Morality is Hard podcast – Episode 4 – Tobias Leenaert, the Vegan Strategist

Tobias Leenaert is one of the founders of Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, or EVA, which is a Belgian organisation that advocates the consumption of plant foods instead of animals.

Tobias founded the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy, CEVA, with Melanie Joy, who you might know as the author of Why we Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows. CEVA aims to increase the impact of vegan advocacy worldwide.

I first heard about Tobias through his work on the Vegan Strategist, a blog where he talks about effect animal advocacy. He is also working on a book on vegan strategy and communication, and gives talks around the world.

Tobias and I chatted about the effectiveness and role for different types of animal advocacy.

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An open letter on industrial animal farming

I’m proud to join Scott Weathers, Sophie Hermanns, Mark Bittman and 200+ expert signatories (read: very impressive people) to ask the World Health Organization (WHO) to reduce factory farming.

If you care about any of the following issues; animal suffering, climate change, environmental degradation, antibiotic resistance or global health, please add your signature (https://openletteranimalfarming.com/).

Check out Scott, Sophie and Mark’s op-ed in the New York Times here, Scott and Sophie’s note in The Lancet here, and the original letter here.

If the new WHO Director General takes a strong stance on factory farming, that would be a positive for human and non-human animals in so many ways. Congratulations to Scott and Sophie for what I’m sure will be a highly impactful initiative. I’d also just like to take this moment to remind you how easy it can be to influence things, including high profile individuals and organisations (I’ve written about this here). You can and must take action.

The future of humanity

I’m on my way to the US east coast for the Reducetarian Summit and picked up the latest issue of New Philosopher, with the theme of the future. I often find New Philosopher a little weak, but this issue is good, especially the interview with Nick Bostrom on the future of humanity. Some of my favourite insights:

Bostrom said that naming their organisation the ‘Future of Humanity Institute’ turned out to be very useful because of how broad it is. It allows them to easily shift their priorities based on what they think is the best thing to work on to improve the world.

Too often I see organisations with some name that locks them in to a particular view, especially non-profits (e.g. the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia – I’ve whinged about this before).

I also liked the concept of the ‘world vulnerability thesis’, which Bostrom stressed is not an idea in its final stage. The idea is that, as technology advances, we may reach a point where a small group is able to do something that destroys humanity or the world (or causes catastrophic damage, presumably).

We could, at some point, enter a ‘vulnerability window’ where it is easier to cause major damage than to protect against it, which might either be temporary or lasting. An example of this would be the use of biotechnology to spread an engineered pathogen around the world.

In response to Caleb Bond – on veganism and petting zoos

This essay is in response to the opinion piece by Caleb Bond, published by an Adelaide (Australia) newspaper, The Advertiser, on the 1st of May, 2017. The piece takes aim at vegans and animal protection groups who protested the presence of a petting zoo at the entrance of a local music festival. Caleb was light on facts, and heavy on verbose ad hominem attacks against vegans, such as “…some of the most judgmental prigs I’ve ever met have been vegans” and “So moralistic and oh-so-superior”.

Concerned that this piece would give people the wrong impression about animal advocates, thus leading to negative outcomes for animals, I urged The Advertiser to publish a piece covering some actual arguments that vegans make, and offered to write it myself. The head of Opinion at The Advertiser said that, due to being inundated with requests, they were getting PETA to write an opinion piece covering the other side (although a week later this has still not emerged). To me, this strongly suggests that they were not intending on covering the other side prior to the complaints – so much for unbiased journalism and covering all bases.

As an opinion piece, it might be tempting to say that the credit lies squarely with Caleb. However, by not issuing a response, The Advertiser does the animal protection community (and indeed animals) a great disservice. I hope that The Advertiser will make good on their promise and allow PETA to write an opinion piece, however as an insurance policy, this is my response. Because The Advertiser is apparently disinterested in covering the other side of the story, please share it widely.

While I was not involved with the petition to the music festival, started by Jaymie Hammond, from later conversations I gathered that the rationale seems to have been roughly this – the combination of loud music, large crowds and individuals under the influence is not an environment conducive to the wellbeing of animals. Interestingly, the music festival quickly accepted the growing concern over the petting zoo, and cancelled it. “While we had the best of intentions, we understand your concerns and so we have decided not to go ahead with it.” They, at least, seem to have understood the motive.

I’d also like to cover some of the actual reasons people have for being vegan, since Caleb seems unwilling to cover that. Apparently people are vegan because they want to be superior to non-vegans. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of why one might choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle.

Environmental damage – In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations wrote the Livestock’s Long Shadow report, discussing the environmental impact associated with animal agriculture. In particular, an estimated 14.5% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the result of the livestock industry. Adopting a vegan lifestyle is one of the most effective individual acts one can make to reduce their impact on the environment (more effective than forgoing showers, having solar panels, and riding a bike instead of a car).

Human wellbeing –The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced in 2015 that processed meats are a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogen to humans), and red meats are a Group 2A carcinogen (probable carcinogen to humans). A diet rich in plant-based food is suggested to lead to lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and a reduced risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease. As I have argued previously (volume 2, page 15 of the Australian Vegans Journal), a government public health campaign could reduce the public health burden in Australia, saving the taxpayer money and benefiting their health.

Animal suffering – This industry also creates unimaginable suffering for the animals used as food. Undercover investigations have revealed extreme cruelty and pain as standard in Australia, particularly in industrial farming of pigs and chickens.

Generally speaking, vegans do not believe that a small amount of pleasure outweigh the damage and suffering. Luckily for vegans, the food is delicious (try Vego n’ Loven It or Zenhouse in Adelaide, Caleb!), and the hardest part is having to put up with ridicule, and correct misinformation. However, it’s still worth it.

Caleb says “Vegans make a lot of noise, but precious little sense.” You might indeed be forgiven for thinking this if this opinion piece was your first introduction to veganism. However, Caleb left out the above rationale, thereby misleading the public.

There was some mixed commentary on Caleb’s piece in the letters to the editor of The Advertiser the following day. In particular, I was struck by the comments by Eric Taylor of West Beach.

If they have their way and veganism becomes compulsory, I trust these moral dictators own some pretty large properties to house the animals. They will no longer be on the farms, as there will be no commercial benefit. What do these people suggest we do with the 74 million sheep and 26 million cattle in Australia? The choices are limited. They will either get moved to non-productive land owned by our vegan masters or sent to slaughter.

The question of ‘what will we do with all the animals’ is a common criticism of veganism, though it misses the point and is misleading. The transition from animal exploitation, whether through behaviour change (increase in proportion of vegans) or technology (increased availability of realistic animal product alternatives, e.g. plant-based or cellular agriculture), is almost certainly going to be gradual. There won’t be an overflow of food animals to deal with because there will be no demand for them. Less of them will be bred and therefore in existence, which is a good thing, as most food animals are argued to have lives not worth living (that is to say, with more pain than pleasure).

Caleb, I sincerely hope that I have left you feeling more informed about the reasons that I and many others have decided to avoid animal products. If you are willing to have a well-reasoned and informed discussion about this, I would be happy to do so. And to The Advertiser, I hope you will consider urgently sharing information about the case for veganism. As a journalistic publication, it is your duty.

Below are some of my favourite quotes from Caleb’s piece.

See, they profess to be such loving, careful, gentle souls. Friends of everyone and everything. But some of the most judgmental prigs I’ve ever met have been vegans.

So moralistic and oh-so-superior. They like to think of themselves as a higher echelon of human. They’re apparently more evolved than you and I.

All because they don’t enjoy a nice steak with a glass of red. Yes, wine is off the list, too, because it’s processed with animal products. No wonder they’re generally so uptight and sour.

Then they’ll start proselytising door-to-door. “Hi, do you have a moment to talk about our lord and saviour, tofu?”


Edit (09/05/17) – it has recently come to my attention that The Advertiser published a response by PETA, however it was a week after the original article, and it was just a letter to the editor, not a full opinion piece. After a search I was confident that nothing had been published – the Advertiser’s website makes it hard to double check these things.

However, I still believe The Advertiser could have and should have done more to counter the baseless attacks from Caleb Bond on an entire community.

Cube of Truth vegan outreach & Reducetarian Summit

On Friday I had the pleasure of joining some Los Angeles activists in a Cube of Truth at Hollywood, on the walk of fame. I’ve participated in similar outreach events in Sydney, Australia, and was somewhat surprised to note that the responses at each location were quite similar. If you’re not familiar with a Cube of Truth, the video below has some footage from one in Sydney. Essentially, we show people footage of animal farming, and talk to them about it.

I spoke to half a dozen vegetarians (a pretty high proportion of those I spoke to, maybe 30%?) who had no idea about the treatment of animals in the dairy and egg industries. Some people saw the footage and just couldn’t believe that it was happening in their own country.

Cube of Truth in Hollywood.

Of course, we capped off the night with some delicious vegan food at Doomies. Do check it out if you haven’t been yet!

A vegan leaf and twig burger.
Some of the local animal activists I met on Friday.

I’m travelling to DC, Philadelphia and New York from 12-22 May, so do hit me up if you’re around. From 20-21 May I’ll be attending the Reducetarian Summit in New York, where I’ll be interviewing my next podcast guest, Tobias Leenaert, also known as the Vegan Strategist. If you’re in New York and are interested in animal advocacy, I recommend you check it out.

In case you haven’t heard about the reducetarian approach, it’s the argument that encouraging people to reduce their meat or animal product consumption might be more effective at reducing animal suffering, at least in the short term, than encouraging people to go vegan.

I’m relatively on the fence about this. I’m a utilitarian so am totally open to altering the message to something not completely vegan if indeed (we believe) it will most reduce suffering over the course of the universe. However, I still have reservations about the reducetarian approach, and am not necessarily convinced that it is the best choice.

Despite that, I still do think that even people who don’t support the reducetarian approach should come to this conference and be a part of the conversation.

I wrote a book review on the Reducetarian Approach (also available in podcast format), in which I also cover some of my reservations.

Podcast episode 3 – The Reducetarian Solution book review (01/05/2017)

Today I expanded on the book review that I wrote on The Reducetarian Solution, a series of essays on eating less animal products edited by Brian Kateman. It’s not an entirely vegan book, which may bother some people, but I think people interested in animal advocacy should know what it says to know whether to promote, support or recommend it.

The psychology and behaviour of chickens

The Our Hen House podcast recently had a great interview with Lori Marino which I’ve been meaning to summarise. She talks about her recent review paper on the psychology and behaviour of chickens. I found it particularly fascinating because I’ve never really known a lot about the actual characteristics of animals used for food, despite caring a lot about their welfare. As an anecdote, a few years ago I found myself sitting in a field with half a dozen cows, feeling somewhat scared, but found them to be incredibly gentle and curious.

One of the most interesting points to me was that chicken’s beaks are highly innervated. Their beaks are their main way of exploring the world. It’s used to touch and sense their surroundings, to find food, to preen themselves, and to move things. I’ve always known that chickens are debeaked in factory farms to stop them from attacking other chickens in the tight living conditions, so this just drives home how painful that must be. Lori says that many people assume debeaking is like clipping a fingernail, but it’s actually more like taking a finger.

Chickens are able to perform basic arithmetic, even at two days old, which is a function many, myself included, don’t expect chickens to be able to do. For example, you can present a two sets of balls to them with a different amount, which are then put behind a screen. The chickens have to remember how many were behind each screen, presumably to get some reward.

The history of chickens is also interesting. Originally, they are a type of red jungle fowl from India and South East Asia. Subsequent breeding has been primarily focused on getting them to grow faster or produce more eggs, with very little impact on their cognitive capacity. This means that food chickens are not adapted for living in a factory farm. Interestingly, if given access, they will often prefer to climb trees over living in a barn.

Many of the papers reviewed in this paper were, of course, the result of animal testing. To Marino’s credit, she used all of the available research, including that which involved animal testing. She argued that leaving out that research would result in not capturing useful data. She also argues that such an action wouldn’t result in the end of that research taking place. Marino is careful to make the point that reporting on some data doesn’t mean you condone the way in which it was collected.

I want to drill down on this a little. In a sense, it might actually have some non-trivial effect on the production of studies that use animal testing. In academia, there is a saying that goes ‘publish or perish’. Basically, progression and prestige in academia is largely based on the number of citations you get on your papers (when another study references yours), and the prestige of the journals you publish in. This guides promotions, grant funding, awards, and so on.

So in a way, giving such studies citations might actually have some small effect on the likelihood of future animal testing taking place. Having said that, the effect really is probably quite small, and I don’t think it would outweigh the positive effects of this research being available. But I did just want to call into question this claim. I’m curious about this, and will be reaching out to Marino for further comment, and will update this blog post if she responds.

I found this interview fascinating and interesting, and just wanted to share a taste of it and encourage you to check it out, which you can do so here.