Honey Marketing:  An Environmentally Friendly Food

Bee Culture (February) Vol. 136 (2):  21-23




Malcolm T. Sanford




I always appreciated the motto of the folks from Brazil’s Apacame (São Paulo Association of European Queen Breeders)1:  They say beekeeping is “Environmentally Correct, Economically Viable, Socially Just.”  There and elsewhere beekeeping continues to be the darling of development agencies that see it as an activity, which is labor intensive, requires minimal land purchase with no cultivation, and produces a cash crop.  These characteristics certainly justify the motto reflected above.  Now another set of evidence indicates that the main product of the honey bee also qualifies as “environmentally friendly.” 


Annika Carlsson-Kanyama, Environmental Strategies Research Group, Stockholm, Sweden and colleagues at Göteburg have written that climate change has emerged as perhaps the most urgent global environmental problem.  They concluded that one of the most polluting ever day activities people engage in is food consumption.2  Greenhouse gases from the food sector are more than substantial and lowering them can help stabilize addition of these gases to the atmosphere.


In an effort to quantify the above notion, the authors have studied the energy inputs from food life cycles.  It turns out diets with similar dietary energy consumed by one person can vary by a factor of four (4).  The energy measurement chosen is the megajoule (MJ).  This is a difficult number to get one’s brain around, and after attempting to calculate what it means, I now understand why the authors decided not to define the unit in their paper.  Rather they prefer to simply use it in a relative sense.  Thus, factor of four mentioned above means a range of 13 to 52 MJ.  This is further refined by using the ratio of MJ per kilogram (Kg) of weight in the calculation (MJ/Kg).  One Kg equals 2.2 pounds (lbs).


The authors review in some detail a body of published evidence showing how food is a main contributor to human energy use.  Its production and consumption can affect every thing from greenhouse gas emission to methane production from livestock, and nitrous oxide (N20) from fertilizer use.  In general, moving from consumption of meat and cheese to vegetables and locally, produced fresh foods lowers energy inputs and results in less greenhouse gases.  However, the authors have gone much further than this in their study by adding into the equation other aspects of energy use in food production, including transportation and other cultural practices.  The measurements are so detailed that the authors believe the information in their research will allow menu planning and recipe evaluation in average Swedish food consumption patterns.


An example of the intensive calculations by the investigators is provided for jam.  Most jams in Sweden displayed in stores were produced by either a large company with a manufacturing plant in the south of Sweden or smaller producers located in the north.  The majority of the sugar was produced in southern Sweden or Denmark and cultivated fruits were generally frozen on arrival and came from Eastern Europe or Central America.  Berries harvested in the wild were also frozen on arrival, originating in Northern Sweden or Russia.  Recipes differed in amount of sugar and fruit used.  Given all these variables, six typical jam types were selected by the authors for final calculation based on visits to retailers, contacts with suppliers and importers, and selection of specific products.


The results revealed a mix of obvious conclusions and a few surprises.  For all foods measured, calculations ranged from 2 to 220 MJ/Kg.  For meat, beef had the highest rating (75 MJ/Kg), while chicken was 35 MJ/Kg and pork and lamb 40 and 43 MJ/Kg respectively.  Seafood revealed shrimp with an “astounding” 220 MJ/Kg and clams only 19 MJ/Kg.  Cooked legumes ranged from 5 MJ/Kg to 20 MJ/Kg.  Vegetables and fruits ranged all over the place based mainly on transportation.  Fresh carrots from Sweden were 2.7 MJ/Kg, but frozen broccoli from overseas was 20 MJ/Kg and fresh greenhouse tomatoes came in at 66 MJ/Kg.  Predictably, fresh Swedish apples were 3.5 MJ/Kg, while tropical fruit from overseas was 115 MJ/Kg.  An intriguing category is drinks, where we see that tap water is 0 MJ/Kg, but bottled water rates 2 MJ/Kg.


A large category was sweets.  These can have large energy inputs, according to the authors, averaging 18 MJ/Kg up to to 44 MJ/Kg.  In Sweden consumption of sweets and snacks is equivalent to the amount of fish eaten (12 Kg/Yr).  They concluded: “The increasing consumption of sweets is therefore not only a health concern, but also an ecological issue.”  I personally am not happy that chocolate rates the highest 44 MJ/Kg, but am delighted to see that local Swedish honey has the lowest rating of all foods provided in the paper, 1.3 MJ/Kg.  Even imported honey gets a good score at 5.6 MJ/Kg.


The authors stated that sweets and drinks may contribute up to a third of total energy credits for food consumption.  They suggested it might be interesting to look for energy-efficient and non-consumption alternatives, and concluded: “If eating sweets means comfort, perhaps an energy efficient back-rub could do the trick?”


So there it is in black and white.  Based on this study,. honey can in fact be advertised as one of the most environmentally friendly foods.  Your customers will like it that your local honey is king when it comes to protecting the atmosphere.  Well almost?  I suppose some skeptics will say that humans can’t live on honey alone and the per capita consumption isn’t all that high, although it probably is more in Sweden than in the United States.  In addition, any transport of honey, which is mostly water, certainly reduces its energy efficiency.


It seems obvious, however, that local honey can for sure outperform the imported stuff when it comes to climate change.  And eating local is becoming a bigger thing these days.  In fact guess what is the 2007 Word of the Year for the Oxford American Dictionary.  Go to the head of the class if you chose “locavore.” 


According to one web site on the subject, we should celebrate our foodshed:  We are a group of concerned culinary adventurers who are making an effort to eat only foods grown or harvested within a 100 mile radius of San Francisco for an entire month.  We recognize that the choices we make about what foods we choose to eat are important politically, environmentally, economically, and healthfully.  In 2005, we challenged people from the bay area (and all over the world) to eat within a 100 mile radius of their home for the month of August.  In 2007 we extended that challenge to the month of September .  We encouraged folks to try canning and preserving food for the wintertime.  We hope you're enjoying your homemade creations.”3  Clearly someone’s missing a bet here as there is no link on this site to any local honey producer.


Some think all this is a bit much.  According to Chef Jacqueline Church when discussing the benefits of local food, “Mostly, it (local food) just plain tastes better.  It's also healthier for us and for our environment.  But some folks want me to give up anything not grown within a 100 mile radius of where I live.  Que loco! I'm going to have another sip of my Ethiopian coffee and then dash off a note to the President.  But here's the thing: we should ‘eat local’; we just shouldn't get loco about it. (Note to my editor and other astute readers: I am aware that ‘local’ is not a noun.)”4


Another way to look at all this is through a term we are going to hear more and more about in the future, food miles.  “The concept of food miles is part of a broader issue of sustainability which deals with a large range of environmental issues, including local food.  The term was coined by Tim Lang (now Professor of Food Policy, City University, London) who says: ‘The point was to highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production to consumers in a simple way, one which had objective reality but also connotations.

“A report in 2005 undertaken by Paul Watkiss and AEA Technology Environment, entitled The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development for the United Kingdom’s Department for Food and Rural Affairs included findings that ‘the direct environmental, social and economic costs of food transport are over £9 billion each year, and are dominated by congestion.’

“Recent findings indicate that it is not only how far the food has traveled but how it has traveled that is important to consider.  The positive environmental effects of specialist organic farming may be offset by increased transportation, unless it is produced by local farms.  But even then the logistics and effects on other local traffic may play a big role.  Also, many trips by personal cars to shopping centers would have a negative environmental impact compared to a few truck loads to neighborhood stores that can be easily accessed by walking or cycling.  A flavorite endeavor is to eat food from within a ‘food shed’ having a radius of 100 miles.”5

Ah, but this may be too simple.  Consider the concept of fair miles: “Researchers at the International Institute for Environment and Development argue, however, that consumers should not look only at distance but also at the source of food. They say that vegetables air-freighted from East Africa to the United Kingdom produce a fraction of the emissions that transporting food by road within the UK causes.  They add that more than a million poor farmers depend on this trade and argue that moves to limit food choices on the basis of miles traveled will harm these farmers' livelihoods.”6

This widens the net considerably for no longer is the notion of honey’s energy efficiency enough.  This relates back to Apacame’s motto quoted at the beginning of this article, which includes the term “socially just.” 

Some other allied initiatives are coming along, however, to help consumers and producers better estimate food production efficiency via what is called the carbon footprint.  “This is the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service.  Normally a carbon footprint is usually expressed as a CO2 equivalent (usually in kilogrammes or tonnes), which accounts for the same global warming effects of different greenhouse gases (UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology POST, 2006).  Carbon footprints can be calculated using a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method, or can be restricted to the immediately attributable emissions from energy use of fossil fuels.”7

The above article reported that the calculation can vary.  Some might say from the sublime (the carbon foot print of those aged 50 to 65 is higher than any other age cohort) to the outlandish.  As an example of the latter, analysis of the carbon footprint of Christmas in the UK shows that consumption of items such as food, travel, lighting and gifts at Christmas produces as much as 650 Kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per person - equal to 5.5% of the UK annual carbon footprint.  Over Christmas, the average person could produce as much as 26 Kg of CO2 from Christmas food, 96 Kg of CO2 from Christmas car travel, 218 Kg of CO2 from extravagant lighting displays, 310 Kg of CO2 on Christmas Shopping.  It is concluded that Christmas carbon emissions could be reduced by up to 60 per cent to about 250 Kg.  Bah, humbug indeed from the land that brought us A Christmas Carol!

Other initiatives include the Carbon Trust’s label,8 which shows the carbon footprint embodied in a product in bringing it to the shelf, The Climate Conservancy’s green house gas (GHG) label (CO2e per $)9 and the Canadian Carbon Counted,10 a "live" carbon dioxide emission footprint with the entire supply chain continually participating as opposed to a static calculation.  Look for more of these in the future.

No matter how counted or calculated, however, few foods, especially sweets, will be able to compete with honey in the future in terms of carbon footprint.  Thus, honey marketers would well be advised to begin getting their campaign advertising in synchrony with an emerging marketplace measured by energy efficiency and concurrent societal benefits.  The people at Apacame were way ahead of the curve on this one, and now the rest of us can employ the motto they pioneered in yet another context.


References (All Urls below accessed December 18, 2007):


1.      http://www.apacame.org.br/index1.htm

2.      Carlsson-Kanyama, et. al.  2003.  “Food and life cycle energy inputs: consequences of diet and ways to increase efficiency.” Ecological Economics (Vol. 44, pp. 293-307).

3.      http://www.locavores.com

4.      http://www.suite101.com

5.      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_miles

6.      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_miles

7.      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_footprint

8.      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_Trust

9.      http://www.climateconservancy.org/

10.  http://www.carboncounted.com/