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Ethical Sweetener

Honey as Canada’s Sustainable and Ethical Sweetener

by Andony Melathopoulos, Agriculture Agri-Food Canada, Beaverlodge, AB T0H 0C0 
Reprinted from Hivelights May 2006 19(2):14-17.


Research from Sweden provides a compelling reason for choosing honey over other sweeteners: honey is environmentally friendly.

Annika Carlsson-Kanyama and her colleagues demonstrated that locally produced honey had less impact on the environment than any other sweetener. To compare the impact of different sweeteners the researchers used Life Cycle Analysis. This method traces the energy costs for sweeteners from the time they are grown to the moment it lands in your mouth. Their calculations included the energy value of all farm inputs, of harvesting and drying crops, processing, storage and transportation up to the retailer.

Their analysis revealed that the energy required to make a pound of chocolate is equivalent to the energy embodied in an equal weight of gasoline (see figure below). Sugar and jam are not far behind. Sweets, as it turns out, are the gas-guzzlers, the SUVs, of the food world. In fact, the researchers point out that sweets, snacks and drinks contributed up to a third of total energy inputs of the average Swede’s diet.

Locally produced honey, however, proved to be the exception. It took far less energy to make and deliver a pound of local honey to Swedish consumers than any other sweetener.

It is not difficult to understand why other sweeteners take more energy to produce than honey. Cane, corn and beets are among the greediest cultivated plants on the planet, demanding more fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation than any other field crops. Growing these crops not only takes a lot of energy, but it can be hard on the land. U.S. corn production, for example, erodes soil about 18 times faster than it can be reformed and uses more pesticides and herbicides than any other US crop. Cane sugar has similar impacts. Australian cane farmers, for example, use 40% of the total the irrigation water in Queensland. The resultant run-off has contributed to an annual discharge of 7,000 tonnes of nitrogen and 11,000 tonnes of phosphorous into the fragile Great Barrier Reef lagoon ecosystem.

Beekeepers, by contrast, leave virtually no trace on farm ecosystems. Honey is either a byproduct of cultivated crops or comes from unmanaged wildflowers. Our main floral sources are alfalfa and clover, both of which naturally fix nitrogen into our soil and reduce our reliance on fossil-fuel-based fertilizers. Our only major input is the sugar we feed our colonies for winter. This input, however is typically offset by the amount of honey we make; in Canada’s prairie honey belt we typically produce three to four times the calories of honey compared to calories of sugar needed for winter. The difference is even wider among some of my thriftier beekeeping neighbors.

Honey also beats out other sweeteners when it comes to the energy associated with refining. Honey, in fact, has no refining step. We just spin the honey out of the frames and send it to be bottled. Honey extraction uses a miniscule amount of energy compared, for example, to the wet milling of corn for corn syrup. Wet milling is arguably the most energy intensive food-processing step in the world. Wet milling gobbles up 15% of the US food industry’s total energy expenditure.

Not only does honey take less energy to produce and process than refined sweeteners, but it also travels the least distance to get to Canadian consumers. Travel is an important environmental issue because the energy costs of transporting food can rival that of costs of processing. These transportation costs are the primary reason for the five times higher embodied energy of honey imported into Sweden compared to domestic honey (Figure 1).

Refined sugar takes an incredible journey to reach Canadians. Canada imports 90% of its sugar. Approximately 1 million tons of raw sugar comes into Canada, primarily from Australia and Cuba and is refined by one of four Canadian companies. Domestic sugar production is tiny by comparison and is easily missed when driving through the heartland of Canada’s sugar beet industry in southern Alberta.

Not only is honey Canada’s most sustainable sweetener, but also it is arguably the most ethical. When Canadian’s buy table sugar they not only buy an exported product, but also a sweetener produced by laborers toiling under the most terrible of working conditions.

Political privilege and inequity are way of life in the cane sugar industry. The exploitation of cane workers is severe across most developing countries but has also plagued immigrant workers in US cane fields. Conditions that verge on slavery have been reported among Haitian refugees working in the cane fields of the neighboring Dominican Republic. The UN reports child labor is widely used in cane cultivation in Brazil, Central America, Africa and the Philippines. Cane cultivation in developing countries is largely manual, backbreaking and unsafe. Sugarcane workers labor in direct sunlight and use machetes and other sharp tools to harvest the crop, which results in high rates of injury to their arms, hands and legs.

Canadians buying domestic honey, by contrast, support a beekeeper who owns their own business and who abides by numerous health and safety regulations. Canadian beekeepers enjoy a high standard of living compared to workers in developing countries. Furthermore, buying honey supports our ailing rural communities.

The case for buying Canadian honey seems like such a slam-dunk. Canadian honey has less impact on the environment, conforms to ethical labor practices and keeps our rural communities vibrant. It is for this reason that I get completely exasperated when I visit health food stores and see shelves stocked with cookies, chocolate and soda sweetened with organic cane syrup. Consumers buying these products firmly believe they are make a sustainable and ethical choice, but clearly this is not the case. Even conventionally produced local honey has less impact on the environment than organic cane syrup. What is going on?

The plain and simple answer is that consumers who worry about the environment and social justice do know how good honey is. This lack of consumer knowledge needs to be dealt with. A good start would be if beekeepers and packers start stating our case to consumers, but we need to go further. We need more facts and for this we must encourage environmental and food science researchers to look into the sustainability of Canadian honey. We should open our honey house doors to these scientists and have them compare our honey to other sweeteners, including imported honey. This analysis will not only help sell more honey, but it will identify the areas where we can continue to reduce the environmental impact associated with putting honey on the table. Not only would this kind of research help sell our honey to consumers, but it will ultimately help us in our quest to make beekeeping in Canada more sustainable.

Reference:

Carlsson-Kanyama, A., M. P. Ekström and H. Shanahan. 2003. Food and life cycle energy inputs: consequences of diet and ways to increase efficiency. Ecological Economics 44: 293-307

Figure 1. Life cycle energy inputs for sweeteners ready to eat. The inputs used to calculate energy included energy value of all farm inputs, of harvesting and drying crops, processing, storage and transportation up to the retailer (Carlsson-Kanayama et al 2003). The energy density of gasoline is used for comparison and is derived from Manuela, C. 1961 Physics of High Energy Densities. Amsterdam: Academic Press.

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