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Environment & ethics   |   Veganism   |   Farming

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.

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    Nina Pullman

    Nina is editor of Wicked Leeks and a journalist specialising in food sustainability, supply chains and ethical business. She honed her trade at leading trade magazine Fresh Produce Journal, and has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and The Ecologist. A passionate traveller, she is interested in food as the starting point for discussions about culture, the environment, health, business, politics and beyond.

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