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  • Writer's pictureDave Black

Sustainability – Where Are We Now?

“Sustainability” – there’s a lot of noise about the global movement these days, but how do beekeeping businesses stack up when it comes to achieving it? Last month resident science writer Dave Black explained where the sustainability movement has come from, now he looks at how the apiculture industry is trying to get up to speed and introduces some key concepts that beekeepers are going to have to get to know.

By Dave Black

Very little of the work on sustainable agriculture could be easily adapted to describe what sustainable apiculture might look like. No assessment tools, no certification, no agreement, and no advice about what we should look for or how we should assess very diverse beekeeping operations to improve their performance with respect to sustainable development goals. Even though beekeeping can contribute to or detract from sustainable principles it is rarely considered at all. To use the jargon, there is no ‘framework’ for thinking about this.

In an effort to begin to address the problem, in 2018 a group of French researchers, mostly from the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment (INRAE), presented a paper[1] at the European Symposium of the International Farming Systems Association (IFSA). The group used a system of interviews and workshops with a wide range of participants involved in, or linked with, the beekeeping sector to consider what should be used to define a sustainable ‘beekeeping farm’ as “economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially acceptable”. One of the members of the group was Dr Yves Le Conte, who you may remember presenting (on a different topic) at the 2017 ApiNZ National Conference[2].

The outcome of the work can be summarised in Table 1. If we want to assess the sustainability of a beekeeping operation the agenda starts with the ‘Main Contents’ part of the table. When comparing this with Comvita’s key focus areas from their ESG[3] (pg16) and the ‘Harmony Plan’ shown on page 20, we can see where Comvita’s participation in community education, the Wasp Wipeout Programme, regenerative planting, and employee-shareholders contribute to the overall ‘sustainability’ project. Also part of that project? … Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).

A Term to Learn: Life Cycle Analysis

Of the six ‘dimensions’ of sustainability identified by the INRAE group, one is directly concerned with environmental impacts, more specifically greenhouse gases, waste management, and resource consumption – Life Cycle Analysis. LCA is used to quantify the impact of these and is where the infamous ‘carbon foot-print’ comes from. It is essentially a book-keeping ledger where all the inputs and outputs for an operation (even non-carbon ones) are listed and usually converted to equivalent kilogrammes of carbon dioxide or CO2e/kg[4] for each kg of honey produced.

Simple in principle, these are quite complicated tools full of assumptions. Some, such as UC Davis’ Honey Carbon Footprint Calculator, are customised to apiculture, while others, like openLCA software, are used broadly across many industries. There are even international standards to abide by (SeeISO 14040, 14044,&14064-1for more enthralling detail!).

Putting LCAs Into Practice in NZ Beekeeping

In New Zealand, and more accessible for small operations, the Sustainable Business Network makes an Excel-based calculator developed by the Bay of Plenty company Catalyst for free[5]. To give you an idea about how such a calculation is made, have a look at Fig 1. The main ‘inputs’ to the ‘system’ are energy, water, glass, wood, plastics, paper and card, and some chemical products; the main ‘outputs’, heat, greenhouse gases, and polluted water, plastic and packaging waste. I’ve no doubt you could sketch out your own version. There are databases available of carbon emission ‘costs’ for many, many items.

What also complicates LCAs for apiculture is that there are sometimes multiple ‘products’, like honey and pollination, that don’t always occur together. Wax is not always recycled. Some people use plastic equipment, some wooden, and so on. Endless variation.

Using this single measure to ‘rate’ environmental performance is open to criticism, but there are advantages too. Whatever we think, this has manged to become the most acceptable and ubiquitous index used. Auditable, and subject to independent validation[6], carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) have become the reserve currency of environmental impact assessment.

LCAs: What’s a Pot of Honey Cost?

To give you some idea of the range of answers in our context, life cycle analyses of one complete commercial supply chain (honey production, transport to a processer, and processing) shows that total life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions range from 0.67 to 0.92 kg CO2 equivalent/kg of processed honey[7]. Other carbon footprints that have been calculated for honey ranged from 1.40 to 2.20 kg CO2equivalent/kg of honey for migratory beekeeping and from 0.38 to 0.48 kg CO2 equivalent/kg of honey for non-migratory beekeeping[8].

To give these numbers a sense of scale, using one litre of diesel has a CO2e/kg of about 2.66. As you may imagine, the calculation is quite specific to the particulars of each operation, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise that energy, as transport (diesel), is a big component of the environmental cost of commercial honey production.

Comvita’s LCA for a pot of manuka honey is being conducted by EPD International[9], an organisation specialising in environmental product declarations all around the world. It would be interesting to learn what their calculation comes up with, but what the actual number is not really the point. The point is to set a benchmark. The eventual result of course is not just to quantify GHG emissions but to not have any.

Does Honey Have a ‘Carbon Neutral’ Future?

Honey vendors around the world are already marketing honey as ‘carbon neutral’. Being ‘carbon neutral’, by recapturing carbon (‘fixing’ carbon) from the atmosphere to off-set emission (by planting trees for example), is regarded only as a worthy intermediate step on the long march to eliminate carbon emission, and even allows emission to increase (‘cos you just offset the increase!). The real goal, known as ‘carbon zero’ or ‘zero carbon’, is reached by first reducing carbon emission, off-setting what you can’t reduce in the meantime, and keeping the real prize in your plan.

You can’t do any of that if you don’t know where they come from and how much there is, but remember … environmental performance is only one dimension of a sustainable beekeeping operation, and there is no point in being an unsustainable carbon neutral beekeeping operation.


[1] Coline Kouchner, Cécile Ferrus, Samuel Blanchard, Axel Decourtye, Benjamin Basso, Yves Le Conte, Marc Tchamitchian, Sustainability of beekeeping farms: development of an assessment framework through participatory research. Conference Paper, 13th European IFSA Symposium, 1-5 July 2018, Chania (Greece). [2] [3] Comvita, [4] using a factor known as Global Warming Potential or GWP for things that aren’t CO2 [5] [6] Toitū Envirocare is one such local NZ certifier, a subsidiary of Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research [7] Alissa Kendall & Juhong Yuan & Sonja B. Brodt. Carbon footprint and air emissions inventories for US honey production: case studies, Int J Life Cycle Assess (2013) 18:392–400 doi 10.1007/s11367-012-0487-7 [8] Pignagnoli, A.; Pignedoli, S.; Carpana, E.; Costa, C.; Dal Prà, A. Carbon Footprint of Honey in Different Beekeeping Systems. Sustainability (2021), 13, 11063. [9]


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