In 1906 American journalist Upton Sinclair published his book The Jungle. With it, he wanted to raise awareness about the terrible working conditions and lives of immigrant workers in the meat industry in his country. Sinclair wanted to create outrage about this situation and thus hopefully improve the lives of these workers. The Jungle’s main effect, however, was altogether different from Sinclair’s intentions. Rather than being angry at the working conditions, the general public was shocked and disgusted at the hygiene and health safety issues and hazards that Sinclair had described. This famously led Sinclair to say: “I aimed at their heart, but accidentally hit them in the stomach”.
It’s an interesting statement, and one that to some extent may be applicable to the outreach and campaigns of people concerned about how humans treat farmed animals. The animal protection/vegan movement – in essence a moral movement that wants to reduce suffering and create justice for all sentient beings – also aims at the heart, trying to increase people’s compassion for animals. Usually, what animal protection groups expose with their undercover investigations are horrific living and dying conditions of the animals, with the aim to make people care. Sure enough, these investigations often create a lot of outrage, and undoubtedly help shift attitudes or can lead to legal reforms. I believe they can be very useful.
Still, I wonder if the general public might feel stronger still about unsafe and/or disgusting foods than about “immoral” foods – which means that the political effect of this kind of outrage might be bigger. Here’s an example of some time ago: in 2008, an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) showed “workers kicking sick cows and using forklifts to force them to walk”. There was some outrage over these practises, but the real kicker was that the video raised concerns about the safety of meat. Some of this particular product had ended up in school lunches. Consequently, HSUS’s investigation led to one of the largest meat recalls in US history – which, economically, is of course not a good thing for the meat company in question, or for meat consumption in general. It seemed that in this case, like Upton Sinclair, HSUS had aimed for the heart but kicked in the stomach.
So what if some animal groups, in addition to spreading awareness about cruelty and injustice, would also consciously, intentionally aim for the stomach and try to expose practises that, instead of being (just) immoral or cruel, are (also) unsafe, unhygienic or downright disgusting? (these may look like different aspects, but they all boil down to the idea that these products might be unsafe to eat)
In general, animal-based foods are usually much more able to trigger a reaction of disgust or danger in humans than plant-based foods (that’s presumably evolutionary adaptive, as the risk of infections from organisms that are closer to us is greater). If you go through lists of the most disgusting foods, you’ll find that the animal foods feature much more prominently than plant-based foods (see for instance this disgusting list). Of note is also that there’s a whole body of literature about disgust. There might be a relationship between moral and physical disgust, though as far as I know there is no consensus about the direction of the relationship (i.e whether moral beliefs are caused by physical disgust, or the other way round).
As food safety requirements for companies increase, hygienic conditions may be less and less of an issue, and certainly we will no longer come across circumstances as described by Sinclair in his book. But even if they are not present, the production process of some animal foods is so disgusting that showing the bare naked truth could potentially have a big impact. Here, for instance, is a video showing how gummy bears are made (using gelatin, an animal-derived product). Here’s one showing how hot dogs are made.
While undercover investigators bravely roam through factory farms, slaughterhouses or meat processing plants, they could seek to collect coverage that creates disgust or reactions around food safety. They could pass on this coverage to other organizations or anymously to the press if this is not close enough to their own core business. And animal protection organizations could help spread coverage made by other groups or individuals.
I see many meat eaters still commenting how nasty meat alternatives look, taste or feel. At the same time, they’re chewing on pieces of an animal’s body, that usually went through a pretty disgusting process. One of the reasons many or most people are not disgusted by eating the meat of an animal is that the product, both physically and in terms of its image, has been sterilized. Maybe can help de-sterilize it and help create the physical and moral disgust that decent human beings are bound to feel when they are even thinking about eating the bodies of mistreated creatures.
PS: One caveat: I’m not in favor of vegans making unsubstantiated or exaggerated health claims about animal products. We shouldn’t say things that are not true just because they’re disgusting and will get a lot of clicks. Saying that milk contains pus is an example of that. I believe in the long run dramatic claims may do more bad than good.
Early 2019, my girlfriend Melanie and I exchanged our city of Ghent, Belgium for the countryside. Belgium is a very small and very densely populated country, so you’re never really far from civilization. We’re certainly not in the middle of nowhere, but we do live amidst the fields and forests, and have our own six acre forest as a backyard. One of the reasons for the move (which I’m aware is not the most environmentally friendly thing to do), was that Melanie wanted to have a lot of room for rescued (and adoptable) animals. While she does structural work for animals in a vegan non-profit organization, she feels she wants and needs direct contact with animals, and she’s very good at helping, rescuing or healing animals in need. All of this boils down to the fact that since our move, individual animals – both domesticated and wild – are much more a part of my life. In this article I want to write about some things that I have observed in terms of dilemmas in dealing with animals, and especially about the wellbeing of wild animals.
All creatures, wild and not so wild Right now, the animals that live on our domain can be divided in four groups:
rescued farmed animals: chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, rabbits. Most of these come from (factory) farms where they were raised for food. A group of chickens was used for animal testing in an animal production research facility (and later released). There are also some adopted peacocks. All of these critters live in our yard in closed off areas (I’ll get into why they are not roaming in our forest later).
rescued companion animals: two dogs and five cats. They come from shelters and now live in the house, with the option to go to the yard. These are the only animals we already had in our previous home in the city.
rescued wild or semi-wild animals, like ducks and the pheasant Lady Gaga. They come from a wildlife rehabilitation center and were set free in our yard, where they now live by themselves.
wild animals that are naturally around: foxes, squirrels, martens, rats, pigeons, crows, bats, salamanders, frogs, all kinds of birds (like crows, pigeons, owls…), and of course tiny animals like insects and worms. Also the occasional deer that jumps over the fence.
Caring about wild animals The animals in the fourth category are largely out of our control and for many people also should be out of our control. “Nature” or “the wild” seems to be a fundamentally different sphere than the domesticated sphere. What happens in nature, so these people believe, should stay in nature. Humans should not interfere and should just allow nature to take its course.
My view is slightly different. Apart from the fact that we often do influence nature and wild animals, I believe that we should be concerned with what happens in nature whether we have an impact there or not. The different groups of animals I listed above have different relationships with us, and with people in general, but the one thing that they all have in common is that they are sentient, no matter how and where they live. Being sentient is the main relevant criterium for me to care or not care about what happens to someone or something. And so I obviously care about the wellbeing not just of my dogs and cats, or the pigs in the factory farms, but also of the animals in the wild. When they suffer, I care about their suffering, whether the cause of their suffering is humans or nature. I’ve heard some animal advocates even call it speciesist not to care about the suffering of wild animals, because we would care, for instance, about a human tribe in the Amazon that has had no contact with the rest of the world, but is suffering horribly. We would tend to interfere.
I had been reading about wild animal welfare for a couple of years, but the move to the countryside has made the plight of wild animals much more concrete for me. In the rest of this article, I’ll list some examples of confrontations with especially wild animals, and confrontations between wild and domesticated or rescued animals that made me think and that might make you think as well. This is a controversial topic. I suggest you try to practise slow opinion.
There are the foxes One night not long after our move to the countryside, when me and Melanie were watching Netflix, our two dogs suddenly started barking at someone or something outside. Normally we don’t even look up from this, but that night they sounded angrier than usual. Through the window we saw, right on the corner of our property, two foxes. We had been warned by the previous owners and neighbours that their chickens and geese had been taken by foxes, so we were fearing the day they would discover our own flock. As my girlfriend went to the porch and shooed the animals away, I remember thinking that there were only a few options, all of them bad for someone who likes animals and is concerned with their wellbeing:
a. the foxes will catch some of our chickens b. we manage to protect our chickens, but the foxes will get to someone else’s chickens, or will catch other animals c. the foxes won’t catch chickens or enough other food and their young (extremely cute animals) will starve to death
And I thought: this system sucks.
We knew it was a matter of time before the foxes would come back. About a year later, they attacked the fenced off chicken-area (we have three of them) that is the furthest from the house. Previously, a roommate had stayed in a caravan right next to it, together with her two dogs, but because of Covid-19, she had chosen to live somewhere else. The dogs being gone was probably the reason that the foxes took their chance. This was also the only area where the coop didn’t have a locked door, so the chickens could come outside in the early morning as they wished. One morning, my girlfriend found several dead roosters and saw that several more had disappeared. In total, we lost six that night. We felt it was best to not bury the ones that the fox had left behind, but just leave the dead bodies for the predator to pick them up, so that they could still serve as meals.
We have since further secured that area with an electrical fence, and my girlfriend makes sure the chickens are inside every night and opens the door manually in the morning (the two other coops have automated doors, but we can’t find one big enough to allow entrance and exit for big roosters). In principle all the birds should be safe from the foxes now, except for the ducks. We’ll hope they’ll have the good sense (and the time) to retreat to the middle of one of the ponds when they see a fox. We also plan to build a little island for them (as an aside: the island should not have a coop on it because then the ducks might lay eggs where we wouldn’t be able to get to them, so we’d be bringing even more animals into the world).
Rats and the problem of thriving Predation on our rescued animals is not the only issue we face. Take the example of rats. We naturally attract rats because the feed for our chickens is all over the place (the rats even climb up to the bird feeders and eat all the food we put out for the wild birds!). Recently we found a nest of little rats – extremely cute. A couple of rats is not a problem, but we don’t want to be inundated with them. This too, sucks: when a population does well and thrives, it may easily get too big. This blew my mind, but under ideal conditions, two rats can be responsible for – wait for it – up to fifteen thousand descendants in one year! There are several ways for an animal population to be kept in check, and none of them is really good. Basically, when a population thrives, this will attract predators (whose population will grow) to feed on them. Or – in case the predators are absent or too low in numbers – the population might become too big for the resources available and individuals will die through lack of food. And then of course there’s also diseases etc. that may decimate them in painful or less painful ways. In the case of our rats, with their reproduction rate, neither of these – in themselves cruel – solutions will work, so us humans will probably have to do something. We obviously don’t want to use poison. We have caught some young rats with a live trap, and released them a couple of miles further on, but it seems we won’t catch any more now. They’re very intelligent creatures.
If we can’t catch them and if we don’t want to kill them, it’s back to the other solutions. Some could be caught by predator birds, and our dogs and cats might catch one or two. These methods may give ourselves more peace of mind as we are not the ones doing the killing. We sort of delegate the task to other creatures who have no moral agency and therefore it can’t be considered a bad deed. But are the rats themselves any better off? While there is no real problem with other animals catching rats, it can still be painful or stressful for the rats to die that way. One exception is when predators catch animals that are already suffering. The most humane way to deal with overpopulation, it seems to me, is contraception. Making sure individuals are not born seems always a kinder solution than killing the ones that are already alive. I need to investigate where we are with rat contraception, and if there’s any product that can do the job for us in a way that has as little side effects as possible.
Anyway, again, this system sucks.
Of squirrels, crows and owls There are other things going on in our yard besides foxes attacking chickens and rats getting too numerous. We’ve sat on the edge of our seat watching baby squirrels learn the ropes and be too adventurous in the trees with too little experience. The first time we saw one of the creatures fall, he or she survived by landing on a pack of leaves. But at a later moment we found a young dead squirrel on the forest floor. We know that the crows that are flying around have the horrible habit of making their prey defenseless by going for the eyes with their beaks. We actually heard a story of a hobby farmer (not a fan, obviously) who had to stop breeding his rarebreed pigs because the crows were attacking their eyes! On several occasions we found dead pigeons, and once a dead owl – maybe he’d eaten a poisoned rat somewhere in the area – on the forest floor. We regularly find a bunch of feathers, a testimony to an attack by a predator. Bats apparently catch up to 8.000 insects in one night (do we care about them?). If the bats come out of hibernation too early, however, and there not enough insects yet, they may die of starvation. A special dilemma – one caused by humans this time – is the situation with the fish. There are carps in one of the ponds, put out there by one of the previous owners to fish on. The carps would not naturally be there, and are not exactly good for the pond. They would also not be good for attracting more of the rare fire salamanders that we’ve spotted on two occasions. But what to do with the carp now that they are there? Very rarely our own presence in nature is to blame for some casualties: we have seen our cats catch the occasional bird or rat, like I said, and we’ve seen some birds flying against our windows. All in all, I like to think that our presence is overall positive, and we take care of this piece of land as well as we can (we certainly do it more responsibly than previous owners).
I’m sure that as time goes by, I’ll unfortunately gather more examples of things going on in the trees, in the brush, in the ground… Things that I probably don’t even want to know.
Chickens and their eggs Let me come back to the topic of population size one more time. My girlfriend has been rescuing animals – mainly cats – for years, and we are acutely aware of how many animals need help. We obviously try not to help bring more domesticated animals into this world. Still, our rescued chickens are a problem in themselves. Hens are going to lay eggs (I can put up a whole philosophical discussion about what a vegan does with the eggs, but that’s not what this article is about), and if you don’t watch out, before you know it you’ve got a hen brooding on her eggs somewhere and then suddenly appearing with a small army of little chicks. One could of course opt not to have a roosters so the hens’ eggs can’t be fertile, but the presence of a rooster is good for the flock of hens (the rooster will protect the hens and will help look for food). And obviously, there are also roosters in need of adoption, so they need a place too. When there’s a rooster among the flock, you’ll get fertile eggs (sterilizing roosters is not (cost)efficient). The next possible step is to try to prevent the chicken from sitting on her eggs until they hatch. That’s easy to do if the chickens live on a small area, but when they have ample space with a lot of brush and trees to hide in, it’s a challenge. So without wanting it, all of a sudden we had eight extra creatures to take care of. It’s funny how as soon as they are in the world, you feel responsible for them, and want to protect them from the rats and the owls and other predators. My girlfriend built an extra coop to protect them. So far, we lost two (to unknown predators). One can imagine how many of them don’t survive their first days or weeks or months when they are born in the wild.
Animals living under the protection of humans This brings me to a last but important point: the benefits for animals of living together with humans. Humans can do horrible things to nature and to animals. But as should be clear, nature itself, without humans being present, can also be a bloody and messy place, with beings preying upon each other in the most ferocious ways, thus keeping each other’s population in check. It is hard to assess how high, on average, the wellbeing of animals in the wild is, how often they feel good and how often they feel bad, how intense and how prolonged the periods of suffering can be. But what I think is starting to become clear to me is that animals living together with humans, in a form of symbiosis, might possibly have the best lives of all. I think our chickens are generally better off than their wild counterparts. Ours have ample food and water, they get protection from predators (in so far as we’re successful), they get medical care when they need it, are protected from the elements (my girlfriend has put a large bunch of them in the garage at night, during periods of intense heat)… We don’t take anything from them, but if in some cases people trade all of that for eggs, for instance, I’m not sure if that’s a problem. Yes, they are not free to go literally anywhere they want, like a wild animal might be free (although that freedom is still relative), but I am assuming that given a large enough space to live, they might care less about that lack of freedom – which in optimal cases maybe they don’t even experience – than they would mind being painfully wounded or killed by predators or suffering through the absence of enough food or water, or medical problems.
Side note: even without the presence of foxes in our area, we would not let the chickens (and rabbits) roam freely in our forest instead of keeping them in the fenced off areas. Melanie noticed that, when the chickens were initially roaming free, they were catching wild frogs. The rabbits on their part were in danger of eating plants that are toxic for them. And so we put them in fenced areas both for their own good and for the good of other animals. So it’s interesting to note that we made a decision for them, and that in the case of the chickens, our concern for the frogs led us to put the chickens in a smaller space (still quite large) than they otherwise might have. We could of course also make the choice to “allow” the chickens to eat the frogs, but it seems we don’t want to be responsible for that.
Some preliminary conclusions Being close to nature and animals, both wild and domesticated, confronts one with a picture that is much more complex than the picture that many animal advocates have from just dealing with animal rights and ethics in theory. I find that the dilemmas are plentiful, particularly if you take the wellbeing of wild animals seriously, and that there is still plenty of room for doubt, nuance, thinking, research, and new inventions.
Let me give you some of my preliminary takeaways from these concrete observations, as well as from my own decade long consideration of these topics.
Nature is in many ways astounding, awe-inspiring, beautiful, wild, and many other things. But at least for many individuals through big parts of their lives, nature is not idyllic. It’s not a peaceful garden out there. If there’s a god who made it all, I think he or she didn’t really know what they were doing. Or they were drunk when they made it.
Wild animal welfare, and especially the absence of it, matters. We may not be the cause of the suffering, and the cause of the suffering may be in most cases a-moral (no moral agency involved), but that doesn’t make it less harmful for the creatures suffering.
We may not be able to do much about it at this moment, but we should have an open mind regarding searching and finding solutions in the future, technological and otherwise. Some forms of suffering will always exist, other forms of suffering we may help diminish, for instance through more efficient birth control schemes.
While humans do an incredible amount of harm to animals, there are also benign humans, who, no matter their faults and shortcomings, try to be loving, caring, well-informed and well-intentioned towards all sentient beings. They might provide some animals with a life that’s better than a life in the wild, and this kind of symbiosis might provide for some of the best lives that can be found on this planet.
Dreams Conscious creatures in the wild have eaten each other and been eaten by each other for as long as they’ve existed. They have suffered adverse natural circumstances since they first appeared. Homo sapiens, the top predator, obvioulsy wreaks a lot of havoc on the natural world. But what is also true is that this same Homo sapiens is the first being who is aware of the scale of the suffering that is going on within nature, and that some individuals of our species are researching how we can possible make things a little better for the animals in the wild.
I am fully aware (there is really no need to tell me) that nature is an incredibly complex system, that interfering in it could cause more harm than it solves, and that we have interfered in nature many times with very bad consequences. I’m also fully aware that what humans are doing towards animals, in factory farms and beyond, is the worst, and needs to be tackled first. The dilemmas I listed should not paralyse us in tackling priorities.
And yet, I dream of nature being one day a better place for all who live in it, wild or domesticated.
And I like to think that things like these begin in dreams.
PS: I’m not a biologist, animal behaviorist, or philosopher – I am nothing, frankly – so if you spot any mistakes, or have tips to improve the lives of the animals we live with, let me know in the comments!
Leah Garcés is the director of Mercy For Animals, and previously launched and headed Compassion in World Farming in the United States. Recently, Leah also published the book GRILLED: turning adversaries into allies to change the chicken industry (Bloomsbury, 2019). In it, she tells about her own fight to help end factory farming. I found it a great read, and was particularly inspired by how she has worked together with the industry to help help make things better for animals, and create a new food system.
Vegan Strategist: Chickens seem to have everything against them: they are small (so that many more of them are eaten than cows or pigs). Consuming their meat seems not as unhealthy as eating red meat. And they seem less problematic environmentally than the bigger farmed animals. Plus, it’s harder to feel empathy for them. What is the best way forward towards helping them? Leah Garcés: Before I answer this question, I think it’s worth noting that consuming chickens is hugely damaging to our health and to the environment. It’s actually even more harmful to both than eating beef is; the chicken industry contributes more to growing rates of antibiotic resistance, for example, and due to the number of chickens raised in the United States and the way their waste is managed, the chicken industry is a major (largely unregulated) polluter. Too often, we look at environmental impact only through the lens of greenhouse gas emissions. But all the arable land used to grow feed for farmed animals is also destroying precious ecosystems—in Brazil, for example.
Because the vast majority of land animals raised for food are chickens, helping them means transforming our entire food system, which is no small task! Our theory of change for chickens involves encouraging companies to improve how chickens in their supply chains are treated while compelling them to remove chicken from their menus and add plant-based products. We can do this in so many ways. We can show companies that relying on factory-farmed birds is a major risk, both because the system is inherently weak and because consumers are demanding better choices. By working with chicken farmers, we can help them find a way out of the exploitative contracts binding them to major poultry companies––and help them transition to growing crops, like beans or hemp. We can leverage our supporter base and social media audience to support plant-based companies and restaurants that serve their products.
Suppose you had to make an elevator pitch for the chicken. What would it sound like? Did you know chickens have superpowers? They can see colors we can’t see and orient themselves in the earth’s magnetic field. They can count and do math when they are one day old! Chickens can see both close and far away at the same time. They empathize, deeply feeling the joy, fear, and pain of their flock mates and babies. We often overlook them just because they’re different from us. But they’re truly remarkable and worthy of our love, respect, and protection—just as much as our companion animals.
Most of your book is about animal protection advocacy, but you also spend a significant part on the new alternatives that are being developed, including cultured meat. Which of the two are you expecting to have the most impact in the coming days? Have you ever been tempted to get involved in the business side? I really don’t see it as a binary choice. I see the advocacy as the why and the plant-based and cultured meat market as the how. One cannot exist without the other. It’s a mistake to think that a business solution alone can liberate animals from our food system. Businesses don’t emerge and succeed in a bubble. Plant-based and cultured meat businesses emerge and evolve because we’ve succeeded at two things: We’ve steadily increased the external cost of animal products through welfare measures, and we’ve raised awareness of the cruelty, environmental degradation, and injustices of our current protein-production model. As advocates, we create enormous social capital for these products. Imagine if a soda company had the kind of social capital that the plant-based meat companies have, where nonprofits literally demand and action that you not only exist but dominate. It is a dream come true for a business and will accelerate their success. Now think of the reverse—precisely what is happening to soda. Imagine nonprofits opposing your business. Advocates create and take away social capital. Businesses succeed and fail by this social capital. Advocacy groups play a critical role in accelerating and shaping market change and, ultimately, the success of plant-based meat, dairy, and eggs. I am 100 percent confident that they must continue this effort for many years to come. Otherwise these businesses won’t be successful.
While I have been tempted to go into the business side of things, I think many people have the skills to do that, and they don’t have to be passionate about animal rights. I believe I’m uniquely useful as a strategist and advocate for animals.
You tell the stories and tactics of different parties in your book. Some are more aggressive than others. How do you feel about aggressive versus more diplomatic campaigning, and on what basis should activists choose between them? We need many different pressures and interventions to succeed, especially when we are trying to change such a big system, like our food and farming system. It’s good to have an array of strategies working in tandem to exert pressure from all angles. You should choose what you are good at, what you feel bears the highest impact, given your unique skills. For me and Mercy For Animals, it’s always been a mix of both sides of the spectrum. I believe we should always offer dialogue first—it’s more efficient, for one. But if that doesn’t work, then undercover investigations and campaigns are necessary to force that dialogue.
What’s your answer to the perennial objection to welfare improvements that they could lead people to become complacent and hence that this would not be helping us towards the abolition of animal agriculture? There are two reasons for campaigning for welfare improvements and no reason to leave these improvements in the hands of individual consumers. We spend too much time considering individuals and not enough time the systems that people make choices in. The first reason welfare improvements are important is the animals themselves. Imagine you were a prisoner in a terrible prison on death row. Would you want people to advocate just for an end to the death sentence or also for improved conditions in your terrible prison? You would want both, and the 81 billion animals trapped in factory farms globally today want both. Abolishing the whole system will take time. In the meantime, we owe it morally to these animals to reduce their suffering. The second reason is that welfare improvements bring up the price of meat, dairy, and eggs. The laws of economics are clear on this point: As price goes up, demand goes down. In fact, few things drive demand more than price. So clearly the price has to go up for people to eat fewer animals, and the alternatives need to be cheaper than the animal-based versions and as easily available.
You write: “I’d be accused time and time again—by both animal activists and the companies that contracted these farmers—of being too sympathetic toward factory farmers, of having the wool pulled over my eyes.” Can there ever be truth in that? If so, how – being so close to them – one avoids being smothered or seduced into accepting measures and initiatives that don’t mean much? As advocates for change, we do need to be sensitive about which animal welfare policies we accept and promote and recognize which are insufficient. I keep this top of mind during my negotiations.
I am up-front with farmers and meat industry executives about my end goal—to create a plant-based world—but they also understand that I’m excited to see incremental progress on animal welfare and plant-based innovation. It’s a constant balancing act, but I’m very happy with the results of this approach: extensive media coverage, corporate and legal progress, and bringing in allies outside the animal protection movement.
You talk about finding common ground. I’m guessing it would be much more difficult to find any common ground for activists who don’t want to talk about or appreciate welfare improvements? I don’t think that’s true. In fact, after many years of building a relationship with Perdue, the company began exploring plant-based alternatives to their chicken products. Jim Perdue himself said, “Our vision is to be the most trusted name in premium protein.” He didn’t say “premium animal protein.” That is hugely significant. While some might not like welfare improvements, you have to recognize that the pressure to explore plant-based protein emerged from welfare improvement discussions. I see plant-based protein work as a natural extension of welfare improvement work.
You didn’t really find evil or badness at the level of the farmers. I guess then it’s tempting to think that the evil can be found one level up, with the business people directing the farmer. But did you find it there? I didn’t find anyone I was able to have a conversation with inherently evil. Where many activists might see the meat industry as a monolithic beast to be destroyed, we could instead see lots of individuals just like you and me, just trying to do their jobs. These individuals want, for the most part, to behave well, but they’re constrained by economics. The key is to hack that economic formula with a solution in which everybody wins. People who were willing to talk and listen were genuinely interested in learning and making progress. They often didn’t know how, and that’s where I tried to be useful. However, many companies and executives have refused to pick up the phone, meet me, or answer an email. They are not ready or willing to admit that change is needed in our food and farming system. So in those cases we have to use things like investigations or campaigns to help achieve dialogue. But I almost always find that once we get to that conversation, to sitting at the table together, far more possibilities for progress exist than either of us initially thought.
You write: “In order to end factory farming, we cannot ignore these farmers and their struggles. We must create a future with them in it.” How do you see their future? What options do they have? Instead of thinking about how I could put factory farmers out of a job, I started to consider how I could find them different jobs, like growing mushrooms or hemp. In fact, a farmer I later worked with made just such a switch. When Mike Weaver of West Virginia became fed up raising chickens, we teamed up to film and expose what was really happening behind the closed doors of his warehouses. But Mike didn’t stop there. It turned out his chicken farm wasn’t much different from the farms needed to grow hemp. Now Mike grows hemp, an environmentally friendly way to stay on his land and pay the bills. It’s the ultimate win-win and one Mike, the once chicken factory farmer, and I, the vegan animal rights activist, can both get fully behind.
You write: “It soon became clear to me that they were trapped by the factory-farming system, just like their chickens were.” Can you tell us something about the lives of farmers, that can make us, vegans and animal activists, more sympathetic towards them? What was it especially that moved you? When I met Craig Watts, he’d been factory farming chickens for 22 years for Perdue, the fourth-largest chicken company in the United States. When Craig was a young adult, he searched for a way to stay on the family land that had been passed down for five generations, in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. Very few jobs were available, so when Perdue came to town and offered him a contract to raise chickens, it was like a dream come true. He took out a $250,000 loan to build the chicken houses. Perdue paid him for each flock he raised. With that money, he began paying off the loan.
But soon the chickens became sick—after all, this was a factory farm. He struggled to pay off his loan. When the chickens got sick, they died, and you don’t get paid for dead chickens. So while the paychecks got smaller, the bills kept coming. Soon he wanted out. But he was all but an indentured servant. He hated raising chickens, but if he stopped, he’d risk losing everything.
By the time we met, he’d reached a breaking point—his birds were sick, and payments seemed never-ending. He also realized that he couldn’t live with Americans not knowing the truth about how chickens were treated. I had been very scared to meet Craig. But when I listened to Craig’s story—his struggles and his own surprising hatred for the system—my fear dissipated and something else replaced it: shame. He was the kind of person I had spent my whole career angry at, blaming, and ready to fight. It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met. I’d not once considered his strife or asked myself, “Could he be an ally?” Craig felt trapped. If I could offer him a way out, he’d take it. The experience really changed my perspective on how to solve hard problems.
Is/was it hard for you to bring up this collaborative attitude or did it come naturally to you? My nature is very practical and oriented toward goals and solutions. But at points I just carried anger. Anger usually doesn’t get me anywhere except tired and pessimistic. I have studied and read a lot about nonviolence as a strategy for achieving social justice. Gandhi and King followed this principle, and many scholarly articles and books about this are very useful to the work we do. Ultimately, I always wanted to make progress toward a goal, even if only in small steps. This meant finding points of agreement wherever I could and people committed to our commonality and that progress.
You write: “Now that I had kids, I didn’t want to waste any time doing anything else except helping farmed animals.” I’d say many parents might withdraw after having kids, yet you seem to have doubled down on your target? When I had kids, something switched in me. Time became very, very precious. Children have a way of making you realize that life is passing by much more quickly than you’d realized and life is short. If I wanted to make an impact, if I wanted to leave the world better than I’d found it, there was no time to waste. It forced me to ask questions of myself: What is my purpose in my life? The answer is to reduce suffering. So I looked for where the most suffering was and where I was uniquely positioned to reduce that suffering. I had witnessed so much suffering at the hands of humans, but I felt the cause of greatest suffering was tractable. That was, of course, the systems that exploit farmed animals.
Not so long ago you became the CEO of Mercy For Animals – and you have three children. How did you ever find the time to write this book? Relentless focus. I carve out my time meticulously. Sometimes every minute of my day is accounted for and calendared out. I first wrote an outline of the book and then worked to fill it in. I set a weekly goal of the number of words I wanted to write and stuck to that. It wasn’t much per week, but I did it every week without fail. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you break a big goal into bite-size pieces and just stick with it.
How would you compare working for Compassion in World Farming with working for Mercy for Animals? At CIWF USA we focused primarily on positive corporate engagement. At Mercy For Animals more tools are at my disposal—from undercover investigations and large campaigns to celebrity support and a big social media platform.
Suppose all people went vegan tomorrow, what, if any, place or future can you see for the ducks and chickens that you love so much? Well, in my fantasy world, they become companions to humans, loved and cherished as much as our dogs and cats.
On August 26-28, 2019, I attended the Alternative Protein and Dairy Show, at the Nemo Museum in Amsterdam. This event focuses on new alternatives for animal products, giving a lot attention to tech, startups and finance. It’s organized by the organized Kind Earth Tech. I found it incredibly inspiring, so here’s a report of some of things I learned and some of the people I connected with.
Air-based protein?! One of the newest and most spectacular technologies that I was only vaguely familiar with thus far, is air based protein. You read that right: there’s not only plant-based, cell-based, algae-based and fungi-based, but now also air-based protein. The idea was presented by Lisa Dyson, who is with a company called Kiverdi that produces Air Protein, building on a NASA project. In their research on how to feed astronauts on long missions in space, NASA discovered a special class of microbes (hydrogenotrophs), which can convert carbon dioxide into food – just like plants can – with the help of water and power. The food would be eaten by the astronauts, who would be exhaling CO2 again, and so on, in a perfect cycle.
What the scientists at Kiverdi are developing with air protein now, should be a complete protein, with a similar amino acid profile to meat, that takes CO2 out of the air, uses ten thousand times less land and two thousand times less water than soy protein, grows in hours (not months), independently of season and weather conditions. Besides being totally flabbergasted, my main response to this was that it has to be too good to be true. But what if it isn’t? In any case, my guess is we’re going to hear a lot more about this technology in the coming years. It just might be a total gamechanger.
Cell-based shrimp I’m glad I haven’t eaten shrimp in twenty years, because Sandhya Sriram from Shiok Meats told me how they are made.** Of the seventy to eighty percent that are farmed (as opposed to wild-caught), most shrimp are grown in sewage water or actual runoff water from farms and slaughterhouses. The biggest shrimp farms are situated within a five kilometer radius around slaughterhouses. Shrimp are bottom feeders that thrive in gut. When they come out of this slurry, they are black, so they need to get bleached. Finally, add penicillin and fungicide, and the de-shelling, very often in bad conditions by slave-laborers without fingernails, can begin. Oh, and did I mention the hormones and steroids that are injected in the shrimp to make them bigger?
Shiok Meats is in the business of producing cell-based shrimp in Singapore, where people eat about eighty kg of seafood per year (the record-holder is Hong Kong, where about seventy percent of the nine million population eats 144 kg of seafood per year, on average). Sandhya Sriram, Shiok Meats’ CEO and co-founder, found five million dollars in funding for her company, and is very confident that they can launch a product in the next twelve months and disrupt the forty billion dollar shrimp market. She would like to keep the shrimp sellers in business, and to just give them a better product to sell. Her biggest challenge, as it is for other cell-based meat growers, is to find a suitable and affordable plant-based medium for the cells to grow in.
A vegan egg farmer, questioning his own product Ruud Sanders is a farmer who co-founded the company Kipster. Sanders’ project started when he realized it might be unethical to feed grain that was perfectly suitable for people, to chickens. It led him to ask how we would feed the growing world population and what – if anything – was the role of animals in it? Kipster (open for visits any day) is the only egg company in the world – or so Sanders states – where the chickens are exclusively fed with rest products. Europe has about ninety million tons of rest products available, of which only five million tons are used for animal feed. Sanders isn’t sure that a vegan diet is the most sustainable of all, given that we wouldn’t be able to feed these rest products to people (he referred to the book Meat: a benign extravaganza, by Simon Fairlie, and to a thesis by Hanne Van Zanten at Wageningen University).
Still, Sanders is a vegan himself, as he has a hard time believing that even his high-welfare farm is animal-friendly enough. I always get moved when people dare to show their doubting and searching in public, and this is exactly what Sanders did. He seemed conflicted, and having a chicken farm, believes that we need to work towards a future in which we don’t use animals, for ethical reasons. To achieve that goal, we need to find solutions to the following issues: 1. produce good alternatives to meat, 2. find something to do with the rest products (like find ways to use them as food, not feed) and 3. fertilizer without animals involved.
You may wonder why this vegan is still in the egg business? I’ve agreed to do an interview with him so you might read the answer on this blog some day.
Algae to the rescue Algae seem to be another miracle resource. From Rob Achterberg from Back of the Yards Algae Sciences, I learned that of the one million plus algae in the world, there are 700.000 microalgae, of which only 60.000 have been described by scientists, of which a mere 20 are used in human food. Algae can be considered as the foundation of all life, and we are still discovering how we can use them for the good. The applications are numerous. Phycocyamin, from spirulina, is the only natural blue colorant, safe, stable and tasteless. Cholella flour can be used in baking products. The so-called A501 is a natural biostimulant that can speed up the growth of plants with thirty percent – a great way, perhaps, to make vertical agriculture more cost-effective. Algae can also be used to replace the bovine serum medium to grow cell-based meat. Both Gardein and Beyond Meat have been experimenting with adding algae flour to improve taste and texture – with the additional benefit that algae are cheap!
Peace of Meat & Meatable I was surprised to learn about a cell-based initiative coming from my own country, Belgium. Dirk Von Heinrichshorst (apparently an alias) and his team at Peace of Meat will be creating cell-based foie gras, together with a consortium consisting of the University of Leuven and several companies. They want to keep part of their findings open-source, and as such it is a unique project. They are now preparing an application for a four million euro grant by the Flemish government. Fingers crossed. A more established cell-based meat company is Meatable, founded by Daan Luining, who previously worked together with Mark Post. Their company is already between thirty and forty people strong, and is now hosted in a bio-incubator space owned by the company DSM in Delft, which gives them access to world-reknowned experts. Meatable takes the stem cells from the umbilical cord of a cow (just once), and doesn’t use bovine serum, but an animal-free one, which unfortunately so far is still quite expensive. Meatable has a very clear aim of producing the holy grail of meat: steak.
Which future for farmers? A question that was quite present during the whole conference, and thatwill become more prevalent in the future as more and more people are believing that the plant-based revolution is actually happening, is what will happen to the farmers. Wageningen University philosophy Professor Cor Van Der Weele (see my interview with her) has studied farmers’ reactions to cell-based meat more than most. Maybe, she ventured, we can only talk about responsable innovation if that innovation is not too disruptive for small scale farmers. We have to take into account, she said, that the heroes of today (the clean meat entrepreneurs) might be the villains (the Monsantos) of tomorrow. Van Der Weele presented farmers with a “pig in the backyard” scenario, where a well-treated neighbourhood pig serves as stem cell donor, with the cell cultivation happening in small and local clean meat factories. Responses to this scenario by farmers and civilians alike are mixed. Some are very sceptical about the fit with farmers’ identities, but others were really curious. Many farmers are worried about the gap between them and society, feeling unacknowledged, misunderstood and underpaid. They are looking for a way to reconnect with society. What if clean meat might be a way to do just that? At the heart of the discussions about clean meat and other food tech innovations is the split between what Van Der Weele, using the terminology of author Charles Mann, calls the wizards and the prophets, or the ecomodernists versus the green luddites. It’s the discussion about controlling nature versus being one with nature, between technological and attitude change, between innovation and deeper transformation. Van Der Weele herself is ambivalent regarding these choices, and the future will tell who is right.
Benjamina Bolag, from London cell-based company Higher Steaks said there are basically three possibilities for the farmers, should clean meat really break through: 1. mini production of clean meat by local farmers, 2. large scale production by large processors (but will they also grow the cells themselves?), 3. re-education and re-orientation of the farmers. During a round table we heard from Leon, a Limousin cow beef farmer in the south of the Netherlands. His farm is already higher welfare than most (calves stay with their mother for ten months, and adults spend almost ten months outside, in nature). Yet he would like to see what he can do to produce clean meat on his farm, and use his cows to produce cell-based meat. Like Van Der Weele, I personally have doubts that small scale clean meat production could ever compete with the economies of scale the large producers have. We can all bake our own bread, but how many of us are doing that? In any case, we do have a system in place right now where farmers have access to capital for investments in equipment. So one condition for them to get into cell-based meat has been met. On the other hand, of course, many farmers struggle with the loans on long-term investments in machinery that they still have to pay off. Some sort of transition funds might be necessary.
Other stakeholders in the chain are the providers of feed. I heard that feed companies like Cargill are extremely interested in the developments, betting on the idea that they might be the ones to provide the medium for the cells to grow in. Speaker Joost Matthijssen works for Nutreco, a leading global animal nutrition company, headquartered in the Netherlands. They are the largest producer of feed for aquaculture, for instance, but are very open to embrace new technologies. They want to explore how they can help providing ingredients for the clean meat medium, and are ready to make investments in clean meat – a decision, Matthijssen said, supported at the highest levels of the privately owned company.
Open source or patented technology? We had an interesting round table discussion about whether clean meat and other food tech should be developped open source-wise or protected by patents. As Claire Smith pointed out, developments have been mainly done by companies rather than by universities because companies are the structures people have deemed fit to pour enough money into. Cell meat researcher Mark Post, for instance, first received government money to do his work, but when that ran dry, he had to start a company, Mosa Meats, to be able to raise venture capital. And these investors want to make a profit, and open source architecture is usually a problem for them.
Like I said, I left this conference very inspired, and also optimistic. It was, in fact, the third conference for me on a ten day trip. I had attended the CARE conference on animal rights in Warsaw, and a Proveg conference in Berlin, strategizing around plant-based foods before this one. All three conferences were great, but it was this one, in Amsterdam, with its emphasis on business, tech and finance, that left me the most enthusiastic. It left me wondering whether what is happening in the private sector might not be more impactful than what’s happening in the NGO sector (see this post on this question). I had a brief chat about this with Olivia Fox Cabane, founder of Kind Earth Tech, and other of the alternative protein maps. Her opinion was that the NGO sector has been and is extremely important in helping to create demand by raising awareness. Moreover, what animal rights and vegan groups do is influence a couple of individual changemakers, and give them ideas to change the world. Many of the present gamechanging entrepreneurs have been woken up and driven to their present projects by activists. We may not reach the big masses, but it’s a quality rather than a quantity thing.
Last but not least, the Amsterdam edition of the conference was organized by Ira Van Eelen, who is not just a very well connected and proactive woman in the clean meat space, but is also the daughter of the late Willem Van Eelen, who died in 2015 at 92 years old, and who was very instrumental in getting the clean meat idea on the agenda of researchers and politicians. I had the good fortune of interviewing him a few years before his death, and was moved by his commitment to make this world better for animals. Who knows: without him, this conference might not have happened, and clean meat might be a lot further away.
PS: special thanks to Professor Grunschnabel, who made the hot weather bearable with a constant flow of delicious vegan icecream!
** This is what the speaker explained, but a reader with expertise in the field pointed out to me that it’s not based on reality/is outdated. Need to investigate.
“As a known brand we can lure customers of our meat products to buy our meatfree products”
It was pretty close to unthinkable a couple of years ago, but today more and more meat producers are betting on plantbased alternatives. Imperial Meat Products – known under the brand name Aoste – is part of the Campofrio group, and with an eighteen percent market share is one of the larger European players in the field of processed meat products. I talked to CEO Remco Kok and Marketing Manager of Innovation Thomas De Boes, at their headquarters near Ghent, Belgium.
Explain to me what your plans are in the meatfree department Our aim is to get only half of our turnover from meat and the other half from meatfree by 2025. We consider ourselves a company of butchers and craftspeople, but our craft does not necessarily have to be based on meat as an ingredient. So we started to look for alternatives. And whatever meat we continue to sell, we have to believe in ourselves.
What kind of meatfree products can consumers already buy from you today? We have launched vegetarian slices and vegan spreads, and soon will also be launching burgers. We’re also working with hybrid (or blended) products. Sausages are a big category for us, and it is perfectly possible to produce sausages that are only seventy percent meat and thirty percent vegetables. And we try the same with other meat products. We have developed, for instance, a chicken fillet with more than thirty percent vegetables. We’re still unsure as to how to work with this: is it something you communicate to the consumer, like an asset, or is it better not to mention it at all? Do we create products with visible pieces of vegetables, or do we make sure people can’t notice them? All of this of obviously depends on what the customer appreciates.
Why and how did you start thinking about investing in meatfree products? Two years ago, together with our colleagues from the Netherlands and Luxemburg, we did a strategic exercise about where our company was at. We’ve been operating in Belgium for sixty years, and with our Dutch brand Stegeman even one hundred and sixty years. Our slogan is “more attention, more pleasure” – we want to put our attention in everything we do, so that the consumer can enjoy our products to the fullest. But today you can’t just have attention for your products or your customers at the expense of the planet. Thinking this way, we arrived at some new objectives, which we call 0 – 50 – 100. The 50 refers to fifty percent meat and fifty percent vegetables. The 0 refers to zero percent waste: we don’t want to waste anything: no food, but also no energy (consequently we’ve invested in a solar panel park). The 100 refers to one hundred percent transparency. In our sector, a lot happens behind the curtains. But that doesn’t fit with our vision, or with the world as it is today. So we aim to be entirely transparent in everything we do.
Could that go as far as putting cameras in slaughterhouses, for instance? That’s not something that we do yet, but I think that’s where we should be headed…
Can you tell us something about sales results of your meatfree products, so far? Results are largely positive for now. We remain on the shelves, and retailers want to give them even more space. But we can’t say at this point that the masses are buying them. So we have to see how we can create more visibility for our products.
How do you do that? People know our brand, and that’s an asset that we can use. We need to lure the customers who buy our meat products to our meatfree products. We’ve got a campaign running, for instance, where you get a free meatfree product with a meat product that you buy. Or a coupon for a veggie product on the packaging of our traditional products. Also interesting to note is that we can deliver our meatfree range to the many butchers that we are dealing with. And of course we are more able than small companies to put some marketing budget in these products. We’ve had tv-commercials for our plantbased products, and there’s a foodtruck exclusively for them. Recently we handed out 3500 samples at a student event.
Would you like to eventually sell the plantbased products in the meat section? That would be great, and I think that’s coming. It’s a matter of time. There just have to be enough people wanting those products. Look at organic products: they used to be in a separate section in the supermarket, but now they’re spread among the rest.
Meat producers jumping on the veggie wagon will seem suspicious in the eyes of many vegetarians and vegans. One of their arguments would be that the company might invest the profit from meatfree products in their meat department, so that anyone buying meatfree from them would inadvertently contribute to more animal suffering. It’s rather the other way around: for the moment, we are investing more in meatfree than the profit it brings, so it’s part of the meat profits that go to meatfree. Of course we’ll need to make a profit in the future, otherwise it’s not sustainable. But we’re not committed to meat. We’re no longer a meat company, we’re a food company. We’ll probably change the name Imperial Meat Products at some point. In the future, we want it to be so that whoever buys our products invests in the further spreading of meatfree.
Four or so years ago your company was running a tv-commercial that was making fun of vegetarians. How do you look back on that today? This may sound cheap, but I wasn’t the CEO back then, and I wasn’t supportive of this campaign. In any case, when I see what’s happening now in the company… the change is really structural, fundamental, and I’m sure that the person who comes after me will not be able to go down that road again. We can’t go back anymore.
Do you have any assets in producing plantbased products which smaller, more traditional producers of plantbased products don’t have? I believe so. Our scale in itself is an asset. We can invest in research & development at a larger scale. We can use our equipment to produce meatfree products. We can do a lot of test runs. We have a very extensive expertise in working with ingredients, whether they are of animal or of plant origin. That goes from expertise with machines to knowledge about bacteria etc.
Could meatfree products ever be more profitable than meat products, further down the line? Meat is presently sold too cheaply. It’s become a commodity, and food – certainly food originating with living beings – should never be a commodity. It’s hard to say how things will go. In our case, we’ve still got a lot of costs and investments, and we still need to make the category wider known. But if we can produce larger volumes, it could be a lot more profitable. Especially if meat prices increase.
“Food – certainly food originating with living beings – should never be a commodity.”
What is your main challenge? Demand. The consumer is outraged about all kinds of things, but more often than not sticks to the same buying behavior. There’s a lot of hype about the sales of meatfree, but we hear other stories as well. For instance that during the recent “week without meat” in the Netherlands, sales of meat products went up as well – together with sales of meatfree. The Dutch NGO Wakker Dier has radio campaigns running against meat discounters, but it’s not clear if that is working or not – maybe a lot of consumers hearing these ads are made aware of low prices and go out and buy these products. I think we have to work together with our colleagues and other stakeholders, because of course we by ourselves won’t be able to push the consumer in a different direction.
Suppose that at some point it will be clear that animal products are on the way out… will your company be able to adapt? We have to adapt all the time anyway – we need to update our machines, for instance. And yes, we need to always be aware of new developments, and need to get on board in time. But I’m pretty sure that in this case we’re on top of it. It’s not that difficult anyway for a meat processing company. We are to a high extent resource-independent. The things we do with animal products we can also do with plant products. For slaughterhouses, for instance, it’s of course a lot more difficult to adapt.
“We are to a high extent resource-independent. The things we do with animal products we can also do with plant products. “
So meat or meatfree, it really doesn’t matter? No one here has emotional ties to meat products? No, there’s no difference. At least not to me. In the factory there might be colleagues who are very invested in meat, specifically. But still, in the end, these people want to make good products. And we’ve seen very positive internal feedback as well. Our product developers are very proud that they can make plantbased products. They see it as an extra challenge.
Concretely: recently two Dutch meat producters – Bobeldijk en Enkco – announced that they are ceasing meat production or selling that department, and will only do plantbased for now on. Can you imagine your company going this way? I think that for the moment it is better to do both meat and veggie. If we were to only on focus on meatfree right now, we’d become a much smaller player with much less influence. Companies like the ones you mentioned have way less impact on the market than we do. If we’d shrink, we’d leave all kinds of things on the table that could be useful. We’d have less financial power, less brand power, less communicative power. We’d be slimming down our logistics and our expertise… And for the moment we can, exactly because we sell meat, draw the meatloving consumer to our meatfree products by means of our meat products. Also, as a meat company we’re in constant conversation with the rest of the meat sector. We’re in all kinds of platforms where we can exert influence, and it wouldn’t be good to have to leave them at this point.
What do you think the future will bring? Society clearly is ready for a change. We’re leaving a world where meat is something for every day. How far it will all go depends on the consumer. Meat may not ever disappear entirely, but whatever meat there will be will be more animal and environmental friendly. And then there’s also cell-based meat, which we are keeping a close eye on.
Charity Entrepreneurship is a research and training program aimed at creating multiple high impact charities with a different focus area each year. They are part of Charity Science Foundation of Canada. In 2018-2019, their research is focused on animal welfare. Their mission is to increase the number of effective charities in the world. Recently, Charity Entrepreneurship published the “Top Charity Ideas 2019” – a list of recommended charities based on months of their research, with six charities focusing on animal advocacy they want to help start through their incubation program (if you’re looking for an entrepreneurial career for animals you can apply for the program until May 15th 2019). I had an interview with Charity Entrepreneurship’s director – Joey Savoie, who has founded several charities and is now working to make it easier for others to start new high impact organizations.
Vegan Strategist: Joey, there are over one million nonprofits and hundreds of charities in the world. Why would founding new organizations be a good way to make a difference? Joey Savoie: The two biggest factors that are easy to forget when considering the number of nonprofits are 1. the scale of the problems that we face and 2. the relatively small size of most nonprofits. Regarding the first, there are, for instance, over one million doctors in the US and several times that worldwide, and yet there are still great problems with pain and disease. The problems of the world, from global health to animal issues to economic challenges, are huge, and many of them get virtually no attention despite their importance. And then there is the second factor: almost all charities are really small. In the UK, for example, 39% of charities raised less than £10,000 over a year, and another 34% raised between £10,000 and £100,000. This means that 73% of charities are raising less money than the cost of hiring a single doctor. The ratios are similar across most countries. When you consider both the size of the problems and the relatively small current reach of charities, there are still plenty of areas where starting a high impact organization could make a significant difference.
Many people seem to start a charity in an area that they are personally connected to. Is that the best idea? I can see several issues with that. For one, the most important causes might not affect the people who are in a position to start a nonprofit. Examples include helping those who cannot help themselves, such as animals. There are also problems that are not as visible to those who have the resources to start a charity but still affect many beings, such as factory farming compared to companion animal welfare. Many people would agree that when we make an important decision, like buying a house, it is good to carefully look at data as part of the process. Similarly, for such a big question as which charity to start, it is important to consider the numbers, and not only what has personally affected the founder. Some people I know have saved a great number of animals, but are not “animal people” themselves, and did not grow up with them as kids. They just looked at the conditions some animals are kept in and considered the numbers of victims, realizing it was an impactful way to help the world, regardless of their personal background. This idea holds true for more than just starting charities; it can also help you pick which animal to focus on helping, or which area to get a job in.
So which animals are most important to focus on? All animals seem important to help. Sadly, many animals do need assistance, but we don’t have the resources to help them all, and so we need to prioritize. Although all animals deserve a suffering-free life, some animals are currently more neglected or mistreated, so you can help prevent more hardship if you focus on them. Partially because they are out of sight, farm animals receive much less money and attention compared to other animals. And then among farm animals, some of them receive less attention than others, and some have substantially worse lives. Factory farmed birds and fish generally have the lowest life quality. When we considered a number of factors, including current focuses and which animals have the hardest lives, we ended up determining that fish look like the most important animal group for activists to focus on.
So given a focus on chickens and fish, what are the top ideas for new animal charities? The interventions we published on our Top Charity Ideas list might still change, but based on the research we have conducted so far, we have concluded that the most promising ideas include:
Campaigning corporations to improve fish water quality – particularly the oxygen levels in the water that fish need to breathe effectively.
Institutional ask research – researching and comparing possible institutional changes, used later as asks during corporate and government-focused campaigns
Feed fortification of egg-laying hens – reducing the suffering of hens through campaigning for feed fortification with an optimal dosage of phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin D3
Increasing the follow-through rate of cage-free pledges – increasing the odds of a smooth global transition to cage-free laying hen farming through working with producers and targeted financial institutions
Animal advocacy career experiments – systematic investigation into the best strategies for getting key positions filled at top animal organizations
Animal research coordination and systemization – cross-organizational planning and systematic consideration of research priorities
How do you know these are the best new animal charities to start? It’s a pretty big area to narrow down to just six ideas. Some of these interventions are not common in the animal space currently (food fortification, dissolved oxygen, careers support) An idea being uncommon or unheard of may be a good sign. Some ideas are promising but are just not at the top of animal activists’ minds. For example, both lack of food fortification and suboptimal oxygen levels cause a lot of suffering in animals, but they are also much less visible than, say, gestation crates. But just because something is more visible, it does not mean it is more important. Narrowing down was challenging, and it’s likely that there are other really high impact ideas out there that we have not researched or found yet. However, when compared to most charity ideas, our suggestions are well backed up by research. Most individuals in the animal movement who might consider founding a charity will not have a full year to consider options or a full-time research team to look into them deeply. These ideas are not the only promising ideas but, rather, some good bets on how to have the biggest impact on animals.
There are now six ideas on your top charity list that concern animal advocacy, and two of them focus solely on research. Can you explain how their effort will translate to decreasing animal suffering? Research is a tricky area. It’s very important, but it’s also very easy to do research that doesn’t have much of an impact. Broadly, research is helpful in making better decisions, say, when a large animal nonprofit is about to launch a large scale corporate and governmental campaign on a specific issue. Often, we are talking about millions of dollars and years of work spent on these campaigns, so it’s really important that we are working on the right issue. Imagine a campaign on making fish conditions better, which would, by the way, be a very important goal given how rough factory farmed fish’ lives currently are. A question that comes up is what to work on specifically, whether it’s the density at which the fish are kept, or the way they are slaughtered, or the quality of the water they have to live in. To answer these kinds of questions, we need to do careful research, talk to experts, and get a deep sense of what would help fish the most. Research can often lead to surprising results. For example, fish tend to group closer than many other animals and thus are not nearly as bothered by density as they would be by poor water quality. Therefore, if a large scale campaign was run on fish stocking density, the fish would be helped far less than if we had spent the same money and time on improving water quality. If someone did one single year of research, they could make sure that large scale efforts are targeted at the best possible areas. So you can see how this small piece of research could massively help many animals.
What are the likeliest ways animal research efforts could fail to have an impact? The key question every researcher or research-focused charity needs to ask is: “how does this end up affecting animals in a positive way?”. If your answer is unclear or pretty nebulous like “it will inform people and thus change people’s attitudes” you really want to make sure that that is really happening. For example, you might want to survey the sort of people who you would expect might change their attitudes, and make sure that your results would really change them as much as you think it might.
What does it mean if something is not recommended? For example, there are no recommendations of plant-based alternatives. There can be multiple reasons for this. An area could be really effective, but just not the right fit for a new charity given the ones already in the field. An area could be promising but needs more research before we can be sure of its impact. Some areas looked interesting, but our research team simply did not have enough time to research deeply. With plant-based alternatives, a couple of these factors come into play. For one, there is a lot of interest in this from the private sector (for-profit). There are quite a few incubators specifically for these organizations that seem like they would be better placed than Charity Entrepreneurship to help new organizations in that specific area.
How does this research apply to existing animal organizations, or where one should fund? Our research is really targeted at new charities that should be founded, so it could be quite tricky to draw lessons for funding existing charities. For example, if there was one superb charity working in a specific area, that might be a great reason for funding that charity, but a reason against starting another charity in that area. I think more lessons can be drawn for current organizations in deciding what they want to work on, but it does depend a lot on the detail. We do hope to release specific writeups of advice based on our research both for funders and for organizations, but would caution people not to generalize from our research until then.
Are you concerned, as many people within the animals rights movement are, that welfare reforms may hinder progress towards abolition (e.g. by creating a sense of complacency among people when a sufficient level of welfare is reached)? This is an area I would love to see some more concrete research on. I think that right now people just have very different intuitions on the topic without a lot of data. The data I have seen from other charitable areas such as tobacco taxation would suggest that complacency is generally not a big concern. Taking a step in the right direction tends to spread awareness of the area and reduces cognitive dissonance. Another piece of evidence is that despite the fact that many welfare reforms have passed over time, most surveys find that people are more concerned about animal issues now than ever before in history, which would be opposite of what you might expect to see if welfarism created complacency.
You focus on helping people start new charities, but could some of these ideas not be picked up by existing charities? I think for some ideas this is definitely possible, and many of them will likely be done in collaboration with many organizations both new and more established. For instance, the work that has been done on cage-free campaigns would have been very hard to do by only a single new charity. Success will generally require a number of organizations and funders to get on board with an idea.
Starting a charity seems like a tough thing to do. How does the CE incubation program help new or would-be founders? Our incubation program is designed to take a person from a basic familiarity with starting charities to being fully prepared to found and run an organization. The program is an equivalent to a full course at a university in terms of workload. It will run for 2 months from June 17th to August 16th 2019 and the deadline for applications is May 15 2019. Among topics covered are quantitative decision making, cost-effectiveness analysis, fundraising, grant writing, research interpretation, basic statistics or budgeting, and strategic planning. Broadly we are aiming to teach every skill a person would need to run a really great charity. For those who decide to start one of our incubated charities, there are many optional benefits after the program finishes. They aim to ease the transition into becoming a fully independent charity entrepreneur and will include: $50,000 seed fund grants, help in fundraising, ongoing mentorship, free co-working office space for one year in London, legal incubation and access to network of experienced founders and experts. You can apply for the program on Charity Entrepreneurship website and read more on what to expect from the program on our blog. Our program is likely more extensive in terms of help than most incubators and more focused (e.g. this year we’ll be focusing on animal and global health charities and, more specifically, our top recommended ideas).
I firmly believe that plant based foods will ever more replace meat and dairy, and that at some point in the future, people will hardly even believe there was a time when we ate animals.
Now and then, we come across something that gives us a glimpse of how this future is unfolding. We may read about all kinds of amazing innotative plant-based products being created. We may read about unlikely people going vegan, like athletes or farmers. But the most amazing testimony of things to come… comes from meat companies that are actually giving up on meat.
Yes, it’s starting to happen. Here’s a short tale of two companies.
Investing meat profits in plant products The Dutch Bobeldijk Meat Company started up as a butchery in 1975. They added vegetarian products to their range in 2008. In 2015, the company changed its name to Bobeldijk Food Group. They announced that meatfree products were the future, and that they would no longer invest in meat. Factory space used for meat production was freed up to give the meatfree division room to grow. All turnover from meat products was invested in the development and expansion of the plant-based product line (called Vegafit). Bobeldijk CEO Remko Vogelenzang expects that the meatfree division will be able to finance itself by the end of 2019, so that Bobeldijk will be able to get rid of their meat activities. While they have still have lacto-ovo vegetarian products in their range, they aim to make the whole line vegan.
Selling of the meat division Another example, again from The Netherlands, is the company Enkco Food Group. Founded almost sixty years ago as a sausage company, it was initially a cooperation between ten different butchers. In 2003 Enkco acquired another company, which included the vegetarian brand Vivera. Along the way, Enkco extended its vegetarian range, to the point that presently, sales of vegetarian and vegan products are responsible for more than half of their 100 million euro turnover. Enkco will now sell off its meat branch to a larger meat company, and will itself continue under the name Vivera, as a meatfree company.
Roadmap for the future In the case of Bobeldijk, we’re not sure what will happen to the meat division, but unless it disappears altogether, it will be continued by another company (that’s definitely so in Enkco’s case). Consequently, one might make the cynical comment that the net result remains the same. However, these examples are significant in that they show that transformations from meat business to meatfree business – from butcher to meatfree company! – are possible. The companies in question are creating a roadmap that other companies can follow. They also illustrate a pragmatic point: that the new system may have to be built with money from the old system. Finally, they illustrate that, contrary to the fears of some vegans, the money spent on on veg products produced by a meat company does not (or at least not necessarily) go to strengthen their meat activities.
Animal products are on their way out. It’s just a matter of time.
One distinction we can make in the space of all sorts of initiatives that are making a difference for farm animals, is the distinction between non-profit initiatives (basically activism or advocacy) and for-profit ones (business). In this article I ask the question if in the light of the incredibly exciting developments in the private sector, the role of advocacy may need to be re-evaluated.
I’ve been in the animal rights/vegan movement for about two decades now. I founded a non-profit in 2000 and saw the rise of many other non-profits. I’ve seen small groups get really big and professional, sometimes counting more than one hundred paid staff and working with a budget of millions of dollars. And then there’s been the rise of organized grassroots activism like Anonymous for the Voiceless, DXE or the Save Movement, apart from the tens of thousands of vegan and animal advocates who are working individually.
For a long time, I thought that all this outreach and advocacy by all these groups and individuals was, if not the only then at least the most important way to create change for the animals. I thought that all this awareness-raising about the plight of animals – with leaflets, videos, websites, newsletters, social media, conferences, podcasts, demonstrations, lobbying etc – was sort of all there was. And I certainly never had much doubt about the fact that it was possible to change enough people’s hearts and minds.
A changing playing field During all this time – these last two to four decades, or whatever – there were also commercial initiatives, that were selling vegan products that people – vegan or not – were buying. Many of these companies, however, have traditionally been rather small and have often not been overly ambitious – with indeed many of them probably believing that “small is beautiful”. The last five years or so, however, have seen some important new developments in the business world:
While certainly many of the older, traditional companies are growing faster than before thanks to increased demand, many new startups are distinguishing themselves from the older companies by being more ambitious, more modern, more technological, and often better funded. Think of companies like Just, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, to name just the three most famous ones as examples (these are from the US, but they are in many countries, in many sizes).
We’re seeing more and more interest from investors in this space. Impossible Foods, for instance, has to date raised about four hundred million dollars. The search for the best alternatives for animal products is getting better and better funded. Lewis Bollard of the Open Philanthropy Project mentions 1,7 billion dollars in funding (to companies that actually disclose their funding), by at least different 55 funds that are investing in alternatives to animal products.
Next to old and new veg companies, we’re now also seeing big traditional non-veg food companies or even meat companies getting into this space. They can do this in several ways: developing their own alternatives, acquiring other companies (like Danone acquired Alpro), or investing in other companies (like Tyson invested in Beyond Meat). In the Netherlands, we’re actually seeing the first few meat companies who have announced they will stop producing meat as their plant-based products are now profitable enough!
Time to re-evaluate the role of advocacy? I can’t be the only person to wonder if, in the light of this exploding commercial interest in alternatives for animal products, the role of the advocacy movement (the non-profit part) will remain the same or should somehow change. And I can’t be the first one to wonder whether advocacy or business will make the biggest difference from here on. I’ve seen, for one thing, several people making the move from activism to entrepreneurship, selling burgers where they used to distribute leaflets, activists starting a non-profit that is largely focused on corporate engagement (the Good Food Institute comes to mind), and other non-profits shifting more and more of their focus towards outreach to companies (Proveg International, for instance). Some people who are newer to the cause may also get straight into business, passing any activist stage whatsoever. Personally, I have been in the non-profit/advocacy part for almost all my “vegan career” (EVA, Proveg International, CEVA), but today I’m also involved in Kale United, a financial startup that wants to support vegan businesses with vegan investments).
Mutual reinforcement What advocates (call them activists, or whatever) mainly do is to try to shift people’s attitudes about animals. What businesses mainly do is putting food (and other) products out there, in the supermarket shelves, for people to hopefully buy and like. Advocates usually think: if I can make them understand what is happening to animals and why it matters, people will change their mind and they’ll buy those products. This may work, but we know that there is often a huge gap between attitude change and behavior change. I’ve written numerous times about how a change of attitude (about animals and meat) may come easier after a behavior change, i.e. after people have already shifted, to some extent, for whatever reason, towards plant-based products. If this is true – and I’m convinced it is – you can easily see the importance of merely creating great vegan products and making them available everywhere.
In the best case, we might see some kind of virtuous cycle, where the more people who discover great tasting plant-based foods have an easier time caring about animals, and then consume even more plant-based foods, and eventually may become vegans. (note that bad vegan food or bad advocacy might turn this virtuous cycle into a vicious one).
Probably, neither behavior change nor attitude change are in themselves enough to create a better world. People may do the right thing but if they have wrong attitudes, doing the right thing may not be their permanent position and they may start doing wrong things as soon as wrong things become easier or cheaper. Conversely, so many people have the right attitude about something, but are not doing the right thing (you can find many examples for yourself, I’m sure).
That’s why ideally we need both attitude shifts (the main role of advocacy) and behavioral shifts (the main effect of business). Advocacy and business can be seen as mutually reinforcing.
Where should the focus lie? Still, that advocacy and business might be mutually reinforcing does not necessary mean they create the same kind of impact. While they are probably both necessary, it is quite possible that one has a bigger impact than the other – or that their relative impacts are changing as we progress in time. This is not just an academic question or a pissing contest between entrepreneurs and non-profit activists. Having a sense of the relative impact of either part is important for helping us to make choices: where should our resources go, which careers should people who want to improve the lives of animals choose, etc. Furthermore, having a sense of the impact of both of the non-profit and for-profit parts could help us understand how advocacy and business should ideally relate to each other, and to determine possible new roles for advocacy in the context of the ever bigger corporate impact in this domain.
Shift I can’t help having the feeling that it is business entrepreneurs that are doing a large part of the work that used to be done mainly by activists. And I can see how in the future, that might even be more the case. Let’s assume, for a moment, that businesses keep producing and selling more vegan products, and that maybe clean clean meat takes off and becomes a success. Assume that business clearly helps us get closer and closer (indeed very close) to a vegan world. What if anything, should advocates do in such a case? Is there any way in which they should shift their focus? I am not sure about the answer, but here are a few possibilities (of which I have not yet decided which ones I feel confident about and which ones I don’t).
Advocates could more intensely focus on supporting business For people used to working in a non-profit context, this may sound like having things upside down: isn’t it business – with their structural stream of income – that should support, sponsor, donate to… non profit initiatives? Sure, but the other direction works too. There are a lot of things, apart from helping creating more awareness and thus more demand, that advocates can do for business, thus increasing the chances of them becoming very successful (we’re assuming that their financial success dovetails with their positive impact for animals) Some of the things that activists, and especially non-profit organizations, can do for businesses, including, especially, startups are creating awareness among their members and supporters of the brand and products, crowdfunding, helping to lobby for legislation that is vegan-business friendly (or challenging to the meat industry), doing PR and being in the media, litigating against offenders, getting people to taste products at events, etcetera. Companies obviously do many of these things as well, but less so if they’re just starting. Also, there might be credibility issues. A company has a commercial agenda and NGOs may sometimes be in a more objective position to lobby.
Advocates could mainly get out of the way We could choose to trust in a virtuous cycle of supply and demand, where growing demand provides a growing supply and thus further increases demand as it becomes easier for everyone to shift more and more in the vegan direction. In this sense, once past a certain point, a vegan world or a close-to-vegan-world could become almost an inevitability. Activism then should focus on further reinforcing this trend, as speeding it up by just a single month means a massive reduction in suffering.
Advocates could focus on closing the gap Plant-based may become the new norm, but as there may always be bad things that are both legal and profitable, there maybe be no guarantee that business alone would abolish all animal products. So there could be a role for activists in making sure we complete 100% of our mission and a achieve a sustainable state of affairs. Important in this regard is that we help cement new norms and practics in laws and regulations, so that it will be a lot more difficult to ever slide back.
Activists could go for fairer across the board Many activists have a lot of concerns about how the whole vegan thing is being commodified and incorporated into the capitalist system. I have been less anti-capitalist than many of my fellow activists so far, because I believe there is no way around the system if want to help animals in the short term. But should our project be highly successful and we manage to replace most animal products by plant products, it would definitely make sense to start focusing on the problematic aspects of capitalism (this is not to say that focusing on this is entirely useless or futile at this point). Advocates should then make sure vegan products score well on as many accounts as possible. Plant based is not everything, and vegan products may, in addition to being socially unjust, still be unhealthy, ecologically damaging etc. It will be necessary to further perfect our food once most of it is plant based. This does not belong to the core lobbying activities of AR people, so this role could obviously be played (and is being played) by other organizations and movements. Obviously, unhealthy and unsustainable foods will also exist in other systems than capitalism, but it is easy to see how the present system encourages, or doesn’t penalize, such negative trends and tendencies.
Advocates could focus on awareness raising and attitude change Advocates do what they do for the cause that they believe in. Entrepreneurs may be motivated by the same causes, but in addition many of them are also motivated by profit (this applies even more to the investors, although part of them might be impact investors). I don’t consider motivations incredibly important at this point in time (it’s fine for me if people, do the right thing for less than the ideal reasons), but I do agree that if we want sustainable change, where the risk of a reversal is minimized, we ideally want everyone to care about animals. I believe that once our society is mostly plant-based for whatever reason it will be a lot easier to see that animals have interests and to install regulation to protect them, so that there is no going back. Still, there would undoubtedly be room for further awareness-raising on this topic.
Vegans and activists could consider investing instead of donating, and spend their time making money instead of advocating As investing in a company, as opposed to donating to a non-profit, may yield a financial return, and as companies are doing great things for animals, one could argue that investing is a better option than donating – certainly if one opts to donate the return on the investment. Given the amounts of money being invested in the private sector and the companies getting into it, however, it could be argued that a bigger difference can be made by donating than by investing, at this point – an argument also made by Lewis Bollard in the aforementioned newsletter.
Vegans and animal rights people could shift their focus more towards the suffering of animals in the wild, as they might be the first ones to take this topic seriously.
Some preliminary conclusive thoughts The advocacy part and the business part need each other. We can assume (though we can’t be certain) that vegan/animal rights activists have, with their efforts, helped raise demand for meat and dairy alternatives (even though surveys show that animal rights is still ranks very low among people’s motivations for buying meat alternatives), thus helping to create a market for the companies. Conversely, when animal rights and vegan groups advocate against animal products, they need to be able to present alternatives. The more available and better these alternatives are, the more effective and convincing advocacy will be. So the relationship is a mutually reinforcing one.
There will always be a need for advocacy. Advocacy is mainly directed at making people change their attitudes. Yet changed attitudes are not sufficient, as even in a world where almost every agrees that something is bad, bad things still happen. We need changed minds and easily accessible alternatives – that’s where business comes in.
In the light of the increasing role business is playing, we may have to start thinking about the possible changes in the role and shapes of advocacy in the future. I don’t have the answers to this question, but I feel fairly confident that the relationship between advocacy and business should be, at this point, mainly collaborative and supportive, rather than confrontational.
If you look at indicators or metrics for success that the vegan movement might use, a very important one might be this one:
How many people did we provide with a great vegan taste experience?
When people get the idea that vegan food can be good, there is a lot of chance they will be more open to arguments for veganism or to the idea that farmed animals matter (I’ve written about this on many occasions).
Of course many people – vegans and non-vegans alike – buy vegan products in supermarkets or try vegan dishes in restaurants (or at home) every day. However, I’m talking about reaching the ones who are not prone to do this by themselves: people who might have prejudices against vegan food (that it’s boring, tasteless, too difficult to prepare etc). Given that they are not willing to spend money on veg products or dishes, how can we put something vegan in their hands and mouths?
One way is what I have called stealth veganismbefore: simply not mentioning that a product, a dish or even a restaurant, is vegan, so as to avoid the prejudice. But let’s look at other options.
Providing people with a bite of something vegan is, of course, logistically more complicated than giving them a flyer, sending them an email, or making them watch a one minute video (the usual ways in which vegans do advocacy). You need to invest in the food, get it to the people, prepare it, serve it (and then ideally follow up to estimate the impact, and help them take further steps). While we can’t force-feed anything to anyone, there are several ways in which we can shorten the distance between the unwilling customer and a (great tasting) vegan product.
If you look at it logistically, the easiest way, of course, is that the producers offer samples of their products themselves, on places where a lot of people come, shop or eat. That could be at a fair, a busy place in the city, or in restaurants and supermarkets themselves. A producer (or store) wants to sell as much product as possible, so it makes sense that they get as many people as possible to taste their products, trusting that sampling will lead to more sales.
All of this is very obvious, so let me offer you a couple of less obvious ideas for getting unwilling people to take a vegan bite.
1. Passing out vegan samples in cafetarias, of the food that is available there I recently heard about what I suspect is a particularly efficient setup to hand out samples: imagine a company cafeteria (or other restaurant), where customers have (every day or on certain days) the option to put a vegan dish on their tray, rather than a meat dish. By default, sales of the meat dishes would be much higher than the vegan sales. But if there would be people passing out samples of the vegan dish (or just of the meat alternative from that dish – e.g. a veg nugget) at the entrance of the cafeteria, while customers are waiting in line, the percentage of vegan dishes sold could be increased dramatically. The person (a representative from a company producing meat alternatives) told me up till half of the customers chose the vegan dish! Vegan advocates could do this work, but it could also be done by the people from the catering companies. The great thing is that if one or a couple of big catering companies (think Compass, Aramark, Eurest…) would roll out such campaigns, this would be a way to structurally cover a big part of the population. It could be done in schools as well as in company restaurants. On the meta-level, veg organizations lobbying with caterers to do this sort of thing, and maybe offering them a campaign framework like Meatless Monday or a meatless week or month, could potentially be quite impactful, especially if we’re talking to very large companies.
2. Promotions of “mixed brands” I call a “mixed brand” here a brand or company that has both meat and veg products in their range. These companies have some means at their disposal to convince their own customers – who are already familiar with their brand – to try their new veg products. I’ve seen cases where the packaging of the meat product has an ad for a vegetarian variation, which you see when you remove the lid at home, like in this example, by the German company Rügenwalder.
But there are other possibilities. Check out these (and forgive me the crude, schematic drawings):
These ideas may obviously require some logistical efforts, and it’s easy to see that they are not directed at vegans, but I think there is a big potential here to reach unwilling customers where it matters: in the stomach.
Companies might have very good reasons to try these tactics, as it becomes more and more important for them to gain a larger and larger foothold in the vegan market. An extra motivation might be that in some cases there could be a higher profit margin on the veg products.
Also, consider the added value of a big, trusted brand. When meat eaters see a vegetarian version of a product they know and trust, they might be more likely to buy it than when it’s from a brand they’ve never seen before. A graph by market research company GFK that I recently saw (and which I’m not putting here for proprietary reasons), showed the market penetration (i.e. how many people had actually tried the product) of vegetarian sandwich slices in Germany. For the veg variation by a well-known meat brand, this was no less than 48%, while for one of the more well-known vegetarian brands, it was a mere… two percent!
3. Vegan advocates as a food sampling army There are many vegan advocates in the street spreading moral messages to passers-by, by means of videos, flyers, and conversations. That’s great, but I think these interactions would be a lot more powerful if there was also the component of food sampling. A vegan nugget (probably one of the most convenient savory products to distribute) can be a conversation starter, can make people less defensive about discussing animal suffering (as they realize there is not all that much to lose), etc.
I think that for the animal protection movement, there are possibilities to organize samplings on a much larger scale than we are doing today. Potentially, we could be giving out tens of thousands of vegan samples every day, in the street, at festivals and fairs, with or without any special occasion.
Kane Rogers and Mei Wong, two Australian activists, run the campaign “The food you choose” in Melbourne. This campaign focus heavily on trying to get people to taste vegan food. Kane and Mei have quite some experience with passing out samples. I asked them for their top tips for running great food sampling sessions. Here’s what they suggest:
Don’t tell them it’s vegan… at first. As labeling a product as “vegan” for now still seems to be a turn-off for many, it’s better not to talk about it from the get-go. Some alternatives to put on your signs or banners could be “Free, Sustainable Food”, or “Cholesterol Free Food”. Adapt to your audience. Once people have tried the food, you should ask them what they think of it. It’s important to get their reaction first, so they can’t change their mind later.
Do the big reveal Let the person know they just ate a plant-based product. People don’t like to be duped, so make sure you don’t make them feel like they are fools who have been tricked. One way is to ask people “what do you think this was made from?” People may be shocked, so tell them that most people can’t tell the difference. This will prevent them from getting upset, and reinforces the idea that vegan food can taste just as good as “normal food”.
Tell them where they can buy it If you really want to make the biggest difference you can for animals or the planet, it’s important to help people buy the product for themselves. Keep your focus! You’re not talking about the benefits of veganism as a whole, or why someone should eat a plant-based diet in general (unless someone asks, of course). You’re just focussing on this one great product and why they should buy it. For many people, this could be their very first experience with vegan food. It’s really important that this moment is a happy, positive one that makes them walk away with a great memory. If the person doesn’t like the product, or has strong feelings about vegan food or veganism in general, so be it! Don’t try to change their mind. Hopefully they’ll change their own, in due time.
There is great potential for structural partnerships with the producers of these products, where the vegan movement could become a structural partner for them, possibly even getting paid for the sampling services. Imagine how many vegan nuggets a group like Anonymous for the Voiceless, with many hundreds of chapters all over the world, could hand out!
Do you know of any other ideas to close the gap between vegan food and reluctant eaters? Let me know in the comments!
When Big Food companies get into the vegan market, they don’t do it for the animals or even the environment, but primarily to make money for their shareholders. Is that a problem?
The reason for asking this question is that Unilever just bought Dutch plant-based company The Vegetarian Butcher. In the online discussions that inevitably follow such news, the comment about idealism versus money-making is among the most read and liked critical arguments. Many vegans and fans of smaller companies are critical of the acquisition, believing the Vegetarian Butcher has “sold out”, and that ideals lost from – or had to make way for – profit.
Being a good person I find these discussions fascinating, because I’m fascinated with some of the philosophical issues that are implied in it. This is about the difference between intentions and results, and ultimately about what it means to be a good person, or live an ethical life. Is a good person someone who has every intention to do the right thing (but whose attempts may have little results)? Is it someone who has great results for other beings, but who doesn’t necessarily have the right intentions? Is it both? or Neither?
Intentions versus results While I – as an eternal doubter and questioner – think that the answers to these questions are not entirely obvious, it seems that within idealistic movements (like the animal rights/vegan movement) – and judging from endless comments on social media – the answer is clear to many: intentions often seem to be more important than results. If you do something for the right reasons (because you want to help animals, for instance), that seems, for many, to be more important than actually having results – especially if those results are achieved for the “wrong” reasons (profit). A less strong way to put this may be that, in the eyes of many, good results become less valuable, or somehow “tainted”, when they were achieved with less than optimal intentions.
Now let’s look at the Unilever-acquires-Vegetarian-Butcher case.
Ideals versus money Let’s assume that the Vegetarian Butcher’s first priority (their first intention) is to reduce the consumption of animal products, in order to alleviate animal suffering. Let’s also assume that Unilever’s first priority is to make money for their shareholders. I think these are two assumptions that are quite safe to make, and they leave room for the fact that the Vegetarian Butcher also would like to make some money and that there are people at Unilever who also have certain values and care about e.g. sustainability (the company’s leadership has expressed high ambitions in this field (1)). But let’s just make abstraction of that right now, so that we only look at the noble intention of the VB and the more mundane intention of Unilever.
Now here’s a question: what do these two different priorities tell us about actual results with regard to reducing animal suffering? (the topic that will interest readers of this blog the most) Does a company who wants to reduce animal suffering, actually and necessarily reduce animal suffering more than a company whose first priority is to make money?
At first sight, that seems to some extent logical. If my priority is to help animals, I will not harm animals when harming animals is profitable. If my priority is to make money, I might do so even if that harms animals. Unilever obviously sells a lot of non-vegan products, which harm animals (just as they, like most companies, sell products that contain ingredients that may harm humans).
However when one can make money by saving animals (and this is the first time that the two priorities actually start coinciding) things may look very different. Unilever bought the Vegetarian Butcher because they can see that there is a growing demand for veg*n products. By selling more of these products, Unilever increases their bottom line: profit. BUT they also, at the same time, help animals by selling these products even if that is not their intention or bottom line.
In a case like this, it might be a good idea for vegans to get out of the way, and let companies like Unilever make money, even though that is not the objective or intention that vegans would like other people to have.
Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons Insisting on others having the right intentions is not very productive for several reasons. A first one is that it is a waste of energy. Of course you can try to educate people – and we should! – but when people’s heart isn’t changed fast enough, and they can do good things for other reasons, let’s not waste too much time in convincing them that they should have other intentions than they have. Here is social activist Saul Alinsky in his book Rules for radicals. A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals (recommended reading!)
“With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that people do the right thing for the right reason – this is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason – therefore, he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals.”
The second reason why insisting on the right intentions is not productive, is that it may lead to… lower results (in the domain that we are interested in: reducing animal suffering).
What does a cow want? Let’s look at this from the position of one of the real steakholders: a cow. Let’s suppose this cow can decide who she (together with all farmed animals) will give support to. She’s approached by two people: a highly idealistic vegan, who has set up a nice, small vegan business. And the CEO of a huge company, who wants to make a lot of money for his shareholders by selling alternatives to animal products.
Who is our cow going to trust most to make the biggest difference?
If I were the cow, I wouldn’t care why the CEO does what he does, and I’d invest in them, rather than in the idealist vegan small-time entrepreneur. Because I know the chances of impact would be a lot bigger.
You might say I’m creating a false dichotomy here, and to some extent you’d be right. It is possible to combine impact and idealism (although I wonder if for some people big might be inherently bad – see below). Let me tell you who I would trust most of all: I’d trust a person who’s highly motivated to make the world better for animals, but who is very aware of the importance of scaling his business. Hence, this person will know the importance of raising money, and they will know that not all the money that they raise will come from people who want to make the world better for animals. It will also come from people who want to… make more money. This is the situation the Vegetarian Butcher, who has the laudable ambition to be the biggest butcher in the world, finds itself in. There is a limit to what it can reach on its own, or at least, growth will go much faster with much more capital.
Increased impact with Unilever The Vegetarian Butcher chose to be acquired by Unilever to realize its ambition, and I think that was a good call.
Here are some concrete arguments for why the impact of the Vegetarian Butcher might grow tremendously when they are a part of Unilever, and hence why our cow – and vegans – should get out of the way, and stop fretting over good intentions:
Big companies have more money for advertising and will be able to sell their product to more people.
Big companies have more money for research and development, and, together with their huge expertise (another asset) can make the acquired product better still in all the relevant ways.
Big companies have lots of contracts and long standing relationships with retailers (supermarkets, big catering companies, etc), and can thus reach a lot more people. Unilever is networked in 190 countries.
As soon as they have invested in plant-based products themselves, big companies will have less reason to antagonise or sabotage vegan growth. In the end, the only companies left sabotaging will be the ones that don’t have any share of the plant-based pie.
The work of the Vegetarian Butcher goes on, but now, the people behind it have a lot of money (and time?) on their hands. Maybe they’ll use that to start another big project. Basically, founder Jaap Korteweg has partly made himself redundant for his company, so that he’s freed up to do other projects that maybe no one else would take on (but if he just wants to retire, I won’t blame him. He’s done a great tour of duty for the animals).
Systemic change Not in every case is the main problem for the critics Unilever’s lack of idealism. There are lots of other concerns. Some fear the Vegetarian Butcher products’ quality will go down or that their reputation will be damaged. Some accept the acquisition by a Big Food company but… Unilever, really? There is one other concern that keeps popping up in these situations, which I’ll briefly get into now but may do more extensively in another post: that more capitalism is not the solution, that this is not the systemic change that we (or some of us) want, and that all of this may solve one problem (reducing animal suffering) but create or increase other problems.
I agree with the aspiration to not solve or alleviate problems by creating or increasing other problems. If we help a group of individuals, or the environment by doing stuff that makes things worse for others, then that is not the ideal solution. But again, we’ve bumped into the issue of idealism.
What we have is a horrible system with many issues: call it the animal industry, or factory farming, whatever. This system creates massive environmental, animal welfare, public health and social justice problems. Is it fair to expect of alternatives to score better in all these fields at the same time? Does a plant-based company, brand or product line have to do better than animal products in terms of not just animal welfare but also environment, health, social justice?
To some extent, this is a matter of priorities. Avoiding extreme suffering is my own priority. Farmed animals unfortunately score extremely well in that field, so helping them should be, I think, quite high on the list. When big multinational companies create certain problems – like putting small companies out of business (think of Amazon) that can and should certainly be looked into and where necessary tackled, but the graveness of this problem should be compared with the graveness of the problem that is being addressed (animal suffering). In my view, making huge headway in terms of reducing extreme animal suffering is a bigger good than the disappearance of small, local businesses. To some extent this is an empirical question, and it’s possible that if one aggregates all the bad consequences of big multinationals, one would come to a different conclusion. Fact is, I do not think we should wait for ideal solutions or only support ideal solutions that solve all problems.
Is small beautiful? Sometimes I have the impression that one of the characteristics of initiatives or ventures that are routinely praised for their systems-changing approach is that they are… small. Think about local initiatives, cozy social experiments with neighbors to improve the community, local farms… I can see their charm as well as their usefulness, but often they seem so small and unscalable to me. And also, conversely, I wonder: would these initiatives still be praised by anti-capitalists if they got a lot bigger? Scaling often means making some compromises and straying a little bit from the ideals. Conversely, if you want to stay really true to your ideals, it seems safest to stay small (and have less impact). It seems almost, then, as if being small is a necessary aspect of getting some people’s admiration or consent. It seems that for many, small and pure is better than big and compromising, no matter what the impact.
Again I’m sure some readers will think that I’m painting a false dichotomy here. Maybe they are right, but so far this is the impression I get. To become the biggest butcher in the world is probably not something that can be done without big money, big investors, the help of big companies. However, more importantly, even if it could be done without that, would the a company that was the biggest in the world at anything be able to gain the praise of people with an anti-capitalist mindset? To me, scale is not inherently bad, just like being small is not necessarily charming or noble. Sure, there are potential risks in being big, and being big may have – and at present usually has – serious detrimental effects. But we need to consider whether these effects are 1. unavoidable and 2. maybe worth it compared to the positive impact that is being created.
To many, the above will be enough for some to paint me squarely in the capitalist corner, so let me finish by saying that I’m with anti-capitalists in hoping that someday we can replace this system by something much better, even though I don’t know yet what exactly that would look like.
Some points to summarize
Different people and different companies can obviously have very different priorities and intentions.
This is not a black or white thing. Most companies need to make money for their investors or shareholders, but that doesn’t prevent them from caring about things other than money.
Good intentions are neither necessary nor sufficient to have great results
Bad intentions may be good enough
The fact that today one can make money – and that many people want to make money – thanks to the plant based revolution is a great thing, not a sad thing.
Though we should not choose for solutions that make matters worse for other issues, if you wait for ideal solutions that have an answer to every issue, you can wait a long time.
(1) How sustainable exactly Unilever is or wants to be is of course a thorny question. You can read about some of Unilever’s ambitions here and then see them criticized here.