Vegan? Ingredients vs. Activism
By Matt Ball
When I first got involved
in animal rights around 1990, “How
vegan?” had a simple answer—either something is vegan or
it isn’t. The way to tell was to compare all of the ingredients
on every product against lists of all animal products. This list eventually
became a book, Animal Ingredients A to Z, which for years was the best-selling
book at vegan.com.
This simple means of defining “good” and “bad” attracted
many of us because it was so straightforward. But even before the list began
to grow into an encyclopedia, it was inconsistent. The production of honey kills
some insects, but so does driving (and sometimes even walking). Many soaps contain
stearates, but the tires on cars and bicycles contain similar animal products.
Some sugar is processed with bone char, but so is much municipal water. And adding “not
tested on animals” to the definition of vegan added a whole new level
Still, it can be difficult to give up a black-and-white set of rules. Over
the years, people have added “exceptions,” definitions of “necessity,” or
claims of “intention” to save the laundry-list approach. But trying
to have a hard definition of what is “vegan” is, ultimately, arbitrary.
Even the production of organic vegetables injures and kills animals during
planting, harvesting, and transport.
Of course, we could all “do no harm” by committing suicide and
letting our bodies decompose in a forest. But short of this, the best path
is to take
a step back and consider why we really care whether something is vegan.
The question of “How vegan?” is important because the slaughter
of animals for food is, by far, the most significant cause of suffering today,
in terms of the numbers and the level of cruelty inflicted.
Vastly more animals are raised and killed for food in the U.S each year than
for any other form of exploitation. Ninety-nine of every 100 animals killed
annually in the U.S. are slaughtered for human consumption. That’s 10
billion animals, more individuals than the entire human population of the Earth.
Animals raised for food endure unfathomable suffering. Perhaps the most difficult
aspect of advocating on behalf of these animals is trying to describe the indescribable:
the overcrowding and confinement, the stench, the racket, the extremes of heat
and cold, the attacks and even cannibalism, the hunger and starvation, the
horror of every day of their lives. Indeed, every year, hundreds of millions
of animals—many times more than the total number killed for fur, in shelters,
and in laboratories—don’t even make it to slaughter. They actually
suffer to death.
Knowing this, the issue for thoughtful, compassionate people isn’t, “Is
this vegan?” Rather, the important question is: “Which choice leads
to less suffering?” Our guide shouldn’t be an endless list of ingredients,
but rather doing our absolute best to stop cruelty to animals. Veganism is
important, not as an end in itself, but as a powerful tool for opposing the
horrors of factory
farms and industrial slaughterhouses.
This moves the discussion away from finding a definition or avoiding a certain
product, and into the realm of effective advocacy. In other words, the focus
isn’t so much our personal beliefs or specific choices, but rather the
animals and their suffering.
If we believe that being vegan is important, being the most effective advocate
for the animals must be seen as even more important! The impact of our individual
veganism—several hundred animals over the course of a lifetime—pales
in comparison to what we have the potential to accomplish with our example.
For every person inspired to change their habits, the impact we have on the
Conversely, for every person we convince that veganism is overly-demanding
by obsessing with an ever-increasing list of ingredients, we do worse than
we turn someone away who could have made a real difference for animals if they
hadn’t met us! Currently the vast majority of people in our society have
no problem eating the actual leg of a chicken. It is not surprising that many
people dismiss vegans as unreasonable and irrational when our example includes
interrogating waiters, not eating veggie burgers cooked on the same grill with
meat, not taking photographs or using medicines, etc.
Instead of spending our limited time and resources worrying about the margins
(cane sugar, film, medicine, etc.), our focus should be on increasing our impact
every day. Helping just one person change leads to hundreds fewer animals suffering
in factory farms. By choosing to promote compassionate eating, every person we
meet is a potential major victory.
Admittedly, this results-based view of veganism is not as straightforward as
consulting a list. Areas of concern range from the example we set to the allocation
of resources, asking questions such as: Do I bother asking for an ingredient
list when with non-veg friends and family, perhaps not eating anything, and risk
making veganism appear petty and impossible? How should I spend or donate my
limited money and time?
Situations are subtle and opportunities unique, thus there can be no set answers.
But if our decisions are guided by a desire to accomplish the most good, we each
have enormous potential to create change.
It is not enough to be a righteous vegan, or even a dedicated, knowledgeable
vegan advocate. The animals don’t need us to be right, they need us to
be effective. In other words, we don’t want to just win an argument with
a meat-eater, we want to open people’s hearts and minds to a more compassionate
To do this, we have to be the opposite of the vegan stereotype. Regardless of
the sorrow and outrage we rightly feel at the cruelties the animals suffer, we
must strive to be what others want to be: joyful, respectful individuals, whose
fulfilling lives inspire others. Only then can we do our best for the animals.
Matt Ball is co-founder of Vegan Outreach, which publishes
Vegan? and Even If You Like Meat advocacy booklets. Vegan Outreach’s
Adopt a College program reaches hundreds of thousands of students each year.
Visit www.veganoutreach.org to