I have quite a few friends and acquaintances who are vegetarian. I’ve talked with them, of course, about why it doesn’t make sense to give up some animal products and not others. And about the horrible suffering involved in egg and dairy production. Some are making the effort to move toward veganism, and some are almost there. But, sometimes, when I talk to vegetarians about this issue, they are sort of stunned. They thought they had already done something very significant in giving up meat, chicken and fish. They thought they had done enough, and finding out otherwise takes some adjustment in thinking.

I understand that and the fact is, they have done something significant and meaningful by going vegetarian. So why is it that they sometimes get nothing but grief from vegans?

Attacks by vegans against vegetarians are harmful in a couple of ways. First, they disaffect the very people who are most likely to be open to our message—that is, those who have already made changes in their lifestyle in response to an ethical imperative. Ninety seven percent of Americans eat meat and most don’t give it a second thought. In our culture and our society, to be vegetarian is a remarkable and rare statement about animal suffering and use. To say that vegetarians are no better or more “moral” than omnivores is a whole lot more alienating than encouraging. 

In addition, some activists build their criticism of vegetarians on unsubstantiated claims. They insist that vegetarians cause more suffering to animals because they replace meat with dairy and eggs. What we know from the scientific literature about vegetarian diets shows this to be false. First, if lacto-ovo vegetarians were consuming more dairy than omnivores, we would expect them to consistently have a higher calcium intake, and they don’t.

Second, studies comparing vegetarians to omnivores suggest that vegetarians have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, less heart disease, less type 2 diabetes, and less colon cancer. If vegetarians are consuming more dairy and eggs, it would have to follow that eating more of these foods improves health. To say that vegetarians simply replace meat with dairy and eggs is exactly the same as saying that dairy and eggs are good for you. That doesn’t strike me as especially good activism. And it’s obviously not very good science.

We have to assume from the scientific literature that vegetarians eat fewer animal foods and more plant foods than omnivores. That means that they decrease the number of animals bred and killed for food. Their diet has a positive impact in reducing suffering.

That doesn’t mean I’m satisfied when someone goes vegetarian. I’m as frustrated as any other activist when vegetarians will not take the next step. And we have a lot of educating to do in order to help people understand that it doesn’t make sense—from either a rights or a welfare position—to distinguish animal flesh from other animal products. But the fact is that many people—including some who do know about that distinction—go vegetarian first. Donald Watson, who coined the word “vegan” in 1944, had this to say about the subject in a 2002 interview (posted on VeganMeans)

To vegetarians, I would say, accept, as, if you’re honest you must, that vegetarianism, whilst being a necessary stepping-stone, between meat eating and veganism, is only a stepping stone. We all use this stepping stone, I’ve not met a vegan who didn’t approach the movement by that route. There may be vegans I’ve never known, over the last sixty years, who made the change all in one leap, but I’m sure that, being a realist, I accept that vegetarianism is a necessary staging-post in the evolution of humane dietetics.

I don’t agree with the perspective that vegetarianism is a necessary stepping stone. There are lots of ways to approach veganism. And there are, in fact, any number of vegans who simply jumped in and went vegan overnight. But the point is that vegetarianism is a useful transition for some people.

We need to educate meat eaters about the need to take the first step and vegetarians about the need to take the next step. That’s not going to be achieved by being hyper-judgmental towards others who care about animals. And it’s definitely not achieved by promoting misinformation that promotes false health benefits for dairy foods and eggs.