What challenges does the honey industry face?

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Beekeeping has been a cornerstone of the labour market for thousands of years. Honey production sites date as far back as 9,000 years across Europe, Africa and the Middle East with ancient beekeepers using man-made hives to generate money and sell them for a profit. 

In recent years, honey production has become a hot button topic as there is a growing threat, not only to beekeepers’ livelihoods, but also to an entire industry. The main problem arising in the industry has been the proliferation of ‘fake’ honey now being produced at a wholescale level. This form of honey is being labelled as real honey. As a result, the public are being misled and beekeepers around the world are suffering from a lack of industry quality and the associated fall in income.

Many beekeepers are blaming China for their issues. The mass production of honey there has driven down honey prices around the world, especially in South America. While South American honey continues to be exported to Europe, the cheaper Asian honey is threatening their income and undermining their economy. 

Some nations and companies have sought ways to shortcut the process in order to produce more honey at a faster pace. The result has been fake, adulterated honey blended with sugar syrup.

This mass-produced honey is fraudulent in its design. In China, for example, there are factories that are producing huge amounts of rice and corn syrup for the express purpose of mixing it with honey. 

Authentic honey is the result of several factors: the natural ingredients it is derived from, the peculiarities of the local natural habitat and the time of year it was produced. Farming pure honey requires considerable labour and patience. 

Understandably, beekeepers say their industry is suffering because the adulterated honey is produced for considerably less. As a consequence, beekeepers who invest their time and resources in producing pure and natural honey, are becoming financially disadvantaged and suffering job losses. 

As of May 2021, US beekeepers and pure honey producers have taken legal action against some of the country’s biggest importers of “fake honey”. On the brink of financial collapse, many beekeepers feel like they have no other option  but to legally restrict the mass importing of substandard, cheap, fake honey. The class-action lawsuit accuses commercial beekeepers of 

“conspiring to defraud the US honey market, along with True Source Honey, an organisation set up by the importers and packers to operate a honey-certification scheme that the beekeepers claim passes off fake honey as genuine.”

Impact on crops

Without beekeepers, regional eco-systems risk becoming destabilized and hives abandoned. This is, of course, leading to a reduction in the worldwide bee population while also having a knock-on effect on other agricultural labourers because some 75% of crops require pollination from bees in order to successfully grow.

Government intervention

In response to this crisis, beekeepers have lobbied governments to carry out tests on honey to ascertain the amount of adulterated honey that’s being sold on the market. The UK has carried out such tests. Some supermarket own brand honeys have failed because of the presence of sugar syrup and, as a result, have been removed from shelves. Because a large proportion of the UK’s ‘regular’ honey comes from China, the results are unsurprising. 

Why it is worth the effort

Critics of these pure honey campaigns claim that creating a test to uncover fake honey is difficult because of the number of complex ingredients that are found in a jar of honey. However, it could be argued that running tests on a product in order to establish its authenticity is a step in the right direction to help the consumer and to create a fair and equal market. Thankfully, regulators have begun to act and are building databases where information about different types of honey are being recorded and analysed.

The fake honey crisis is a pressing issue for beekeepers around the world and the fraudulence is also an increasing concern for the public. Over the centuries, we consumers have paid a premium for honey in the expectation that we’re getting the best possible, natural taste and associated health benefits. However, with the deluge of adulterated honey coming into supermarkets, we are now paying comparable prices despite the reduction in quality and the increased health risks associated with product artificiality.

From a consumer and supplier perspective, it is crucial that steps are taken to preserve the rights of beekeepers around the world and that the honey industry becomes more regulated to reduce the importation of these lesser quality products into our markets.

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