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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.

Leah Garcés

For a chance to prevent enormous amounts of suffering, would you be brave enough to drive five hours to a remote location to meet a man who seems likely to be your enemy, knowing that it might be an ambush?

Today’s guest — Leah Garcés — was.

That man was a chicken farmer named Craig Watts, and that ambush never happened. Instead, Leah and Craig forged a friendship and a partnership focused on reducing suffering on factory farms.

Leah, now president of Mercy For Animals (MFA), tried for years to get access to a chicken farm to document the horrors she knew were happening behind closed doors. It made sense that no one would let her in — why would the evil chicken farmers behind these atrocities ever be willing to help her take them down?

But after sitting with Craig on his living room floor for hours and listening to his story, she discovered that he wasn’t evil at all — in fact he was just stuck in a cycle he couldn’t escape, forced to use methods he didn’t endorse.

Most chicken farmers have enormous debts they are constantly struggling to pay off, make very little money, and have to work in terrible conditions — their main activity most days is finding and killing the sick chickens in their flock. Craig was one of very few farmers close to finally paying off his debts, which made him slightly less vulnerable to retaliation. That, combined with his natural tenacity and bravery, opened up the possibility for him to work with Leah.

Craig let Leah openly film inside the chicken houses, and shared highly confidential documents about the antibiotics put into the feed. That led to a viral video, and a New York Times story. The villain of that video was Jim Perdue, CEO of one of the biggest meat companies in the world. They show him saying, “Farmers are happy. Chickens are happy. There’s a lot of space. They’re clean.” And then they show the grim reality.

For years, Perdue wouldn’t speak to Leah. But remarkably, when they actually met in person, she again managed to forge a meaningful relationship with a natural adversary. She was able to put aside her utter contempt for the chicken industry and see Craig and Jim as people, not cartoonish villains.

Leah believes that you need to be willing to sit down with anyone who has the power to solve a problem that you don’t — recognising them as human beings with a lifetime of complicated decisions behind their actions. And she stresses that finding or making a connection is really important. In the case of Jim Perdue, it was the fact they both had adopted children. Because of this, they were able to forget that they were supposed to be enemies in that moment, talk about their experience as parents, and build some trust.

The other lesson that Leah highlights is that you need to look for win-wins and start there, rather than starting with disagreements. With Craig Watts, instead of opening with “How do I end his job”, she thought, “How can I find him a better job?” If you find solutions where everybody wins, you don’t need to spend resources fighting the former enemy. They’ll come to you.

Typically animal activists are seen as coming into rural areas to take away jobs and choices — but MFA are trying to do the opposite. They want to create new opportunities, and give farmers a level of freedom they haven’t had since they first set foot on the factory farming debt treadmill.

It turns out that conditions in chicken houses are perfect for growing hemp or mushrooms, so Mercy For Animals have started their ‘Transfarmation project’ to help farmers like Craig escape from the prison of factory farming by converting their production from animals to plants. To convince farmers to leave behind a life of producing suffering, all you need to do is find them something better — which for many of them is almost anything else.

Leah and Rob also talk about:

  • Mercy for Animals’ overall strategy for ending factory farming sooner than later
  • Why conditions for farmers are so bad
  • The importance of building on past work
  • The benefits of creating a ranking and scoring companies against each other
  • Why we should drive up the price of factory farmed meat by any means necessary
  • The difficulty of enforcing corporate pledges
  • Her disagreements with others in the animal welfare movement
  • And much more

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel


Lessons for others focused on social reform

Leah Garcés: 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. 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.

Driving up the price of factory farmed meat

Leah Garcés: 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. And 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, and 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.

The importance of building on past work

Leah Garcés: 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, some of the costs are hidden because they’re back in the past before this 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 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?

Scoring companies against each other

Leah Garcés: 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 this.

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 were 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. It’s a powerful tool.

Enforcing corporate pledges

Leah Garcés: When we see [companies going back on their pledges], 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.

Robert Wiblin: What was the reason?

Leah Garcés: They didn’t give a reason. They just said they weren’t going to do it. They’re just revoking it, and they’re not going to make their members do it anymore. 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.

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The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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