This essay will outline and share what I’ve learned about global food issues and the mistakes and successes of food advocates in other countries, in order to help other activists be more effective in their work.
My focus will be the US, not because it’s where I’m from, but because it’s where the factory farming of animals started. The US has also had more plant-based food advocacy than anywhere else in the world.
History of Factory Farming
The industrial system we now recognize as factory farming emerged in the early twentieth century when rural farmers in the US struggled to supply enough food for an increasingly urbanized population. High prices and food shortages led to a nationwide meat boycott in 1910.
After the US joined World War I in 1917, the strain on small farms in the US increased as they struggled to feed the troops. Trying to feed a twentieth-century country using a nineteenth-century food system led to protests and riots, such that increasing the food supply became a national priority. Farmers and bureaucrats quickly began looking for ways to increase the size and efficiency of the animal agriculture industry.
The first factory farm was probably Mrs. Wilmer Steele’s Broiler House in Delaware. Cecile Steele was one of the first farmers to breed chickens specifically for their meat production, starting a selective division of labor whereby some chickens laid eggs more frequently while others grew such large breasts that they often collapsed under their own weight. In 1923, Steele’s first flock had 500 chickens, but due to enormous demand, efficient breeding techniques, and optimized confinement conditions, she was raising 10,000 per flock by 1926.
Over the next century, to supply the relentless demand for efficiency, large-scale and vertically integrated producers dominated the industry. In 1940, 17% of the US population worked in agriculture, compared to 1.5% in 2016. Scientific developments like the use of antibiotics in animal feed allowed producers to confine animals to smaller and smaller spaces without a prohibitive increase in disease transmission. Animal farming started to use sentient beings as machinery to produce dairy or eggs, and as raw materials to produce meat. The US industry publication Hog Farm Management told its readers in 1973, “Forget the pig is an animal—treat him just like a machine in a factory.”
Factory Farming Today
Today, over 99% of farmed animals in the US live on factory farms, and over 90% globally.
In the US, animal farms have polluted our land and water. On modern factory farms, the waste from thousands of cows is pumped into a central pit, creating an environmental disaster. People who live near factory farms suffer from conditions like asthma because of this pollution. On a global scale, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation section.
These factory farms also involve massive animal cruelty. Pigs are kept in crates so small they can’t turn around. Fish often die by being crushed or suffocated because they are pushed out of the water. Hens lay supersized eggs almost daily, leading to a host of health issues and chronic pain, and they live in tight cages for virtually their entire lives.
Animal farming is also a public health disaster. 80% of US antibiotics are fed to farmed animals at subtherapeutic doses, leading to antibiotic resistance which can then be passed on to humans, rendering both existing and new diseases incurable in the human population. Animal products also lead to chronic health conditions and foodborne illness, harboring diseases such as E. coli and salmonella that threaten the safety of the food supply.
This is a dire situation, and many people have realized that for some time. Since the 1980s in the US, and since the 1990s and 2000s in many other countries, we’ve seen animal rights, environmental, and health advocates begin fighting against animal agriculture.
First, there have been a lot of “go vegan” campaigns. Most of the activism for plant-based food has used this strategy. Activists have staged protests, passed out leaflets, and shared information about animal farming to encourage people to go vegan, vegetarian, or reducetarian.
There are also a lot of products catering to plant-based and non-meat diets, such as “veggie burgers” or “garden burgers,” which are usually made with beans and vegetables. In the US and Europe, there are a lot of soy products like tofu and tempeh, which have been adopted from Asia. These products are sometimes pretty tasty, but nobody would mistake them for animal flesh. There is a running joke in the US that these veggie burgers taste like cardboard, although this is patently untrue nowadays.
This approach has had some success. If US residents are surveyed and asked whether they identify as vegan or vegetarian, the numbers have gone from around 0% and 1% to around 3% and 7% in the last 30 or so years. But those numbers have more or less stayed the same since around 2008 to 2018, despite there being more of this activism than ever before.
So, unfortunately, around 2008 or 2010, the adoption of plant-based food diets started to slow down significantly, and since then has perhaps even stagnated overall.
Innovation & Clean Meat
Now I want to look at the new approaches advocates are using that are actually showing significant promise and success.
Advocates today are using an approach called “Effective Altruism,” or EA, which is using research, data, and reason to do the most good possible. There’s a global movement applying this idea.
The most powerful EA tool we have is innovation. The amazing thing is that we don’t have to give up meat, dairy, and eggs to end animal farming. Think about it. What is meat? It’s fat, protein, water, and trace minerals. All of these ingredients are readily available in the plant kingdom; they’re just not assembled in the architecture of meat. That’s what a cow does.
But a cow also does lots of stuff we don’t need. She grows hair, teeth, bones. She walks around. She breathes, thinks, and feels. These extra processes mean that for every ten calories of plant-based food we feed a farmed animal, we only get about one calorie of meat in return. Even with the nutrient that animal products are most known for, protein, for every ten grams of plant-based protein we feed them, we get at most two grams of animal-based protein in return.
So what if we cut out the middleman and assemble those ingredients ourselves with a more efficient, ethical process? That’s the approach of companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Hungry Planet. They’ve already succeeded in creating a burger made from plants. Many consumers can’t tell the difference.
Beyond Meat—the first of these companies—was founded in 2009 by Ethan Brown. He worked for ten years at a fuel cell company, but always had an interest in animal ethics. He started thinking about plant-based food technology when he was investing his money in vegetarian restaurants. He visited the laboratory of Fu-Hung Hsieh, a food scientist from Taiwan who did a lot of the pioneering research in plant-based meat. It really is meat, because it has the same constituents as animal flesh—fat, protein, trace minerals, and water. If you combine the right plant-based proteins and fats, choosing ones that are most similar to animal-based proteins and fats, you get the same culinary result.
Beyond Meat’s first product came out in 2013 and was a huge success. Their main product is the Beyond Burger, but they have released Beyond Sausage and have a variety of exciting new products in the works. Their products consistently sell out of grocery stores because the world has what economists call “latent demand,” a huge hunger across the world for plant-based products that taste the same as animal-based products. Consumers want the taste and experience of these foods without the animal welfare, environmental, and health costs.
These new products are great, but we also need to make them as convenient for consumers to buy as possible. That’s the role of people like David Yeung. Yeung grew up in Hong Kong. His father was a businessman, committed philanthropist, and devout Buddhist who raised him with traditions like eating vegetarian on the first and fifteenth day of each lunar calendar month. Yeung left Hong Kong to study engineering at Columbia University in New York. While in the US, he read more on Buddhist philosophy and went vegetarian, coming to believe that the ethical idea of karma made sense in the same way as Newton’s third law of motion: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Hong Kong is already seeing promising signs of a transition toward animal-free food. The estimated number of residents who are vegetarian at least one day a week has increased from 5% in 2008 to 23% in 2014. The number of vegetarian restaurants increased from 140 in 2013 to 240 in 2016. Yeung has played a big role in this with his company, Green Monday. It promotes healthy, sustainable diets and lifestyles through social media and advertising but also with a brick-and-mortar store, Green Common. Hong Kong was the first city outside the US in which Beyond Burger was sold when Green Common started carrying it.
Yeung has also founded a plant-based meat company, Right Treat, which is soon to release their first product, Omnipork. It’s made with pea protein, soy, shiitake mushrooms, and rice. Currently, it’s being tested in Hong Kong restaurants in dishes like dumplings, sweet and sour pork, and braised pork. He hopes this product can help reduce Asia’s reliance on animal farming.
One of the most important drivers of success for these products is the role of investors. Fortunately, they are tripping over each other to offer these companies money. This even includes meat companies, which ironically are some of the most important leaders in the plant-based movement.
Take the example of Tom Hayes, CEO of the world’s second-largest meat processor, who said “Plant protein is growing faster than animal protein. For us, we want to be where the consumer is.” The great thing about plant-based food is that meat companies themselves have some of the biggest opportunities to build a more sustainable, ethical food system.
Or consider Bill Gates, tech pioneer and one of the richest men in the world, who called these products “the future of food.”
Finally, Richard Branson, business magnate and environmentalist, said “I believe that in 30 years or so, we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.” This quote is especially important because Branson isn’t just saying he supports these products and thinks they will grow in popularity. He’s predicting a global transition completely away from animal agriculture. Many others are now making this prediction, such as journalist Ezra Klein, author Steven Pinker, science educator Bill Nye, and Indian politician Maneka Gandhi.
You might notice that Branson references something called “clean meat.” Clean meat is real animal meat made without the ethical and food safety costs of animal slaughter. To do this, scientists and chefs take a small sample of cells from a living animal, such as taking a feather from a chicken or taking a cheek swab of saliva, and they place those cells in a cultivator, which looks like the big tanks at a beer brewery. Inside, the cells mix with the nutrients they need to grow, in the same process that happens inside an animal’s body.
The first clean meat products are expected to roll out over the next couple of years, though they’ll be pretty expensive for a while. Scientists are still working on four important technological hurdles: getting usable cell lines of the required type like pork belly or white chicken meat, scaffolding that provides a structure for the cells to grow around, cell media, which is the cell food that contains the nutrients, energy, and growth factors, and the cultivators to mix these ingredients together. Eventually, the cultivators could actually get pretty small, so you could brew meat at home the way some people brew their own beer.
This science is tough, but the good news is that we have a pretty good idea of the research we need to do to overcome each hurdle. It just takes time, funding, and hard work. Fortunately, these are in good supply as some of the world’s biggest meat companies like Tyson and Cargill have already invested in clean meat technology. We know that because animals are such inefficient producers of food, it’s probably not a matter of whether cultured meat becomes cost-competitive, but when. At that time, consumers will be faced with a choice of two identical products, except one involves massive ethical and food safety costs, perhaps even being labeled as such, like the mandatory labeling on cigarettes, or taxed so that the price matches the real cost to society. I’m optimistic that we’ll make the right choice. After all, people don’t eat meat because it involves killing animals, but in spite of that unfortunate fact.
Consider the role of a single company, Google. Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, funded the creation of the world’s first clean burger in 2013. In 2015, Google tried to buy Impossible Foods, though they weren’t willing to sell. And Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, listed “nerds over cattle” as the most important tech trend in 2016. He said animal-free foods would take over the conventional meat industry in the coming decades. Even internally, Google has been an early adopter of this trend in its employee cafeterias, replacing animal-based products with animal-free foods such as Just Mayo, a popular brand of eggless mayonnaise, and New Wave Foods’ plant-based shrimp, which is made from the same algae that marine shrimp eat.
Another important global strategy today is institutional change. Contrast this with “individual change,” the approach we discussed earlier of getting people one-by-one to switch to plant-based food. Changing institutions means helping businesses, nonprofits, governments, and society as a whole to switch to plant-based food. For example, many countries now have Meatless Monday campaigns, where a college cafeteria, hospital cafeteria, or other dining facility takes out all meat from their menu every Monday in order to benefit humans and animals.
Another example is the work of Pei Su. Pei Su was born in Taiwan and is now a leader in the animal protection movement across East Asia. As a child, meat was considered a rare delicacy. Less than a handful of times each year, her family got to enjoy a whole chicken. The most desirable part was the legs, which usually went to Su’s father and brothers. On her birthday, Su was allowed a chicken egg or drumstick. While she refers to big meat portions like steaks as a “Western concept,” those portions have unfortunately been quickly growing in popularity in East Asia over the last half-century. Dairy was introduced to the region while Su was still in school and promoted to families as a healthy, special treat that signaled their growing prosperity.
Su eventually quit her job of running a flower shop and started full-time at the only Taiwanese organization actively working to draft animal protection legislation. She conducted undercover investigations of animal farms and slaughterhouses in Taiwan. Su realized how compelling animal protection was for Westerners, so she decided to travel to the US and Europe to learn how organizations there had been so successful. She completed a master’s degree in the UK in social policy and animal rights and now works with international and local East Asian groups to effect change for animals with her nonprofit ACTAsia.
Now, I’d like to go through some tentative research findings regarding which strategies are most effective for helping society transition to an animal-free food system.
I’ve already talked a lot about one strategy, using technology to make meat, dairy, and eggs without animals. That’s very important, and I hope we’ll continue to see more focus on food tech.
I’ve talked about another important strategy, which is focusing on institutional change over individual change. I want to use this strategy as an example of research in the field of effective advocacy. I’ll go through the evidence in favor of it.
First, as with all strategic questions, we should clarify what exactly we’re talking about. Examples of institutional tactics are policy changes, such as helping companies and governments eat more plant-based food, and movement-building, which is about growing the plant-based advocacy movement as a whole. Examples of individual tactics are passing out leaflets that encourage individuals to go vegetarian, and online ads that do the same thing. Note that within each category, you can have a more radical message like “end animal farming” or “go vegan,” or a more moderate one, like “eat less meat.”
I want to argue for a shift away from individual strategies and towards institutional. Though this doesn’t mean we should completely stop working on individual change. For example, if you are trying to grow the plant-based movement, one of the options you can give people if they want to support plant-based food is changing their own diet. But from my perspective, that shouldn’t be as much of a focus as it currently is in the global movement.
Last year, at a protest calling for a restaurant chain to reform its animal welfare policies—e.g. choosing healthier breeds of chickens and having windows in the chicken sheds—a bystander approached and thanked me profusely for helping these poor animals. I told him he was welcome to join us, but he said, “Oh no. I can’t. I’m not a vegetarian.” I insisted that he could join us without being vegetarian; we were just calling for better treatment of these animals. But he was unconvinced. He saw vegetarianism as a prerequisite to helping farmed animals because advocates have conflated the two for so long. If the movement instead used an institutional framing, that bystander might have joined us and maybe even gone vegetarian in the process.
The biggest piece of evidence for institutional change is historical precedent. Virtually no movement—from environmentalism, children’s rights, anti-slavery, feminism, to anti-war movements—has succeeded using the heavy individual focus so prevalent in the farmed animal movement. Consumer advocacy like boycotts have succeeded as a tool for institutional change but failed when treated as the end goal. We need to learn from the past.
One of the few movements to use an individual focus was the Free Produce Movement, a contingent of antislavery activists who focused on individual abstinence from slave-made goods. Similar to vegetarianism, this was seen as reducing the economic power of slavery, signaling opposition to slavery, and helping consumers disassociate from an immoral institution. This approach was most popular in the early 1800s in the United States. The prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison boasted at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention that his suit was made by non-slave labor. However, by 1850, the movement lost much of its momentum once activists—including Garrison himself—decided there were more effective ways to fight slavery, such as public protest and legislative activism.
Some environmental advocates feel the same way about “green consumerism,” the heavy consumer focus often seen in the environmental movement, such as purchasing “eco-friendly” light bulbs. One popular argument against green consumerism has been that it makes potential activists complacent and therefore less likely to work on bigger changes like environmental policy efforts. There is some empirical evidence for this effect—known as “moral licensing” or “moral fatigue”—but the research is limited. It does seem like this movement has been shifting recently toward institutional, campaign-oriented messaging like “move beyond coal” and away from individual messaging like “please recycle.”
This strategy helps people avoid what psychologists call the “collapse of compassion,” the feeling of apathy that arises when we encounter a big issue without being able to clearly identify a big solution. Institutional framing puts the big solution—changing society as a whole—front-and-center in our messaging. People need to see a path to success to avoid a wall of apathy.
The leading explanation for this collapse is that “people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion.” A key way to mitigate the collapse of compassion is to show a realistic, collective solution to a large problem. Institutional messaging does this by emphasizing the possibility of significant progress beyond what an individual can achieve by just changing their own diet. Even though a vegetarian diet in the US can spare 371 to 582 animals each year, that can feel like a mere drop in the bucket when people think about the billions of animals who are still suffering.
On the other hand, collective action can achieve technological breakthroughs, corporate and legal policy change, and society-wide shifts in consumer behavior. This collective approach also makes individual action easier because each person knows that their action is part of a wider movement with support and cooperation to help and encourage them to achieve their goals.
In grassroots activism, the benefits of collective action are undeniable. One of the founders of the field of sociology, Émile Durkheim, wrote in 1912 about “collective effervescence,” the powerful psychological effect of people coming together, performing the same actions, and thinking the same thoughts. As people dance together at a deafening concert, cheer for a favorite sports team, or protest against a common enemy, they lose their sense of individuality and gain a sense of “sacredness.” This can satisfy our psychological need for belonging and spirituality, potentially allowing us to break from the status quo of our individual behavior and beliefs.
We also need to consider something called “moral outrage.” Moral outrage is “a special type of anger, one that ignites when people recognize that a person or institution has violated a moral principle (for example, do not hurt others, do not fail to help people in need, do not lie) and must be prevented from continuing to do so.” It’s the rocket fuel of a social movement, inspiring average citizens to step onto the streets, call on their loved ones to join the movement, and step outside of their comfort zones. Anger in general, including moral outrage, is cited as a key motivator by activists in many movements.
Moral outrage has also been described as “a response to the behavior of others, never one’s own,” so institutional messaging is more likely to spark the emotion because it puts the blame for the ethical issues of animal farming on industry, government, or society at large, rather than on the individual. Because of this, institutional messaging could face less of the defensiveness advocates frequently encounter.
A key aspect of moral outrage is that it seems to make people more willing to break from “system justification,” the tendency to justify the status quo, often for no other reason than because it is the status quo. Given how common system justification is when people hear “go vegetarian” messages, feeling an immediate urge to justify their own diet, this could be a very important effect of institutional messaging. It could reduce the number of irrational arguments that advocates hear like the infamous “Lions eat meat. Why can’t I?”
A wide range of research has shown that peer pressure strongly motivates behavior across a wide variety of contexts from environmentalism to teenage drug use. Famous experiments have documented the power of social pressure, such as the Music Lab experiment of Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts. They split participants into two groups, both of which evaluated 48 different songs by indicating “I hate it.” or “I love it.”
Both groups had the option of downloading the songs in addition to their binary assessment. In one group, participants were shown the number of times the song had been downloaded by previous participants, while the other group lacked that information. The results suggested that the download count had a large effect on assessments of the music, while the intrinsic features of the music seemed to have little effect. This helps explain why it’s so hard to predict success in the music industry just by listening to a song; hits may reach the top of the charts by snowballing with their initial popularity, more than by the quality of the song.
The tremendous power of peer pressure, from both authorities and peers, has been implicated in many historical tragedies like the Salem witch trials and the Holocaust. But peer pressure is just a tool, not necessarily a weapon. For example, if you can get a few kids to engage in better behavior in a class or peer group, such as doing their homework or avoiding smoking, the others will be more inclined to follow. Such influence can also be more artificial: if the students have a young babysitter or teacher who acts cool, such as by liking the same music as the teenagers, but then also espouses good values, this can serve as social pressure to improve behavior.
Farmed animal advocates use similar tactics, such as by highlighting the growing number of vegetarians and vegans and by profiling celebrities who care about animals. For example, Mercy For Animals ran online advertisements that specifically targeted fans of Ariana Grande, a popular American singer, telling them that Grande is vegetarian.
Israeli activists organized marches advertised as having 10,000 attendees, even before they had anyone signed up. These marches became self-fulfilling prophecies where the apparent popularity of the event led to actual popularity. Strategies like these appear to greatly increase advocacy effectiveness and should be utilized more often.
Finally, institutional change is more effective because it seeks to affect a smaller number of people: institutional decision-makers. The people in charge of a company, government, or NGO have a large amount of power to change food production. Because you have to convince fewer people than you do with individual diet change, you can create more total change.
The previous section may seem confusing and is the culmination of years of research, but the takeaway is simple: The global plant-based movement has been more effective when it focuses on changing institutions rather than changing individuals.
Other Effective Strategies
I’d like to now briefly go through some other research findings regarding what has been most effective in the global movement.
The second finding is that advocates should focus on the long run. This is similar to institutional change. While it’s great to inspire people to go vegetarian today, it’s much more important to speed up the global transition to an animal-free food system. The long-term results of the movement involve the lives of exponentially more animals.
Third, we should combine ethics and technology. Neither of these is sufficient alone to fix the issues with our food system. Ethics provides the reason for people to change: we need to end hunger, to protect our environment, and live in harmony with animals. Food technology allows us to achieve those goals without giving up the meat, dairy, and eggs we want to eat. We are more effective when we incorporate both of these into our advocacy.
Fourth, we should discuss all of the many advantages of animal-free food. It’s better for public health, our environment, the animals, the economy, and the agricultural workers. While some people aren’t aware of these advantages, they all have strong evidence behind them and should be emphasized.
Fifth, we should avoid gimmicks and stereotypes. Some of you might be familiar with PETA, a US-based organization that often employs publicity stunts like images of naked women to promote vegetarianism. While these tactics bring attention to vegetarianism, they also create hostility and negativity against vegetarianism. This trade-off is not worth it, and we should avoid these types of gimmicks. We should also avoid stereotypes. In the US, vegetarianism is often seen as something that is only done by young, white, liberal women. But really, plant-based food is for everyone, and we should make that clear in our advocacy.
Finally, advocates all over the world should remember that we are a global movement. It’s vitally important that we work together and support each other to fix the broken food system and to help people eat more healthfully, sustainably, and ethically. Remember that many plant-based advocates and effective altruists in other countries are eager to support you in any way they can.
I want to conclude by taking a look at the future of humanity’s expanding moral circle. As we work to live more sustainably and ethically, we will not only care more about farmed animals but also other populations.
First, we will think more about future beings. As mentioned earlier, the long-term is very important. Right now humanity is thinking a little about future generations when it comes to sustainability and protecting the environment. But it’s important to look even farther ahead, such as thinking about humans and animals who will be affected by new technologies like artificial intelligence.
Second, we will think about the non-human animals, both great and small, with whom we share this planet. There are wild animals like elephants, tigers, rodents, and frogs whose numbers are a fraction of what they once were. And there is the countless number of small creatures—perhaps 1019, a truly staggering number—like worms, insects, arachnids and more which undertake some of the least known but most important environmental processes. Both groups of animals matter, not only for their role in ecosystems but for their intrinsic moral worth.
Finally, there is artificial sentience. I mentioned the technology of artificial intelligence, but many experts think that in addition to intelligence, we will create sentience—the capacity to feel pleasure and suffering. As the number of sentient beings grows in the world, these beings will matter, too.
I hope that this generation of advocates look back to the past, learning from our ideological ancestors, look to today, seeing what role they might play in the roadmap to the end of animal farming, and also look ahead, ensuring that we don’t just end the suffering of animals today but also lay a foundation that our descendants can build upon.