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I skipped the turkey this year at Thanksgiving. It was purely a symbolic gesture; we served turkey at my house, so my decision not to eat it didn’t mean much. Still, over the last year or so, I have radically reduced my meat consumption, largely because of the time I’ve spent with people in the animal welfare movement, in particular while reporting on the Humane Society of the United States.

This week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published my story [paywall] about the Humane Society and its hard-charging chief executive, Wayne Pacelle. It’s a story about how to make social change. The animal welfare movement, led by HSUS and with the cooperation of smaller, nimbler groups like Mercy for Animals and The Humane League, has made great strides in the last decade on behalf of animals who cannot speak for themselves, particularly around the issues of the intensive confinement of hens and pigs.

How have Pacelle and Humane Society succeeded? By deploying every tool at their command: Ballot measures, lobbying, litigation, undercover investigations, cooperative agreements with corporate allies, mergers with smaller groups, even investments in plant-based protein startups like Beyond MeatAny social-justice organization that wants to succeed in the Trump era would do well to study Pacelle’s playbook.

The animal welfare movement is energized these days by the commitment, brainpower and moral fervor of a impressive group of activists in their 20s and 30s, working inside and outside of HSUS. I think of them as today’s abolitionists–they are crying out in opposition to what they see as an evil but widely-accepted practice, just as the founders of the abolitionist movement did in 18th century Britain. Those early abolitionists built the world’s first social-justice movement, according to Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains, a wonderful history.

Why work on behalf of animals?

When I asked these activists why they got involved with animal welfare, I got a variety of answers. Some, like Lewis Bollard of the Open Philanthropy Project and Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat, grew up on small farms. Several years ago, Brown told me that he

once took a close interest in a Guernsey cow that was put to death after breaking a hip. “We’d never do that to our dog,” Brown says. “To me it was a fascinating philosophical question. You’re taught at school not to discriminate against people based on the way they look. And yet all the differences between the animals that we love and the animals we destroy are superficial.”

Bollard, who grew up in New Zealand, was disturbed by a visit to a live-animal market in Vietnam as a teenager, which led him to research animal rights issues. Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute, a practicing Catholic who ran a Washington, D.C., soup kitchen during the 1990s, has been a vegan since reading Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet nearly 30 years ago. Nick Cooney, who started The Humane League, calls himself as utilitarian and says “this is the area where there’s the greatest amount of suffering and where I can do the most good.” Josh Balk of the Humane Society, another dog lover, became a vegan after watching a documentary about animals being slaughtered for food. Most, if not all, of these activists were influenced by Animal Liberation, Peter Singer’s classic 1975 book.

One answer that has stuck with me came from Paul Shapiro, who is now vice president of policy at The Humane Society. Animal agriculture, he told me, causes suffering. We don’t need to eat meat. So why cause needless suffering? 

“I grew up with dogs, and really loved them,” Shapiro told me. Like the others, he began to look into the way animals are treated. “I was really horrified by it…If I wouldn’t want it for my dogs, why would I want it for any animal?” He started Compassion Over Killing at his D.C. high school. “As a kid, I hated seeing bullies. This is bullying. I couldn’t stand the idea of the strong taking advantage of the weak,” he said.

Progress?

That said, the animal-welfare movement has an uphill climb ahead, as do environmental and health advocates who say Americans should eat less meat. The sad fact is, consumption of meat in the U.S. rose in 2015 as prices came down, as Eliza Barclay reported last summer in Vox. “The campaign to persuade us to cut back on burgers and bacon has been a bust so far,” she wrote. Meat consumption is climbing in India and China, too.

While Pacelle and others at the top of the Humane Society are vegans, it’s probably too much to ask most Americans to give up meat entirely. I’d like to learn more about humane and environmentally-friendly ways to raise meat and produce milk that would allow those of us who care about animal welfare and the environment to continue to eat meat and enjoy dairy products, albeit in much smaller quantities and, in all likelihood, at higher prices.. The next big battle in the animal welfare movement will be about broiler chickens, i.e., chickens raised for meat. I’m hoping to visit a chicken farm and see first-hand how those chickens are treated. Too often, farmers are left out of conversations about the future of food.

Finally, we can hope that technology will help us find a way to satisfy our taste buds and our conscience. I’m a big fan of the Beyond Burger, and I’m following efforts to develop what’s being called “clean meat,” that is, animal-cell based meat grown in a lab, not as part of an animal.

Here’s a historical perspective from Paul Shapiro, from an interview with Jon Bockman of Animal Charity Evaluators:

My guess is that we’re increasingly coming to the realization that technologies will advance animal welfare faster than ethical arguments will. What Mercy For Animals has done by creating New Crop Capital and The Good Food Institute is an extremely smart and strategic thing to do. HSUS’ investments in companies like Beyond Meat, Veggie Grill, and Miyoko’s Kitchen are also very smart uses of our resources to advance animals’ interests. I often use two examples. The first is whaling. There were concerns about whaling in the 19th century; that certain species were going extinct for example, as well as humane concerns. But what ended up freeing whales was the invention of kerosene. It pretty much spelled the doom of the American whaling industry. Similarly, for centuries animal advocates were concerned about the treatment of labor animals. It inspired the humane movement to be formed in the late 1860s. There were campaigns for all types of reforms for horses, such as mandatory resting hours, watering stations, and Sabbath days so they could have one day of rest. But in the end, the invention of the car did what animal advocates didn’t even try to do, which was end the use of horses for transportation (for the most part). So, I wonder if there are technologies today that 10 or 20 years from now will make factory farming and slaughter plants seems as antiquated as whaling and horse carriages. I’m not suggesting it’s inevitable, but I do think it’s possible. Seeing Tyson Foods invest in Beyond Meat recently gave me greater hope than almost anything. If the biggest meat producer in the world is recognizing there’s money to be made in plant-based protein, I have great optimism for the future.

Me too. And next year, I’m going to look long and hard for a humanely-raised turkey.

7 thoughts on “Today’s abolitionists

  1. Laura Asiala says:

    Dear Marc–I forgot to mention another great book to take a look at: Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”. One of my all-time favorites.

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  2. Laura Asiala says:

    Another great post Marc–and I appreciate the dialogue with Carol. I just ordered both books for my kindle.

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  3. Where are the white women and people of color who have been doing this work, too? Are today’s aboliitionists as white and male as you present? Let me answer my own questions: NO. Hope you do a part 2 and catch up with the reality of this movement.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      You are quite right. I just heard about your book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, and hope to read it soon.

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      1. Thanks Marc for your reply. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions! Best, Carol

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  4. Great blog Marc – incredible to have so many people shining a collective light on this issue. 2017 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for chickens. Aramark and Compass Group are already showing that change at scale is possible.

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