This is an interview I hosted with Peter Singer at the CARE Conference 2022 in Warsaw. We discussed the state of the animal rights movement, what we need more and less of, how the future looks, what he changed his mind about, career options, effective altruism, intersectionality, how Peter Singer feels and other topics.
Animal Activism between Despair and Hope
The intention behind this presentation, given at the CARE conference in 2022, is to both recognize the negative feelings activists may sometimes feel, as well as to inspire them to keep going. I talk about my own doubts and despair, but show that there are good reasons to be optimistic about humanity, our movement, and ourselves.
Who we eat
German/French tv channel ARTE produced an excellent five part documentary series called “Who we eat: the end of meat”. It features philosophers, entrepreneurs and activists who each give their views on where our food system needs to go and how it can get there. I’m one of the protagonists in the final part.
You can watch it (German sound, English subtitles) right here.
Interview with Humane Hancock
Not so long ago, activist, podcaster and filmmaker Jack Hancock-Fairs did this interview with me. We talked about the state and the possibilities for improvement for animal activism, individual vs. institutional change, communication, avoiding burnout as an activist, wild animal suffering, and other topics.
Investing in the plant-based space: what are the options?
Plant-based food is hot. Maybe you’ve thought about investing in it, either just because you think such an investment might yield a good return down the road, and/or because you want your investments to align with your values of sustainability, health and compassion for animals. This article provides a brief overview of the options you have for vegan investing. It’s written in a way that should be understandable for people new to investing.
I’m assuming here that you’re interested in investing and don’t need to be convinced of the value of investing. But if you, like many people who try to make the world a better place, believe that money, profit, investing… are all just dirty words or things that you should stay away from as far as possible, you should read this article I wrote previously.
Three caveats before we dive in:
- I’m definitely not an investment specialist, and there’s many people who are much more versed in this subject matter than I am. By all means, send me corrections if you see any mistakes.
- This is a snapshot. Even as I will add more options as I discover them, things are probably moving too fast for this article to offer an exhaustive overview of what’s out there. Feel free to put additional companies, platforms, resources in comment.
- None of what I write below is meant as investing advice
- The word vegan may mean different things to different people. Please don’t get hung up on when I do and don’t use the word.
Investing in individual stocks from publicly traded companies
For regular (potential) investors – i.e. people who don’t have hundreds of thousands of euros or dollars to invest but rather a few thousands or ten thousands – publicly traded companies (i.e. companies listed on a stockmarket) are the most obvious route. To invest in a publicly traded company (think Tesla, Amazon, Facebook…) you just have to open a brokerage account (a special account used to make investments), transfer some money to it from your regular bank account, buy the stocks you want to buy, and then basically wait and see how they do before selling them or buying more of them.
You can open a brokerage account with your bank, but note that investing through a big, traditional bank is usually more expensive than investing through banks or brokers who specialize in investing, and who usually mainly have an online presence rather than being a brick and mortar bank. Investing costs some money (you pay the broker a commission on transactions, and there will be taxes to pay as well). Down the road, over several decades, a difference in a couple of cents in costs can have a counter-intuitively big impact, so try to keep them as low as possible.
So, what are the publicly traded companies you can invest in if you’re interested in the plant-based space? There’s not a huge amount of choices, but at least the options are slowly increasing. An important note here is that with some of these companies, you can see the symbols OTC or OTCPK after their name, indicating that these are stocks that are not traded on a regular, centralized stock market. OTC stands for over the counter, PK for pink slip. You can google what those terms mean but suffice it to say that stocks like that are considered much more risky. Also, quite a few of these companies are so-called penny stocks, which is a term used for stocks that trade at a value of less than 5$ per share, and are considered highly speculative (also, see the first comment on this post for some thoughts on the Canadian Stock exchange, where quite a few of these companies are listed).
Also note that depending on which stockmarket these stocks are listed on, not all brokers may give you access to all of them.
First there are the purely plant-based, mission driven companies, making actual alternatives for animal products. Below are some of them (writing April 2021), but the list is growing steadily.
Beyond Meat (BYND, Nasdaq) is undoubtedly the most famous one of these. BYND has been on the stockmarket since early 2019, and has done pretty well since its launch. The stock is volatile though, and while Beyond Meat is a first mover, it is not clear how much it will be able to profit from this advantage, as the so-called “barriers to entry” to this market are not very high (or in other jargon: the “moat” is not very wide). Any food company can produce vegan products, and that’s certainly what the big ones are doing more and more: Nestlé, Unilever and other Big Food companies have all brought their own meat alternatives to the supermarket shelves. Still, if you bought BYND right when it emerged on the stockmarket, you’ve certainly seen its value quintuple or more.
Else Nutrition (BABY; TSX) is another mission-driven and vegan company that recently went public. It’s an Israeli producer of plant-based baby formula.
The Very Good Food Company (VRYYF; CSE) is a Canadian company producing meat alternatives alternative meat products (OTCPK).
Senza gen (SENZA; STO) creates non animal allergy tests https://senzagen.com/
Simris (SIMRIS ALG; STO) creates omega 3 supplements from algae, among other things.
Modern Meat (MEAT; CSE) is a Canadian company producing meat alternatives
Meat-Tech 3D (MITC, NASDAQ) is an Israeli company that is developping technologies for the 3D printing of meat. In February 2021 Meat-Tech 3D acquired the Belgian clean meat company Peace of Meat.
Plantx Life inc (VEGA; CNSX): is basically an online store that’s publicly listed
Some other companies worth looking at:
And if you have access to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, you can also consider Savor-Eat and Biomilk.
Less explicitly plant-based companies
There are also publicly traded companies that are less explicitly vegan, in that they focus on plant-based products that are not necessarily direct replacements of animal products. These companies may also deliver ingredients to vegan (as well as other) companies.
Ingredion (INGR, NYSE) produces plant based ingredients like oils and grains for other companies. It’s a company with over ten thousand employees worldwide that seems to score well in terms of diversity/sustainabilty/equality.
Bunge limited (BG, NYSE) “connects farmers to consumers to deliver essential food, feed and fuel to the world.” Plant-based products, but they also include animal feed.
Burcon Nutrascience produces pea and canola proteins and protein blends
Other companies producing only or mainly plant-based products you could look into are
Limoneira (citrus fruits), Total Produce (fruit and vegetables), Archer Daniels Midland (crops, oils).
Non-vegan publicly traded companies
Another option could be to invest in companies who are making nice efforts in the plant-based space, but who aren’t otherwise vegan companies. That can certainly be problematic if you’re a mission-driven investor (you probably won’t invest in Danone as a vegan, even if it has committed to significantly increasing its sales of plant-based products). And from a profit viewpoint, the big companies’ plant-based range – even if it’s growing – is usually only responsible for a small part of its sales. So we can’t be sure that if plant-based takes off further, this will be reflected in the companies’ valuation.
That said, some publicly traded non-vegan companies that are proportionately heavily into plant-based food may be worth checking out. Maple Leaf Foods (MFI, TSE) is a Candadian company. Hain Celestial (HAIN) covers several vegan brands, but also animal ones.
Tattooed Chef (TTCF; NASDAQ) is a producer of vegan and vegetarian frozen foods, like cauliflower pizza.
Tofutti brands (TOFBOTC; OTCMKTS) seems less mission-driven, but almost all its products are vegan alternatives to animal foods. Some of its products contain egg whites, so technically this is not a vegan company.
Finally, some companies like Oatly, Impossible Foods and Just Eat have expressed interest in going public (IPO means initial public offering; it’s bascially a company’s start on the public stockmarket). You can keep your eye on them if you want.
Spreading your risks: holdings, mutual funds and ETFS
One of the first rules in investing is to spread your risk, meaning that you shouldn’t put all your tofu in one basket, so to speak. Rather than picking one or a few stocks, it’s better to spread your money over a dozen or maybe two (and take into account that vegan public stocks are much more risky than stocks of well established companies). Or you can invest in financial products that automatically entail a spreading of risk (that’s often much wider still).
Investment companies invest in other companies, so if you invest in this one investment company, you are spreading your investment over multiple companies in one go.
Agronomics (ANIC, LSE) is a publicly listed investment company which has so far made sixteen investments in alternative protein companies. These companies are not publicly listed, so investing in Agronomics means you invest in some new companies that normal mortals (small time individual investors) cannot invest in. Examples are BlueNalu, Mosa Meat and Shiok Meats.
The same goes for Eat Beyond Global Holdings (EATS; CSE), a publicly listed holding company that invests in several vegan companies which are not publicly traded, like Eat Just as well as publicly traded ones, like Good Natured.
Another such holding company is Kale United, but it’s not publicly traded yet and I discuss it further below.
Popular ways of spreading risk are of course mutual funds and ETFs (exchange traded funds, also known as trackers). With both, you would be investing in multiple stocks (up to hundreds or even thousands!) at once. The difference is that mutual funds are actively managed by human managers, while ETFs are not. This means that funds will always be more expensive than ETFs, which is not necessarily reflected in the returns. There’s a lot to say about funds and especially ETFs (ETFs being my and many other people’s preferred investment product) but regarding the plant-based space we can be brief: there is as yet no thematic publicly traded mutual fund or ETF that is centered around plant-based alternatives.
There, however, the US Vegan Climate ETF, which is a version of the S&P 500 (the 500 biggest publicly traded US companies) that steers clear of companies involved in animal exploitation in all forms as well as fossil fuel and other types of environmental issues, while adding some plant-based and renewables stocks outside the S&P 500 Index)
There are funds and ETFs that are about sustainability, alternative energy, electric cars, batteries, and so on, but we’ll have to wait a little bit for a true plant based one. In the meantime, definitely worth mentioning is Sagefund, a platform run by vegans designed to ensure that your investments are well-diversified while maintaining strong sustainability standards. In the future, Sagefund plans on offering more narrow investments, targeting vegan companies and funds directly.
Investing in non publicly traded companies
Especially when companies are young, they are not traded publicly on the stock-market, and thus merely having a brokerage account will not give you access to them. To be able to invest before a company becomes publicly traded (and potentially stand to make a lot of money when it does) you usually need to be a professional investor and/or quite rich. Yet there are some possibilities even if you’re not.
As noted above, there are investment companies or holdings that have invested in companies that are not publicly listed, and you can invest in them (see Agronomics and Eat Beyond Global Holdings, above).
Apart from those there are…
Beyond Animal connects stakeholders of the plant-based ecosystem for networking and business collaboration, and offers a funding platform for vegan, plant-based and alternative protein businesses via its investor matchmaking tool and complete deal management system, Funding by Beyond Animal. Investors are directed towards deals that meet their investing criteria saving time and effort. Investors and entrepreneurs can make contact with each other through the platform and close deals in a secure dealroom. Leading sustainable foodtech funds, accelerators and corporate VCs such as Cibus Fund, Astanor, SOSV and Danone Ventures recently joined the platform and participated in the New Food Invest conference.
Kale United is a Swedish company that crowdfunds money from both smaller and bigger investors and invests it in vegan companies, most of which are very young, as well as in some vegan publicly traded companies like Beyond Meat and Else Nutrition. For now, you have to wait to invest until the next fundraising round, but the plan is to create a platform for continuous trading of shares. To stay in the know, subscribe to their newsletter.
Vevolution is a fintech platform that brings investors and startups together who are creating solutions for a better world. Vevolution offers professional investors an opportunity and smart technology tools to meet hundreds of plant-based and cell-based startups. Since launching the new platform in Dec 2020, the startup has attracted investor members including the likes of Blue Horizon Corporation, New Crop Capital/Unovis, Veg Capital, Kale United and Veg Invest as well as a host of leading investors in plant-based and cell-based startups.
There are also generic crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Seedrs (seedrs.com), which may offer plant-based investment opportunities from time to time, but it is not their specialism. See for instance the projects tagged vegan on Kickstarter.
Just in case you’re a professional and/or larger investor, there are by now quite a few venture funds that invest in vegan companies, both public and non-public. You can check them out and see what the requirements are in case you’re interested:
Big idea ventures (New Protein Fund)
Stray Dog Capital
Sustainable food ventures
Unovis Asset Management (previously New Crop Capital)
Other resources and further reading
Crueltyfreeinvesting.org is a non profit organization that helps you align your investment with your values. They explain to what extent publicly listed companies use animals.
veganinvestors.com is an investor network committed to building a community of like-minded investors to support the growth and succes of vegan-led vegan companies.
The Glass Wall Syndicate a large group of venture capitalists, foundations, trusts, non-profits and individiual investors who want to accelerate products and services that will make a difference in the lives of animals and people.
VegTech is the Global Vegan Impact and Innovation Index, a basked of 22 global companies that are innovating to take animals out of the supply chain.
Disclosure: I’m involved with Kale United as an advisor and have invested in them, as well as in some of the invidivual stocks mentioned above.
Thanks to Claire Smith, Mans Ullerstam, and Michiel Van Deursen for comments on the draft of this article;
Why humans disappearing from the planet could be a very bad thing for animals
Many people who care about animals1 (be they farmed/domesticated or wild) or the environment seem to think that these animals or the planet would be better off without humans2. I want to argue here why humans disappearing from the face of the planet (whatever that would mean or imply for the humans themselves) may not be a good thing for non-human life, at least not in the long run.
Yes, we’re responsible for incredible suffering
That the presence of humans on this planet could be a good thing for animals probably sounds like a counterintuitive idea to many readers. Obviously, Homo sapiens are responsible for incredible suffering of both farmed and wild animals. Regarding farmed animals, we raise and slaughter about seventy five billion of them every year3, with most of them living and dying in appalling conditions. Regarding wild animals, there are the billions of fish we catch in the sea, and there is the devastating impact of our human activity on the climate, wildlife habitats, and so on. There is no way to deny any of this.
If our species would suddenly disappear entirely, certainly those seventy five billion chickens, cows, pigs and so on would not be raised anymore.3 They would simply not exist and therefore not suffer, which is a good thing. The fish would no longer be plucked out of the sea. As the traces of our existence would fade away, anthropogenic climate change would, after quite some years, become a thing of the past. The wild animals would claim all the areas that we took from them, and would live their lives free of any human impact. It would be as if we Homo sapiens had never been here.
I know that to quite some people, a scenario like this sounds great. And indeed, going by just this reasoning, one can understand why people who love animals, as well as the natural world at large, would see many benefits in humans no longer being around.
But life in the wild is no picnic
I think the belief that the absence of humans from the planet would be a good thing for animals is often based on the idea that life for animals in the wild (which, without the presence of humans, would be the state for all animals) is generally okay, and that even if it isn’t, it could or should not be improved on by humans.
This view, I think, is misguided. It is important to emphasize that we’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty here, but it is quite possible that life in the wild entails on average more suffering than joy for many species of animals. This would be so because in the wild, almost all creatures have to constantly deal with tremendous challenges, like shortages of resources (suffering from hunger and thirst); averse climatological circumstances like drought, heat, cold; disease; parasites, predators, and so on. It’s hard to have a truthful idea at this moment, for instance, of how often and how intensely the fear of a predator impacts an individual’s quality of life, just to name one thing, but some research demonstrates that the fear predators inspire can have PTSD-like effects in prey animals.4
Objections to alleviating wild animal suffering
It’s quite possible that you do believe that the lives of wild animals are full of suffering, are maybe even hellish, but that you also think that 1) we should not try to make things better and/or we can not reliably make things better – and with “reliably” I mean: without making things worse.
First the should not. You might think that even if the best available evidence suggests that we can make things significantly better for at least some animals in some areas, we should not do so when we are not the cause of their suffering. This seems erroneous to me. We will, at least in theory, alleviate the suffering of humans even if we don’t have anything to do with that suffering. Why would we only protect wild animals from human harm, but not from the harm nature may inflict on them? For the animal in question, it obviously does not matter what the source of their suffering is. The idea that we shouldn’t try to prevent natural harm coming to animals is probably based on the mistaken idea that there is a fundamental divide between the natural and the human world, and that what happens in nature, stays in nature, so to speak.
Second, the could not. You may believe that yes, there is a lot of suffering in nature and that yes, it would be a good thing if we’d make things better for wild animals, but that we can not reliably do so. This, I think, is a mistake as well. There is no reason to think that at the very least in certain limited situations (but probably on a much grander scale as well) we could not reliably make things better. Indeed, we are already doing so here and there. One example is the eradication of rabies in fox populations in Europe. And on a small scale, many of us would save animals from natural disasters like forest fires.
Improving on the natural state
I could point you to many horrible videos of what happens in the wild (with no human being responsible for it). If you’re not convinced that it can be really bad, please go have a look (here is one, for instance of two baboons eating a gazelle alive, while we can hear her cry out). I say this because your view of how good or how bad things are in the wild probably influences your answer to the question whether humans should improve upon the lives of wild animals if they can reliably do so.
For now, I am going to assume that you agree with me that the natural world can be a very harsh place and that life in the wild can be quite bad for many individuals, at least for certain periods of time.
Clearly, humans did not consider the natural state – where one is so vulnerable to disease, predation, parasites or the climate – a desirable state. And so, after thousands of years, we have to quite some degree managed to escape the dangers and limitations of this natural state – including some of the limitations of our own biology – by developing culture, science and technology. We consider it generally a very good thing that we are now less vulnerable to disease, starvation, and predation than we once were.5 So why would we not wish this for every sentient being on earth, be they wild or not wild, human or not-human?
Humans are also capable of a lot of good
What you think about all this will depend, among other things, on your view of humans, and on where you think we might be headed in the coming decades and ages.
Those who believe humans better disappear may compare us to being a cancer for this planet. There is, as stated, certainly a lot of horrible stuff that we do. Even as we are already capable of incredible technological feats, and even as we are already doing beautiful things, both for our fellow humans and for other species, there is still a long way to go.
Technologically, we are already capable today of improving the lives of animals in the wild to some extent, but we will probably be able to do much more in the future. Morally, our civilization in general is not yet at a level where it would put a lot of effort into helping non-human beings, and therefore indeed the technology that we do have is often used to the detriment of wild animals. You may believe it will never get any better, and that we’ll just keep destroying the planet and all who live on it. But there is no reason that this would be a given. There are many reasons to think that our civilization is advancing: that we are creating affluence for more and more people, turning our backs on more and more forms of discrimination, inventing ever more powerful technology that could at least in theory make the world better.6
The long term view
No doubt will we continue to inflict harm on animals, both wild and domesticated, for quite some time. And yes, if humans disappeared now, the suffering that we presently inflict would be avoided, However, let’s take a long term view. Suppose that after, say, three hundred years we achieve a moral and technological level that allows us to structurally improve the wellbeing of all sentient creatures. This would mean that still a potentially infinite number of generations of wild animals would be able to benefit from our advancements for potentially many, many millennia. Whereas, if we had disappeared, those wild animals would have lived on in their wild situation, with little hope of improvement, for potentially aeons to come.
The vast majority of this planet’s sentient beings are non-human wild animals. If the human species would disappear, the chance of creating a world that is a good place to live for most earthlings is lost. Maybe not lost forever, but it could take millions of years before another species could be able to rise above the limitations which the natural world has imposed on it, and pull off such structural and significant improvements.
Many people will point out how our interventions in nature usually have really terrible effects. But those interventions weren’t done with the intention to make things better for wild animals in the first place. They are thus no point of reference and can’t tell us much about the value and consequences of well-intentioned and more skillful interventions in the future. Many people will also describe the idea that we can and should improve the lives of wild animals as hubris, or arrogance. Our species has certainly been guilty of hubris, but there is, again, no reason why we could or would only act out of hubris, and recklessly. We may, in the future, do very careful trials and experiments, inspired by compassion for our fellow earthlings, and with humility. Hubris need not remain a part of it.
I need to again emphasize that there is a lot of uncertainty in all of this. We won’t know for some time how good or bad different individuals within different species have it in the wild. We don’t know to what extent humans will continue to have the opportunity to smarten up and wisen up.
Still, we have good reason to believe that wild animals are experiencing a lot of suffering in the natural world, and that humans, even as we are still inflicting a lot of harm on both wild and domesticated animals, might some day be in an excellent position to help them. Similarly to how we use technology to improve the lives of human beings (just consider how humans suffered before we discovered anesthesia), a strong case can be made for using science and technology to improve the lives of non-humans who are in desperate need of help. We can learn to do this carefully, gradually, with humility, and with compassion. And so, if we consider all sentient life, it seems reasonable to suggest that the continued existence of humans is a good thing, or at the very least – has the potential to be a good thing for the non-human world.
Thanks to Jack Hancock Fairs for his comments on a draft of this article. Check out his great youtube channel.
A bibliography on the topic of wild animal welfare, with articles by people who have thought about these things much more than I have, can be found here. I applaud all researchers, philosophers, biologists… who are not shying away from studying this very important topic.
1 I use the word animals, as usual, as short hand for non-human animals
2 On my blog I have a post titled: Would you press the button to make humanity go extinct? Many of the comments on the post suggest that yes, indeed, it would be good if humans went extinct somehow. Some comments were actually so full of expletives about the human race that I didn’t publish them.
3 This exclude the amount of fish raised in aquaculture, which are measured by weight.
5 Even as we have obviously created other, new problems for ourselves, which we’ll hopefully solve down the road.
6 Interestingly, it seems hard to be unbiased in our views of human progress, and it seems to me that the perception is that those who believe in progress are often more conservative than those who think things have never been worse. It seems more politically correct, as it were, to not believe in progress.
That’s disgusting! – Should animal activists aim for the stomach?
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.
Into the wild: animal dilemmas I’m confronted with after moving to the countryside
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.
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!
Turning adversaries into allies – an interview with Leah Garcés
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.
Meat the Future – a report from the Alternative Protein and Dairy Show in Amsterdam
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.
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.
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.