VSDC's Logical Conclusion
To: the Board of the Vegetarian Society of D.C.
Copy: to “Active” members; VSDC website for the benefit of all members
Copy: to be filed with the VSDC By-Laws
From: Bill Dollinger, Board member
Date: 30 January 2006
Dear Board and Members:
Recently, a question has arisen regarding the definition of the “vegetarian” diet as it relates to the food served at events hosted, arranged, or sponsored by the Vegetarian Society of D.C. or the Society’s subgroups. I submit this proposal with a request that the policy state clearly that only plant-based items will be served at VSDC events.
The key reasons are outlined below. Part I will show that the position for pure vegetarianism is historically valid. Part II will show that a modern Vegetarian Society, such as VSDC today, should embrace pure vegetarianism, as today’s reality rules out any reasons to think eggs and dairy are compatible with modern living. Part III will place vegetarian ethics in a practical context and show that pure vegetarianism is both workable and called for at regular VSDC Events. Part IV will conclude the proposal.
I. History and Meaning of Vegetarianism in Relation to the VSDC
Paradigmatic vegetarianism excludes from the diet all body parts of any animal and all products derived from animal carcasses. The founder of Health Valley Foods states: “In general, the term ‘vegetarian’ is used to describe any diet that emphasizes the consumption of plant foods, avoids the consumption of animal flesh, and discourages the consumption of other animal products.”
Although, to the general public, the most common concept of vegetarianism accepts the inclusion of eggs and milk products, this is more precisely called ovo-lacto vegetarianism. Ovo-lacto vegetarians eat vegetable foods and avoid flesh foods, but the prefix “ovo” signifies the addition of eggs, and the prefix “lacto” signifies the addition of animal milk and its derivatives such as whey, cheese, or butter.
The VSDC by-laws cite the International Vegetarian Union (IVU) as the basis for our principles, and specifically the definition of vegetarianism.
To understand the meaning of the word that gave life to the IVU and to the Vegetarian Society of D.C., we can seek appropriate guidance from John Davis, IVU historian. In “The Origins of the ‘Vegetarians’” Davis finds the word “vegetarian” first appearing between 1838-43, and used in print in 1843, at the Ham House of Ham Common (in 1843, re-named Alcott House). This English school followed a completely plant-based diet for all its pupils, based on the British socialist principles of John Stuart Mill, and the ideas which Bronson Alcott taught in Boston.
William Horsell, who would become Secretary of the English Vegetarian Society, edited the 1846-47 volume of the Truth-Tester, wherein appears the word “vegetarian” to describe “one who lives on a vegetable diet.” This diet in turn was specified, writes John Davis, as “vegetables, fruit, grain and seeds.”
Although the idea had been known for millennia, a new term was coined, and would enter into common parlance with the formation of the Vegetarian Society in 1847. The president of the original Society in Manchester, a professor of Latin, noted that the word followed from the Latin vegetus—apparently meaning 'whole, fresh, lively'.
The diet was not arbitrary. Human moral advancement was expressly cited as a basic reason to form the Vegetarian Society. On this point there is no difference noted between the English and the U.S. Vegetarian Society, founded in 1850, in New York, with the support of the original group in England. And regarding the members’ day-to-day commitment, John Davis, the IVU Historian, writes:
“In the early 1850s the magazine representing the Society had quite clearly defined it as: ‘Vegetarian—one who lives on the products of the vegetable kingdom.’'” By the early 1900s, the Vegetarian Society’s Vegetarian Messenger expressly supported a diet free of eggs and dairy, listing both ethical and health objections to the use of these foods.
Because the IVU was founded in 1908 as an umbrella group for the national Vegetarian Societies, the IVU definition is clear. The idea that products derived from commodified chickens and cows are “vegetables” is incompatible with this history, and is a misreading.
To avoid confusion and to establish guidance, I propose that VSDC adopt and publish a clear statement defining vegetarianism as a diet that rules out animal products and is based on plant-based ingredients.
II. Vegetarian Ethics and the Modern VSDC
Ethical vegetarians through the ages—whether independent thinkers, Buddhists, Sufi mystics, Pythagoreans, Christian monks, vegans, or some combination of these—have avoided consuming anything gained at the expense of an animal’s suffering. As most people can avoid animal products, ethical vegetarians believe that killing animals (except in cases of true euthanasia) should be ruled out, just as the murder of humans is morally prohibited, and that animals were put on the earth for reasons of their own rather than to be made into articles of trade.
Ethical vegetarianism is the principle on which the Vegetarian Societies (and thus the IVU, their umbrella organization) were founded. This would logically rule out flesh, eggs, and animal by-products such as gelatin or the rennet found in most western commercial cheeses. Francisco Martín, as IVU General Secretary, wrote:
The strong ethical objections raised by vegans and vegetarians alike concerning the use of animal foods such as dairy products and eggs was a subject of a great deal of debate within the Vegetarian Society long before the establishment of the Vegan Society in 1944. The vigorous correspondence in The Vegetarian Messenger between 1909 and 1912 shows a clear support for a diet free of eggs, milk butter or cheese, listing a number of ethical and health objections to the use of these animal products, still regarded as optional foods for vegetarians so long as they are obtained from free range animals living in relatively natural conditions.
The 1909 correspondence quoted recently in The UK Vegan Society magazine, began with an inquiry by a member who wrote: “The longer I go on, the less I like the idea of being responsible for the taking of life, even indirectly, as in using eggs, milk, etc.” Other Vegetarian Society members, such as 84-year-old C.P. Newcombe, also questioned the use of milk and eggs: “The consumption of these articles adds greatly to the number of animals killed, and the cruelties incident to the trade.” When the first British vegan cookery book—“No Animal Food” by Rupert H. Wheldon—appeared in 1910 containing 100 recipes and two essays on why eating animal food was not a good idea, the Vegetarian Society’s sympathetic reviewer echoed similar comments: “This is undoubtedly a point demanding the attention of vegetarians... The recipes show that it is not at all impossible to obtain a variety of palatable dishes without recourse to either eggs or milk.”
The Vegetarian Society was formed at the dawn of the industrial revolution, which brought animal agriculture to the height of its violence. The 21st century is upon us, and with it, a population of over 6 billion people. We now know that the idea that animals live “in relatively natural conditions” or that they freely part with the nutrients of their own bodies and hand them over to the human species is not credible. Not even in the case of free-range eggs does this claim withstand scrutiny, given the business practice of confining birds (albeit in sheds rather than cages) and eventually slaughtering them. Male chicks in the egg industry are often deemed disposable at birth.
If anything, VSDC should be a moral leader in setting a model for vegetarians rather than regressing into a definition that expressly permits the subjugation of other sentient and social beings. Quite simply, we should not be in the business of promoting or condoning anything that animal agribusiness has to offer.
III. Vegetarian Ethics and Practical Considerations for VSDC Events
Plant-based substitutes do exist for every possible animal product. If Rupert H. Wheldon could do it in 1910, then we can certainly do it a century later, and we should.
Today, there is no sustainable objection that it is a hardship for members to obtain plant-based ingredients and dishes. First, upon looking into the objection, we find that animal-based items have been present at few VSDC events. Thus, few members, if any, have developed a reliance on the view that animal products are acceptable at Vegetarian Society events.
More important: It is less of a hardship to select and eat plant-based food when members have a place to learn what it is. This is a service we can provide, a space we can foster, and a logical component of leadership. VSDC principles should not reflect what has occurred at a few exceptions, but rather should reflect the best vegetarianism can be.
It is true that this means members would be responsible for asking questions before planning an event at a restaurant. But this is not a new practice. Presumably, group leaders have always ensured, for example, that soups were not based on animal ingredients, and so forth.
Clear expectations of a pure vegetarian diet lessens ambiguity; it does not increase it. It also ensures that vegans know they may eat anything served at a VSDC event. This, it is not exclusive, but inclusive—and those included are those who take Vegetarian Society principles to their logical conclusion. On the contrary, providing or permitting animal products in the interest of making anyone feel welcome misses the point that the animals and earth are degraded to do so. Not personalities but principles should guide our decisions. If promoting a plant-based diet is deemed a worthy goal, then the best demonstration of this is when group leaders show that they think it is important. A pure vegetarian policy is appropriate leadership.
This is because, even though the events affected would be few, the principle is essential. What might seem “minimal” in a list of ingredients on one box makes a major impact overall on the environment, on animals, and on justice in food distribution. And the appearance on a list of dairy or eggs means an entire life experience to a degraded chicken, or to a cow whose offspring are repeatedly taken away, season after season, to become veal.
Other ethical issues are highly significant here too. Animals in agriculture (whether reduced to meat, dairy, or eggs) vastly outnumber the world’s human beings and they consume enormous amounts of beans and grains. Moreover, animal agribusiness removes forests, pollutes waters, emits dangerous gas, promotes destructive grazing, and continually presses for further expansion. It is the major threat to the free-living animals of North America.
Environmental journalist George Monbiot has posited that the point is fast approaching at which arable farming will either continue to feed the world’s domesticated animals or it will feed the world’s people, but not both. Meat and dairy production requires vast amounts of water. Animal agribusiness is running aquifiers dry throughout the world, while animal wastes and the massive use of pesticides needed to maintain monocultures pollute farmlands and the farmers’ own bodies. Because vegetarianism is an urgent social justice issue, leadership based on sound human rights and environmental ethics is essential.
There is not a single reason for the avoidance of flesh products that does not apply equally to the avoidance of dairy products. Cheese includes rennet, derived directly from animal organs; to divide cheese from meat is arbitrary. Animals used for egg or milk production are no less exploited by agribusiness than any others, and all end their lives at the slaughterhouse. No animal products are fresh, whole and lively; all are processed wastefully through animals who have the misfortune of being brought into this world simply to be items of trade. Thus, veganism is not something distinct from vegetarianism, but rather the same idea, carefully considered and followed in the area of diet.
As Donald Watson and Elsie Shrigley explained it, “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion.” Thus, veganism involves an entire lifestyle based on peaceful ideals. As Jo Stepaniak further explains, “vegan living encompasses far more than one’s diet.” Stepaniak adds:
In fact, to be a full member of the American Vegan Society, one must not only be vegan in diet but must also exclude animal products from one's clothing, cosmetics, toiletries, household goods and everyday commodities. Contrary to popular belief, people who eliminate all animal-based foods from their diet but who continue to wear non-vegan clothing or use non-vegan products are not vegan—they are total vegetarians.
Thus, it is specifically the dietary component of this lifestyle where the Vegetarian Society does our work. The VSDC can and should have a policy aligned with the best historical understanding of the term.
It is hard to understand and challenge ourselves and grow. But that is what leadership asks of us, and that is what the history of the Vegetarian Society, understood in its best light, asks of us.
Therefore I propose that VSDC commit to a clear policy clearly that only plant-based items will be served at VSDC events.
The policy to be publicized should be straightforward: “Purely vegetarian (vegan) food shall be ordered, prepared, and served at VSDC sponsored events.”
On 30 January 2006, in Washington, D.C.
Lee Hall researched and prepared this submission.
Copyright © 2006 Friends of Animals, all rights reserved.
References and Acknowledgements
John Davis, Historian for the International Vegetarian Union (IVU), “The Origins of the ‘Vegetarians’” (internal citations omitted). (updated 9 Aug. 2005).
Lee Hall, “Vegetarianism” - Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (forthcoming 2007, Sage Publications).
Maxwell Lee, Vegetarian Information Sheet: “History of Vegetarianism.”
The George Mateljan Foundation, “World’s Healthiest Foods.”
Francisco Martín, IVU General Secretary, “The Vegetarian Society of the UK: 150 Years in the Forefront of Vegetarian Campaigning” – IVU News (Issue 3, 1998).
George Monbiot, “Why Vegans Were Right All Along: Famine can only be avoided if the rich give up meat, fish and dairy” - The Guardian (24 Dec. 2002).
Joanne Stepaniak, “Being Vegan.” (copyrighted 1998-2000).
“History of Vegetarianism” - Dallas-Fort Worth Vegetarian, published by the Dallas-Fort Worth Vegetarian Education Network copyright 1998-2005).
- A majority of the Board voted in early 2006 to have a vegan policy.
[Update added 15 Feb. 2006: The vote was never formally accepted and published, and its possible wording continued to be a point of contention until 13 Feb. 2006, when, at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Board in Washington, D.C., two successive motions to formally accept a vegan policy failed to garner the majority of the Board votes needed.
The first of the two motions considered the wording proposed at the conclusion of this document. The second vote was to adopt essentially similar wording: "In accordance with VSDC principles, only vegan food shall be served at VSDC events." Neither proposal acquired the necessary five votes out of the full complement of nine Board Members, all of whom were present at the meeting.]
- The George Mateljan Foundation, “World's Healthiest Foods.”
- See note 6 below.
- Davis writes, “Ham House was founded in 1838 as a very revolutionary idea, full of enthusiastic idealistic people” and that “[t]here can be no doubt that the inspiration for establishing the Vegetarian Society - and almost certainly the word 'Vegetarian' - came from the dynamic enthusiasm of Alcott House and Northwood Villa.”
- IVU historian John Davis notes that a letter of support came to the New York group from W. Horsell, London, Secretary of the English Vegetarian Society.
- The VSDC bylaws, Article 1., states: "The Society shall abide by the International Vegetarian Union definition of vegetarianism, namely, "vegetarianism is the practice of living without the use of meat, fish, or fowl, with or without the addition of eggs and dairy products." The apparent source of this definition, the IVU “Frequently Asked Questions” Web page, available at http://www.ivu.org/faq/definitions.html, is, as this proposal explains in detail, historically inaccurate. To the extent that the VSDC by-laws adopt it, I propose a meeting to change the by-laws. This would entail removing eggs and dairy as options, and all the very same environmental, health, justice, and pro-animal principles apply—but would apply sensibly and consistently. The dairy industry is not compatible with those principles.
- While vegetarian agriculture causes some of the same problems, the impact of cultivation and processing is significantly lessened when grain proteins go directly to humans.
- It is worth noting, however, that the early members of the Vegetarian Society did encourage a broader ethic. As early as 1851 the slogan "live and let live" was used in the Vegetarian Messenger, and alternatives were being suggested to leather shoes.
- This would also align VSDC with other “vegetarian” groups, such as Club Veg, which publishes a statement on its Internet discussion board explaining that food is vegan at its functions. Copy on file with Bill Dollinger, VSDC.