What if the real push towards a vegan world did not come from vegans?

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Last Saturday, I attended a talk by the Dutch entrepreneur-farmer Jaap Korteweg, who founded the Vegetarian Butcher (Vegetarische Slager) in the Netherlands. What started as a small but very well branded shop, is now a major vegetarian/vegan product line with hundreds of distribution points in the Netherlands, and – soon – a proper factory. Products by the Vegetarian Butcher have won numerous awards, and the story has received media attention the world over.

After that, I listened to Mark Post, the pioneer of cultured (in vitro) meat, also from the Netherlands. Post is the researcher who three years ago presented the first lab grown meat burger to the media in London – which was one of the biggest stories about meat and its problems in the history of this movement.

Now. Neither Korteweg nor Post are vegan. The same goes for their investors. The instigator and initial funder of Mark Post’s research, the recently deceased Willem Van Eelen, was not even a vegetarian. And neither is, as far as I know, Google’s Sergey Brinn, who gave a 700.000$ donation to Mark Post.

Some of the biggest propagators of the vegan revolution, people with a lot of impact – or future potential impact – are not vegans, nor do they all believe in animal rights. It’s good to realize this for several reasons.

For one thing, it can keep us, vegans, modest. We may be thinking that when the world will finally change for the better for animals, it will be because of our hard work and our ethics. That’s only partially true.

Also, it may help us to see the relativity of some of our own differences in opinion, our ideologies, our philosophizing and theorizing about what, in the larger scheme of things, are often details.

Most of all – and this should be obvious but obviously it’s not – it should make us realize that we should welcome everyone to be part of this movement, vegan or not.

Vegans alone won’t win this battle. It is far too big for that.

33 thoughts on “What if the real push towards a vegan world did not come from vegans?

  1. Non vegan businesses may grow and make more profit out of people buying vegan products from them. I would like to understand the reasoning process behind considering how a non-vegan business having vegan products included amongst its overall product range helps the world to go vegan. I can understand that it might assist non-vegans to eat vegan, but that is possible anyway. But very often the products are highly processed un healthy foods. But at the same time, a non-vegan company as a result grows (on the back of veganism) and continues to make non-vegan products and to invest in non-vegan affairs.

      1. Thank you Tobias for your informative video which I have listened carefully to. I appreciate all you say, and it has been very helpful. I have one question though and it is a question that bothers me a lot. In that particular lecture, you did not I think comment on two things. The first is when to deliver a complete message to a non-vegan about what veganism is about, the reasons for it (e.g. animal needs, ecology et cetera). I do understand why if the market changes, and vegans are supportive of every step an individual takes to reduce, even if not actually going vegan, that this is positive in that fewer animals suffer, and the indeed the environment is a little less damaged. But you do not in this video say why a non-vegan would even consider non-meat products, even if tasty and appealing. So my question is, what is the actual message you advocate giving to non-vegans. I very much respect Gary Francione’s work. I also very much respect yours. I am trying to fit it all together. I am very upset by the way at hostility between vegans and I think mature discussion is vital. I hope this makes sense.

        1. thanks for watching (and for keeping an open mind), fergus. what i basically promote is an *adaptive* way of communicating, which means, adapting yourself to your audience. i would talk about veganism per se in cases when you know or feel that the person you talk to is open to it; when you talk to moral philosophy students, social justice people, things like that. When you are “broadcasting” and don’t know who is picking up your message (also on social media) i promote being more careful and having an easier message. Francione says the latter is unethical, with which i very much disagree. my way to reconcile the different approaches is like i said in the video: this is the time for a low treshold message, and creating a critical mass of reducers so that the system topples. As we do that and as we progress, a more animal rights based, black and white message will make a lot more sense and be a lot more productive.

          1. Thank you for your time to reply Tobias. Your reply does make sense to me as I cannot see how it is unethical to not say nothing. I also agree that the situation is not always appropriate to say something or ‘everything’. However this is a difficult and sensitive on to gauge. It has been said by some very great heroes of change that saying nothing is advocating the violence and this also makes sense to me. But I agree that the precise situation may not be appropriate, as in a general sense faithful appropriate advocacy can continue! However I am convinced it is unethical to actually promote non-veganism. So I would never personally be able to promote reducing without at the same time being crystal clear about the full issues for being vegan. I would compassionately not expect the person to just go vegan ‘today’ because of this message however. We are so programmed at a deep neurological and psycho-physical level from our weaning in a non-vegan society to consume animal and so I do think there is an inevitable process sadly. But, if someone knows enough to think that reducing is important, then I presume they have reasons and are open enough to further information. In any case, for me actively condoning reducing to a fellow individual is inseparable from supporting consuming animal. I agree and am happy that praising and supporting any act of not eating meat when this is a novel concept to someone is important. However, I personally cannot ethically promote reducing without telling the truth. This is because if I am actively promoting reducing, I am simultaneously promoting the consumption of animal. There are two sides to this coin. I have learned a lot from you but on this final point, I may perhaps differ? Thank you so much..

            1. sure, you can differ all you want. i know that is the quintessential francione stance, and i don’t buy it for a minute. i do not think that doing something that we (at least i) think is most effective in moving them towards a compassionate lifestyle, is unethical because it would be “condoning” things. just like i don’t think me being able to walk around in the supermarket without beating up the meat eaters is any more or less condoning things 🙂

              1. To the contrary Tobias, I have in fact learned a great deal from you and agree with you in practice, now to a much greater extent than before. I am always glad of every step for the better in terms of less animal consumption or use, even in a single issue campaign. However, I do not applaude ‘welfarist’ measures which have apparently just excused more extensive application of cruelty (increasing the farmed animal population and making cruelty more prevalent). They have lessened cruelty to a degree on an individual level but this degree is barely significant to the animal person still massively suffering in a ‘welfarist’ system. Also a very deceptive and incomplete message on the meaning of welfare is communicated to the consumer.

                I might however currently differ in that I still think that a full clear message is necessary whilst supporting and praising and promoting gradual incremental change. The consistent clear message of the issues to me is the vital basis for tipping from vegan to non vegan for the reasons of animal need and ecological need (our health is an outcome, not in my view a fundamentally ethical reason to be vegan). Before engaging with you however, I could not see the purpose of promoting gradual incremental change at all so thank you for helping me to appreciate this in practice.

                I do not outright reject the abolitionist principles, after all that message of clarity is the end I think you and many of us wish for too. Rather I believe currently that the abolitionist message of ethical clarity is vital from the outset when talking about veganism. It did not put me off but rather motivated me and encouraged me. I also knew that the vegan advocate (abolitionist) helping me to see, loved and cared about me, and was there to answer all my many questions, and knew that I would take time. But she did not ever let me consider for one minute that I was being ethical or reasonable to not go vegan ‘today’. She was right. She is right. In my view, it was not ethically ok for me to not be vegan but there were lots of complex reasons why I was not that needed to be untangled. The clear message alongside good support was my medicine.

                We people do take time to change, to absorb, to reflect to ‘re-program’ and in my view the more help the better with this – and one vital ingredient of this in my view is clarity. I am most grateful for my teachers and trainers in everything for keeping the objective in mind whilst patiently helping me along the path of change. Without this clarity, I cannot reach my goal without going astray into something less than what we want.

                I am 49 this year. I went vegan from being omnivorous with utter clarity and deepest conviction when I was 46 in a single day – 7th January 2014. However, why did it take my 46 years? It was because no one had been absolutely clear to me about all the issues until November 2013. I was only ever in contact with vegetarians who similarly had a poor understanding of the issues. It took me 8 weeks to go vegan after my connection with the abolitionist vegan advocate, and for those 8 weeks, every day I knew that I could go vegan ‘today’ but was being helped to see the clear reasons why I should and could. I was never told that it was acceptable to consume from animal and I am most grateful for this clarity.

                In summary I believe that incremental change is almost always inevitable because of our own complexity and habits mainly. Yes processed vegan food can help make it easier, but even that leads to much less than optimally healthy vegan diet really. I believe that incremental change should be supported massively when it happens. I do not believe that my message for change must be honest and consistent about the facts of non-veganism for animals, ecology and very lastly for our health and alongside helping someone to understand this, to help them to see how it is actually possible to go vegan today. But am also compassionate and very aware that such truth takes time to absorb for complex reasons.

                Best wishes with all your work,


    1. Also remember that the money will circulate regardless, and vegan business owners will not spend much more on their food just because vegans (a very small percentage of the population) only frequented their establishments.

      Present animal suffering depends mostly on the amount of animal products non-vegans eat (so a vegan does little more good than an almost-vegan). Near future animal suffering depends on the same but vegan and reducitarian advocacy plays a pretty big role, as well as environment protective policy negating the support and decreasing the economic viability of animal agriculture. Farther future animal suffering depends on the development of cultured and synthetic foods. (I, for one, believe slaughter is in its last few decades.)

      Lastly, Francione blatantly ignores behavioral change studies, and blocks people from his Facebook for respectfully disagreeing with his stance. This website, MFA, VO, and Matt Ball are your best sources on advocacy.

  2. Great post, Tobias, as usual. If people such as those you highlight, aren’t veg, what are their motivations (I realise that motivations often come in mixed packages)? If we know some of their motivations, maybe we could interest more people in joining their ranks.

    Also, I agree with you about activists being humble. Aside from the people you highlight in today’s post, other heroes of the move towards veg are the people who work long hours often for low pay in the restaurants and grocery stores from which we get our vegan food.

    1. hi george.Mark Post, for instance, is motivated by efficiency/environmental reasons. my take it that their reasons don’t matter all that much, although i prefer good intentions like changing the world above making money. but it doesn’t matter because it all changes the system, and decreases our dependency on using animals, which in turn will make it a lot easier to start caring about them

  3. Good morning, Tobias: Fascinating post – thanks so much for the information! I also admire your well-taken point that vegan activists can benefit from remembering that they are not always the center of, and exclusive heroes, for change. Others are also contributing to the movement in substantive ways; even if they are not vegan or vegetarian, their work is valuable. I see what feels to me like an awful lot of self-congratulation and -glorification among activists–especially these days. A little more humility wouldn’t hurt. I appreciate the way your post underlines that. 🙂 Thank you!

  4. I’m not convinced it is ever ethical, to rally to the defence of victims by heaping praise on their perpetrators.

    I would be less inclined than you, perhaps, to give Korteweg, Post and their ilk much credit.

    By way of an analogy: what if our primary concern wasn’t the protection of nonhuman animals, but was the ending of child sexual-abuse instead.

    What if someone invented a lifelike child sex-doll which enabled paedophiles to pleasure themselves in a realistic way and feel every bit as sexually satisfied as they do when they abuse real children.

    What if this doll was marketed as an ethical solution to the problem of child sexual abuse, and considered an effective way of modifying and limiting the behaviour of paedophiles.

    What if the inventor of this lifelike child sex-doll was a paedophile who had no intention of ever using his own product, because he still prefers to have sex with real children instead?

    Would we think he was part of the problem or part of the solution?

    A paedophile who refrains from abusing children 99% of the time is still a paedophile and continues to create victims.

    In what way is that ethically praiseworthy?

    1. Well, one difference is that meat eating is common, and child abuse quite less. Wich means that since vegans are just a very small percentage of the population, we have to accept any help we can have to reduce animal suffering, while in the case of paedophilia most people are against it so it would be easier to simply arrest them. However, both in the case of fake meats and child-like sex dolls, it would be a good idea as both would reduce suffering, wich is good isn’t it? Sure, paying people to kill animals, as well as rape, is still wrong, but we still should accept any help we can get. Instead of only focusing on wether or not the person offering a solution is morally pure, we should take into account the impact the solution will have on our cause…

      1. Also, we are praising their pro-vegan actions, not the fact that they’re eating animal products! I think it’s important to encourage every move in the right direction, as it is much more effective than bashing people on what they’re doing wrong. I’m pretty sure we all want to encourage people to help animal liberation, not push them away! And being aggressive definetly pushes people away.

    2. You just have to ask one question in regards to this. Will lab meat ultimately spare countless animals from slaughter? If the answer is yes, then why not? Don’t get me wrong, I am vegan and wouldn’t eat it, but it isn’t about you and me. It isn’t about being right, but being effective. It is about minimizing animals raised for slaughter. As mentioned below, comparing it to child sexual abuse has many philosophical holes in it. Most of society still eats animal products. It is normal. Child abuse is not, and 99.9% of our society frowns on it.

    3. Cosmic, a man actually did create a sex doll for pedophiles. Some people I respect approve of this as it is a compassionate way to deal with the unacceptable actions that this desire can lead to.

      I’m an occasional meat-eater. Reducing my footprint in many ways is a goal. Preventing animal suffering is another. Finding tolerance for meat-eaters is among the ways to meet the goal of preserving biodiversity.

      If you will judge someone for dietary decisions, why not judge people for having children, flying in air planes, living in larger than necessary houses, etc… I chose not to have children solely out of a concern for overpopulation. I respect other people’s decisions understanding that we work to make a difference in in our own ways.

  5. Silly Tobias, Cosmic is right! It is so much more important that we police the PURITY and MOTIVES of our VEGAN Club! The future doesn’t matter. The animals suffering don’t matter.
    Proving that Cosmic, Gary, and I am so incredibly much better than you and everyone else is all that matters!

  6. Tobias,
    Once again, you have missed a few things.
    In-vitro animal flesh is still animal flesh, and therefore not vegan.

    Veganism isn’t simply about those we eat, it is also about those we wear, those we are “entertained” by, those we “test” on.

  7. I love reading your blog, Tobias! It’s important to adjust your argument to your audience – people who deny that are being naive. I live in a mostly vegan household. I’d love it if my husband never ate any animal products, but the fact that I haven’t pushed it to an extreme (we don’t have meat or milk in the house, but dining out is a ‘free’ zone), means our family of four is 90% vegan. I think I would have faced a lot more resistance if I’d told my husband and kids they were murderers and could never have animal products again.

    1. I love your reply Margaret. This is in fact my line completely. I just work to make things very clear when people ask me. I am not out there telling people and I never even comment on what they do. I find this very difficult because I am not morally superior. I agree also that it would put them off, but my being clear about my position and being willing to explain all the reasons is what I am working on.

  8. Oh, and as for the lab-grown meat, I won’t be eating it, but if it keeps people who’ve grown up eating meat from killing animals, I’m all for it.

  9. I’m not really seeing yet how lab meat could be a push towards veganism. It will greatly contribute to reduce animal suffering, which is super important and great, so I am all for it but… I don’t think it will make people think about not wearing leather / leaving diary out of their diets etc. etc. Curious what you think about that Tobias! 🙂

    1. thx for your input. i believe the answer to your question is in the text – indeed i believe that the text is what your question is all about. the fact that you still ask the question shows that the text may not be explicit enough or that the principle may need to be further clarified. for my own didactical purposes, could you give it another shot and see if you can come up with the answer yourself, and let me know? 🙂

      1. Would it be that a vegan world will be formed not out of (animal rights) ideology, but out of technological advancement / ecological motives? Not ‘vegan motives’ per se, but the same effect?

        1. the gist of it, to me, is that stuff that changes behaviour (like labmeat, but also other alternatives), will change the way we look at animals. it will allow us to be much more compassionate about them, because we have alternatives. that compassion will result in different attitudes and consumption behavior towards leather etc too.
          here’s how i explained the argument before:

          1. Thank you for the link and the explanation. I think its a really interesting point of view, and it certainly holds truth for the products of the vegetarian butcher.

            Not yet convinced about lab meat tho, because there is still animal involved. I just hope that it does not involve the industry of caging animals for their cells.

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