Collaborating to change the world’s diet – a report from the 50by40 Corporate Outreach Summit in Berlin

The 50by40 Corporate Outreach Summit, organized by ProVeg International and the Humane Society of the US, took place April 27-29 2018 in Berlin. I consider it a milestone for the vegan movement. In this post, I’ll briefly sum up some of the things I learned, or remembered, or that I just want to share.

Participants at this conference were united by the “50by40” objective, which is the global ambition to reduce the production of animal products internationally by 50% by the year 2040. This goal is quite in line with (though slightly more ambitious than) the goals of organizations like Greenpeace, WWF and Compassion in World Farming, who have similar objectives. The summit was organized to get a big group of organizations in the vegan and animal rights movement together, and to build an international alliance to collaborate around achieving this goal. The motto of the conference was, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”.

This conference was probably the most international  vegan or animal rights conference I have ever attended, with people from over thirty different countries and six continents. Attendees were mostly staff members or core volunteers from organizations in their respective countries, with some academics thrown into the mix. While the groups present were mostly from the animal and vegan space (there were some environmental organizations, like Greenpeace, as well), the idea would be to create a broader platform in the future. There is a virtually unlimited number of players that could get behind the 50% reduction by 2040 objective, including health and environmental organizations, businesses and governments.

To me, this conference was in many ways a testament to our growing up and maturing as a movement. The people who were there, and the content of our talks, testified to an increasing professionalism, a focus on institutional impact, the development of our skills and expertise, and even on a growing awareness of turning inward and mastering our own inner demons (I’ll get back to this).

I started my own talk by telling the audience about an incident at a vegetarian conference in the (I think) eighties, where the vegetarian delegates got sick from eating undercooked beans and had to be carried off to the hospital. This little anecdote was meant to show how far we have come. There was a time when we couldn’t even get the food right at our own parties, and now some of us are showing the way to the Sodexos and Compasses and Aramark’s of this world! Which brings me to…

Caterers

This conference was indeed all about institutional change, about doing things with a big impact by reaching out to the right people. Some very impressive examples of this were given by Kristie Middleton and Ken Botts, both of HSUS. HSUS’ Forward Food program has by now trained 4000 culinary professionals, including people at some of the most prestigious schools. The program has helped switch over 350 million meals from animal-based to plant based, saving over 140 million animals.

Ken Botts is responsible for the first all vegan cafeteria in the US (possibly in the world), in a place no other than the University of North Texas! Building on that success, HSUS is now working together with Aramark and Compass, and will later also collaborate with Sodexo. This collaboration and training is not just happening in the US; HSUS is connecting their US contacts at each of these caterers with key employees from these companies in other countries. The program went from just US to international in merely one year. Ken Botts knew that having one local success story would allow them to work their way up the chain.

From Portugal and Nuno Alvim came another great example of institutional change. The Portuguese Vegetarian Society successfully lobbied for a law that makes a vegan option mandatory in all public cafeterias. Right now, fourteen percent of the meals consumed in hospitals, for instance, are plant based.

And then, there is Brazil. As if the Brazilians’ success with the Meatless Monday program (through which millions and millions of vegan meals are offered annually) is not enough – shoutout to Guilherme Carvalho from the Brazilian Vegetarian Society –  HSI (Humane Society International) has collaborated with a Bahia district public prosecutor to make sure that by 2019, the schools in four cities will be entirely plant based! Sandra Lopes from HSI Brazil told us that this collaboration will result in 23 million vegan meals a year, for 33.000 students, in 137 schools and daycare centers!

There were other examples and testimonials by Kristin Höhlig, Katleen Haefele and Paula Rassman about Proveg Germany reaching out to food services and schools, as well as by Mercy For Animals’ Alan Darer and Charlie Huson from HSI UK. Most of these speakers explicitly mentioned that the word ‘vegan’ is still scary or unattractive for their institutional partners, and that you can’t approach them with an animal rights message. It’s better to talk about plant based, plant protein or conscious eating…

Supermarkets and Restaurants

Institutional change is obviously not just about reaching out to the big catering companies. Mahi Klosterhalfen from the Albert Schweitzer Foundation in Germany told us about their ranking system for supermarkets, and how it helps to increase companies’ ambition by creating healthy competition among them. Melanie Jaecques from EVA in Belgium provided interesting figures from large scale research about meat consumption in Belgium, and presented a graph showing how meat consumption in Belgium seems to be dropping significantly faster than in other European countries (one of the not so many Belgian things I can be proud of).

Alison Rabschnuk from the Good Food Institute (US) talked about restaurant rankings. GFI’s observation is that there is tremendous opportunity in the out of home market to provide plant based foods. These efforts could be particularly rewarding as 33% of all sales in this market are realized by just the top one hundred restaurants. Alison emphasized that GFI is not mainly about making things easier for vegans (though that should be the eventual effect), but rather providing options for flexitarians. Actually, in their Good Food Scorecard, restaurants get extra points if they do not use words like vegan, vegetarian, or meatless (plant based is ok)! They recommend restaurants be as subtle as possible in their labeling.

Some caveats

We should not kid ourselves. The challenge is still enormous, and it’s not all rainbows and butterflies from here on. Leah Garces of Compassion in World Farming USA warned us about so-called false wins. More plant based food doesn’t necessarily mean less animal foods. Since their introduction of the vegan meatball, meat consumption in Ikea restaurants, for instance, has gone up. Reduction is not simple for companies. The most often heard objections from their side are that there is a lack of demand and that the products are still way too expensive. According to Leah, if we want to succeed, we’re going to have to be open to all kinds of solutions, including some we don’t like, like blended products (see this interview with Meatless’ Jos Hugense)

While Nathalie Rolland (Maastricht University) can mainly see benefits in clean meat, Arianna Ferrari took the devil’s advocate position on this topic. She said we have a tendency to overestimate the environmental advantages of clean meat and that life cycle analysis studies show a more modest picture. Neither should we fetishize technological progress, which has a long history of failures. And, we shouldn’t lose sight of the dangers and downsides of monopolies, patents, issues of distributive justice and access to innovations. Arianna also had questions about animal suffering and clean meat. Is a biopsy necessarily cruelty free? Could clean meat perpetuate the asymmetry between humans and non-humans? Her arguments didn’t entirely convince me, but it is good to have someone take a critical position on this important topic.

Rising in the East

I was very impressed by the presence of so many people and groups from East Asia, and I was moved by what is going on in that far-away corner of the world. Frando Hakuryu and Haruko Kawano talked about their work with Vege Project in Japan, and Mavis Chang and Charlene Yeh spoke about the veg outreach of the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, who were hosts of a CEVA Vegan Advocacy training that Melanie Joy and I did in Taiwan recently. We also heard about Goal Blue in China, and we had heard of several other East Asian groups the night before the conference. Hazel Zhang impressed me with her for-profit Veg Planet in China, which already has about fifteen paid staff and reaches a lot of people. The movement in East Asia is young, but it’s moving and growing. It’s also inspiring to see that more and more American or European groups are realizing the importance of working there, and are lending their support. What happens in the East won’t stay in the East; it will affect the entire world.

Who is the enemy?

Sebastian Joy, CEO of ProVeg International, spoke about “collective impact” and what is necessary for a successful alliance: a backbone organization providing the coordination; a common agenda; shared measurements; mutually reinforcing activities; and open and continuous communication.

Aaron Ross, who is coordinating the Open Wing Alliance (an international coalition working for better living conditions for chickens), talked about the challenges of working together within our movement. Vegans don’t seem to eat only plants, he said; they sometimes also end up eating themselves. Among the difficulties we have to overcome in working with other groups, Aaron mentioned logistics (coordination of resources and communication across the globe over many different time zones), ideology (what we define as vegan, what we accept from a company…), interpersonal differences (the chances of us not liking each other seems to increase over time), difficult personalities, or a lack of cohesion (too many cooks in the kitchen).

In my own talk, I explained that we can work together with basically anyone and that maybe our biggest enemy is… bad vegan food (thanks for that answer, Eve!). However, Aaron Ross gave a deeper and more interesting answer to the question “who is the enemy?”. The enemy, he said, is within. The enemy is our ego that makes it difficult for us, sometimes, to share victories or to credit each other. Sometimes, said Aaron, we seem to care more about our reputation than about helping animals.

Long time supporter and funder of the movement Ari Nessel gave the same answer to the enemy question. The enemy, as well as the solution, is us! In order to succeed, Ari said, it’s not enough to reach out; we also have to reach inside, and develop our heart and mind. Before and during the conference, Ari led several meditation sessions for participants. Even though I completely suck at meditation, I can see its usefulness for both personal and organizational development, and I’m really happy that he and other people are introducing this idea into our movement. We will, indeed, only be able to successfully work together on so huge an issue as ours if we become self-aware of our own less effective tendencies. And, more than that, maybe we can learn to see those who we think of as our enemies, as our allies. As people who, in the end, are in the same human boat.

Other interesting talks were given by Jimmy Pierson from ProVeg UK, explaining a new “Peak Meat” campaign, Jasmijn De Boo from Proveg International showing how many acquisitions of veg companies by meat companies we’ve seen in the last year or so, and why that is not necessarily a problem. Researcher Helen Harwatt explained a new accreditation scheme for companies that would take into account health, environment and animals. Pablo Moleman and Alexandra Kirsch from ProVeg spoke about lobbying companies to remove small problematic ingredients from their products, which could save a lot of animals. Mathias Rohra, ProVeg’s COO, is a man who has made the jump from the profit sector (he used to work at Coca Cola) to the non profit. We were all happy to see quite a few more people like him in the audience. Indeed, having people on board who know from experience how to speak the language of businesspeople is crucially important.

This conference felt like a beginning. A beginning of something new, something more powerful and stronger than we ever had before. I think that if the animals could see us, they would be proud and hopeful. And, I was glad to be part of this, and thank ProVeg and the Humane Society, and especially David Pedersen and Kristie Middleton, for making this possible.

It seems we have decided to go far by going together…

 

The Sentience Conference: glad to be human

Last weekend I spoke at and participated in the Sentience Conference in Berlin. This conference carried the wonderful motto “effective strategies to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings” (tell me, what is hotter than that?). The event was organized by Sentience Politics, an “anti-speciesist think tank” in the Effective Altruism community.

For those who are not familiar with it, Effective Altruism is a philosophy as well as a movement whose proponents apply scientific research and evidence to doing good. It’s about combining the heart and the mind to develop evidence-based strategies and tactics to reduce suffering. Topics that Effective Altruism as a movement prioritizes are: health (in the general sense, including the fight against malaria and other diseases), animal suffering, and potentially huge future risks for humanity (like artificial intelligence). A lot of attention is also given to meta-activism and meta-charities (like Givewell or, in our domain, Animal Charity Evaluators).

berlin
Photo by Cyril Schirmbeck

As some effective altruist ideas are different from mainstream thinking and can potentially stir up some serious discussions, three tips were given at the opening of the conference:

1. Be open.
2. Follow the evidence and the argument wherever it leads.
3. Consider the possibility that you are wrong (that the strategies you are pursuing are not the right ones).

I think these are excellent and apply for all of us at any time, no matter what we are discussing. But if there was any fear about people fighting about things they feel very passionate about, that fear proved (as far as I know) to be ungrounded. If we’re open minded, we can think and discuss freely, and disagree with each other without any nastiness. It’s one of the (many) wonderful things about human beings at their best.

While the content of the talks provided the intellectual stimulation that I love so much, at the same time my heart was warmed by the obvious commitment of the almost 300 participants present there. It is at moments like these, when you see so many people together to learn about helping others, that, in spite of everything we humans manage to get wrong and destroy, you feel glad to be human, and glad to be able to help in your little (or big) way. It is at moments like these that, in spite of the enormity of the challenge ahead of us, you know that all our efforts are, slowly but inevitably leading to incredible change… for all sentient beings.

Here are some highlight ideas for me…

If you want to test your own open mindedness, the controversial topic of “wild animal suffering” – which got quite some attention at the conference – might be a good one. It’s mainly thanks to my involvement in the Effective Altruism movement that I have come to see the suffering of animals in the wild as a very important topic. Should we help animals suffering from cold, hunger, thirst, natural disasters, sickness, parasites, or even… predation? And if we agree we should do something about it, can we? I’ll write about this fascinating topic some other time.

Being involved in the EA movement also helped me to re-appreciate the issue of suffering. In the vegan movement, concern about suffering (as opposed to concern about rights or autonomy) is sometimes frowned upon. “Welfarist” has almost become a term of abuse. We think we should be about rights and liberation first.
In the end, I think I want to be mostly concerned about the suffering of animals, while rights and autonomy to me are secondary. I would rather see an animal who is happy but not autonomous (e.g., chickens in a big yard, living out their lives), than entirely free animals who are living an often miserable life in the wild. Animals, in certain circumstances, may not know they are confined (for their own good). The concept of autonomy and freedom probably doesn’t mean to them what it means to us, humans. This is one example where it’s good not to anthropomorphize animals too much. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can use animals for our own purposes if we give them good lives.

A third idea I was confronted with again was that we can spare more animals with our wallet than with our own personal diet or consumption. One estimation is that with a one thousand dollar donation we can spare more animals than with a lifetime of being vegan. This doesn’t mean being vegan is not useful (indeed, I am guessing over 95% of the conference participants were vegan), but it means we shouldn’t lose sight of 1. the relative importance of being vegan, and 2. the difference we can make with our donations (or – if you don’t have money to spare – with our time/activism).

If you would like to hear a conclusion about what strategies work best, the best answer for now seems to be that there is a lot of uncertainty (because there is not enough research). In the face of this uncertainty, “strategic pluralism” seems to be a good approach. While not all strategies are created equal and some will undoubtedly be better than others, it is okay for now to let many of them thrive and see where they take us, until we have more evidence and information.

To prevent any of us from getting lost in strategy and overanalyzing things, without actually doing stuff, Nick Cooney, in his keynote address, told us to focus on doing rather than thinking. An idea in itself, he said, is worth nothing if it’s not executed. Both doing without thinking and thinking without doing are tricky. Ideally, of course, we combine the two, just like ideally we combine the heart and the mind, and become… effective altruists.

PS Videos of the talks should be online soon.