Vegan Islands versus Infiltrators

Many producers of meat alternatives dream of occupying a place among animal products in the supermarket. I mean, literally. They want to be sold where the meat products are sold, instead of in a separate vegan section. Apparently, judging by this picture, Beyond Meat managed to get this coveted position with their Beyond Burger.

Beyond Meat products in the meat section
Beyond Meat products in the meat section

Not every vegan may agree that the meat section is the best place for vegan products. Out of a personal preference, vegans may want the vegan products to have their own separate shelf, aisle or island.

I’m using the example of Beyond Meat’s product placement to illustrate the much broader idea of what I call Islands versus Infiltrators. A separate vegan section would be an example of an Island, while Beyond Meat’s burger patties in the meat section are Infiltrators. We can see many other examples – on similar and different levels – of this distinction:

  • vegan restaurants versus omnivore restaurants with vegan dishes
  • vegan shops versus general shops with vegan products
  • vegan cookbooks versus omnivore cookbooks with vegan recipes
  • vegan dating sites versus regular dating sites with the option to check “vegan”
  • vegan catering companies versus mixed catering companies
  • vegan cooking courses or a general course with vegan recipes

And there are many more examples  of exclusively vegan things. Vegan cruises, a vegan version of airbnb, vegan radio shows, vegan schools, etc.

You can ask yourself whether you are more pro-Island or pro-Infiltration. Let’s briefly look at some general advantages and disadvantages of both phenomena.

The advantage of Islands is clear. They are cosy and convenient for vegans. If we’re on a vegan cruise, we know we’ll get good vegan food, and everyone else on the cruise is vegan or at least veg-curious. Using a vegan cookbook, we are not confronted with pictures of recipes with dead animals in them (which, obviously, are also useless to us). Eating in a vegan restaurant, we know the chefs and waiters know what vegan is, and that there is no chance of anything “wrong” ending up in our food.

But the advantages of Infiltrators are just as clear. While Islands mainly benefit the vegans, Infiltrators are important for reaching new audiences and buyers. Infiltrators get much more exposure among omnivores, many of whom will never enter a vegan restaurant or specialty shop, and will never buy a vegan cookbook. They also will not go out of their way to find and stop by the vegan section in their supermarket.

When I asked on Facebook where the Beyond Beef (and other) products should be in the supermarket, many people answered they should be in both sections. Apart from this probably being difficult to realize (as far as I know, producers pay for shelf space), we also shouldn’t underestimate the impact of us going to the meat shelf and picking out a vegan product in front of other people. The best predictor that a beggar in the street will receive a gift from a passer-by is that the person walking ahead of them dropped something in their hat. The same applies here: the more people see other people picking up the vegan products, the more they might be more inclined to take a look, buy and taste them.

Maybe you’ve experienced how often omnivores seem to think that just because something is vegan, it is not for them (kind of like how ordinary vegans might be deterred from choosing a dish labeled “suitable for diabetics”). The problem today is still that vegan stuff is seen as stuff for vegans. So often, media articles, reviewing a new vegan restaurant, product or service, write something like: “Now, vegans can…” or “Now, there is x for vegans!”, as if it’s only vegans who can profit from it. We need to get rid of the idea that vegan is just for vegans. Infiltrators help counter this idea; Islands are often likely to confirm it.

If you are thinking of setting up some service or selling a product, you can consider whether you want to launch an Island or an Infiltrator. Chances are that as a vegan, you will feel much more comfortable with Island products and services, but the question is whether that is the most impactful.

But also as a consumer, you may consider what you want to spend most of your money on: the vegan restaurant or the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant, for instance. Again, eating at the vegan restaurant is more convenient. But ordering the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant signals that there is a demand, offers opportunities for conversation, for critiquing the dish so that the chef can improve it, etc. You also help keep the dish on the menu, increasing the chances that more people will be exposed to it.

That is, of course, not to say we should stop visiting vegan restaurants or other vegan businesses. On the contrary, they deserve our support. Moreover, Islands may have a symbolic function. They say, “Look, we can do it without animal products and still be viable”. They also may have media value: they may be covered by journalists, because they are new and exciting.

At least for the time being, we’ll have both Islands and Infiltrators. You choose where your money goes. I hope to have given you some arguments to use to think about your options more thoroughly.

Phases in veganism and vegan advocacy

We all go through phases in our advocacy. Only a few people become activists overnight and never change their ideas or practises again for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, all of us are in motion, growing, acquiring new insights, and adapting our communication, ideologies and practises.

Here’s a brief attempt to describe the phases I myself more or less went through in the course of almost twenty years of animal advocacy and veganism. Maybe you will find it recognizeable, maybe not.


1 – Interest and conversion

After what in my case was a long period of keeping it in the back of my mind, at some point, I got seriously interested in not eating animals and became really open to “going veg”. For me it was for animal reasons (in other people’s cases, it might have been about health, the environment, a vegan significant other…). I progressively left out animal products from my diet, and after two years, from 1998 on, when I was 24, I started calling myself a vegan.

2 – Activation

I read about what was going on and decided that I wanted to do something more than just “be a vegan”. I started to really believe in the cause and wanted to convince others to join me, or at least help them discover what I had discovered. By that point, I fully believed in the cause of animal liberation.

3 – Radicalization

After a while, I got slightly frustrated and sometimes angry with people’s lack of response in the face of so much injustice. I got to know different people in the vegan movement, and read articles and books by some people who presented a very black and white view. I decided that “there is no excuse for animal abuse” and that people should go vegan as soon as they knew the facts. I got critical of some animal rights organizations who took a pragmatic position, thought that many were selling out and were being “welfarist” and too soft, and I questioned their motives.

4 – Realization

After more reading, thinking and meeting people, I realized the approach I was taking was not the most effective one, and became more realistic and pragmatic, without changing or betraying any of my principles. I realized people needed more than just moral arguments, and that encouragement works better than guilt-tripping. I noticed, and kept noticing, how many people around me changed their eating habits without me preaching to them. I also realized that most animal rights organizations are indeed well-intentioned and doing important work.

5 – The post-vegan stage

This is my current phase. I call it the “post-vegan” stage (see this previous post), but I’m not wedded to the term and don’t want to make a big thing about it. I use the term to indicate a couple of shifts in my thinking about veganism. I talk about post-veganism, because to some extent how I feel in this phase is not entirely in line with orthodox veganism.

This phase for me is about realizing that I have to prioritize the impact I have on my environment over personal purity in my diet and other consumption habits. It’s also about the idea that I don’t really want to stick to principles for principles’ sake, and that I don’t want to follow an ideology out of groupthink or tribalism.

There is also a re-appreciation here of the importance of minimizing suffering and maximizing wellbeing, as opposed to just focusing on abolition and killing-or-not-killing.

In any case, I remain very much vegan, and I believe the concept of veganism is useful, especially when applied to products and meals (more so than when applied to people). The question “is it vegan?” remains an easy heuristic to determine what we should and should not eat, even though it is not perfect.

Maybe other stages will follow. We’ll see what the future holds. In any case, just like you, I’ll always have the interests of the animals at heart.

Related: I used to be a Francione fan

Is this big zoo better for animals than the wild?

On a visit to South Africa, where I was for a CEVA effective vegan advocacy training, I had a few days off and tried what was called a safari. It wasn’t that I really had to see lions and tigers and bears, but I believed the experience might give me some new ideas on the issue of wild animal suffering, on which I have written before. And it did.

What Aquila Safari offered cannot by any stretch be called an experience of the wild. After we reached it – it’s about two hours northeast of Cape Town – we had lunch and then departed on an open truck together with some six other passengers and a guide. The domain – which they call a “private game reserve” – is about 10.000 hectares in surface area. That may sound big, but it’s small compared to the two million hectares of the famous Kruger National Park in the same country.


As we drove around, I asked some questions, and it became clear that this was actually some kind of very big zoo. The animals present included the so called “big five”: the African lion (they had about seven), African elephant (two), buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. Flora catered to the majority of the animals’ diets, with about ten percent supplemented by the reserve. They had ample space, and not all animals could easily be found, but they obviously couldn’t leave the area because of fences. There was a vet on the property providing medical care when an animal got sick. Herbivores and carnivores were separated: the lions could not hunt the springbok, for instance, but were fed cow’s meat and antelope meat once a week.

Later, I asked where the animals came from: they had been bought and transported to the area. Some had been saved: lions from the horrible practice of “canned hunting”; a leopard from somewhere else. There was a rehabilitation center. So, I started to think of this venture more as a sanctuary.

Again, this is not “the wild”, and I’m sure many people would not feel entirely happy with such a situation. They would probably prefer an environment for the animals in which they had full autonomy and life was as close to natural as possible. I think, however, that an important, or the most important, question here is: what would the animals prefer: this big zoo-slash-sanctuary or the wild? I believe that if we answer the latter, we might  inadvertently be thinking in an anthropocentric way. There might be less autonomy, for sure, but on the other side, there seemed, at first sight, to be less suffering. Read my previous article on wild animal suffering (and watch the video), if you are convinced that life in nature is idyllic for most animals. Here are some examples where life in Aquila game reserve might be better than in the wild.

  • Animals didn’t have to worry about food. If their environment didn’t provide enough, the humans would supply additional food.
  • Animals, like I said, didn’t have to worry about being eaten. The guide estimated that of the 24 young an ostrich mother had just brought into the world, about twenty would survive – much more than in the wild.
  • A newborn rhino was rejected by her mother. In the wild, if no one else adopted it, this animal would die a pretty miserable death. At the Aquila game reserve, the animal was put in the rehabilitation center where it was fed and cared for, and became good friends with a goat. It will be released into the domain later.
  • Lions normally have a fifteen year lifespan in the wild. Here, the guide told us, they live up to twenty. Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything about how happy these animals are, but it may give us an indication about their physical thriving.
  • Elephants normally die after having gone through their sixth set of teeth, when they cannot chew food anymore. Here, if the animals are still be around at that age, they receive liquid food.

It wasn’t that there were no problems at all. We saw a few springboks that seemed to be a bit misshapen (one of their horns had grown completely askew), which the guide told us was the result of inbreeding (which obviously can also happen in the wild). I’m also not sure if the compounds were large enough for all the animals we saw there. They definitely had a lot more space than in the biggest zoo, but my guess is that migratory animals, like the buffaloes, may not find all their needs met there.
Lions cannot hunt here, but do they need to? Does this need trump the need of a springbok to stay alive? Of course, the lions were fed meat from other animals, whose needs weren’t met by being killed. But in this case, I can imagine that clean meat (cultured meat) could bring a solution. I can even imagine future technology where this kind of meat would grow on some kind of artificial tree in the wild. Or maybe these things can even be fast moving robots, which can actually be chased by predators.
I also wondered about overpopulation. If there are no natural predators, and if the animals get enough food, how long before there are too many of one species or another. When I asked this question, the guide didn’t see the problem and said: “more animals is good for business” (cause yes, this was a business).

It’s not that I think this big reserve/zoo/sanctuary is a complete solution for the problem of wild animal suffering. Most importantly, I’m just talking about a few dozen animals (the lions, buffaloes, giraffes, springbok, oryx, rhinos, etc. that we saw). These numbers probably pale in comparison with other wildlife who were present on the domain, but which were so small as to be invisible for us. These other animals basically still experience pretty much a wild situation, as they are not getting fed or cared for, and aren’t free of predators.

Still, for the larger fauna, the animals whom people actually come to see, this game reserve to me offered a glimpse of what some day could be a reality for many other wild animals: a controlled environment that is so big that animals experience (enough) freedom, and live their lives in relative peace and harmony. The lion does not exactly lie down with the lamb, but at least doesn’t have a chance to gobble it down.
Moreover, at least with these kind of animals (with farmed animal sanctuaries, it’s much more of a challenge) this situation is economically viable; so, that continuation can be guaranteed.

I know the objections many readers will make: that this is another hubris-like attempt of humankind to regulate nature, that it is unnatural, it’s not real, that the animals have no autonomy, that we are infringing on their rights, etc. Many of these objections can be partly true, but again I would like to ask the question: what do the animals prefer and care about?

We should be wary of assuming too quickly that we know what that is.

Go post-vegan!

Let’s see if you can make sense of these ramblings…

Whenever there’s an issue of some complexity, there is, so to speak, a pre-consideration stage and a post-consideration stage. For instance, the issue of animal rights: in the pre-consideration stage, you probably will eat meat. In the post-consideration stage (at least if you put your conclusions into practice), you might be a vegan.

Often, or even most of the time, the beliefs in the pre-consideration and the post-consideration stages will look radically different. But sometimes, interestingly, they are or appear the same. A person may be in the post-consideration stage on some issue, but to you their actions and beliefs look like those of someone in the pre-consideration stage.* Usually, our little egos will tell us that if someone differs from us in opinion on an issue that we have given a lot of thought to, we will assume that they have not given it enough thought. But obviously, that’s not necessarily the case.


Let’s look at an example to see this more clearly. Imagine that you are someone who is very skeptical about GMOs (you’re boycotting GMO products, maybe attend anti-GMO protests, etc). When you meet a person who’s not bothering about GMOs at all, you may assume that they are in the pre-consideration stage: you believe they don’t know much about the GMO issue, don’t know about the supposed dangers of it, haven’t educated themselves about it, and therefore are just eating and buying anything, independent of whether the product has GMO ingredients or not. This person, however, may be doing what they are doing (which is being indiscriminate and indifferent about GMOs), because they are well informed about it and have given the issue a lot of thought. In other words, they are in the post-consideration stage (who knew?!). Their behavior looks the same, but their beliefs and intentions are entirely different.

What this means, in short, is that we may easily mistake someone who’s in the post-consideration stage (on a certain issue) for someone who’s in the pre-consideration stage. While we think they are behind us in their thinking, they may actually be ahead of us – meaning they have thought about and researched the issue more than we have (without this implying that they are necessarily right and we are wrong).

Now, let’s look at how this applies to veganism and vegan advocacy. Here too, we can find statements, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs… that at first sight seem to be part of the pre-consideration stage, but could as well be demonstrated or voiced by people in the post-consideration stage.

Take, for instance, many of the objections from omnivores that vegans usually refer to as unthoughtful (to use a polite term). You’ve heard them all before:

– “Isn’t being 100% vegan extreme?”
– “What would you do if someone offered you a lot of money to eat a steak?”
– “What if plants feel pain?”
– “In the wild, animals kill each other, too.”

Boring and exhausting, right? But can you imagine that these statements actually could come from thoughtful people, including vegans, who have given serious consideration to these issues? Let’s re-interpret them in that way:

“Isn’t being 100% vegan extreme?”
A person in a post-consideration stage may say this to voice their concern that being one hundred percent pure, always and everywhere, is not necessary or productive: they would believe that avoiding tiny ingredients publicly is not the best advertisement for the vegan lifestyle and may have a net negative effect.

“What would you do if someone offered you a lot of money to eat a steak?”
A person in a post-consideration stage may say this to show that following vegan rules is not all that matters, but that actual impact and consequences may at times be more important than sticking to one’s principles. This is from a thought experiment I raised myself, where I suggest that you can donate the money you get to an an animal rights group and, thus, have much more impact.

“What if plants feel pain?”
Again, we usually think this is a stupid gotcha, but at the same time, it’s a perfectly sensible question. We’ve been wrong about the cognitive capacities of other species before; so, is it not at least possible that we are wrong in the case of plants, too? If we are wrong, what are the consequences? (It’s definitely an interesting question to ponder.)

“In the wild, animals kill each other, too.”
Rather than using this as a “gotcha” the way people in the pre-consideration stage may do, a person who has thought about this issue more deeply might take this argument very seriously and might raise this issue, not to apologize for meat eating, but to relativize the impact of veganism (which is focused on avoiding human-caused animal suffering) and emphasize that we indeed should also care about the suffering of animals in the wild. Indeed, the new field of wild animal suffering deals with this and takes this issue very seriously (as do I).

Another example: when someone is vegetarian but not vegan, you may think that they are in the pre-consideration stage regarding veganism. But can you imagine other, post-consideration factors that contribute to this behavior? For instance, I recently read how one vegan was considering becoming a lacto-vegetarian in public settings because it’s way easier and, therefore, easier to spread as a behavior than veganism. (I’m not ready to take this step myself, but I can’t say it doesn’t at least make some sense to me).

All this leads me to think about something that we could call post-veganism: a more rational version of veganism, that is the result not of excuses, callousness or laziness, but is a consequence of giving the issue some serious critical thought. In my mind, post-veganism is still veganism (though it won’t be so for people sticking to the original definition, obviously). A post-vegan may seem similar to a non-vegan at times, but is actually entirely different.

Post-veganism, in my mind, goes back to the roots of veganism, which is a concern with reducing suffering, abuse and killing. It re-appraises this concern and looks at our actions in that light. Post-veganism, thus, does not prioritize rules and labels (the way “classical” veganism often seems to do), but rather focuses on impact and consequences. Post-veganism is not a mere ideology or a belief system, but something that makes actual sense in the real world.

Here are some things that could be part of a “post-vegan manifesto”, if there were such a thing:

– a re-evaluation of objectives and a confirmation of the fact that veganism is not, in the final analysis, about sticking to rules but about having a real impact for animals
– distinguishing exactly between when we’re doing something just to stick to rules and doing something to make an impact
– realizing that being 100% vegan is often not necessary
– realizing that being 100% vegan is, at the same time, not enough: that there are other things that we are affecting by eating our food
– a return to the idea of reducing suffering and killing would imply that we’re also going to take seriously the problem of wild animal suffering
– the realization that changing our own consumption is not the only and not even the most important thing we can do, and that our advocacy and our money can have a bigger impact for the animals.

It’s just an idea. What do you think?

(* I’m borrowing from the American philosopher Ken Wilber, who, in this context, talks about the pre/trans fallacy, in the context of rationality.)