The Reducetarian Summit – thoughts

As you may have been aware, the Reducetarian Summit was on in New York city last weekend. I went because I was on the fence about whether the ‘reducetarian approach’ to animal advocacy was a good idea (I’ve written about that here), and I wanted to learn more. It was also a pretty great networking opportunity, and it is always nice to meet in person people you have been engaging with online for years.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing Tobias Leenaert, the Vegan Strategist, for my podcast, which you can find here. We talked about the pros and cons of a reducetarian approach. Tobias advocates for an ‘adaptive’ approach, which I like. It involves being flexible and using whichever approach works best for a given situation*. You can also find criticism of this discussion here.

Overall, the talks were mostly on par with what you might expect to see at a conventional animal advocacy conference. There were talks on the impacts of animal agriculture on animals, global health and the environment, as well as on cellular agriculture/plant-based meat alternatives and political lobbying. The main difference with a conventional conference was there a relative lack of discussion about animal rights.

Interestingly, it seemed like most people at the conference were vegan, which surprised me. I had figured that the conference might mostly appeal to people wanting to reduce but not eliminate their animal product consumption, but it seems to have been mostly people with the same mindset as me. They either wanted to learn about the approach, or wanted to improve their advocacy and network.

There weren’t really talks on the pros and cons of a reducetarian approach as I was expecting, so I can’t say I changed my opinion much. I slightly updated towards thinking that reducetarian advocacy could be good in some situations, but as I mentioned previously, I still hold reservations about the way it is currently being done by some people.

The conference was protested by about half a dozen individuals, lead by Harrison Nathan, who has been a critic of various aspects of effective altruism in an animal advocacy context. They stood out the front on the first day with signs, and I went to speak with them. Nathan and I have engaged online about his disagreement with the reducetarian approach, and I share many of the same reservations. I am glad to see that Nathan’s objections come from believing that reducetarian advocacy is ineffective, rather than the more deontologist belief that advocating for anything less than total veganism is always wrong.

I had advised against a protest for fear of it harming the reputation of vegans and reinforcing stereotypes, but I stand pleasantly corrected (as far as I can tell). The protest was very calm and reasonable, and for getting across their views, it seemed successful**.

One recurring theme of the panel talks was a general positivity towards organic food, and a general disdain towards GMO food. This frustrates me. I won’t delve in to the science now, except to say that there is no evidence, health or environmental, saying that we should preference organic or non-GMO food. In fact, GMO food can be designed to have higher food yields, be more nutritious, and more disease resistant. As my friend Michael Selden eloquently put it, “I’m an environmentalist so I’m pro GMO. It’s that simple.” The same Michael Selden (who runs a cellular agriculture fish company) was in a panel on cellular agriculture and spoke positively of GMOs, to my joy. It was a much needed voice in the dark at the conference.

Many people are pro-organic food because they are worried about pesticides, and think that organic food doesn’t have pesticides. This is false – organic food uses organic pesticides, which are not necessarily better and can be worse than synthetic pesticides. For example, copper counts as an organic pesticide. Also, while some pesticides can be harmful, they are probably on average less harmful than you think, and they do provide benefits to food yield etc. Without pesticides, we would need a lot more land and resources to produce the same amount of food. If anything, people should advocate for better and safer use of pesticides than for no use of pesticides.

I also just want to share an exchange I had at the conference which I found quite interesting. I was with a few friends who were all involved with the effective altruism movement, and we were chatting with one woman who had never heard of it before. After explaining the basic concepts, she said, ‘Oh that sounds great, but I’m not earning a lot of money, and I can’t donate much to charity, is there still a place in effective altruism for people like me.

The idea that effective altruism is all about money and donations is an old criticism, but it still comes up from time to time (not that it was necessarily a criticism in this case). But the point is just that taking a high paying job and donating a lot of money to effective charities is just one effective way to do a lot of good that people often overlook, not that it’s the only way. Depending on your situation (interests, skills, network and experience), it might be more or less effective than other things you could do. For example, you could do effective advocacy or research work.

I just found this exchange a good reminder to make sure the message is clear, because I really believe in effective altruism and don’t want people to get the wrong impression of it.

Below are some photos from the conference, including some of my favourite graphs and figures from presentations.

* A valid point was raised to me about saying that ‘it depends’. This could be harmful because it stymies discussion. We can say that it depends and is probably different for different situations, but when it comes down to something like actually putting a message on a leaflet, we need to know what to do.

** Again, a valid point was brought to my attention after writing this. I spoke with the protesters, but most people attending the conference didn’t. Their perception of vegans in general may still have been harmed by the existence/presence of the protest, as they didn’t have the chance to speak with them and hear their arguments or motivation.

Why focus on poultry? From Darius Teter’s talk.
Great panel on ‘The rise of conscious capitalism’, with HRH Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, investor and prince of Saudi Arabia, Molly Breiner of Aloha, Monica Klausner of Veestro, and Adam Chandler of The Atlantic (left to right).
Myself and Tobias Leenaert, after recording our discussion for my podcast.

It was great to see the three milk choices for coffee at the conference were all vegan (as was all the delicious food!), but even more amusing to see everyone excitedly taking this photo, myself included.


On animal lovers celebrating the death of animal abusers

Over the past few years, especially on Facebook and other social media, I’ve noticed a number of animal rights advocates celebrating the death and suffering of humans involved in the direct abuse of animals. By direct, I mean actively involved in the animal agriculture, hunting or animals as entertainment industries, as opposed to paying people to do these things like most humans in the world. Some examples:

School of killer whales attacks and kills 16 crew members of a Japanese whaling boat (note that this story was eventually proved to be fake, but the reaction of animal advocates was still real).

Matador is gored in the rectum by a bull.

And most recently, a man was crushed and killed by an elephant after it was shot.

Here’s the thing. I think publicly celebrating the death of any of these humans was silly for two reasons.

1) It could backfire and harm the movement. Humans are very suspect to existing stereotypes and will take any opportunity to validate them. If someone sees a vegan celebrating the death of a human, they might think ‘I knew it, those vegans love animals but hate humans’.

2) Why celebrate the suffering of any living being? Yes, this individual caused suffering, and we should rightly be upset about that. But suffering is bad no matter whom it is experienced by. I think humans have probably less free will than they think they do. We don’t choose our genes, and we don’t choose our environment. Thus, people shouldn’t be held fully responsible for their good and bad choices. Can you be sure that you wouldn’t also have been a hunter if you were born into their exact situation?

But at the end of the day it just seems like a strategically bad thing to do.

After seeing much celebration and hate towards the hunter crushed by an elephant last week, I made the same warning. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed after this opinion piece was published, titled ‘When animal rights extremism exposes the worst of humanity‘. It uses such language as:

As news began to emerge about the death of such a prominent hunter, animal rights activists around the world began a frenetic victory dance, joyously celebrating Botha’s demise at the hands of “his enemy” with a string of abusive postings on social media, some of them plastered across his Facebook site so his wife and children could view them.

Very quickly, people in my network were sharing the opinion piece with comments such as “Did anyone else read this sad excuse for an opinion piece?” and “Haha what an idiot!!!!!!! Apparently it’s incomprehensible to him that hunters are killing an innocent being? Whole article can be summed up y ” I lack empathy towards animals and I don’t care about them dying.”“*

Yes, the opinion piece may have been exaggerated, and it sucks that people think that way, but they do, and that matters – we have to act accordingly. Even if you believe in 100% free will (which I think is hard to, given genes and upbringing as I mentioned) and think people are totally blameworthy for their actions, celebrating the death and suffering of animal abusers just seems like a terrible strategic choice. It might make you feel good in the short run, but in the long run it almost certainly hurts the animals we’re trying to protect.

* Original posters not credited to respect privacy, but if they wish I will edit the post.

Celebration of Yulin Festival ban is premature

The Yulin Dog Meat Festival is held annually in Yulin, Guangxi, China since 2010. The name often calls forth imagery of multiple dogs being held in cramped cages, or dogs being skinned and boiled alive. Some of the dogs are even reported to be stolen pets. The use of dogs for food is not limited to the festival, but takes place across China year-round. For Australians, there is little doubt that this is a cruel and needless practice, and many others agree. Celebrities such as Ricky Gervais and George Lopez have publicly spoken out against the event.

Last week, after many years of protests, activists were finally able to rejoice after hearing that Chinese authorities have banned the sale of dog meat at the Yulin Festival. This momentous announcement has been the fruit of labour of both international and brave local activists, some of whom risk their lives to rescue dogs.

However, don’t celebrate just yet. Many activists are skeptical of the ban, with some reports suggesting that cats will likely be served instead, and others that previous bans have not prevented the festival from occurring. Marc Ching, activist and founder of the Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation, believes that this latest ban is simply another attempt to deflect attention from the festival.

Supposing even that the ban goes ahead, we still have a long way to go. Amidst the protest against the Yulin Festival, the vast majority of people globally still consume animal products, many of whom undergo treatment as horrific as the dogs. Pigs show similar mental and social traits to dogs and chimpanzees, and display complex emotions. They can perceive the passage of time, anticipate the future, show signs of spatial learning and memory, and that’s just the beginning.

More people are keeping pigs as companion animals, and anyone who has seen them up close will know the affection they show to each other and to humans, and how inquisitive and playful they can be. Yet in Australian factory farms, they are kept in farrowing cages so small that they can’t turn around. This is where they will see out most of their lives.

The female pigs are forcibly impregnated until they are no longer productive, such they continue to give birth to young pigs, which are either used for breeding or raised for their flesh. The end to their life in slaughterhouses constitutes a final horrific experience to their miserable lives. This suffering is not exclusive to pigs, and it is not the case of a few bad producers that don’t follow regulations.

In 2016, 28 United States representatives of Congress signed a bipartisan resolution condemning the Yulin Festival, calling for the Chinese Government to take action. Today, there are still numerous subsidies supported by the US federal government that support factory farming practices, which arguably treat animals worse than dogs at Yulin. Seen through an objective lens, this is a strange hypocrisy.

If you have been upset by the Yulin Dog Meat Festival but still eat other animals, watch the footage of pigs in Australian slaughterhouses. Ask yourself if it is any better than the way the Yulin dogs are treated. You can help to eliminate the suffering of animals simply by making different purchasing choices, and even benefit the environment and your health at the same time.

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.

Don’t forget to subscribe to this website or our Facebook page to get reminded of new episodes. We’ll be on iTunes soon too!

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 (

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.