From celebrity fails to ag-gag laws, in this episode, Vox staff writer Kenny Torrella discusses the future of plant-based eating, the need for nuance in journalism and the untold stories he’d like to uncover. Kenny went from working in the non-profit animal welfare space to full-time journalism, an unusual and interesting transition that has resulted in him producing some of the best content on the web exploring our food system with a mainstream audience.
Before Kenny joined Vox, he was Vice President of Public Engagement at Mercy for Animals and previously held several other roles in nonprofits like HSUS. Kenny’s work has always helped to bring stories about factory farming and other issues that we tend to ignore to the front of the conversation.
Ana Bradley: Hello, and welcome to the Sentient Media Podcast where we meet the people who are changing the way we think about and interact with the world around us. And today, our guest is Kenny Torrella, a staff writer at Vox. At Vox, he writes about farmed animal welfare, the meat industry, plant-based and cellular agriculture sectors. But before he was there, he was vice president of public engagement at Mercy for Animals. And he also held several other roles in nonprofits like the Humane Society of the US. Kenny’s work has helped to bring stories about factory farming and other issues that we tend to ignore to the front of the conversation. Kenny, I find what you’ve achieved at Vox is so incredibly inspiring. And I’m really excited to talk to you today.
Kenny Torrella: Thanks for having me. And I really appreciate it.
Ana: Awesome. And as I mentioned in the intro, your background was actually in nonprofits and animal protection groups. So I’m curious, what was your journey into journalism?
Kenny: Yeah, that’s right. So I first got involved in animal welfare issues back around 2005, when I started learning more about the food system, and I’d always cared a lot about animals. I think like a lot of people I grew up with pets, I spent, you know, my whole childhood in the woods and forests near my house, and got a real appreciation for wildlife. And so that eventually steered me into working at animal welfare nonprofits. And in the first five years of my career, I focused more on policy. So I worked to oppose Ag Gag legislation, the legislation some of your listeners might be familiar with that restricts or entirely eliminates the ability for animal welfare groups or journalists to investigate factory farms. I also worked on legislation to ban cages and crates for farmed animals. So cage-free egg campaigns, crate-free campaigns in the United States, that was at the state level. And then I transitioned into communications, I had always had a real love for writing, I could never really do well past beyond, you know, a C, letter grade in science, or math when I was in school, but I loved English, loved history. And so over the last five years or before, say the last five years before coming to Vox, I just started doing more opinion writing, and then also some reported writing around animal agriculture. And then when the job came up at Vox, it felt like the perfect fit. And it’s been really great to be here for the last year and a half.
Ana: And you started at Vox as the deputy editor, right? And then you transitioned into writing. Why was that? Was it just you just wanted to write more?
Kenny: Yeah, I wanted to write more. And admittedly, I also just felt I was a stronger writer than editor. A lot of people who become editors, they’re writers first. That’s the typical pathway. And so I felt like I just needed more writing under my belt, and also just enjoyed writing more than editing.
Ana: So on this podcast, we speak to a lot of journalists, we interact with a lot of different writers. And most recently, we had Jessica Scott-Reid and Jenny Splitter, chatting about, at length, how difficult it is to get stories about animals in mainstream media. You’ve managed to kind of land on this situation within Vox, where it’s almost like you have permission to write about, like anything to do with animals that you you know, from the outside, it looks like you kind of have free rein to like write about all these issues that a lot of writers find it’s so difficult to get placed, like, what’s the reality actually? Is that what it’s like?
Kenny: Yeah, that’s kind of what it’s like. I mean, I think a lot like most of the articles that I write, start with just an idea I have, and then I’ll shape it with an editor. And, yeah, so I think you know, at Vox, we have a lot of freedom to cover the issues that we find the most important, and also the more, the most neglected. I try to write things that you might not see at another outlet, which is why I don’t write a lot of like breaking news or news of the day kind of stories. But yeah, I feel I have way more ideas than I have time to write. So I’m really fortunate and just really thankful that I do have a lot of autonomy in what stories I pursue and I think it helps that I am also just on the same wavelength as my editors. We both have this orientation of wanting to cover animal stories that we find to be really important. But you might not see elsewhere.
Ana: That’s really interesting. And I wonder, before you were working at Vox, were you pitching? I’ve seen you’ve had articles in other outlets as well as an independent writer, not just within, you know, working for the other nonprofits, did you find it difficult to get those stories with that narrative placed in those other outlets before you were at Vox?
Kenny: Yeah, it was certainly challenging. And I think I had, you know, the same experiences as Jess and Jenny and other writers. They both contributed to Vox and I loved working with them, I helped edit their stories. And yeah, so I did find difficulty when I was working at Mercy for Animals doing communications and pitching news outlets on animal stories, whether I was a writer or if it was something Mercy for Animals is doing. It’s an uphill battle, because a lot of news outlets aren’t going to prioritize animal agriculture. It’s not top of mind for a lot of readers. However, a lot of people do really like reading the stories because I think if they can get over that hump of reading about the horrors of animal agriculture, it is interesting because almost everyone eats animal products, and people do, I think, have an interest in where their food comes from, what happens along the supply chain, not only what happens to animals, but the environment, farmers, meatpacking workers, there’s so many different angles to take. And so I think there are stories that can appeal to a wide array of readers. But it can be hard to get it picked up because editors are short on time. You know, outlets have been shrinking over time. A lot of outlets have just gone under. So it’s more competitive than ever and more difficult to get stories placed than ever, I would imagine.
Ana: Yeah, and one of the things that Jess and I actually spoke about recently was about this idea that actually, when you’re pitching an editor, as you say, most people do consume animal products. So when you’re pitching editors who are consuming animal products, maybe they’re reading your pitch, whilst they’re having the you know, egg or bacon, it kind of forces this acknowledgment of the meat and dairy industry, whilst you as an individual might want to deny it or not think about it. So I was wondering if there’s that, like, if there’s something at play there that is like, “I don’t want to really think about this right now.” Do you think that’s fair?
Kenny: I can’t speak for certain. You know, I can’t get in the minds of editors and how they, how they feel about that, I think that’s also just a natural tendency, like, you know, I think one fault that a lot of vegans can make as maybe that they’re like, because they’re vegan, they’re maybe not hurting animals, or people in other ways, with their actions or with their beliefs, or what kind of policies they support. And it’s easy to push that out of your mind. And I think editors, writers, the general public, we’re kind of all you know, guilty of that to some degree. But I also think a good editor is one who’s very open minded and is open to receiving pitches and publishing stories that counter you know, their beliefs, their opinions, as long as it’s an interesting, compelling, engaging story then I think for a good editor, that’s all that really matters. But it’s also a topic you know, animal agriculture and the the issues that that arise from it, is a topic that is hard to come up with fresh angles on, because a lot of times it’s like, you know, Bad Thing number 598 about this, this industry that maybe someone hasn’t heard about and so it’s kind of incumbent upon the writer and the editor to be creative to come up with fresh angles to try to really try to untangle what’s happening and what can be done about it.
Ana: So it’s really hard and you’re absolutely right. On that note, I do like to ask as many people as I interact with what was the last story that you saw in mainstream media that was about ideally about farmed animals, something obviously not written by you or published by Vox but outside of that community?
Kenny: Well, yeah, there’s not a lot of this coverage, like you said, that centers on animals that might center on ag farming, but not really center the animals. Well. One article that I thought was really interesting and came from a surprising outlet was the Financial Times did an article a few weeks ago, I think it was like late mid late May about pigs. And they even did like a photo shoot of these rescued pigs. And it was essentially just looking at the like social and emotional intelligence of pigs. I thought that was really compelling. And also, again, an interesting source. Because usually when the Financial Times looks at these issues, they look at what movement in this space means to investors or to companies, but not to animals themselves.
Ana: Yeah, I absolutely love that piece. And I spoke to Henry Mance at the FT after it was published. And I just said, You’ve, what he did, there was center, the pig is like the hero character. And I was like, You have given us permission to do that, because like you just said, Kenny, we always try and find these different angles, these different ways in to tell these stories about these animals, but who is at the center of this story should be these individual, you know, these individual creatures, these individual heroes who have been on a journey like that. And I told him that by getting that story published, he really kind of gave us a little push in the direction of like, hey, if the FT is going to publish a story like this, then maybe actually centering animals as the main character isn’t such a bad idea. Maybe we can start to do a little bit more of that. And he did bring in the, you know, the financial aspect, with all of the, you know, with the shareholder issues within McDonald’s, and yeah it was just an awesome, awesome piece. So, I’m glad that you picked that. And I thought it was such a standout story of, you know, like, we just don’t see that, and especially not from the Financial Times. And he said it was well received from the community. So that’s really cool. And he’s been asked if he might be doing further ones in the future. So yeah, it’s really cool. But like you say, we don’t often see that kind of thing often, like animals are like the byproduct of the story. And I don’t know, if you’re aware of our monthly recap, like every month, we do a review and Jasmine Leyva somehow manages to narrate the stories in 60 seconds. I don’t know how she does it. It’s amazing. But in May, my list was like, enormous, I had nine pages of links to review. And it was like it was excessive. And actually we decided to give Henry’s piece in the FT like the, you know, the award of the month because it was such a standout piece. But I was wondering, like, you know, we’ve been doing this for the last like six months, in this media recap. And I have noticed an increase in stories since I first started sending media like two years ago. I mean, you’ve been doing this for a lot longer than I have. Have you noticed like an uptick, at least in us having these conversations in the media?
Kenny: I have. And I think it’s kind of gone in waves and depends what’s happening in these spaces. So I think, you know, when I started following these issues in the early 2000s, there was very little coverage. And when there was coverage, it was usually focused on the business market aspect. And very little focus on well, who might be harmed by factory farming, there was very little attention on workers, animals, contract farmers, you know, pollution, climate change. But I’ve seen that change a lot in the last, you know, 5-10 years than I kind of think of it happened in two waves. And I actually think the wave of Ag Gag bills that kind of swept through the country in the early 2010s, I think generated a lot of interest. And actually, Temple Grandin called it, okay, I might misquote her. But I think she said it was like this. I think it was her who said this, that this is the stupidest thing that the ag industry ever did, because it attracted a lot of attention, because a lot of journalists and readers were thinking, Well, why? Why is the ag industry lobbying for bills that would make it illegal for animal welfare groups or journalists to investigate them? What exactly are they hiding? And so I think journalists really picked up on that and did a lot of stories around Ag Gag for about five years straight. Excuse me, and then I think a lot of stories kind of branched out from that. And then around 2015, 2016, when you know, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods started coming onto the scene. We’ve also seen this huge wave of focus on the plant-based sector, the cell-cultured-meat sector. And it’s, I think both of those waves of media coverage helped to expand the media’s understanding of animal agriculture and just do a lot more reporting on it. And not just from the business side, not just from the farming side. But maybe a more holistic view of the issues in our food system.
Ana: Do you find that you’re comfortable writing about Ag Gag laws? Or do you like, obviously you’ve written about a lot in the past? It’s a kind of silly question. But do you find it like, sometimes when we when we cover issues within spaces, like Iowa, for example, which is so rife with Ag Gag laws, when we tell the stories or when we do something that’s like, you know, breaking the Ag Gag laws, like we end up causing the law to come down even harder? On, you know, protesters, on journalists and on activists? Do you see there being a danger in covering ag gag laws? Or do you think it’s like, it’s your kind of duty as a journalist to uncover this stuff?
Kenny: I mean, I think it’s cliche, but you know, sunlight is the best disinfectant. I, I believe in that. And I think, I think sometimes activists worry, well, if you put too much attention on something, it will create a backlash effect. And that very, you know, that could be true. But I think what sparked these Ag Gag laws were the way that undercover investigations that took place from the early 2000s into, you know, the early 2010s. I think that was the main reason. But yeah, I don’t know if there was a correlation between critical coverage of animal ag and new Ag Gag bills, and, you know, bills being passed. I don’t know. But I don’t think that should discourage anyone from reporting on on the issues,
Ana: That just proves that there’s something that they’re hiding, you know, to your point.
Kenny: …right, and several of the Ag Gag bills, the laws have been overturned. And so I think a lot of this ag legislation was inevitable with all the investigations that took place and all of the terrible coverage that it that it led to. But, of course, you know, I’m sure some activists might feel conflicted if their actions resulted in another harmful law. But yeah, I don’t think I have the final answer on that. But interesting to think about, for sure.
Ana: So thinking like if we have seen a bit of an uptick, or if we have seen more interest in coverage of this kind of content over the last, you know, 20 odd years, but what do you think the journalism and reporting space looks like in the next say, five years?
Kenny: In the next five years, if I had to predict, which is something we do at Future Perfect, sometimes we try to predict what might happen in the next year. It’s like a fun exercise we do at the, at the beginning and end of each year. But I think what we’re gonna see is maybe more nuanced and refined coverage of these issues. I think, the last 10 years, a lot of media coverage around animal agriculture, and the plant-based food sector was pretty straightforward and basic, and kind of like a 101 understanding of these issues. But I think moving forward, we’re going to see more nuanced, you know, ideas in the discourse. And we’re already seeing that over the last few years. And a lot of that, I think, is thanks to outlets, like the Guardian, like Vox and The Intercept and New Republic and plenty of others, who are just putting out more stories on these issues. And the more coverage there is, the more space there is to not just say the same thing over and over again, but to try to bring fresh perspectives or dive into more of a niche, whether it’s a niche in animal welfare, or water and air pollution or climate change or the effect it’s had on meatpacking workers, I should say. I’ll go back and edit my previous answer that I think after the wave of coverage around Ag Gag the wave of coverage around plant-based during COVID, we’ve seen a huge uptick in coverage around how meatpacking workers are treated, how they were treated during the COVID pandemic, is certainly not very different from how they’re treated well before but I think it shined a spotlight on it and created some some momentum on that issue. It hasn’t resulted in new policy that protects them quite yet. But that has kind of served as another wave, another national story, but yeah, that’s how I see the next five years possibly playing out. I don’t I don’t know. Media is constantly evolving and changing and but I think we’re gonna see more and more like nuanced and refined coverage of these issues.
Ana: Yeah, absolutely. When you mentioned all those amazing outlets you of course forgot Sentient Media.
Kenny: Oh, sorry. Yes, of course and Sentient Media.
Ana: Every month, we do a closer look at a particular area within animal agriculture. And in July, we’re doing meat packing. And I’m actually speaking to Pete Paxton, the undercover investigator who’s been doing this for, you know, since the early 2000s, as well, so it’s gonna be super interesting to get his take. I mean, that ties in with exactly what you were saying. Like, we’re going to hear from undercover investigators in the meatpacking space and the individual workers themselves the conditions that they’re working with him. It’s, I mean, it’s, yeah, it’s mind boggling, isn’t it? You can’t imagine what happens in these spaces without speaking to somebody who’s been. But you mentioned Future Perfect, which is obviously, you know, one of the biggest things that everybody’s heard about at Vox and it’s an awesome title. It’s a great, yeah, it’s a very direct, very clear, very evocative image that you create there. I was wondering, you know, you say you do it for a year, this planning, but what does a perfect future look like to you?
Kenny: Ah, I think you know, the word perfect is loaded, I think we’re not going to achieve some utopian food system, so long as there are so many corporate interests involved in our food system, but I think one that is, you know, way less way less reliant on animals would certainly greatly improve it not only for the animals, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of, you know, pollution from ag and, and growing food crops on water and air. Obviously, we’ve talked about the issues in the meatpacking system, the contract farmer system. So I think, I would say, maybe not a perfect food system, but a better one would be one that’s way less reliant on animals. I also think, you know, I want to be mindful, too. There’s, there’s a lot of discussion right now around silver bullet solutions, and I think, would a food system that is way more plant-based, be better, in many ways certainly. Is it going to fix all the problems, far from it. I think, you know, one thing that I’ve been thinking about more lately is just that I think the plant-based movement could probably be doing a lot more work around what’s actually wrong in plant production, you know, there’s so much focus on what is wrong with animal farming. And the solution is always proposed in plants. It’s in the name, plant-based diet, plant-based food system. But, yeah, again, like we’ve talked about in a little bit, there’s so much cruelty in the production of fruits and vegetables on farmworkers, and, you know, pollution from fertilizers and pesticides that both affect farm workers and waterways. And so I think I don’t you know, I don’t think there’s like one simple answer that, you know, a food system that uses a lot less animals is perfect. I think it’s certainly better. And it’s a, it’s an approach that hits lots of issues. Workers, animals, the environment. And, you know, so much research has come out showing that a plant rich diet would have the number one impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But I think if we’re going to have a more humane food system, we also need to focus on the people in the food system, and especially how people are treated to bring plants to our plates.
Ana: Yeah, so it’s a really good point and I on the on the idea of thinking about the future and perfection. You recently wrote about I don’t know if it was recent was a couple of months ago, but you wrote about the mayor of New York, Eric Adams and his imperfect vegan and that’s like quite a good example of what you’re talking about there like the shift to plant-based, but perhaps not like this idea of being a perfect vegan. Could you fill us in a little bit on that story? And I think you called it was Fishgate. Right?
Kenny: Yeah, a few months ago, it came out that Mayor Eric Adams of New York City while he’s referred to himself as plant-based, maybe occasionally he’s called himself a vegan. I’m not quite sure. It came out through maybe some restaurant workers that he occasionally eats fish, and of course, it was a scandal. Because you know, if someone calls themselves vegan or plant-based, but they occasionally eat fish, well, then are they diluted In the meaning of vegan or plant-based, and obviously there’s the big question that a lot of people in the media asked, well, then what else are you telling, you know, white lies about, or maybe harmful lies about if you’re not being totally truthful about how you eat. But I think it was also an opportunity. You know, a lot of people, there’s a lot of like schadenfreude around that of people pointing their fingers at Eric Adams and saying he’s a hypocrite. And it’s not just to him that happens, like whenever a celebrity has called themselves vegan for a while, and then they either go back to eating a standard American diet or they become a flexitarian. People inject a lot of negativity into that conversation. And I think it’s really harmful because I think pushing veganism as the only solution is, you know, futile, because most people don’t want to go fully vegan, at least at this point in time, and maybe that’ll change, maybe it won’t. But I think it’s really harmful when we set up really any, like, moral or ethical dilemmas as binary as either you’re vegan, or if you occasionally eat animal products, you’re, I don’t know, betraying the identity or label wholesale. When you know, most people’s lives and decisions that they make are in a gray zone, they’re not 100% one way or the other. And I think, you know, making a big to do out of someone who’s mostly vegan, but occasionally doesn’t eat vegan food is, you know, is harmful and also affects how we think about other issues. It’s like, you’re either all in or out, or all or nothing.
Ana: Yeah, it’s super true. That was like, literally going to be my next point was this idea that every single time a celebrity slips up, you know, when Miley slips up, and everybody just jumps on her. And it’s not just like the vegan community that jumps on it, but people who don’t label themselves as plant-based or as vegan get very excited, because they’re like, yes, we’re validated. You see, they’re not actually vegan. And it’s like, this is it’s damaging, and it’s kind of stressful to watch it play out where you’re like this person, you know, sure they’ve done something different with their diet, that isn’t what you wanted, or it is what you, you know, it gets to this point where you’re like, Well, yeah, you don’t really know what to do with that information anymore. It’s like, it’s intense. I think we kind of revel in this idea of somebody failing, in a way.
Kenny: Yeah, yeah, I think so. And I think it’s kind of an outgrowth of social media. Like, I don’t remember. I mean, I never knew when I was a kid, I wasn’t paying attention to celebrity discourse or paying all that much attention to the news, but I don’t remember popular culture being like that, you know, 20 years ago. It seems there’s just a lot more almost like glee in people failing or messing up. Of course, I think when people mess up or fail in a way that hurts other people, it’s understandable why people might get pretty upset or, you know, find some kind of enjoyment in teasing them. I don’t think that’s healthy. But hey, I understand it. But when people you know, aren’t perfect and still want to point their fingers at them? I think it’s really toxic.
Ana: Yeah. And I think it also speaks to this idea that a lot of people who call themselves vegan present in this kind of morally superior way, where it’s like, well, if you’re making out like, you’re perfect, and you’re superior to me, because I eat meat or eggs or whatever, then if you slip up, and I can figure out that you have a pair of leather shoes, you know, from cow leather or whatever, then then I’m going to run with that. Because you’re not you’re not better than me, therefore.
Kenny: Yeah, I think that’s something a lot of people misunderstand about. Maybe the average vegan or vegetarian is that while there’s certainly like a vocal minority that is very focused on both, you know, the purity of their own diets, or their own lifestyles and those of others. I think the average vegan or vegetarian I know is not so concerned with what other people are doing or is not so concerned with the perfection of their own choices. I think a lot of people are more pragmatic and think about harm reduction rather than harm elimination.
Ana: Yeah, I think that’s my experience as well, but not if you look on Twitter, I guess.
Kenny: That vocal minority.
Ana: Yeah. So yeah, I guess like this kind of brings me on to one of your more recent articles. The title is ‘The plant-based Future of Food doesn’t always taste great.’ And even just reading, you know, the headline, it really resonated with me because I feel like if people do want to reduce, or if they do want to try plant based products, and if they’re rubbish, then it’s really annoying. Like, you know, I always say to my, like, friends or family if we’re out and like, I’ll buy you dinner, you know, as long as it’s plant-based. And when it comes and, it’s, you know, tastes like crap. It’s, it’s really devastating, because it’s like, you’ve put all of this, you put all of this hope and belief into this idea that if this person who’s trying to reduce taste something that you know, that’s vegan, that tastes great, then they’re going to be more likely to take that option next time. But if they don’t, then if it tastes like crap, then they are like, Well, I’m not going to try the plant-based option again, because it tastes rubbish. And I feel like there’s this like, like, it’s even more important that when something identifies as vegan or plant based, that tastes really good, you know?
Kenny: Yeah, yeah, I think it’s a big problem in the plant-based food industry is that a lot of startups are rushing to market with products that aren’t quite ready. I also think there’s been so much hype, so much hype, that it’s kind of impossible to live up to that hype. And so inevitably, some people are going to be disappointed. I also think it’s kind of a realization. And maybe, maybe there’s time for the plant-based movement to step back and say, I don’t really know a solution for this, or you know, what I’m gonna say it’s kind of vague. But I think you know, there is much of a focus on how can we replicate one for one, certain animal products? And I think that’s really important. But there’s not been that much discussion around, well, then what do you do with those animal products? Like, at the end of the day, just like hot dogs and burgers and chicken nuggets, like they can taste good, but they’re kind of boring? How can you use those products to make really delicious food? That is not traditionally, that’s not the way they’re traditionally used. I mean, like, most of the food I eat is, you know, South Asian food or Thai food or like, you know, I live in the DC area where Ethiopian food is everywhere. And it’s, you know, very vegetarian, vegan friendly. And so I think there needs to be kind of like a next step. And we’ll have a look at here are these products, a lot of them do taste really good. But how do we, I think the startups, it would be smart for them to think about, like, how can we educate consumers to use them in more exciting and interesting and flavorful applications?
Ana: I mean, yeah, like, I feel like if we can show people, more recipes, and like you say, you know, Ethiopian food tends to be vegetarian anyway, and doesn’t include any of the kind of fake meat products. You know, it’s like, yeah, why can’t we just, you know, vegetables taste good. I saw recently in the UK, in Wales, they’re talking about introducing insects like crickets to primary school meals, so for younger children, as a way to boost protein. And you’re like, Well, you know, have you heard of lentils? Because it’s, how is it going to be easier to convince a kid to eat an insert than to eat lentils? Like, it’s just, it’s mind-blowing.
Kenny: Yeah. Yeah, I was actually, my mother-in-law used to work in education and ran a small school. And she said that actually, a lot of the younger kids in her schools were just kind of naturally drawn towards, like vegetables and legumes. And it wasn’t until kind of later in, you know, maybe their primary or secondary years that they focus more on meat, and dairy and eggs. So I think that’s kind of one of the challenges is that I think a lot of a lot of people kind of perceive vegetarian or vegan food as salads as greens. And like, you know, whole grains and dried lentils, and that’s it. But I think there’s a lot of really, you know, creative chefs and entrepreneurs out there who are kind of pushing the boundaries, and kind of showing what people can do with vegan food. I mean, you know, Bryant Terry, his cookbooks are great. The Korean Vegan on social media. She’s amazing. So I think in some ways is you know, we talked about some of the downsides of social media. It’s also been interesting to see what like really creative vegan chefs have been able to show the world that what can be done to make plant-based food more, you know, tasty and and go beyond what people’s perceptions might be of them.
Ana: Yeah, for sure. And we’ve definitely seen more research emerging that news articles and social media have a really big impact on the way people eat. And more and more data is coming out to support that notion that I think we probably feel instinctively. But now we have the numbers to back it up, which is really exciting if you’re in the space that we’re in. But I think one of the other issues as well, which you’ve written about is the meat paradox. So you covered that in your story in your article, why we love animals and love to eat them. And I feel like this kind of, that has to be at the heart of all these debates about food, this cognitive dissonance that we all have, I mean, everybody has it around something. You’ve already said that, but it doesn’t apply to just eating meat. But could you explain what the meat paradox is? And do you think there are any solutions or ways we can work better to resolve it?
Kenny: Yeah, so the meat paradox is a is a term that was coined, I think, in like the early 2010s, by some Australian researchers, and Rob Percival, who’s, who’s not a vegan himself, wrote a book called the meat paradox that came out a few months ago, and I interviewed him and talked to him about his book. And it’s really interesting. And essentially, the meat paradox is defined as, like that tension that people feel between loving animals, but also enjoying eating them. And that creates cognitive dissonance that can come up in many ways, it can look like guilt, and sadness, it can also look like, kind of like hating vegans and vegetarians. And I think the meat paradox also kind of strengthens the divide in the culture war, that it’s like, either you’re vegan, or you’re not, rather than, you know, staking out a middle ground, which is what Rob Percival is really all about. And he’s currently you know, he himself says, you know, he eats much less meat than the, you know, typical person in a high income country. But, you know, he’s not a bleeding heart vegan either. And when it comes to kind of trying to resolve the paradox, clearly, you know, no one has the answer is yet on, on how to do that. I think that, you know, one thing that Rob really brought up is trying to like, defuse these culture war debates, and that’s going to be tough. I mean, we’re seeing just in the US, you know, some people in the Republican Party are starting to use me as more of a, a symbol of the culture war of, you know, a symbol of American identity, because we eat more meat than pretty much any other country in the world, about 225 pounds per person every year. So resolving it is, you know, very hard. I think there’s some groups that are doing interesting work on this, I think, maybe some ways to resolve it, or at least as a first step, trying to reduce the suffering of animals in the food system, rather than, you know, saying, Let’s eliminate them. And so there’s a lot of groups, you know, working to ban cages or crates, or certain practices that are kind of some of the hallmarks of factory farming. There are some groups like Default Veg, that are doing really interesting work by, you know, rather than go into, you know, college cafeterias or corporate cafeterias and saying, remove all your animal products. The the approach that they’re taking is making vegetarian and vegan foods, more of the default. So maybe they’re the first three items in a line of five items, or certain dishes like in a court in a cafeteria setting, rather than having one veg option. And you know, for meat based options, flip it. And so you still have the meat option for people who really want it but you’re encouraging more plant based eating. And yeah, to fold edge, they’ve done they collect, they put pull, they did a lot of interesting research on how just subtle changes in consumer choice can change people’s behavior. And so I think there are some more like subtle ways, conservative ways to resolve the knee paradox. But I think right now it’s such a lightning rod issue that confronting it, you know, has its pros and its cons confronting it directly has its pros and cons.
Ana: Yeah, I think I think you’re right. And yeah, I know, you don’t like silver bullet answers anywhere in you’re absolutely right. It’s nuanced, and it’s complex. And these kinds of subtle nudges that we can implement, I think, yeah, I totally agree. I think that’s a really great direction to go. And I mean, one of the other things that you have written about is gene editing for farmed animals, and that’s been making you worry about it last year, but it’s been making the rounds a bit more recently, in the last few weeks, I’ve noticed more content about that coming out. Could you fill us in on what is gene editing, and how it might influence or change the future of factory farming?
Kenny: Yeah, so I think this is really interesting. And an issue that I think the animal welfare movement has largely ignored. There’s a couple of groups who’ve done a little bit of work on it, but not too much. And so the idea is that you know, using well before it was using transgenic editing, which is basically taking a gene from one animal, putting it into another animal. And you might take a trait from one animal and put it into another animal to have that stuck in animal adopt that straight. And it could be anything, it could be to have them grow faster it could be to have, which is usually detrimental to their welfare, it could have them be able to better tolerate heat, which is, which is something the FDA just approved for two specific cattle and their offspring to be sold. You can also you will say, I should step back and say, for a long time as transgenic editing since the 1970s was how animal geneticists you know, Gene edited animals, but now using CRISPR, you can actually go in and just alter the genes of a species. And there are all kinds of interesting ways that animal geneticists are doing this right now. And in some ways, it could further entrench factory farming, and further harm animals, and in some ways, it could reduce animal suffering. And so the ways that it could actually help animals is by breeding to say take out breeding like hornless calves because in the dairy industry, usually the horns of calves are removed, usually without anesthesia, which is a very painful procedure. In the pork industry, male pigs are castrated because if they’re not, they develop something called boar taint. Like if they’re not castrated, then when you raise them, kill them and cook their meat, it elicits this really horrible smell. So that’s why piglets in the pork industry are male piglets are castrated. So scientists are working on creating Yeah, a, a pig that you don’t need to castrate. So there are all these ways that it can be used for good or bad. And right now, I think the industry is kind of at a crossroads. Some folks in the industry are saying, we need to use this in order to make animals more productive, which is usually a euphemism for making them grow faster. But it can also be a euphemism for making them more disease resistant, which would be really good, because about 20% of livestock die from disease, which means that 20% of animals being raised for food are, you know, stuck in factory farms for some period of time and then die. Which means, you know, so many animals are bred, raised in factory farms, but never even eaten. So if you could raise more animals to be disease resistant, you would have to breed fewer animals and bring fewer animals into the factory farming system in the first place. But the industry is at a big crossroads right now. And I think it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out over the next few years and decades, as more companies want to bring gene-edited animals to market.
Ana: Do you have a sense of how much time, energy, resources are being invested into gene editing versus invested into cultured meat?
Kenny: I would assume just by the huge numbers, that huge amounts of money that investors are putting into cultured meat that that sector is getting more space. I mean, an animal geneticist I talked to at University of California, Davis told me that actually the FDA regulations are so strict when it comes to gene editing from animals, that it’s really hobbled her career, she hasn’t been able to do a lot of this work. And so there’s not that much work being done in the US. I mean, some of it has been done in other countries, too. In the EU. I know that there are some teams in Brazil, working on projects. But I would guess there’s probably more money going into cultured meat, but that’s a guess I’d have — I haven’t really looked into the financials of the gene editing sector.
Ana: So it’s interesting to wonder, like, you know, how much of our energy are we putting into that versus the other? But yeah, so I guess it would be really like, you know, if there’s one thing that comes to mind for you about, like, because you’ve been working in this space for such a long time, and you’ve uncovered so many different things, and you’ve told, you know, throughout your time at Vox, you’ve told like loads of different stories, is there, like one, you know, and I know you’ve got a bank of stories already, you know, you’re not short of ideas, you’re not short of things to be talking about. But is there one story in particular that you really want to work on that you think that you know, something that a story or an issue or something that’s hidden, so expertly within the meat and dairy industry that you would really like to be able to articulately uncover?
Kenny: That is a really hard question, to pick just one I’ll share just, you know, maybe just a grab bag of things that have been on my mind or things that I want to get to down the road. I think it’s really interesting that a lot of the cell cultured meat companies are working on so-called hybrid products. So they might be anywhere from five to 70% made of culture, you know, tissue or fat from an animal, and the rest is plant-based. And they claim that even just a small, having a small percentage of their products be cell based, really improves, whether it’s the flavor, the aroma, the texture. So that’s something that I’m interested in, and we’re going to start working on soon. I think, you know, one of the pieces that we worked on with Jessica Scott-Reid, was about humane washing in the meat, dairy and egg industries. And I think, you know, that was a long article. And I feel like there’s, there’s so much to be said on it, that it could have probably could have been twice as long. So I’d like to write more about that issue. But especially when it comes to fishing, and fish products, because that’s a bit more of a black box. And just in general, I’d like to cover more of the fishing industry, because even you know, I, you know, I can name a lot of big companies in the meat, dairy and egg sector and you know, what they do and some of the issues they’ve, they’ve brushed up against. But I don’t know much about the fishing industry. So I’d like to look into that more. And also, I’ll say insect farming. You mentioned that earlier, there’s been a lot of buzz around insect farming, and Lewis Bollard at Open Philanthropy has done some interesting writing on this in his newsletter. But what he found is that a lot of insect farming is actually not going directly into say, like cricket chips, or, you know, like the protein part of someone’s plate. A lot of it is being used as animal feed. And so you could imagine also this future where trillions and trillions and trillions of insects are being farmed, to then feed chickens and pigs and cows. And that kind of future is slowly starting to happen. Dylan Matthews, my colleague of Vox also wrote an interesting article about this around a year ago. So off the top of my head, those are some of the things I’m excited to cover in the coming months.
Ana: Yeah, those are really interesting ideas and on the fishing front, I know, Ian Urbina, the author of Outlaw Ocean. I don’t know if you’ve read that book or come across his work?
Kenny: Yeah, yeah. I’m familiar with his work.
Ana: Yeah, he’s about to release a podcast that should be coming out soon. It’s a really great series of different stories, you know, from what’s happening at sea, I find that as well, absolutely fascinating, because it’s just completely unknown. We can’t even imagine what is happening out there. And it’s one of my pet hates when people are talking about plastics, and it’s all put on the consumer. You know, like, oh, well, we need to make sure we don’t have our plastic bags or our plastic bottles, when obviously that’s literally your job grew up in the ocean compared to what the fishing industry is doing. So yeah, that’s a Yeah, it’d be lovely to see more content about that stuff. And my final question to you I guess, is well, you are a consumer of news and you’re a you know, creator of news and articles and stories. And I know that a lot of people find it so difficult to navigate conflicting information, conflicting stuff about what to eat, conflicting stuff about what’s happening in the world around us. What’s happening for farmed animals and like you say, humane washing, you know, we have this picture of, you know, a cow in a field and that’s what we’re eating and, you know, how would you how do you navigate the news or how would you recommend you know, the average consumer of news content to better navigate all this conflicting stuff that’s out there.
Kenny: It’s really hard. And I think a lot of journalists are also in a difficult spot where they don’t have the time to be able to spend, you know, sometimes even several days, let alone weeks or months on an article to try to get to the heart of an issue. So with that, I would say read a variety and don’t depend on one outlet. And also try to actively read people you either disagree with, or people who know a lot more than you about a certain issue. So in that case, I would say, be very omnivorous in what you consume when it comes to media, both, you know, whether it’s podcasts or YouTube channels or news outlets and specific writers. So yeah, I, you know, I think myself, like any other journalist or writer is going to have things that they, they’re going to look back on and say, Oh, like that article I read a year ago, I think I got that one thing a little wrong, I could have said this, or that, or I should have interviewed one more person to get a different perspective. So I think a lot of journalists are like, you know, crunched for time. And so for that reason, you know, read a lot of different outlets, read a lot of different perspectives,
Ana: Of course, and always start with Vox and Sentient Media, obviously.
Kenny: Right. Go from there.
Ana: Awesome. Kenny. It’s been so wonderful to speak to you today. Where should we direct people to follow your work?
Kenny: Oh, if you go to vox.com/future-perfect you can see our work there. I’ll be even more specific and say vox.com/future-of-meat. If you just you Google ‘Vox future of meat’. That’s all of our coverage of factory farming, not only mine, but also so many great freelancers too.
Ana: Yeah, it’s an awesome section. I recommend people to have a look around there to further their understanding of everything that’s going on in this space. Yeah. Kenny, thank you so so so much for your time. So it’s been wonderful, really appreciate it.
Kenny: Yeah, thank you for having me. Really appreciate it.
Ana is the Executive Director at Sentient Media. Her background is in content production and startup consultancy.