Leah Garcés is CEO and President of Mercy for Animals and author of “Grilled: Turning Adversaries Into Allies To Change the Chicken Industry“. She has nearly 20 years of leadership experience in the animal protection movement and has partnered with some of the world’s largest food companies on her mission to build a better food system. She’s overseen international campaigns in 14 countries at the World Society for the Protection of Animals and launched Compassion in World farming in the U.S. And her work has featured in national and international media outlets —she has been in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Vice, Chicago Tribune.
In this conversation, Leah discusses how the media can help shift narratives around animal agriculture, how farmers suffer at the hands of corporations and why focusing on removing cages for laying hens is so important today.
Ana: 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. Today, I am so excited and we have the honor of hosting Leah Garcés, the CEO and President of Mercy for Animals. Hi Leah. Thanks for joining us.
Leah: I am so glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Ana: Oh, the pleasure is all ours. A little bit about Leah for those who don’t know: So as I said, CEO and President of Mercy for Animals and author of “Grilled: Turning Adversaries Into Allies To Change the Chicken Industry,” an incredible book, I recommend that everybody reads it if you haven’t already. She has nearly 20 years of leadership experience in the animal protection movement and has partnered with some of the world’s largest food companies on her mission to build a better food system. She’s overseen international campaigns in 14 countries at the World Society for the Protection of Animals and launched Compassion in World farming in the U.S. And her work has featured in national and international media outlets — something we’re going to talk about today. Of course, she has been in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Vice, Chicago Tribune, and Leah has an MSc in Environment and Development from King’s College London and has presented in global forums including TEDx, Rio 10, and the World Health Organization Global Forum for Health Research. I’m sure everybody listening knows a bit about MFA, but Mercy For Animals is a global nonprofit that exists to end the greatest causes of suffering on the planet, and exploitation of animals for food. So Leah, we’re gonna get straight into it. One of my favorite questions to ask people, because I’m generally just curious about the state of the media is: I would love to hear about the latest story you saw in mainstream media that actually covered farmed animals.
Leah: Oh, there’s so much going on right now. And if you’d asked me yesterday, it would be a different answer. But today, there is a fantastic piece in The Washington Post, by actually a traditionally conservative writer named Kathleen Parker, and it is titled “How Much Cruelty Is a Porkchop Worth?” And this is about — in less than a week’s time, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about whether or not to uphold or overturn Prop 12 — Prop 12 was passed in 2018 and it creates minimum standards and prohibits the cruel confinement of pigs, laying hens and veal calves. And she has this super line in here that — can I read it out? Okay, I’m going to read it out, because I just feel like it really nails it, and nails the opportunities — it says “we will never avert our eyes from dogs being treated the way pregnant pigs are. Thus the justices that make up the high court’s conservative majority have a rare opportunity to align themselves not only with their liberal counterparts, but also with some of history’s greatest ethicists and philosophers.” So it’s a really powerful piece from a conservative writer. And this is a piece that will influence the conservative side, which is what the Supreme Court majority is right now. So it’s a really important piece.
Ana: That’s so cool and so interesting to hear. And this is one of the things that I absolutely love as well — when we have sides who we wouldn’t traditionally think are aligned with us talking about and starting these conversations. And I think Prop 12 is a great one, because we’re talking about democracy, we’re talking about what the people actually wanted. Yeah, it’s incredible to see that piece in The Washington Post on Proposition 12. Do you — my understanding is that actually the changes are quite slight, really, because we can still — they can still — bring in pigs that were raised in gestation crates — they can still have gestation crate pigs coming into California. Or is it that they can have them going out of California?
Leah: No, so Prop 12. What it does, it’s a law that set up banning close confinement and it specifies the space allotments and it specifies some other conditions. So it doesn’t mention the word gestation crate. It doesn’t mention the word battery cages, but in effect because of the standards that are created in there, it’s impossible for these crates and cages to be used. But Prop 12 actually goes a bit further: It bans the practice within the state of California, but it also bans the sale of products that are made from those systems, which means that a pig farmer using gestation crates or the space allotments that are smaller than what is allowed in California — they use that in Iowa, they can’t sell the pork in California. And that is what’s being challenged in the Supreme Court using a “dormant commerce clause” — and dormant in this case means implied — that is arguing that there’s some kind of unfair imposing of standards from California on other states, which it’s really not. It’s already been shot down in a Southern California Court — they upheld the law. Then they went to the Ninth District, and raised it again — and they again upheld California’s Prop 12. And now it’s finally made it to the Supreme Court where there’ll be a final decision made on this. The oral arguments are where these arguments will be presented to the justices. That will happen on Tuesday, October 11. And then there will be a final decision made by the end of October, or through the end of the year or the beginning of next year. But regardless, I will say that the animal advocacy movement, regardless of the Court’s decisions, we are pushing hard and saying it is high time that there is a national discussion for protection of farmed animals. And we’re pushing on that through the Farm Bill, which will come up in the next year.
Ana: I mean, yeah, thinking about this, and thinking about the advocacy movement in general, Mercy for Animals has obviously been around for a really long time. When did Mercy for Animals begin?
Leah: We just celebrated our 23rd anniversary, so 23 years ago?
Ana: Incredible. Of course that must mean your tactics, obviously, the leadership, the goals, and everything has shifted and adjusted to fit the needs of what to focus on over the course of 23 years. Could you — because people might have an idea about what Mercy for Animals does and what you have been doing over that period — could you share what you’re focusing on now? What you’re really working on, and what you think is the most important stuff to be working on at the moment?
Leah: Well, as I just mentioned, all eyes this week are on the Supreme Court, and then the oral arguments over Prop 12 and really raising awareness around the need for protections for farmed animals. But it’s a very good example of the kind of work we do, we focus on institutional policy. And that means we focus on the biggest change we can make for the most number of animals. And what that ends up being is either government policy or corporate policy, because that’s where we can reduce the suffering of the most number of animals or work to transition our food economy toward a plant-based one. So that’s the big work we do. We might try to talk to companies directly, educating them, negotiating with them. When that doesn’t work we will launch campaigns, undercover investigations, to raise awareness, to put pressure on these companies. There’s a real kind of out of sight, out of mind mentality with our food system. And our job is to bear witness and bring that truth out. And then put pressure on institutions to make public policy changes that turn into real and meaningful differences for the animals that are trapped in these systems.
Ana: Yeah, it’s such important work, and I’m such a fan of what you’re doing and how you’re going about it. Did you personally ever picture yourself as a leader of an organization like this? And can you tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming president of Mercy for Animals?
Leah: Yeah, my first job was at Compassion in World farming as a research officer in the U.K., in Petersfield, and you know, you live in the U.K. So you know, it’s like a small…
Ana: I don’t know where that is.
Leah: It’s in the Southwest of England about an hour out from London. I used to take the train every day from London — I went the opposite of everyone else, which was really dumb financially. And that’s how I started, I just — it was more, I have a science background as well, as you’d agree — I didn’t imagine myself in leadership. And I really just thought this is something that is an atrocity, it’s a moral outrage. It just is. It’s just so atrocious, it has to be overturned, it has to be fixed. And I thought the best way to do that was to do a lot of research and just to give people the information. And so that’s how my entry was. I was relieved when I started doing that work, because I had come from this more scientific background where you have to sit on the fence and your answer at the end is always, we need more research. And I found, oh, I’m so happy to be able to say, no, no, this has to change. And then I realized, oh, I’m actually an advocate, I’m a campaigner. And that grew my career and my path. And I always in my journey looked for the place where I could have my highest, best use and to assess if this was the best position for me or if someone else could add value, and each step I would kind of do that algorithm — is this my highest best use — even if it was challenging, even if I wasn’t sure I was ready for the job. And that led me to where I am today, where one day I got a call from the board of Mercy for Animals who said, “We want you to interview for this role.” And here I am, leading MFA.
Ana: Oh, amazing. It’s such a great journey that you’ve been on. And I really appreciate that idea of: Is this the best place for me? Would somebody else do it differently? I mean, we always know that somebody else would do it differently. Right. But do you feel that how you’re doing it is going to shift the needle — is going to actually make the biggest impact it possibly could. On that note, your book “Grilled,” amazing work, and you kind of expertly — not kind of, you did — expertly uncover the truth about the dangers of vertical integration in the poultry industry. We’ve heard you talk about this a lot, and I feel like what you learned there must have shaped, to a certain extent, what you ended up focusing on at MFE, all of the things that you discovered, could you share a little bit about what you learned and how it did shape what you’re focusing on? If it did?
Leah: Yeah, it definitely did. So my book covers, I’ll say, a particular relationship that I developed, which was a poultry farmer named Craig Watts, and he had been raising chickens for 22 years. And at some point, we saw the same commercial where Purdue was saying, everything is rainbows and marshmallows at the poultry house. And we were like, that’s not true, and we came together to expose the reality, and it was a very unlikely partnership. And there’s more in my book about it, we could talk all the podcast about it, but what happened is it really changed how I saw solving the problem, and I realized that there were these unlikely allies — that actually chicken factory farmers were very unhappy, and were indentured servants in the system, because they had so much debt. They got trapped in the debt in the beginning, like a mortgage, and they couldn’t get out, and they were wanting to get out. And this was a world that was fairly obscure and hidden, not just for me, but everyone. And when I went in 2014, it had been almost 10 years since anyone had been able to film inside a chicken factory farm in the United States. And so this was the first footage that came out again, and that really opened up the door with the path for advocates to think about factory farmers as a potential ally, and realizing this system hurts so many other people than just the chickens, that there is a lot of opportunity for us to take the bricks out of the wall one by one, by working with these different allies. And that has definitely changed the path. I started Transfarmation, which is a project that works with farmers to transition them out of factory farming into things like hemp, mushrooms, but it’s also a project about creating a new narrative, a narrative that’s not just animal activists are against factory farming, but so are factory farmers, so are rural communities, so are environmentalists, so are food advocates — there are so many partners, and so many people that are harmed in this system. And it’s trying to recreate that narrative as well.
Ana: Have you found it challenging to bring together those different, you know, those adjacent areas?
Leah: For sure, it’s challenging, because we actually agree on the majority, and there’s this saying — the tyranny of the small differences — that people who tend to mostly agree with each other obsess over the parts that they don’t agree on, and that creates a total block for progress. And so that is where we get stuck working with allies, potential allies, as we argue over the most obscure small part. So for example, a factory farmer might not agree that the end goal is a vegan world, is a plant-based world, but we agree on the factory farming needing to end — so why don’t we work until we get to that point, and then we can have a discussion over what the solutions are, like the actual, you know, the end product. But there’s so much we agree on, so I think that what I try to do when I go into those meetings or potential collaborations or partnerships is I try to focus on what we do agree on first, and build consensus and build partnership, trust and relationships there, instead of getting ruled by the tyranny of the small differences.
Ana: That’s really great advice and in all forms of advocacy, whether we’re building allies with factory farmers, or each other, who have different definitions of what activism looks like. I also want to get on to earlier this year, you — oh, my gosh, it was this year, right? Your new… Okay. Time has all gone….
Leah: No, it was in February, it was crazy.
Ana: Good. Okay, so earlier this year, you and your team worked with The New York Times on this Op-Doc — “The True Cost of Your Cheap Chicken.” We spoke at the time, obviously I wanted to congratulate you — I’ll congratulate you again — it was such a joyous moment to see you sharing this story with such a huge audience. Could you tell us a little bit about how that experience was? Did it take a really long time? Was it fun? Was it annoying? What was the reality?
Leah: Well, we worked with The New York Times Op-Doc, we started working in February of ’21, and it didn’t come out till February ’22. So the first conversation started. So it took a year, for a product like that — a 15-minute Op-Doc in The New York Times. Just so people understand these things don’t just happen, there was a year’s worth of work. And in fact we had been working on the filming side a few months before that even, so it was over a year for that product. And the first thing I think I would notice, would say that was really interesting working with them, was how careful they were in crafting the story and how much thought they put into crafting those 15 minutes. Not that we aren’t. But it was different than how MFA would tell the story. They told it in a different way. And it was one where they really thought about the audience much more than we think about it. We think about, as advocates, what I want to tell you what you need to know. And they thought about, what will they be willing to hear? And how will they need to hear it for it to be absorbed? So, for example, they use this narrator in the Op-Doc, that was this sort of naive male shopper to guide the listener, which I thought was really dumb. I thought this is a really juvenile way to present a serious matter. But it was really engaging, and people loved it. And he asked the dumb questions, he made the dumb assumptions, and it was really effective. And it taught us something as advocates about needing to — be open, be more open and leaving curiosity there, which is critical. I think a lot of times we don’t leave any openness. We don’t leave any curiosity. I mean, I also saw, of course, what a benefit it was to work with a legal goliath team, like The New York Times, who have constitutional protections about freedom of speech in the media, which we don’t have as advocates. And so there was just a different level of risk we could take then — that is we have to be far more cautious about as an advocacy group who is not favored by the industry. And finally, the reach and the validity of working with a team of that caliber just meant that so many more people heard our story and it had such a higher impact.
Ana: Absolutely. It was you or the narrator I think that said, it is virtually — I think it was you that said — it’s virtually impossible to get into the factory farms to do the filming. And I think it’s interesting. I mean, we know that obviously, in America, we have these really strict ag-gag laws. Whereas in Europe, in Spain, the law has just approved — has made the approval for cameras and CCTV in all slaughterhouses, which is quite an interesting parallel to what we see in the States. Like you say, it was 10 years before, when you went into Craig’s farm, you know. Why do you think the USA is so keen on keeping things completely opaque?
Leah: Well, of course, they don’t want people to see what’s really happening. It’s a very effective way of changing policy, and getting in the media, and giving a bad name to a bad thing that otherwise the industry would like to keep hidden. And so ag-gag, which are laws that prohibit filming inside of a factory farm, are purposely done because they’re ashamed and they know it’s wrong. It’s a clear indicator, there’s an admission of fault here when that happens. And in the United States the reason you can get away with that is because of — I think, in my view — we have very different lobbying models here. We have very different campaign, political financing laws here than we do in Europe. In Europe it is extremely restricted, the amount of money that you can give to a political candidate and the amount of lobbying that can be done there — capped. In the United States, it’s virtually uncapped, you can get around it and you can give tons of money, and so our politicians on both sides, Democrat and Republican, have the agriculture industry — the industrial agriculture industry is deep in their pockets, deep, deep in their pockets. And you heard this in the Op-Doc piece that was before — there was a series of three and the one before it talks about how Tyson spends more money — Tyson is the main chicken company, the biggest chicken company in the United States — spends more money on lobbying than Exxon Mobil. Most people don’t realise that. But this has a huge influence on what policies can be passed and what progress can be made for farmed animals. And I think that’s a big difference between the United States and the EU.
Ana: Yeah, it’s absolutely true. And you touched on the Op-Doc having great impact. What has the response been like? Did you get a sense of how successful it was in terms of changing individual behavior or actually influencing policy changes?
Leah: Yeah, it definitely impacted individual policies, we were able to bring tons of companies to the table to begin negotiating on broiler welfare policy. In terms of individual change, it’s far more difficult to measure that. And it’s why we don’t focus on that, because it’s hard to measure. But I’ve really enjoyed reading the comments that were underneath the Op-Doc, and they were very positive, very powerful. And all people were saying: I’m going to change my diet, this is unbelievable. And so that was, that’s a good sign, though difficult to measure over the long term, whereas a policy, it’s done, you know, how many animals are impacted, and it’s more permanent.
Ana: And I also noticed, since the release of “Grilled” — perhaps grilled was the instigator for this — but I feel like there’s been a lot more media coverage about poultry farmers, and actually some coverage about the environmental cost of chicken farming. You know, Vox did some great work on that a couple of years ago. Do you think that the book, or this exposure in The New York Times created any changes within the actual farming space, for farmers themselves? So aside from the policy changes that we’ve just covered?
Leah: Absolutely. I actually think it first started with the Craig Watts piece, because that was in 2014, which is unbelievable how long ago it was now. That was December 2014, and that was a big New York Times piece with Nicholas Kristof. There really hadn’t been anything like that, and that really sparked change. And that is when we started to see the poultry industry start to talk about better welfare for chickens. Also, there was discussion about treating chicken farmers better too, and there was a really impactful piece by John Oliver that came out, that was just nailing all the politicians and how they were treating farmers. It was a very, very powerful piece where our footage aired there, too, and that just began to snowball. But I will say we need a sustained effort, and continuous exposure to how chicken farming needs to change has to keep happening. It’s not good enough for it to have happened once and then think it’s done. People have really short memories and there are other things happening. This needs to be omnipresent in people’s social media feeds, in their inboxes, and in their minds for it to really be impactful.
Ana: Yeah, we track this, obviously at Sentient Media, we track when there’s a media — like a mainstream media uptick — and then how that correlates to an uptick in Google searches. So people trying to figure out, oh, this is now trending in the media, and then suddenly we see it going up. But yeah, as soon as it is out of fashion in the news cycle it goes back down again. So you’re absolutely right. It’s one of my favorite things to say, is it takes more than one story to change the world. We have to be at it constantly, we have to be clear, we have to be fact-based and we can’t stop and it will take time. But we’re getting there. I was also curious, because you attend industry — like poultry industry — events, right? Yeah. So I’ve never attended one. I’m sure — I’m guessing — a lot of our listeners and viewers haven’t attended one. What’s it like? And what do you get out of it? How do you experience being in that space? And yeah, do you have any big success stories or big loss stories from going to them?
Leah: So many stories. So I live in Atlanta, Georgia, which is considered the poultry capital of the world. And we have an annual expo here called the International Poultry Expo. And this is where tens of thousands of poultry professionals from around the world come to Georgia and gather to share expertise and sell things and network, and it’s four days of nonstop poultry industry shenanigans, and I always try to go to this for several reasons. I will say — the first time I tried to go, probably around when that expo came out like 2014, maybe — to this one, I was banned. My money was returned and I was told, you do not align with our values, and you may not come. The next year, I argued my way in saying, what are you afraid of? You should be open — I’m not trying to shut down the industry, I’m trying to understand it better, I’m trying to learn. So they let me go with an escort and I was escorted around everywhere, which was — not to their knowledge — but it was fantastically useful because every time I walked in a room, everybody knew where I was. So I didn’t have to find everybody, and I didn’t have to find the people I need, everyone came to me. And everyone had their eyes on me. And over time I am just known there, and I know the people there. What it does, is it — I think we have a habit of dehumanizing the people that we’re trying to negotiate with and this humanizes them. Like, I know where they live and their kids and we go to coffees, there’s like a coffee hall, and it just gives you that opportunity to casually humanize someone. And really the other kind of daunting thing that happens to me every single time I go there, is it’s a big reality check. I mean, walking into these expo halls makes you realize the size of the economy, the number of jobs, just how entrenched this system is in our world, and it’s very overwhelming. And I think it is good to remind yourself that when we’re talking about making these changes, we’re talking about literally changing our economy, and changing hundreds of thousands of jobs. So it’s it’s not, you know, why are they doing it? Now it’s like, this is very difficult to undo. And so to be patient with that, and to understand the size of the change we’re talking about, even small changes are very significant for such a goliath industry.
Ana: Absolutely. One of the things that I’ve looked at is obviously the marketing and PR budgets, and the analysis that we did — I think it was over 100 million from Tyson in one year just on marketing. And that’s just the marketing that’s transparent, not all of the other kind of covert stuff that they do. So this is 100 million, that’s way out of reach for most, probably all animal advocacy groups working in that particular space. I would love to know if you think that — so obviously, you had Craig and you had this poultry — you went into the poultry space — do you think that it could have been another animal and another aspect of animal agriculture had it been, if Craig was a pig farmer or something like that? Or was there another reason why chickens were such an important target for you?
Leah: Well, for me, I have focused on broiler chickens almost my whole career. Broiler chickens means the chickens that are raised for meat, so not laying hens for eggs, and there are different kinds of category of chickens that are have been selectively bred specifically for raising meat. And the reason I focus on them is because they constitute 90 percent of all individual farmed animals that are raised and slaughtered every year in our system. So tackling that was tackling factory farming — it’s all of it pretty much, it’s 90 percent. So the reason I focused on that was because I’m always looking for the opportunity to have the highest impact. But in that, I discovered that this was also the weakest system for the farmed animals. It was a system where the farmers were the most unhappy. And if you take all the industries, this is a system where the farmers feel most abused, most disrespected, where their dignity is taken away. So that combination of high impact, and to partner with the actual people closest to it, feeling humiliated and not dignified in their job — this just provided a very unique opportunity. I don’t know if another one would have provided such high impact in the same way.
Ana: Yeah, and I think that the sheer number of chickens — when you look at any graph about how many animals are killed each day, or how much we’re consuming all of the animals are down here and whoop — chickens like way off the chart, right? Are there other farmed animals or other aspects of the farmed animal industry that operate in this kind of vertical integration? I know that the pig industry was exploring that recently, but do you have any insights into…
Leah: Yeah, the pork industry largely functions like this as well. So there are — we’re working with a couple of pork farmers as well, pig farmers. There are cases where, like Smithfield owns part of their farms, but the majority isn’t a contract system. And they also have big debt, they don’t have a way of getting out of it and it keeps them in the system for years and years beyond when they want to be in it. So the pork industry is very, very similar. But essentially, most farmers in America, in the United States, they don’t have a lot of control. They are living under the thumb of a corporation, who at any point could decide to not supply from them, to switch gears, to change the standards, and they would have very little to say. There was a big case in Vermont last year, where Danone made a very swift decision to shift their farming out of Vermont into another state and all of the dairy farmers were left without anywhere to sell, and they bottomed out. There was a lot of depression, a lot of tragedy in that community when that happened, and some of them started to try to think about transitioning. So this can be an opportunity for transitioning to something else but a lot of them don’t have options or the opportunity or economic mobility to change gears. They have this debt, they have to pay it, so they have to look for another market. So most farmers there, I think there’s a huge opportunity. Most farmers are not what we think of as small, they’re not small, independent farmers. No one is, almost no one — statistically speaking, no one is — very, very rarely. The majority are tied up in contracts that are fed into a corporation that feeds into the market, and that’s the only way you can sell your product. So most farmers are somehow susceptible to this. But poultry farmers are the most, I would say.
Ana: Is there any system or is there any way that we could continue to produce the amount of meat, fish dairy, eggs, as we are right now, in a way that is fair to farmers?
Leah: No. There’s no way. We cannot produce at this extreme level. And the only reason we do produce at this extreme level is because of government subsidies and supports that cause overproduction. Even down to marketing — there’s something they called the checkoff programs, which are where the poultry, and the pork and the dairy and the beef industry, they put in a small amount and then the government advertises on their behalf. And this advertisement causes a larger amount of purchasing than would otherwise happen. There’s real evidence on that, and that doesn’t happen, for example, for blueberries, or almonds, or cashews or spinach, it just is specific to our meat, dairy, poultry and egg industry, which is — you know, these campaigns you might have heard of in the United States like “pork, the other white meat” or the milk campaigns, these are government advertising campaigns. Small amounts are paid. So just to say, the only reason we produce so much milk is because there is an active business plan to do so at a tax dollar cost, and there is no way that in a natural business setting this is what would happen. If we had internalized the costs more — to the animals, to the environment, or health — we would not be able to produce at this level and people wouldn’t purchase at this level. So it’s an unnaturally large production. It’s — it should be bankrupt. Really.
Ana: Yeah. So, well one of the other things that I wanted to touch on with you is about, obviously, all the work that you’re doing in different countries outside of the U.S. And I understand that you’ve done quite a lot of research into different messaging and how to communicate with farmers and building allies, not just in the U.S., but outside of the U.S. Do you have any top takeaways or things that you’ve learned in the different geographies that you’re based in?
Leah: Well, I think that the top takeaway is, listen to the local activists and listen to local culture and don’t come in with a mentality which I can only refer to as a colonial mentality. You need to establish leadership in these countries, listen to that leadership and provide funding and support for that leadership and let them take it away. There is no common, this is what works everywhere. Every country is different. Every country has different ways of effecting change. They have different markets and they have different pressure points. There’s no shortcut there. As much as I love shortcuts, there’s no shortcut, you need to do the work and build the community and build the expertise in-country.
Ana: Yeah, that’s really — it’s really important advice. And I guess it’s kind of following on from that. Is there any — so I know there’s no silver bullet answer to fixing the global food system — but as a movement in terms of animal protection, is there any particular intervention or any particular piece of work that you think we should be really focusing on collaboratively at present?
Leah: Well, the area where our movement has had the most progress historically has been on removing laying hen cages, and at the political, I’m sorry, at the corporate level. So this is where we have traction, if we’re looking at historic movement, historic movement successes, this is where we’ve had the most traction. So we should keep leaning into that, we should. We have over 2,000 corporate policies have been passed globally, and about 130 of those are global policies — that means a company like the Marriott will pass a cage-free policy globally, meaning every Marriott is supposed to, by a certain date, go cage-free. So in essence, this means we could see the end of cages for laying hens soon, if we keep pushing and pressuring, and success requires focus. If there was one thing we should focus on, I think it’s getting rid of cages for laying hens, because we have that success and that track record so far.
Ana: Do you think, though, that we can get there without public buy-in? Do you think that we should be — I mean, do you feel that public buy-in is kind of starting to shift? Have you seen how the media might have changed over the last, you know, 20-plus years in the sense of how we’re covering chickens and eggs and farmed animals in general?
Leah: I’ve definitely seen the media change in how they’re covering it. But I think that I would say I’m a little pessimistic lately about how the media has been covering farmed animals in the United States. Recently, they’ve become immune and disinterested. When we present undercover investigations, they go, “so what’s the story here,” they’re glazing over, they’re going, “we know this, we know the food system abuses animals. So what?” So we have had to work much harder in the United States to get media attention, especially when there’s all this other political and social unrest that’s happening. And that’s really sad, because actually, there’s more at stake right now. Last year, we saw the most number of farmed animals ever killed in our food system in human history, and even more ruthlessly, efficiently too. So other countries where this is less of a known entity, we’re having more success with media. When we do an undercover investigation, we try to raise it in Mexico in Brazil, the media haven’t seen this before, this is still a hot topic. In some countries, though, we will not be able to use undercover investigations. And so we lean more into celebrities, or political, and we can’t — in those countries, we also probably can’t do corporate campaigns, like hard, hard corporate campaigns, where we’re doing the typical bloody logos of a company and putting pressure on their brand. So you know, every country is different. But I would say the trajectory seems to be that initially, when a country starts working on this issue, there’s an interest and a kind of shock by the journalist. Then you get about 10 years into it, maybe 15, and they’re like, “so what, what’s the story?” And then we’ve had to use, in the United States, other angles, which is why we started to work with factory farmers — we have to present the human interest story, we have to tell the narrative, we have to think a lot more about the story rather than just the sheer facts, and the sheer shock of the system. So it’s evolving all the time. You can’t be lazy about it — you have to really, really think about how the media are going to cover it and what impact it could have, and each country is different depending on its trajectory in the history of dealing with farmed animals.
Ana: Yeah, absolutely. And I also think that there is, you know, there are sinister things at play. We’ve seen over the last few years when plant-based meats had a lot of traction and started to get a lot of attention in the media. And then the big beef and the PR gurus behind that start to come in and run all of their covert operations and all of their overt operations and completely shift the narrative to the point where now — I don’t know if you saw the study a couple of weeks ago from Deloitte, that they’ve shown now that actually over 2,000 consumers now don’t believe that eating plant-based is healthy or good for the environment, and they’re tying that to this reputation damage that, that beef PR has done, basically, to plant-based meats. Obviously, there’s a bit of inflation at the moment as well. But…
Leah: Yeah, as you mentioned, they have $100 million dollars, you know, one company, and an ability to spend on this. And I can tell you our MFA advertising campaign money is not $100 million, and nowhere close to it, not even a fraction of it. So I mean, we’ve got a big job to do. And we use shortcut tools — like an undercover investigation, and then media coverage, which is equal to, let’s say, a million dollars of advertising fund if we can get a Washington Post piece, a New York Times piece — that shortcuts the advertising that we have to spend. But is it enough? I think time will tell. It’s a really big job to own the narrative, and the narrative is always being owned and shaped by someone. We have to be the people who do it, because it influences how people purchase and how they behave. It’s a big challenge, especially when we think about the kind of goliath industries we’re fighting.
Ana: Absolutely. Well, I could talk to you all day about this and get deeper into “Grilled” and deeper into everything that you’re doing. But yeah, where should we send people to support and to look at your efforts — are there any particular programs that you’d like to direct our listeners to?
Leah: Well, I just ask people to go to our website, which is mercyforanimals.org and you will find the latest campaigns which we need your help with — either signing petitions to your local politicians, or to companies, or showing up for some volunteering, or volunteering from your desks at home. So there are tonnes of opportunities. We also have internships, we have volunteer opportunities, so please check out our website and look for opportunities there.
Ana: Amazing. Thank you so much for your time today and sharing all of that wisdom and insight and all the advice that you’ve shared. Thank you so much, Leah.
Leah: Oh, my pleasure.
Ana is the Executive Director at Sentient Media. Her background is in content production and startup consultancy.