Veganism, Ethical Foods, Animal Rights

Hello, I’m vegan-ish!


So... This is me.

Vegan-ish is an odd sort of thing to call yourself I suppose. What do I mean by that really? Well, Let’s see how I got to this point. About 23 years ago, when I was still in high school, I became vegetarian. I decided I didn’t want to eat animals anymore because I felt bad about them being killed to feed me. I like animals and I didn’t see why they should die when I could easily eat other things. Vegetarians don’t eat animals, so when I became vegetarian I no longer ate any meat.  As there sometimes is confusion on this point I’ll note that fish and chicken are still meat and people who eat them can be known as pescetarians and pollotarians, but not vegetarians. As a vegetarian, I ate no meat at all but I did still eat eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy products, so technically I was a Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian.

As time went on I realised that some food products that I had been eating, thinking they were vegetarian, actually contained meat products, like rennet in cheese. Rennet is an enzyme usually extracted from a dead calf’s stomach. When I realised the amount of everyday foods, like cheese and ice-cream, that contained products taken from dead animals I was rather disturbed. I cut out cheeses with rennet in them and tried to pay more attention to ingredients. I also looked for free-range and barn laid eggs due to animal cruelty issues.

Animals at the Zoo. Sketch by Katherine FitzHywel

The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but rather, "Can they suffer?" ~Jeremy Bentham

Eventually, about 6 years ago, a vegan friend gave me a book to read called Vegan Freak: Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World by Bob and Jenna Torres. While the book was a little heavy on the rhetoric, and somewhat accusatory of non-vegans, it still made some excellent points and had some good information on where our food comes from. It turns out that animals suffer and are killed even when providing rennet-free dairy and free range eggs.  This was not pleasant news for me but I couldn’t ignore it and still retain any peace of mind. So I decided to become vegan.

Vegans do not eat the meat of any animal, or use any animal products or by-products including eggs, dairy, honey, leather, wool, and silk. There are numerous other products that can include animal products such as fats and oils in makeup, ambergris in perfume, and tallow in candles and soap. Many animal products are not instantly identifiable by name if you don’t know what you’re looking for, so Vegans need to be vigilant about the products they buy and the ingredients they contain.

Goldfish - Sketch by Katherine FitzHywel

"Very few of us have any idea whatsoever of what life is like living in a goldfish bowl, except, of course, for those of us who are goldfish." - Graham Taylor

I realised I would need to do a lot of research and it would take time to get things right, but I figured that even if I started out slow and got some things wrong, it would still be worth it. My reasoning for becoming vegan went like this: I don’t want to eat animals or parts of animals, I don’t want them to suffer because of my needs and desires, I think animals deserve to be treated as sentient beings and I think as a society we’ve reached a stage where we can exist without using animals for food or other commodities. So I armed myself with some delicious vegan recipes and started on my journey to planet vegan.

When I became vegan the idea was conveyed to me; by the book Vegan Freak, by conversations with friends, and by other resources; that while it’s impossible to know absolutely everything about the ingredients that go into your food or to be a `perfect’ vegan, you just do the best you can and keep trying to learn and improve. My main goal was to stop contributing to the suffering of animals. This was a personal choice for me and not one I expected other people to follow. As time went on I realised that these views of mine did not align with everyone’s definition of what it was to be vegan.

Ethically, veganism can be a bit of a minefield and there is ongoing debate on how stringent people must be to truly be considered vegan. Issues like using cars that have leather seats and run on fossil fuels, keeping animals as pets or companions, and taking medication that has animal derived or tested components, are all controversial and divisive. Some vegans are uncompromising and have an absolute, all or nothing viewpoint, whereas others (including me) consider gradual, genuine efforts towards veganism to be worthwhile.

Roo Painting - Katherine FitzHywel

'The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of a gun.' ~P.G. Wodehouse

If it is extrapolated further this dichotomy between the absolute and the gradual leads into the Abolitionism and Welfarism debate. These are two vegan factions, roughly divided along the absolute (Aboltionism) and gradual (Welfarism) lines of thought, who debate the most worthwhile methods of improving the conditions and treatment of animals in society. Both sides are still committed to not eating meat or using animal products. The Abolitionists are more absolute in their views on how to approach the wider non-vegan community and the welfarists are more open to gradual change. The abolitionism vs welfarism debate is a complex issue but here is a quick outline:

Abolitionists follow a purist approach and aim for the complete abolition of animal exploitation, use and abuse. They believe that looking at ways of making animal welfare better (introducing regulations or improvements), rather than completely omitting animal use and animal products is a watering down of animal rights issues. The reasoning is that if people think they are doing something to alleviate animal suffering, they may not try harder, and will remain comfortable with some level of animal use and abuse. This in turn may mean we won’t move on to the end goal of equality for animals and the eradication of speciesism. The focus of Abolitionism remains on education and conversion to veganism.

Welfarists aim for gradual change and improvements in animal welfare as steps towards the final goal of animal liberation. They believe that some change is better than no change and that we should work on improving the conditions of animals while still working towards the final goal of ending the use and abuse of animals. They focus on raising awareness, encouraging improvements in animal welfare and getting people to make steps towards stopping the use of animal products by at least treating animals better and looking at ethical food sources. These are steps along the path which the welfarist hopes will lead to an eventual complete liberation. The focus of Welfarism remains on gradual ongoing change.

Animals at the Zoo - Sketch by Katherine FitzHywel

'Animals can communicate quite well. And they do. And generally speaking, they are ignored.' ~Alice Walker

I generally fall on the Welfarist side of the debate, preferring to have some immediate changes, even if small. My ethical standpoint was also largely influenced by reading ‘The Ethics of What We Eat’ by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (also called The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter). I found this book to be a balanced approach to ethical decisions about food. Singer and Mason look at a range of ethical food choices including veganism, locally grown and organic food, and different ethical options for meats. Their considerations for ethical meat choices examine how well or poorly treated the animals are in life, diet and slaughter. They also consider how damaging to the environment or sustainable overall the farming for meat of different animals in different conditions is.

While I still felt being vegan was the right choice for me after reading the book, it did start me thinking about ethical considerations of food and veganism in more depth. I felt that if other people were making some ethical food decisions depending on their circumstances, it was better than making no ethical food decisions. I respect the right of other people to make their own choices, even if I don’t agree with them.

Finch - Sketch by Katherine FitzHywel

'God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.' ~Jacques Deval

The journey to planet vegan was certainly interesting and I made many discoveries along the way, including tasty foods, animal welfare issues and new philosophies. About a year ago however, I decided to stop calling myself vegan. I still generally follow a vegan diet but I don’t apply the vegan label to myself now unless I need to quickly encapsulate what I do and don’t eat. If people ask I usually say I’m veganish. So why do I say that?

My main reason for this veganish stance is that I like to make my own informed ethical choices on a case by case basis, which may or may not align directly with the vegan ideal of using no animal products. For example if I could find an ethical source of eggs or dairy where the animals were well treated and not harmed or killed I would not be opposed to eating eggs and dairy from that source. I have not found such a thing and can’t imagine how I would verify it but theoretically I am open to the possibility. I’m also happy for other people to make their own informed ethical choices that may end up being different to my own. I don’t deny my partner, friends, or (in the past) my cat their own choice of food. There are also other ethical issues to consider, like wasting food that has mistakenly turned up with dairy in it, accepting or denying gifts of second-hand silk or leather, and using necessary medicines if they contain animal products. These are all the sort of ethical decisions that I would like to carefully consider for myself without just looking to a label of any kind for instruction.

I consider veganism to be a worthwhile goal, but it is a label like any other.  Labels in some small way alleviate us of the burden of making our own decisions and I don’t think this label is necessary for me to use, mostly. I would rather just continue to be me and make my own ethical choices about food and animals. I will continue to be opposed to animal cruelty. So I will continue not to eat meat or other animal products to the best of my ability. This includes milk, eggs and cheese unless some ethical alternative appears.  As for the rest of it I’ll continue making my own ethical choices without the label. If anyone asks, I’ll just say:

Hello, I’m vegan-ish!

Cappuccino FitzHywel - Sketch by Katherine FitzHywel

'I care not much for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.' ~Abraham Lincoln