Many years ago, I read an important newspaper article on the sports page of the Detroit Free Press. It changed my mind about a lot of things, especially the usual human choice to ignore the opposition. Almost everyone, including most people in agriculture, scoff at those dare to disagree with them.
"They're stupid. They are to be pitied. Pay no attention to them," goes the common refrain. Let's call it the arrogance of selective ignorance, something that all too often leads to an embarrassing, painful comeuppance.
The author of the article I read asked Bo Schembechler, head coach of the then very successful University of Michigan Wolverines, why he paid so much attention to the teams that he was probably going to beat, anyway. Back in the day, they were often favored by 30 or more points.
To paraphrase, he replied, "When you take any team for granted, it will rise up and kick your butt."
In 2007, a high-flying but complacent University of Michigan team with a preseason rating of #5 hosted Appalachian State. Las Vegas picked the home team by 33 points. Schembechler was long gone, though, and his words of wisdom had been forgotten. In what's called the greatest upset in college football history, one that will haunt the Wolverine faithful forever, the Maize and Gold was outplayed, outhustled and outcoached. The visitors left the Big House with a 34-32 win.
Wolverine butt was kicked hard. Some say they were never the same afterwards.
With that little story, I bring you Jacy Reese and the Sentience Institute, possibly the App State of the animal rights movement. In the following interview, I urge you to pay close attention to what he says and how he says it. His answers are calm, deliberative and well-crafted to capture the public's attention. Do not ignore his organization and other such groups. They know how to play the game and they do it well.
Sentience Institute was founded in June 2017. According to its website, the co-founders, Kelly Witwicki and Jacy Reese formerly worked at Sentience Politics -- it split into two independent organizations and Witwicki and Reese took on developing Sentience Institute. Witwicki has former ties to Animal Place & Direct Action Everywhere. Reese has ties to Animal Charity Evaluators.
Animal Place is an organization designed to free farm animals. It sponsors events like Run for the Chickens asking "Runners, walkers, chicken lovers unite to join Animal Place for a 5K fun run where you can sprint, jog or stroll past the cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, rabbits and goats! Dress up as your favorite barnyard pal."
Wikipedia defines Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) as "an international grassroots network of animal rights activists founded in 2013 in the San Francisco Bay Area. DxE activists started with disruptive protests but now also use non-violent direct action tactics to further their cause, such as open rescue of animals from farms and other facilities and community building. Their intent is to build a movement that can eventually shift culture and change social and political institutions. DxE activists work for total animal liberation and the creation of a law requiring species equality."
Animal Charity Evaluators conducts research on the effectiveness of the dozens of animal rights and animal welfare groups and suggests the most effective organizations to maximize the impact of donor money and time.
Although a relative upstart in this broad and usually contentious field, they are well-funded. Their website says The Effective Altruism Foundation as granted $60,000 to cover initial costs and all expenses through December (2018).
“As of June 2018, we are funded through early 2019 with four staff. Major funding primarily comes from individual donors in the effective altruism and animal advocacy communities, and grants from the EA Funds Animal Welfare Fund. . .the Centre for Effective Altruism, a registered U.S. 501 (c)(3), has generously offered to act as our fiscal sponsor."
Now that you have some idea of the group’s background, let's talk with Jacy Reese about what's on the immediate and future radar and how the group plans on achieving its goals.
I contacted Reese shortly after he landed in Beijing, the first stop in an extended Asian tour dedicated to preaching the gospel according to animal sentience. I was curious about why he was taking his show on such a long road trip, especially when his organization has such ambitious plans for attacking America's larger and more sophisticated animal agriculture.
Q. About your trip to China [and Asia generally] to talk about your end of animal agriculture theory. What’s your sense of their thinking on the subject?
A. My trip was both sad and uplifting. I think much of Asia is currently a lot like the U.S. 10 years ago: rapidly growing meat consumption and industrialization, but also awareness of the problems of animal farming, and a growing number of young people eager to find alternatives.
But there are important differences. For example, East Asia has a powerful precedent for vegetarianism in religion, especially Buddhism, whereas in the West, our cultural food practices center on meat-eating like hot dogs on the 4th of July or turkey on Thanksgiving. So in East Asia, animal products are seen more as a new result of increased wealth and Westernization, rather than a necessary part of the culture. I got to see China’s first KFC restaurant in Beijing, and I felt shame that industrial chicken farming -- with all its negative consequences for humans and animals —- is one of the biggest changes we’ve pushed on their culture.
But this cultural dynamic also makes farmed animal advocacy easier there in a way, because you can appeal to their cultural history in a way you can’t in the U.S. You can even talk about the new animal-free foods like clean meat (meat grown from animal cells instead of animal slaughter) as a continuation of Asia’s history of plant-based protein like tofu and tempeh.
On my trip, I saw a lot of moral impetus for ending animal farming, not just because of concern for animals, but because of the social prioritization of sustainability and food security. For example, Singapore imports over 90% of its food, and its government has already invested a lot in food technology. When I spoke on a national radio show there, I heard keen interest in both the ethical and technological changes that are coming. I think each of these governments have enough resources that, if they decided to, their country could very quickly become a global leader in clean meat production.
Q. Late last year, Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of Virgin Air, blogged that humanity will have stopped killing animals for meat in three decades. “All meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”
His guesstimate is animal agriculture will end mid-century. You're thinking it will take approximately half a century longer. In your mind, what has to happen to change the minds of the carnivores that make up more than 95% of the population?
A. I’m excited by Branson’s timeline since I agree with him on the huge moral problems of animal agriculture. I don’t know his reasoning, but an important part of my own timeline is how long it takes to globalize. In order for Sub-Saharan Africa to fully transition, for example, my guess is that it will have its own clean meat “meateries,” rather than just importing product from other countries. Additionally, you have some regions like Switzerland and New Zealand that have a lot of pasture-based ruminant agriculture, which arguably has fewer issues than factory farming. Ending factory farming is the priority of animal-free food advocates, and I think that once the technology is commercialized and displaces factory farming, it could take a while for it to reach all corners of the globe, but it will eventually.
One of the most important facts of social change is that most people are not very morally-driven. They purchase based on price, taste, convenience and most importantly on habit and social norms. So, I think the later stages of the farmed animal movement (2050-2100) will be mostly driven by people switching for those reasons: clean meat will be cheaper because you are producing fewer outputs (e.g. you don’t need to maintain the biological functions of animals like a digestive system or body heat).
Consumers will see more and more of their friends and families making the switch, and institutions will adopt it because of their ethical and sustainability commitments. In fact, when you ask people to support institutional change, you see incredibly high support for animal-friendly policies. We used to have fewer than 10% of U.S. consumers opting to purchase cage-free eggs, yet large majorities of the population support corporate and government cage-free policies. We saw 78% of Massachusetts voting yes on Question 3 on the 2016 ballot, and even for really radical policy change, we saw 47% of U.S. adults say they support a ban on slaughterhouses in a 2017 survey.
Q. Your TedX talk at the University of Mississippi last February outlined your position on animal agriculture. Let's delve into it, starting with your comment that 85% of all antibiotics are fed to farm animals. Most clinicians say that number is misleading.
Dr. Richard Raymond, United States Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety from 2005 to 2008, says 'throwing around the 80% number that all anti-animal ag groups use to sound the alarm' is grossly overblown. He says "40% of that number are antibiotics not even approved for use in humans, and another 42% are the oxy- and chlor-tetracycline antibiotics that were important way back in the 1950s and 60s but have long since replaced by another class of far superior antibiotics."
The difference between your numbers and his is substantial. Can you shed some light on the difference?
A. I would encourage people to not look to an industry for reliable information on the benefits or harms of its products. This includes animal agriculture, but also the plant-based food industry. Unfortunately, almost everyone in these discussions is biased, so we really need to look directly at the hard data.
I haven’t seen any good rebuttal of the 80% figure. Sure, not all of those antibiotics are used by humans (everyone agrees on that), but we still see the emergence of superbugs that threaten human health. The Center for Disease Control & Prevention says, “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.”
There’s a Politifact article that has a well-cited discussion of the 80% figure. Robert Lawrence at Johns Hopkin argues that ionophores, which aren’t currently used for humans, are still an important concern because of cross-antibiotic resistances. He adds that “Even if we exclude ionophores and only compare antibiotics approved for use in humans, that figure remains well over 70%, or more than twice the quantity used in humans.”
Of course, I’m happy to see specific rebuttals of the methodologies used to come up with these figures and change my mind on the topic.
Q. Greenhouse gasses and the claim that animal agriculture contributes more to those noxious fumes than all transportation combined is being actively debated. Some believe those numbers are heavily skewed. Do you have hard data that backs up your statement?
A. Similarly to the last question, I’m not an environmental scientist, so I’m just going with the range of expert opinion here instead of doing my own research. The thoughtful debates I see are about whether the figure is closer to 14%, 18% or the infamous figure of 51%, all of which are above the transportation cost of around 13%. This range is why I felt comfortable making this statement in my TEDx talk, even though my expertise is on social change, not environmental science.
Q. I thought your comments about the 'architecture of meat' and how plant-based alternatives are getting closer to the real thing in taste and texture was fascinating. I see the ingredient list of those alternatives as a major stumbling block, though. In a time when we're urged to not purchase foods with ingredient names we can't pronounce or with more than a few ingredients.
Beyond Meat, one of the fastest growing producers of meat analogs, says its ingredient list consists of water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, cellulose from bamboo, natural flavor, methylcellulose, apple fiber, salt, vegetable extract blend (spinach, broccoli, carrot, tomato, beet, shiitake mushroom), beet juice (for color), vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), vitamin A (palmitate), annatto (for color).
That's a lengthy list including some scary sounding ingredients. Will the average consumer overlook what's on the label or be more prone to stick with just plain beef?
A. I don’t think that list is scary. The strangest-sounding ingredient is methylcellulose, which is just a food thickener made from plants that helps prevent ice crystals from forming when food freezes.
To date, I’ve seen very little concern about these ingredient lists. People are far more concerned with the ethical and health implications of the one ingredient “beef” than they are with even a wide variety of plant-based ingredients. Maybe that concern has just yet to bubble to the surface, but the people currently switching to products like Beyond Meat are mostly health-conscious consumers who are more likely than other consumers to be concerned, so I’m skeptical we’ll ever see much concern. Though, of course, there will be pushback against animal-free food from the animal agriculture industry from any angle they can think of.
I do think that as this industry grows, you’ll have a whole cornucopia of plant-based meats, some with fewer ingredients, non-GMO, organic, dirt cheap, etc., to cater to the wide range of consumer preferences. But all of them will fill the culinary niche that we currently fill with animal-based meat.
Q. A stricter standard of humane farm animal handling practices started around a decade ago and leading animal welfare groups boast a growing and substantial number of animals raised under their standards. Is your position that it is 'too little, too late" or are you more of the mind that any and all animal agriculture must end?
A. You and I would probably disagree on how good these standards are. I think even on welfare-certified farms, you see atrocious cruelty. When animal advocates run undercover investigations, they inevitably see mass suffering even if they seek out the best farms. Unfortunately I often see farmers justifying this cruelty by saying its necessary, such as debeaking chickens to keep them from injuring each other through violent pecking. But that meager justification doesn’t change the fact that it’s still truly horrific suffering, and we wouldn’t have any of it in an animal-free food system.
When I began my research into animal farming (I broadly study effective altruism and social movements), I was originally just opposed to factory farms. I thought we could pass welfare reforms that would allow us to raise animals in ways that led to more happiness than suffering and were therefore ethical. Unfortunately, my research has suggested otherwise.
I go into a lot of detail on this in my book but the main issues are:
1) Even on so-called “humane” farms, there’s still intense suffering,
2) It seems financially and socially impractical to switch to “humane” farming; even the products from the best farms today (which are still terrible for the animals) are way too expensive for most people, and the USDA already says its incapable of enforcing the extremely limited protections that exist today, and
(3) We have a great choice available in animal-free foods and those choices are expanding and improving every year, so why should we even try to do humane animal farming?
Social movements succeed and fail in broad strokes, even if there’s always moral nuance. Murder might be justified if you’re killing a mass-murderer. In the 1700s, many white people argued they had humane slavery and the slaves were happy. Some women detested suffragists because they didn’t want their own place in society to change. But the way we move on from violence, slavery and oppression is ultimately not through amelioration; but through abolition. We abolished murder. We abolished slavery. We abolished the treatment of women as property. And we will abolish animal farming. Of course, these atrocities can continue after abolition, but the biggest progress made is by condemning the entire institution as unethical and incorrigible.
Q. Your claim that the end of animal agriculture is one of the next great social movements -- something that will expand humanity's moral circle -- seems rather bold to many people. Let me invite you to step up on your 'e-soapbox' and state your case.
A. That’s interesting. I don’t think this particular claim is controversial. The expansion of humanity’s moral circle is just the gradual extension of moral consideration to more and more individuals. We started by extending it from our clans and families to local villages and city-states, then to nations, and now to caring about humans around the world. With animals, we originally had working animals, then increasingly had animals as companions in our homes whom we often think of as family members, and now we’ve seen some big changes for specific exploited populations like animals used in circuses.
Today, it seems the moral circle is beginning to reach farmed animals. As you mentioned with welfare reforms, we’re starting to see the horrors of factory farming and recognize that these animals are sentient beings. More and more people today, especially young people who are considering their own diets or whether to work in the animal ag industry, understand that what we’re doing to them is a moral atrocity comparable to human war and genocide. This is an especially important step in humanity’s moral circle if you consider the extreme cruelty farmed animals endure -- confinement in tiny cages, mutilation without anesthetic, etc.—and the huge numbers of them, over 100 billion animals in these conditions every minute of every day. If that’s not a moral catastrophe and a demand for revolution, I don’t know what is.