Is clean meat the animals’ best hope? An interview with Paul Shapiro 

paul shapiroI have known Paul Shapiro since he ran Compassion Over Killing in Washington DC, together with his wonderful three legged dog, George. From that position, Paul went on to be a Humane Society of the United States spokesperson and vice president for thirteen years. Just this month (Jan. 2018), Paul came out with his first book: Clean Meat. How Growing Meat without Animals will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. In it, Paul chronicles some of the key people, companies, and technologies behind clean meat, or the idea of creating animal products directly from animal cells, without live animals. Paul provides the reader with a fascinating inside view of the startups that have been popping up in our social media feeds in the last few years: companies like Memphis Meats, Hampton Creek, Modern Meadow, Clara Foods, Mosa Meats, Geltor, or Perfect Day, who are all hurrying to bring products to market that might just mean the beginning of the end of animal consumption.
I talked with Paul about his hopes for clean meat, and asked for his answers to some common objections to the idea of eating meat without animals.

Vegan Strategist: Paul, your book got me even more excited about the possibilities of clean meat (not to say clean milk and clean eggs). First of all: what are you most excited about?
Paul Shapiro: I’m excited about it all, but, in all honesty, what would excite me the most would be a greater focus (in both plant-based meats and clean meats) on poultry and fish. The success of alternative milks and burgers is stellar, but even 100% displacement of those categories would affect less than 1% of farmed animals in the US. Statistically speaking, virtually all farmed animals are birds and fishes, so we need more replacement products for them. Fortunately, many of these startups are working on clean chicken, while Finless Foods is developing clean fish, too.

What in your opinion is the most critical factor for clean meat to succeed?
Not enough people buying this book! Just kidding. Seriously, there are key hurdles, from consumer acceptance to government regulation to technological barriers that could hinder the success of these start-ups. That said, every one of these companies is optimistic about overcoming such hurdles, and I outline why they feel that way in the book.

One of these technological barriers is the serum that is used to make the animal cells grow. Traditionally, this has been bovine serum. How are the alternatives coming along?
What we call acellular ag companies (those making milk, egg whites, leather, and gelatin) don’t need any bovine serum (or any other animal ingredients) at all. But the meat companies still use bovine serum for some meats, though not for others. They all know they can’t commercialize their products with that serum, both for financial and ethical reasons. The good news is that they’ve found non-animal alternatives to bovine serum that work (in fact, Memphis Meats’ Nick Genovese even published his serum-free recipe already), but the key is to find the most economical alternatives that will still cause the cells to grow into muscle quickly.

Assuming we can get past the technological hurdles: how easy or hard will it be to get governmental approval to bring these products to market?
That depends on the country and on the product. The path for the acellular ag companies seems a bit clearer, since there are already similar products on the market now. For instance, the rennet in nearly all hard cheeses sold in the US is produced through the same kind of synthetic biology which companies like Perfect Day, Geltor, and Clara Foods are using.

There are some really smart people, like Pat Brown of Impossible Foods, who still think clean meat is an unfeasible and stupid idea. The organization Givewell, as late as 2015, was not recommending investing in or donating to clean meat. Could they be right?
Sure, they could be right. I, of course, hope they’re not, and I also look at what experts in the meat industry think. Cargill has already invested in Memphis Meats. A major German poultry company just invested in SuperMeat. I presume they know what they’re doing. But there’s nothing inevitable or self-executing about the success of clean meat.

Some people – vegans especially – will say that we already have enough plant-based alternatives, which are getting better and better, and that we don’t have any need for clean meat.
If plant-based meats explode in popularity and make clean meat unnecessary, all of the clean meat companies will be thrilled, as would I. I love plant-based meats and tout them all the time. But many people profess to be wedded to actual animal meat. For them, clean meat could be a solution.
The problem of factory farming is just so severe that you want multiple solutions. Just as with the problem of fossil fuels, you don’t want just one alternative, like wind. You also want solar, geothermal, and more. Similarly, plant-based meats are a great solution to the factory farming problem, but you also want other alternatives, including clean meat, and, of course, whole foods plant-based diets, too.

clean meat book

There seems to be a big food trend in the direction of more authentic, more simple, more artisanal food. That doesn’t seem very compatible with clean meat, at first sight.
The key isn’t to get people who like “natural foods” to eat clean meat; it’s to get mainstream meat-eaters (which is nearly everyone) to eat it. And really, the current way we produce meat is so unnatural that growing it seems like a naturally preferable option. I might also point out how technology has helped us on a lot of other food sustainability issues. Take vanilla as one example: only about 1% of vanilla that we eat is “natural” vanilla, which is grown in rainforests. The rest is produced synthetically, allowing us to have the same vanilla taste and scent we crave for much lower costs.

What would you tell vegans who are critical of clean meat?
Well, clean meat is meant, in the first place, for mainstream meat-eaters, meaning nearly everyone. Some vegans will be fine eating it, but the surveys show that the less meat you eat now, the less interest you have in eating clean meat.
No one argues that clean meat is a panacea or that it addresses every single concern about meat. It is quite plausible though that it may spare billions of animals from torture and slaughter. All that said, sometimes as vegans we delude ourselves into thinking that the foods we eat don’t cause any animal suffering. For those who think that, I’d recommend becoming more familiar with commercial agriculture practices, including for the plant-based foods we vegans love.

It seems that in the evolution towards a better world for animals, business and entrepreneurship are getting more and more important compared to activism/advocacy. What’s your take on that?
I totally agree, and recommend this good essay by my friend Seth Goldman, executive chairman of Beyond Meat, on the topic. This is a big reason I wrote the book and am now moving away from conventional animal advocacy and toward food tech as a way to help animals. The animal advocacy movement can do a lot of good, yet I’ve increasingly come to the view that food technology is desperately needed to greatly accelerate the shift away from the factory farming of animals. Horses weren’t liberated from labor by humane sentiment; Henry Ford liberated them. Whales weren’t freed from harpoons by humane sentiment; kerosene helped render whale oil obsolete. Will clean meat and plant-based meats help do the same for farm animals? These questions are the driving factors for me to move my career more into the food tech space.

And you’re not the only one. The stories of the “business activists” in your book are fascinating and inspiring.
Yes. And it’s helpful to recall that these people are just people. They’re mere mortals like the rest of us. Many of them are young idealists who haven’t come to believe yet that they can’t change the world. And, as the saying goes, those who complain that they can’t change the world should get out of the way of those who are doing it.

How do you feel about big meat companies getting involved in this?
The faster meat companies become the purveyors of plant-based meats and clean meats, the faster animals will win. Fortunately, it’s already starting to happen.

What would you say to people who bring up anti-capitalist arguments?
I hear that argument and respect those who make it. But if animals must wait until the end of capitalism to be freed from factory farms, they’re going to be waiting a long time.

Apparently Hampton Creek’s foie gras might be the first product to reach the market?
Totally possible. It would be quite a story: the only foie gras that can be legally sold in California. It’d be quack-tastic!

What can your average vegan or vegan advocate do in this story? How can they help?
It’s a small but growing field! If you want to pursue a career in cellular ag, this page may be useful. If you’ve got an idea for a company and want advice about getting started, the Good Food Institute is the place to go. (It’s actually a great place to go for much more than that, too.) And, if you just want to be supportive, of course, touting the benefits of cellular ag and the start-ups profiled in the book on social media would helpful, too. They could use the support!

To learn more about Paul’s fascinating book, go to To know more about Paul, visit

Empathy means understanding that some people have less of it

When I was a young boy, my parents kept chickens in the garden. Not for the eggs, but for slaughter. We had about thirty per year. My father raised them, and at the end of their short lives brought them to a slaughterer, who finished the job. After that, they’d land in our freezer and later ended up on our plates. It was my parents’ way to eat “better” meat, healthier especially.

From a young age, I empathized with these chickens. Now and then, there were weak or wounded ones among them. These often got pecked on by their fellows. I used to take care of them. I took a cardboard box, put straw, water and feed in it, and put it inside the house, next to the stove, where the animal would be warm, and hoped the chicken would get better. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

We also had a few goats. This wasn’t for cheese or anything, but because my brother had wanted them. I liked those goats. One night, I dreamed (or thought I dreamed) of a goat crying. I just slept on, thinking it wasn’t real. The next morning, I heard that one of the goats had fallen in the pond, and hadn’t been able to climb back out. I cried my eyes out after hearing that, and I still feel bad about it (maybe I could have realized it wasn’t a dream, I could have gotten up).

Recently, I was sitting on a subway train, and a homeless or poor person was asking for money. In front of me were two women, each of them briefly looking at the man. On the one woman’s face, I saw (or thought I saw) indifference. On the other woman’s face, I saw empathy and compassion. I felt so much sympathy for the latter woman, and remember thinking: “You care, that’s so beautiful.” I was moved. But, my next thought was: who or what was it that made her into a caring person? Was it a decision she made herself? And, if so, what gave her the power to make that decision? Regarding the other woman (if my perception was correct), was it her own fault that she didn’t care or cared less? I felt that each one of these people was a product of their upbringing, their environment, their genes.

Empathy for animals came to me from a very young age. I purposely wrote “came to me”. I didn’t look it up. I didn’t decide to have empathy for animals. I was six or something, and it was already there.
Some people have less of it than I have, some have more. I don’t know why I had or have the amount of empathy I do (or for that matter, the amount of will or discipline to put that empathy into practise). Maybe everyone is born with empathy, but we need to be lucky to have people around us who cherish and nurture it, rather than telling us we don’t need to have it.

I haven’t made up my mind about how much free will we have, but in any case, I believe that the control we have, about who we are, what we believe, and even what we do, is limited. I’m sure that empathy is, to some extent, teachable, and surely we can influence other people, help them to be better, through our educating efforts.

But having empathy also means we need to understand that, maybe through no fault of their own, some people start out with less of it.

How to veganize other people

Many vegans are looking for the ideal way to make other people go vegan. Often, they are targeting good friends, family, or even their significant other. And, not infrequently, they get quite frustrated when their attempts at making these people give up animal products do not result in any significant changes. Below, you’ll find some of my thoughts and tips on this topic.

First, note that I don’t like to think in terms of “convincing” or “converting” others. This kind of language is, I think, not productive. It is not good for people to hear that we want to convert or convince them (people are very resistant to be convinced of something by others – see below). For this reason, it’s also better for us not to think about our efforts in those terms.  In the end, we can’t make other people do anything. But we can influence them in the right direction and help them open their heart and minds.

The term influencing too may bring up a connotation of manipulation or coercion, but in fact influencing is just a very normal thing that no one can avoid doing. Every single human is influencing other humans all the time, implicitly or explicitly, in a positive or negative direction. We shouldn’t be ashamed or wary of trying to influence people in a positive direction, assuming that the influencing is done with integrity, transparency and good intentions.

So, here are some suggestions for effectively influencing other people to move towards veganism or more plant-based eating.


ONE: Ask yourself if it’s worth it
Some people will never be swayed to go vegan in their lifetime, or at least this would require a lot of time and energy. It is possible that this time and energy might be better spent elsewhere. More generally, we can wonder if spending a lot of resources on one-to-one interactions is interesting at all, given that we could also try to change institutions like schools and businesses and local governments. In general, going for institutional change will have much larger potential returns than going for individual change. Of course, some individuals might be very influential in that they have a large reach, or in that, exactly, they have decision power to change things within the institution that they work in. If your mom is the CEO of a big company, it’s more interesting to try to influence her than if she’s just self-employed and doesn’t have a big impact on other people. So, if you can, invest your time in people who are multipliers.

TWO: Think and put yourself in their shoes
Don’t use a one size fits all approach, but adapt your approach to the person or persons in front of you. Try to imagine what it is to be like them. Try to know what they appreciate and what might help them change their hearts and minds. Is it philosophical discussion? Is it good food? Is it just great conversation? Do they have fears about being unhealthy? Do they have allergies and need to have a really practical solution? Do they need to be shown that there are many good alternatives and that eating vegan is not inconvenient?

THREE: Inform and help
When vegans consider the tools at their disposal, they usually will think first and foremost of moral arguments, delivered in the form of a speech, a youtube video, pamphlet or documentary. You can use all of these, and they might be helpful. But consider that there are many more. We can give people many things, in many forms. We can use not only moral arguments (what happens to the animals…) but also other arguments (the environment, health, etc). Or, we can avoid arguments altogether and give them a good taste experience. We can hand them theoretical information (how many trees are cut for meat) or practical information (where to find a great restaurant). And, if you have the ability to make things easier for the person you want to influence by cooking for them or providing food for them, then do so.
In any case, avoid information overload. It’s tempting to always give people more and more information, hoping that this next text, quote, video or photo will be the final drop that changes them. If people keep asking for more, by all means, give them what they want. But most people don’t. Don’t assume that an initial openness or request for information means that they will keep welcoming it, and that they’ll never get tired of it. If they see you as the person who, every time they are close to you, will go on and on about the same topic and can’t shut up about it, they’ll just avoid you.

FOUR: Ask – but don’t ask for all or nothing
It’s always good to give people a concrete suggestion or goal. Don’t present this goal, however, as something they have to do (for ethical or whatever reasons), but as something that it is good to do. And, know that this goal doesn’t always need to be veganism. While they may not be ready to go vegan, many people may be open to taking some steps. They may want to participate in Meatless Mondays, or Veganuary. Or, they may even be willing to go much further, like not eating animal products during the week, or whatever. Accept and appreciate these steps, because 1) they help reduce suffering in and of themselves, and 2) they may be steps towards more. Once the initial threshold has been crossed, things get so much easier. Moreover, it’s important to realize that we may not require everyone to go vegan at this stage, and that if only we had enough people who seriously reduce, the vegan world would be right around the corner. It’s just a matter of critical mass and reaching a tipping point.

FIVE: Back off and be patient
After you’ve given people enough information – that is as tailored as possible – it’s time to get out of the way and be patient. Patience means that you may have to wait months or even years. You may think that you or the animals can’t afford years, but that’s just how it goes. Here’s one hypothesis as to why it is important to back off in time and be patient. Most people are somehow like adolescents: they don’t want to be convinced of important things by others, but want to come to their own conclusions. They also don’t want to give the impression that that they have been convinced by you. Especially in situations where there is some kind of (friendly) competition between people (like with siblings, for instance) or where people are stubborn, it is important to give people a chance to change without it having to appear as if you were the one who changed them. People might not change because they don’t want to appear like that. So, how can we avoid it? If we keep talking and trying to convince them, they don’t have any space to “convert” without appearing as if it is due to us. If we, on the other hand, back off and lay low, chances are that after half a year or so, they feel confident that a change will be (or appear as) the result of their own independent thinking, rather than your talking into them.

At this point, no more proselytizing is needed, but it is useful if you yourself are an example of a nice, friendly, patient, helpful vegan. Someone, in other words, whose example people want to follow. Trust that, at this point, people have the necessary information. You may give a nudge here and there, but as a whole, give people space to change.

Do you have your own successful recipe for influencing people? Let me know in the comments.

More about the art of influencing people in my book How to Create a Vegan World.



Ten easy ways to alienate a meat-eater

how to alienate meat eaters

If you would like a vegan club rather than a vegan world, it is suprisingly easy to make sure that people don’t join the club. Here are some ways to address meat-eaters in ways that ensure they do not feel attracted to move in our direction.

how to alienate meat eaters

1. Present the solution as an all or nothing thing. People have to realize that they are either in or out!

2. If they are flexitarians, tell them that’s like a murderer killing less people. Even if they’re vegetarian, you can tell them that they basically don’t do anything good for animals.

3. If they say they love animals but eat meat, rather than working with that, just call them hypocrites. Instant separation guaranteed!

4. Assume that the way you changed is the way everyone will and should change. After all, we’re all the same, right?

5. Talk to people about the hundreds of animal-derived additives, e-numbers, aromas… that abound in our food and how important it is to avoid them.

6. When they seem to shift in our direction, make sure to tell people in time that their food should also be organic, local, seasonal, fair trade, healthy, sugarfree and palmoil-free.

7. When you think you’ve spotted another vegan, make sure that he or she has the right motivations (i.e. your motivations). Tell them they’re not really vegan if they don’t do it for the animals.

8. Explain that there is no such thing as a 99 percent vegan, and that any exception anyone makes is a violation of animals’ rights.

9. Be sure to cross-examine waiters to the tiniest details, especially when there are many people listening in. This is your chance to alienate many people at once!

10. Last but not least,  make sure that non-vegans never use the V-word when not appropriate! It’s our word, and no half-assed vegetarian should ever take it from us!

You see, it’s easy as pie to make sure vegans remain a very exclusive club!

Some people can’t say no to helping animals. Try not to give them extra work.

My girlfriend Melanie taking care of a sick kitten

What do you do when you find a hurt or abandoned animal somewhere?

Maybe – but I hope not – you are one of those people who can just ignore them. You walk by and – perhaps with some trouble – forget about that cat or dog or bird. Of course, it’s quite possible that you’re not always able to actually do anything. Have you ever experienced coming across a hurt, hungry or abandoned dog or cat in a foreign country, for instance? Or perhaps you were in a situation where there were just too many cases to do anything about. For me, these are horrible experiences, and I try to avoid them – among other ways by avoiding places where stray animals are rampant. I just can’t handle it.

But what if you find animals closer by, in your own country, or your hometown, and you have the chance to do something? If you’re a caring person, a friend of animals, you’ll act. Usually, acting will involve bringing one or more other people into the situation. You may enlist other people’s help because they are more able to deal with the problem than you. In those cases, by all means call someone else to the rescue. But – and this is my point – try to avoid calling in the help of a caring person for things that you can do yourself.

You see, the caring people are the ones that everyone is calling on. They are the ones who can’t say no. They help find homes for animals and they nurse them back to health. They are the ones bringing animals to shelters or to the vet. They are the ones who can’t live with the the thought that if they don’t do anything, chances are no one else will. And, they are exhausted, from so much caring.

My girlfriend Melanie taking care of a sick kitten
My girlfriend Melanie taking care of a sick kitten

I see all of this with my own girlfriend, Melanie. She has a day job at a vegan organization, and co-runs a cat rescue organization (check here) after hours. She’s a person who basically can’t say no to any request for her help. There are on average at least four foster cats or kittens in our house temporarily (apart from our six permanent cats and two dogs). My girlfriend will do anything to find great homes for these cats, and help them when they are wounded or sick. She’s usually at the vet a couple of times a week. As I write this, she is trying to nurse a little kitten who had been abandoned along a canal (something needs to be done about people doing that) back to health. The last few days, she has been feeding the kitten and administering medication all through the night, setting her alarm so that she awakes every three hours. And, all this is nothing compared to the heartbreak she will experience if the kitten doesn’t make it.

People who are known to care about animals, or who are running a small or larger animal sanctuary, often find animals at their door. It seems like it’s a good thing when people have at least the decency to leave animals they find in the care of someone who is caring, but it’s actually very problematic.

People like my girlfriend and many others, who are angels for the animals, are really not waiting for one more phone call from a person who found a kitten somewhere and who is asking them to take care of it. They are hoping the responsibility for all these unfortunate creatures can be shared as much as possible.

So, please don’t call in a caring person because you just don’t have the time to take the animal temporarily into your house. Please don’t call them to bring the animal to a rescue center or organization or a vet if you can do that yourself. Please do what you can do, yourself, and don’t count on someone who’s supercaring.

Let’s all take a little bit of responsibility, so that everyone can relax from time to time.

Vegan, thou shalt be consistent! (On George Monbiot vs Piers Morgan)

Author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot was slammed by host Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain for being a hypocrite (check out the shouting match here). Monbiot wanted to talk about the ethics of factory farming, but didn’t get much of a chance: Morgan called him out for wearing a leather watch strap.

Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot about animal agriculture
Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot

It’s a scene all too familiar for many vegetarians and vegans: people focus on the bits where we’re inconsistent or not perfect (the medication, the plane rides, the leather belt…), and that seems to give them an excuse to not listen to anything interesting we may have to tell. In this post I briefly want to explore the topic of consistency: how consistent should we be? Is consistency necessarily the best thing? And should we give in to the demands for consistency (and perfection)?

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that what Monbiot chose to wear indeed suggests a certain degree of inconsistency. I’ll make abstraction of the fact that, as he later tweeted, his watch-strap may not have been real leather, and that both it and his shoes may have been bought before he went vegan (in my opinion it’s perfectly okay to wear out old leather clothing as a vegan). So, for the rest of this post, let’s just assume his shoes and watch strap are leather, and that we don’t know when he bought them.

Monbiot has come out as a vegan and has done a lot to raise awareness about the problems of animal products and the livestock industry. It’s true that he changed his mind a couple of times on these issues, but that’s one reason I appreciate him. Changing one’s mind in public requires courage, and there is, in my view, nothing admirable in sticking to one’s opinion when one actually doesn’t believe in it anymore.

Now, Monbiot, in talking about veganism while wearing leather, showed – it cannot be denied – a certain degree of inconsistency (again, we’re ignoring the idea that he might have bought it before he went vegan). Accusing someone else of inconsistency or hypocrisy is a favored way to discredit them or their views. Which is exactly why people who want to look convincing will try to avoid appearing inconsistent. Also in the vegan realm we spend a lot of effort in making sure no one can say “gotcha!” to us. Monbiot could have thought of this beforehand, and could have worn a stylish vegan watch and ditto shoes. Then, when asked the question by Morgan, he could have proudly talked about how yes, even his watch and shoes were free from animal products. Gotcha, Morgan! Problem avoided!

But is it that simple, really? I’m sure a lot of vegans think it is, but let me – as usual – play the devil’s advocate here.

First of all, one thing to keep in mind is that when people are out to find a reason to discredit us, they will find it. It’s like asking the vegan whether she kills mosquitoes. If she answers yes, the non-vegan will shout “aha! inconsistent!” But if she says no, she’ll hear “fundamentalist!” Monbiot might have fared better without the leather – and the headlines would be different – but Morgan probably would have invented something else to accuse his opponent of. He was clearly in attack mode, and wanted to find something to undermine Monbiot’s credibility. As Monbiot tweeted: “It goes to show – you can prepare your arguments to the last dot and comma, but if someone is out to get you, there’ll always be a way.”

Part of this desire to spot inconsistencies – which is a form of do-gooder derogation – is of course that people think it gives them a way out. If the vegan (or other do-gooder) can be depicted as a hypocrite, there is, they think, no reason for them to change their thoughts or behavior.

How do we win over the most people?
What I mainly want to address here is the question of whether being entirely consistent is always the best way to win hearts and minds. In Monbiot’s case, him explaining that yes, his watch and his shoes are actually vegan (which he didn’t do, to be clear) may have caused admiration for his consistency, but it may also have caused a feeling of: “whew, these people go very far!” The zeal with which vegans are vegan, may seem daunting and inimitable rather than admirable.

Of course, there are degrees in this. Consistency itself is relative. That may sound a bit like a paradox, but it isn’t. When I give examples of my own inconsistencies (drinking non-vegan wine when out of the house or not inquiring about the ingredients of bread in a restaurant), these may seem like grave crimes to some vegans (enough to call me a non-vegan), while most non-vegans will hardly see them as examples of inconsistencies in the first place. In Monbiot’s case, suppose he was sitting there pleading for an end to animal agriculture while eating a box of chicken nuggets (I know, but just suppose).That would be an extremely grave and blatant inconsistency that probably wouldn’t have led to anything good.

It’s about communication
So, the question I have is: what is the right degree of consistency? I’m ignoring the fact that no one can be entirely avoid animal products. If you think I’m wrong, check this TED talk about how pig parts can be found in no less than 185 non-food products. Here, I’m rather talking about what degree of consistency will garner the most goodwill from other people – goodwill in the sense that they will move closer to wanting to follow our example. It’s about finding the balance between the risk of seeming uncommitted, on the one hand, and appearing fundamentalist, on the other. That is probably why Monbiot said that he wasn’t “militant about it”. Not because of laziness or because, as the rude Morgan implied, because he loves his luxury products. But because he knows that appearing militant is not attractive for many people. Monbiot has called himself 97% vegan before, and for many people, that might be a much more appealing prospect than a 100% vegan. (Undoubtedly some vegans will sing the “there is no such thing as a 97% vegan” refrain now.)

Many vegans don’t see any dilemma here at all, and just state that we should be entirely consistent because animal products entail animal suffering – period. But, creating a negative impression can also create animal suffering, or at least prevent less suffering than a good image could. As I’ve written before, what goes into your mouth is less important than what comes out of it. Your own consumption has an impact, but the impact of the way you advocate is potentially much, much bigger.

The answer to my question – about the right degree of consistency – is that I’m not sure. I would welcome research that tells us whether it is consistency or a certain flexibility that is most appealing to others. As far as I know, nothing much has been studied on the subject.

We don’t need to be perfect – nor should we pretend to be
For now, I’m trusting that decent and thinking people will be turned off not by Monbiot’s inconsistency but by Morgan’s calling him out for it. The ones that are calling Monbiot hypocritical are probably not ready to take any steps anyway.

I’m hoping that this episode won’t reaffirm vegans in their belief that they have to be perfect. I hope they won’t strive for consistency über alles, and won’t spend a disproportionate amount of attention on the tiny details, while losing the bigger picture. I’m hoping it won’t lead some of them to tell others that they cannot call themselves vegan if they still do eat or wear this or that, with the risk of alienating these people from veganism or the movement.

Maybe part of the solution lies in us not emphasizing our own consistency or perfection, and presenting veganism as an aspiration rather than something we are always achieving. If we don’t pretend it’s a black and white thing, maybe people will be less tempted to call vegans out when they spot an inconsistency. What if we said we’re 99% vegan?

Vegans are not perfect, and not perfectly consistent. And the fear of appearing inconsistent shouldn’t stop us from focusing on what’s really important, and that is reducing animal suffering, and communicating in a way that helps other people warm up to that idea. If a doofus like Pierce Morgan wants to attack, he will. People like him should not determine what our ideal course of action is.

Monbiot, in the meantime, is a great person to have in the vegan camp. No amount of leather on his body will efface the impact of his articulate writing on, indeed, one of the most important issues of our time.

Should vegans support the McDonald’s vegan burger?


I remember, more than fifteen years ago, asking vegetarians and vegans what they would do if ever McDonald’s came up with a vegan burger. Imagine furthermore, I said, that they are testing it somewhere and that the success of the test will determine if they will roll it out everywhere.

Sometimes, thought-experiments (I’ve always loved them) become real. This week, McDonald introduced a vegan burger in Tampere, Finland. The success it will have until November may influence what will happen in thousands of other McDonald’s around the globe.

Vegans, as often, are a bit divided in their reactions. Many applaud this initiative, while many others state that they will never ever eat anything at McDonald’s, because one vegan burger cannot erase the many problematic aspects of the company.

I’m seeing a lot of gut-level, unexamined opinions on this topic. So, allow me to present you with some of my thoughts on this issue.


What’s wrong with McDonald’s?
McDonald’s has been and in many aspects remains a problematic company. Actually, in many people’s eyes (at least activists and people on the left in general), McDonald’s is more or less the prototype of a Bad Company. When I type “what’s wrong with” in Google, the first autocomplete suggestion I see is… McDonald’s. The 1986 pamphlet What’s Wrong With McDonald’s – and the “McLibel” lawsuit by the corporation against Helen Steel and Dave Morris – probably has something to do with this. The pamphlet spoke about animal welfare, workers’ rights, deforestation, luring children with toys, etc. And for many people, even if all of these problems were solved, McDonald’s would still simply be too big, too capitalist, too uniform and too many other things to support.

I don’t have the time to do a thorough check of how McDonald’s is doing today in terms of all these different social dimensions, but let’s just very briefly look at one aspect: is McDonald’s any worse in the animal welfare department than similar companies? According to Paul Shapiro, Vice President of policy engagement at the Humane Society of the US, the company’s 2012 announcement that the US branch would require its suppliers to phase out gestation crates and its 2015 similar announcement on battery cages both led to a cascade of other major retailers doing the same or better. In a real way, Shapiro says, the company’s announcements helped put the writing on the wall that these cage confinement practices will have no place in the future. Sure, all these are “mere” welfare reforms, but they are a start, and they mean tangible differences for literally billions of animals.

I think a lot of the hate McDonald’s gets is not always entirely rational, and is in part due to the fact that McD has come to symbolize all that is bad about modern day capitalism. But let’s, for argument’s sake, just accept that the fast food giant is still a very bad company – it definitely buys, cooks and serves a humongous number of animals. What does this mean in terms of vegans and the vegan movement’s relationship to the vegan burger?

The naysayers
I found many people claiming on social media that they will never support McDonald’s. They refuse to spend money on such a company and, thus, (in their view), contribute to all the evil it is doing. An often heard response to this kind of argument is that these very same people probably spend quite some money in other businesses (e.g.) supermarkets, which also sell animal parts and may also cause other kinds of damage. Again, singling out McDonald’s (and other big fast food chains) seems to me not a rational attitude, but may have a lot to do with the symbolic function that McDonald’s has.

Sometimes, it seems to me that it is part of human nature to want or need enemies: many of us just love to hate some people and companies. For this reason, some of us may not like it when the enemy improves. People don’t want to lose their enemy and seem to require an outlet for a certain amount of hate and anger. An indication of this is that there is hardly anything this enemy can do in order to get the support of the naysayers (people may, for instance, not even support McDonald’s if it’s 100% vegan and green and… ). Some of the McVegan’s opponents have been asking whether the mustard, the sauce, the buns are vegan and whether the patty will be fried on the same grill as the beef patties are fried on – seemingly looking for any excuse not to support it. Others say it’s just junk.
Every positive action that is undertaken will be considered insignificant, or greenwashing, or empty, or whatever. The idea that the company is evil to its core becomes sort of non-falsifiable.

Some people in the no camp consider the enthusiasm of the yes camp as some sort of “veganism über alles” attitude. They see the McVegan’s proponents as applauding anything that advances the vegan or animal cause, even if it is at the cost of anything else. Certainly, there are vegans who are very narrowly focused on animals alone and don’t care for intersecting social justice issues. But I don’t think that is necessarily the case for everyone saying yes to the McVegan. These people may just be willing to encourage every significant step, realizing that not everything will be done at once. If McDonald’s takes significant measures in other areas, these could also be applauded, even though the company is still responsible for a lot of animal suffering.

The case for a McVegan
I have written before on the power that big companies have to do good things (see Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy? and Why vegans shouldn’t boycot Daiya cheese). It’s easy to see some of the advantages of having a vegan burger at McD’s. Such an offer would help tremendously in normalizing and mainstreaming vegan food and would lower the threshold for a lot of people to actually try it out (the burger has to be tasty, of course – but according to what I read, it is). Companies who have a stake in selling plant-based foods also will start to become less antagonistic to the growth of the vegan phenomenon.

But most importantly, big companies have the power, the resources, the contacts and the channels to get these products out everywhere. I just came back from the Extinction and Livestock Conference in London, organized by Compassion in World Farming and WWF. During one of the panels, Josh Balk, Vice President for The Humane Society of the United States’ farm animal division, reminded us of the days when soy milk could only be found in an obscure corner of the local health food store. What happened, asked Josh, that pulled plant-based milks out of that corner and put them on the shelves of every major supermarket in the United States? His answer: Dean Foods happened.The largest dairy company in the US saw an opportunity and got into plant-based milks. There might be other explanations for these products’ growing popularity, but Big Dairy definitely played a big part in it.
Dean Foods inspired other companies to do as they did and invest in dairy alternatives. Just so, McDonald’s, if successful, may further inspire other chains (and maybe the fast food giant was inspired to start in Finland because of the successful Hesburger chain, which carries a vegan burger).

Can vegans make a difference?
If we think a vegan burger at McDonald’s is a good idea, we can actively participate by buying or recommending the burger. Or, we can just silently support it and leave it to other people to buy it. But what if the vegan movement (in Finland or internationally) was actually able to help make or break this experiment? The fact that the burger is called McVegan seems to imply that the McDonald’s folks have at least to some degree the vegan target audience in mind.
Suppose that, as the news articles seem to imply, the success the Finish experiment can influence or determine if and to what extent this burger will be rolled out in other countries. Think of the massive number of animals who would be spared a lifetime of suffering. I feel confident in saying that, assuming all this, I would be fine with spending my own money on this and asking others to do the same. Furthermore, if I were director of a Finish organization, I might actually recommend all vegans to go there (though I would take into account the potential backlash of less pragmatic vegans).

It is important to realize that McDonald’s has tried to launch a vegan or vegetarian burger several times in different countries, but nowhere quite succeeded (except in India). Imagine that the McDonald’s US vegan burger launched in California and New York City in 2003 had succeeded, and had been rolled out nationally and internationally, and had inspired other companies… It’s hard to say if the vegan movement could have played a significant role in that, but it is not unthinkable. (Interestingly, the person who oversaw the Southern California rollout of the McVeggie burger, Don Thompson, eventually became McDonald’s CEO, but has since left the company and now is on Beyond Meat’s board of directors.)

Bad intentions are good enough
As is very often – and often rightly – the case, our judgment of an action is partly inspired by how we see the intentions or motivations of the people behind the action. It is entirely safe to assume that the motivation to introduce the McVegan is financial. A lot of Facebook comments are exactly about this: McDonald’s is only in it for the money; they are money grubbing bastards, etc., etc. Wanting to make a profit is, of course, entirely normal for a company. Yet, many of us don’t like that motivation, while we love ethical motivations. Do a little experiment for yourself: imagine the CEO of McDonald’s Finland is a vegan and introduced the burger because she wants to do something good for animals. Chances are you will notice your opinions about the whole thing shift.
The question, though, is how important are these intentions? The animals certainly don’t care. With Saul Alinsky, a social justice activist, I agree that we should allow people to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Alinsky writes in Rules for Radicals:

“With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that people do the right thing for the right reason – this is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason – therefore, he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals.”

I was CEO of McDonald’s for one day
Maybe twenty years ago, in my very early activism days, I organized a protest at a brand new McDonald’s in our town (Ghent, Belgium). We had a bunch of people there, with the obligatory signs, slogans and pamphlets, and one or two newspapers covered it. About fifteen years later, when I was director of EVA, the organization I had cofounded, I did what was called a “jobswitch” with the CEO of McDonald’s Belgium (this was an initiative of a sustainability organization of which we were both members). While I gave a presentation and got to know some of the people, practises and procedures of the McDonald’s Belgium team, my own team entertained and informed their CEO and presented him with the best meat alternatives available. The day finished with me and the CEO – who hadn’t seen each other all day – doing a closing meeting. Which happened… exactly at the McDonald’s where I had organized the protest many years ago…
The demonstration was an example of confrontation, while the jobswitch day was a form of collaboration, or at least, something that could lead to that. Today, these two forms of taking action are still valid and necessary, but I myself am more of a believer in collaboration than confrontation.

No bust, no revolution, but gradual change
McDonald’s is not going to just disappear. And, it’s not just suddenly going to turn into a vegan company. The only thing that can happen is gradual improvement. I respect vegans who want to have nothing to do with that improvement, and want to stay as far away from some companies as they can (rational arguments are helpful). I’m not saying that boycotts are never useful or successful. And, I can obviously see value in supporting vegan businesses as much as possible. But, I think that this alone won’t cut it, and I believe, for the animals, the support of big companies, well-intentioned or not, is not just a luxury. Like it or not, it is a necessity.

And just in case anyone at McDonald’s is listening: thanks for this try out AND yes, we want you to do more.

May the Force be with the vegan burger.

You can read more about how I think the vegan movement should relate to corporate stuff in my book How to Create a Vegan World.

Tips for getting your letters to the editor published

Writing letters to news outlets can be a great investment of an activist’s time – at least if they get published. We sometimes waste hours in discussing things on facebook for a dozen people, while we could have spent the same amount of time on a letter that gets read by tens or hundreds of thousands of people. Here are some tips on how to write letters that get published.


  • Everything starts with an idea that you want to convey. In our case, it will usually be something related to animal suffering or going vegan. Often that will not be concrete enough. Make sure you know the exact point that you want to make, and make it clearly. For instance, I just wrote a piece about how new health recommendations in my country may lead to more chickens and fish being eaten, which equals more animal suffering.
  • You need to be able to write well. Your writing has to be crisp, and clear, without mistakes. If you’re not a good writer, you can either leave the task to someone else, or get help. Editors will only want to spend a certain amount of time on your text – if they read it at all.
  • Be concise: try to put as many ideas as possible in as few words as possible. Editors prefer concise, compact articles.
  • Being too emotional or outraged is often not convincing. One possible guideline to go by is that for every emotional argument you use, you join it by two factual ones.
  • Don’t exaggerate your facts and don’t present veganism as the panacea for all the world’s problems (vegalomania).
  • If you respond to another person, watch out for anger, blaming and shaming. Everyone’s human, dealing with their limited view of the world. Writing sarcastically and making fun of someone can be entertaining, but it usually doesn’t make allies. Imagine how the person you are writing about will feel when they read your text. Will they be offended? Angry? Or will they have reason to feel sympathetic towards you? Your objective here may not always be the same.
  • Decide which audience you are writing for. Do you want vegans to cheer what you are writing? Or do you want to take non-vegans along? Those might be two different pieces.
  • Remember YANYA, or “you are not your audience”. Don’t just think about the point you want to make. Think also about how your audience will react to what you write. Put yourself in their shoes. Be audience-centric.
  • Read your text again after a while, or give it to someone else (maybe a non vegan) to read.

Other tips

  • React to something that is currently happening in the news. Writing on a topic out of the blue can work too, but it has a much lower chance of succeeding. Also, it’s good to see if that particular outlet has already published one or more pieces on the topic. Feel free to float an idea by an editor and ask if they are interested in a piece by you.
  • Everything will be much easier once you have built a relationship with the opinion editor. This happens after they know you write well and can be trusted to submit pieces that have a consistent quality. They may even start contacting you after awhile and ask for a piece
  • Obviously, your chances of getting published will be higher if you have some kind of relevant identity or experience, rather than just being one random vegan or activist. It’s good to be able to describe that identity in one sentence. One description I presently use is Tobias Leenaert, author of How to Create a Vegan World.
  •  One rule to remember is that you want to minimize the work for the editor. So, the more finished and customized to the outlet’s default format your work is, the better. Check for the length and format that the outlet usually publishes (when writing for an online medium, length is less important than in the case of print).
  • Personally, I find online publishing more interesting than print. Online lasts and is searchable forever, while print is only good for one or two days. Among the online outlets, it’s more interesting to write for outlets that that won’t put the piece behind a paywall.
  • Practice writing: keep a blog, write about many topics to gain experience and knowledge. Keep a database with interesting ideas, studies and references to be used when needed. Also, practice fast writing: sometimes you have a very short deadline for an article.

Got other tips? Let me know in the comments…

Beware of vegan dogma

Suppose I asked you to write an online dating profile for yourself. And suppose I told you that you could only use one word to describe what you desire in a significant other. What quality would you first and foremost be looking for?

Mine would be: open-mindedness. It’s the quality that guarantees you can talk and have good conversations no matter what. It’s the quality that helps guarantee empathy, because you’re open to listen to everything and consider all kinds of things. It’s the quality that assures, in short, growth.

The opposite of being open-minded, is being dogmatic. Being dogmatic is basically the attitude of not questioning things. One is not necessarily dogmatic across the board, about all kind of topics imaginable, but one can definitely be dogmatic about certain topics.

If you are a vegan today, then chances are big that, like me, you spent quite a bit of your life accepting certain dogma concerning the consumption of animals. You were in a certain box. I call this box the box of carnism (Melanie Joy’s term).carnism

Being inside the box of carnism – being subject to the ideology of carnism, made you accept all kinds of dogmatic ideas. Like the ideas that eating animal products is natural, normal and necessary.

Then, if you were like me after some time, the light went on. You pushed the box open and jumped out as a vegan (maybe first a vegetarian, but that’s okay).carnism box

Now, the thing is that I realized – only after many years of being vegan – that to a certain extent, I had ended up in another box. The vegan box.vegan box 1Just like I had been dogmatically accepting all kinds of beliefs before, I was doing the same now. I was thinking of veganism in the only way that one is allowed to think about it: honoring the decade-old definition. I would point out that as soon as one made one exception, one isn’t a vegan. I repeated the eternal mantra that it wasn’t about welfare but about rights (and I used welfare and welfarist as dirty words – when did they ever turn into that?). And so on…

So, a couple of years ago, I largely got out of that box. And I began questioning everything once more. I believe I am largely coming to the same conclusions as when I was in the vegan box, but here’s the thing. It is the very act of questioning that is important. It is that that will guard us against fundamentalism. It is that which will keep us open-minded. It is that that will keep us away from dogma. Dogma is what prevents us from improving.

And the need for questioning, for introspection, for self awareness is not over. It is possible that I will end up in yet another box. It could be called… the box of openmindedness, the anti-dogmatic box, the pragmatic box. We can make boxes, ideologies, out of everything.

One box is better than another, but it is better not to be in any box at all and to keep our thinking free.

You can check the presentation on open-mindedness, rationality, empathy and positivity that I recently gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg:

See also: ten vegan things I recently changed my mind about

What’s it like to be a meat eater? (on “confirmation bias cheering”)

We believe that by being vegan, we’re doing a good thing. We’d like others to do the same good thing. But we can’t force others to do as we do. There is no way to make the consumption of animal products illegal at this point, and even if some president or dictator would abolish animal consumption in some country, the time is not ripe for that and soon such a law would be reversed again.

So one of the things we need to do (apart from creating alternatives!) is to change hearts and minds. To do that, we need to understand others, know where they come from, listen to them, and know what attracts them and turns them off. In other words, we have to be able to take their perspective. I have called this idea YANYA before, or You Are Not Your Audience.

When a tiny percentage of the population goes against the tide of the other 98%, it must be that this minority somehow has more motivation. We are, to some extent, different from other people.

One problem is that what many vegans like to hear is not what the general audience likes or needs to hear. Vegans who serve their non-vegan audiences the truth “straight up” (in a video, interview or whatnot) often get cheered by other vegans. This is what I would call Confirmation Bias Cheering (when you suffer from confirmation bias, it means that you favor information that confirms your own beliefs and opinions). You cheer because your own opinion gets confirmed, exactly without taking into account the reaction of the people you actually, ideally want to reach.

confirmation bias
how confirmation bias works

Let me give you some examples to make this concrete. Recently a video did the rounds of an activist who said something that many or most of us want to say – at least sometimes – to meat eaters: yes, we are judging you, because your choices cause so much suffering, and you could easily choose something else. Line by line, many vegans’ initial response is: “exactly!” “spot on!” And we give thumbs up, and we comment, and we share…

The same goes for memes that ridicule non-vegans and their often crazily irrational reactions. We may find them funny and recognizable. That’s why we often share them and make fun of non-vegans’ reactions together with our fellow vegans. And having some fun is… fun. And necessary. But it’s good to consider the effect of memes like these on non-vegans.

I once did a prime-time TV debate with the president of the farmer’s union in Belgium. What I said was, I think, balanced, gentle, and reasonable. But what I heard from some vegans was: “why didn’t you just say it like it is? Why didn’t you tell him that raising animals for food is criminal and that eating meat is a crime?” I can imagine I would have received cheers from vegans, but I would have alienated my general audience – the people I actually want to reach.

Likewise, I recently did a couple of interviews, based on the recent publication on my book, with mainstream media in Belgium and the Netherlands. I know that the overwhelming majority of the readers of these interviews will be non-vegans. I mentioned how fundamentalism does exist in the vegan movement, but that it expresses itself not in terms of behavior (being vegan is not fundamentalist in itself) but possibly in our communication and the way we relate to other people. I said that we can either communicate compassionately, or like an asshole. The editor in chief of one newspaper made a clickbait headline out of that: “To radical vegans I say: don’t be an asshole”.

Now here again, vegans may not like that statements like these may contribute to the image of a divided movement with some internal differences. But there’s a way to think differently about this, from the audience’s perspective: any non-vegan who ever had to deal with an annoying, aggressive vegan (you know they are out there) may very well find it a relief to read that not all vegans agree with that approach.

To some vegans, I seem too tolerant, too pragmatic, too forgiving. And yet today, as a reaction to the same interview, in which I plead for a more tolerant approach, I received a letter from a non-vegan, from which I can derive that, in spite of my plea for tolerance and open-mindedness, I still come across as intolerant and dogmatic. And no, her letter was not at all unreasonable or unkind.

Another thing: to make veganism seem less rigid and dogmatic, I sometimes describe the exceptions I make. Mentioning that I don’t examine wine and bread when out of the house, makes me a target for some vegans who think I shouldn’t even call myself a vegan. Yet to non-vegans (again, the people we actually want to reach) these exceptions don’t even count as exceptions, and may just confirm how strict we really are.

Expressing your opinions with your audience in mind has nothing to do with pandering to their views and desires. Some vegans will say: yes, of course non-vegans like a gentle, incremental approach, because you give them a way out, an excuse. Of course they like it when you don’t tell them they are under a moral obligation to go vegan (I’m not a fan of “moral baselines”).

But it’s not about telling people what they want to hear because it is comfortable. It’s about telling them what is useful for them to hear so that some change will happen (in their attitude and/or behavior). If that change is not yet the full monty, then so be it.

So one important message here is: if you read something by a vegan in a mainstream channel and you don’t like it, think first about how the larger audience would react to this. Would they get as angry as you are? Or would it actually be something that brings them closer, even if it’s not conforming to your ideal? The reactions that matter are not those from vegans, but those from the non-vegan audience. If vegans could keep this in mind, vegan spokespeople wouldn’t be held back by the potential backlash by some vegans, and could more freely speak in a way that appeals to the widest possible audience.

You may disagree with all of this, and you may believe that speaking your truth, the way you feel it, always and forever, in every circumstance, is the most important thing for you. But if we take seriously the often heard creed “it’s not about us, it’s about the animals”, then I believe we should consider voicing our truth not as the priority, but the real-world effect we have with our words.