Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Myth of the Perfect Vegan

I must admit, sometimes I get so wrapped up in my veganism that I become legalistic towards my lifestyle in a way that’s counterproductive. We’ve had a lot of snow here in the UK these past few weeks, and this has got me thinking about purity, and what it means to have our sins made ‘white as snow’ through God’s grace.

As a vegan, it’s all too easy to become obsessed with the idea of being ‘pure,’ both physically and morally, in the decisions we make in life. I am currently facing the dilemma of whether or not to buy organic vegetables, since most organic farming involves fertilizing crops with blood, bone and other animal by-products. Organic vegetables that have been grown using only composted plant matter have been dubbed ‘veganic,’ but unfortunately the move towards this type of farming is extremely slow and isolated, and it would be near impossible to source all of your fruit and veggies this way (unless, of course, you are lucky enough to live near one of these rare veganic farms).

Here is a link to the Vegan Organic Network, in case you’re interested in their work:

You can read a discussion about the pros and cons of organic farming on ‘The Vegan Forum’ website. Clearly vegans are divided about this issue, and are unsure about what is the most ethical way to proceed. Eating organic entails a method of farming that involves the use of animal by-products in fertilizer, and thus arguably supports the very industry that vegans work so hard to avoid. However, not eating organic entails supporting farming methods that are harmful to the environment, and possibly human health.

And also find more posts on veganic and organic food in general here:

When I rang Abel and Cole (the company who deliver our weekly organic veg box) about this issue, I was told by their representative that I would need to hold the line while she asked around the office for more information.

‘Hold on a minute,’ said Katie, the woman who answered the phone, ‘I’ll just go and ask my colleague, as he’s a vegan and he’s likely to know a lot more about this.’

‘Thanks, that’d be great.’

Five minutes later, Katie returns to the phone.

‘Hi, thanks for waiting. Okay, so I’ve spoken to my vegan friend, and unfortunately he says that you just have to get over it, really, that it’s impossible to avoid in this instance as animal by-products are involved in almost all farming, and you just need to move on. And he is a committed vegan, so...’

‘Right. Okay. It just seems a bit sad that, as a vegan, I can’t buy organic veg that haven’t been fertilized with blood and bone.’

‘Yes, it is strange isn’t it?’

Despite not really knowing much about it, the representative that dealt with my call was incredibly helpful, and asked for my email address so that she could send more information to me once she’d called suppliers. I asked if she'd forward my concern about the issue, just to reinforce the fact that vegans care about this, and that it should be something that’s on the company’s radar. I hung up the phone feeling a bit defeated. My only vegan option would be to grow my own ‘veganic’ veg, which isn’t really possible for a student living in a second floor flat in the middle of Leamington Spa.

So, where do I go from here? I felt like collapsing under the weight of the impossibility of being a ‘pure’ vegan, of trying to eliminate my involvement in factory farming. Now I have to worry about my vegetables as well?! I have so much to learn, and my naivety about the extent to which factory farming permeates our way of life becomes more apparent to me each day.

Feeling overwhelmed, I reminded myself of the Vegan Society statement:
‘Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.’

As far as possible and practicable. I need to remind myself that sometimes I simply have to compromise; we live in a broken, flawed, and violent world, and by being a vegan I am choosing to live against the grain of what is considered ‘the norm’ in western society. I could go and live in the countryside and grow my own ‘veganic’ veg, and perhaps in some people’s eyes that would make me a better vegan. But, I strongly feel that it is more important that vegans are dispersed throughout society as opposed to congregating together in an ‘alternative’ community that operates independently, as the latter just wouldn't be an effective way to usher in change. It’s true that being a vegan can be an incredibly isolating experience; at the party, you’ll probably be the only one that cares about whether or not there’s a ‘V’ on the back of the wine bottle, and that can be frustrating. (I don’t realise the extent to which I experience this isolation until I go to a vegetarian restaurant and feel an immediate kinship with everyone there in a way that always surprises me.)

I have to operate in a world that on the whole views animals as factory parts, as opposed to the living, breathing, feeling creatures that God created them to be. Because of this fact, it is impossible for me to come anywhere close to being a ‘pure’ vegan. And what does that even mean, anyway? And furthermore, what does it mean for me as a Christian?

I feel that it’s important for both Christians and vegans (and of course, Christian vegans!) to constantly guard against a legalism that will ultimately cripple us. The load is simply too great to bear. Jesus said: ‘For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ Everything must happen in the context of God’s love and grace. We can make compassionate choices that change the world, but we cannot control other people or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Whilst we must never underestimate the influence we can have on this earth, and should always hope for a move towards living in a way that honours God, each other, and this beautiful planet, we must also be realistic and forgiving.

Sometimes, my quest to live in line with what I believe regarding veganism becomes a goal unto itself, and I lose sight of the bigger picture. This is when I am in danger of becoming too legalistic, and judgemental of myself and others. Jesus called us into freedom, and yet sometimes I feel like I’m living in a labyrinth rigged with moral mines waiting to explode under my feet. This should not be what living out my faith is about.

Whilst being a vegan is incredibly important to me, and something I put a great deal of time, effort and emotion into, it is also something I need to keep in check when it comes to how I view myself. Freedom comes from realising that my identity is completely shaped by who I am in God’s eyes, and I need to constantly remind myself of the crucial importance of this. I need to appreciate that there will be times when I have to compromise when it comes to my veganism, because I live in an imperfect world with people who do not share my values or beliefs. This doesn’t mean that I have failed in any way, or that I should feel like it’s hopeless and there’s no point in carrying on. As a Christian, for me, being vegan is not the goal; it is part of the journey.

Keep warm in the snow, and remember to make that hot chocolate with soya milk!
Peace and love.


  1. I understand that an issue such as this must be really difficult for you to tackle - it seems there is no right answer. I suppose you could start a massive campaign or try to get some production company to make a tv show hosted by a famous chef, revealing the full process of fertilizing organic vegetables and thus raising awareness with hopefully the effect of starting a 'vegan vegetables' upswell of sentiment?

    Hmm. I don't know. But I love that you called them to let them know how you feel/ask questions. They should know your opinion. Plus, I like that they will actually engage with customers on these difficult topics.

    Are you on an allotment waiting list?


  2. Peace Pilgrim became a vegetarian because she said she would refuse to kill an animal in order to eat, so she wouldn't benefit from the labors of others doing what she is unwilling to do. Years later when asked about how well she was able to stick to her resolutions, she replied something to the effect of "Just because I can't do something perfectly does not give me license to discontinue trying to do my best." I think the same goes along with your post quite well.

  3. Lovely post Hayles- I think it's the same for a lot of modern ethical dilemmas- I get a bit stressed out about whether it's best to boycott a company like Primark or whether consumer/lobbying has a better effect etc- and either choice seems fraught with potholes- but I guess it's about doing the best we can to realise this dream we have of a better world. And you're doing pretty bloody well at that :)

  4. 'Animal by-products are involved in all farming?'

    Since when?? Why is this normal practice? Organic veggies are no good and nor are the usual vegetables. Arrrrg!

    Sigh. It's so heavy, isn't it? I feel your pain, Hayles.

    Love you
    Gusta xx

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