Again and again, Americans have been told to eat less meat, or to stop eating meat altogether. The message has been delivered by doctors at the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the Mayo Clinic, by environmentalists at the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, by Paul McCartney, Food Inc and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules and, of course, by animal protection groups ranging from PETA and The Humane Society of the US to The Humane League and Vegan Outreach.
Is anybody listening?
New research from Gallup indicates that the number of Americans who identify as vegetarians or vegans has remained flat for two decades. The percentage of vegetarians and vegans has been stuck at about 5 or 6 percent since 1999.
Nor are Americans consuming any less meat, it seems. To the contrary, per-capita consumption of cows, pigs and chickens is expected to reach record levels this year, the USDA says.
For anyone who cares about farm animals, this is discouraging news. It is, arguably, a sign that animal advocacy is failing, although we can’t know for sure. Without animal advocacy, meat consumption might be growing even faster.
In any event, the rise in meat consumption is a reminder that we don’t know as much as we should about animal advocacy and, for that matter, advocacy of all kinds. What messages persuade people to change their minds about eating meat–or about climate change, immigration, gay marriage or global poverty? How can advocacy become more effective? Not enough people in the worlds of philanthropy, nonprofits or social justice are thinking systemically about these questions.
Che Green spends lots of time thinking about how to improve advocacy on behalf of animals. Green, who is 43, is the founder and executive director of Faunalytics, a research organization that is intended to help animal advocates become more effective. Begun in 2000, Faunalytics does original research, conducts surveys and impact evaluations in partnership with animal protection groups, and maintains a curated library of more than 4,000 studies. It also conducts an annual survey called the Animal Tracker, which is the only longitudinal survey devoted to animal issues. Importantly, it has a commitment to quality research and data, explained here.
The Animal Tracker survey aligns roughly with the the data from Gallup and USDA. “Not much has changed in the last 10 years,” Green wrote, in a blogpost. “These results underscore the inherent challenges involved in changing the hearts and minds of society and the importance of animal advocates having a long-term perspective.” He told me: “I’m not as confident about persuading the masses of consumers as I once was.”
Recently, I spoke with Che Green and Caryn Ginsberg, Faunalytic’s board chairman, to see what lessons, if any, can be drawn from nearly two decades of research at Faunalytics. They are both vegans and deeply devoted to the cause of saving the lives and reducing the suffering of animals. I wondered if they were discouraged by what, on the surface, seems to be a lack of progress for animal rights.
Not at all, they said. “Attitudes change very slowly,” Green told me, and behavior change often lags behind changes in attitude. The good news, he said, is that about three in four Americans say that the welfare and protection of animals raised for food is important to them. “People care about animals,” he said. “There’s no question about that.” That helps explain why the cause of animal welfare–as opposed to animal rights–has made great progress lately, through corporate campaigns and state referenda. Millions of laying hens are being freed from cages, and pregnant pigs are being liberated from gestation crates. Fewer animals are suffering on the way to our plates.
Persuading people to eat less meat has been harder, in part because animal advocacy is drowned out by the meat industry’s marketing, Ginsberg argued. While movements for civil rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights faced opposition, none had to fight powerful corporate interests with billions of dollars to spend selling their products, she said. Animal advocacy faces “a lot more opposition, a lot more political influence, a lot more spending that is designed to try to keep people’s attitudes where they are today,” she said.
Green and Ginsberg are also encouraged because animal advocates are increasingly determined to figure out what kinds of arguments and actions are most effective. The growth of the effective altruism movement has brought new energy and resources to the struggle for animal rights. Said Ginsberg: “The increase in research and knowledge is one of the most exciting developments in the 17 years than I’ve been in the field.”
Curious about what else they have learned, I put a few basic questions to Green and Ginsberg:
Which is more effective–asking people to reduce meat consumption or urging them to give up animal products by adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet?
It depends on the audience, they explained. Young people who are forming lifelong eating habits are more receptive to appeals to try a vegetarian or vegan diet, while older adults with health concerns are open to so-called reducetarian messages, Ginsberg said. A former head of retail marketing for a bank, she says advocacy groups need to segment their audience, as businesses do. “One size fits all is a recipe for failure,” she says.
Green said that research suggests that the reducetarian message should be used more. (This can be a challenge, of course, for those who believe in animal rights.) He pointed me to one study finding that both the “reduce” and “eliminate” messages can be effective.
Has the growth of animal welfare reforms accelerated or slowed down progress towards animal rights? Or neither? Put another way, do people eat more meat or eggs when those products carry a label promising they are “humanely” produced?
There’s apparently no good evidence addressing this question but Green said that he believes that “the reform message reinforces the broader issue of animal ethics.”
The latest Animal Tracker survey found that people don’t talk about animal issues much: In the three months prior to the survey, most respondents (58%) said they had heard about or discussed animal issues “rarely” or “not at all.” So it stands to reason that just about any activity — a video exposing the conditions under which farm animals are raised, a ballot campaign, leafleting, a Facebook ad — that gets people to consider the plight of farm animals has a beneficial effect.
While people say they care about animals, they don’t act as if they do. How would you talk to a friend or relative who loves dogs but eats cows, pigs and chickens?
Very carefully, they said, and probably not at mealtime. In a blogpost headlined Cognitive Dissonance: Why the Truth Sets Nobody Free, Faunalytics says it’s a mistake to think that if people simply understood the truth about how farm animals suffer, they would stop eating animals. “A blend of willful ignorance and subconscious resistance…makes it very difficult to persuade most people to change,” the group says.
Ginsberg says that persuading dog or cat lovers to expand their circle of concern to include all animals “needs to be a priority for animal advocates,” but that “doing so on an individual level can be quite challenging.” It may be easier, she said, to persuade people to embrace alternatives than to convince them to avoid meat. Bring a delicious dish featuring fruits or vegetables to a gathering and “watch how quickly it goes,” she advises.
In that regard, Green and Ginsberg said they are excited by the growing popularity of meat alternatives already on the market, and by the potential for so-called clean meat, that is, real meat grown without the need to raise or slaughter animals. Faunalytics recently published its own research about clean meat, showing, among other things, that most people are willing to try clean meat.
“It should be easier for people to switch to eating clean meat than to becoming vegan or vegetarian,” Jo Anderson, research director for Faunalytics, said during a Slack chat about the research. “We might even see that once they have, their attitudes toward conventional meat become more negative, because they no longer have to defend or justify their consumption of it.”
My takeaway: For such a small organization–its annual budget is less than $250,000–Faunalytics does important work. The fact that meat consumption is back on the rise makes the work even more important; failure is a problem only if it doesn’t lead to learning, and the animal advocacy movement’s failure to curb meat consumption is an opportunity to revisit its strategies, tactics and messages. Just as we should expect nonprofits that deliver direct services to be able to demonstrate their impact, groups that do advocacy should be evidence-based. Clearly, the animal advocacy movement has a lot to learn. As Green put it: “Despite having worked on these issues for 20 years, we have more questions than answers.”