Why there’s no such thing as a perfect vegan

Eight years on, veganism still has me scratching my head. My commitment hasn’t wavered, but the questions surrounding what is and isn’t vegan continue to plague me on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. While many assume veganism is strictly about refusing to use animal products, for most vegans it is also about living a life that excludes all forms of animal exploitation. And with mainstream veganism firmly on the rise, the questions keep coming as we learn more about the agricultural price-tags of our choices. Of course, each new discovery is greeted with delight by many non-vegans, who revel in the notion that we’ve been caught out. There is now even a website dedicated to almonds not being vegan (more on this later).

As recently as last week, my “nearly vegan” mother passed on a concerned message from a close friend who felt it imperative that I know almonds (yep, them again) are emphatically not vegan. Cease the almond consumption immediately (that is, if they come from California). Oh, and don’t forget avocados too – particularly if they’re of the Mexican variety. Add dates to the list while you’re at it … and what’s the deal with figs again?

It’s not just non-vegans who want to catch us out. My brief foray into vegan chatrooms quickly made it clear that there was a competitive side to the vegan community. The dos and don’ts quickly morphed into intense question marks over who was living their best vegan life.

If some hapless newbie admitted they accidentally consumed something that contained the smallest amount of dairy they would be hauled over the hot coals into plant-based purgatory. (Even Peta fell foul of this tendency when it tweeted that Oreo biscuits are vegan, sparking a row over whether they can contain traces of milk.) It wasn’t the best introduction to the lifestyle, and so I left. Not veganism, the chat room.

As a result, perhaps the biggest question remained unanswered: is there such thing as the perfect vegan? Or do we need to stop thinking about it in absolutes? “Nobody can be a perfect vegan, as we live in a very non-vegan world,” says the YouTube sensation Madeleine Olivia. “There are many things that are beyond our control. I don’t eat or buy animal products; however, I will purchase secondhand wool and eat foods that say ‘may contain’ on the label. I think it’s totally up to the individual to decide on their own version of veganism and to not be strict with themselves to the point of it becoming stressful.” She says that what matters most with veganism is “doing your best to avoid animal products and animal cruelty”.

The reason some vegans have taken avocados, almonds and even broccoli off the table is a clip from the BBC panel show QI, which highlighted one of the practices used in their production: migratory beekeeping. It’s an uncomfortable reality that much of what we consume is reliant on the way in which our crops are pollinated, with some commercial beekeepers admitting their biggest challenge is simply keeping the bees alive. Likewise, organic fruit and vegetables could be deemed not vegan, particularly if grown using animal-origin fertilisers. How, then, can one determine if anything is truly 100% vegan?

Ward M Clark, the author of Misplaced Compassion: the Animal Rights Movement Exposed, wrote in an online essay that “every potato, every stick of celery, every cup of rice, and every carrot has a blood trail leading from field to plate”.

In the same piece, he claimed that even soybean production (at least in the US) left untold death in its wake: “Pheasants and rabbits are routinely killed in planting and harvesting, and rodents are killed by the thousands using traps and pesticides at every step, production, storage and transportation.”

Likewise, Prof Andrew Smith, the author of A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism and a dedicated vegan himself, would probably concur that it is impossible to be 100% vegan, not least because plants get their nutrients from the soil, which is partly composed of decayed animal remains. The truth is, most of us are happy to accept veganism with its multitude of imperfections, knowing that as the paradigm slowly shifts, so too will food production and its practices.

Derek Sarno, the co-founder of the hugely popular Wicked Kitchen range at Tesco, has a refreshingly pragmatic approach to veganism that speaks to the message at the core of the movement. “I believe in the aspiration of the word veganism,” he says. “I live what I would call more like ‘compassionism’, or at least I try to practise compassion when I can, as much as I can, given the tools and experiences that I have acquired. I’m not perfect. I do my best and I make mistakes. It’s easy for me to cook plant-centred foods; it’s not so easy to tick every single box out there, so we focus on what we can change right now and work towards what we can influence in the bigger picture.”

Some might call my own style akin to “sufficientarianism”: mine is maybe not the type of veganism that ticks every ethical box, but I take on board the complexities of living in the modern world. Veganuary is a charity set up to encourage people to try dropping animal products and its CEO, Simon Winch, says its “philosophy is that it’s about doing your best, and not losing sleep over it”. He says: “If you’re doing what you reasonably can to not consume animal products, then eating something which turns out to have an obscure non-vegan E number in it isn’t really the end of the world.”

Is it time, then, that we stopped thinking in absolutes? Is some flexibility allowed as we continue to piece together the facts surrounding our food and its origins? According to the Vegan Society, veganism is something that “seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose”.

Unfortunately, in modern society it isn’t “possible” or “practicable” (according to the Vegan Society) to know the history of each and every piece of fruit and veg we purchase. Maybe some leeway should be afforded, taking into account the complexities of our multifaceted modern food chain. If you’re happy being a perfectly imperfect vegan like myself, and adapting as you go, knowing that you may fall short some of the time, then you’ll probably find some middle ground that satisfies your drive to do less harm without it affecting your every waking moment.