In the news this week, it turns out that the new £5 notes issued by the UK’s royal mint contain traces of tallow, animal fat usually derived from beef. This presents a conundrum to vegetarians and vegans such as myself as we can’t really avoid using them.
It’s easy to elect not to consume meat products or animal derived products (dairy/eggs/honey) or refuse to wear leather, but not so easy to boycott the currency of the country you live in. Do we insist on being given old fivers, or being given the equivalent value in change? Do we give fivers away? Do we do nothing?
All of this throws up a question of how far you take those beliefs.
Pescetarians give up all meat and meat by-products, but still consume fish and fish by-products. Vegetarians take the next step and refuse to consume any meat or fish or any by-product which requires the animal to be dead to retrieve it. Vegans take the next step and refuse to consume any product that requires any substance derived from animals to make it.
Firstly, there is a question of why each individual wants to take on this diet. A lot of people do it for health reasons – a lot of meats cause long term problems because of their fat content, disease is also far easier transmitted through meat consumption. Milk is incredibly fatty and difficult to digest, eggs likewise and honey is a mixture of sugar and fat. A lot of people also do it for ethical reasons; believing that it is wrong to wantonly kill animals, but also keeping cows in a permanent state of lactation for milk is also cruel, as is battery farming chickens and so on.
I became vegan (via being vegetarian for four years) more as a protest against farming, although I do subscribe to the health and ethical reasons also. While I was vegetarian, one of my main points was that the amount of resource needed to farm livestock for meat was incredibly wasteful, when you could cut out the middle man and just use the fields growing feed for livestock to grow feed for humans instead and let livestock populations naturally decline. I came to the conclusion, however, that while I was still buying milk and egg products, I was continuing to support the farming of cows and chickens, and so to be able to protest farming with conviction, I had to cut those out too.
Which of those reasons one chooses influences how far to take vegetarianism/veganism. If choosing the health reason; cutting out red meats and cows’ milk will make a huge improvement, so you may not feel the need to go any further. Even if you do, there would be no need to cut out leather, for example.
When protesting on ethical grounds, however, you can go quite far down the rabbit hole. Firstly, do you refuse to wear wool? Shearing sheep doesn’t harm them, but you could say that unless the sheep are being farmed, there needn’t be so many to get wool from. Then there’s the case of alcoholic drinks – mostly ales, which use either isinglass (from fish) or gelatin (from a variety of animals, but usually pigs) in the filtration stage. There isn’t any of either left in the drink, but that part of a dead animal was used in the process can be bad enough. Then do you eat vegetables that have been subjected to animal fertiliser? For vegan products that are in the style of a specific meat, you could say that to make them taste right, there must have been a stage in the product’s development where somebody had to taste the relevant meat to compare…
How far you take your ideology is up to you. As for me, I won’t eat anything that specifically contains or requires an animal product to make it, but I’m happy to eat things that may contain milk or eggs due to using the same production line. I don’t wear leather, but I do wear wool, although I don’t buy woolen clothes myself. I don’t drink drinks that use animal products for filtration. I don’t know or care what’s been used to fertilise my veg, and I don’t have a problem with meat style products, although I rarely eat them out of taste preference.
There’s no right or wrong answer. Vegans have a bad reputation for looking down their noses at vegetarians as well as everyone else for not doing enough; but the way that I see it, contributing anything, even if it’s just cutting down on meat, is helping.
In respect to the £5 note, hopefully I can console my fellow herbivores by pointing out that tallow is a waste product, so nothing’s being specifically farmed to produce fivers, and fivers with tallow will have no impact upon your health. In terms of ethics, perhaps we can push the government to reissue the notes without tallow, but really the best thing to do is to continue to protest against farming livestock as we do, so that tallow becomes less economically viable than its synthetic or plant based equivalent.