The term "Vegan" needs to evolve

by jonathonsmith12th Sep 20155 comments

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I've been thinking about what happens to the word "Vegan" in a world with lab grown meat and dairy. I think it's an unfortunate historical quirk that people concerned with the suffering of non-human animals came to identify so strongly with "eating plants", because it's really about not doing harm with your food choices, and the plants are just incidental. Of course not everyone who identifies as Vegan does it for ethical reasons, and it's here that things start getting muddled.

There's already a slate of qualifiers on the Vegan label to help parse it's meaning in different contexts; health Vegan, raw Vegan, straight-edge Vegan, ethical Vegan (this is me), bivalve Vegan (also me), and a bunch more. My argument here is that we should drop all these qualifiers (maybe retain the simple "ethical Vegan"), and simply push the word away from "eating only plants" to mean "not causing suffering with food choices".

This isn't just an obsession with semantics on my part. Most of the animal activist community is heavily identified with the Vegan label, and this will be a problem moving forward if Vegan remains synonymous with "plant based diet". How will Vegan Outreach explain in a pamphlet on being Vegan that it's OK (and encouraged!) to eat lab grown meats and dairy? Rather than add a new layer of qualifiers to the term, I think that it's time to purposefully evolve it so that it remains relevant and useful. 

My pitch is to drop all qualifiers (except maybe "ethical" if you're really pushed), and just use Vegan to describe a cruelty-free diet, whatever that diet looks like in the future. 

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Update:

Above I say things like "push the word away from 'eating only plants' to mean 'not causing suffering with food choices'". I'm definitely not arguing that Vegan (which is really a lifestyle) refer only to diet. Right now the word has so many different meanings (and qualifiers) that it's difficult to talk with precision about it. My general argument is to move it from "plant based diet" --> "ethical diet", "avoiding animal products" --> "being concerned about the ethical impact of your lifestyle", etc.

Most animal orgs already use Vegan in this way most of the time, although lab grown meats and dairy are really going to force the issue in a way that hasn't happened before. I think there's an opportunity here for (ethical) Vegans to head off this development and actively take ownership of the term, drop all the qualifiers, and clarify the messaging around what being Vegan is really about. It's not about eating plants or not wearing leather shoes, it's about adopting an ethically consistent lifestyle, so if you want to eat a lab grown burger go for it!  

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It seems like trying to change the definition of the term "vegan" invites a huge amount of confusion and blowback from people who don't use it in the same way.

Why not just start calling your diet "cruelty-free" instead?

That's definitely an option, but getting new terms to stick is really tough. Pragmatically, I think it makes more sense to push Vegan in a more useful direction then try to organize around a brand new term. Plus, there are a lot of activists out there with really great Vegan tattoos, it'd be a shame to drop it from the lexicon.

I suspect that in the long-term one unit of lab-grown animal (meat | dairy | X ) might be less cruel than some current methods for getting an equivalent unit, but I don't know that it's a certainty. Getting tissues and cells to make cloned meat often means working with butchered animals to begin with. And the lab work involved in the R&D is enormously wasteful in terms of resources. Maybe that initial outlay of suffering is then counter balanced by having a suffering-free (or suffering-reduced) food system, but what if there's an ethical cost to manipulating animal in a way that essentially treats them (or their cells/tissues) as raw/inanimate inputs for industrial biotech/agricultural processes? There was recently a pretty nice project at the Royal College of Art proposing a vertical farm of chickens engineered to only have brain stems. I think it gets to the crux of the problem of treating animals as raw material to be engineered.

A lot of vegans already agree with these points, and some of the more hardcore ones don't like vegans who are only vegan for health reasons calling themselves vegan.

I think there is some danger with making the label of 'vegan' too restrictive as it may reduce the number of people wanting to be 'kinda vegan'. I don't have figures on how likely this event is, but I'd rather encourage 5 people to be vegan half the time than 1 person to be vegan the whole time, and I think restricting the label too much makes the first less likely.

I don't believe a cruelty-free diet is possible. Rodents and insects are killed in industrial agriculture, even for just plants. A vegan diet can be characterized as a cruelty-reduced diet, but not cruelty-free.