I’m Leah Garcés, president of Mercy For Animals, a nonprofit that fights factory farming in the US, Brazil, Mexico, and other countries. In my career I’ve taken an unusual approach, working with whistleblowing farmers to change the meat industry. My work with Craig Watts, a former farmer for Perdue, resulted in huge changes at the company and they are now even producing (partially) plant-based meats.
Since then, more chicken farmers have blown the whistle and have quit the business to grow plants instead, like Mike Weaver in West Virginia who now grows hemp in his old chicken sheds (I worked with him on a New York Times exposé in 2016). Some are exploring mushrooms and pea protein to support the fast-growing plant-based food industry.
I’ve compiled my stories of working with farmers and meat industry executives to change the industry, as well as my interviews with scientists and entrepreneurs developing cell-based meat (AKA “lab-grown meat”), in my new book Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry, which I wrote while I was the ED of Compassion in World Farming.
*check out more book if you want to learn more: Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry. Would love to know what you think! https://www.amazon.com/Grilled-Turning-Adversaries-Chicken-Industry/dp/1472962583/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1567618562&sr=8-2-fkmr0AMA about chickens (and other animals!), the rise of plant-based and cell-based food, nonprofit work, or anything else.
Hi Leah, I have two questions.
As Dorian heads up the coast, I'm reminded of the millions of chickens and thousands of pigs that drowned in my state with last year's Hurricane Florence, as well as the environmental damage from flooding waste lagoons. Could you speak a bit about work going on in North Carolina, and perhaps what North Carolinians can do to try to help in regard to animal welfare and environmental justice in the state.
On a lighter note, what is your favorite chicken fact?
It's so true about Dorian. My parents are weathering the storm right now. And I worry about that storm stalling out over the Carolinas, where so many of our nations' pigs and chickens are housed. It's very tough, but a priority in North Carolina should be overturn the ag gag law. you should contact your representative and tell them. It prevents us from being able to show what is really going on, and for companies to be able to hide the truth. here's more on ag gag: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/1/11/18176551/ag-gag-laws-factory-farms-explained On environment, I am not an expert, but I do know that waste from those farmers causes so much damage and regulations need to be stronger. Those companies have externalized the costs onto citizens. Legislators need to hold the industry accountable. My favorite chicken fact is that chickens are able to do math right on the day they hatch! And they can see colors we can't see!
KFC just had an amazingly successful trial of the plant-based fried chicken. Do you think more fast food companies will begin to roll out plant-based chicken as well? What are the benefits for companies to trial this?
Given the crazy success that KFC enjoyed I'm sure every chicken fast food joint is considering or developing an option. I have no doubt that this will follow the trend of Impossible Burger and within a year we will be seeing plant based chicken in fast food outlets across the nation. I think it's race to see who get there first now, and KFC just got a head start.
Why would farmers want to work with you?
I first worked with Criag Watts, a chicken factory farmer. He started to struggle to pay off his loan. When the chickens got sick, it meant they died and you don’t get paid for a dead chickens. That was money out of his pocket. So while the paycheck got smaller, the bills kept coming, and soon, he wanted out. He knew he’d made a mistake. But now, he was all but an indentured servant. He hated raising chickens, but if he stopped, he’d risk losing everything.
By 2014, when we met, he’d reached a breaking point — his birds were sick, and payments seemed never-ending. He also realized he could no longer live with Americans not knowing the truth about how the chickens.
A lot of farmers feel that way, but don't have an alternative option.
Do you believe that the rise of lab-grown meats is beneficial to the vegan cause?
yes, I do. Ultimately it will help end the explotation of animals for food, which is our goal.
Do individual farmers want an end to factory farming by big corporations?
Some do.Some farmers hate factory farming every bit as much as animal advocates but are trapped by debt, unable to escape. Most just see it as way to pay the bills. If there was another option they'd take it. I certainly wish companies were more active in helping farmers find other jobs, with other ag products, like hemp or mushrooms. here are some resources regarding the issues farmers face:https://rafiusa.org/farmers-watch-under-contract/
Have whistleblower farmers faced retaliation?
Yes, many. There are law suits out there. Here's a case where when a farmer complained, the company, Tyson, gave him bad birds.https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/apr/22/chicken-farmers-big-poultry-rules
It's a big problem and a lot of what keeps these farmers from speaking out more. If they do they could lose everything
I know Mercy For Animals has been doing a lot of work to get big companies like Starbucks, Aramark, and Burger King (and I'm sure a bunch of others that I am forgetting) to adopt better standards for factory farmed chickens. What improvements are you asking these companies to adopt, and what companies are lagging behind others and continuing to use the cruelest methods?
In the mind of the public many people have no knowledge of animal rights groups outside of a fairly insignificant group in the movement named PETA, which an organization that lobbies of behalf of the meat, alcohol, and tobacco industries, the Center for Organizational Research and Education, has done a very effective job of keeping the attention on and associating with animal rights in the minds of many people. Mercy for Animals does a great job of partnering with the other major groups in the animal rights movement (HSUS, The Humane League, etc) on big campaigns like California Prop 12, Massachusetts Question 3 (2016), and getting pledges from big companies to adopt better standards. What should these big animal rights groups be doing to correct this public perception of the movement, or is it even important for this misconception to be addressed as long as progress is continuing to be made?
We must expand the conversation. I think the more we can be seen to be reaching across the table, being reasonable, the more we can change that perception. With factory farming, it harms so much- environment. POCs, communities in rural areas, our health and of course the animals. Finding ways to collaborate across these issues, professionally and reasonable will help. We don't need to dramatize the harms fo factory farming - it is factually horrific without exaggerating.
Hi Leah! I have two questions for you...
-I have heard a few high level discussion points around chicken farmers pivoting to hemp. What are the economics like from the farmers perspective, and are the compelling enough for farmers to make the change on their own?
-I’d also be interested to hear about what MFA’s main global (ex-US) initiatives are at the moment, and how much of the organizations resources are focused internationally vs domestically.
Thanks for doing this!
great questions! Hemp can be very lucarative for farmers, a farmer I later worked with did just that. When Mike Weaver of West Virginia became fed up raising chickens for the same reasons as Craig, 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 turns out the conditions for raising chickens aren’t very different from those needed to grow hemp. he thinks he can go from making $30k per . year to 600k per year using the same warehouse he once raised for chickens.
Our main global initiatives are related to getting schools and local governments to adopt Meatless Mondays, working on corporate policies to ban cages and reducing suffering of broilers. We have an office in the US, Brazil, Mexico, Hong Kong and India.
In my opinion one of the greatest threats to nonprofits in general, especially animal rights/welfare orgs is the pay disparity between the jobs in the movement and similar jobs in the private sector.
I know many people that have left the nonprofit sector due to burnout, but also especially the low pay.
Just because a worker employed at a nonprofit does not mean they deserve less money for their skills, degrees, and certifications.
What are you doing to attract and retain top talent specifically in regards to compensation?
I know that MFA and other similar orgs provide many quality of life benefits as part of the compensation package, but if you have to use your PTO to work a second job because you’re so underpaid for your title and skills, is it really a benefit?
We are a non-profit. Even in animal protection (i.e. dogs and cats) we receive a fraction of the philanthropic $. I hope one day soon, society values the work we do more, we receive more donations, and we can pay more. To do all of that, we need to create a broader tent and reach more mainstream people. We need to widen the tent so everyone understands why ending factory farming is critical.
Our Compensation Philosophy focuses on one area of team member benefits: monetary compensation.
MFA aims to provide an attractive, flexible, and market-based total compensation program that is tied to performance and aligned with our mission.
We view compensation as a means for communicating our goals and standards of performance and for motivating and rewarding employees in relation to their achievements. This includes ensuring that all employees are compensated equitably for equal work and experience and have equal opportunity to contribute and advance in the organization.
When Mercy for Animals is choosing places to conduct undercover investigations, how do they decide what locations to target? Have factory farmers and slaughterhouses put any measures in place (aside from just ag-gag laws) that make it difficult to show the public what is happening at these facilities?
We try to be strategic in all of our investigations, so that they ultimately result in institutional change in the government or corporations. In terms of other measures, ag gag is enough of deterrent, but there have been other measures, like qualifying animal rights activism as 'terrorism'. It is very very hard to legally film undercover in a factory farm in the United States right now.
I know investigations into farms have been banned in some states. Have your investigations been banned?
Ag gag is HUGE problem in the USA. The state where I did this work originally, North Carolina, shortly after passed an ag gag law making it illegal for whistleblowers to film and report what's happening inside factory farming. Arkansas has a similar law. These are two states that have some of the most animal ag production in the country.
What country has the worst animal welfare regulations?
How did you start your non profit? (I'm assuming it's a nonprofit). Did you have to take a loan out for the beginning processes or was it started from money saved up or did you get a government grant/funding?
we are a nonprofit. We started, and maintain, our funds via public donations - individuals, trusts, and foundations. Basically, people care about the cause, feel like governments and companies aren't do enough to address it, and donate to us to help end factory farming.
Hi Leah! Great stuff. I have two separate but related questions:
Hello Leah, thank you for answering questions.
I constantly see in /r/Vegan lots of users being jerks and rude to other redditors. (not that they don't get lots of taunting and degenerate comments said to them.) What do you think is the best way to inform and get people to care more about where their food comes from?
Do you feel the vegan community, while doing good, is ironically pushing people away from pursuing vegan lifestyles just based on attitude and perception?
What was the tipping point for you to really make an effort to pursue a vegan lifestyle?
In the future say decades from now, if humanity achieved a near total vegan population. What do you think the relationship between animal and human life would be like?
My motto is we shouldn't let perfect be the enemy of better. there are so many people wanting to try a plant based diet right now. We have to make it easy and accessible and inviting. they don't' have to be 100% vegan. Every meal, every bite, that is plant based is a step in the right direction for health, the planet and animals. Just we a kind and inviting example to people. The tipping point for me was having my son. I was already vegetarian and mostly vegan. But when I was nursing him, I just made that connection that milk was meant for a baby. And me drinking it meant I was the cause of a mother and baby to be separated. I never looked back after I saw it that way. Human and animal life in decades to come I hope will be more harmonious. I hope we stop seeing ourselves as above and separate from nature!
Would you eat lab-grown meat?
I would and I have! In my book GRILLED I detail that experience. I ate a duck sausage made by Mission Barns. They are working on duck fat, because it gives meat it's flavor. There are more people that have been to the moon than who have eating lab meat so it was pretty special!
What inspired you to take this approach (collaboration as opposed to working against)?
Where a lot of activists might see the meat industry as a monolithic beast to be destroyed, I instead saw lots and 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. I work this way because I think it can get us to the end goal faster.
If you fight with someone, do you still call it a beef?(serious question)
haha! I don't know! I'm always catching myself using these phrases - like let me 'flesh that out' or I when referring to test soemthing out - you were the 'guinea pig' for my test. So much of our language is based in antiquated abusive system. On the lighter side: . How do you say vegan cheese in french?
Does not being able to eat chicken nuggies make you sad? Especially with honey mustard?
Guess what?!!! I just ate chicken nuggets from KFC - made from plants. They did a crazy one day test. It was made from Beyond Meat and was crazy good. They sold out in 5 hours, but the supplies were suppose to be for 2 weeks. There were lines wrapped around the store. It was insane. So pretty soon, that won't be a problem if things keep going the way they are!https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/business/kfc-beyond-meat-vegan-chicken.html
Of course slaughter inevitably involves suffering, and in our line of work we are trying to reduce suffering and end the exploration of animals altogether. Free range and natural are really not what you hope they are. If you are looking to learn more about where your meat comes from and you only want to certify that, you an only really do that through an animal welfare certification, like Global Animal Partnership which is sold at Whole Foods or something like that. Here's a link.https://globalanimalpartnership.org
Why do you put in so much effort to help chickens/livestock when humans are suffering all over the place and could use your help?
There is no conflic between animal rights and human rights. Compassion is not a finite thing. In fact, a new study shows that compassion seems to beget compassion.New research from Harvard’s Yon Soo Park and Dartmouth’s Benjamin Valentino tested these concerns directly. In one half of the study, they used General Social Survey data to see whether people who supported animal rights were likelier to support a variety of human rights, a test of whether abstract compassion is zero-sum. Then they compared how strong animal treatment laws were in individual states to how strong laws were protecting human beings, a test of whether political activism is zero-sum.
Basically compassion is a muscle. The more we use it, the bigger it grows. Here's a great article on this:https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/8/21/20812623/animal-rights-suffering-singer-compassion
I respect your decision to not eat meat. Why won't you respect my decision to not eat fake meat?
I'm neutral on a personal decision. What I do want to address is the unjust, inhumane and unfair way in which we institutionally produce meat. I am interested in institutional change. I am interesting in created a more compassionate food system, rather than the one we have dominantly right now.
How do you know someone’s an annoying vegan?
They tell you they are vegan! Ha!