Why vegans shouldn’t boycott Daiya cheese

Did you hear about the fire in the vegan cheese company? The cheese didn’t melt!
So goes a running joke about vegan cheeses. A few years ago, the Vancouver based company Daiya Foods changed all that, and was the first to bring to market a cheese that actually, seriously melted.

But then this week came… the Daiya Drama! Daiya foods announced they were being acquired by the Japanese company Otsuka. Otsuka is not just a big pharmaceutical company (to many that is bad enough in itself) but it also, as all pharmaceutical companies still do, tests on animals. The result is that many vegans are angry, state they will boycott Daiya, consider Daiya products no longer vegan, and call out the Daiya people for being hypocrites that are just in it for the money.daiya

 

I’ve been combing through some Facebook threads, trying to get a feel of the arguments used against Daiya and its acquisitition, and in this post I’ll take a quick look at why deals like these are not bad. I’ll also give some ideas about better communication in circumstances like these. It goes without saying that I dislike animal testing as much as the next vegan, and would love to have it be a thing of the past as soon as possible.

Facts first. What do we have to go by?

In a video that they posted on their Facebook page recently, the two Daiya founders say that they always wanted Daiya to be a global leader in the plant-based food scene. For that, they realized, they needed a partner. In Otsuka, they found a company “whose fundamental values align well with Daiya”. The partnership, according to the founders in the video “will ultimately enable more consumers around the world to enjoy a plant-based lifestyle”. Daiya will remain an independent subsidiary. Otsuka does indeed do animal testing – you can check this statement on their website.

So, Daiya will keep operating autonomously, but is now owned by a pharmaceutical company that does a certain amount of animal testing of a certain kind. That’s what we know. How bad is that?

Very bad, if many of the comments are anything to go by, or if we look at the petition signed by over four thousand people. The sense that I get is that people feel betrayed. The petition talks about “a stunning blow to the people who thought Daiya’s values did not include animal testing.” Apparently, to Daiya’s present detractors, it seems that while they thought Daiya was in it for all the right reasons, they now feel that Daiya sold out, for reasons of greed. I’ll get back to this.

What can be achieved by a boycott?
A boycott is usually meant to exert pressure on a company. Sometimes, boycotts work and companies or governments do change under pressure (particularly if there’s a lot of media attention involved). Often, however, a boycott is symbolic: there is no realistic expectation that a company will actually change, but boycotting the company gives the boycotters a clearer conscience. I think in this case, there is little to no chance that a small group of vegans could help reverse the sale. Nor is there much chance that the Daiya founders can exert pressure on Otsuka to stop testing on animals – if they want to keep bringing new drugs to the market, it’s something they are obligated to do, unfortunately.

Moreover, even if the Daiya sale could be reversed, or if Daiya would be bought by an unproblematic company, as far as I can see, this would not result in any more or less animals being killed or tested on. Daiya’s hands, in the eyes of some, might be less dirty, but would Otsuka do any less animal testing? Not that I can see. The idea that Daiya sales would actually contribute to animal suffering seems far-fetched to me.

Benefits of big business buy-ins
The Daiya founders’ stated motivation is that they hope Otsuka’s acquisition of Daiya will enable the company to reach more people and help them to follow a plant-based lifestyle. Let’s just take this claim at face value, for now. Is it absurd? Of course, not.
I’ve written before about the advantages of big business getting into plant-based (see Beyond Meat and Tyson and here), and I’ll only summarize them briefly here. Big companies have a lot more means at their disposal than small companies. They have bigger and wider distribution channels and a bigger customer base. With their money, they can obviously increase advertising and expose more and more people to Daiya, or any vegan product. They can boost R&D; so, new products can be developed and old ones can be made even better. Last but not least: once a company stands to win from the sales of plant-based products, it is logical to assume that their antagonism to veganism/plant-based alternatives will decrease.

Daiya-products
Playing the definition game

A part of the vegan community jealously guards the definition of vegan products and veganism (the initiator of the petition is called “keeping veganism vegan”). Are Daiya products still vegan?  To me, this is a boring question, but let’s see. It is possible to define “vegan” so strictly that we rule out almost anything. It is reasonable to say that a requirement for a product to be vegan is that it doesn’t contain any animal ingredients. I’m comfortable enough with this, as a definition.

A step further is to say that no animals may have been harmed in the making of a product. This still makes sense, but the question here is: :how far do you go? In this case, the parent company performs some obligatory animal experiments (note that we don’t know which kind of experiments – not all experiments cause the same kind of suffering, obviously). Does this exclude Daiya products from being vegan? And if one boycotts Daiya for this reason, shouldn’t one also boycott any business that sells vegan products but also profits to some extent from some kind of animal (ab)use? Non-vegan supermarkets would, it seems to me, be out of the question, under this definition. As would any non-vegan restaurant. And, forget about consuming any great vegan product from a company that also produces anything non-vegan.

Just to be sure, I wrote to Vegan Action, which certifies Daiya and other many products as vegan, to ask them their opinion. This is the answer I received:

“We do indeed still consider Daiya vegan.  The product line/brand is all vegan – does not contain any animal products and is not tested on animals.  That’s the criteria we use.  If we didn’t allow companies that are owned by parent companies to apply for and use the Certified Vegan Logo, there wouldn’t be any Certified Vegan products!”

Pushing it that far seems irrational and impractical. What’s going on here, I think, is a case of disillusionment and thwarted expectations: people expected Daiya to be a vegan company (rightly or wrongly). We thought they were one of us, and now we feel betrayed. And, we double down on betrayers! They are black sheep. While most of us have no qualms shopping in a non-vegan supermarket, we may not shop in a once vegan supermarket that introduced animal products all of a sudden. Likewise, we may dislike an ex-vegan much more than someone who was never vegan at all. Thwarted expectations. Human, but not entirely rational.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the communication on this issue. Most people (I’m not exempting myself) suck at communication. Vegans and others who are part of and very passionate about an ideology may be even worse than average. We get very, very sure of ourselves. That sometimes prevents us from thinking. Or, it makes us believe that we have all the answers already, that we’re the good guys and the other ones have made mistakes. And, that they can be chastised for those mistakes. It’s the problem with the world, kind of.

Here are a few things we can do to communicate better:

Practise slow opinion
Social media push us to react very quickly. Before we respond, we could ask ourselves questions, try to take the perspective of the other party, wonder if we have all the information that we need. We can think deeper and longer about things than we usually do. Fast opinion often doesn’t create any meaningful addition to a discussion, and only adds to anger and hate. We have enough of that, and if we want to change the way we interact with others, we need to step on the brakes, take a breath, and think again. I’ve written more on slow opinion here.

Remember that none of us is a mind-reader
So many people in their comments stated that the Daiya founders sold their company because they were greedy. Presumably these vegans are mind-readers, for how else could they claim to know the founders’ true intentions behind the sale? If we doubt their stated intentions, are we sure enough that we are right, so that we can utter these kind of horrible accusations?

Moreover, say the Daiya founders’ motivation to sell the company is financial. Do we know what they plan to do with the money? Maybe they’ll use it to invest in another great plant based company? Maybe they want to make significant donations? The thing is, we can’t know.

In general, there is a lot of cynicism going around about the corporate world (politicians and celebrities are another easy target of that kind of cynicism). Especially if our opinion might be wrong, it is very delicate to call others traitors or sell-outs or whatever. The Daiya founders are people too, as are all the Daiya staff. It is undoubtedly not pleasant to read all the sh#t that people write about them. And, it’s not motivating, but rather it might alienate them from the vegan movement. A good rule on social media is not to write something about someone that you wouldn’t say to them face to face. So often, we forget about the humans behind the social media conversations.

I think the fact that big companies want to acquire plant-based companies is a terrific sign. I do believe a partnership with a big company can indeed help Daiya to reach more people. Is this the founders’ real motivation? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Is this an ideal partnership? Probably not, but it’s not an ideal world either. This is what success will look like. It will not proceed along a road of purity, but it may be a bit messy and mixed at times. We’d better get used to it.

I’m not saying companies should be beyond reproach just because they offer great vegan products. As consumers, we’re definitely allowed to remain critical. Maybe Otsuka and Daiya will prove me naive at some point in the future. Till then, I’ll try to be open and rational rather than cynical, and I’ll try to have some faith in people, including those in the corporate world.

Want to read more about how our movement can deal with the business world? Check out my new book How to Create a Vegan World.

Ten communication tips for new (and other) vegans

It is important to advocate for what we believe in. It is valuable to influence other people so that they follow our example. Sometimes, however, we can be just a bit *too* passionate in our drive to get more people on board. Especially newly minted vegans are sometimes prone to advocate 24/7, often in ways that are not entirely productive. Here are a few tips for avoiding what is sometimes called “new veganitis” and to be good at vegan advocacy from the get-go!
vegan advocacy
1. Remain open-minded
You stopped eating animal products, but please don’t stop thinking. Our movement hasn’t figured everything out. We can still improve, get more knowledgeable, more wise, and more effective. Know that being vegan is not an end-point, and that you can and should and will grow and evolve further.2. Don’t let your emotions blind you
I get it: you discovered the truth about what happens to animals, stopped eating animal products, and are now pretty angry that all this abuse is just continuing. How can others not conclude what you are concluding? If you get impatient with them, realize that your own conversion was probably not overnight: what finally prompted you to go vegan was probably just the last incident or piece of information in a whole series over many years.

3. Be modest
You just got here. Though it’s no guarantee that they have grown wiser or better, longer time vegans have more experience with navigating a non-vegan world and talking to people about it. Maybe they’ve become softer and more nuanced. But don’t judge them right away: that doesn’t  make them traitors.

4. Remember that veganism is not an end in itself
Being vegan is about reducing suffering. Always keep that underlying goal in mind. Judge what you do not by the answer to “is it vegan?” but by “does this reduce suffering?”

5. Seek out like-minded people…
Being part of an online or offline vegan community can help a lot, especially in the beginning. Get support from others, get answers to your questions, and relax in the presence of people to whom you don’t have to defend your lifestyle, or who you don’t have to convince of anything.

6. … But also break out of the bubble
Though being in a vegan community can be a great help, there is also the danger of ending up in an echo chamber. Keep talking to people who are not where you are. Not just to influence them, but to understand them and to learn from them.

7. Don’t exaggerate vegan claims
Some advocates like to tell others that veganism will solve all the world’s problems. Don’t buy it. It’s a great thing to do on so many levels, but it’s not a panacea. Exaggeration will not help our cause and will only make the less gullible more sceptical.

8. Don’t try to be perfect
If you’re 99% vegan, you’re vegan (at least in my eyes). You can strive for 100 or even 110%, but there’s little extra benefit (and it may even be counterproductive). Don’t feel guilty if you don’t make the 100%, and if you do make it, don’t look down on those who don’t.

9. Be food-focused
Arguments and discussions have their limits. Especially moral arguments can cause a lot of resistance. Food is a great way to influence others in a non-threatening way. Take people to a restaurant, cook for them, give them samples… Strive to give them great vegan taste experiences and the rest will be so much easier.

10. Be friendly and positive
Anger, frustration and impatience will only alienate others and keep them at a distance. Be nice and relatable. It’s better for you, and better for them. Believe in people, believe that most of them basically care. And have some faith that everyone is able to see the light.

Want to learn more about vegan advocacy? Check out my book How to Create a Vegan World

Changing the world making pies: an interview with Laura Verhulst

Laure Verhulst, aka "Madam Bakster"
Laure Verhulst, aka “Madam Bakster”

During her studies, Belgian Laura Verhulst developed a strategic plan for a plant-based pie business. Not much later, she officially founded Madam Bakster (Bakster means female baker in Dutch) and then won an award for the best business concept during her master year. She decided to not finish her studies and, instead, to go full on for plant-based entrepreneurship. Now, we’re two years later. Laura is 23, and among other things, she has her own beautiful coffee shop in Ghent, the town where I live. Her pies have names like Heidi, Raymond and Naomi. I talked with Laura about how healthy and tasty desserts can help us forward, about having your own business, and about how to sell a vegan cappuccino to an unsuspecting customer.

Vegan Strategist: You’re obviously an ambitious person. What’s your main drive to do all this?
Laura Verhulst: For me personally, it all started with a passion for healthy eating. That’s the way I got in touch with the whole plant-based thing. When I founded Madam Bakster, I wasn’t a consistent vegetarian, much less a vegan. Initially, I used yogurt in my pies. Later, I decided they would not have any animal products at all. Part of the reason for this was very practical: I was making all these pies in my student dorm room, and wasn’t well-equipped in terms of food safety. Eggs posed the highest risk, so I left them out. But just as important for the decision to go all plant-based was that I would be able to cater to more people with food allergies.

Have your motivations changed or evolved since you started your business?
Definitely. Now, when I give public presentations I talk about health, sustainability and animals, and I give each topic the same attention. Three years ago, the animal argument was hardly on my radar at all, and I never would have thought that I’d ever be speaking about veganism and animal wellbeing. So, you can say that this topic kind of grew on me.

Your business is very mission driven, but you seem quite subtle in how you approach people with your message.
Yes. I definitely want to help create change, but I don’t like to push my opinions and ideas on others. That’s just not my way. Looking at my own process, I found it easier to be open to the topic of veganism because no one pushed it on me. I largely did my own research. I was present in online communities of people who ate more or less the same way, for different reasons. So, I investigated their motivations. I believe that when people make choices out of their own free will because they want to be informed, they will come to interesting insights. It’s like a diet: you need to want to do it, and you won’t keep it up if it’s forced on you. I apply the same approach with our coworkers: none of them are vegan right now, but we each take turns cooking lunch, and it’s vegetarian or vegan by default. I see people open up this way to have a good conversation, which is really great.

Laura’s vegan pies have names like people.

While your products are entirely vegan, you don’t use the word vegan in your communication?
That’s right. Our target audience is not vegans as such, but people who want to eat more healthily. So, we use terms like “plant-based” or “without animal products”. They speak to a larger audience. People are triggered by those words, open themselves up for information and take a look at the why and how. Most of my customers are health-oriented. The only cue we give is that our logo and our window say Madam Bakster: the guiltfree bakery. That’s ambiguous on purpose: it can be about health, but also about animal welfare. Our aim is to talk to as broad an audience as possible. Everyone should be able to enjoy the same pie, whatever their motivations or values.

If you’re so subtle, I assume quite a few people who enter the coffee shop may not be aware that everything is plant-based?
Right, many people don’t know. We’re in the historic city center, and there are a lot of tourists walking in. When they order a cappuccino, I won’t say it’s vegan, but I’ll tell them that we make our milk ourselves, and that they can choose between hazelnut milk, which is more creamy, and almond milk, which is more sweet.

Do you feel you can make people see plant-based as an enrichment rather than a limitation?
Sure! Having to avoid something can be very enriching. You need to use new ingredients, new techniques… and a whole new world opens. You’re not stuck to the classic repertoire of recipes. Many people are curious about new things. When I tell them about aquafaba, for instance, they think it’s fantastic!
I don’t focus on the fact that something is right or wrong. It’s very important to me that a person’s first contact with plant-based eating or veganism is positive. So, I will try to get people excited about the alternatives and their qualities. I say that nut milks, for instance, are awesome: tasty, healthy and easy to make yourself!

How vegan are you yourself?
I’m vegan at home. Outside the home, I may be flexible at times, but I’m always at least vegetarian. For my boyfriend, it’s different. He is in favor of 100% consistency and prefers to rebel against any social pressure. It’s not rare that nights among friends end in debates that are not entirely enjoyable [laughs]. I experience very often how non-vegans want to control the diet of a vegan. They will talk about the risk of protein deficiency, about how soy or almonds are not all that sustainable either, etc. I definitely experience less hostility when the argument is health rather than ethics. Also, me and my boyfriend initially didn’t use the word vegan for ourselves, but since we do, we get more criticism. It’s kind of more liberating not to use it.

Speaking of vegans, what do they think of your business?
Some think we’re just not explicit enough about veganism. Many of them also don’t care much for the health aspect of it. In fact, it seems that quite a few vegans actually are proud that they don’t care about their health and that health is not an argument for them. But at least we reach those vegans who do think health is important.

You also give a lot of public presentations. What do you talk about?
I talk about entrepreneurship and marketing, and tell them my story about how Madam Bakster came into existence. But the biggest part is about healthy baking. I tell people that I analysed and then replaced the four staples in desserts: sugar, flour, butter and eggs. Why do we use them? We can we use less of them? I show the alternatives and their benefits. People go home with a wealth of new information.

You have a cookbook, a tearoom, a catering business, and you give public talks. That’s not bad for a 23 year old. Any other ambitions?
I don’t necessarily want to limit myself to desserts. Maybe we’ll try to sell the nut milks that we make here commercially in stores. I also would like to make my business more inclusive and in the future employ people who are in any way challenged in the job market. Maybe, I’ll want to open other coffeeshops. I think I don’t want to do just Madam Bakster as brand. I’d also like to found a non-profit with the same vision. I’m very interested in initiatives that promote people actually getting together, offline. I think social media has become a kind of opinion industry where we constantly judge people for all sorts of things. And that’s just not conducive to a good conversation.

How viable is your business economically, with ingredients that are more expensive than average and you guys making your own milks and putting in a lot of manual labor?
It’s a challenge. But I’m an entrepreneur first, a baker second. I find entrepreneurship super exciting. Yes, we have some expensive source ingredients. And I do find it important to keep everything affordable. So, there’s a lot of fine tuning of recipes. The profit margin is not huge, and employees in Belgium are very expensive. Perseverance, I think, will be one of the keys to success, and flexibility to adapt to the market. I hope to some day be able to get the fruits of my labor and invest the money in other projects.

What would you recommend to starters?
Be rational: Test. Listen to customers and other people. Have a sound business plan. Check if there’s sufficient demand within your niche. Pay enough attention to a healthy financial bottom line, no matter how much of an idealist you are. Financial sustainability is important when you want to change things. Some people seem to think that when you try to do something with a good purpose, you shouldn’t make any money off it. I don’t think that’s a smart way of looking at things.
Another important thing is to never lose sight of your mission. The bigger a business gets, the further away the boss is from the base. I don’t ever want to lose touch with my initial motivations, with the essence. I really want to get out of bed every day and know why exactly I am doing this. Every week, I receive emails from people telling me I made a difference for them. That’s very gratifying.

 

Read more about why health arguments are important in my new book How to Create a Vegan World, now available worldwide on Amazon.

One reason why people may not like vegans: no one likes to feel that they are immoral

To many vegetarians and vegans it’s a mystery: we’re doing our best to be caring and compassionate towards all sentient life, and therefore choose to boycott eating animal products. Isn’t that something commendable? But then why do so many people seem to mock, criticize or even attack vegans and veganism?

Sure, at times we can be a little annoying. We may inconvenience omnivores by making them wait while we inspect labels, or by vetoing their choice of restaurant when we go out for dinner. But this doesn’t really explain the hostility and ridicule that we may encounter at times.

Part of what’s happening here is a phenomenon called do-gooder derogation, or the putting down of morally motivated others.

You may have experienced it yourself as a vegetarian or vegan: without even having said anything at all, meat eaters at the table may get defensive by making fun of you and your “diet”.

Why does this do-gooder derogation happen? The problem is that people will often feel that your behavior (i.e., your eating or being vegan) is an implicit condemnation of theirs (their eating meat). Morally good behavior seems to often come with an implicit moral reproach towards others.

According to researchers who have studied do-gooder derogation, “moral reproach, even implicit, stings because people are particularly sensitive to criticism about their moral standing (…). Because of this concern with retaining a moral identity, morally-motivated minorities may be particularly troubling to the mainstream, and trigger resentment.” The response to this threat to our moral identity, then, is to put down the source of the threat (Minson and Morin).

Merely thinking about how vegetarians see the morality of non-vegetarians can trigger the derogation effect. When meat eaters anticipate moral reproach by vegetarians – i.e., when meat eaters think that vegetarians would morally condemn them – they will tend to increase their derogation.

Now, the biggest problem that should concern us here is not that the ethical consumers (in this case, the vegans) are offended, ridiculed or treated badly, but that the denigrators themselves will be less committed to ethical values in the future. In other words, the negative comparison doesn’t just offend the vegans, but prevents the meat eaters – out of some kind of self protection – from taking steps towards veganism themselves (Zane).

So, to summarize, this is what may happen (worst case scenario).


This is obviously problematic for the spread of vegan values and behavior. So, here are my suggestions to avoid causing non-vegans to feel morally reproached, and thus to derogate vegans and veganism, and thus become more alienated from us and our message.

  1. Don’t “rub it in”. If people often feel guilty already, and experiencing moral reproach alienates them from us and our message, don’t add to their feeling of guilt or moral reproach by further guilt-tripping them. It won’t help (even though sometimes it might be fun or satisfying to us).
  2. Don’t only use moral messages and arguments. These can be problematic in the sense that they bring forth more do-gooder derogation than non-moral messages. Non-vegans feel less threatened by people who eat a plant-based diet for health reasons than by ethical vegans. This doesn’t mean you have to stop using ethical arguments; just that also talking about health (or taste) can be strategic and productive.
  3. Talk about your own imperfections. We can tell others some of the things we do while we know we shouldn’t. Maybe we talk about how we didn’t change overnight and needed some convincing ourselves. Or we can talk about other domains in which we’re doing less great. It’s important to show others that we’re not different from them, not some kind of alien species with a level of morality or discipline they could never attain.
  4. You may want to make explicit the distinction between the act and the person. Choosing to not eat animal products is a morally better choice, but that doesn’t mean that people who are still eating animal products are bad people.

Rather than adding to derogation, alienation and disempowerment, we can do our own part in creating connection and rapport with others.

(Read much more on effective communication in my new book, How to Create a Vegan World).

References

Stepping in other people’s shoes: those annoying gluten-free people

Those who follow my work a bit may know that I attach great importance to the ability to step outside of our own experience. This means that we’re trying to take the position of the people we want to reach. We’re trying to see how they view us, how they hear our message. To read more on this, see You are not your audience.

It’s not easy to put yourself in other people’s shoes and imagine what it’s like to be them, listening to us. What can help are thought experiments or situations in which someone else is to us what we are to non-vegans. I already wrote about the imaginary superlocavore vegans, who, because they go further than us “common” vegans, may engender in us some of the feelings of guilt, inferiority or accusation that we may cause among non-vegans. Here is a more realistic example of a situation that taught me something about how non-vegans may experience us and our eating habits.

Not so long ago, I had people over for dinner who had announced that they were allergic to gluten. I discovered some feelings and thoughts within myself which I thought might be quite similar to the feelings and thoughts that non-vegans have about me – particularly when they’d have me over for dinner.

Glutenfree cartoon

I discovered I didn’t quite know what the gluten-intolerant eat and don’t eat.
In spite of being confronted with the word and concept gluten-free like all the time, on product packaging, in restaurants, etc., I did not have sufficient knowledge on the topic to confidently make a glutenproof meal for my guests. I had to look stuff up. I found I was confused by the whole thing and when I googled it, I found terms like gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance, gluten allergy, celiac disease, etc. Gluten, it turned out, is not just wheat, but also grains like spelt, barley and rye. And what about oats, which are technically ok, but which often get contaminated with gluten. Was this contamination an issue too for my guests, or what?
We often raise eyebrows or even poke fun at non-vegans being slow on the uptake and think: “if it comes from an animal, I don’t eat it: is it that difficult to understand?” But maybe it isn’t that easy after all. A gluten intolerant person may wonder just as well: “How many more times do I need to explain this simple concept?” In both the domains of gluten free and animal free, there are different terms, different degrees of strictness, different motivations… It is maybe not as easy to understand as we think it is.

I was questioning my guests’ intentions
I don’t like it when people seem to think I’m requesting a vegan meal for some trivial reason. Sometimes, you can almost see non-vegans think that you’re doing it for the attention, to be special, to be part of the hype. It’s not fun. But I discovered I was doing a bit of the same thing with my guests. Why did they request to eat gluten free? Did they actually have a medical condition? If so, which one? Were they actually harmed by gluten, or was it maybe not all that bad? Or were they perhaps – god forbid – just following a trend?
I know, I shouldn’t do this. I should just honor their request. But this was the first time this happened to me, and moreover, I am not in the US, where every single dietary request is treated with the utmost respect. That kind of thing still has to blow over to most European countries. So, forgive me for being a rube here.

I was nervous about my cooking
I quickly went over the staple dishes that I cook for guests, and they all had gluten. I’d have to make something else. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but it was, at least, mildly annoying, and it made me slightly nervous. I couldn’t count on the sure-fire success of my usual concoctions. Somewhere a bit deeper in my mind, I was putting the blame for this, and for the risk of this night not being a culinary success, on them. I was even considering making something separate for them and me (and my girlfriend) so that at least we would have something I knew was going to be good.

These are some of the less and more rational, less and more selfish thoughts that went through my head. You may think: but the gluten free thing is so totally different from the vegan thing! In the vegan case, we have those great moral motivations, that very important ethos that people have to take seriously, right? Shouldn’t we just be crystal clear about our intentions, about the non-triviality of our motivations? Shouldn’t we just be unequivocal in our communication and uberconsistent in our behavior? Then, it will all be clear, right? And once it’s clear, our requests will always be honored, without question.

Well… I’m not entirely sure. It seems that for many or most non-vegans, it’s very hard to entirely grasp how important exactly those moral motivations are for us. For many, health concerns are easier to take seriously. Think about how the surest way not to get any dairy in your restaurant dish is by announcing you’re lactose intolerant (sure, that has to do with a restaurant’s liability too). But even in those cases, many of us – like bad bad me – may not automatically take people’s dietary requests entirely seriously, and may second guess their guests or customers. And as far as being consistent goes, I can tell you that if my guests would have said “oh, a little bit of gluten here or there doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it,” I would have been appreciative for the break they’d given me, rather than confused.

The point of all of this, again, is to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes. That may increase our understanding of them. And understanding where other people come from will almost always improve our appreciation of and our communication with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four degrees of separation: How to sell a vegan restaurant dish

Imagine a certain vegan dish in a restaurant. Let’s say it’s a dish called “Moroccan couscous”. Which of the following situations do you prefer?

When I ask what you prefer, the answer you give will of course depend on the criteria you use to assess these situations. Are you thinking about your own convenience? In that case, you may prefer option one: in vegan restaurants, there is no hassle, there are no queries, no risks, no uncertainties. If you can’t have a vegan restaurant, you may prefer your vegan dishes to be clearly and neatly separated from the other ones. A physically separate vegan menu may give you the feeling that you’re really being looked after here.
But of course, our own convenience isn’t the most important aspect here – at least it isn’t for me. Much more important is: how many people will order this vegan dish?

If we look at this criterion, then we may have to conclude that the vegan restaurant may not necessarily be the best option. There are, presumably, many people who never set foot in an exclusively vegan place. At least, they may not do so voluntarily (they may be dragged along by the vegan in the company). So, a vegan offering inside an omnivore place may – at this point in time – be able to confront more non-vegans with the vegan idea and option than a vegan restaurant can. (This is not to say that vegan restaurants don’t have any advantages – see Vegan Islands vs. Infiltrators.)

But also within the context of an omnivore restaurant, we have different ways of separating the vegan from the non-vegan. To what degree should we separate and identify vegan dishes?

A separate vegan menu (option 2), like I said, gives us a nice feeling, but I’m not sure if it’s very productive. The many restaurants in billionaire Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas hotels all have separate vegan menus, but as a customer, you have to know that. The waiters don’t offer this information spontaneously, so there is little chance that a non-vegan will order a vegan dish there.

The next degree of separation is a separate vegan section on the (same) menu (option 3). Is this an interesting option? Here’s where a new study, done at the London School of Economics, comes in. Behavioral science researcher Linda Bacon (I know) investigated if plant-based dishes were ordered more or less frequently when they were listed separately on a menu. The result was that in the case of a separate vegetarian section, the likelihood that these dishes were ordered dropped by a staggering 56%! (I’m assuming that the difference would be bigger still if the section carried the name “vegan dishes”).

One of the possible explanations is that a separate section may reinforce the idea among omnivores that vegetarian or vegan dishes are not for them. Imagine how you look at a section that says “gluten free” or “suitable for the lactose intolerant”. If you don’t belong in the category of people that prefers these foods or needs to eat this way, you may think that these dishes are not for you and, what’s more, lacking in something. Even worse than “vegan dishes” would obviously be a section titled “for vegans” or “for our vegan friends”. Even though this wording is rare (I have come across it), this is how most people think about vegan dishes: as dishes for vegans. In newspaper articles and reviews, vegan products, vegan fairs, vegan restaurants… are very commonly described as stuff for vegans. As vegans ourselves, we should be careful not to confirm this idea, and not automatically presume that whoever uses a vegan product, whoever is present at a vegan fair or a vegan talk… is a vegan. We are only confirming the separation between vegans and non-vegans that way.

So, at least if we’re just looking at sales figures, it seems, for now, that we shouldn’t separate vegan dishes on the menu. The next degree of separation is about incorporating the dish in the menu (option 4) while clearly labeling it. Here, of course, much will depend on the exact label we use. There are different possibilities: vegan, plant-based, vegetarian, meat-free, etc. Alain Coumont, founder of the world famous chain Le Pain Quotidien, prefers the term “botanical”. Also, different degrees of subtlety can be used. The label can be in small or big letters, bold or not, or we could put an asterisk (*) after the menu item and explain at the bottom of the page that these are vegetarian (vegan/plant-based…) dishes. I think we should not worry about the (in)convenience for vegans here. A vegan is used to scanning menus and looking out for these things. What matters, again, is how many people order the dish.

Finally, we can avoid separating vegan from non-vegan at all (option 5). This means not communicating at all that a dish is vegan. I’m guessing that this would maximize the amount of vegan orders. But there are some downsides to this. First of all, much less than the previous options, this is not convenient for vegans at all. More importantly, if vegans don’t patronize a restaurant because at first sight it doesn’t have any vegan options on the menu, we will not be able to help boost the restaurant’s sales of the vegan dishes, and thus, their commitment to offering them. In addition to that, many people may order these vegan dishes, but one could argue that if they don’t know a dish is vegan at all, it may be a missed opportunity (see also The Rise of the Stealth Vegan Restaurants).

Obviously, apart from the degree of separation and the labels we choose, there are many other factors that can influence customers’ choices. Apart from pricing, there is, for instance, the name of the dish. We can call a dish “Moroccan couscous with market fresh vegetables, toasted spices and fresh mint”, and make it sound so tasty that anyone might choose it.

As with many things, which choice is the best one is a matter of time. We can do more research and see what people want to order and eat. But if they don’t want to order vegan, that doesn’t just mean we should be careful with the label “vegan” (and separating the vegan from the non-vegan). It also means that we need to work more on the popularity and image of the term (assuming a term like “vegan” is a useful thing to have).

Ideally, vegan becomes an extremely positive term and thus a label that increases sales. We are not there yet, but we need to work towards this. The vegan movement can help with this too, in different ways. First of all, we should not see it as a negative thing when “vegan” becomes a trend, as seems to be happening in more and more places. We should appreciate any reasons why people choose vegan, even if those reasons may seem superficial to us. I think it’s not a good idea either if we go around saying how all of this has nothing to do with veganism (because veganism is about ethics, etc. – see “Don’t You Dare Call Yourself a Vegan). Every time someone orders a (good) vegan dish, for whatever reason, things happen. Restaurants notice the interest. And people have a good taste experience, and their hearts and minds open up a little bit more to all our moral arguments.

Thoughts on taste: Eating the Impossible Burger

Recently, during a visit to New York for the Reducetarian Summit, I had the opportunity to eat my very first Impossible Burger.

Impossible Foods, as you may know, is a company started by world renowned Stanford professor Patrick Brown, who, with his extensive knowledge of chemistry, set out to create the ultimate plant-based burger. Impossible Foods has raised 180 million dollars in venture capital to do this. Today, the burger is available in select locations in the US, and has received lots of media attention. It’s become something of a hype.

I had my Impossible Burger at Bareburger, a burger place near New York University (end of May 2017). While this restaurant was modest and low key, the burger is also available in more upscale establishments. My burger came with lettuce, onions, dill pickles, and a “special sauce”. Cheese and bun by default were not vegan, but I had those substituted. I had the burger with French fries and a glass of “American white”, as it was listed on the menu. The burger cost $13.95 or about $18 including tax and tip – definitely not cheap for this kind of food, even if it’s New York City.

This picture will not win any food photography contests, but it’s meant to show the meat-like texture of the Impossible Burger.

As you can see in the picture, the burger looks like and has the texture of very juicy minced meat. I would have preferred the product to have been cooked a little more: it almost seemed raw (looking a bit bloody indeed). I don’t know if this is according to Impossible Foods’ idea and instructions, or if this is the way Bareburger likes to make it (or even if it was just due to the chef, or completely accidental). In any case, if you’d do this with meat, you’d risk not killing the bacteria in it.
Most importantly: the taste. I quite liked it, but I detected some flavor or aftertaste that I’m less fond of. It’s hard to describe, but I would call it an “animal” or “earthy” flavor. I’d need to have the burger again to be sure that I wasn’t making this up, or that this flavor didn’t originate from something other than the burger.

So, how does it stand up compared to other vegan burgers? And is this product really such a breakthrough? It’s hard to answer these questions as someone who hasn’t eaten meat in over twenty years. The Impossible Burger is made to convince meat eaters. Vegans are not the primary intended audience, and indeed, only the vegans who could theoretically still appreciate the texture and taste of meat (the ones who don’t shy away from convincing imitations) need apply. To me, this burger certainly seemed the closest imitation to meat – both in terms of taste and texture – that I can recall. However, I have tasted many other vegan burgers that I enjoyed at least as much – but again, I’m not the target audience.

I also realized that by the time I sat down to have my first bite, I was already heavily biased. This burger is kind of the hottest thing under the sun in Vegan-country right now. And I was having it in the coolest place on earth: New York City. I was going to have an experience that hardly any one of my vegan friends back home had had. It would be very hard not to like it.

All this made me think of the role that basically irrelevant non-taste factors can play in a taste experience.

When companies spend a lot of money on advertising, they are not just making sure the public knows about their products existence. The advertisements also serve – very obviously – to create a certain positive image for whatever the company is selling (including their brand). This image can be built around all kinds of values, like coolness, innovation, exoticness, strength, safety and happiness. When people associate positive values (i.e., values they cherish) with the product in question, this will not just incite them to buy the product: in the case of food products, these value associations can also influence what they feel the product actually tastes like.

To see more clearly how taste experience can be influenced by non-taste factors and how this relates to plant-based foods, let’s briefly look at one study. A 2008 paper titled The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation concludes that what influenced study participants in how they rated the taste of foods was what they thought they had eaten rather than what they actually ate.
The setup was as follows: study participants were given either a beef sausage roll or a veggie roll. Some of those who got the veggie roll were told they got a beef roll, and some of those who got the beef roll were told they got a veggie roll. Researchers asked participants to fill out a questionnaire about how they rated the product they ate, but which also contained questions about values. What the researchers found was that especially the people who endorsed the values traditionally represented by meat (power, strength, virility…), would rate the meat item as better in taste… even when they thought they were eating meat but were actually eating a vegetarian product. Conversely, people who ate the vegetarian product but thought they were eating beef, would not rate the taste of the vegetarian product less than those who ate beef. “What influenced taste evaluation was what they thought they had eaten and whether that food symbolized values that they personally supported.”

The implication of this, of course, is that apart from getting the taste (and also texture, aroma, etc.) right, we also need to make sure that people associate plant-based products with values and ideas that they cherish. We need, in other words, to build a good image for meat alternatives. (Alternatively, we can try to change what values people find important, which is probably a slower way, but which, of course, can be necessary in some cases, as cherishing values like virility or power is not necessarily beneficial for individuals and society).

Even though we associate the words and concepts “vegetarian” and “vegan” with values like compassion, care, sustainability, etc, they are, in the minds of many other people, also associated with negative values and ideas. Vegans themselves can, of course, contribute to changing the ideas and values associated with veganism and vegan foods. But like it or not, commercial advertising, marketing, branding… can also help do that. They can help change the associations people have with animal product alternatives, and get them to consume more of them. The Impossible Burger, while impressive in taste and texture, is helping to create a better, trendier, more innovative image for plant-based foods.

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 per 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. 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 from 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.

Food
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, for making our trip even more enjoyable, informative, and effective, and for making this article more complete and correct.

Sources
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 and 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 networks. The list of organizations represented by the speakers is just as impressive: beyond the 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 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 to be 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 has, so far, not been 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 was 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!