holier than your neighbor. We are all struggling to understand life in a way that makes sense to us, and everyone deserves respect.

Reason #2: Fundamentalist Vegans
To these hardliners, any product that came from an animal — meat, milk, eggs, honey, silk, and wool included — is taboo. To abstain from meat is a half measure.  Even beekeeping is unambiguously, indisputably cruel.

I happen to believe that meat is not murder. Humans and livestock have co-existed for millennia in a mutually supportive relationship. I understand that it is hard to believe that we are supporting animals when we bring them to slaughter, but consider this: With the rise of factory farming, the breed diversity of livestock has alarmingly dwindled. A small number of breeds now dominate — those that do well in confinement and need as little input as possible for the maximum output. However, I feel certain that any animal lover would like to see the amazing Mangalitsa pig live to see another decade. Descended from wild boars and possessing a bizarre coat of fleece, this breed is now rare. The only sustainable way of saving critically endangered livestock animals is to find niche markets for them. They aren’t going to feed themselves.

If you believe it would be better in the long run to let all livestock perish from the earth so we can return to an Eden in which all animals run wild and free, I will at least consider that an interesting, tough-love argument. What I really consider astonishing is the notion that taking anything from animals is theft and exploitation. Here I throw down the gauntlet.

Any responsible beekeeper does not take honey that the bees will need to survive. What is so marvelous about honey bees is that they will horde as much honey as they possibly can. To those of us that make the effort to provide bees with a home in which the comb may easily be removed, surplus honey is our rich reward. As someone who has practical experience with bees rather than intellectual theories about them, I am prepared to say that in all good conscience I don’t feel like a cruel plunderer.

As an authentic bee lover, here is what I find troubling. Like livestock animals, honey bees are victims of industrial agriculture. Loaded up with chemicals to stave off disease, exposed to even more chemicals through agricultural herbicides, and deprived of nutritional diversity, bee hives are shipped around the country, sometimes even around the world, to pollinate crops. Very few will argue that this system is putting bees under tremendous stress. Opting out of honey to protest this situation is, dare I say it, facile and ridiculous. Logically, vegans should in fact opt out of all crops pollinated by the labor of commercially raised bees. To name just some, this includes almonds, apples, cherries, cucumbers, onions, oranges, raspberries, soybeans, and strawberries.

Within the last half century, eating has become a morally intricate knot, as Michael Pollan so brilliantly observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Veganism appears to neatly solve the dilemma, but in fact ignores its true complexities. The question is not simply what you should eat. Where it was grown and how it was grown are important considerations. If being vegan takes the mental gymnastics and worry out of every bite, I applaud the effort to simplify. I just ask us all to recognize that grey exists between black and white.

Alethea Morrison lived in San Francisco before stepping with her husband into the wild yonder of rural Massachusetts to raise their son, keep bees and chickens, brew beer, sew clothes and otherwise slow down to smell the flowers of a handmade life. She is the author of Homegrown Honey Bees.

About eSS&SC

The South Shore and South Coast has been home to hunting, gathering, fishing, farming––and great eating––for over 10,000 years. We are committed to identifying, devouring, and sharing all that Southeastern Massachusetts has to offer today and preserving local options for future generations.
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9 Responses to Vegans: the dime-store idealists

  1. Pingback: Bee School BUZZ (3 local options) | edible South Shore & South Coast Blog

  2. Jan Herrbach says:

    I agree with a lot of what you said, but of course, not all of it! Almost 3 years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. In less than 2 months after my first surgery, I switched over to a plant-based diet. (I’ve corrected my hubby many times to tell him that I’m NOT a vegan!) I’m not a STRICT vegan in that I don’t eat plants because of religious or political ideas. If there is ONE book you read in the next year…please read, “The China Study”, by T. Colin Campbell, PhD. It was the most comprehensive nutritional study ever done. It will explain the problems with eating muscle meats and animal proteins. When I found out that eating a moderate amount of muscle meats would increase cancer cell production, of COURSE, I made a decision right there that I wasn’t going to feed those cells. Now, what sets me apart from the “strict” vegans is that I WILL eat honey and maple syrup. My Dad was a beekeeper later in life and I know a moderate amount of honey is healthy. You can get ALL of the protein and calcium needed in your diet from PLANTS only…no animal proteins. We do supplement Vitamin B-12, though. I’ve eaten a plant-based diet for 2 1/2 years now and feel great. I did go through traditional chemo and radiation treatments (not fun!) but eating plants has helped boost my immune system so my body could deal with the nasty stuff in the past 3 years…and all four of my CT scans have been CLEAR!!! I love cows, pigs,and other farm animals, but no longer for eating them…we don’t need them to survive.

    • Alethea Morrison says:

      Congratulations on your clean bill of health! There is a lot to be said for the healthfulness of a vegetarian diet, I agree.

  3. Natalie says:

    Great article, thanks. As a beekeeper, I appreciate your perspective.

  4. Korin Zigler says:

    Ms. Morrison, there are many vegans who are neither evangelical nor fundamentalist. Please understand that if you apply morality to what you do every day, including eating, it does not necessarily include judgment of others. In my family, we practice ethical eating, but part and parcel of what we do includes not judging others, which is tricky with young kids because we, as vegetarians, are a tiny minority in this part of the country. Please do not conflate ethical eating with obnoxiousness. That is unfair and not respectful of others’ choices.

    Being an animal activist does require speaking out for beings who are sentient, oppressed, and without a voice. In that spirit, I point out to you that the preservation of rare breeds of domestic animal is a poor justification for causing suffering and death to sentient beings. The same kind of reasoning was once applied to emancipation: we must keep the slaves enslaved because they would not be able to care for themselves. Our choices must be guided by our developing collective morality, which I believe includes an ever-wider circle of compassion. This civil conversation we are having here is part of the development and implementation of our collective morality, although civility is challenging in the setting of a title such as “Vegans: the Dime-Store Idealists”.

    • Alethea Morrison says:

      I agree that there are a lot of vegans that are neither fundamentalist nor evangelical, but there are very many out there who are proud of being black-and-white and unabashed about passing judgement, and they do irritate me mightily. With the exception of the admittedly inflammatory article title, I feel that I was fair about my observations of the vegan trend. I went to lengths to explain my allegiance to ethical eating. What I don’t ally myself with is an over-simplification of ethics or judgement of others — such as eating food that requires the labor of over-stressed bees for pollination, while abstaining from honey harvested from healthy backyard bees and calling such beekeepers thieves.

      I strenuously maintain that animal husbandry is nothing like slave-holding, but since we can’t debate this face-to-face, we’ll just have to agree to disagree! I thank you for your polite disagreement. Usually comments on the web degenerate into ugly name-calling!

      • Korin Zigler says:

        Hello again Ms. Morrison,
        I assumed that the title you chose was intended to agitate. Perhaps it was meant to ironically illustrate your point about passing judgment. I also perceive that the rest of your writing was less inflammatory, and for that I am grateful.

        I also concede that equating animal rights with human rights, specifically through the lens of slavery, is a radical idea. Abolition was also a radical idea at one time, as slaves were conveniently seen as having inferior sensitivity and ability to suffer to their non-slave counterparts. In fact, slavery was often justified by seeing slaves as domestic animals, and “owning” them was seen, perversely, as husbandry. As I stated before, I believe that our developing, collective morality is moving toward an ever-increasing sphere of compassion. Perhaps some day we will no longer justify violence and suffering by how similar the oppressed being is to the being in power, but instead will act on our intuitive knowledge that to cause suffering in sentient beings is wrong, period. To that end, I welcome this forum and I thank you for your civility.

  5. Well written. There are no simple solutions to our very complex and interconnected worlds, so thank you for putting the facts out there. I practice a diversity of diet and always will.
    Suzette Standring

  6. lorirohleder says:

    Love this! You’ve convinced another hummingbird to join you on this journey. I have always believed that there is so much rich conversation and so much to learn in that grey area between black and white. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

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