In June of this year, the European Parliament passed an Amendment to the consumer food information regulations, giving legal protection to the word ‘vegan’, and making it a legally-enforceable term in the European Union by the year 2014. According to the new law:

“…the term ‘vegan’ should not be applied to foods that are, or are made from or with the aid of, animals or animal products (including products from living animals).”

Although this obviously indicates that veganism is making its way into our culture and society in a whole new way, this development should perhaps be of some concern to those of us for whom veganism represents much more than food, as it has the potential to reinforce the widespread acceptance that veganism is nothing more than a dietary choice.

The word ‘vegan’ was originally introduced in 1944, by the founder of the UK Vegan Society and inventor of the term, Donald Watson. Although the word was originally used to signify a dietary practice (abstaining from dairy, eggs and honey as well as flesh), the definition was soon expanded to include all products of animal exploitation, including animal-derived fabrics and clothing.

“The word ‘veganism’ denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

66 years after the coining of the term, it seems that both vegans and the world at large are still undecided about whether the word should signify merely a dietary practice, or whether the meaning should go beyond diet.

The adoption of a ‘vegan’ diet for health reasons is becoming increasingly socially acceptable, as doctors, nutritionists, athletes, celebrities and even CEOs are hopping on the ‘vegan diet bandwagon’ to lose weight, get healthy and improve athletic performance. Men’s Journal recently ran an article espousing the benefits of ‘going vegan’ for working out. YouTube sensation Isaiah Mustafa (aka the Old Spice Guy) recently told Jay Leno that his trainer has told him to abstain from animal products (as well as other toxins) to improve his fitness regimen, and ‘ultra-marathoner’ Scott Jurek has been eating vegan for over ten years.

With environmental concerns becoming increasingly widespread, there’s a new trend to ‘go vegan’ for the health of the planet. With everything we know about the ecological impact of animal agriculture, it makes sense that many people are cutting back or even eliminating certain animal products from their diets in an attempt to curb their contribution to climate change, deforestation, pollution, and the other forms of environmental devastation caused by animal agriculture.

This is all good news of course, but to many of us, it actually has very little to do with what we understand veganism to be.

Since the coining of the term in 1944, the word ‘vegan’ has evolved, as the number of individuals who consider themselves vegan has grown. With greater understanding of the suffering involved in all aspects of the animal industry – from our food to clothing to entertainment – a new standard of the word has developed.

As I wrote in my last post:

“The pandemic of violence in the world calls to us to reevaluate our relationship with nonhuman animals – who are victims of the most extreme forms of our collective violence – and to recognize that they are no more meant to be our possessions than African-Americans, women, children, or any other living beings. They too, are individuals, who value their lives, feel pain, fear death, and have a right to live free from oppression.”

Veganism is nothing less than the evidence of one’s commitment to nonviolence – the determination to eliminate our support for cruelty to others carried out on our behalf.

Veganism is a demonstration of the awareness of fundamental principles of justice – an ongoing declaration of our conviction that acts of brutality and oppression are not excusable simply by virtue of the species of the victims.

Veganism is an acknowledgement of the responsibility of the individual – the recognition of our obligation to minimize the harm we cause by our existence, and to develop in ourselves the qualities necessary to become citizens of a better future; where no one is oppressed, where no one is treated as a means to an end.

If we truly seek a peaceful world – a world in which people do not live in fear of one another, and a world in which humans are not universally regarded as the most violent species on the planet – then there is simply no way we can sidestep veganism as the key to the future we are seeking; the essential step on the way to developing qualities that are vital to our continued existence.

It’s an unavoidable truth that veganism will continue to mean different things to different people. But for those who are drawn to its powerful message of justice, nonviolence and personal responsibility, the profound significance of veganism offers us an ongoing opportunity to expand our understanding and truly live the ideals that we believe in.