The precautionary principle in veganism is a crucial pillar, and without it, veganism would crumble or become a mindless list of things we avoid without any reason or logic to help explain it. We are dedicating an entire article to this principle.
It’s important to realize that while people have many different motivations to self-identify as vegans, such as health or the environment, these reasons don’t provide a strong lasting foundation for veganism to rest upon. Regarding health, foods suitable for vegans—while in general healthier than the typical Western diet—are not the healthiest because many foods suitable for vegans fall in the junk food category. Even if someone believed that a vegan lifestyle is the healthiest, it wouldn’t support refraining from other actions unrelated to health like animal testing.
Similarly, if someone was motivated only by environmental factors, they would likely care little about the exploitation of animals in animal testing. While animal agriculture is behind with its carbon footprint and various other egregious externalities like antibiotic resistance, it would be foolish to believe that for-profit businesses will simply disappear or remain at a standstill. Many of the largest corporations are working hard to reduce their environmental footprint, and it is possible that, with various mechanisms, they meet the requirements of some countries and partially address various other issues to a level that is acceptable to the general public.
The only motivation that provides a permanent and long-lasting foundation for veganism is an ethical one. There is no need to say “ethical veganism” since any other form, like dietary veganism or molecular veganism, is untenable in that it cannot properly explain everything we encourage and discourage, let alone achieve our vision and result in ending the exploitation of animals. In addition, it has always been the way veganism has ultimately been explained. It may currently be difficult to get people to adopt veganism, but it would be nearly impossible if we told people to stop eating traditional meat or buying products tested on animals for no particular reason.
Justifying to not eat traditional meat because if plants are sentient, eating meat will always result in eating more plants, is ultimately flawed reasoning. It might result in the liberation of factory-farmed animals from exploitation, but it won’t explain why we discourage the killing and eating of all animals or their exploitation in animal testing, for example. Not all animals eat plants, let alone living plants, and eating the fruits of a plant does not kill the plant, not to mention that the concept of killing in the plant kingdom is different than in the animal kingdom. We posit that flawed reasonings like this are in part responsible for a study that showed 30.8% of people who self-identified as vegans were likely or somewhat likely to eat insects as part of their diet.
When we use targeted reasoning that can only explain why we want to end the exploitation of a subgroup of animals, we end up with people who self-identify as vegans who don’t care about the killing and exploitation of all animals. This form of veganism, which we have internally labelled as “vsheld” veganism, standing for vegetarianism plus sheep, honey, eggs, leather, and dairy, is an emerging threat to our vision, along with molecular veganism.
Vsheld veganism, while technically a subset of molecular veganism, is characterized by an excessive focus on traditional animals used for food, so much so that some start to believe that other animals don’t matter as much; again, we posit this is in part why 30.8% of people who self-identify as vegans report they would be likely or somewhat likely to consider eating animals as part of their diet.
It is not rare to see both molecular and vsheld veganism occurring at the same time, and they also often have the characteristics of being mostly static, which translates to having mostly static vegan certifications and standards. Since what is opposed is fairly static, there is little need to change anything.
These forms of veganism are not only untenable, but they also make the ideals of veganism and our vision impossible. They both fail to realize the real issue plaguing animals is not the molecular structure of things, nor whether an animal looks like a cow, but the exploitation behind it.
While science is clear that animals include both vertebrates and invertebrates, the field of animal ethics in animal testing sometimes does not consider them. When organizations regulate animal testing, in some cases they do not include invertebrates; some cephalopods are included in some countries, without a clear scientific explanation of why.
Without the precautionary principle, it is impossible to make scientifically sound reasoning as to why we do not allow testing on very small animals like nematodes or insects. The precautionary principle also allows us to use scientifically sound reasoning as to why the killing and exploitation of animals are to be avoided but not that of a soybean plant when they are both living beings.
The precautionary principle allows us to extend the many things animals have in common, such as all animals want to minimize efforts and avoid pain and threats, to the reasonable suspicion that all animals simply want to be happy or live a life free from exploitation just like we do. This extends to all animals and not living beings from other biological kingdoms because we have not, so far, determined they have these characteristics as a group.
We use the precautionary principle in veganism, and in our organization, we are inspired by the EU communication on the precautionary principle:
The precautionary principle is not defined in the Treaty, which prescribes it only once – to protect the environment. But in practice, its scope is much wider, and specifically where preliminary objective scientific evaluation, indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen for the Community.
This basically means we have a responsibility to act if we find reasonable grounds that animal exploitation is taking place. Additionally, we also take inspiration from the legal field and equate “reasonable grounds” to an evidentiary threshold equivalent to “reasonable suspicion”, which is much more well defined in the legal system than the former is defined in philosophy.
To that end, we use the legal precedent of many countries which requires that reasonable suspicion be based on facts or information and not a mere hunch; the “reasonable” part refers to the fact that if an unbiased observer is provided with these facts and information, they would also be satisfied with the possibility that animal exploitation may have taken place. It differs from other standards of proof in that it refers only to the possibility of animal exploitation being present and not the probability. When there is a lack of consensus on whether reasonable suspicion exists, the precautionary principle requires the burden of proof to be on those claiming that no reasonable suspicion exists.
The precautionary principle in veganism must be applied indiscriminately. We cannot use it to denounce and ban from certification products tested on invertebrates, while simultaneously requiring facts beyond reasonable doubts and convictions in a court of law before we ban products due to the exploitation of animals in the case of slavery or slavery-like conditions. Doing so is not only illogical and makes our vision impossible but also crumbles the foundation that veganism needs to solidly rest upon. Veganism becomes a mindless list of ingredients, compounds and actions we avoid for reasons that cannot be justified by logic and reasoning based on science.
The precautionary principle, along with other factors, is the golden principle that can logically explain all the actions we encourage and discourage in veganism. When used foolishly, it can destroy veganism and make our vision impossible.
Our vision is clear: to end the exploitation of all animals. Science is clear: arthropods, invertebrates and human beings are animals. The precautionary principle is clear and it cannot be applied subjectively to different species of animals to prevent actions against those animals we want to protect while condoning or even encouraging the exploitation of those we care less about.
It is true that we are just starting to understand the complexities of other kingdoms. While we are learning about some living beings, for example, plants exhibiting amazing capabilities to respond to stimuli and defend themselves, the scientific consensus is that this is an exception and not the norm and happens differently than in the animal kingdom. If one day there is reasonable suspicion that some living beings from other kingdoms have much more in common with animals than we previously thought, we will be the first to ban them from vegan certification. This is a requirement, not a luxury, otherwise the underpinnings of veganism would crumble under our own fallacious and hypocritical reasoning.
The for-profit nature of businesses means that the exploitation of animals will never be limited to products made from animals or animal by-products. It will also be present in products made from plants like palm oil, which we have already banned, in the packaging of products like leather pouches or plastic, or in the labour to make those products like in the case of a horse-pulled grinding wheel. Additionally, human-animal exploitation exists in many products and services available nowadays. The never-ending quest for profits means businesses will continuously come up with novel ways to exploit animals, so ending exploitation will require adapting to the ever-changing nature of our society.
The concepts and principles of veganism have existed in various forms for millennia. The creation of the English label “vegan” may have only happened in the last century, but the reasoning used to justify various actions in veganism means that it is impossible for veganism to remain static and unchanged for any length of time. Molecular veganism, vsheld veganism or a static and unchanging version of veganism would risk a way of life and philosophy, and they won’t bring about the ideals of veganism and our vision.
Always support products, services and organizations that align with your beliefs. Ours are clear and our dedication to our vision is unwavering.
This article was contributed by our member Vegan Society of Canada. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vegan World Alliance.