Defining our dietary decisions

Matthew Taylor delves into the difficulty of dietary labelling, and highlights the importance of retaining our individual agency when it comes to deciding what we do and do not eat.

Diets that avoid animals and even animal products have been around for many years. Around 2,000 years ago both Buddha and the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, were already discussing how compassion for all sentient beings might entail a diet that avoids eating meat and fish. The term vegan, however, was not coined until 1944, when Donald Watson called a meeting to discuss non-dairy diets and lifestyles with the aim of beginning a new movement. But what was this movement to be called? Eventually the group settled on ‘vegan’, a word made up of the first three and last two letters of vegetarian. For Watson, it represented ‘the beginning and end of vegetarianism’.

Later, the laws of a vegan diet were clearly stated by Watson in the British Vegan Society Manifesto (1944). However, the actual term vegan or veganism, which people across the world have come to use to label themselves, their diet and even their philosophy, was not explicitly defined in this manifesto. Instead, it focused on stating the things a vegan could or could not consume. A variety of definitions have been provided since, beginning with Leslie J Cross’ definition of veganism as ‘the principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man’.

As someone who recently began a diet inspired by veganism, I have an interest in its Manifesto and definitions. Predominantly influenced by environmental concerns I now choose not to buy and cook most animal products, but the other day someone asked, ‘Hey, what about honey?’

I hadn’t even thought about it. I love honey. This made me a little worried, so when I returned home some research was in order. Predictably, the Vegan Manifesto specifies honey as an absolute ‘no-no’; it exploits honeybees for the benefit of man. But for someone mostly motivated by environmental concerns, this is not the whole story.

According to the United Nations (UN), animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than every form of transport on Earth put together. This is because of numerous greenhouse gases emitted from things like animal waste and fossil fuel fertilisers used to grow animal food, as well as deforestation for pasture land. The chief contributors are cows and dairy but chickens and eggs, pigs, lambs and many other animals are included. The UN figures did not, however, account for honeybees. This might be because honey yields did not significantly increase during the ‘green revolution’, which saw an influx of new (but environmentally damaging) technology bolster industrialised agricultural production enormously. As a result, honey contributes less to climate change than any other sweetener we have, even beets and corn, which are used to make fructose syrup.

Honeybees are known to be in an increasingly apocalyptic situation as a civilisation. Threatened by pesticides, disease, climate change and air pollution, wild honeybees are nearly extinct in the UK, yet as proud pollinators, their importance to ecosystems is indisputable.

Unlike commercial beekeeping, natural beekeeping provides a quintessentially sustainable food source. Pioneered by Hedi Herrmann, co-founder of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, natural beekeeping puts the needs of the bees over the needs of the beekeeper and production, and it is an increasingly popular method. Out of Heidi’s thirty beehives, all housing healthy colonies, every single colony survived last winter. The norm in the beekeeping world is to lose 30% of your colonies to winter’s unforgiving weather conditions. With wild honeybees struggling to survive all year round, natural beekeeping might well be the key to saving the UK’s honeybee population. So, on reflection, I could still enjoy non-imported honey from natural beekeeping sources with content in my heart.

While the origin of veganism was important and guided my thoughts, thorough research and consideration of my own values and preferences has enabled me to import my own agency into the decision of what I do and do not eat. I have therefore been able to mould a traditionally strict diet into something more in line with my needs as an individual. Interestingly, when the movement became an official charity the formal definition of veganism included the words ‘as far as is possible and practicable’; some room for personal moulding perhaps.

This is relevant to the broader picture too. As any fan of roots rock reggae music will contend, the origins or roots of things are uniquely powerful. Among other things they can provide guidance, foundation, identity and inspiration. But we must not let ourselves be enslaved by origins. Instead, we can use them in a way that benefits us. Combining origins honestly with our own individual experiences, preferences and creativity can breathe new life into the old and allow traditions to survive in the future. It is through this kind of creative, personalised process that traditional African music became reggae, film cameras became HD GoPros and vegetarianism became veganism.

Strict ultimatums, like a Manifesto, can be off-putting and therefore unhelpful. They make people feel restricted, even claustrophobic. ‘You either eat animal products or you don’t.’ But all these labels for particular diets sit as specific points on continuums. Someone may choose to eat meat only one or two days a week, for example. My flatmate often asks me if I can or am allowed to eat something, as if some mystical entity other than myself is deciding what I may eat. The question that makes more sense to me is: are you willing to eat this? Such malleability is not undignified or undisciplined, it merely means that you are capable of making your own individual choices.

As activist and editor of Resurgence and Ecologist, Satish Kumar, taught at the recent Festival of Well Being, ‘labels do not matter except for on a very practical level’, our agency and unique experience comes first. It does not matter if you fit someone else’s dietary definition of vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or whatever other dietary label you can think of. Find a feasible approach to food and drink that balances your personal health, pleasure, ethical and environmental requirements, and adopt it.


Matthew Taylor

Matt is a researcher, holistic masseur and writer. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Manchester, and completed a Masters in Global Governance and Ethics at UCL.

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