Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and why my autobiography would be filled with spreadsheets. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
We sometimes get requests to include more personal stories on this podcast — and today’s guest, Leah Garcés, has an incredible one about her efforts to end factory farming.
I was keen to see if I could learn broader lessons from the times she has formed constructive and warm relationships with folks that would normally be adversaries — like the chicken farmer who opened his doors to reveal the horrors on his own farm, or the executive at a big meat company who was once the villain in one of Leah’s viral videos.
But this episode isn’t just, or even mostly, about Leah’s story. I was especially excited to realise that Mercy For Animals’ strategy was pretty different than what I had thought, which made a lot of things clearer. You’ll hear me get the unifying theory behind their whole approach around 35–40 minutes in.
We also talk about:
- Why conditions for farmers are so bad
- The benefits of creating a public ranking, and scoring companies against each other
- The difficulty of enforcing corporate pledges
- And much more
Alright, without further ado, here’s Leah Garcés.
The interview begins [00:01:06]
Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Leah Garcés. Leah has been president of Mercy For Animals since 2018 and is the author of Grilled: Turning Adversaries Into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry. Over the last 10 years, Leah has first pressured and then collaborated with people in the U.S. chicken industry. That partnership had the immediate goal of stopping the caging of egg-laying hens and the confinement of chickens raised for meat in dense, unsanitary conditions, and the longer-term goal of reducing the suffering the U.S. food system causes to both nonhuman animals and humans as well. Her work has been featured in The New York Times 1, 2, Wired and The Ezra Klein Show, among many other places. Before working at Mercy For Animals, Leah led Compassion in World Farming in the United States, worked at the World Society for the Protection of Animals, and originally studied zoology at the University of Florida. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Leah.
Leah Garcés: Hi, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me, I’m very excited to chat with you today.
Robert Wiblin: I hope we’ll get to talk about what lessons we might be able to learn from your book Grilled, and what programs Mercy For Animals operates and why. But first off, as always, what are you working on at the moment, and why do you think it’s important?
Leah Garcés: Alright. Well, the first big project I have right now is our three-year strategic plan. It’s our global strategic plan where we lay out the priorities for the organization and decide what kind of impact, and why we’re choosing those pieces, so that’s critical because that will drive the entire organization in how we make decisions in dividing up resources, and what kind of impact we hope to have. The second big thing is a Costco campaign. So early February, we launched an undercover investigation into the conditions of broiler chickens in a Costco farm. And then we launched a national campaign against Costco, trying to get them to adopt better standards. And we’ve had hundreds of media outlets covering this story. We had Nicholas Kristof break the story in The New York Times, and it had huge coverage. And we’re partnering with other organizations to amplify the pressure. And then the third thing is a Southeast Asia expansion, which we can talk more about. Well over one-fifth of all farmed animals alive are confined in factory farms in East Asia alone, so it’s a good place for us to think about moving into. Well over one-fifth of the animals we use for food are killed in mainland China and Hong Kong alone.
Robert Wiblin: How does it feel to be kind of turning the screws on a company like Costco, or creating lots of hassles I suppose for their PR people? Is it exciting? Or do you have more mixed feelings about it?
Leah Garcés: Oh, no, it’s exciting. We’re coming a year out of the pandemic, where it was really hard to put pressure on companies, especially a lot of these companies that were pulling back or having to furlough staff. But grocery stores were not in that category. Grocery stores experienced incredible growth, record sales. Costco was one of those. And then we got an undercover investigation. And it felt so great. We have been sitting down with them for a year or so with no real progress to speak of, and so it was time, it was really time to put pressure on.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. If I remember right from my interview a couple of months ago with Lewis Bollard, I thought that Costco was actually a leader, at least in some dimension of making a pledge on animal welfare. But it sounds like now you’re still having to pressure them. What’s the story there?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. So they are a leader on, that’s a good memory, on cage-free eggs. So and actually, we’re kind of following that example. And I think it was 2015, the movement launched an undercover investigation against Costco and a major national campaign against Costco to get them to adopt a cage-free egg policy. And it took the better part of a year to get them to do so. They said they would, but they wouldn’t put a timeline on it. And now today, they are nearly 100% cage free on their eggs, including in Mexico. They’re almost entirely cage free. So they’re actually, I think that’s the right kind of trajectory for a company. If they’ve done cage-free eggs, then they’re ready to start broilers because that’s the next frontier. So they’re a good target in that sense.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It sounds like broiler chickens might be the harder sell to companies like this. I’m kind of surprised that Costco has been willing to be so advanced on the cage one. But it sounds like they’re dragging their heels and you’re really having to put pressure on them on the broiler chickens.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. I mean, when we talk about factory farming, we’re talking about broilers, we’re talking about chickens that we eat for meat. Because 90% of all the individual land we eat are chickens. So it’s the biggest amount economically that companies are benefiting from dealing with. And because there are so many animals, even small changes when you multiply that by nine billion, it’s going to cost a lot. So the changes we’re asking them to make do cost money.
Leah Garcés: On top of that, Costco in particular is using chickens, their rotisserie chicken, as a loss leader. So they sell it for $4.99 a rotisserie chicken. And they even have this whole… They have a public outward strategy for drawing people into the store through this rotisserie chicken to get you to buy a TV, or a kayak, or something like that. And we’re saying, “Please don’t use a sentient being as your loss leader. Use a kayak instead. Or use something else that doesn’t have feelings.” And I think it’s hard for them to take the loss leader and put the real cost into it. Then it’s even harder to make them do what would be right for the animals.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. We’ll come back to that campaign and the other things that Mercy For Animals is up to later in the interview. But first off, yeah, let’s talk about your book Grilled, which came out in 2019. In that book, you cover a lot of ground about your personal background, your work over the last couple of decades, and how you’ve had various successes over the years. I guess for our conversation I’m keen to focus in on the cases where you formed quite constructive relationships with folks like chicken farmers and executives at big meat companies, which is somewhat surprising, and these kind of relationships flourished, somewhat against the odds. I guess to start, could you lay out a few of the people who you collaborated with and how those relationships came to be, and what positive results came from them?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. The one that really changed how I view solving this problem, ending factory farming, was Craig Watts. So Craig Watts was a chicken factory farmer. And I was introduced to him through a Reuters journalist. And the journalist had asked me to come and meet him in a coffee shop and look at some papers that were highly confidential. They were the feed tickets from a chicken farm, going over many, many years. And I asked him, “How in the world did you get these?” Because it was detailing the antibiotics that are put in the feed. And I expected him to say something like, “Oh, we put an undercover investigator in there,” or, “We stole it,” or something. But he said, “The farmer gave it to me.” And I was like, “Who in the world is this farmer? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Leah Garcés: I had been trying for years to actually get in on a chicken farm legally and openly, and no one would let me in of course, because that all sits behind closed doors. And this journalist introduced me to Craig. And I drove out to meet him. And I have to say, driving out there, I was incredibly nervous. I was very convinced this was some kind of trick, an ambush of some kind. Upon meeting him though, I ended up sitting on his living room floor for hours and hours listening to his story. I was shocked at how upset he was with the industry. For different reasons than me, but he was also equally… He had the equal kind of fury in his bones about how he was treated, about how he felt as trapped as the chickens.
Leah Garcés: And so we ended up collaborating. He let me openly film inside of those chicken houses, and that ended up being a really big story. That was the first story I ended up working on with Nicholas Kristof. And that in turn led eventually to the second big relationship, which was Jim Perdue, which was a whole other ball game.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So tell us about that one as well. For those who don’t know Jim Perdue is the CEO of Perdue Farms, one of the largest poultry farming and meat processing companies in the United States.
Leah Garcés: So Jim Perdue, after literally depicting him as the villain in the video that Craig and I did together… We essentially said that he was a liar. We show him saying, “Farmers are happy. Chickens are happy. There’s a lot of space. They’re clean.” And then we show the reality, and that ended up being the center of the campaign and the headlines in The New York Times. Well, fast forward a couple years later, and first Perdue wouldn’t speak to me for a good year. They wouldn’t answer my calls. But eventually, I happened to see an article again in The New York Times with a different journalist, of Jim Perdue. It was about antibiotics. But at the very end, he’s quoted saying, “We need happier birds,” which was shocking. The word ‘happy’ and him admitting that they needed to be happier was shocking.
Leah Garcés: And I ended up writing to their media person and saying, “Look, I really think we need to talk. I think we’re closer than we think.” Next thing I know, I’m being invited to tour the farms. I didn’t even know Jim Perdue was going to be there. I came down from the hotel, and there he is sitting in the lobby. And he was very friendly, and we ended up forging a relationship where I’m able to speak frankly with him even today.
Robert Wiblin: Why do you think they were open to talking with you, and I guess talking with you in some detail, not just as kind of a PR exercise?
Leah Garcés: Well, if you talk to one of the executives, [Mark McKay], who is now the president of their premium foods, he actually refers to Mercy For Animals’ undercover video as one of the reasons, and Compassion in World Farming’s videos, and saying, “We looked at that video,” and he said he turned around in the room and said, “Do we agree with what we’re seeing here?” And no one did. And he said, “Did anybody actually just call them?” No one had. So I think quite often, I think it does come down to individuals being willing to take that risk and put themselves in an uncomfortable situation and have a conversation. That’s part of it.
Leah Garcés: I also think their brand was suffering. And I think that they put themselves out there as a premium protein brand, a brand of quality. And for me, I look for companies like that as targets, honestly, because their brand relies on that. And there’s a conflict there with their brand and what the reality is on the ground.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. And what was the reason that the farmer, Craig Watts, was willing to work with you?
Leah Garcés: Craig says that he was simply fed up. And he saw the same commercial I had seen with Jim Perdue saying everything’s wonderful, and he said, “The consumers are being hoodwinked, and I just can’t live with myself anymore.” It was shame. It’s a kind of shame that he felt for the lies that were being fed to the American public and the consumers at large. And I think he was also close to the end of his debt, so he felt he could take more risk. He’s a unique person. But he was willing to put himself at risk, but it was less financial risk than previous years.
Robert Wiblin: From the book, I had something of the impression that he was extremely angry. Was it Tyson or Perdue who he was working with?
Leah Garcés: Perdue.
Robert Wiblin: Perdue, yeah. He was extremely frustrated with the company because I guess he was being paid very little, and new demands were constantly being placed on him. The prices were very low. There was no sympathy from the company he was contracting with. And it seemed like by the point he was talking to you, he didn’t really care whether he stayed in the industry or not because it was so poorly remunerated and such unpleasant work that he was willing to have a go at Perdue. To some extent it sounds almost like revenge or a matter of justice for him.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, I would say…sort of. And to familiarize folks with what the poultry industry is like for farmers, so to give Craig’s story, when he was 22 years old, he wanted to stay on this land in the poorest county in North Carolina. The tobacco industry had already fallen through, and there were no other job options. So when the poultry industry came to town and said, “You can raise chickens for us, just sign on this dotted line.” All you have to do, and this is what he did, is you take a loan out and you build some chicken houses for a quarter of a million dollars. And then you use the money that you’re getting from raising chickens to pay off that loan like a mortgage. So it seemed like a dream come true for Craig, who wanted to stay on the land. And a lot of farmers just want to have this life.
Leah Garcés: For Craig, the land had been passed down five generations in his family, and he wanted to raise his family there. And it went great at first, but after a little while, it’s a factory farm, so chickens die, and you don’t get paid for dead chickens. And so he started to fall into more and more and more debt. Just as he’s about to pay off his debt, the company asks him to take another $100,000 out to do upgrades, and he’s back on the debt treadmill of chicken farming. And actually, 45% of U.S. poultry farmers incur a loss annually, so they’re living like this all the time. In fact, the chicken operators, chicken farmers in total have $5.2 billion worth of debt. And the median income for poultry farmers is about $17,000. It’s a debt treadmill for chicken farmers.
Leah Garcés: So I think that Craig wasn’t just doing it out of revenge, but also because of the justice side of things. In the meantime, this is America’s most popular meat. It’s the most popular source of protein. And the chicken industry is making record profits all on the backs of farmers, and of course, the animals that are suffering. It’s not known to people. They think it’s a family farm that’s raising the chickens, and it’s not. They’re essentially indentured servants.
Robert Wiblin: In the book, there’s a couple of other similar-ish cases where you formed positive relationships with people in the industry in order to get various reforms through. Did you find it challenging personally to work with people whose work you thought for many years is extremely harmful? Indeed, I guess I would use the word evil. Whenever I think about this issue, I think of people like Perdue, the CEO of this chicken company and think these people must be monsters. I think I would find it very hard to have a civil conversation on some level. But you’ve seen the farms they’re operating, and yet are able to connect with them personally. I’m not sure that I could do it.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, I listened to your podcast with Lewis Bollard and you said something like “I don’t have much empathy for these people,” I noted. And I very much felt that way until I met somebody. It’s very easy to hate people you haven’t met. And for me, I’ve always been very curious about getting to the root of a problem. And the only way you do that is through curiosity questions and exploration. And so I have learned so much sitting down with the poultry industry executives, because the chicken industry itself is very unknown to even advocates who spend their entire lives working on it. And in order to unpick it and take the bricks out of that wall, we have to sit down to understand it.
Leah Garcés: So at the very worst, I’m going to find out something I didn’t know. At the very best, I might create a potential ally that I didn’t have before, and realize we’re aligned on 80%. And I did find that in many cases.
Robert Wiblin: In trying to build concern for animals, I guess among farmers who are I suppose probably more conservative than a lot of the people who you work with, what kind of values are you trying to draw on, or to build support among people who I guess politically you probably don’t see eye to eye with?
Leah Garcés: One of the strongest is around tradition. Craig Watts wanted to raise his family here, and for five generations, his family has raised their family here. And that’s what I’m saying, getting to the root of the problem. The reason Craig chose chicken factory farming is not because he wanted to wake up every day and torture animals. The root, the reason, the rationale was because he wanted to stay on the land. He wanted to live in rural America and he wanted to have this traditional way of life that his ancestors had.
Leah Garcés: So leaning into that and finding that that’s the reason, and what other solutions can we provide so that they don’t choose chicken farming in the first place is a really important value to understand. And that goes with family, that’s another strong value when I work with these folks. And then freedom, I hear it all the time from farmers who are angry, is that they don’t have economic freedom. They’re trapped. They’re treated like indentured servants. They believe that American freedom and economic freedom are important. And these are typical conservative values, tradition, American freedom, economic freedom. These are traditional conservative values that we find in rural America. And so they’re really aligned with moving away from factory farming, actually, and giving more autonomy to the family farmer, so that they’re not under the thumb of a big corporate integrator who is dictating what, and how, and how much they’re going to be paid.
Why are conditions for farmers so bad? [00:18:31]
Robert Wiblin: Are the conditions for farmers especially bad in part because these large corporations have a lot of market power, so there’s not a lot of competition where a farmer could easily switch between the person who they’re selling their chicken to, and thereby get a higher price or more favorable conditions?
Leah Garcés: 100%. Most of these farmers have no other options in their areas. And that’s intentionally done. So the way it’s set up is first, a company will set up a slaughterhouse. They call it a ‘processing plant,’ but it’s a slaughterhouse. And that costs a lot of money. Then, they will contract farmers within a 30–50 mile radius of that slaughterhouse. They’ll contract 200 farmers. And those farmers will all send their chickens to this slaughterhouse. Now you’re not going to have two slaughterhouses set up in the same radius, they’re going to be set up somewhere else, so they can get farmers from that area.
Leah Garcés: And so should you not be happy with your integrator, with your processing plant, you’d have to move to get to another one. And as I said, a lot of folks have been living on this land for many generations. They want to stay here; mobility is not an option. So options are very few, plus any other kind of job is not possible. A lot of these places are suffering from a lot of economic turmoil and lack of opportunity.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. That makes a bit more sense, I see why these companies seemingly are just able to wring every penny out of these families. There is very little competition. And I guess there’s also barriers to exit because people will feel like they don’t have many transferable skills, they’re not sure what else they would do if they stepped into the unknown and left that. And they don’t want to, in any case, they want to continue with the kind of life that they’ve had in the place that they’ve been living, which I guess leaves them just like sitting ducks, I suppose, for these companies. And maybe that’s what they’ve noticed. They’re like, “These people want to stay here. They’ll stay here even if the salaries are an absolute pittance. So maybe we should just turn the screws on them.”
Leah Garcés: Yeah. I think that’s right. That’s why I think a lot of where we’ve come up with a solution is around Transfarmation, which is a project to transition farmers out of factory farming and into something else, and really trying to develop an alternative economic option through hemp, or mushrooms, or anything else which we can repurpose, and future-proof farmers as well because they’re going to need to provide for the future economy as well. So we do need to think about providing another option.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. One of the reasons I might have had a negative opinion about these farmers is I think, “Why don’t they just take their land and grow plants on it?” Is the money so much worse? Is it that the land isn’t suitable for growing plants? And so they feel like they have to do chickens, and there’s no alternative? What’s the story there?
Leah Garcés: Well, when I talk to farmers, I equate it to almost like gambling. They are presented with a contract that looks too good to be true., and it is too good to be true. But they buy into it because they’re told it’s a no-brainer, you’re going to make money. It’s going to be easy. You can do something else while you’re also watching chickens. It’s not like crop farming. Crop farming is hard work. It’s weather dependent. You might get a freeze. You might get a problem, a pest, whatever. And chicken farming is presented like chickens are robots, and they’re just machines that will turn out a profit for you.
Leah Garcés: And part of our job is to educate not just consumers, but farmers. To say, “This is a horrible job that will leave you in debt and miserable,” and try to stop farmers from signing up for it in the first place, because they’ve been duped. And we ignored, as advocates, this part of it for so long. And we didn’t think that this was something we should tackle, but it quite clearly is.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just for listeners who aren’t familiar with the story, and I guess I wasn’t until I read your book, basically the companies have figured out this quite clever way of playing farmers where they get them to sign very long-term contracts with these loans. It looks really good on its face, I guess the same way that when you go and sign a long-term contract with a cable company or with a mobile phone company, it’s made to look very nice and shiny. But then kind of the negative terms and conditions and all of the problems with it become apparent over time. But by then, you’re kind of locked into the thing and it’s very hard to get out of it.
Leah Garcés: Sorry to interrupt, but it’s not … They don’t sign a long-term contract with the company. It’s actually a loan with the bank. So they only get a contract for 90 days. It’s even worse because the money coming to them is only up to 90 days, but the money they owe can take 30 years. So they have to build all the infrastructure to raise the chickens in. And they get a million-dollar loan out. So this perhaps high school-educated farmer, who lives in the poorest county of rural North Carolina can get a million-dollar loan out from the bank. I couldn’t do that. And the only way to pay that debt off to the bank, and the bank gives them that money based on this contract that they’ve got with Perdue, or Tyson, any chicken company, the only way to pay that debt off like a mortgage is to keep raising chickens. And if the company is unhappy with you, if you complain, or if you do anything to upset them, they can cut your contract off within 90 days, and then you’re stuck with this mortgage and no way to pay it.
Leah Garcés: So that’s how they keep you under the thumb. Because you’re not going to … It’s very hard for people to speak out, because they risk everything. The entire loan is tied to their land and their home and everything. So if they don’t keep raising chickens, they still have the debt, and they would lose everything if they can’t pay it off.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So as far as I can tell, the basic situation these people are in is that they’re bearing all the risk for things not working out. So the company that they are selling to has pushed all the risk onto them individually as a single farm. They’re earning minimum wage kind of, on average, but—
Leah Garcés: Less than minimum wage.
Robert Wiblin: But very variable, less than, yeah. And the job is to go around and basically kill diseased chickens on your farm every day. And obviously, the shed is a very unpleasant place to be. The key actual piece of work on a day-to-day basis is killing off the birds that are diseased or are not going to otherwise… It doesn’t sound like a fantastic life. And it seems like really a lot of farmers should be leaving this if it can’t be reformed. But yeah, there’s barriers to doing that. I haven’t talked about this very much because I feel it’s a bit ironic talking about chicken farmers not being paid enough because I feel like maybe the optimal income might be $0 because then the industry would cease to be.
Robert Wiblin: But I guess the important lesson here is that if you’ve got another group that’s disgruntled with the system for a different reason, then they are potential allies in changing in all kinds of ways. And you can eventually collaborate, even if you don’t agree on exactly what the problems are.
Lessons for others focused on social reform [00:25:04]
Robert Wiblin: Analyzing the process that you’ve been through, what do you think other people focused on social reform should take away from the experiences that you document in Grilled?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. That’s a great question. The first one is that we have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Only talking to people who agree with us won’t get us to the solution. So recognizing that the opponent quite often has the power to solve the problem, and that I don’t. So for example, I don’t care for a single chicken, the farmer does, and Perdue does. So in order to understand how to unpick this problem and end it, I have to speak to the people who are in control of it, so I’m comfortable being uncomfortable.
Leah Garcés: Another one is the simple thing of being willing to sit down and recognize that the person across from you is a human being, and has come to the decisions they’ve made out of a complex human mind. And they’ll have made decisions that you will not be aware of. And sitting down with them and making that connection is really important. And this is something that comes through a lot of negotiation. If you work on business negotiation, it’s the same thing. Find the common football team that you both like, or the baseball team that you both like. Make those common connections.
Leah Garcés: Or in my case, I sat down with one particular chicken executive, and both of us had adopted children. And so we were able to connect and forget that we were supposed to be enemies in that moment, and talk about that experience, and some walls came down and some trust was built because I recognized he was a human being and made that connection.
Leah Garcés: And the last thing is to look for win-wins and start there, rather than start with what you disagree with. So in the case of Craig Watts, I started to think about: How could I find him a different job? Rather than: How do I just end his job?
Leah Garcés: It’ll be faster and more efficient if we can find solutions where everybody wins, because they’ll be more willing to come with us. We won’t have to spend resources fighting them. Instead, they’ll just willingly come. So how can we find solutions where everybody is winning? It’s not always possible, but you should look there first. Those are three.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. On the first one about building relationships with people, as I was reading the book, I was thinking there’s different interpretations you could have of events. One would be that the personal connections that you built, finding that you had both adopted children, that you back the same football team, or whatever, that those personal connections were able to move the needle and to build trust, and potentially get movement on a bunch of policy areas, where otherwise it wouldn’t happen, which is entirely possible.
Robert Wiblin: An alternative interpretation might be that because these companies were scared of Mercy For Animals, because they were scared of the damage that they might suffer, and perhaps looking again at the numbers, they were actually like, “Actually, making some of these reforms won’t be as costly as we think, and we’re probably going to be forced to do it anyway, so maybe let’s just get ahead.” It’s actually a perfectly fine business decision. Those business considerations made the relationship possible. And so where previously they were unwilling to talk to you, because they decided to change anyway, now they wanted to build a more collaborative relationship. I guess it could be quite difficult to distinguish these two cases, and to some extent, they kind of blur together. But what do you make of that?
Leah Garcés: I think both. Like I said earlier, recognizing that there’s a PR risk of continuing to abuse animals, and knowing that is out there, and if your brand especially is tied to quality, or caring, or being better than others, then you’re at risk. And so I always present to companies, animal welfare can be a risk or a benefit for you. You do it badly, that’s a huge risk because here comes an undercover investigator to show what’s going on. Or it can be a benefit if you do it well and you’re leapfrogging ahead of your competitors. Consumers are only caring more and more about this issue, not less. And they’re able to access more and more information, and we’re able to get more and more footage. I also think I had a capacity to make personal relationships and a curiosity, a kind of, I don’t know, almost like I could never satisfy my curiosity. I always liked understanding other people’s perspectives, and I was always curious about how people came to different conclusions than me. And so I think that did help too, to explore that and make me more willing to be uncomfortable talking to others.
Robert Wiblin: There are some other organizations in the animal space, I guess The Humane League jumps to mind, that take a somewhat more adversarial approach, and might be less inclined to form relationships like the ones that you’ve done. I suppose I recall that story where you were talking to someone, I think they were in charge of communications or some other aspect of a chicken company, and they were saying, “I would love to make these changes for animals that you’re suggesting, but the public doesn’t care enough as yet. So you need to go out there and make a big fuss so that the most profitable thing for us to do is to adopt reforms, and then I’ll be able to push it through within the company, but because it would be a good business decision.” I guess that kind of blurs the line between… It’s like, is that an adversarial relationship now? Or is it a collaborative one? I guess it’s a little bit of both. What is the right mix, do you think, of these adversarial approaches where you kind of do use the stick, and other times when you use the carrot? I guess, how can we know how to strike the right balance as a movement as a whole?
Leah Garcés: The short answer is you need both. But we always start with a cooperative effort because it’s more efficient. It’s less resources. If you can sit down with someone and get them to do what you feel is the correct pathway, that’s going to cost less time and money, so you should always ask first. You should always sit down and say, “What are the barriers? Is there anything I can do about those barriers? What’s the resistance? Is there anything I can do about that?” But like the Costco example, we sat down with them for a year, and it was very clear, they just didn’t care. It didn’t matter. And the only thing that was going to work was public campaigning, but this should be a last resort because it’s so costly.
Leah Garcés: And that was the resort we had to move to. That was the move we had to take because it was clear nothing else was going to work, except really thinking through exposing them publicly for the realities on their farm that they were benefiting from economically. So it has to be both, but I always start with cooperative because it costs less. It’s more efficient. And it moves us along faster.
Robert Wiblin: That makes sense. So I guess the bottom line is you reach out the hand, try to form a cooperative relationship. If that doesn’t work, then you have to be adversarial. But then as soon as they’re willing to deal with you, then you want to switch back because this is going to be so much cheaper and so much faster.
Leah Garcés: 100%. Yep.
Driving up the price of factory farmed meat [00:31:18]
Robert Wiblin: What are the other profit- or investor-related pressures that are causing food companies that produce meat to look into increasing their non-meat offerings or diversify the kind of protein that they’re providing?
Leah Garcés: One of the big things is the younger generation wanting a different product. And there’s really clear signals from marketing companies, we purchase marketing reports, and it’s very, very clear the younger populations want less meat. They want alternatives, they’re willing to try them, and they’re interested in that. I think the other driver, which is quite interesting, is the cost of animal welfare improvements. So as we drive animal welfare into society as an important moral value in our purchasing, and then drive that into the supply chain, it costs more. Cage-free eggs cost more, treating animals better costs more, and that in turn makes the products cost more. So companies are considering ways to keep costs similar and are finding it difficult to do so.
Leah Garcés: We have a concrete example in Mexico, where we’re working with a very large bread company who committed to cage-free eggs but is finding it challenging to keep the price point where it is. And they’re now turning to us to say, could we consider plant-based products as an alternative? So I think those sorts of pressures are causing food companies to really think about the future and what their offerings should look like. Price point is very much a driver, and that’s why you see more plant-based products being offered as animal welfare improvements are made. And that’s part of our theory of change, frankly, is driving up costs till they meet plant-based product alternative price points. And then also young people just demanding it more and wanting it more.
Robert Wiblin: So the idea is that, of course we’re trying to drive down the price of meat alternatives, but if the meat is a bit more expensive because the minimum standards are higher, then that’s going to happen sooner. They’ll cross over earlier.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, I mean that’s one of our main theories of change is that if you look at like… We have an internal chart where we’re looking at the price point of meat and then the price point of plant-based. And plant-based is quite high right now, and meat is quite low. And what we’re trying to do is drive up the cost of meat, dairy, and eggs through animal welfare improvements — because all of those costs have been externalized, and we’re trying to internalize those costs, and make them cost what they should rather than making taxpayers pay for cleanup or health costs. And then as we do that, the technology, the biotech industry related to plant-based gets better and more efficient. There’s more of it, mass production. And that price point goes down.
Leah Garcés: And at some point they cross, those lines cross. And that’s where we expect a tipping point to happen, where the price of plant-based goes below meat and meat goes over, and people purchase plant-based products. Price point is a main driver for purchasing, and that’s why we’re trying in many ways… Not only does it obviously morally reduce the suffering of the animals, but this internalizing the cost of meat, dairy, and eggs will drive the price point up and make plant-based offerings more realistic for consumers.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. In my conversation with Lewis I guess he was a little bit nervous about how cheap it’s realistic to get some of these plant-based alternatives. So it could be that in some of these cases driving up the cost of meat and eggs not only brings forward the date, but it might actually make it possible, where otherwise it might just be extremely difficult.
Robert Wiblin: He was pointing out that one reason that the way that we raise chickens is so cruel is that every efficiency has been rung out of the system. There’s very little slack there. And that means that chicken meat is extremely cheap. And in fact it’s not trivial to figure out a way of making plant protein delicious at a price that’s lower than that. So one other argument would be that it’s most strictly necessary to drive up the price of meat and eggs in order to make it happen.
Leah Garcés: I think it will only be beneficial to drive up the price point for meat, dairy, and eggs. It’s beneficial to the animals, and it’s going to be beneficial to closing the gap between plant-based proteins and animal proteins.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. One line of argument that is made in the book is that the animal agriculture industry is contributing to a whole lot of negative externalities. And it’s producing a lot of disgruntled people nearby. So there’s people who are frustrated about the treatment of animals, there’s people who are very frustrated about the treatment of farmers, the farmers themselves are often very disgruntled… There’s people who are concerned about all the many different environmental effects, there’s people who are nervous about the antibiotic resistance… And although we don’t know exactly how that’s going to play out, the fact that you’re causing all of these harms and creating all of these adversaries in a sense, all these people who would like to force you to change, is a business risk. And even if you don’t know exactly what policy reforms are going to result, that exposes you to the industry potentially turning over and there being negative risks for you in the future, negative outcomes. Is there any way of quantifying the magnitude of that effect and how much that should affect investor behavior?
Leah Garcés: Yeah, I know that there are organizations trying to do that. So FAIRR is trying to do that. They’re trying to calculate the cost of some of these things, both antibiotics and environmental pollution, and putting that to investors and explaining what a huge risk this is as an investment. And I think it’s a really valid strategy and I really support looking at this as a bad investment. This is just a poor investment if you just look at the bottom line.
Robert Wiblin: And it’s a bad investment you think because there’s all these risks that are generated by the fact that we might see policy reforms that drive up the cost a whole lot and kind of leave these assets stranded financially in a sense?
Leah Garcés: Yeah, a couple of things. I think first of all, there’s just the brand risk, that this is always going to be a risk that’s out there for the companies in terms of being exposed. Tofu doesn’t have that kind of risk. And then there’s the risk of policy changes that ban a practice that then mean that the company will have to invest in upgrades or changes like new cages, or no cages. And then the environmental ones, and the health ones, it goes on and on, the antibiotic changes. There’s just so many factors that are hard to account for the total cost, but there are huge risks for investors.
Robert Wiblin: In the book you talk quite a bit about the health and environmental concerns around food production, as well as the animal welfare concerns. And it seems like the impression you give is that there’s a kind of complementarity around solving all of these problems at once. But one thing that struck me as I was reading the book is that there might be more intention than it initially appears. So if you can get people to just stop eating meat, then you solve all these problems at once. So that’s really nice. And as much as you’re trying to reform farming, if you insist on, say, changes that make farming more environmentally friendly, that tends to drive up costs for consumers in many cases. And then if people are already paying more for the environmental benefit, are they also going to be willing, do they feel like they have money in their grocery budget to also pay for the added cost of higher welfare animals? So I guess I slightly worry that by pushing on all of these things at once, it’s possible that solving one problem kind of cannibalizes potentially others?
Leah Garcés: Yeah, so I think that the ultimate goal, our theory of change and its natural conclusion is, you internalize all of these externalities from meat, dairy, and eggs to make it more expensive. And the idea that we just keep doing that, and keep doing that, and keep doing that, and simultaneously we’re reducing the cost of plant-based alternatives and cell-based meat until they go below the price point of meat, dairy, and eggs. The majority of people don’t care, they just want their protein. They’re not really thinking about it and they’ll switch to a cheaper alternative as soon as it’s available. So we focus on animal welfare. Yes, because it reduces the suffering of animals in the system, but also because we want to pressure towards a tipping point where plant alternatives replace meat entirely.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, okay. Now I’m seeing it. I didn’t get this as I was reading the book. So I suppose animal welfare reforms that improve welfare for animals and drive up the cost are a double win. Because you get the win immediately from the animal welfare, but also the higher price. But if you can drive up the price by, say, raising salaries for farmers, or by getting them to treat the environment better, then that’s great as well because you’ve just increased the price and thereby reduced demand for meat relative to other options.
Leah Garcés: Exactly. So a lot of people when they… I’m an ethical vegan, and a lot of people when they see me advocating for farmers go, “What the heck are you doing? This person kills chickens.” And that is my exact argument. If they get paid more, chicken costs more, that’s good. If the environmental costs get internalized, that’s good. If antibiotics reduction means… All these things, any internalizing of the cost drives up price, and that is good because consumer demand goes down as price goes up.
Robert Wiblin: It’s so interesting. Yeah, I’d thought of this thing where, well, shouldn’t they be paid $0, because then they won’t produce it, but I suppose the opposite extreme is also true. If they were each paid $1 million, then the industry would also disappear. So you’re going to have to get away from the… I guess we’re probably currently somewhere near the sweet spot that maximizes production, and we need to push in either direction.
Leah Garcés: Totally.
Robert Wiblin: Do you worry about this? I mean you talk about this in the book, that whenever people raise health and environmental concerns it tends to cause people to eat less beef and more chicken and more fish. Yeah, do you worry about highlighting those concerns to a wider audience that might be reading the book?
Leah Garcés: Yeah, I think it’s a big concern of mine, and we’ve seen companies as they adopt emissions targets for example, the first thing they go for is reducing beef or dairy in their supply chains. And then the number of animals actually goes up, fish and chickens. And you see that for health reasons as well. Where people have a heart attack and they’re told to stay off of red meat, and then they’re eating more chickens and fish, and those are more individual animals. Because one cow equals 26 chickens, for example. So it’s a huge concern. And one where we have to pay close, close attention to how we’re driving the consumer in terms of health. I don’t think health is a super good reason to use as an advocating reason. I think that the human angle, the human justice angle seems to be a better approach.
Robert Wiblin: It’s interesting, I guess I hadn’t quite picked up that the theory of change primarily runs through price increases. And I guess in Mercy For Animals’ kind of messaging and its talking about its success, it talks a lot about how many animals we’ll help to live in better conditions. Which is of course going to be correlated with these price increases. But I wonder whether there’s any way of measuring the outputs in terms of actual, “This is how many chickens were sold for this much more money,” that might sound a little bit more adversarial. So perhaps that isn’t a better way of framing it to the public.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, it’s been tricky. And for a long time… This is a kind of newer theory of change. I’m entering my third decade of animal advocacy. And we used to try to pretend it wouldn’t drive up costs, because we were afraid the industry wouldn’t engage with us. We’d say, “Oh, it’s not going to cost more. We can make it work.” And probably about, I don’t know, less than 10 years ago I switched and said, no, it’s going to drive a cost and it should, because we have squeezed out every possible efficiency out of these animals and that is not okay. And all of the risks and all of the costs have been put on the animals and the farmers, and the industry should pay more. They just should.
Leah Garcés: They make a lot of money, they’re benefiting from subsidies, they’re benefiting from tax breaks, they should pay more. And that’s something we need to be loud about when we speak in our messaging, because raising the price means the consumption goes down. So I am speaking much more vocally about this point because I don’t think chicken should be that cheap. It shouldn’t be something that we eat every day. It used to not be, and it is today, and that’s core to the problem.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So now that I get this theory of change I have to rewrite some of my questions on the fly here. I was going to say, there’s something slightly funny about the fact that in the book it seems to be kind of a split among animal-focused people…between those who think that moral suasion is the thing that’s going to make the difference, and those who think that technology like plant-based meat alternatives and clean meat, is going to make the difference. I guess you’re doing the synthesis, where you’re saying moral suasion will raise the price, and then that will speed up the pace at which we switch to the plant-based food. So then the reframing of the question might be, is it more efficient to try to raise the price of meat or is it more efficient to put that money, those people, into trying to lower the price of plant-based alternatives? I guess that’s a very hard question to answer, but do you have any kind of model in your head or has anyone kind of looked at that comparison?
Leah Garcés: Yeah, we actually did a paper called Moving the Needle, and we talked about the synergy of these two areas needing to work together. Because if you think about plant-based products and their success, I cannot think of another product in the market that has a free marketing wing like they have. So companies like the Impossible Burger or Beyond, Mercy For Animals is essentially trashing their competitors. We are creating a very big demand for free. So there’s a synergy in which we are the marketing arm for these companies, and we’re creating this huge demand by exposing the realities of their competitors, by building a very aligned and passionate following for their products. And I cannot think of another positive example like that in the market. I can think of a negative, where soda, for example, had NGOs advocating against sugar in schools and sodas in schools. And that was successful policy-wise. Flip that, I cannot think of another example where there is a marketing product that is being cheerleaded by a nonprofit passionate advocacy base that wants it to be successful.
Robert Wiblin: Possibly I guess climate advocates and solar panels or Tesla cars and that kind of thing?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. That’s a great, totally great example, yes.
Robert Wiblin: I guess one benefit of the food R&D or the plant-based meat and clean meat R&D is that any advances that you get probably will eventually spread through the industry, and then ideally through what becomes a global industry, because it’s knowledge that just can spread everywhere. It’s potentially a little bit more challenging trying to raise the price of meat through getting say, policy reforms or changes to standards, because they tend to be within a specific jurisdiction. So you run a campaign and then you probably get it in the United States specifically, but that doesn’t automatically kind of then increase the price in other countries. I guess potentially you get some cultural crossover, but it’s a bit less of a global thing all at once.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, that is true. But what we have seen is that certain countries are globally influential in terms of setting standards. And so Europe really has led the way in terms of animal welfare reform. And even now they’re leading the way in many ways on the policy side of plant-based and clean meat. Yeah, so I think one of the big factors is that certain countries are globally influential in setting market trends, and Europe and the E.U. when it comes to animal products are those countries. And so I do think that that will impact other countries, and we have seen that happen.
Leah Garcés: So even when China tries to trade with the E.U. … I used to work on pig slaughterhouses, and looking at pig slaughterhouses in China, one of their key questions was what are the standards required to trade into the E.U.? And the E.U. if they set standards, it has to be these sorts of health standards, these sorts of animal welfare standards that have to be followed, then you can trade with us, that can really raise the bar in other countries. So these countries have the capacity to raise the bar and the standards on other countries.
Robert Wiblin: We might think that if people can do kind of breakthrough research, breakthrough R&D into creating really tasty, much, much cheaper plant-based alternatives, that those might be the most valuable jobs. But we can’t actually send 100,000 people into those jobs, they don’t exist, and a lot of people don’t don’t have the necessary skills. So then there’s other things like, I suppose the marketing for those organizations. And then there’s also just people who are driving up demand by all kinds of different means. I suppose I’m somewhat inclined to think that yeah, people who can go into the food science stuff, that might well have the biggest impact in the long term. But most people don’t have food science degrees.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, I think there’s a huge need for R&D in plant-based and cell meat as well. I think we receive a fraction… You’d have to talk to Bruce Friedrich about the amount of money that goes to that kind of technology. And currently the movement itself is trying to free up more and more money from appropriations and other activities within the government to try to get more money into R&D to help develop this as a proper alternative. And I think that is one of the big factors to help move the needle.
Robert Wiblin: Moving back a little bit, it seems like one approach that you’ve taken advantage of is whenever you have an industry or organization that has disgruntled employees, that is a fantastic opportunity. If you speak to people who’ve ever run an organization, ex-disgruntled employees is a nightmare scenario. Because they know lots of things, they know the pressure points, and so they can potentially do a lot of damage. And that’s something that you’ve taken advantage of in this case, where farmers are extremely unhappy with the industry and you can use that. Could you think of any other cases perhaps where this approach might be possible to use that? Because possibly if oil workers, or oil and drill workers were extremely frustrated, then that could potentially be a pressure point that you could apply to fossil fuel companies. But I’m not sure whether there are other promising avenues?
Leah Garcés: We tend to think of corporations as these monolithic beasts where everyone thinks the same thing and they’re all in line. But I found that when I speak to companies I always find that one vegan. You would be so shocked that in these meat companies there’s a vegan, there’s a vegetarian, or it;s like oh my wife or my husband is a vegan or vegetarian. So similarly in any industry you work in, you’re going to find a sympathetic person, and that’s the person you sit down with and go, what’s the deal here? What are the pressure points? What do I need to do? So that example you used earlier where this person said, look, I really get what you’re saying on chickens, but it’s not a priority in the company, so what you need to do is go externally and create a lot of noise… That’s what I did. And that worked. And her telling me that was the information I needed from the inside to be able to push the issue up in their priority list.
Robert Wiblin: A kind of classic debate that has gone on in the animal movement is whether it could be harmful to get incremental welfare improvements, incremental policy reforms that improve the wellbeing of animals, because the fear is that then that could reduce momentum because people will be satisfied with the point that you’ve gotten to. And so you’ll never get full abolition. That’s interesting that the approach that you’re taking where you’re like, well full abolition is probably going to come anyway because of the meat alternatives, because of clean meat, because of the plant-based alternatives… On that model where you don’t need the full moral suasion in order to abolish factory farming, or potentially to abolish animal agriculture in general, the wind is kind of taken out of the sails of that argument. Do you think that’s right?
Leah Garcés: Yeah, I do think that’s right. And the idea is that there is a tipping point that occurs. And so it doesn’t rely on that total moral persuasion to happen, absolutely.
Mercy For Animals [00:50:08]
Robert Wiblin: Alright, let’s move on and chat about the organization that you’re a leader of, which is Mercy For Animals. Yeah, MFA operates in over six countries and now has a budget of over $14 million. I guess to catch the audience up who isn’t super familiar, what are Mercy For Animals’ central programs? Other than I guess the ones that we’ve already talked about.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, I frame them as interventions. So we have five main interventions. One is changing institutions. There are institutions and systems that hold factory farming in place, and we have to unravel those in order to stand up against the status quo of our current food system. Those are both corporate and legislative policies that we try to secure. The second is engaging the public. We have to increase public awareness and sympathy toward our mission. While not everyone wants to be on the front lines, we want to build awareness and support to decrease resistance to the work we’re doing. That could be documentaries and media, social media, recipes, getting people enthusiastic. And the key thing is to decrease resistance, create an environment in which we can be more successful, a landscape that’s more successful.
Leah Garcés: The third one is building people power. So that’s different. Whereas you might have a million people you’re trying to engage on public awareness, there’s a smaller number, say 50,000, where you’re trying to really deeply engage. That’s the people power. So people drive this and we have to organize them, and they have to help us bring about the change. So these are people who are willing to do more. They’re donating, they’re protesting, they’re calling up the executives, they’re organizing in their communities. The fourth one is a newer one, which is really the result of the book that I’ve written and that path I’ve been on, which is creating the solution. We can’t just say what is wrong, but we have to build what is right. And this means rolling up our sleeves and working to build the system we think is correct. Which could look like transitioning factory farms to plant-based farms. It could look like increasing plant-based options and creating favorable legislative landscapes. So getting subsidies towards something else or taking away subsidies.
Leah Garcés: And the fifth is building a thriving culture and a strong infrastructure. We continue to believe that culture eats strategy for breakfast. If you don’t have a good finance system, you’re not going to be able to pay people, and it’s going to be a mess. You have to have a really strong organization in order to be successful.
Robert Wiblin: I assume you’ve got to make difficult strategic decisions about how to allocate the budget between the different programs and which programs to run. And presumably you’ve thought about doing other things and then opted not to do them. In brief, what’s the case in favor of each of these programs offering a large bang for buck for Mercy For Animals and its donors?
Leah Garcés: The biggest and easiest one to understand is the intervention related to institutions. So if we were able to secure a policy with McDonald’s on broilers, that’s half a million chickens whose lives are improved overnight. To reach half a million individuals would be very hard, expensive, labor intensive, and we would never be able to follow up with them. Another level up from that is what if we created a policy for all chickens in the United States that’s a law? That’s 9 billion chickens that are impacted with one piece of legislation.
Leah Garcés: So obviously the biggest bang for your buck is legislation, followed by corporate policy. And corporate policy often is a necessary predecessor, at least in the United States, of legislative change. So you get a kind of critical mass of companies that will agree to do a particular action, and then a policy, and then legislation is easier. That’s what we saw with Prop 12 where we banned cages for laying hens. Well we already had 200 companies that had agreed to ban cages for laying hens. So there was very little resistance from the industry to adopting this in California for Prop 12. So that’s probably the most important intervention we have.
Leah Garcés: But what I’ve learned over time is if you have, as I said with that company example, if it’s not made important or if the media is not driving public and consumer opinion, then companies and lawmakers have no reason to care about it. So this really works in synergy with public awareness. If it’s not on the agenda and being pushed as a priority and we’re not pushing it as a priority by going to the company, something else will overtake it. So it really needs to work in synergy with raising and influencing public opinion on these matters. And a core group of that is the capacity building. So that’s where we’re taking the core group who are willing to go the extra mile. And it’s not quite astroturfing, but those are the people who really are passionate and are willing to make the calls, and drive up to corporate headquarters and protest, and give money at another level. So I think those are really the key components that I think are really important and are really cost effective in driving change.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It sounds like to some extent these aren’t separate interventions that you would naturally run independently, they’re kind of all one integrated system so you can’t consider each one in isolation. Because you need the activist in order to create the pressure on the companies to do the reforms, which then drives the policy thing.
Leah Garcés: Absolutely, it’s a cascading effect, and they all work in synergy with each other in order to get to our mission and vision of the world we want for farmed animals. They rely on each other. There’s certainly things we don’t do, that don’t work with our theory of change, but these are the things that I think work. And I will say it’s very country dependent, because different countries use different pieces of this. For example, in China we are not going to be able to do heavy corporate campaigning. We can’t do any corporate campaigning, and we have to work with the government.
Leah Garcés: And what we’ve done with our managing directors is we’re trying to give them… We say these are the different interventions that Mercy For Animals believes works, you choose which one in your country is going to leverage and be useful. I would say public awareness works and is needed in Mexico, for example. And corporate policy is another one. And the same in Brazil, it’s very similar. But in certain countries, some of these interventions will not work. And so it is country dependent and important to think in the framework, like every country has its own intervention that they’re going to have to select from, depending on what’s useful.
The importance of building on past work [00:56:27]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Is the public awareness stuff kind of key in Brazil and Mexico mostly because you’re at an earlier stage where that investigation hasn’t been done and the public just isn’t as informed? So that’s kind of the first step and then you can start pushing on the later steps down the theory of change?
Leah Garcés: Absolutely. Brazil is further along than Mexico. So in Mexico over time we’ve realized we actually have to go back and build more public awareness, and more capacity building, and more buy-in because our corporate relations work and our corporate campaigning is going slower than we thought it would. And part of it’s because there just isn’t awareness and we haven’t influenced public opinion enough. And we really have to build public awareness to be able to push this higher on the priority list for government and companies. So I think that you have to assess each country carefully, and you really need someone locally, an expert to understand what are the right interventions, where’s the right place to start.
Leah Garcés: If you think of the United States and Europe, I mean Europe even further back, they’ve been working for decades on building public opinion around this. And one of my criticisms of the way we analyze progress in the United States and Europe is we often look too short of a period back. We think, oh look, over the last five years we tried this corporate intervention, it quickly turned around cage-free egg policies. Well, that’s not actually how it worked. There were decades of raising public awareness around farmed animals as being sentient beings that led to that moment, not just the last five years. It was actually quite a lot of work. So when we enter new countries we shouldn’t expect to be able to use a cookie-cutter model where we just take a corporate intervention program and plop it in Mexico and expect it to work. You have to actually do the work about raising public opinion on this and influencing public opinion in order to get to that point where you can then apply that strategy.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s interesting that I suppose some of the costs are hidden because they’re back in the past before this kind of last step that then produces the outcome. So I guess, yeah, that’s an issue with the cost-effectiveness analysis sometimes. That it’s like potentially if you just look at the last step then things can look incredibly cost effective. But then once you consider the fuller picture maybe it’s a bit more expensive than it looks.
Leah Garcés: Totally. And I think of it like a chess game, right? So it’s as if you were to take the last three moves of a chess match and think that that was it. But actually there was an entire game that was played and a bunch of moves. And I always try to tell people don’t just think of the next chess move, think of all of them that are going to lead us to the next. And likewise when we’re analyzing a victory and thinking about how we did it, we can’t just think of the last three things we did, we have to think of way back. What are all the things that led to this moment, and how can we replicate that?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess there’s a degree of symmetry because there’s a bunch of costs that were incurred in the past that didn’t bear fruit then, but are bearing fruit now. But at the same time, those past costs might continue to deliver benefits in the years to come. Like all of that public support, all of that public concern might lead to further successes against corporate pledges in years to come.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, and that makes me think about what we are doing now that we think is not successful. Like broilers are going quite slowly, frankly. Like the improvement for the lives of broilers, we haven’t had success in every campaign yet. We’ve had a lot of companies, but not the big ones. Do we give up? Do we say, it’s not working, forget it, we’ve chosen the wrong strategy? Or is this part of a longer-term pathway that will build and build and build until we have the last three moves of the chess match? And it’s really difficult to unpick that, but in my experience, the public awareness piece is quite important and builds for many years before you start to have progress.
Leah Garcés: And so if we’re starting with a new issue… So when I look ahead to fish for example, which is kind of the next frontier for us to work on, how long are we going to have to work on building awareness and care and opinion around fish welfare before it’s the right tractable moment to start working on corporate policy or legislative policy? When is the switch possible? And I’ve really been thinking a lot about where is the cost-effective moment to move from the public awareness side of things to an actual campaign and corporate engagement and legislative policy change?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it’s very interesting thinking that all of the advocacy that’s been done, all the information sharing that’s been done over the last few decades in the U.S. around how poorly animals are treated on farms has actually been extremely useful. Because I’ve worried that it hasn’t been that useful, because if you look at what fraction of the population is continuing to eat meat, it seems like it’s roughly flat. Like we haven’t really managed to increase the number of vegans or vegetarians that much. But I suppose maybe what we’re learning is that that theory of change hasn’t really panned out. We haven’t really been able to convince people to give up meat individually. But it was building the support that then could be turned into a victory via a different mechanism by getting the companies to change their policies and driving up the cost.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, I think that is my conclusion. I think that there have been a lot of studies on how people choose, and they choose on price points. So as long as meat is cheap, and cheaper than anything else, that’s what people are going to choose. I don’t think other factors play in as strongly. And of course it can’t taste bad, like alternatives can’t taste bad, they can’t be inconvenient to acquire, but one of the main drivers is price. And we saw this actually when the economic recession, I think it was 2012 I want to say, something like that, or maybe 2010, we were claiming victory. Like it was a point at which meat consumption went down for the first time. And we got really excited. And I remember being at a conference, TAFA at HSUS, and there was a speaker who I won’t name and shame but they were saying we’re winning. I think everybody was cheering. But it was related to the economic recession. It was related to the fact that corn prices went up, and so chicken prices did also, because chicken eat corn. Prices went up, and people had less money. And so that drove down the consumption.
Leah Garcés: It had nothing to do with us. And then as soon as that ended, consumption went right back, and actually above where it was. And so it was a lesson to us that price is probably the biggest component driving purchasing. And as long as meat is as cheap as it is, then that’s going to be a problem. But that actually is much more solvable than trying to convince people that chickens are worthy of our attention. To me, as a person who spent my entire life being very driven by the moral component, and wanting to convince people that chickens are important, that they’re sentient beings, and convincing almost no one, practically speaking, of that in the global scheme of things… It’s easier for me to say, “This is cheaper.” And people go, okay, yeah I’ll buy it then. Yeah, the taste is good. Yeah, that’s a great solution.
Leah Garcés: I do think that the moral driver is important for me and for that base to drive this change, and expose brands, and create the risk, and be that marketing wing. It’s like on one of your previous podcasts you said something about the Quakers’ position against slavery. There has to be these core elements driving the moral… The diehards who have the grit, who are never going to give up. And that drives the market towards a change I think, in a way that nothing else can. And that’s a really critical component of what we’re doing as part of this change.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just on the point about how the 2008 recession created this illusion that meat production was going down because of people’s moral concern… There’s basically a cottage industry, every time there’s a recession, in journalists spotting a social trend. I think there was a whole series of articles back in 2009/2010 about how millennials aren’t interested in buying houses anymore and millennials aren’t interested in driving cars, and doing all these other things. And as is usually the case, I mean economists have learned to talk about this every time, it was because they didn’t have jobs. It was because they didn’t have money that they were not buying these things. And then as soon as the economy improved and as soon as young people were earning money again, then everything bounced back to normal and all of those trends were just kind of an illusion. So I guess people should keep that in mind when they’re reading those pieces in future.
Robert Wiblin: Is there a metric that we have for seeing how the American public’s knowledge about the conditions of animals on farms has changed over the decades, whether they’re more informed now or more concerned in a general sense, even if they’re not acting on it when they go grocery shopping?
Leah Garcés: I don’t have those numbers at my fingertips, but I do know that concern is increasing, and that there is high concern amongst purchasers. That doesn’t always match their purchasing habits though. Which is why it’s a concerning thing, but it’s useful for leveraging brand risk or leveraging campaigns to say to companies hey, people will be outraged, at least momentarily, and they need to perceive that a company is doing something better, especially in a competitive market where they could choose something else. And so we leverage that competition between companies to advocate for change.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I was just curious about that because I think I’m almost too young, in the sense that for most of my adult life, I think people have known, or many people have suspected, that the conditions of animals on farms are very bad. And they’ve been looking away from it because the information has been out there. But presumably there was a time, in the 60s, 70s, 80s…well, firstly, maybe the conditions weren’t as bad then, but also the investigation hadn’t been done and support hadn’t been built and people hadn’t yet realized in general that the treatment of animals was very poor. So it’s interesting to look at that story of change over a long time as a whole.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. And that might be one of the driving factors for the marketing research that shows that younger folks are wanting to eat less meat. And that if you butterfly effect that out for somebody doing marketing research, they’re going to go look, the future shoppers are not going to want as much meat. So we need to pay attention to that younger generation who are going to be the future shoppers all the time. And so that could be a really big factor.
Farm sanctuaries [01:06:11]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Are there any interventions that Mercy For Animals has considered implementing or launching over the last few years that you ultimately decided not to go for? And was there an interesting reason for that?
Leah Garcés: Well, I think over the years we often get asked to do farm sanctuaries. Our staff sometimes want to do them and our donors want us to do them, our donors do them, our donors give to them, and there’s a drive for direct help. And that is a good fundraiser. It is a good feeling. And as anyone who’s worked in a shelter or sanctuary will tell you, and I personally have rescued a chicken, the calls to rescue never stop. And the number of animals that need assistance never goes to zero. And so we just decided that that’s not a path we’re going to go down because it would expend too many resources on direct rescues and operational costs that you can never adjust. So for example, during the pandemic where we were very worried about our donations, what happens if you have a sanctuary is you still have to pay for that regardless.
Leah Garcés: And while we have staff costs, yes, we can reduce travel, we can reduce spend, we can reduce all kinds of things and go to a minimum without doing harm and still advocating from our desks. But if you have a sanctuary, the operational costs never go away. And you’re always having to say no. So I think that we didn’t want to expend resources on that.
Leah Garcés: I think there’s space in the movement for all kinds of different interventions, and we really think about how we can use our resources, skills, and influence to get the most out of that $14 million that we have to best help animals. And we landed on the interventions, focusing on institutional change, people power, awareness, and showing what a good food system looks like, based on that analysis. And we have a really deep database analysis that we do. You can look at our Impact Center online, which I shared with you, but there’s a lot of different ways that organizations and individuals I think can contribute to this goal. And the most important thing is that we all do something. That we all get involved and hold onto that hope for change.
Robert Wiblin: Something that’s a bit uncomfortable about farm sanctuaries, which are, for listeners who don’t know, they’re places where animals that used to be on farms are cared for once they’re not on farms. There’s something a bit uncomfortable about it. Where, as far as I understand, many organizations that run them do it, as you said, because it’s good for fundraising or it’s good for attracting volunteers, or it’s kind of good PR, whereas other stakeholders are interested in them because… They like them because they’re directly good for the animals that are in the sanctuaries. And then I guess you end up in this kind of doublespeak where they’re performing quite a different role and people might feel a bit uncomfortable about what role this is actually forming within the organization.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. You have to be careful of not monetizing the animals again. Most of the people I know involved in sanctuaries are really good-hearted and have good intentions, and are working hard, harder than most, in the sense that it’s just never ending. It is an exhausting thing to do. And I know that a lot of my team members really find healing when they go to these farm sanctuaries, connecting with an individual animal. So I think it has a purpose, there’s emotional healing in seeing an actual happy animal and actual free animal. And that is very valuable. Just understanding what a free animal looks like and feels like and what they do and who they are, can be very grounding. I just don’t think there needs to be a ton of them. And it’s not something that we’re going to do because we’re focused on institutional change, but I think it can be valid.
Important weaknesses of MFA [01:09:44]
Robert Wiblin: What’s an important weakness of Mercy For Animals that you would like to see improved over the next couple of years?
Leah Garcés: Oh yeah. I’m very reflective on our weaknesses. I think international expansion is a big one. I think we focus on the United States so much. I’ve actively said “We’re not going into Europe.” Maybe in five years I’ll be eating my words, but we’re not going to Europe, it’s saturated. And I really want us to expand internationally and operate autonomously in regions and be able to make…have countries be able to make their own decisions based on their culture and what’s effective in their countries. So as we move into Southeast Asia, where we’re hoping to set up a Singapore office this year, I’m really trying to direct more resources over to Asia. One-fifth of all farmed animals are in Southeast Asia. And that’s a big struggle, but as the pie gets bigger, the portion of that pie that’s more in Asia, or Brazil, or Mexico, in those countries, should be growing as well.
Leah Garcés: The other is rapid growth. Growing an organization is not easy. And we’ve seen a lot of animal protection groups over the past decade go from small groups of young, passionate, mostly volunteer activists to becoming professional organizations with multimillion-dollar budgets. At MFA we’ve seen a lot and learned a lot about how to grow sustainably and in a way that really invests in our teams, who are our best assets, and how to build a truly strong organization that can withstand the waves and the storms, and still be powerful and productive and efficient and all those things.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So the first weakness is just that Mercy For Animals is very concentrated in the United States. And I guess, ideally, if you were going from scratch and you could just allocate people and money freely, then probably you would have to split your resources more between different countries that maybe, maybe not chosen the United States as the key place to operate?
Leah Garcés: I actually think we would, still. Because of the global influence. So if you just take like Black Lives Matter for example, and this is the example we’ve used recently, when Black Lives Matter happened in the United States, there were protests globally happening for this very important social justice outcry in Paris, and Asia, everywhere. In Brazil. And so you see the influence of certain countries. So I think we would still be in the United States.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess another thing is that the United States might be among the first countries that’s a big market for plant-based alternatives to meat. And so this is a good place to drive up demand and increase the revenue of those companies.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. We have this thing called the Farmed Animal Opportunity Index, and it’s based on effective altruism kind of concepts, and we heavily weigh tractability in this. And United States is a place where tractability is high. You will be able to make more progress in a country like that. There’s a large number of animals. We’re the second largest, second to China, on chicken production, where there’s a huge amount of suffering happening, and we’re a tractable country. So if you think of effective altruism principles, it’s ticking all of those boxes.
Farmed Animal Opportunity Index [01:12:54]
Robert Wiblin: Let’s talk about that index that you’ve designed to try to figure out where Mercy For Animals and potentially other animal-focused organizations should aim to operate and expand. Could you explain how that index works? We’ll stick up a link to it so our listeners can go and take a look if they’re interested.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. It’s a really fun tool and you can use it in whatever way is useful to you. The Farmed Animal Opportunity Index helps evaluate each country and considers the scale of the problem, tractability, and then their global influence. So global influence is not something normally considered in effective altruism, but we have considered that an important factor, as we’ve been talking about here. And it’s a tool that was developed by one of our agriculture economists on staff. And it has a bunch of factors that weigh up under each one of those — scale of the problem, tractability, and global influence — and it then produces a number saying, this is how likely it is for you to be successful in this particular country. And we are making that available to the entire movement, so that people can use it as they see fit.
Leah Garcés: What we’ve found, which I think is worth mentioning, is that tractability for us became the thing we weighed highest in the process, because we felt that if something isn’t tractable, there’s no point, we’d be wasting money, right? We’d be wasting time. So tractability became the thing we assigned the highest weight to. So the Farmed Animal Opportunity Index led us to identify six countries to target for a scoping study, where we’re looking more deeply into the more qualitative factors.
Leah Garcés: So that led us to Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. So we have this quantitative thing, which is the Farmed Animal Opportunity Index, and then that helps us identify countries to look deeper into. And then we do a scoping study on the countries. This has been a year-long process by the way. So the scoping study is designed to complement that data by adding this qualitative measure, where we, for example, look at people’s attitudes towards farmed animals, and cultural contexts, governance, views on health, views on market conditions, views on whether they would buy plant-based products, do they think plant based products are healthy? And then we interview consultants in the local movement, and then we decide to move ahead accordingly. And so this has led us to setting up an office in Singapore as our next step, and then hiring consultants in these other five countries. That is our plan for this year.
Leah Garcés: And I think that it’s really fascinating to do it this way, to get this complex view of a country before you start. I would say if we went back to that question of what mistakes we have made, we used to just go into a country and be like, okay, start with the regular interventions and then see what fails. Throw spaghetti at the wall. And when I started, I said, no, we’re going to stop, and we’re going to really deeply look at these countries and understand what will work before we start. And then we hand over all this data to a managing director once we get started, and they can then begin, hopefully with better footing.
Robert Wiblin: So you’ve got, I guess, something like 20 metrics, which includes things like corruption index, how easy is it to start an organization, how easy is it to communicate with people, is the government going to try to shut you down… All these different metrics that kind of indicate how promising it might be to operate in a country. And as you mentioned, you’ve put in your weightings here. So you’ve got particular weightings for the scale factors, like how many animals are there, how much are they exporting, particular weightings for tractability and influence and so on, but people can download it and change it however they like if they disagree with those weightings and would rather focus on different factors.
Robert Wiblin: How do you feel about using structured tools like that to make these strategic decisions, versus a more holistic judgment? Do you worry that potentially important things could be missed just because there isn’t data about an important factor?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. That’s why we had to do the qualitative too. We didn’t feel the quantitative approach was enough. Data narrowed down the choices, but it did not give us the full picture. So for example, we couldn’t really quantify things like the impact of influencers, and there’s certain factors that you can only get at through qualitative research. And this is one of the limitations of data-driven approaches. Sometimes you have to, I think, complement them with qualitative approaches too, and do that deeper research. And I think that that is an important takeaway and consideration, is that not everything can be told by data. The story cannot always be told by data. It can help us narrow down the approaches and think it through, but you then have to complement that with the qualitative research too.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. That makes sense. I think one reason that people sometimes don’t take this approach is that it has this feeling of a sense of arbitrariness, especially when you’re figuring out what factors to include and how much weight to give them. In general, I know the research suggests that this kind of thing generally improves decision making, though it has to be complemented by also knowing something about these countries personally. But then I do feel discomfort when I’m just sticking random numbers into a thing just based on overall judgment. Do you feel that discomfort, and is that something you’ve maybe tried to get the organization to overcome?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. We try to set up panels in order to determine what these numbers should be, so that it’s not based on one person’s opinion. And as someone said to me a long time ago, it’s better to do this than to not do it. It gives you a better answer than not trying. And I think that holds true, but I do think you have to back it up with the qualitative to go deeper on some of these things, to make sure that you’re not lending yourself to someone’s particular bias. But there is always a human bias to these.
Leah Garcés: And that’s important to recognize. It’s important to look at who’s doing the research. In this age in which we’re at a heightened awareness about diversity, equity, and inclusion, you have to think about that. Who is doing this research? Who’s setting the agenda? Is it a white man? A Black woman? And that’s going to make a difference in terms of the outcome of the research. And so you have to have the diversity, equity and inclusion panel that helps you come to a more fair conclusion. That will be more reflective of reality.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think it can feel risky to delegate a decision to a spreadsheet in this way. And especially when you become very aware of how arbitrary some of the numbers are that you’re putting in there. But I guess it’s important to realize that when you give a kind of guessed-out impression of which countries you think are most promising, your brain is doing that internally somewhere, it has to do something to weigh these different factors that are in your head. The thing is, it’s just not as explicit.
Leah Garcés: Right, it’s just being explicit about this algorithm, and putting it down. Like I said, the qualitative also lends itself to give us some interesting results. And we asked some interesting survey questions that were very interesting to help us hone in on which countries would be the right ones to enter into.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. If a spreadsheet method chucks out an answer that’s really surprising, that’s a very good prompt to go back and double check. If it said Moldova’s the place, then go check…
Leah Garcés: Yeah. That would be suspicious, then I’d just think that somebody wants to live in Moldova. And I do think there’s a common sense check that has to be done. There shouldn’t be huge surprises that come out of here. We did have a few surprises when we did the qualitative poll. We did polls of countries’ public attitudes towards farmed animals, and that was really interesting. There were some surprises. We surveyed 350 adults in each of those six countries that I named as part of the qualitative research. So there’s even quantitative in the qualitative research, and Japan was a surprise actually.
Leah Garcés: They thought a diet without animal products can’t be healthy. Like 16% thought a diet without animal products can be healthy, only 16%. Whereas Singapore thought 53%. And it was a little surprising, but then when you look at it culturally, well there’s a huge vegetarian population, and that explains why they think it’s healthy. They’re already eating it. Whereas Japan being an island which is heavily seafood-based, less so.
Latin America [01:20:49]
Robert Wiblin: Something that Lewis mentioned is that he’s maybe been a bit surprised by how promising work in Latin America seems to be. At least for me, I don’t associate Brazil or Mexico with vegetarianism or people being especially open to caring a lot about animals, but it seemed like the campaigns were going reasonably well there. Is this true? And did you have a theory for why that might be?
Leah Garcés: Well, Brazil is going really well. And I can tell you a little bit about that. The Brazil corporate market is made up in a very similar way to the United States, in that there is a monopoly held by a few companies, and also most people purchase their food products in the grocery store or in restaurants. So that automatically lends itself well to our institutional intervention model, in the sense that if you target McDonald’s, you target Walmart, you target these companies and that you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck. Also, Mercy For Animals started its offices over five years ago now in Brazil and we actually first focused on building grassroots efforts. So now we have quite an extensive, we have like 800 volunteers. And we have a national council of volunteers who help drive the change and direct the kinds of campaigns we want to run.
Leah Garcés: And they’re very strong and they’re advocating for a lot of change. There’s a real culture of grassroots advocacy that exists there to complement a model that I think will work. Mexico has actually been harder as far as making progress on corporate institutional change because most people are not buying their eggs or their meats in a grocery store. They’re still buying them in informal markets, which is the same in India, for example. So it’s not as easy to put pressure on one company and advocate for a lot of change, because the producers hold more power, the producers are selling directly to a local market. People think that’s grandma’s backyard chicken, but it’s not. But what we have found effective in Latin America, we just released this scoring card, and we score companies against each other based on their cage-free commitments. We received Reuters coverage for that.
Leah Garcés: And it was so fascinating because the companies hated to be at the bottom of this ladder, right? No one wants to be at the bottom of the ladder. And we had companies switch their policies before we went live because they didn’t want to be one rung lower. And so we told them, this is where you’re going to be. And they’re like “Wait, wait, wait. What can we do to move one rung up?” And we’d say, well, you need to make your policy public, or you need to put a date on there. So they would rush to change that. So, the strategies are not all the same everywhere, and you really can’t just do a cookie-cutter model, but I think it’s really shown potential in the region. And I’m excited about that too.
Robert Wiblin: Why are they concerned about doing poorly on this index? Is it that just the general public is kind of interested in these indices and it gets media coverage and it’s bad for their brand, or maybe bad for staff retention?
Leah Garcés: You know, I’ve used this tool throughout my career and it’s just that nobody wants to be at the bottom of the ladder. Nobody wants to be the worst. They just don’t. Human beings are naturally competitive, and they do not want to be at the bottom of this ladder, including companies. This is part of corporate engagement, looking to companies and saying, okay, here are the five simple things you need to do. And making them super clear and super easy. Creating that pathway for companies is half the battle, and the ladder or this rating system does that. And I think it really plays into the fact that these companies are competitive with each other. And we do work in competitive markets where everyone’s… They’re living quarter to quarter trying to increase their share and increase their profits every quarter. They’re trying to do that and they never want to do anything that would put them below a competitor. And so it plays on that. And it’s a powerful tool.
Robert Wiblin: I wonder whether it’s somehow exploiting something about corporate culture that once someone can complain that, or a boss can complain to a subordinate like hey we’re at the bottom of this ladder, what are you doing about it? And it looks bad on like, reports that they’ll be writing internally about stuff and so on. Somehow even if it doesn’t really connect to sales, perhaps you’re hijacking the decision-making process within an organization because this is the kind of thing that they recognize, a hierarchy of like best to worst. And they don’t want to be lower.
Leah Garcés: Part of our objective is just to get the subject into the boardrooms. How do we get the subject to the board of directors and say, this has to be discussed. And then one of our strategies is often, when we launch a campaign, it goes right to the board of directors. As a president, the most annoying thing in the world to me is when somebody writes to my board members and the board forwards it to me and says, can you deal with this? And I’m like, ugh. Yeah.
Leah Garcés: So equally, if you’re the head of McDonald’s and the board is getting tons of emails from advocates, and then that is turning into something that the president has to do, that is a powerful tool. Our job is to push this up the priority list. So they have to make it go away and they have to do something about it. That’s part of our role.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Let’s come back to talking about these corporate welfare campaigns. We talked about the Costco campaign at the outset, how do you think these corporate welfare campaigns are going overall? Are they continuing to exceed expectations?
Leah Garcés: In some countries. In Brazil they’re definitely exceeding expectations. We have the largest supermarkets in Brazil who are coming on board with going cage-free, for example. In some countries, no. In Mexico it has been much slower. And in the United States, we’ve had over 200 companies go cage free, and over 200 companies agreed to adopt the better chicken commitment, which is reducing the suffering of chickens in the supply chain. But we have some real holdouts with big companies. Europe is going faster on broilers, they’re going faster than we anticipated. So I still think it’s a valid strategy, but I also think sometimes one of our mistakes as a movement is we lean too heavily on one intervention and we’re not creative. We get comfortable in one intervention.
Leah Garcés: I think we have to be careful about not getting too comfortable with this intervention, and really thinking through alternatives and options. And I do think that the ranking is something we haven’t used enough, and is a very powerful tool. And I think we’ll be using more of that in the future. And we’ve relied too heavily on the process of doing an investigation, running a corporate campaign, and putting negative pressure. That is the typical strategy that we follow and it has worked, it’s been very, very effective, negative campaigning, but I think we need to be creative and think of other solutions too.
Enforcing corporate pledges [01:27:21]
Robert Wiblin: It sounds like you think that the corporate campaigns might be a stepping stone to a different strategy later on. Do you have any idea of what that future strategy might be?
Leah Garcés: Well, I do think the next step is legislative change. Is that what you mean? Or do you mean within corporate campaigns still?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I was thinking of policies focused on corporations, but I suppose maybe it is like, once you’ve gotten enough companies on board, then you just move on to the policy change and you don’t have to use the companies as intermediaries.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. I do see that that’s what worked with Prop 12, and now we’re kind of quietly going through state by state and getting cage-free bans achieved in different states without running campaigns at all, just through legislative conversations. And I think the goal is always to do things in a way that is less costly and faster, and getting these companies on board can be very expensive. And so what you do is you try and get the biggest company on board and then that creates a domino effect, right? That gets everyone to fall. And then once you get a critical mass, then we’re going to go for state-based, and then we get a critical mass of state-based, then we get federal, and that is the goal. When that happens then things like subsidies can change, and there’s a much more positive landscape and environment for getting bigger changes achieved.
Robert Wiblin: How serious is the issue of corporations slipping on their pledges or trying to slip out of them over time?
Leah Garcés: That is very common and it’s very possible for that to happen. But when we see that happening, we are on it very quickly. And quite often companies will quickly go back and put the policy back in place. So enforcement is a really, really important part of our strategy. And at one point we calculated what percentage effort was needed for the commitment versus the enforcement. And it’s about half and half. And I think sometimes we spend too much time, effort, and resources on the commitment side, but actually we need to spend equal if not more on the enforcement side. And that’s where these ratings, these rankings come in.
Leah Garcés: We had a recent situation in Canada. Just this last month, the Retail Council of Canada announced that it was revoking all of its animal welfare commitments for pigs and hens, for whom they had banned cages and crates. Essentially, it had agreed that all of their members would be banning cages and crates, and made this agreement in the name of its members. And so…
Robert Wiblin: What was the reason?
Leah Garcés: We think part of that is that they thought that we had taken our eye off the ball. They figured we were busy with other things and that there’d be no repercussions. Well, the Retail Council of Canada said… They basically said the sourcing of the stuff was difficult, which is not true.
Leah Garcés: And we immediately jumped into action, contacting the RCC and the current grocery store members. So Loblaws is a big one, and Walmart, and Metro, and all of these big ones. And we’ve had great success with getting some of the largest retailers to reaffirm their commitment to phasing out gestation crates and battery cages. And so Loblaws, for example, confirmed to us that they’ll be restoring their policy within a couple of weeks, with additional language. So we have to always… That is the unfortunate part. We can’t take our eye off the ball. If we do, they’ll happily not do it, I think half the time because it’s expensive and it’s a bother to them. We had to individually call up these companies and persuade them that if they didn’t do it we’d be running campaigns.
Robert Wiblin: So it seems like you always have to have your enforcement machinery at the ready, because as soon as it becomes too costly for you to actually enforce the thing, then they might try to slip out of it. So you always have to have the Sword of Damocles hanging over these companies.
Leah Garcés: We have to be vigilant. Yeah. We’re vigilant.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any strategies that you can use to make this easier? I suppose if the pledges are over a shorter period of time, then you don’t have to kind of keep the machinery running for as long, waiting for the time when they’re meant to meet the pledge. Maybe that’s difficult for other reasons, but…
Leah Garcés: I think the annual ranking is going to be helpful. As we move forward, we’re looking into that more because they’ll know it’s coming every year, that we’re watching every year. It’s not something we always have to be watching, but we’re going to be coming back regularly and they’ll know that we’re going to be coming back regularly and their competitors are going to be judged too. So they’re not going to want to fall down on that ladder or fall down on that commitment because it will be exposed to the rankings.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have to have a system to go and audit these companies to make sure that they’re not just lying to you? Or maybe the fact that they’re public companies makes that kind of outright fraud pretty risky for them legally?
Leah Garcés: Exactly, and we give more points if they publicly disclose. And so they’re higher up if they publicly disclose. They can tell us, but it doesn’t count for as much as if they do that.
Robert Wiblin: I was thinking a company might claim to be sourcing a particular fraction of its eggs from cage-free eggs, but maybe they’re just not doing that. And they’re lying to you. But that doesn’t seem likely to you?
Leah Garcés: It doesn’t seem likely because the issues legally would be very risky for them as a company.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, the downsides would be greater than the upside. So it sounds like if you’re spending roughly half of your resources on enforcement, and half on getting the original pledge… I suppose if people thought that there was going to be no enforcement, which I guess potentially some people that did cost-effectiveness estimates on this in the past maybe didn’t include that aspect…it would roughly halve the cost effectiveness. But nonetheless, it looked very good initially. So the fact that there are all these extra costs that maybe hadn’t been fully acknowledged at the outset probably isn’t enough to suggest that it’s not an effective intervention and not worth pursuing.
Leah Garcés: And there’s kind of a miseducation in the donor world a little bit that getting a commitment is enough, and then you’re done. And actually, we need investments to continue the work and continue the enforcement side. And equally, I think there’s the work before a commitment is secured, which is that piece I spoke about earlier about public awareness, and building… So there’s three phases of investment in getting a change on animal welfare, which is the public awareness, building that base of public opinion to make it important enough on the priority list of a company. Then there’s a time at which it’s ripe to go for a commitment. And then once a commitment’s secured, there’s the third piece, which is the enforcement side.
Robert Wiblin: In listening to some of your recent podcasts, I was surprised to hear how hard it has become to do undercover investigations, at least in the United States, because of these ag gag laws. I had naively thought that these ag gag laws would never stand up in court and that the first amendment considerations would ensure that you’ll be free to publish this information. But it sounds like maybe they are holding up in court? I haven’t been keeping track of this.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, there are still 13 states, I think, in which we cannot do undercover investigations, or in some way shape or form it is legally very, very risky for us to do so. And lo and behold, those are the states where the majority of factory farms are, of course. And those states are run by officials who are amenable to that and make it more challenging at the state level to change that law. So we are limited in the United States. As an organization that’s getting larger and larger, we have a larger target on our back, and companies or the ag industry would love to sue us and take us down. So we have to be more and more careful.
Leah Garcés: And that’s really challenging. It’s challenging us to think of new ways to get footage. So we’re using drones, for example, where the law hasn’t caught up with the methodology. We still do follow the law and we have to get licensed and things like that. The technology is getting so great with drones, so we can get close up with some of these things.
Leah Garcés: And honestly, the Transfarmation piece is also very interesting. And what I did with Craig, where a farmer is inviting you on, legally, openly, to film with excellent cameras. To go and film inside a farm and show exactly what’s going on. That’s actually I think a bigger… In the United States anyway, I think that’s a place where we’re going to find a lot of opportunities.
The Transfarmation project [01:35:25]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, let’s talk about the Transfarmation program. What does it do, in brief?
Leah Garcés: Transfarmation, as a project, is about transitioning farmers from factory farming to plant-based, but it’s really more than that. It’s about flipping the narrative. Right now, animal rights activists are seen as people who come into rural areas and take away jobs and take away choices. And we’re trying to say the opposite. That actually we’re here to build something better, and that building something better can create bridges in all kinds of places. Especially legislatively. So we’re finding that huge doors are opening for us in that space.
Robert Wiblin: So basically it’s providing advice to farmers on how to convert their farm from, I guess, primarily from farming animals to producing crops. Is that the gist?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. So we provide consultancy and we do a lot of promotional work for them too. So we’ll take videos and do social media promotion. We have consultants for hemp and mushrooms and for the conversion of their chicken houses. We don’t provide any capital to them in terms of building materials or labor, but we provide the know-how, the resources, we help build business plans, we feature them on our website. We have a portal where farmers can write to us and say, “I’m sick of this. I want to get out. Can you help me?” And you would be shocked at how many people are writing to us. We have way more farmers that want out than we can directly help. So we’re going to be creating a resource hub where farmers can just download their own business plan. They can work on it and build a pathway. There’s two types of farmers, there’s a farmer with high debt and almost no debt.
Leah Garcés: And so we’re creating two separate pathways for those farmers to be able to follow, download, and go for it on their own. And it’s really exciting because they also have… Each has their story, and each of their stories tells us something we didn’t know before about the poultry industry. And they also invite us to come see what’s going on. And there’s so many different companies. All over the country farmers are inviting us onto farms and talking to us and showing us what’s happening. And that is huge. That is a huge bridge we’re creating. And where ag gag laws are keeping us out, the farmers are inviting us in.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I hadn’t cottoned onto that aspect of this program. You’re creating this magnet for all of the people who are very keen to get out of the industry and maybe about to get out of the industry, who maybe are kind of willing to kick the parent company on the way out the door.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. Nearly half of poultry farmers incur a loss every year. That’s the amount that I expect want out. And even the ones that are having an income, they’re making $17,000 or $18,000. So all we have to do is provide something above that. It’s not that hard. We just have to beat that. And, collectively, there is $5.2 billion in debt. So that is a huge amount of debt. And the only way we’re going to shift that debt is through government intervention. So that’s why we’re working at the government level to maybe tap into appropriations. Or for example, Cory Booker put forward a bill called the Farm System Reform Act that gave debt relief to farmers who wanted to transition. And this was supported by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. So it’s not a small-time action. This is where we’re really looking at getting farmers out of this situation, providing them some debt relief, and moving towards things that are both environmentally sustainable and better for rural economies, and moving us away from factory farming.
Robert Wiblin: And I suppose the more people leave the industry, the more it drives up costs, I suppose, for the companies that are trying to buy this chicken, because there’s fewer people making chicken.
Leah Garcés: You got it.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, that’s fantastic. Yeah. I guess my first thought hearing about this intervention was thinking this seems like something that is perhaps more naturally run as a business rather than as a nonprofit. Because this sounds like agricultural consulting, and maybe there’s a way that you could scale it. Charge $100 to have a talk to these farmers for a couple of hours about what are their options and how they could get out. And then you’ve got a natural revenue model.
Leah Garcés: It may end up being that. We launched it in November 2019, and it’s an experiment. We had a pilot year and it’s gone so well that it may end up turning into a separate organization eventually. And GFI, I don’t know if you know this, the Good Food Institute was started by Mercy For Animals. And we gave the initial funding for that, and now it’s taken off. And this may be another situation where it’s better off as its own organization or for-profit business.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just returning to the issue of the farmers having such bad conditions. So, as an economist, when I hear that half of them are making a loss, I’m like, can this be true? Is there something misleading about this metric? Because it just doesn’t make any sense that people would stay in this industry if… And it would seem just unsustainable because they would just be losing money. And eventually they would be driven into bankruptcy and they simply wouldn’t be able continue even if they wanted to. Are we maybe in a disequilibrium where the situation is unsustainable and it isn’t going to continue, but it can run for a while before things shut down?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. I think this is the magic of it for me, when I stumbled across this realization, I thought, “This is not a workable model. People are not going to be happy with this. They are definitely going to opt out of this if they’re given another choice.” And so I think that what the industry did is, as you said earlier, anything that was risky in the business, they gave to somebody else, they gave to the farmers. So the two risks are raising the birds and all that capital around it, and then the environmental effects. So they also have to pay for all the waste, farmers are responsible for all the waste, not the companies. So they’ve externalized these two costs. If the birds die, the farmer pays for it. And if there’s pollution, the farmers pay for it. And at the same time, they’re putting these farmers in debt.
Leah Garcés: So it is unsustainable. Half of the poultry farmers are losing money and quitting. I will tell you my nightmare scenario… The thing that I worry about, that I’m starting to see, are mega farms. Big, big mega farms where there’s 50 houses. We spotted one in North Carolina, run by Mountaire. And it’s where there are visas given to somebody from Vietnam, in this case, who comes over, the family will come over, and wherever they’re coming from is much worse. And so the economic opportunity here is good. So in a way, they’re not going to be employing American farmers anymore. So they’ll contract someone who’s in a much worse situation, give them a visa in exchange, and then they’re going to come and work here and then create mega farms, 50 houses.
Leah Garcés: I flew over one in a biplane, in a small plane, and saw these. It was shocking, shocking how many houses there were. And it was being run by one family. And that’s a totally different scenario. And I do worry about that. I worry about who the industry is going to figure out to replace as this cohort of farmers get unhappy and want to leave. Who’s going to replace them? Because people are still eating chickens. We have to tackle it from all angles. There’s never one angle. But it is definitely, if we move fast enough, if we work with this, there’s a lot we can do with poultry farmers to take out some of the bricks in the wall.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just bracketing that issue of low-wage workers from overseas for a second, might there be a great intervention opportunity in trying to identify people who are considering going into chicken farming and just informing them, saying, “Would you like to do an interview with someone who is currently doing chicken farming about what it is actually like working for this company?”
Leah Garcés: That is what Craig Watts does now. That’s his job.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, wow. Is it?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. He’s a farmer advocate. So he actually works with an organization called SRAP. I forget what it stands for, but he’s a farmer outreach advocate. And he goes into farming communities and says, “Don’t sign this contract. Don’t be part of this.” So, yeah, that is definitely important and a strategy.
Robert Wiblin: Who pays for that? Is that donor funded?
Leah Garcés: Yes. It’s a nonprofit.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. We’ll move on from MFA in a second. But I guess if someone personally gave you $1 billion with a goal of telling you to use it to try to improve animal welfare, do you have any sense of where you would spend it? Or yeah what would you do if you had far more resources? How might you be able to scale up to that kind of level?
Leah Garcés: So, Dylan Matthews asked me this question and actually wrote an article about it, in Vox awhile back. He asked a bunch of us this question, and then created an article based on it. So I do have an answer to that. And the first step I think would be to create a kind of international panel to end factory farming, like the international panel for climate change that exists. So bringing together the sympathetic experts and academia, industry, and really creating a global stage and global targets for this. And really putting resources into that. And then key areas that I think that the committee would work on would be significant resources into movement building and expansion into some of the non-U.S. countries like Southeast Asia, India, Brazil, China. And these are countries where 98% of animals reside outside of the United States. And MFA really wants to move into them, but just doesn’t have the resources. We would have to put a lot of money into doing that.
Leah Garcés: Another would be gaining political power in the U.S. and other key regions. So I would love to create a PAC and a 501(c)4 that just focuses on this, and then really we could make more money appropriated to funds, like we were talking about, for R&D, for plant-based and cell-based food, for ending subsidies to factory farming. Money is political power in this country. And we don’t have any here for farmed animals. And then build a people-powered political movement alongside that. So similar to the NRA, but for farmed animals. And invest in practical solutions that will, in the short term, reduce the suffering of farmed animals on key animal welfare issues. Fish welfare is really not being touched at all. Broiler welfare is actually pretty light as well.
Leah Garcés: And then a big advertising budget, a huge global advertising budget, really investing in educating folks on the dangers, but also the alternatives. Advertising is what’s shaped Americans through choices. It’s what shapes all of our choices in the market. So we need tons and tons of money in these story wars that exist. We need to out-compete them, in terms of the smart marketing narratives that exist out there. So that’s just a few ideas.
Robert Wiblin: Well that sounds like a billion dollars roughly spent. Yeah. Obviously we’ll stick up a link to Dylan Matthews’ article so you can maybe get a few more details and see what other people have to say about that. Love that guy. Great idea for a question, Dylan.
Disagreements with others in the animal welfare movement [01:45:59]
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Let’s expand from MFA and think about the animal movement as a whole. Do you have any interesting disagreements with other folks in the movement? I’m thinking in particular of smart researchers like Lewis Bollard, or perhaps the folks at Animal Charity Evaluators, or other people you typically agree with, but where there’s an interesting dialogue because you don’t see eye to eye?
Leah Garcés: Ooh. Yeah, let’s see. So we’ve talked a little bit about this, but I do disagree with measuring impact as a result of a short-term action. So I think that we measure, in effective altruism, too short back in the impact. And that can really have detrimental effects and create disappointment and perceived failure, because we’re comparing to a previous action where we measure too short of a term. So for example, cage-free eggs, we had this really exciting period of four or five years where we got a lot of cage-free victories. And that then led to us thinking the exact same strategy would work just as fast for broilers. We didn’t take into account that there had been, in Europe, there had been decades of work on this already in the public mind, and same in the United States. There have been decades of work done on getting people to think through cages and crates. So I do think that there’s something that needs to be done around that.
Leah Garcés: Another area I disagree with is moves in philanthropy to just fund plant-based companies. We have a lot of the venture capital folks who are like, forget advocacy. It’s never going to work. We’re just going to put money into the Impossible Burger. And, as I said earlier, I think without our work, this pressure, this moral pressure, this internalizing of the external costs and driving up the animal welfare costs, and then also creating a free marketing wing where we’re exposing their competitors… I think the push for their products would not be there. So I think it’s complementary. And I think it’s a mistake to only invest in plant-based companies. I’ve also been told that writing books, documentaries, and films and things like that is not that effective. And I disagree.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, interesting. I guess this goes back to potentially the first point, that you’re saying this maybe builds support that in general you can use later, even if it’s not immediately apparent?
Leah Garcés: Yes, exactly. So I think that narratives create the groundwork for us to then have the successes later. And they’re really important. And I think the problem is they’re really difficult to measure. They’re more in that qualitative space, and that’s where we struggle as a movement, especially in the effective altruist world. How do we measure that? And that plays to Transfarmation too. So I’ve been asked why are you doing Transfarmation, you’re just shifting one farm, who cares, they’ll just be replaced by another one. But I think it’s about the story we tell as well, and leveraging that narrative, and changing the narrative about who animal rights folks are. That we’re not just these adversarial people coming to take jobs away from rural America and choices away from meat eaters. We’re actually building something better that benefits everyone. So it’s that… Narratives are really important.
Robert Wiblin: It’s very interesting. I guess a lot of the effective animal advocacy stuff that I’m aware of has always used this thing of, did we convince someone to become vegetarian? Did we change their diet, as the output. And it seems like maybe that was a red herring potentially. That maybe like leafleting, all of these things that we’ve tended to go a bit cold on, potentially they could be useful because they were shifting people’s attitudes, shifting their beliefs, even if they weren’t shifting their diets. I guess there’s value in doing a narrow cost-effectiveness analysis where you’re like, well, how many vegetarians do we create per dollar? There’s value in that. But it can also eventually narrow your focus such that you miss other things that are going on, that are important.
Leah Garcés: Exactly. That’s really well put. Exactly. Couldn’t say it better.
Robert Wiblin: On the second point, that we should put most of our resources into the plant-based meat companies, I’m not sure whether I agree with that, but I can kind of see where they’re coming from. I can kind of see the intuitive case there. I suppose you would hit a limit perhaps where these companies do just have access to all kinds of funds that nonprofits like Mercy For Animals don’t have. So even if, in general, we think the food companies are all else equal potentially more effective, once they’ve got 10x the funding or 100x the funding, maybe that switches around. There’s also an argument that the effectiveness can’t be so different because you’re potentially creating staff for these companies and you’re creating demand for the product, which then drives investors to put money into it. So, inasmuch as those companies are an extremely valuable intervention, then things that support it have to also… They could hitchhike on that potentially, that they also have to have some level of cost effectiveness as well. Do you have anything to add on that?
Leah Garcés: Right, I just think there’s a synergy that is often, or a value, that’s under-recognized. And I think that, I don’t know how, but it’d be interesting to see if someone did a study on the marketing value or the kind of market that advocacy groups create. Or the negative advertising that we create for the competition, or something about… If we could value that, maybe that would be like, oh, we’re going to charge you for that, Impossible Burger. That would be interesting… Or investors, this is our value to you. We will send you the invoice.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I mean, well, it’s an interesting question. I suppose, if you try to build these companies, or if you try to get them to give money to you, I suppose you would run into this problem that there’s multiple different companies. And so they might not be willing to fund you because you benefit the entire industry, the entire plant-based meat industry. But let’s say, hypothetically, that it was just one company and, because they’re a commercial company and it’s a bad look, they couldn’t run the campaigns that you’re running. But would they be interested in donating as a corporation because, in fact, you’re offering better value for money in terms of marketing than they can offer themselves by just advertising their products directly? It’s kind of an interesting hypothetical.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. And it’s very genuine too. Ours is not to get a profit for our product. So consumers might trust us more because ours is coming from strictly a more third-party perspective. And so that could be very trusted in that sense.
How has the animal welfare movement evolved? [01:51:52]
Robert Wiblin: How has the farmed animal movement evolved over the last 20 years that you’ve been involved with it? I suppose, perhaps apart from just the general professionalization, are there any other interesting changes?
Leah Garcés: Well, there’s a lot more women leaders now, so that’s been good to see after #metoo. I think there was a big switch out and there were a lot of women that became leaders and I think we’re trying to become a more diverse movement as well. So after BLM in the United States and other countries, there’s been a far higher awareness of the need to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into our work, and how that will make us the most effective possible. I think there’s been a really good understanding of not fighting with each other internally. We can have healthy debates and constructive debates that lead to positive outcomes, and we all have a shared vision, and fighting with each other is not the right approach. I think in the beginning of any movement, there’s quite a lot of infighting. And you see this in other social justice movements, about like what is the right way? And as we’ve grown bigger, we’ve realized there’s a lot of ways and we’re all pushing the big, giant boulder up the hill. And we need a lot of people to do it.
Robert Wiblin: I think when people think about coordination and cooperation, they often imagine you have people collaborating on a project together. One thing I like to say is sometimes the best form of coordination and cooperation is just to let one another be and just let other people do their thing without hassling them and always being up in their business about how they ought to change what they want to do. Even though it’s so tempting to do that because you think you have the right idea. You think you have good advice, but sometimes you have to say your thing and then walk away if they don’t agree.
Leah Garcés: Totally. That’s the concept of the tyranny of the small differences. We get caught up in those sometimes instead of realizing we all have the same vision of where we want to end up and let’s all just work towards that in our different ways, and that’s okay.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Are there any ways that the animal movement has taken steps backwards in your view?
Leah Garcés: Hmm. I don’t know. I haven’t thought of that. No, I don’t think it has. I don’t know.
Robert Wiblin: One thing I thought you might say is perhaps it’s… Maybe I haven’t been around for long enough, but it seems like the animal movement has become more associated in the U.S. with progressive politics. And I wonder whether that might make it more difficult to reach out to Republicans or reach out to people in rural areas who have a different culture and different politics?
Leah Garcés: It’s true that the legislative support has been primarily from folks like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders. But I have great hope and optimism through the Transfarmation path that we’re working with rural farmers, that we’re going to find those bridges, and we already are. So there is bipartisan support for building rural economies and finding small farmers freedom in their economic choices. The movement itself and the employees and the team members are primarily progressive liberals. And I would definitely like to see that change and to incorporate other values. And I actually think that Transfarmation is attracting that. We’re hiring different folks, and it’s fun. It’s fun to be with folks that have grown up in rural America, that have different political perspectives and bring some different solutions and knowledge to the table. It’s actually really, really been a positive experience so far.
### Diversity and inclusion [01:55:15]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. We were saying just then that sometimes the best thing to do is just let people do their thing. But in your personal opinion, if someone came to you for advice, are there any interventions or approaches that the animal movement is still engaged in that you think might be underrated or overrated?
Leah Garcés: Well, I would say underrated still is inclusivity, diversity and inclusion. I think we really need, actually seriously need, to build an equity mindset into our strategies. And if you think, for example in the United States, the fastest growing vegan community are African Americans. And look at our team members. They’re primarily white folks. So if we really want to be successful, we need to broaden our tent. And when I say diversity, it doesn’t just mean racial diversity. It means political diversity. It means religious diversity. I mean, I would say the majority of our staff are white, liberal atheists. That’s primarily who we attract, and that’s not the population. I think that we need to work harder at being diverse and creating an inclusive workplace. And we’ll create new programs as a result, that we’ve never thought of before, that are going to be effective.
Leah Garcés: We are just too same same. And if we’re going to be successful, we need to think of new solutions. To create new solutions we have to attract new people from different backgrounds. And so that will be featured heavily in our new three-year strategy. It’s highly underrated by the movement. And I think we need to work a lot harder on that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It seems like, over the last couple of years, animal organizations have been talking a lot more about those issues. Do you think meaningful progress has been made or maybe has it been more talk than actual change?
Leah Garcés: I think meaningful progress is starting, but there’s a lot of work to do. I think we’re just realizing how far away we are from that. And the dangers of staying so insular and narrow in our approaches, and how that does not create the broadest tent, and how we’ll be more successful if we’re more inclusive, diverse, and equitable.
Robert Wiblin: When you already have an organization that is majority, or maybe super majority people who are liberal, people who are atheists, I imagine it’s actually like a non-trivial challenge to make it more diverse, politically, ideologically, racially. Yeah. What things can you do to get that started? Because it might be a difficult… If I was a Trump-supporting conservative religious person from the country, maybe it would just be a difficult workplace because I wouldn’t have as many natural friends. And that’s not because anyone’s being evil, it’s just the way things are.
Leah Garcés: Yeah, well that’s what inclusive means, right? Diversity is where you add different people from different social identities. And inclusive means where people feel they’ll be successful from those different social identities. And so you could attract a person from…let’s say a Black vegan activist, or a Hispanic or Latino vegan activist, and no one else there is of that social identity. And how are they going to feel? Are they going to feel successful? Are they going to feel isolated? Are they going to be successful? And so you have to then think… There’s two things that we’ve thought of. So one of them is leadership. So leadership has to, when people look on our job site, when they apply for a job, one thing that we’ve heard is they’ll look at our board. They’ll look at our board, they’ll look at our leadership, and they’ll see what they look like.
Leah Garcés: They’ll see how many women are there? How many men? How many people of color? And you can’t tell the other things, but you can see the visuals. And so that has an effect on who… If a Black person sees a whole white board… Or if a woman sees only male leaders, they’re unlikely to want to work there. And so you have to increase it at the top. You also have to make programs that are meaningful to those social identities, those racial identities. So for example, if you want to attract people from rural economies, you have to do something about rural economies. Or if you want to do something about religious identities then you have to have a program with religious identities. We have to think through those aspects.
Leah Garcés: So we started a program called Plants to the People, which was about delivering plant-based meals during the pandemic to people in need. And this was a way to get into certain communities that we know we weren’t in with. And we provided those meals from vegan restaurants. So we had the vegan restaurants deliver these meals. And that was a totally different program we had never done. It was, I wouldn’t say a replicable model, but it was a different kind of program. And now we’re thinking, okay, what else can we do if we want to talk to different communities? What programs will be meaningful to different communities?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I’d heard that vegetarianism or veganism was growing in particular among African American communities in the U.S. Is there an interesting story there as to why that’s happening?
Leah Garcés: So there’s two sides of it. One is health. One is the fact that African American communities are plagued with communicable… Sorry—
Robert Wiblin: Non-communicable.
Leah Garcés: —non-communicable diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and they’re targeted in food deserts and live in communities where there’s less access to fresh food. And so there’s a push in those communities to own their health and own improvement. There’s also a real push for an anti-colonial diet. A real sense of, this is not our diet. So many African Americans are lactose intolerant, for example. And yet milk is being given in schools, it’s being pushed and it’s really bad. It’s really bad for health. So there’s a real push for an anti-colonial diet, which is not incorporating… The taking back of the diet. And I live in Atlanta for example, and there’s just this huge burgeoning Black vegan activism around food, but it has nothing to do with animal rights.
Leah Garcés: It’s all about Black power and health and community. And it’s really interesting to see. So for example, there’s a burger place called Slutty Vegan, which is fantastic. And it has things like ‘The Threesome Burger.’ It’s got really trendy, silly names. It’s run by a woman named Pinky Cole. It’s all vegan, it’s hugely popular, but it’s about health, it’s about Black power, and it’s also about building community. So she gives a lot to the community. She gives scholarships. She’s helping the community out. And so it’s really interesting. It’s totally happening outside of our movement, outside of the animal rights movement. This is happening, not because of us, but in spite of us. And that’s a very, very interesting trend. If the largest, the fastest-growing community has nothing to do with us, what’s going on there? What is happening? That’s important to pay attention to.
Robert Wiblin: How important do you think Biden’s win was for farmed animals in the United States?
Leah Garcés: So as the president of a nonprofit, I have to say I’m completely non-partisan on this question. But I am hopeful for some changes. I will say we were organizationally less than happy about the Secretary of Agriculture selection, which was Tom Vilsack, who came to us straight from the dairy industry. That’s what he’d been doing in the last few years. And, we had hoped for somebody else, Marcia Fudge and others who might have been more sympathetic. I’m hopeful that he’s prioritized climate change. And, I think that there can be an actual dovetailing there with factory farming, but time will tell.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I hoped that it might be relatively easy to stay nonpartisan there, because when I asked Lewis this question, he was like, “Well, you might think it would make a big difference, but the reality is that at the national level, the difference in policy between the Democrats and Republicans is not nearly as large as you might expect intuitively.”
Leah Garcés: Yeah. Especially on agriculture and animal agriculture, because these industries, if you look at the lobbying spend on these companies, they generally give equally to both sides and they hedge their bets. So unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have the kind of limits that Europe has, for example, on this. And it’s one of the biggest fundamental problems with getting legislation passed in favor of farmed animals.
Robert Wiblin: Let’s do a little bit of career advice. If a 20-year-old version of Leah Garcés came to you today asking for advice on what to do… They want to pursue a career that helps animals. What are some of the places you might recommend they go and study or work? I guess other than Mercy For Animals, of course.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. I think there’s so many places to volunteer and intern, and I will say, check out Mercy For Animals. We do paid internships now. We just changed that to increase accessibility as part of our DEIJ philosophy. And THL, The Humane League, is a great place. Good Food Institute is a great place. Compassion in World Farming is a great place. I even think the larger organizations like HSUS or ASPCA. If you’re listening internationally, there’s Animals Australia, and there’s many, many European organizations to look into. And I think volunteering and interning is a good way for you to get a flavor for the culture of an organization. And whether you would fit into that culture. I think you could study anything. Really. We hire every type of person as a large organization. We have researchers, we have video editors, we have writers. We have back-end and front-end web editors.
Leah Garcés: We have user experience. We’re actually going to be advertising for a user experience designer. So apply if that’s you. Marketing people. And as we grow professionally as a movement, we need operational people. I think that people think, I certainly did, that you need to go and study zoology or be a vet or study ethics. Or I don’t know, behavior. Sociology. And that has helped me frame my career. But when I’m actually… Apart from the actual skillset and as organizations become more professional, we’re looking for all kinds of things that help an organization function. Especially in the operational space.
Leah Garcés: I look for two things when I hire: optimism and grit. Optimism, because I want… I ask people how do you see things in five to 10 years? And if they’re like, oh, it’s going to be so hard. No. You don’t have what it takes. You have to have it. Most people I work with have a really optimistic look at the future. We’re going to end factory farming. We are. We are, and they have the grit to do it. No matter how many ‘no’s we get, how many failures we get, we just keep plugging along. You need those two things to be able to be successful in this movement.
Ending factory farming [02:05:57]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Let’s talk about that point, that you’re definitely going to end factory farming. I think I talk to quite a lot of people concerned about animal well being, and they tend to be… I tend to kind of take that view that it just…as long as technology keeps advancing, as long as the economy is growing, we keep increasing our wisdom. It seems inevitable. At some point we will end factory farming. But sometimes I get pushback on that. Are you saying that we will get rid of it as a conviction that helps to drive you forward, or just as a neutral forecast about what will happen?
Leah Garcés: I feel like it’s a neutral forecast, but people can get downhearted, because it is a hard path and there’s a lot of failures along the way, or it’s very slow progress, but I just feel like it’s a math problem. There’s not enough arable land to keep producing food in this way, given the population and how it’s rising. It’s just not possible. And companies are looking at that. Demand is changing and the moral awareness is going up. So we’re driving up the costs of meat. All of those factors together just spell to me it’s going to end. It has to end. People will look back and go, why did they ever do that? That was a terrible idea.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess I would put front and center the issue of just the meat alternatives coming down and all that technology advancing, their price coming down then becoming tastier such that people don’t have any particular motivation to eat meat from animals. But it sounds like… Do you think other factors might be more central? Or maybe you’re just not adding those because you had mentioned them before?
Leah Garcés: Well, I do think that there is a component in which we’re going to run out of land and water. And there’s a whole… We could talk about this for another hour, but the amount of arable land that’s available, which is the land that grows food, and the topsoil is diminishing at rapid rate. So there was an FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture paper that said in the U.K., for example, there were 60 harvests left if we continue down the pathway. So if you have a piece of land that you’re using to raise corn to then feed it to factory farmed animals, wouldn’t it be more efficient to use both of those pieces of land instead to raise food directly for humans?
Leah Garcés: And that’s where the efficiency of food production changes, where the equation changes. And when you do that math problem, we’re using way too much arable land just to feed factory farmed animals in tortured experiences. And we don’t need to do that. And so I think as the population rises to the 10 billion it’s supposed to be by 2050, the math problem tells us very simply we cannot eat as much meat. We cannot eat as much meat and dairy. And when solutions like cell-based meat come forward and you’re just producing meat and protein through a brewery process, it’s way more efficient. That will solve that problem. And I think it is just a math problem in many cases.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So, the logic there is we’ll have less arable land, and climate change would make things more difficult, then various factors push up the price of food, push up the price of wheat, and so on. If wheat prices go up 20%, that’s going to increase the prices proportionally because the main input is these other crops. And they take up a lot of space besides that. And that will cause people to just out of sheer financial pressure to want to consume less meat.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. I see our job is to speed up the transition away from animal agriculture. So it could take different periods of time. It could take a long time, which would mean more suffering of farmed animals, or a shorter time. Our job is to speed that up as fast as possible. So we are changemakers and the speeders-up of this transition, to create the least amount of suffering.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. This isn’t my area, but I’m a bit more skeptical of that channel. And maybe I’ll just try to briefly explain why. I guess, we’ve already had environmental problems getting worse for decades. We’ve had the population increasing actually faster in the past than it will be increasing in future. And yet food prices tend to have been fairly steady or going down, basically because those factors are more than offset by technological improvements that drive down the cost of producing grain. So, food prices go up and down, but the long-term trend is somewhat down.
Robert Wiblin: So I guess I could envisage scenarios in which what you’re saying exactly happens and the price of food goes up and it creates the crisis push. I could also imagine scenarios where the present continues and things may stay the same, or possibly technological improvements will be so great. And we’ll have maybe so much capital investment and we can use robots, really fine-grained integration and so on. And even despite all these factors, the price of grain would go down. So I suppose I wouldn’t bank on that as being the main reason why we’ll get rid of meat.
Leah Garcés: Yeah. That’s a fair point. I think the only thing is when we talk about food… Take bread for example. Bread has eggs in it, sometimes. And as we’ve pointed out, we’ve squeezed all the costs we can out of the animals. They’re at maximum efficiency right now. So if they want to keep maintaining low costs, and we are creating higher prices for producing eggs, they’re going to have to turn to something else. And that’s why we’re seeing a big bread company in Mexico turning to us and saying, “Is there a plant-based alternative where we can keep the price point the same?” Because cage-free eggs are going to cost too much. And that’s exactly what we want to see. So bread stays the same, but the products within bread, don’t.
Leah Garcés: So that’s a good place to start. All of those ingredients that are used for dairy and eggs, and also things… Nuggets. What’s inside of a nugget is hardly noticed by the consumer. It’s the breading, it’s the flavors, things like that. So I think the harder challenge will come when we face things like a steak or a breast, the chicken breast or something that will be more challenging. But I think we’ll get there too.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I know I keep referencing my talk with Lewis, I guess he’s just the most recent animal person I talked to, but it seems like he is somewhat worried about our ability to drive down the cost of plant-based alternatives. Just thinking that the infrastructure for the factories might remain somewhat expensive, the technology to actually make them taste good. It could be quite hard to drive down the costs. And then there’s also a whole lot of issues with clean meat. How do you get the bioreactors to be cheap enough and to be clean enough? And I suppose it seems like he’s not completely certain that we’re going to get price parity any time soon. Do you have any view on those technical issues, or is that maybe other people’s department?
Leah Garcés: Clean meat? I don’t know enough about it. But on the plant-based side, I think part of the strategy is to get the big companies to use their current equipment that they’re using for animals and just swap it out. So, we know that they’re already investing somewhat in that. And so there’s not really a purchase that has to be made, but a swapping out that has to be made. And also we don’t have to do price parity. We just have to close the gap. We have to just raise one and lower the other until they come to the same, or they swap. So it doesn’t have to be that plant-based chicken has to cost what chicken does now. They just have to get closer, and they have to then close that gap.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. That makes sense. Yeah. Is there any kind of general advice that you’d like to pass on to younger, emerging animal advocates to consider beyond what you’ve already said?
Leah Garcés: Well, I always tell people to find what they are passionate about and what they’re good at, and that’s the intersection in which you’re really going to thrive. That might be any of the areas I said we hire in, and as your podcast says, 80,000 hours are going to be spent of your life. So find something that you love and that you’re good at, and you’ll make the most difference that way.
Leah’s career [02:13:02]
Robert Wiblin: How did you figure out what was your niche within the big picture?
Leah Garcés: Well, I think that I always had a calling to serve. My passion for farmed animals was more like a logical one, I want to reduce suffering, and this seemed like a really underserved area. But then it also combined with my love of animals. And it felt like a very natural fit. I thought I had to be a vet to do that. I didn’t know anything about advocacy or activism as I went through school. And so I was studying to be a vet. And when I finished my zoology degree, my mentor at the time wanted me to do a PhD with him because he said to me, “Leah, you don’t want to be a vet. Vets are plumbers. They fix animals once they’re already broken. And you seem like somebody more curious about getting to the root of the problem.”
Leah Garcés: And then I ended up going to Europe to do my master’s degree in what was called environment development. It was the first degree like that. There were seven of us in the program at King’s College. It was really like a sustainable development degree. And that’s where I discovered a huge professional activism world around farmed animals in the U.K. And I could not believe I had never heard of any of this. I couldn’t believe there was… You could have a job in this. And that was my first job, was at Compassion in World Farming right out of my master’s degree. I was 22 years old. And that was a long time ago.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It seems like you’ve somewhat specialized in doing communications in your role. Maybe you’ve realized that you’re a good communicator. You’re very good at telling stories, writing books that people are interested to hear, giving talks. How did you get good at that? Or were you just kind of a natural?
Leah Garcés: That’s funny you say that. I think of myself more of a strategist, but then recently I’ve been working on our three-year strategy with a consultant, and she says that strategy is just a narrative of telling clearly what you’re doing and how. So maybe that is what I am. But I do think they’re interconnected, where strategy and telling a clear story are very, very connected. So I really enjoy getting to the root of problems and building pathways to solving them and then telling the story about how to do that, and helping people build out that roadmap to get there.
Robert Wiblin: I guess maybe I have a slightly biased impression because I read your book and your talks, and listened to you. Whereas I don’t see you in the board meetings during the strategy stuff. I’m a communicator in a sense, but I really struggle with doing the personal stuff. I imagine if I was trying to write a book like yours, it would just be time and time again, the editor and the publisher coming and saying, tell a story from your life, Rob. Explain why this is important to you. And I’d be like, oh, here’s some numbers from a spreadsheet.
Leah Garcés: I actually thought a lot about that before I started writing. And I consulted a lot of people about what style I should follow. And the narrative nonfiction was by far the one that people said they would read the most and think through. So I purposely chose that path because I wanted… If I really wanted to just write a book to tell people how important chickens are and the facts about factory farms, nobody would read that. Narratives really matter to having people… People don’t remember facts, they remember stories. And so it’s the story that engages people to then want to do more and learn more. So I intentionally wrote it that way because I wanted people to care about chickens and the chicken industry and changing it.
Robert Wiblin: Is that something that you initially found difficult and then got good at it? Is there hope for me?
Leah Garcés: Oh yeah. There’s hope for you. It was very hard. I actually took a narrative nonfiction creative writing class and went through many, many weeks of getting corrected and told to go deeper. It was very hard. I read a lot of books that were written in a narrative nonfiction style, and immersed myself in that for a couple of years to try to understand how do you tell a story while getting a message through about something you want to change?
Robert Wiblin: Makes sense. If God came down and said to you, you’ve got to change your career strategy. I’m not allowing you to work at Mercy For Animals anymore. I’m not allowing you to work on the kinds of interventions that you’ve been working on. You got to go do something else. What do you think you would go and do?
Leah Garcés: I would probably work on voter rights in the United States. I live in Atlanta and there’s been a lot going on, if you’ve been watching the news, and I would definitely work on voter rights and the Voter Rights Act in the United States. And I would get more on the grassroots political level.
Robert Wiblin: I guess I was thinking you couldn’t work in Mercy For Animals or on other current interventions, but what if you could still work in the animal sphere in general, are there any other organizations or different approaches that you would be interested in moving to?
Leah Garcés: I am very interested in bringing animals onto the global UN stage. And so maybe that will be something next time we talk where we’ll have something we’ve done, but in the way that climate change is on the global platform and the United Nations has conventions, that is the direction I see us going in. I really want to do that. If I could start all over again, maybe that would be something I don’t think many people are doing. And it would be interesting to see if it’s even worth an intervention. I’m not sure.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting. What kind of organization is that, is that kind of the food and agriculture organization or are there other international treaties on these issues?
Leah Garcés: There are treaties on other issues like wildlife trade. So there’s the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, for example. Could there be a convention on… I don’t know. There are world food programs, and there’s interventions around food and farming, but I don’t know enough about that space. I just joined the board for the World Federation for Animals, which is a brand-new organization that’s going to be looking at trying to do some of this stuff. And we’ll see. Watch this space.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any interesting mistakes that you’ve seen from colleagues or other people in the animal movement that listeners might be able to learn from?
Leah Garcés: I think underplaying culture in an organization. And organizational culture and mental health and vacation, for example. I’ve seen people drive themselves into the ground and think, well, the animals are still in their cages, I don’t get a break either. And I’ve seen a lot of people burn out in my 20+ years of working in this movement. And it is a huge loss, it can really cause tremendous loss if not paid attention to. So I’ve seen a lot of people deprioritize that. As a leader in the organization I’m always prioritizing culture and mental health, vacation and self care.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Do you require people to take holiday even if they don’t want to?
Leah Garcés: I can’t quite require them, but we heavily encourage them to do so. And there’s very clear studies about how to create a culture around this, and it starts with me. So I have to go on vacation, and not only do I have to go on vacation, I have to advertise that to the organization and the other leaders. If leaders aren’t doing it, other people won’t do it. So it has to start at the top. If your boss isn’t taking vacation, you are not going to take vacation. And it’s not just vacation. During the pandemic, I was very clear when I was struggling. I have three kids. They were virtual schooling, and it was hard. And I was very clear, give me some space. I am not handling this well. And I was vulnerable and said that. And I think it’s important for leaders not to pretend like they’re just…like everything’s fine. But to model a culture of vulnerability and transparency and self care.
Mental health challenges [02:20:40]
Robert Wiblin: A lot of people who fight against factory farming struggle with mental health challenges. And I think it’s not just because they’re working a lot. It’s also because the work is so confronting, constantly having to think about the horrible suffering that you’re working to prevent. Have you ever become kind of despondent or anxious because of this? And I guess, how did you approach that and maybe how do you recommend that other people in the organization approach it?
Leah Garcés: Yeah. I definitely have become despondent and depressed because of the severity of the injustice that we’re trying to work on. And I really hit a wall last summer. It was the first trip I took out during the pandemic, and I went to visit a factory farm of one of the Transfarmation farmers. I’d been locked up, holed up in my office for nine months, and then the next thing I know I’m inside of a factory farm filming some of the worst atrocities in the world, in my mind. These horrible… Chickens with sores, lame chickens, just horrific overcrowding, ammonia, unable to breathe, myself and then let alone the chickens. And it really hit me hard. To realize that this continued. I think during the pandemic maybe I’d been able to ignore it more.
Leah Garcés: And I had… I hit a real period of depression. And I think that I did a lot to change my life at that point. So I think there are a number of things you have to prioritize. Exercise regularly, get eight hours of sleep, eat healthy. I don’t drink at all right now, I stopped drinking at that point, alcohol. You have to do what makes you show up your best self, because the work we do is witnessing trauma every single day. We are bearing witness to trauma that is a normalized atrocity in our society. So it’s heavy. It is heavy and we’re already a movement of empaths in many cases. So people who already feel more than others and absorb more than others. Because we’re already responding to this atrocity when others aren’t.
Leah Garcés: So we are especially sensitive to it. And you add into that the pandemic, and #metoo, and the racial uprising issues. It’s been a difficult year. It’s a lot. And so I think you have to prioritize self care. And I model that for everyone. I insist on vacation. I follow up with my staff and say, okay, I can see you haven’t taken any vacation. You need to take a break. I’m the type of person who thinks that advocates need more vacation, not less because we need to last. We have to last the whole time that factory farming exists. And to do that, you need to pace yourself. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And self care is really critical.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have an approach either as an individual or as an organization for what you do when a staff member is starting to show signs that maybe they’re becoming depressed, maybe they’re having serious anxiety? It can be very hard for a workplace to know what to do at that point. Do you encourage people to take time off, or…
Leah Garcés: Yeah, we have a lot of resources that we offer staff, but we also have maintenance. For example we have courses that we regularly offer to staff on compassion fatigue. And then within that workshop, which we ask people to attend, there’s resources, books and different approaches that we suggest people take. We also offer $700 per team member for self care, and that can be for therapy, it can be for a gym. It’s not a whole lot, but it’s something. And we have mental health leave. And we also have our regular leave. We have quite a number of vacation days, more than most in the United States, 20 days on top of the… In Brazil, it’s even more. In Mexico, it’s around that too.
Robert Wiblin: Well thanks to you and all of your colleagues for the very difficult work that you do, work that I think would certainly challenge my mental health. But, it seems like it’s bearing fruit, and hopefully everything’s going to be better in a couple of decades. You might even see the back of this thing.
Leah Garcés: I hope so. My goal is to put us out of business and retire on the beach somewhere, put my feet up.
Robert Wiblin: My guest today has been Leah Garcés. Thanks so much for coming on the 80,000 Hours podcast, Leah.
Leah Garcés: It was my pleasure. It was really fun to talk to you.
Rob’s outro [02:25:11]
My colleagues at 80,000 Hours recently tried to turn everything we’ve learned about career planning in the last ten years into an in-depth, step-by-step process for making a career plan. If you’re ready to commit a good amount of time, say a couple of days, we think it’s worth completing the whole thing.
You can find that at: https://80000hours.org/process/
But I should say that the full article is 20,000+ words long. So if you’re just curious about what our advice is, our CEO Ben Todd has attempted to compress it down into seven points – one for each section of the full process.
You can find that summary at: https://80000hours.org/career-planning/summary/
It’s especially aimed at people who want a career that’s both satisfying and has a significant positive impact, but much of the advice applies to all career decisions.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering by Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts are available on our site and made by Sofia Davis-Fogel.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.