A vegan revolution in Israel: fact or fiction?

You may have heard that in the last few years, Israel has gone through a “vegan revolution”, or that it is the most vegan country in the world. I recently was in Israel to give a CEVA vegan advocacy training in Tel Aviv, together with Melanie Joy, whose book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows just came out in Hebrew. My girlfriend and I spent four days in Tel Aviv, three days in Jerusalem, and three days in the occupied territories, and so I had the chance to check things out for myself. Is the vegan situation in Israel indeed remarkable? And if so, why exactly is that?

Answering questions like these is never easy: it is hard to get all the relevant data together and interpret it correctly. But in this case, there are some confounding factors which make the task even more complex. First of all, in assessing whether there’s something exceptional going on in Israel, our personal agenda or bias may be playing a role. For some people, Israel seems to be proof that rather confrontational, in-your-face tactics work, and so they use the case of Israel to argue for a clear, undiluted go-vegan message. Personally, I am – at this point in time – more in favor of slightly toned down messages (including reducetarian ones), which are equally about health and sustainability. So when looking at Israel I need to be aware of my own biases in that sense.
Secondly, there is the Palestinian elephant in the room. Many people, mainly on the left, take serious issue with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians (I’ll come back to this later), which may color their assessment of how Israel is doing in the vegan department. Some even suggest that Israel is polishing up its image with a dose of vegan-friendliness (“veganwashing”). The situation in Israel seems to be an interesting case study for a discussion about the interconnectedness of oppressions, which is coming more and more to the fore in the animal rights/vegan movement in general.

With these caveats in mind, let’s take a look at what we can find.

What’s happening?
Some tidbits of information: Israel is the only country in the world where the international pizza delivery chain Domino’s (active in over eighty countries) has a vegan offering. It’s also the first country outside of the US where the vegan flavors of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream are available. The Israeli army takes care of its vegan soldiers, offering, among other things, non-leather boots. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed his support for Meatless Mondays and said he is very sympathetic to the idea of animal rights. The 2014 Vegan Fest drew over 10,000 visitors. Happy Cow shows us 20 vegan listings (restaurants, bars, etc.) and 16 vegetarian ones in the city center of Tel Aviv (within a 5 km radius, and in a population of 410,000 people). Travel agencies offer vegan culinary tours of Tel Aviv, and a vegan group tour of Israel.

Israel is the first country where the Domino’s pizza chain has a vegan offering.

Walking around in Tel Aviv, my own superficial assessment was that it is indeed very vegan friendly, on a par with the most vegan-friendly cities in the US, like New York or San Francisco, or Berlin. Tel Aviv is the most progressive part of Israel, while Jerusalem, the country’s biggest city, is much more conservative and doesn’t seem to be quite as impressive in the vegan department. Veganism especially being concentrated in the most progressive cities is of course not a phenomenon unique to Israel.

Very impressive in Israel is also the activist movement itself. The growth of this movement seems to be a very recent thing. When I talked to people about what triggered it, the name Gary Yourofsky, mainly known from his “Best Speech You Will Ever Hear” video, kept popping up. Yourofsky – who recently pulled out of activism due to burnout – visited Israel in 2012 and seemed to have galvanized the movement by his talks and many interviews in mainstream media. The Hebrew subtitled version of his video was watched over 700,000 times. Yourofsky is heavily criticized by many people for statements about women, Palestine, and a general misanthropic attitude, but his influence in Israel especially seems hard to deny. Time and again I heard of prominent and less prominent activists having gone vegan because of Yourofsky.

Apart from him, other influential people I heard mentioned frequently are Tal Gilboa, a vegan activist who won the popular Big Brother show on national TV; Ori Shavit, a food journalist, blogger and activist; and TV-celebrity Miki Haimovich, who leads the Meatless Monday campaign in Israel.

So today, the movement in the Holy Land is clearly flourishing. You may have heard about the animal rights march in October 2015, in which no less than 12,000 people participated. The organizers aim to attract three times as many people in the next march, come September – it would make it the biggest animal rights march ever. I had a meeting with people from Anonymous for Animals at their headquarters in Tel Aviv, and was very impressed by the professionalism and results orientation of their relatively young staff (which is 30 people strong!). Equally impressive is the work of the organization Vegan Friendly, led by Omri Paz, which is responsible for the vegan friendly label for businesses, organizes many events, and does lots of other things. The more mainstream organization Let the Animals Live has in recent years introduced vegan campaigns.

The 2015 Animal Rights March in Tel Aviv

Other initiatives are the very successful Facebook page Best Video You Will Ever See, which has over four million followers and seems to be very good at helping videos go viral. Activegan is a new initiative to help vegan activists be more effective (Chen Cohen, one of their founders, helped organize our CEVA training). A vegan congress mainly intended for activists attracted 1,400 people in February 2017. And then of course there is the in-your-face activism of the 269Life movement, which originated in Israel, and where activists publicly allow themselves to be branded with the number 269 – the number of a dairy calf born on an Israeli farm.

That’s how active and dedicated the movement is. But what do the actual numbers say? While some reports show higher numbers (sometimes you read 5% vegans), the more realistic research (by the Central Bureau of Statistics) shows 1.7% vegans and 4.7% vegetarians in Israel. The poll asked what people called themselves, so actual figures may be lower still. Moreover, as activist Dylan Powell explains, Israel is in the top meat consuming countries in the world (after the US, New Zealand, Australia and Austria), and is the largest consumer of chickens in the world. The trend too seems upward for meat consumption, and Powell (who is explicitly pro-Palestinian) rightly says that the number of vegans in a country is not necessarily all that revealing, and should be juxtaposed with pro capita meat consumption.

What’s different about Israel?
Even if the vegan success in Israel for now seems to be mainly confined to Tel Aviv and to a cultural elite, and even if it can hardly be called light years ahead of other progressive countries, it is still quite impressive. Especially impressive is the speed at which it all happened. A couple of years ago, the movement was very small. I already wrote about Yourofsky, who seemed to have reinvigorated the movement, but from conversations with Israeli activists, I also found some other factors that may have facilitated a quick growth.

One distinct characteristic of Jewish culture are its food laws. The widespread custom of indicating products as kosher, and avoiding non-kosher products (as many, though by no means all Jews do), probably makes it easier for Jews to understand – and be tolerant and open toward – vegan practices of food-avoidance. Israelis also seem to maintain very direct, open and honest communication, which may make it easier still to talk about one’s preferences and ethics.

Another factor may be that Israel is a really small country and that it is relatively easy to reach a big part of the population through its few media outlets. Also, unlike in most Western countries, there is a good vegan culinary basis in Israel (and in other nations in the Middle East). Hummus and falafel (both made of chickpeas) are staple foods that are just about everywhere (people here actually eat entire plates of hummus).
Finally, in my experience with the animal rights movement in the US, I have repeatedly been struck by the disproportionately high number of Jewish people in it. It is possible that the Jews, having been subjected to relentless persecution and hostility over the ages, have an easier time empathizing with the plight of other oppressed minorities. Which, of course, brings us to the Palestine question.

The Palestine conundrum
While we were planning our trip, one activist wrote me that he found it unethical not to gently push us to also visit the occupied territories. It didn’t feel right to me to just enjoy great vegan food in Tel Aviv while I was aware of all the things happening in the region, and so we took a guided tour of East Jerusalem, and one of the city Hebron. The latter tour was run by the organization Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli ex-soldiers who decided to break their silence about what they had seen during their army service. As I am writing this, prime minister Netanyahu just canceled a meeting with the German minister of foreign affairs because the latter had talked to Breaking the Silence. Many Israelis consider Breaking the Silence to be a group of traitors, but to me our guide seemed very reasonable and objective and even though they were obviously critical of the country, they could hardly be called anti-Israel at all. All of this is testament to what I experienced myself: that there is a heavy taboo against speaking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that any criticism of Israel will easily be considered anti-semitic by some.

Having seen and heard what is happening in the occupied territories, I find it hard to ignore the whole Israeli-Palestine problem in the context of an article about veganism. Experience has already taught me that there is no position where you can stand on this topic without getting a lot of rather intense feedback. I do understand that the matter is very complicated, and that a short stay in Israel cannot make the whole story clear to me (one of our guides was a Palestinian, another was a secular Jewish woman, so I didn’t get any religious view on things). Still, what I heard and witnessed in Hebron and other places seemed very unjust, to say the least.

Some people in the animal rights movement – while they may believe that animal rights and human rights are connected – are not in favor of mixing the animal rights message with “politics”, fearing that it will alienate people with different political views from caring about the animals who are so desperately in need of support, independent of our political views and affiliations. Others fear that attention for animal rights, when not combined with a concern for human rights, may come at the cost of the latter, or that a concern for animal rights and veganism can even be used to hide the lack of concern for human rights. This, of course, is especially a concern in Israel. This is a quote by Israeli professor of international law Aeyel Gross:

When veganism becomes a tool to improve the IDF’s [Israeli Defense Forces] image, or that of Israel as a whole (…) and when attempts are being made to cover up the fact that the IDF operates an occupation mechanism that denies people their basic human rights, veganism is being appropriated for propaganda purposes. In Tel Aviv today, it is far easier to find food whose preparation has not involved the exploitation of animals than to find food whose production has not entailed the oppression and uprooting of other human beings.

He adds:

It should be emphasized that there are many vegans who are strongly opposed to any form of oppression. For such individuals, veganism is not a substitute for struggling against the oppression of other human beings, but instead is part and parcel of that struggle.

Worth mentioning in this context is the young vegan movement among Israeli Arabs (who constitute 20% of the Israeli citizens). Their group is called “The Vegan Human”. The Palestinian Animal League (PAL) is Palestine’s only locally-run animal protection organization, and has successfully crowdfunded a vegetarian/vegan cafeteria in a university in Jerusalem.

The food we tasted, everywhere we went, was awesome pretty much across the board. These Israeli vegans know how to cook! The best experience was the fabled Georgian restaurant Nanuchka in Tel Aviv, which used to be a very meaty place, but was completely veganized after the owner, Nana Shrier, went vegan herself. It seems to serve as a kind of symbol or landmark of the vegan changes that are happening in Israel. In spite of the warnings the owner received, veganizing the restaurant has not hurt business, and indeed the place was crowded when we were there. We dined with good friends in a wonderful atmosphere, sampling wonderful Georgian dishes from an extensive menu. There were delicious “krtofiliani”, or puff pastry filled with potatoes and onions, and the famous dumplings stuffed with spinach and nuts. I also remember wonderful “meatballs” in tomato sauce, with a Georgian twist. It’s a place I can’t wait to go back to.

Breakfast at Landwer Cafe

On Sunday, we had brunch in the wonderful Café Anastasia, which was alive with the energy of numerous families. I was moved to see that so many people came to eat here and that veganism seemed, at that moment, the most natural and accepted thing in the world.

Goodness is a new fast-food-like, small, all vegan restaurant, with delicious food and friendly service. And we had yummy stuff from the vegan bakery Seeds, most of which I unfortunately accidentally left on the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem we enjoyed the food at Landwer Cafe, a chain of over sixty restaurants that offers traditional Israeli food, and recently added a decent choice in vegan dishes to its menu, one of them a vegan breakfast. In the famous Machane Jehudah market we had ice cream and a waffle in Gela, which is a small chain of ice cream cafes practicing what I call “stealth veganism”: if you don’t know this is an all vegan place when you walk in, you won’t know by the time you walk out. A table near the window in the well-hidden Fig restaurant offered us a beautiful view of the old city wall.

What’s next for the vegan movement in Israel?
The animal rights/vegan movement in Israel is definitely kicking ass. I do think that confrontational tactics and morality-infused messages can be very effective to recruit new activists. But they might be – as some Israelis told me – more effective in Israel than in other countries because of the very direct way of communication Israelis have. We can also wonder whether new activists recruited by these messages should then employ the same tactics to convince the rest of the population. We may be, as Che Green of Faunalytics has written, the low hanging fruit, and what convinced us (early adopter vegans) may not be what will get the masses to join our ranks.

The young movement in Israel, though, is already using different tactics to enlarge its appeal. Anonymous for Animals is putting a lot of effort into Veganuary-like vegan pledges, organizing Facebook support groups of four hundred people each, and taking their message to the classroom. The Meatless Monday campaign is geared towards a large audience. The group Vegan Friendly seems very successful at working together with businesses and is thus helping to make alternatives better and more available. The Modern Agriculture Foundation brings together and encourages different stakeholders in the field of clean (cultured) meat, and jumpstarted the initiative Supermeat, which tries to to create clean (cultured) chicken meat.

What’s happening in Israel in terms of veganism is inspiring. I hope the vegan movement there will find a way to incorporate human rights and speak out for disadvantaged and oppressed groups without alienating possible supporters with more conservative views. This, of course, is a challenge for animal advocates anywhere.

Thanks to Chen Cohen, Elina Zolotushko, Sahar Vardi, Yossi Wolfson, Omer Ginsburg, Shahar Osovsky, Lihi Joffe, Ronen Bar, Ori Shavit, Or Benjamin, Miki Haimovich, Omri Paz, and others whom I forget, to make our trip even more enjoyable, informative, and effective, or for making this article more complete and correct.

The Rise of Israel’s animal rights movement
The Myth of vegan progress in Israel
Greenwashing: Vegan Israel eats a lot of chicken
Israel is the most vegan country in the world
Israel has most vegans per capita and trend is growing
In the land of milk and honey, Israelis turn vegan
Can animal rights take precedence over human rights?
Will Israel become the world’s first vegan country?

Getting out of our vegan crater: on the inbreeding of vegan ideas

The Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania formed when an ancient volcano exploded, a long time ago. The crater is 600 meters deep and covers an area of 260 square kilometers. It is home to a very dense population of Masai lions. The crater is a natural enclosure: the lions don’t leave the crater, and it is very rare that a lion enters from the outside. Thus, there are few new bloodlines to enter the local gene pool, and the lion population is significantly inbred. The result is that the lions suffer from several diseases, and the population is not thriving.

A Masai lion in the Ngurunguru Crater (photo: planetreserve.com)
A Masai lion in the Ngorongoro Crater (photo: planetreserve.com)

While, like all comparisons, imperfect, I use the situation in the Ngorongoro crater to make a point about the vegan movement and vegan advocacy. This kind of inbreeding may also apply to ideologies and ideas. Vegan ideas too can be inbred. Many of us spend a lot of our time in our vegan craters. We post in vegan Facebook groups, go to vegan potlucks, do activism with other vegans… Our environment echoes our thoughts, social media algorithms keep showing our posts to the same people who keep liking them and share them among the same people (hence the description of the internet as an echo chamber). When our thinking and our thoughts are shaped mainly through interaction with other vegans, without enough confrontation with the “outside”, our ideas may become “inbred”, and are not ideally fit to spread and reproduce and influence outsiders.

In order to increase our own population, we need to get out of our natural habitat, out our own Ngorongoro crater, out of the vegan echo chambers, and talk to other people. We need to listen to their ideas, let them collide with ours, and let them fertilize our own thinking. Many of us are already doing that, but I believe we could do a lot better still. Most of all, we need to know what non-vegans think of our messages, and how they perceive us. We need to be open-minded to listen to their concerns and objections, and not just write them off as laziness, egoism or prejudice. And we need to listen to the ideas of potential allies, even if they don’t agree with our objective one hundred percent.

We can also be more open at a more structural level. We may need to open up our meetings more to people from the outside. I have heard instances of vegan conferences where non-vegans were not welcome as speakers. As if those people can’t teach us anything! The same may apply for boards of directors of vegan and animal rights organizations. It’s not necessarily a bad idea to have a minority of non-vegans on them (or at least in some advisory position). It may help the organization to understand how people who don’t entirely agree with them, see things. And it may help everyone to maintain a sense of perspective.

I’m not saying that places where only vegans are welcome (like vegan-only Facebook groups) don’t have their purpose. People may need to vent, may want to discuss stuff without always being confronted with the same clichés. But we need to be aware of the dangers and limits of vegan-only environments.

One person who is great at breaking things open and involving people from outside the movement is Brian Kateman, the young founding director of the Reducetarian Foundation. The Reducetarian.org website contains endorsements from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Noam Chomsky. The new book The Reducetarian Solution, has articles written by famous non-vegans influencers like Seth Godin, Jeffrey Sachs or Michael Schermer. On May 20-21, the Reducetarian Foundation is also organizing the first Reducetarian Summit in New York (which I will attend as a speaker for ProVeg and report back from). Brian had the great idea to invite people working at different online media outlets to moderate the panels. The list is impressive, and includes people from USA Today, Quartz, Time Magazine, Gizmodo, Forbes, The Atlantic, and Fast Company. These influentials will undoubtedly help spread the message further through their network. The list of organizations represented by the speakers is just as impressive: from usual suspects like HSUS, Animal Equality and Farm Sanctuary, there are also people from less obvious NGOs like Greenpeace, Oxfam and the World Resources Institute. But also people from companies, from Google Food to Compass and Barilla are present. The heterogeneity of the group of speakers, moderators and participants seems to make for an ideal setup for exchanging ideas and thinking outside of the vegan box.

Part of the strategy, Kateman says, is to get groups who aren’t working on reducing the consumption of animal products to feel invited to start. The reducetarian concept enables Kateman to start a conversation with groups that are not working on this topic, but, given the domain that they are in, easily could. The reason of course is that the reducetarian thing is much easier for people to participate in than the vegan thing. Not only is it more feasible, it seems also much less of an ideology – which people are often wary to get into or associated with. But – at least for the vegans involved in reducetarian outreach – the end goal remains the same. It’s just that we can probably reach that goal faster if, in addition to influencing just a few people to go vegan, we can influence many more people to reduce. This is, and for the time being will be, what drives supply and demand, creates critical mass, and will tip the system.

Vegan outrage over a Hampton Creek cookie? Let’s get some perspective.

In recent days it has come to light that Hampton Creek, the maker of Just Mayo and Just Cookies, produces one cookie with white chocolate chips, which contain milk powder. As could be expected, many vegans expressed their disappointment on Hampton Creek’s social media channels, sometimes gracefully, sometimes less so.

Hampton Creek’s mayo, dressings, cookie dough, and all but this one cookie in their food service range, are vegan. In the short time since it was founded, the company has been incredibly successful. It was able to raise almost one hundred million dollars of venture capital from Bill Gates and other big shots, allowing them to put together a dream team and invest a lot in research and communication. But Hampton Creek also helped demonstrate that a plant-based future is interesting to invest in. And they have helped further normalize plant-based eating with the enormous media attention they have garnered. More concretely, however, their products are now helping to make a vegan diet easier for everyone, and are being used by big food service providers in the US. And while they were at this, they have inadvertently stimulated Unilever to create their own vegan mayo. Talk about results!

So what exactly is the shit-storm about? Some time ago, Hampton Creek signed a contract with the nation’s largest food service provider, the Compass Group. Hampton Creek would supply Compass with plant-based alternatives for their range of (non-vegan) cookies. Apparently Hampton Creek was, so far, not able to find vegan white chocolate chips that met with Compass’ approval. According to Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, it was a package deal: either HC supplied five vegan cookies and the one almost vegan macadamia cookie, or they wouldn’t get the contract and thus have no impact for the animals at all. So HC decided to move forward, and supply Compass with their imperfect offering, while working on finding or developing suitable vegan white chocolate chips.

Many of the commenting vegans demonstrate incredulity at Hampton Creek’s inability to find or develop suitable white chocolate chips. I’m giving HC the benefit of the doubt, and am assuming that creating even one non-vegan product is not something that they would do without good reason, because they must know it creates confusion. So I’m assuming that time or other factors were of the essence and that they were afraid of losing the contract – in which case, again, they would have had no impact for the animals at all.

Should Hampton Creek have held off cooperating with the food service provider until they had all vegan alternatives? Let’s assume Compass was patient enough and wanted to wait awhile. Would it have been better for Compass to go on, in the meantime, distributing their non-vegan cookies while they were waiting for Hampton Creek? I don’t think so. Like Tetrick says, every day that less animal products are used, is good for the animals. Maybe we have to admire Hampton Creek here for daring to get their hands a bit “dirty” on a non-vegan product. This whole situation makes me think of the issue many vegans have when individuals chose to go vegan in steps rather than overnight. What if someone who went vegan overnight is actually someone who did nothing until they could be perfect (i.e., go vegan overnight) and thus missed their chance of doing good for the animals by reducing?

Some vegans state that they can’t understand that Hampton Creek, in the time that this non-vegan macadamia cookie has been on the market, has not been able to come up with a vegan white chocolate chip. But who are we to say that this should be Hampton Creek’s priority right now? The little bit of milk powder is such a detail relative to the bigger picture (and yes, dear vegan friends, I know how cows are treated for dairy), and maybe Hampton Creek is in the process of developing very interesting and more life-saving products and contracts that take up their attention.

Maybe Hampton Creek could have been more pro-active in its communication about this, and could have anticipated (and maybe prevented) this kind of backlash. They could have explained their reasoning from the get go, rather than keep quiet about the offending cookie and only getting in the conversation when the vegans found out. On the other hand, it has to be said that Hampton Creek and CEO Josh Tetrick have been quite responsive on social media.

Other than this, I have a lot more difficulty understanding the reactions of the offended vegans than I have understanding what Hampton Creek did. I can read several things in these reactions, which I go into a bit deeper here, as they – in my humble opinion – are revealing for the often quite unstrategic ways of thinking that is rampant in the vegan movement.

Black and white, all or nothing thinking
Hampton Creek has done a ton of good for animals. It was, in fact, founded with the idea to do exactly that. In the eyes of the offended vegans, however, the presence of a tiny bit of animal ingredient in one product (milk powder in the chocolate chips in one product among their whole range of products) seems to annihilate all Hampton Creek’s efforts and good deeds. I saw many commenters saying they were unfollowing the company and wouldn’t support them or buy their products anymore. Not 100% vegan, so no good, right? This all-or-nothing thinking gets us nowhere.

Distrust of corporations
One commenter says: “You’ll happily disregard your morals and ethics and exploit animals for a share of the market and financial gain (…). What an absolute shame.”
Among many vegans (and other activists for social issues) the default attitude towards companies and the corporate world seems to be one of distrust. One aspect of this is to always reduce companies’ and CEOs’ motivations and intentions to mere greed. First of all, a desire to make a profit doesn’t seem to be the main motivation of Tetrick and Hampton Creek. They very obviously have a social mission and are definitely not a profit-only company. Secondly, we need to take into account that a venture like Hampton Creek is beholden to its investors, and does need to make a profit – otherwise it simply wouldn’t exist in this system. Thirdly, when a company like Hampton Creek does good business, they will acquire more impact and influence to change things for the better for animals. In that sense, the fact that money is a driver for many people can be seen as a positive thing, at least when it’s combined with some ethical fiber – which Tetrick and HC certainly seem to have.

Mistaking an ally for an enemy
I see it happen again and again: a company or organization does a lot of good, but watch out when vegans don’t agree, on when the company slips up! While there are more than enough horrible companies in the world, we seem to reserve a disproportionate part of our anger for the ones that are actually our allies. What we may be witnessing here is the so-called “black sheep effect”, where members of a group can be more hostile and unforgiving towards other members of the in-group when they make a mistake, than to people not belonging to the group. Offending in-group members are then seen as traitors. A lot can probably be explained by the fact that our expectations of them (they were one of us!) weren’t met. It’s the same with ex-vegans.

Putting purity and rules over pragmatism and results
Every decision here,” Tetrick has responded on social media, “is based on this fundamental principle: what will increase the probability of maximizing good (including alleviating suffering) for the longest period of time.”
Our movement is often obsessed with veganism and vegan rules, at the cost of results. Yes, Hampton Creek technically is not a 100% vegan company. But what if this creates more good for the animals in the long run?

Ignoring the importance of institutional change
In an article on this subject on Ecorazzi, the author writes: “Ultimately, I do not care what they do. They are a company created to make products to fulfill consumer demand, whether vegan or non-vegan. What I care about is what we do, individually. We need to continue to educate – clearly and simply – so that we change how our friends, colleagues and family perceive animals.”
I’m presuming I don’t need to explain why institutional change – which Tetrick set out to generate – is crucial for our movement, and that we won’t get there by just convincing one individual at a time to go vegan. We need institutional partners: companies, NGOs, governments, schools, hospitals and many more. They can have an incredible impact on supply and demand and help change the playing field for everyone.

A holier-than-thou attitude
In the comments of many offended vegans, I seem to be able to read that non-vegans can never be right, while vegans can never be wrong. I get the impression that the people who are very very very vegan, sitting behind their computer, think that they are better, more pure, more praiseworthy than the company they are criticizing: a company that in a short period of time has done an amazing job in changing the food system. Incidentally, I’ve seen so many vegans lecturing Tetrick and HC about the issues related to dairy. Do we seriously think that Tetrick is not aware of these issues?

Hampton Creek is a great company, which is doing its best to create a better food system. It’s still a company in an imperfect world, run by imperfect people. So it will be imperfect. But it’s doing a ton of good. What if we would focus on the incredible amount of chicken misery that Hampton is preventing, rather than on the tiny amount of animal ingredients that is for the time being, and probably for good reasons, still in their products?

In other words: can we please get some perspective? When we’re no longer in the situation that 65 billion animals a year are being killed for food (excluding sea animals), then maybe we can get very worked up about the dairy in the chocolate cookie in a great product range of a great company. Until then, let’s focus on the big changes instead of the details. Let’s have some trust that some people really want to do the right thing, also in business. Let’s reserve our outrage for the really bad folks. And let’s follow our vegan rules as well as possible, but let’s be prepared to break them when it helps more animals.


My upcoming book How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach (June 2017, Lantern Press), contains a whole chapter on how the vegan movement can relate to the corporate world.

PS: if I got my facts wrong, somebody let me know!

Would you have gone vegan if…?

Reality check: we want everyone to go vegan, but only a tiny part of the population is doing so.

It’s not helpful to complain about this situation, or call everyone who doesn’t go vegan selfish, uncaring, or hypocritical.

To see what we can do that’s more productive, look at the figures below. The pie chart on the left represents the small number of people who are willing to make the relatively big effort that is implied today in going vegan. That effort is represented by the steep slope on the right.

What most vegans and animal rights activists try to do is to increase that pie slice by increasing people’s motivation so that more of them want to make (and do make) the required effort to go vegan:This, in itself, is not sufficient to get to a vegan world. I’m optimistic, and I do believe that most people, in their hearts, care about animals and don’t want to see them harmed. The thing is, they just don’t care enough to be willing to deal with too much inconvenience (or what they see as inconvenience).

So, in addition to increasing people’s motivation, we also need to… You got it: we need to work on making the slope less steep:

Making the slope less steep means that we are going to create an environment that offers so much vegan alternatives, and in which the production of animal products becomes progressively harder, that people have to make less and less effort, and thus need less and less motivation.

The gentler the slope/the more vegan-friendly the environment, the more people will go vegan.

Some will only go vegan when it’s like this:



And a few laggards will need it to be like this:

Many vegans find it sad and depressing that we need to make things so much easier before people will do what is the morally right thing to do. I can empathize with that feeling. But consider this: it’s not as if you or me went vegan thanks only and exclusively to our moral motivation. We too needed a certain availability of alternatives, without which we might not have gone vegan. You may think that you only needed to hear the right information or have the right thoughts, but that’s not true: you went vegan when you had enough motivation to climb the slope. Some people might have climbed it when it was still much steeper (let’s say in the 1970’s).

Everyone of us needs the slope to be a certain way. Very few or none of us would have been able to climb this slope

Let alone this one:

It’s all relative. Be happy you were able to go vegan when you did. But realize there were always people who did it before you. And don’t expect everyone else to go vegan today. Work on motivation AND on making things easier.


The rise of the stealth vegan business

The menu at Lord of the Fries, Melbourne, Australia

We vegans love to get the word vegan out. We’d like to see it on products and restaurant menus. Just getting the word out there not only makes it easier for us vegans to identify things to eat, but should also increase awareness about veganism in general. However, what if not using the word vegan… sells more vegan stuff?

The first time I heard something like this was years ago, in a Whole Foods supermarket somewhere in California. They were supposed to have a vegan cake there. I didn’t find it, and asked the person behind the counter where it was. She showed me the cake, and said it no longer was marked vegan. She said it sold three times better since they removed the label.

More recently, I’ve seen more and more entire places that are what I call “stealth vegan”, meaning that the fact that they are vegan is communicated only very subtly, or not at all. Let me give you two examples that I recently came across.

In Melbourne (and I believe other cities in Australia) there is the Lord of the Fries chain. Lord of the Fries looks like a classic fast food place, with the usual burgers and shakes, but it is vegetarian and vegan. It is communicated, if you look well, but friends of mine estimated that not only is the majority of their clientele not vegetarian or vegan: they don’t even know they are not eating meat! I was told sometimes people only find out after months of going there.

The menu at Lord of the Fries, Melbourne, Australia
The menu at Lord of the Fries, Melbourne, Australia

Another example is the small ice cream chain Gela in Israel. The place where I went had a small “vegan friendly” sticker on the counter, which is actually given to them by an Israeli non-profit. I asked the person behind the counter – since I don’t read Hebrew – if there’s any other communication in the store that everything is vegan. She told me that no, most people entering don’t know that it’s all vegan.

Gela in Israel only has a vegan friendly sticker, but everything is vegan.
Gela in Israel only has a vegan friendly sticker, but everything is vegan.

One more example is Ronald’s Donuts, a hole-in-the-wall donut place in Las Vegas. Nothing on the building betrays there’s anything vegan inside, and if you want to know which donuts are vegan, you have to ask.

Why do these places – and many others – are so modest about the fact that they are all vegetarian or all vegan? It’s obviously not because they are embarrassed to use the word. Rather, it’s because they know that at this moment, the words turn more people off than they attract. Vegetarian and vegan, to most people, don’t indicate added value, they indicate subtracted value. To get a sense of what’s happening, compare this with your own reaction to an all gluten-free restaurant. If you don’t do the gluten-free thing, you’ll probably think something like me: that those dishes won’t be as good as regular dishes. Something was taken out of them (taste, perhaps?). Whether the food in such a gluten-free restaurant is actually not up to a par with regular food or not, is irrelevant, the fact is that the prejudice is there.

You may think: but aren’t they missing clients? A vegan will just walk by and never know, right? Well, they may miss some, but they probably win more. Besides, vegetarians and vegans will find their way to meatfree places anyway, by means of word of mouth, the Happy Cow app, or whatever. There is no need to put VEGAN in big letters on the storefront.

All this will change as the general population’s appreciation of vegan stuff grows. And one way to make it grow, is to let them eat vegan food, without telling them so. If they find out after they have it eaten it (and liked it), then all the better.

And just in case you didn’t realize: what makes stealth vegan business possible at all, is the fact that by now we have such amazing alternatives for many things, that it has become possible to actually trick people. That’s progress!

It’s all about creating great alternatives

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which is now banned in all but a few countries. This might never have happened if the importance of commercial whaling hadn’t diminished enormously since the late nineteenth century.

Whales – and sperm whales especially – used to be an important source of energy: Whale oil was extracted from dead animals, and was used especially as fuel for lamps, but could also be found in heating, soap, paint and other products. Countless numbers of whales were killed for this reason.

Whale blubber was used as a source of energy till the invention of kerosene.

Enter Abraham Gesner, a Canadian physician and geologist. In 1849, Gesner developed kerosene, a liquid made from coal, bitumen (a form of petrol) and oil shale. Unlike whale oil, kerosene was not smelly or dirty, it did not spoil, and, most importantly, it was cheaper to produce than whale oil.

As kerosene distilleries popped up everywhere and kerosene was commercialized, the demand for whale oil tanked. The whaling industry could get by for a while on the sales of whalebone, which was used for corsets and other garments. However, whalebone was soon replaced by other materials, and, in the end, whaling just wasn’t interesting anymore.

Abraham Gesner obviously hadn’t been trying to ban whaling. As far as we know, there were no moral factors in play for him. Yet, the result was there: the last American whaler left port in 1924 and grounded the next day.

The fact that whale oil was no longer a good source of energy obviously made it much easier to install the ban on commercial whaling in 1986. When the environmental movement is successful in ending whaling in the last remaining countries, it will not just be because of moral arguments, but because the relevance of whaling has diminished, thanks to good alternatives.

Moral advocacy is important, but it’s not enough. Meat alternatives, including clean meat, will be as important for the end of animal agriculture as kerosene was for the end of commercial whaling.

Based on the article How Capitalism saved the whales.

We can’t alienate people into joining our team

Donald Trump, a man I used to think of as a caricature of a comic book villain, is now the world’s most powerful clown (as Sam Harris has called him). This is not a good and possibly a terrible situation. Apart from all the silly to stupid domestic and foreign policy decisions the new president could make, he seems to also open the door for more intolerance towards all kinds of minorities.

To counter this, many people on the progressive/left/liberal side (henceforth: the left), for understandable reasons are digging their heels in deeper and feel that, more so than ever, they have to call out others whenever they hear them utter anything smelling even remotely offensive. The idea, in other words, is to have zero tolerance for racism, sexism and other bigotry, in the hope of rooting it out.

can we get supporters from people we first alienate?
(c) The Economist

The question is whether this is the best strategy to get everyone on the wagon of tolerance and to create a global society of decent people. I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge injustice. I’m saying that it’s just not easy to alienate, shame or offend people into joining our team.

The parallel with vegan advocacy, I think, is clear. In the vegan movement too, one of the choices we face is the one between the “tolerant” approach and the more “confrontational” approach.

The tolerant approach is about meeting people where they are, trying to understand where they come from, looking from their perspective. It tries to avoid guilt-tripping, accusing and shaming. To its opponents, this approach will often come across as too soft and apologetic.

The confrontational approach is more about challenging people head on and being very clear that there is no excuse for eating animal products. To its opponents, this approach will often come across as too aggressive and condemning.

These two descriptions are imperfect, as are the terms “tolerant” and “confrontational”, and the dichotomy itself, but let’s not get too picky, for the sake of the argument.

The fight against racism has obviously made much more headway in society than the fight against speciesism. No matter how rampant racism still is in the world today, it is, both in thought and in practise, much more limited than the ideology and practical consequences of speciesism.

I believe that the more public support there is for a social issue, the more confrontational one can be. This would imply that we can be more confrontational in our anti-racist struggle than in our anti-speciesist struggle.

Still, I doubt that, as the author of this Vox article has observed, calling out people on their racism is the best strategy for changing them. I know some of the arguments of the “confrontationalists”: that there is no excuse. That we can’t allow Trump or behavior similar to his to be normalized, that we have to isolate racists so that they don’t feel they are supported in their opinions, and that we should do it publicly. Etcetera.

If even I, as a progressive person, experience part of the public call-outs of racism, sexism and other -isms at times as annoying, sanctimonious, guilt-tripping and accusing rhetoric, then how much more negatively will they be interpreted by the more conservative, the less educated? How will people react who were bottle-fed with racist and sexist ideas and who weren’t educated to become open-minded citizens? I don’t see a lot of good coming out of that.

I believe rather in an approach where we try to understand each other’s needs, desires and fears (the phobe in xenophobe or homophobe obviously means fear in Greek, not hate or anger). We should be clear about the injustice, the risks, the suffering, and should be extremely mindful of where Trump and other evolutions in society are going. But even in the face of the intolerably intolerant, maybe we may want to consider a little more understanding. In the face of the inexcusable, maybe we can consider trying to spot some reasons people may have for thinking in those inexcusable ways.

Someday, I may believe that people are bad, or even evil. Right now, I choose to believe they are uneducated, afraid, or just differ in opinion. Right now, I choose to believe that understanding each other is the best recipe to change the world.

When activists mean business. An interview with David Benzaquen

David Benzaquen

David BenzaquenMost of us who want to help animals usually end up doing some kind of advocacy or outreach, either individually or volunteering or working for a non-profit organization. However, as I have touched on in other posts and in this talk, we should not underestimate the importance of the for-profit sector: the companies producing and distributing the alternatives. Some of us in the movement have understood this well, and started their own production company (Josh Tetrick at Hampton Creek is a striking example). Other activists, like David Benzaquen, did something different. In 2012, David, who’s living in New York, started a consulting company called PlantBased solutions, which helps clients like Gardein, Miyoko’s Kitchen, or Ocean Hugger Foods, with marketing, branding, fundraising, and more.
I interviewed him…

Vegan Strategist: David, you weren’t always running a business. Why did you switch from a non-profit to a for-profit environment?
David Benzaquen: I originally worked in fundraising and advocacy for various animal protection groups, such as Farm Sanctuary. My motivation to start my business was to advance ethical, plant-based eating through new means. When I worked in the nonprofit world, I saw that most of our movement was using a limited set of tools to encourage positive behavior change. I greatly admire this work to educate people about the benefits of changing their diets, but I didn’t feel that replicating everyone else’s strategy was the most effective use of my time.

What helped you come to that realization?
My exploration of using business (and marketing, in particular) was motivated by two things. First, I was exposed to the field of Effective Altruism, where people attempt to measure the social impact of their choices and careers and make rational choices about where they can do the most good. Second, I attended a talk by a man named Jeff Dunn, who greatly inspired me. Mr. Dunn was once the CEO of Coca-Cola, but after having an epiphany that he could not continue promoting a harmful product he once called “sugar water and fairy dust”, he left the company. He then became CEO of Bolthouse Farms, and created something of a stir in the marketing world by branding carrots the same way we traditionally see done for junk foods like chips and soda. I was so inspired by how he used fun and engaging marketing to make carrots “cool” that I realized I wanted to do the same thing for vegan food!

How do you feel about the impact you’re generating today?
Most of the work that our movement is doing to advance plant-based/vegan living is through what we call a “push” method of marketing. That is, we show the consumer what’s wrong with the status quo and try to convince them to change their lifestyle accordingly. While some people may embrace change this way, most will be reticent to abandon what they’re used to and will feel overwhelmed by the threat our ideologies pose to their view of the world. In the work that we do now, rather than trying to convince someone that the world is bad or that they need to change who they are, we just show how delicious, beautiful, and healthy vegan products are and “pull”, or attract, the consumers to try them. Rather than pointing out the problems, we are offering the solutions and making them desirable and non-threatening. These approaches are incredibly impactful because many people who would otherwise shut down become open to incorporating more vegan products into their lives. They willingly overcome barriers and eliminate assumptions about how difficult or unpleasant living a compassionate lifestyle can be.

How’s business?
Business is amazing! I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I always used to think of business as a “4-letter word”. But regardless of what one thinks of how money and corporate power can be used for bad, the reality is every person needs to buy food and other items to survive. If we don’t engage in the marketplace of goods and work to make vegan products that can compete with the less ethical/sustainable/healthy animal versions, we will never succeed. And, the market is booming! When I started this company, nobody thought that vegan food could be big business. In the last few years, the richest people on earth, from Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing to Peter Thiel and Jerry Yang, have all invested in vegan food companies because they recognize that our reliance on animal protein is just not sustainable. We are honored to be working and growing with so many other compassionate business luminaries. As of the end of 2016, our company has worked with vegan businesses in nearly ten countries, and the list keeps growing as our movement spreads globally.

Can you tell us about some of the main challenges that companies are dealing with, and how a company like yours is able to help overcome those challenges?
The food business is an extraordinarily complex industry. First, operationally, one must grow or manufacture products in one place, process them, store them, and distribute them far and wide, often using strict temperature controls. These practices are very expensive and have high risks for failure (poor weather can lead to low crop yields, electricity challenges can lead to loss of cooling and spoilage, etc.). Second, because there are so many different foods and brands that can meet consumers’ desires to address their hunger or seek gustatory pleasure, companies must devote considerable resources to marketing and sales to ensure that their products break through the clutter and get onto consumers’ plates.
With PlantBased Solutions, we’re able to help companies in several key ways. First, because we are focused on the plant-based space and have worked with many of the world’s leading vegan brands, we know the competitive landscape for our clients better than anyone, and we are able to help market their products in a differentiated and effective way. Second, we have performed a significant amount of proprietary research on the consumers eating plant-based products, both the vegan/vegetarian community, and even more importantly, the flexitarians who are moving in that direction and whom we most need to influence. This allows us to plan our clients’ messaging, branding, and targeted marketing in the most effective way to motivate these consumers to find and buy the products.

To what extent does your animal rights background and motivation shine through when you help marketing products?
We are entirely committed to advancing plant-based products that align with our values, but we do not market them based on these values. We know that the vast majority of consumers buy food not based on mission, but based on taste, price, and convenience. Rather than trying to convince them to buy our clients’ brands for the reasons we would, we show them how tasty, affordable, and convenient (both to find and use) these products are.

Still, our work ethic and passion for our clients and their products obviously goes far beyond a marketing or consulting team that is motivated only by their paychecks. We believe that helping our clients sell lots of products means displacing a lot of harm in the world, from cruelty to animals and environmental destruction, to heart attacks and cancer. We are on a mission to help our clients succeed because we know that lives depend on it. We are proud to do this work, and this passion comes out in the time and devotion we give each client and in the thought and care we put in to what we do.

If companies are so important, what can individual activists do to help them succeed?
The most important thing you, as an individual activist, can do to help plant-based/vegan businesses succeed is to vote with your dollars and your forks! Every time you buy a plant-based product at a grocery store or order one of these items off a menu, you are directing money away from companies that do harm and towards those that will use the resources to build a more compassionate world. In addition, we are building a new compassionate economy from the ground up, and it takes a lot of people to support that infrastructure. No matter what your individual skills are, I can guarantee there are ways you can apply them to a career in vegan business.

More info:
Or listen to this podcast with David at the Plant-based entrepreneur




The carnivore is king – and other lessons from sales and marketing

Whether we like it or not, as people who want to change the world, we are in the business of selling something. We want to sell a message, a habit, a lifestyle… whatever you want to call it. We are idea merchants, and we need to get as many people as we can on our bandwagon, in whatever ways that are helpful.
I love to read out of the box and see if I can apply ideas from different domains to our movement. Here are some concepts and lessons I’ve taken from sales and marketing (check the links below each item to read some of my previous writings on these topics).

The carnivore is king
(Technically I should use “omnivore”, of course, but you understand I needed something with a c here)
As the carnivore is the person that we want to reach and want to become part of our team, we can’t alienate them. They are our future supporters. We can see them as pre-vegans. Badmouthing them will usually not motivate them to come closer to us. If we’re angry at them, if we accuse them or judge them, that’s kind of equal to giving up on them joining our team. Rather, like with customers, we need to listen to them, treat them like royalty, give them a cookie or bake them a pie (we can always throw it in their face if they really behave like assholes).
You are not your audience
You are not the same as the people you want to reach. Like a car salesperson, you have to adapt your message to what you think people like, are interested in, are open to, are ready for. Just talking about what you want to talk about is equal to the car salesperson talking endlessly about a car’s horsepower or technical abilities (because that is what fascinates them) to a young parent who is only interested in the safety aspects. It’s about your audience’s needs. Not your own.
Diffusion of innovation
We need to segment our “customers” into different categories. Innovators have different reasons for picking something up than the late majority. As vegans, we’re all innovators, and the arguments that worked for us will not necessarily work for people who are, in this domain, laggards. The famous marketer Seth Godin puts it like this: “The mistake idea merchants make is that they bring their fringe ideas to people who don’t like fringe ideas, instead of taking their time and working their way through the progression.”
What Godin and others are saying is that we should meet people where they are, and appeal to the values that they already cherish, rather than telling them which values they should have.

See Vegans: not like other people

Winning an argument is losing a customer
Even if the other person tells you that you are right, you haven’t necessarily had a positive impact. When the other person feels they’ve lost, it may make them feel even less sympathetic towards you or the cause you defend. Benjamin Franklin said it like this: “if you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.” Dale Carnegie said it even simpler: “You can’t win an argument”.
See On being right versus winning

Persuasion resistance
Most people don’t like to be convinced by others and don’t like being told what to do. Also, with regard to the food that’s on their plate, they’ll decide about that themselves. They need no government regulations or animal rights or vegetarian groups preaching to them about what to eat, and what not, how much of it, or how they should prepare it. They’ll make up their own minds about all that, thank you very much. It is, therefore, more productive if we don’t give people the impression we want to persuade them of something, and instead help them come to their own conclusions.
See Persuasion resistance

Customer retention
Finding new customers is a lot more expensive than trying to keep customers and make sure they buy again. In our domain, research shows that a large number of vegetarians and vegans – no less than 84% – at some point drop out. We should have enough attention for customer retention, and make sure that as few vegans slide off the wagon as possible. We can do that, among other things, by helping to make it easier to be vegan, creating communities, and having enough attention for nutritional pitfalls.See research by Faunalytics

Switching costs
Many people care about animals, but are afraid of the practical consequences of caring about them. It is, in other words, too difficult to make the switch. Switching costs, in marketing terms, are the costs that one incurs when changing products, suppliers, brands, etc. These costs can be financial, but they can also be, for example, time costs or psychological costs. Phone or insurance companies, for instance, want to make switching to their product as little of a hassle as possible (while at the same time, trying to make switching away from their products as difficult as possible.). Likewise, we need to make it as easy as possible for people to move up the vegan spectrum. Preferably, so easy that they don’t even need any reason or motivation.

Know of more sales concepts that are useful for advocacy? Let me know…

Would we eat E.T.?

Imagine that one of these years, we run into life on another planet. Not bacteria or some other tiny life-form, but say a kind of medium-sized mammal. Would we eat these creatures?

I’m not talking about you or me as individuals, or Elon Musk when he first sets foot on the planet in question, but about society in general. Would the cultural consensus be that these are creatures that we’re allowed to hunt or raise for food?

Much will depend on their exact nature and their qualitiesHow intelligent are they? To what extent are they similar to ourselves and to the animals we’re already eating? Let’s assume that in terms of intelligence, these extra-terrestrials are somewhat similar to pigs. In terms of physical aspects, they look completely alien (they may not have a head, or may have a weird number of limbs, a strange color and skin, or whatever), but they definitely look edible (meaty, let’s say). We’re also assuming we can’t communicate with them any more than we can with animals on this planet.

E.T. on the grill (www.alienbbq.org)
E.T. on the grill (www.alienbbq.org)

You may think that humankind is just about depraved enough to start factory farming these creatures. My guess, however, is that when we find this sort of life form on another planet, it would be much easier to grant these creatures the right not to be eaten than to grant it to pigs (or cows or chickens). Part of the reason could lie in some kind of curiosity and respect we’d have for them for being from another planet. But the more important reason is that we are not using these beings yet. Prohibiting ourselves from eating them wouldn’t really affect many people. Compare that to the attempt to give rights to farmed animals, of which we are eating over sixty billion specimens a year (not counting sea creatures). Both economically and individually, we are incredibly dependent on using animals right now.

One way to put this situation is: where we stand depends on where we sit. If we have a stake in killing and eating animals, changing our mind about them will be so much more difficult (we’re steakholders), than in the case of a newly discovered alien life form that is in many respects pretty similar to the animals we’re already eating.

This dependency on using animals needs to be tackled if we want to make any progress with changing people’s minds. That’s why developing alternatives, including clean meat, is so enormously important. When we will have decreased our use of animals, hearts and minds will be a lot more open to change. This applies to both the individual level and the societal level.

E.T., I think, is relatively safe. Now, let’s get back to Earth and take all the other animals out of the food chain.

PS Check out www.alienbbq.org, or read this interview with Dr Jared Piazza, in which he talks about a research study involving a thought experiment with an imaginary creature.