A main motivator for those of us that adopt a vegan lifestyle is our environmental concern. Plant-based diets have the lowest carbon footprint of all dietary patterns. But if you’re a vegan environmentalist, what happens when you see meat, dairy or eggs that are about to go to waste? Is it consistent with being vegan to eat meat in this situation? Is it ethical? These are two different questions, because not everything that is vegan is ethical, and vice versa.
Veganism is about not causing harm to animals as best as you can. This includes not paying others to kill them, therefore increasing the demand for animal harm. As the UK Vegan Society defines it:
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
Sounds straightforward, right? Not really. Every part of this definition has words that are quite open to interpretation. Luckily, the Vegan Society then specifies the following:
One thing all vegans have in common is a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey – as well as products like leather and any tested on animals.
This seems like a much more objective definition. And according to this definition, eating meat that is about to be thrown in the bin is not vegan. But I don’t like definitions. They’re helpful tools to help express our identity, but they aren’t perfect because language cannot perfectly portray our complex reality. I also think there are grey areas in veganism that are debatable, such as E numbers, glue in otherwise vegan shoes, using roads and money that has animal fat in them, and so on. So the more important question is: is it ethical?
I don’t see an ethical problem with eating meat, dairy and eggs that are literally about to be thrown away in the bin. It is not increasing demand for animal products, thus you’re not increasing animal suffering. Furthermore, if you were to eat that meat, you would probably forgo another vegan meal, the production of which also caused some suffering along the way (yes, vegans still cause suffering).
The only reason I don’t do eat animal products in this situation is because:
- The concept of eating animals is unappealing to me,
- I’m normalising eating animals i.e. supporting the idea that meat, diary and eggs are ours to eat, and
- I don’t want to confuse anyone as to what I do and don’t eat, I want to make veganism easy to understand.
However, if you were to choose to eat meat in this situation, you must be really careful as to what you define as “going to waste”. Adopting the position that it is ethical to eat meat to avoid wasting it is a slippery slope. You can then justify buying meat from a supermarket because, if you don’t, some of it will certainly go to waste. Of course this doesn’t really make sense because you could say the same thing about wasting vegetables.
See how complicated it gets? Whatever you decide to buy, something else will go to waste (what you didn’t buy). So you can decide to waste meat, thus reducing animal abuse and your environmental impact, or you can decide to waste vegan food, thus promoting more sustainable and ethical agriculture. One is clearly more desirable than the other.
But in the end, it is really up to you. Most people won’t consider eating meat that will go to waste vegan. But you shouldn’t care about definitions, you should care about outcomes. Veganism is only a tool to stop animal abuse. The end goal isn’t veganism, but an end to animal abuse. If everyone was vegan except for when someone was about to throw meat in a bin, there wouldn’t even be meat in the first place because nobody would be buying it.