On Figs, Wasps & Ethical Veganism

It’s been five months since I decided to embark on a vegan lifestyle, accompanied by my infinitely-open-minded fiancé who cares about the planet and doesn’t mind what he eats ‘as long as it tastes good’. I’d been vegetarian for a few years and knew it was something I wanted to transition into, but it wasn’t until we watched Cowspiracy in our campervan on the Normandy coast at sunset, where we had just eaten a slobbering slab of delicious cheese, that we realised dairy was no longer aligned with our own moral compasses. Our voyage back over to England the next day marked the end of our relationship with cheese, butter, milk and yoghurt - all foods that we loved but were happy to remove from our lives.

 With my beloved  goats  at Butser Ancient Farm

With my beloved goats at Butser Ancient Farm

Going vegan didn’t happen overnight. The basics were easy to grasp - I can’t think of any reason why another animal should die just so I can eat it - but I’m fascinated by the endless grey areas - so much so that I’ve started writing a zine called Rabbit Food, exploring everything from whether honey and wool can be ethical, to the sustainability of soya beans and avocados. Going vegan isn’t a heal-all solution to the world’s problems, and every day I discover more and more about where our food comes from and how I can exist more harmoniously with other living things. But that is the joy of it - not to be dragged along with the rest of society into a gloomy, apathetic future, but to stop and question how my existence can benefit or damage the rest of the world.

Aside from the specifics on what we should or should not eat, I chose veganism because I wanted to feel more connected with the world around me. We have become an apathetic society, warping our morals so that we become enraged when we see a dog being abused on Facebook, but then tuck into a plate of chicken that has never seen sunlight. Over the last few months I have started to see the world with new eyes - not a place to be exploited or shaped to suit our needs, but one full of independence and beauty.

I’ve found huge joy in learning to connect with the world, and in doing this I’ve started to notice problems with how veganism can be interpreted. The official definition, as set out by the Vegan Society founder Donald Watson in the 1940s, is this:

A philosophy and 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; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Before I go on, I want to say how much I love the Vegan Society and respect everything Donald Watson set out to do. The Vegan Society is an amazing resource if you want to go vegan, from nutritional help to recipes, ethical information to lifestyle advice. The problem begins when we ignore the part that says as far as is possible and practicable.

It all started with figs. I was browsing the internet when I came upon an article claiming that some vegans don’t eat figs. Perplexed, I discovered that in order for a fig to naturally form, the fruit uses an enzyme called asficin to break down the carcass of a wasp and digest it. It’s a type of pollination, like when bees transfer pollen between flowers, but because the wasp dies to create the fig, some vegans choose not to eat them.

I try to be a kind and open-minded person whenever I can, but I find this kind of logic completely ridiculous. For me, the beauty of veganism is being conscious about where your food comes from. It’s about connecting with the landscape, with wildlife, with farmland and other people, and channeling your energy into making the world a healthier, more compassionate place.

It is about connection - not separation.

The natural world doesn’t work on principles of fairness or individualism, but on the collective health of the ecosystem. Fig trees and wasps have each evolved for thousands of years to create a symbiotic relationship which allows both fig trees and wasps to thrive. When a fig digests a wasp, it has nothing to do with human interference or exploitation - that is just how nature works, and by avoiding that fact you are ignoring the raw, terrifying beauty of nature. An organic naturally-formed fig is healthy, sustainable and good for the planet, not an evil wasp-killing machine.

The first issue of Rabbit Food is all about honey, and whether there is an ethical way to eat honey and keep bees. Some vegans don’t eat honey, but I do - although I source it from ethical beekeepers. The reason for this is because honeybees are in global decline across the world, mainly because of pesticides, disease and habitat loss - all human-sourced problems that need human-sourced solutions. If we simply abandoned all our beehives and set the bees free into the world, there wouldn’t be enough habitat to sustain them all and, not only would our bee populations plummet further, we wouldn’t have enough bee-pollinated food to feed ourselves. So how do we choose the most ethical way to feed ourselves? Do we focus on the individual bees that are being ‘exploited’ for their honey, or do we change our perspective and look at the planet as a whole?

 American mink

American mink

I found a similar problem when I discovered Gary Yourofsky, an animal rights campaigner who is banned from Canada and the UK. I’m not going to link to him because I think he is a damaging figure in the vegan movement, but you can find his videos on YouTube. Gary Yourofsky represents that militant, angry, stubborn stereotypical vegan we all hear about - the one who slaps footage of abattoirs in your face and gets himself arrested as though he’s some kind of martyr. I wasn’t bothered about him until I read that he had broken into fur farms and released a load of mink into the wild, and then I decided he wasn’t worth watching.

I live in Hampshire in the UK, where a huge conservation project has finally managed to rid our local river of mink after they were released from fur farms a few decades ago. They destroyed local ecosystems and caused water voles to go almost extinct, and it’s only through years of hard work that conservationists have managed to kill all the mink and release voles back into the water, where they are now self-sufficient.

Animal fur belongs on the animals, and the world would be a much better place without fur farms. But still they exist - and to break in and let the animals loose is one of the most ecologically irresponsible things someone can do - had he not seen 28 Days Later?! To me, Gary Yourofsky may genuinely care about the welfare of individual animals, but he is not an advocate for the environment and the planet as a whole, and he is not somebody I associate myself with, as a vegan. Veganism is about connectivity and compassion, not anger, destruction and ego.

 Admiring the figs in Agatha Christie’s garden, Devon

Admiring the figs in Agatha Christie’s garden, Devon

I like to think the United States would be a better place if the Second Amendment had included the phrase as far as is possible and practicable. When vegans choose to live blindly by rules instead of questioning them, we are just as close-minded as those who care only about the joy of their taste buds. The world is endlessly shifting, and as society changes, we have to adapt our rules and ethics. When Donald Watson first coined the term ‘vegan’ in the 1940s, the world was full of bees. Now they are in such decline, is not kinder and more ecological to keep bees ethically and enjoy any excess honey?

Just because you are not eating meat doesn’t mean you are immune from ecological damage, which is the reason I take so much care over which plant-based milks I buy and where they come from. What’s the use of reducing carbon emissions if my soya milk then destroys an acre of rainforest? Veganism has changed my life and I encourage everybody to try it - for the sake of our own health and the planet. But the joy of being alive on earth comes with its own responsibilities, and we must never stop striving to make better choices.