John Davis

John Davis

Posted July 21, 2010

Published in International

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Are you a positive or a negative veg*n?

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If we ask meat-eaters what they think 'vegetarian' means, most would probably say 'someone who does not eat meat' - but that is not at all how I see it.

I'm a positive veg*n, I eat plant foods. I define myself by what I do, not by the negative of what I do not do. If we define ourselves as a negative of others, then we are saying that they are 'normal', and we are abnormal for abstaining.

When I was in Indonesia last year I went on a great day-trip with a bus full of veg*ns from all over Asia. The driver didn't know my name and at one point referred to me as 'the European guy', which was fine - he could have called me the 'non-Asian guy' as I was the only one, but that would have been odd, maybe even slightly offensive. So why do veg*ns collaborate with the flesh-eaters in defining ourselves as 'non-meat-eaters'.

I do not 'abstain'. I do not 'avoid'.  I am not 'meatless' or 'meat-free'. I simply make a positive choice to eat, and to wear, the things I prefer, and my health, the animals, and the planet, all benefit from that choice.


george[the photo right is George Jacobs, chair of the IVU Council, with a friend in Dresden, Germany, 2008]



By way of comparison, when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s most people smoked tobacco. They branded me as a 'non-smoker' but I didn't see it way, I just thought it was disgusting and unhealthy , and I certainly did not consider my preference for clean air to be some sort of self-denial.

So when I was offered a cigarette I asked them why they did it - but  they couldn't defend it of course, as the real reason they smoked was just because everyone else did, and they thought it looked 'cool' - encouraged by film star images and mass advertising. 

I like the graphic below as a representation of the image and the reflected reality as I always saw it (courtesy of )








Even in the 1980s I had to fight to get a ban on smoking in the office where I was based. One otherwise intelligent colleague couldn't believe that we did not allow anyone to smoke in our house, and tried to brand me as anti-social for that!

In July 2007 the British government finally caught up with some other parts of the world and banned smoking in all public places. So now I'm finally vindicated as the normal one, and the smokers have to stand outside in the rain to indulge their perversion.

I can also remember Frank Sinatra singing about 'one for the road' - but now drinking and driving is universally considered a social evil. So things can change. Maybe one day we'll get to the point where flesh-eating is seen as the abnormality that it is - meanwhile we can at least set a better example of how we define ourselves.

Ultimately we should be aiming to abolish words like 'vegetarian' and 'vegan' completely - normality does not need a label, it's the flesh-eaters who should be branded as abnormal. And in the long term we do not want green labels on supermarket products saying 'suitable for vegetarians' - we want blood-red labels indianon anything which is non-veg. The Indian government tried to do exactly that, but they kept the green, and against predictable opposition the red one got diluted to brown, but at least they do have both (see right).  That will take time for the rest us of course, so for now we have to live with the reality of being a minority, but the way we use language can help towards those long term aims.

So I am not  'non-Asian', I am European.
I am not a 'non-smoker', I am someone who demands the right to breathe clean air.
- and I am not a 'non-meat-eater', I am someone who chooses plant foods, which is what 'vegetarian' originally meant.

The International Vegetarian Union obviously does not have the power to define words, that's just down to common usage, and dictionaries trying to keep up as they change. But we can decide how we define our own membership (groups only, IVU does not have individual members), and we can set a better example.

The above was written in July 2010. In May 2011 it was proposed to make our definition positive and to return it nearer to the original. The proposal was:

"IVU defines vegetarianism as a diet of foods derived from plants, with or without eggs, dairy products, and/or honey."

The last clause being an inevitable compromise. This was to replace the old negative definition:

"For the purpose of membership of IVU, vegetarianism includes veganism and is defined as the practice of not eating meat, poultry or fish or their by-products, with or without the use of dairy products or eggs."

Making the change required a ballot of all 120 IVU member organizations around the world, and as many of those have thousands of individual members who were also consulted. The proposal was supported in May 2011 with a 95% majority.

Later update: Further to the point below about fungi/algae etc - I think most ordinary people would describe a 'plant' as something that grows in the ground and cannot move around of its own accord. Sounds like a mushroom to me... the fact that academic biologists have recently deemed that fungi and no longer in the kingdom of plantae is not going to stop supermarkets selling mushrooms in the fruit and veg section.

wikipedia: "Herbivores are organisms that eat plants." - seems simple enough - would anyone really define a herbivore as a 'non-carnivore', or 'an animal that doesn't eat meat' - with a long list of things excluded from their diet?

For vegan history, see my free e-book: ‘World Veganism – past, present and future.” You can download it for free, or replace your existing copy at: (6mb)

IVU on Facebook:


12 Comments | Leave a comment


Very well said, John. Good food for thought.


This is a wonderful concept but let me play Devil's Advocate. Please now, be truthful. You only eat plants? Mushrooms are not a plant. Spirulina is not a plant. Not even dulse or "sea vegetables" are really botanical plants. And salt? Nope, salt is not a plant.


Funny you should write this article. This past June, the Denver post published an article focused on Joel Fuhrman's "Nutritarian" concept, but they led off with a statement that vegetarians are defined by what they don't eat. Gah! They only allow 150 word letters to the editor so I responded as best I could. Below is my response which was published in the June 10th edition. Best regards.

Re: “Nutrition ambition fuels a new appetite,” June 7 fitness article.
It was nice to see the article about eating a nutrient-dense diet, the “nutritarian” diet. But why would the author lead the story with the statement that “Vegetarians are defined by what they shun — meat”? It seems pretty obvious that vegetarians are defined by what they do eat — a plant-centered diet.
It is true that many people do not adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet because both are perceived as diets of rejection and denial. Who wants to live a life of denial, especially regarding something as rewarding as eating delicious food? Not many people, including vegetarians. The reason so many people, about 6 percent us, can sustain as longtime vegetarians is not because they are disciplined and willing to suffer for the animals, for the environment or for good health. They endure as vegetarians because, in addition to benefitting the animals, the environment and their own health, they understand that a plant-centered diet is a diet of abundance, of variety and of deliciousness.
Steve Billig, Denver
The writer is director of the Vegetarian Nutrition Center of Colorado.
This letter was published in the June 10 edition.


fair comment daisy, though there is perhaps a difference in the botanists' 'plantae' and the way us common folks use 'plant' - and even the botanists only separated fungi from plantae as recently as 1969...

However, as the potential for nit-picking could result in an almost endless list of 'optional extras' - maybe for the definition we should revert to the commonly used 'plant based diet' which implies things other than plants on top of the base.

Some of us were concerned that it could also allow any type of animal product above the base, but we need to keep the IVU definition concise, even if the result is deliberately a little ambiguous.


Just giving you a hard time! Anyway I really appreciate the part about normalcy. I see that quite often. For instance, there is "milk" and then there is "breastmilk." Since all milk is breastmilk, and originally human breastmilk, why does cow breastmilk get the "normal" term? As well as with "organic" foods, when organic foods are the original food, the default! With my own garden sometimes I have to remind myself that this is "organic" and not "normal" food. I appreciate the movement in using the word "intact" as opposed to "uncircumsized" since that is also the default. The default should never be an "un-" word!!


Astute article AND comments everyone.

It confirms that VegSource is the kind of community to be in, for me.

Who can I talk to interest VegSource and other Veg organizations in exhibiting at SIT for Change celebration in Berkeley's MLK Civici Center Park on September 18?



Michael, have you contacted the SF Veg Society? They can probably also suggest some other local groups.


Thanks for your article, it can help me.
Really your post is really very good and I appreciate it.
It’s hard to sort the good from the bad sometimes,
You write very well which is amazing. I really impressed by your post.

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