Ethical Veganism and Reducetarianism/Plant based diets – Why we need some further understanding

27th October 2017

There is a big growth in both veganism and plant-based diets all over the globe, and in the UK especially, and whilst the growth is set to continue, so does the ongoing debate and often misunderstanding and misrepresenting between those that promote veganism as an ethical way of life (ethical veganism) and those that promote veganism from a plant-based diet perspective (plant-based diet) – and especially the ‘reducetarian’ position.

Many times you will see those with a rights-based approach argue often savagely with those with a Utilitarian, or in this case specifically reducetarian approach, and both often seem misunderstood by those on both side reluctant for one reason or another to debate intelligently, with good spirit, and seek understanding and potentially reconciliation, by either not understanding or flat out refusing to recognise each other’s position.

And this at times has descended into really unscrupulous tactics, including sharing of private emails and messages, and deliberate misrepresentation of individual’s work.

And of course, it looks awful in public for those that are new to all this, or curious, or considering transitioning.

It’s nothing new – it’s been going on a long long time.

But in the interest of reconciliation and understanding, if not unity, here are a few thoughts on these positions.

First off – please note – this is about advocacy and positions. It is not about individuals who are plant-based or vegan, it’s about advocacy and how we best advocate for animals. If you are plant-based, that’s brilliant. If you are vegan, that’s even better. If you are neither, you are not being judged or excluded here. It’s the opposite. We are looking at how best to advocate for animals. Welcome.

Secondly please note I am no scholar – this is just my own personal opinions and viewpoints, I am not an academic, and open to debate about any points or being put right if factually incorrect etc.

And thirdly, its written with good intent, to help shed some light and offer some clarity and provide some insight into what is often a majorly misunderstood area – and although I should clarify that I favour a Rights-based Ethical vegan approach over a Reducetarian approach, nevertheless I can understand the Reducetarian position a lot clearer these days and have understood why many find this advocacy attractive and potentially more effective for the animals than ethical veganism.


The Reducetarian position seems to be this – that if we can ‘relax’ the ‘rules’ a bit and stretch veganism to be basically a plant-based diet that includes a few exceptions, and try and help shift a large amount of people to a basically mainly plant-based’ish diet, we will be doing the animals, our health, the environment and sustainable global food production a big favour. We shouldn’t worry too much about trying to be ‘pure’ or even ‘vegan’ (as in the 1979 definition that seeks to exclude the use of all animals, including food, clothing and other uses), but more focus on encouraging anyone and everyone to eat less meat and dairy and move towards eating very little – or even no – animal product.

The position sometimes sees ethical veganism as ‘the enemy’ as it is perceived to make it too difficult and too out of reach, and that it would be a lot easier to just encourage the mainstream population to make a few small changes en masse than to work on getting individuals to ‘go the whole way’ and go vegan. Often you will see things like ‘all or nothing’ or ‘the world won’t go vegan overnight’ and ‘vegans are purists’ and ‘extremists’ from the reducetarian advocates, in the attempt to make a  mainly plant-based diet easy, within reach, fun, for everyone, and accessible without a load of ‘rules’ and ‘embarrassing social occasions’ where it may be easier to be flexible and eat a bit of animal product rather than seem dogmatic rigid and a bit out of place and unattractive as a result.


The Ethical Vegan/Rights Based position asks that vegans advocate from a Rights-based position – that is that all animals have one basic right to be left alone and not killed or used as property. By going vegan, we do our best to avoid the use of animals wherever practicable and possible. It’s not ‘extreme’ or ‘purist’ – it’s just choosing not to use animals wherever and whenever we can. The Ethical Vegan position is that yes it does matter about ‘a bit of milk’ as that ‘bit of milk’ is an individual (or more) that has suffered hugely and unnecessarily for someone else’s pleasure. And whilst ethical vegans recognise that we may never be able to exist on the planet without harming some animals (for instance, currently, the field mice killed in the harvesting of wheat or other plant-based crops) nevertheless we should strive at all times to avoid using animals, and recognise them as individuals, as persons and not as property.


In some respects, the ‘reducetarian’ position is sometimes seen as ‘the enemy’ as it disregards the ‘right’s ‘ of individual animals in favour of ‘the greater good’ and ‘more animals saved’, although there appears to be little evidence to support either claim as to which position helps the most.


Common problems cited with the Reducetarian position

  • Veganism isn’t the end game. Instead, it can sometimes be viewed as ‘in the way’, and that the definition should be ‘relaxed’ with ethics discarded and more focus on health and environment, to include the very occasional use of animals, especially where considered ‘pragmatic’ or ‘effective’, especially in influencing others in a positive way
  • The rights of individuals are ignored
  • Ethical vegans are portrayed as ‘crazy’ or ‘extreme’ or ‘purist’
  • A false dichotomy of ‘all or nothing’ has been portrayed about the Ethical veganism position
  • Ethical vegans are referred to as unsupportive
  • By referring to veganism as a plant-based diet, the core reason for staying vegan – the ethical part about justice for animals – is removed, increasing the likelihood of recidivism
  • Pseudoscience and bias studies are used to support the claims of effectiveness of the approach
  • Justice is a dirty word in the context of animal advocacy


Common problems cited with the Ethical Vegan Position

  • Dogmatic, inflexible, ineffective
  • 1% figure of vegans proves veganism isn’t working
  • Supposedly high recidivism rate (unsupported by evidence, but a lack of evidence to prove otherwise?)
  • Focused on the individual and not on the ‘bigger picture’
  • Wants to be ‘the smallest club in the world’
  • Hostile towards those that aren’t yet vegan, unsupportive to people transitioning, ‘all or nothing’ approach puts people off
  • Critical of those ‘doing their best’ – especially celebrities like Ricky Gervais (advocates for animals and eats their secretions) or Robbie Williams (who refers to himself vegan but eats animal burgers on the weekend)
  • ‘Shouty’, ‘crazy’, ‘arm – waving’ ‘disrupting’ ‘book thrusting’ – think DxE
  • Unattractive and unattainable for the masses
  • Ultra-critical of other vegans, divisive, mean-spirited


So which ones work the best…?

Well, it could well be that both work well at different times. I really get the idea behind the Reducetarian approach that if we could just get a whole load of people to a point where they eat a lot less meat like really quickly, then it’s worth sacrificing veganism, which for some appears to be way too difficult, in the name of shifting to a predominantly plant-based diet. Never mind what’s in your beer – let’s just start with steak and bacon butties off the menu at least some of the week, if not all week long. And of course, in many current meat- and dairy-dominated communities, this could make a huge pile of sense, especially in a company that appears to be very resistant to any concept of veganism. And in some cases, it may be the only option – for instance, within a family that has rejected veganism to the point where the vegan member of the family is excluded altogether. In this case, it may make little sense to advocate for ethical veganism if it will only cause further resistance and rejection, whereas a ‘reducetarian’ or ‘one day a week ‘ approach maybe all there is left to play with.

And at the same time, there is no denying that A) the ‘crazy/angry Ethical vegan’ stereotype exists and B) these individuals are potentially very off-putting and damaging to the idea of living plant-based. Plant-based diets are ‘sold’ on their benefits to health and also the environment, both of which are compelling issues for a rising number of mainstream public. ‘Morals’ and ‘ethics’ are perceived as off-putting enough already, and if amplified by ‘extreme behaviour’ this only goes to amplify the whole ethical vegan positions as perceived as being ‘extreme’.

But likewise, ‘watering down’ the meaning of veganism to ‘just a diet’, as appears to be the current penchant of the reducetarian approach is also a real problem, as it removes the core definition of veganism, which is based on justice for animals. The recent interview with Piers Morgan and George Monbiot on TV highlighted just this – that unless the ethics are consistent, they fall down. In this case, with George advocating for veganism but still wearing leather on his wrist, he undid any ethical consistent position and in doing so opened himself to unbearable torrents of ridicule and abuse from the fairly nauseous but in this case, unfortunately, spot on Piers Morgan.


So where do we stand on ‘vegan’ celebrities?

The recent Robbie Williams ‘vegan’ headlines were really helpful in revealing where you are with ‘veganish’ celebrities. Of course the likes of David Haye the boxer, who identifies as an ethical vegan, or Evanna Lynch the actress, who is also ethical vegan, have little issues in public, but the recent Robbie ‘I’m vegan….except on Sundays (burger day)’ once again opened up the debate – are these people good or bad for the animals. Of course someone with Robbie’s fame will spread the word vegan far and wide, which is a good thing, but in doing so and then saying he includes eating animals in his definition of vegan, he is undermining the whole concept of veganism by making it about his health and not about the animals (except as burgers).

If you prefer a ‘reducetarian’ approach you may well be very supportive of Robbie and choose to ignore the burger bit in the name of making veganism popular….and you may well have a very valid point.

But if you identify as an ethical vegan, you may well be supportive of Robbie but also point out that Robbie isn’t vegan, but starting to eat a plant-based diet, which is, of course, a good thing in itself for a number of very good reasons, but that he could do even better, and go vegan and actually avoid the use of animals wherever he can choose to do so. Including the burgers on Sunday. Which might risk spoiling the moment too. It’s good to push people – but you don’t want to push them away either.


The Politics of Contradiction

The slight issue is that these two approaches have so much in common – but also some fundamental differences, and therein lies the contradiction between the two approaches, and this is why I believe so many of us struggle with being able to accept one or either as a genuinely well thought out and respected approach.

The Reducetarian approach by nature almost has to isolate and emphasise the negatives of the ethical veganism position in order to be effective. It sees veganism as a failure in many respects and a movement whose future is limited. Its basic premise is that promoting veganism doesn’t work and we’d be better off changing the definition of veganism to something that does and can and will work. The premise is that this isn’t done to increase the amount of animals killed, it’s done to decrease the amount of animals killed – and in some cases, the position will take it one step further and actually pretend to be supportive of the ‘’consumer’ (or ‘oppressor’ as an EV may say) in order to try and influence them to ‘consume less’ (or be ‘less oppressive’’). Reducetarians often express that they feel very misunderstood, that they are genuinely trying to help animals here, and that we should all be ‘united’ as we all ‘want the same thing’, and often feel ‘attacked’ or ‘shamed’ by other vegans (or the vegan police) for ‘wanting to help animals’, and they can often be very derogatory to ethical vegans in public with strings of insults starting with ‘purists’ as if that was a bad thing to make an effort to avoid using animals.

The Rights-Based position deplores this blatant lack of respect for the individual and the desire to redefine the definition of the ethical vegan position to include the use of animals in the name of ‘effectiveness’ and sees this approach to be a direct contradiction to the original spirit of the founding fore -founders and pioneers of the vegan movement over the last 70 years, and a gross dereliction of duty to the animals at a time when ethical veganism is beginning to become the thing. In doing so, rights-based advocates see this reducetarian approach as’ the enemy of animals’ and despite the best intentions of many fine individuals and activists that favour this approach, the Reducetarian approach is often the target of ridicule, misrepresentation, rudeness, disrespect, mean-spiritedness and general all-round malign. This then leads to Ethical Vegans being labelled all these terrible things back again and then, of course, all reasonable and civil debate is shut down in place of rants raves, accusations and general ‘attacks’ and ‘shaming’ and whathaveyou.

What should be two movements that should (and sometimes do) complement each other, Often seem to directly contradict each other.



The solution (if there is one – and if I may be so bold as to suggest one) as often lies in the middle ground. A softly softly gentle friendly flexible loving supportive nourishing encouraging fun informative educative approach that has an ethical veganism core philosophy on the inside, but a flexible exterior which adapts to the environment and surroundings in terms of emphasis. If that means focusing on plant-based foods, on environmental concerns, on health issues, on sustainable food programmes or on any facet of veganism, so be it. Adapt and adopt an appropriate opening and front, but back it up with a gentle, kind but clear position that veganism is about avoiding the use of all animals. And if people ‘aren’t ready’ to go vegan straight away, and want to ‘go at their own pace’ never mind the ‘all or nothing’ myth, encourage people to start with a vegan breakfast, and then start working on a vegan lunch every day, and gravitate toward a vegan dinner too, with the rest of the other areas of clothing, personal care, entertainment etc quietly added in along the way. This is in contrast to the ‘reducetarian’ approach that simply asks for a reduction, not an elimination of the use of animal products as an end goal, and tends to work from a different direction emphasising reduction but still leaving animals on the dinner plate without consistently reinforcing their removal as the end game.


Veganuary  and VegfestUK – solutions that work

The great working example of all this is of course Veganuary. They have a month-long ‘go vegan’ pledge support system which is ultra-friendly and welcoming whilst still maintaining a clear ethical position that animals are not ours to be used. And of course, the proof is in the vegan pudding. Out of 60,000 Veganuary participants in Jan 2017, approx 2/3rds pledged to stay vegan, and 1/3rd to reduce animals product consumption. The Veganuary model demonstrates that there is in some ways little need to promote reducetarian approaches – as the knock-on effect of promoting ethical veganism is that those who don’t go vegan, reduce anyway. So can we infer as a result of this that we may be better off promoting ethical veganism? I would say yes.


And Vegfest does much the same in some respects – its core message is a justice based one but its exterior represents the multi-facets of veganism in a supportive fun uplifting environment full of pleasure, entertainment and awesome vegan people, talks and food everywhere. And in 2018, this will be further emphasised by our 3 main talks rooms focused on education – Plant-Based Diets for optimum health, Plant-Based Diets for optimum performance, and The Vegan Academy. We recognise that from feedback, 2/3rds of our visitors place the health benefits of plant-based diets as their initial attraction, and likewise the interest in vegan athletes, optimum performance and recovery is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, for those that wish to learn more about veganism as an ethical way of life and a philosophy of non-violence and justice for animals, step forward this way to the academy and get yourselves educated and inspired, especially in the field of activism



This shortish essay is a result of a few years of looking at this. Having used ‘vegan’ since our first event in 2003 as the Bristol Vegan Fayre, in 2009, I dropped the word ‘vegan’ from the name of our event and promoted a ‘reducetarian’ approach up until 2014, when I started promoting veganism from an ethical perspective again, and became interested in this area of debate. I do believe we are better off promoting ethical veganism whenever we can, especially as a start point but I also recognise that in itself is a ‘big stick’ and needs careful handling to avoid the negative stereotypes so rightly feared by so many as being detrimental. I believe that in 2017 we have now seen the emergence of enough ‘major players’ in the vegan community that are ‘singing from the same page’ as well as a multitude of grassroots activists, including the 150 odd vegan festivals in the UK this year, and that ethical but friendly and supportive veganism is now the thing. But I also believe that (nearly) all our reducetarian colleagues are really nice people, honest, full of integrity, devotion, and dedication to helping animals and are often much misunderstood and much maligned and that isn’t helpful either. We should be able to debate like adults, respectfully and see each other’s positions and share the benefits and weaknesses without always looking to change each other’s viewpoints. There has to be a middle ground to succeed, and it’s for us to find it. For the animals, for the people, for the planet and for anyone who got to read right to the end – thankyou.

Tim Barford


Oct 2017