Plant-Based or Vegan?

vegan venn diagramThe term “vegan” was coined by animal-rights advocate Donald Watson in the 1940s. The organization he founded, the Vegan Society, defines veganism as “a philosophy and way of living that excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

Vegan, by definition, entails more than what you put in your body.

It includes what you put on your body, and what you have in your home. Your shoes, your linens, your clothes, your furniture. Beyond meat, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy products, there is leather, wool, silk, and honey to consider, as well as a host of common items that often contain ingredients of animal origin.

Vegan is a lifestyle, a philosophy, an ideology. It’s also contentious.

“Plant-based,” on the other hand, is a dietary distinction. It refers to what’s on our plates.

So while all vegans eat a plant-based diet, not everyone who eats a plant-based diet is vegan.

And not everyone who likes a plant-based meal now and then feels compelled to adopt an exclusively plant-based diet. Or feels comfortable with the word “vegan,” which can carry a whiff of (let’s face it) militancy, or dogma, or an us-vs.-them rigidity.

At Common Ground, we serve plant-based meals. Our food is vegan-friendly (no honey, no bone-charred white sugar.) And we eschew rigidity.

We recognize that people might avoid animal products in their diet for health reasons, for ethical reasons, or for a bit of both. We respect what we see as a compassionate choice that offers health benefits, a healthy choice with a side of kindness.

Let’s just know that no diet or lifestyle choice, no matter how compassionately adopted, can absolve us of our obligation to deal with the complexities of this life of interconnection and complicity.

In other words, eat mindfully, yes, but let’s not be smug.

After all, large-scale agriculture — upon which all vegan and plant-based diets rely — displaces native animals, and farm machinery kills ground-nesting birds, rabbits, foxes, snakes, mice and countless other wild creatures. Clearing land for crops, whether it’s soybeans for animals or cauliflower for humans, means taking habitat away from other animals.

Moreover, the planting and harvesting of commercial fruit and vegetable crops is back-breaking, low-paying work, not to mention fossil-fuel dependent, and those who do it are often exploited and vulnerable. I’ve heard vegan and plant-based diets described as “cruelty-free,” but agriculture is not “cruelty-free,” and it’s misleading at best to imply that it is.

Less cruel, yes. And we’re all for that. But we ought not pretend to a state of virtue that doesn’t comport with the world in which we live.

No matter what we put on our plates, our presence on this planet will have an impact — sometimes a negative one — on our fellow inhabitants. I think it’s important to acknowledge that.

I think it’s important to reduce harm where we can, and reduce suffering, human and non-human alike. A plant-based diet can be less harmful to other living creatures than a diet that includes meat, but it is not harmless. Agriculture is not harmless.

I also think it’s important that whatever dietary choices we make, we know what it is we’re eating, and how it got to our plate. It’s good, as well, to be thankful for our food, and for the company of those with whom we share it. Gratitude is compassionate, too.

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