Sugar is hell on the environment, and we eat far too much of it. Even though the familiar white and pink bag looks totally innocuous, sugar (according to a 2004 WWF study) is responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop (yes! more than palm!). It’s a water and chemical intensive crop, and processing it produces yet more chemical waste, often in fragile and threatened equatorial regions. Even if you buy fair trade, organic sugar, you’re doing a good bit of environmental damage for something that we don’t even need in our diets.
There are plenty of other alternative sweeteners, but some of them are highly processed (high fructose corn syrup and synthetic low calorie sweeteners like Splenda), some of them taste kind of funny (stevia), and none of them are local to me (brown rice syrup, agave, coconut sugar, maple syrup).
And then there’s honey. The beekeeper at my local farmers’ market is a brusque woman with a perennially bruised thumbnail and a talent for winding honey samples around toothpicks without so much as a drip. Her wares range from pale gold (alfalfa) to warm amber (wildflower) to dark brown (tarweed). And the flavors vary, too — the fragrant neroli-laced scent of orange blossom, the toasted marshmallow sweetness of meadowfoam. If you’ve only had commercially produced honey, you are seriously missing out.
Honey is the only sweetener that is produced within 30 miles of me. I can talk to a local, independent farmer (she says her honeybees aren’t experiencing colony collapse, incidentally) and support my local economy. And although I still use a little sugar for baking, honey is my sweetener of choice for just about everything else.
You might be turned off by the details of how honey is produced, but I think it’s fascinating. Honeybees collect nectar and regurgitate it in a half-digested form. Then worker bees fan the stuff to evaporate the water content. The remaining substance is a very shelf-stable form of food for the bees over the winter and in times of low food. Beekeepers encourage their bees to produce more honey than they need and collect the excess, making sure to leave enough for their hives. (Starving your hives is not a good business practice.) Honey is naturally antibacterial and can be used for everything from treating allergy symptoms to soothing dry, irritated skin.
Of course, there are ethical questions about eating honey. It might be an environmentally sound option, but is it right to exploit bees and take their food?
Maybe not, but it might be the lesser of two evils. It’s important to first realize that honey is actually something of a byproduct. Our agricultural system heavily depends on semi-domesticated bees to pollinate crops — most nuts, most stone fruits, berries, melons, some vegetables. Commercial beekeepers make more of their money renting out their hives to farmers than from selling honey. And while we used to have lots of native pollinators, habitat destruction has forced us to rely on honeybees for pollination. Even a strict plant-based diet involves the systemic exploitation of honeybees.
That in itself is not a good reason to exploit honeybees further. But ultimately, it comes down to a choice. Choose local honey, and you can visit the farm, support an independent farmer in your community, see how the bees and human workers are treated, and make a good guess at how the total carbon footprint involved in producing and transporting the honey. Choose another sweetener, and everything is suddenly much more opaque — from the location and size of the farm, to how it’s processed, and the total impact on local biodiversity, economy, and workers.
Do you eat honey? Do environmental considerations influence your choice of sweetener?