Recently, a video was viralized on Facebook that included an excerpt from the QI program, a question and answer contest of the BBC. The video asked which of the following foods were suitable for vegans: avocados, almonds, melons, kiwis or pumpkins. The answer, at least according to the program, is that none of these foods is suitable for vegans.
Commercial farming of these fruits and vegetables, at least in some parts of the world, often requires transhumant beekeeping. In places like California there are not enough bees or other pollinating insects to pollinate the extensive almond plantations and the result is the transport of hives inside trucks between farms that can go from almond plantations in one part of the U.S. to be moved to avocado plantations in another part of the country and finally to sunflower fields when summer arrives.
Generally, vegans avoid consuming animal products and stricter vegans avoid consuming honey because its production involves the exploitation of bees. By this rule of three vegans should also avoid fruits and vegetables such as avocados because their production also involves the exploitation of bees.
What’s true about this? Will vegans have to stop eating avocados for breakfast?
In defence of avocados
The discovery that avocados may not be “vegan-friendly” might seem like a reductio ad absurdum of vegan ethical arguments, and some people might use it to cross out vegans who eat avocados (or almonds and the like) from hypocrites. On the other hand, this type of news may incite some people to throw in the towel in the face of the impossibility of having a 100% vegan diet. Somebody pass me the foie gras…
This type of news may incite some people to throw in the vegan towel.
However, vegans can defend themselves by saying that it is only a problem affecting some fruits and vegetables that are grown for large-scale commercial purposes and that depend on transhumant beekeeping. In places like the UK, this practice remains (as far as I know) uncommon. Locally sourced pumpkins are probably suitable for vegans (although you’ll never be able to guarantee that no bee in a beehive has ever pollinated a crop), while avocados and almonds (including most almond drinks) from California can be a problem.
Another answer would depend on one’s view of the moral status of insects. Commercial beekeeping can damage or kill bees and it appears that transporting bees for crop pollination has a negative effect on their health and life expectancy. But some will wonder to what extent bees have the ability to suffer like animals, while others will wonder whether bees have consciousness or even the desire to continue living. If this is not the case, some philosophers believe that their death does them no harm (while others, like Gary Francione, think otherwise).
It depends on your ethical principles.
What really needs to be taken into account when establishing whether transhumant beekeeping is a problem depends on a person’s ethical principles regarding veganism.
The level of suffering of a single bee is probably low
Some vegans are because they worry about the consequences of their actions: they want to eat a diet that has fewer moral consequences, something that could be based on something like the Kant principle that avoids using any sensitive being for our own use. On the contrary, they may also have a rights-based view that animals (including bees) also have their rights and any violation of these is a bad thing: it is simply not ethically tolerable to use bees as slaves.
Other vegans decide not to consume meat or other animal products for consequential reasons: they seek to reduce the suffering and killing of animals. This is an ethical argument in which the role of transhumant beekeeping is not clear, since the level of suffering of a single bee is probably low, although it would be widely multiplied if we take into account the number of possibly affected insects (31 billion bees in California almond plantations alone). A vegan person who chooses to consume almonds or avocados is not making the maximum effort to reduce animal mistreatment.
Being vegan enough
However, there is another (perhaps more practical) ethical point of view in which the decision to opt for a vegan diet is the desire to reduce the suffering and killing of animals, as well as to reduce the environmental impact on food production. Transhumant beekeeping also has negative effects on the environment by spreading diseases and other harmful effects on local bee populations.
The goal is not to be vegan strict or 100%, but to be vegan enough.
Under this option, dietary habits that reduce animal husbandry remain useful even if 100% animal husbandry cannot be avoided. After all, it is impossible to establish where the boundary between animal farming and not animal farming lies. When we make decisions about our diet, we need to consider the effort it takes to make an impact on our daily lives. The same is true when we make decisions about how much money we donate to charities or how much effort we have to make to reduce our water and electricity consumption or to reduce our emissions from CO₂.
There is an ethical theory about the distribution of resources known as “sufficiency”. In short, it is the idea that resources should be distributed in such a way that although it is not perfectly equal and does not focus on happiness, at least it ensures that each person receives a sufficient basic minimum. In another branch of ethics, there is a debate about the idea that the parents’ goal should not be to try to be the perfect parent (something we all fail at), but to be a “good enough” parent.
In the case of the “enough” approach to avoiding animal products for ethical reasons, the goal is not to be vegan strictly or 100%, but to be vegan enough: to make as much effort as possible to reduce animal abuse as a result of the products we consume (something we might call the “vegetarian” diet). For some people, this would mean avoiding California avocados, but for others, it would not be ethically negative. In addition, accepting and recognizing this kind of understanding of veganism makes more people adopt or take an interest in a vegan lifestyle.
Somebody pass me an avocado.