Veganism is known as the practice of choosing to opt out of harming animals “as far as is possible and practicable.” This caveat is important, because it acknowledges that, unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to live in a manner that has zero negative impact on animals.
Every vegan has to make a personal assessment about what products they are willing to continue using, or what practices they will continue to participate in, even when these items or practices are known to harm animals. There’s no official rule book for this, and different people will come up with different answers for these tough calls, but I can discuss some of the decisions I’ve made personally. Read on.
I do take medications, even though any FDA-approved drug truly isn't vegan. Some medications (like the flu-shot) do include animal products, but ingredients aside, since animal testing is mandated as part of the clinical trial process, no medication is truly vegan.
Despite ‘giving in’ on this issue, I do also support organizations, companies, and politicians who are involved in finding technological and policy solutions to the current FDA animal testing model. And I avoid any products that were involved in non-mandatory animal testing, such as animal-tested cosmetics and cleaning products. Basically, I’ve decided that I will continue taking needed medications so that I can continue to be around to advocate for human and non-human animals, but that I will also work to change the system so that future generations won't be faced with this choice.
Luckily there have been significant breakthroughs that may make pharmaceutical animal testing obsolete in the near future. But even for people who don’t take issue with testing on animals, these technological advances are still a win-win. There are major concerns with continuing to rely on an animal model as being predictive for humans (Thalidomide, for one). We’re currently poised to evolve beyond the old model that’s still mandated by the FDA, and to shift toward more cutting-edge solutions that will result in pharmaceuticals being better vetted and safer for humans.
(Side note/interesting fact: using eggs to propagate viruses for the flu vaccine actually introduces mutations and reduces the vaccine’s effectiveness, so scientists are currently working on developing a better, egg-free version.)
Feces and discarded bones and body parts, which are waste products of the meat industry, are very cheap sources of fertilizer for growing vegetables in our current agricultural system. Most organic vegetables were grown using fertilizer that had some type of animal origin, and most non-organic vegetables were grown using animal byproducts and/or synthetic NPK fertilizer (which has its own host of problems). So a lot of the food that vegans eat is actually not completely vegan, in the sense that animal products were used to create it.
And this makes sense. Veggie growers need fertilizer, and feedlots are desperate to get rid of the mountains of animal excrement that are piling up. However, just because this is the current state of things, that doesn’t mean it’s how things must always be.
For example: Upon visiting a mushroom farm recently, it was impossible to miss the huge, smoking, ammonia scented mounds of poop and hay piled up outside. It turned out that this particular farm uses the soiled stable contents of Kentucky thoroughbreds as fertilizer — they can have it for free, so long as they are willing to haul it off. While this seems like a pretty great symbiotic relationship, it’s of course contingent upon the continued success of the ‘sport’ of horseracing.
Growing up in an area where horseracing was really important, I learned to love it; the horses were so beautiful, and they seemed to be treated exceptionally well. They were like four-legged Olympians! Of course, as one learns about the realities of horseracing, below the pretty veneer, it becomes really difficult to keep up that ruse — as anyone can attest who watched Eight Belles, the famous filly, get euthanized on the Derby track behind a portable privacy screen (as if the screen made it better somehow).
Meanwhile, upon touring the rest of the mushroom growing facility, there were other huge piles: the discarded mushroom stalks and broken pieces that weren’t being shipped out for sale. “What do you do with all of these? Compost them?” “No, it’s not worth it. We just throw them away.”
If demand for meat (and horseracing) were to flag, it wouldn’t mean armageddon for vegetables. Rather, it would further incentivize us to find veganic fertilizer solutions. At the industry level, we can stop throwing away those awesomely compostable mushroom piles. At the municipal level, many towns are beginning to implement city-wide composting systems, where restaurants and individuals can set out a green bin of kitchen scraps alongside their recycling. Residents can go to the composting center to retrieve compost for their gardens, and excess compost can be sold to farmers, rather than all of that precious fertilizer going to the landfill as it does now.
The current widespread availability of animal fertilizers does not mean that we must perpetuate practices like slaughtering animals or racing them in order to keep growing our veggies. If the populations of farmed and raced animals begin to come down, we’ll have plenty of opportunity to transition to new and less harmful alternatives, which could also help reduce some of the current wastefulness in our food system.
Yes, if I were about to be mauled to death by a bear, I would fight back. However, I also educate myself about how to avoid or deescalate situations with dangerous animals, to reduce the chances that this type of “you or me” situation would ever arise.
Plus, humans often harm animals because the human wrongly assumes that the animal is dangerous. Sadly it’s common for people to kill harmless and helpful rat snakes out of misguided fear, even though these visitors are a great part of a yard ecosystem. Even dangerous bites from poisonous snakes are usually inflicted because the human did something wrong; snakes would much rather use their precious venom to catch dinner, not to bite you!
But, thankfully, one place where I’ve never had an actual life-or-death encounter with an animal is at the lunch table. The fact that I would protect myself in a deadly situation has no bearing on whether I should eat harmless animals for lunch.
Just existing in the world
I’ve undeniably killed some creatures today. It’s usually easy to avoid killing large creatures, but I’ve undoubtedly stepped on some poor little bug, or hit one with my car, while going about my business today.
If there’s a dog in the road, I’ll swerve or slam on my breaks to avoid it, but sometimes given one’s speed or traffic situation, there’s no way to avoid causing harm. It’s a terrible situation, that nobody ever wants to find themselves in. The best we can do is try to be aware and to avert these situations, but sometimes they are simply unavoidable.
It’s disheartening to think that I’m inevitably going to harm, maim, and kill other creatures, sometimes without even realizing I’ve done so. But there’s no way around it. The silver lining is that there is something I can do, and that I do have total control over, which is choosing not to voluntarily harm animals, either through my food, product, or entertainment choices. Moving through the world, it’s impossible to cause zero harm. But I also have great power to bring my harm quotient down, by not needlessly and routinely harming animals every time I make a sandwich.