Sentient Media Podcast: Unlocking Curiosity With Journalist Jenny Splitter

In this episode, award-winning journalist Jenny Splitter shares her experiences reporting on everything from insect farming to optimism and manure.

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Award-winning journalist Jenny Splitter shares her experiences. Her work covers food, agriculture, science, climate and health for outlets including Vox, The Observer, The Guardian, Everyday Health, The Washington Post and New York Magazine. Watch the interview and find out about the importance of unlocking curiosity and being comfortable with change.


Ana Bradley: Welcome to the Sentient Media Podcast where we chat with the people who are changing the way we think about and interact with the world around us. And today, I am absolutely thrilled to invite an award-winning journalist Jenny Splitter to share her experiences with us. Her work covers food, agriculture, science, climate health, for outlets, like Vox, The Observer, The Guardian, Everyday Health, Washington Post, New York Magazine. She’s also co-founder of SicMoms. So welcome, Jenny. And thank you so much for joining us today. I wanted to just start by saying one thing that I’ve mentioned to you about what I love about your work, you have a really holistic approach to your reporting or to food systems reporting, it seems to me, you cover all these topics, which intersect like mental health and food, the climate and food, farmers rights and food. But I was wondering, did you always have that kind of approach to talking about or thinking about food systems? Or was that something that evolved as you started writing about it? 

Jenny Splitter: No, it definitely evolved. When I started out, I, you know, was writing, in some ways in very, like, narrow way I feel like at least, or I was approaching topics, I think, philosophically and kind of a narrow way. Because I was writing about just sort of like, almost science explainers in a way of like,  GMO, what the studies show about the safety of GMOs, and there was nothing that you know, those were accurate topics. And I think even then I did try to bring in, you know, we also need to consider the impacts of pesticides on say, the community where, you know, agricultural communities. But I think over the years, I’ve stopped sort of throwing those in as asides and tried to take a bigger look at kind of the whole food system and all the different impacts that we need to consider. It’s hard. And I think that’s, you know, it does take a lot of reading and talking to different experts, I think, to to start appreciating the bigger picture, but it’s definitely been a process for me. 

Ana: Yeah, and for me, like starting at Sentient Media a couple of years ago, it was like, all of a sudden, everything is related, like to food. And every, every and everything is related from our perspective, to animal exploitation, you know, from like food to makeup to clothes to everything else. So it’s like, as soon as you start digging into it, you’re like, oh, my gosh, like, it’s just one big web, and we have to acknowledge it all, in order to really talk about it and understand it. 

Jenny: I feel like for me thinking about the sort of the inner life of the animal has been the last part. So I’m very interested in learning more about it now. And I think just discovering that there’s, there is a lot of science on that. And, and it’s still,  there’s still a lot we don’t know, but I you know, I’m a nerd for all that I love learning kind of more science and reading the studies. But that’s definitely was kind of the final part of it for me. And I think also, you know, relatedly studying by starting to cover biodiversity that did help things, click and realize, like, you sort of can’t separate the environment from, you know, all the different sort of creatures that live in it, not just us. So that was probably one big, big moment for me big aha moment, as Oprah says, to figure things out.

Ana: That’s really interesting. So what like so did you start from the environmental perspective? Is that what was kind of driving your work?

Jenny: Well, actually, I kind of started from like, how I started covering plant-based meats, like Impossible, I got into more of the environmental climate impacts, the entryway was like, oh, there’s these new burgers kind of made with food science, and how did they do that, and because of this sort of genetic engineering component with with impossible, that kind of led me into that, because I’d already been covering GMOs and different different types of genetic engineering. So that was kind of the first part. And then I started, I became a contributor for Forbes, kind of on the Ag tech, food tech beet, and was writing a lot about all those different companies, but that are, you know, making these products and then I I started looking more at the climate impacts of needs, you know, and, and the role kind of plant-based foods could play in that and that really captured my attention. I just hadn’t put all those things together. I was aware of climate change, obviously, but I hadn’t been covering it myself. And so I think realizing food, you know, the quantity of food system emissions, that was a big, that was kind of a big thing for me to figure out and start and capture my attention and and my curiosity, and a lot of I think for me over the years when there’s debate about something I want to just dive in, get all the sides and get the numbers and try to figure out what’s accurate. So that was part of it for me, too. There was a lot of debate about Okay, does you know, meat contribute? Is it 10%? Is it 14%? As you know, our food system missions, 25% of US is just 10%. And why is that put that way? And who’s doing that and why? That was very confusing for me. And I really wanted, I knew it was confusing for me, it was confusing for other people. And I wanted to kind of get all the information I could about that and try to clarify it for myself and for readers.

Ana: That debate about the actual number I find is, like, so distracting for people. It’s almost like the the climate change denial where that becomes the topic of conversation, the topic of conversation isn’t, you know, what’s actually happening? It’s, oh, is it real? Is it not real? And now the conversation is like, Oh, is it 14%? Is it 30%? You know, 80%, we did a quick study, back in 2019. And we looked at the amount of times, animal agriculture was reported on as, as part of the impact on climate crisis or greenhouse gas emissions, compared to aviation. And aviation was reported on 120 times more for its impact than animal agriculture was. So we’re looking at this like, but we know, even by the lowest estimation, you know, aviation 5%, animal agriculture 14.5%, from the lowest end of the estimation, why is aviation being reported on 120 times more? I mean, it seems like this massive blind spot that in the media that we’re just not talking about it, and I don’t know why that is, is it because it’s meat? Is it because it makes people question ethics? Is it because of, you know, invested interests from, you know, those people who are in the meat and dairy industry?

Jenny: I mean, it’s all those things. And I think also, even in climate change media, it’s, you know, I mean, most of the focus rightly, has been on fossil fuels and energy. And I think all of that coverage has been very important. We’re just sort of behind on the animal ag contribution to it. And I’m, I’d love to see that study. I need that. But it’s a it’s doesn’t surprise me because, yeah, it’s completely underreported. And even in, in kind of climate change journalism circles, people will not quite know the they’ll think that buying local, for example, is more important than then switching to a plant-based diet, reducing their meat intake. And that’s just, it continues to surprise me how often that is surprising to people, that it’s a new fact. And so yeah, that just tells me we need a lot more reporting in that area.

Ana: Do you ever find pushback when you’re pitching the stories that you’re pitching about online culture and climate?

Jenny: No, I mean, I think not in pitching the stories, I thought you were gonna say on social media, yes, all the time. But But yeah, I think actually, there’s their editors are aware that that’s an area we need more coverage of, and people have reached out and assigned me stories for that reason, knowing that I’ve been covering this. So I think that’s a really good sign. I think we’re going to get a lot more. We have been getting more coverage. I feel like I don’t even quantify that. But, but and I know we but we will continue to get more coverage in that area. I think so. So that’s a good thing.

Ana: Yeah, that’s, that’s really nice to hear. And I mean, one of the things that strikes me when I look at your work, you know, as we’ve spoken before about our Sentient Media Writers’ Collective working with advocate writers, trying to understand how to pitch and get stories placed in mainstream media. One of the things I noticed with your work, you are so good at couching, like animal ethics and injustice through this human lens or even through like a practical like, like a data driven lens. Is that intentional?

Jenny: I mean, I think it my comfort blanket is data. Even though like I’m not like I actually struggled with numbers. I wasn’t uh, I wish I had taken like more stats in college or something, because I feel like, you know, now I’m like, Well, I use this all the time. And I’m still like, I have to really be careful about all that stuff. Because I’m a recovering lawyer. But I do notice like I think and maybe it is the recovering lawyer left in me that like it I am much more comfortable just sort of almost taking myself out of it and going like well, the facts are this and I do think there’s a lot of value to that. But I just had talked about this on my like, do have a newsletter and I’ve been doing sort of podcast with it now. Just kind of start experiment with it. substack made that a thing. But I noticed I myself am very honest. comfortable talking about my own feelings about animals, you know, and kind of wading into that. Whereas in some other areas, I’m maybe, you know, not as uncomfortable with in my as that. And so I like to kind of thinking about all of that. But I do think, you know, in general, for reporting, there is good a lot of value in as I used to write kind of more reported essays, like personal essays, and I still do that for my newsletter, but with the data in there, and I do, do switch back and forth. I like both. But I think there’s a lot of value in just having that reporting. And, you know, as I think, journalist, Tamar Haspel, who’s at the Post says, like, let the data speak for itself tell the story through the data. And that’s very hard to do. But, but I think it’s important because it can persuade people if, you know, if sort of presented in the right way, I think, you know, it’s, there’s definitely an art and mixing kind of the storytelling in the data in a way that’s accurate and also engaging. So that’s, that’s, that’s a tough, you know, balancing act. But I think that can be very valuable, because then it does people sort of, I think, have come to trust me in the sense that they know at least that I’m not just like, well, this is my opinion, just because they know I’ve at least even if I have arrived, you know, in a point of view at the end of it, it’s because I have looked at the data so that there is value in that, I think,

Ana: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And I think that that’s something that we do as well at Sentient Media, this kind of balance between presenting the data presenting the fact but making sure there is an emotional hook and connection for people because ultimately, we are persuaded by emotions, right? Do you view like, this is one of the challenges that we have thinking about the media in general, it’s so difficult to measure or put your finger on exactly the impact of an article or a story in terms of behavioural change. Have you done any research and looking at how media articles can impact in and actually create behavioural change or persuade people to do things differently?

Jenny: I feel like I’m just starting to think about what are what is the most kind of effective means of sort of achieving behavioural change? I, you know, just been looking into this sort of like nudge theory idea of just basically just incremental steps and what a small steps do. And I really just started thinking, because now I’m sort of trying to build this newsletter on my own even and also, you know, still write for others. But yeah, what can that impact be? Is there value in just sort of having a small community, though, that you that you really engage within reach? So yeah, I don’t, I haven’t done a lot of research into that. And I and I would like to do more I know, that can be very hard to measure. You know, any kind of surveys of people are sort of tricky, and can be unreliable, depending on their heart of frame, I even just took a journalist survey was sort of like, why did you frame the questions that way, but I think surveys are hard to design, and they’re not, you know, always super reliable. But and I think also, it’s always going to be a number of different things together that add up to get people to change. And probably if we’re talking about diet, it’s going to be like, you know, we’re working on reducing, and then reducing more and kind of like these little steps, I don’t think, you know, any, anything, I don’t think dietary change, likely is going to happen overnigh for most people, I actually find that to be kind of a problem with the discourse around, you know, plant-based substitutes, and are they successful? Because right now, we see a lot of people who are trying them out of curiosity. And so there’s this big pushback of like, well, that doesn’t that means that then they’re not displacing meat consumption, and therefore, they’re not successful. And it’s like, well, are they’re not successful at displacing me, maybe they’re making money for the company. I think it’s a fair criticism that the companies want to make money. But I also think we don’t know yet if they’re successful displacing me because they just, you know, they haven’t been around that long. And we haven’t really been talking about the impacts of meat that long. So it’s like, give it time, you know, and obviously, you know, more action, the better you know, more more, I think more talk is better, but I don’t think you’re gonna see you know, an immediate switch to anything, you just so I think it’s not fair to maybe discount a solution. Just because it’s not doesn’t get people to make this massive dietary switch, you know, overnight, or even in a year like or two years, like it’s going to take more time than that. That’s okay. That’s like my little pet peeve. But that’s just something that drives me crazy.

Ana: Yeah, I hear you. I think that makes a lot of sense. And I think you’re right. I mean, things do take time and it does take a minute for I mean, even for access to these substitutes. You know, a lot of people who will try them they might not be able to access them. There are loads of products that I can get in the states that I can’t get when I’m in the UK, like, I don’t know where they have just egg, but they certainly don’t have it anywhere around me. So, you know, things like that. But one thing that is measurable is, of course views. And we know that if we’re getting a lot of views, then we’re reaching a lot of people and having a lot of impact. And I’m bringing this up, because the New York Times opinion section has just bought out a three part series, “we’re cooked”, which, as you know, has been very, very well watched. It’s been viewed by far more people than you could hope to reach with this kind of content. And I’m going to give a brief overview of this three part series for people who haven’t seen it. And if you haven’t watched it, I would encourage you to pause, go and watch all three of them. They’re about 10/11 minutes long each, there’s three of them, and then rejoin the episode because Jenny, I want to get your opinion on on this. So episode one started with Cory Booker and co talking about peep the people funding the climate crisis. And spoiler alert, they nail it on animal agriculture. And I was watching that, honestly, I felt like shutting down Sentient Media, because I was like, they’ve done it. They’ve absolutely nailed it. Like they’ve bought out climate crisis, animal agriculture, money, they’ve found all of the trails, they’ve like, it’s just amazing. Nobody can argue with that. And I was like, Oh, my gosh, this is just, this is just wonderful. I mean, not wonderful, that Sentient Media would be close. But you know, I was like, the fight is one, right? We nobody needs to do anything anymore. Let’s just go chill on an island somewhere. And then number two comes out. And it’s Leah Garces have Mercy for Animals. Amazing. She takes us into the chicken farm, you know, covering the true cost of this cheap chicken meat. But it’s not just that it’s also devastated farmers, it’s dying chickens, devastated farmers, a dying industry, people being exploited. And then it’s also the money, they follow the money and they look at the profits of Pilgrims and you’re like, oh, my gosh, this is just fantastic. You’re bringing together all of these aspects that make this industry so corrupt, and so powerful. And you’re exposing it, you’re doing it, this is amazing. And then we come to the third chapter, which, you know, you’re like, Okay, there’s three episodes, right? The third one is going to be the solution, you know, what’s it going to be? Is it going to be cultured meat? Is it going to be, you know, plant-based meat? Is it going to be chickpeas, you know. And then they bring it out and it’s insect. And it’s not just insects. They’re saying the insects need a rebrand, like we rebranded lobsters, you know, lobsters, which have now been scientifically found and proven to be sentient to the extent that we’re not allowed to boil them alive anymore. An insect who we also have, like, more and more data coming out about the sentience of insights about the things that we don’t understand. And of course they don’t, the way that they present it in this video is without criticism. It’s like a puff piece for insect farming. It’s like this is the solution to those previous two problems that we just showed you. The answer is insects. And I couldn’t believe it, and it felt like such a letdown that these other two amazingly composed and made videos, were just leading up to this insect farming video where there was absolutely no investigation into any of the negative impacts of insect farming or any of the potential negative insects, potential impacts of insect farming. And it was just infuriated me. How did you how did you get on with it?

Jenny: It’s so interesting to hear your your takes on it. Do you know around what the views were? Because I actually didn’t look at that. You’re clearly better at quantifying these. Obviously, you run Sentient Media, so that makes sense. 

Ana: Yeah, it was hundreds it was like, hundreds of 1000s within the first couple of days, but I’ll get the numbers up now. While you continue.

Jenny: Yeah, I mean, yeah, I mean, I think it’s interesting. So there was a lot of pushback and sort of food observer advocate journalists circles for the first one I don’t know if people knew it was gonna be I didn’t know it was gonna be series was a little confusing. The way it’s put on the on the sort of page but I actually think it’s probably because they they’re wanting to have it more shared, you know, online and, or not online, but sort of in you know, YouTube, like, sort of more you can time really savvy on all the video app, you know, applications, but I think that was probably more the idea but anyway, there was more of a, there was a lot of pushback to that first one because of the what I was hearing and I felt a little bit of this too is the tone and the close ups of the gnashing of the teeth, which was a little like Okay, guys. Yeah, so I didn’t say anything about it. And then I noticed a few other people tweeting about that, too. They’re like, I agree with this. But but sort of the close ups I can deal about the close ups of the meat eating. And the announcers tone is a bit much and I kind of agreed with that, although maybe that’s just, you know, I mean, I’m sure that is supposed to be engaging. And so I don’t know, I had more questions and answers about that, let’s say, but ultimately, once there was starting to be a lot of criticism to it in terms of like, Oh, why didn’t you feature more rural people’s what I was hearing before Part Two came out, I believe, and small farmers and small farming solutions, like regenerative agriculture, which is like the constant, you know, battle in the sort of circles I see now. And I felt like, I just wanted to, like did tweet about this, but I was saying, like, okay, like, it’s not perfect in terms of the tone. And there was some inaccuracies in there.  There was an ag economist, like, presented as a lobbyist, just not accurate. But anyway, there was a couple things like that. But ultimately, Jennifer was sort of the researcher who was propellers. It was amazing work and really important work. So I feel like that was really important to capture. And we didn’t need to go right to solutions, especially not necessarily, small farms can say small meat farming and livestock production, in the small scale can save the world, which I feel like has much like the insect solution, you know, has, there’s many questions about that. There’s, there’s, there’s problems with that. And those would need to be scrutinised, you know, can that scale? I don’t think it really can scale, but at least talk about it as what I always say not saying to never talk about it, at least say ask the question of can it scale. So I felt like the pushback to that first one was, you know, just a bit over the top, and people sort of maybe not wanting to stop and really just let kind of the the facts about the lobbyists just sort of, you know, stand for themselves. I think that was really important for people to see, and not necessarily jump to Oh, don’t worry, we could just fix it all the small farms. So I was glad they did it like that. And I was kind of annoyed by some of the pushback to that. And I thought the second part was perfect. Like, I actually, I don’t know, if I got used to the announcer or what, but there was a little bit of close up on chicken eating. But maybe I just sort of got used to that. But in general, I really liked that they centred animals in that part and had interviews with the farmers, I’ve covered this issue for Vox. And before it, Forbes actually just interviewed Leah. And also, you know, the different groups that are working on trying to help contract chicken farmers transition out of that it’s really tough, it’s really complicated. I know, you know, a lot of groups are hoping for some sort of policy help there. That’s been seems like a long road. And you know, not a lot of promise there. But that that would make a big difference. But what I really liked about that second part is that they, you know, really centred the animals and talked about the impacts. And then I think, yeah, I didn’t even watch the whole part three, because I’ve covered insect production, I will say like, I am a person who probably also didn’t consider, you know, the inner life of the insect and various different insects before, like, until recently, and I read Jeff Sebo’s essay, and Aeon, a, you know, online. And that really opened my eyes because I hadn’t thought about that either. I had covered insect production in that industry before, and was mostly looking at, like, how feasible it all the data that I like the easier parts for me anyway, of like, How feasible is this? You know, it’s really early days for this industry. And right now they’re mostly making ingredients to go to feed companies, which is not displacing animal production. It’s kind of supplementing it, like maybe it would bring down greenhouse gases a little bit. But we’re not even at that point now. And I think three but the, at least the folks I spoke to who were at these companies would readily say like they’re now building, you know, the factories for this and it’s not at all at scale. And yeah, I don’t think anyone you know, as I’m sure you know better than me it’s like animals and how they feel about insects. This case how they feel about is kind of gets goes to the last thing that we look at sometimes which can be extremely frustrating. And so I do think like, I guess in my own journey is something it is like moving towards this more holistic view of like, okay, what are all the impacts like, you know, what does it look like to farm the 1000s of insects or whatever like, like what’s the impact on the insect? So it’d be the impact of the community nearby. What does this really displace? What can they really do? There’s so many different ways of looking at it. And I think it’s tough to convey that to readers, it’s tough to get someone who’s not really invested in this interested in looking at all the different impacts. But that’s kind of what I hoped for pupils to get to, like, unlock that curiosity. So we all kind of asked more questions about everything that we’re reading, because it all has some impact. So I think that those are good questions to be asking. And, yes, those weren’t really questions that were being asked in that, you know, the third part of that piece. But it is great that overall, especially with that first one, that and then the second one that they got that many views. I mean, that is that is, is important. That’s it, that’s a that’s good to reach that many people.

Ana: Yeah, and you’re talking about a channel, which has over 3 million people on it, right, just in that alone. So not even considering the social media views and all of the coverage on there as well. But yeah, it’s it to me, it was just so disappointing. And it just destroyed the whole series for me that third one. And like, I guess I was so excited at the beginning, because of this, it is so rare for us to see the media tackle, and actually talk about animal agriculture in a in a in a smart and thorough way. And then to get to the third chapter in it to be this is the solution. It was just so like, yeah, it was it was it was very, like, upset, just annoying. 

Jenny: It is to talk about solutions, because they’re there can’t and they did. I just had it on earlier this morning. So that one’s a little that part is fresh in my mind of like, there is no single solution even to climate change, and even into like the food system. And so I think probably would have been better to look at like all these solutions, because I think that comes up with plant-based meat too, or lentils. Not Not everyone’s going to switch to lentils, okay, that’s fine. We don’t need everyone to switch to lentils and everyone is switched to Impossible meat. We don’t have to do all of that, you know, we can we can have a combination of these solutions, some of them. And I think ultimately, at this stage, we’re not in a point to go like, let’s like, let’s just put all our money in insects, you know, even if it were like this amazing. I don’t know, even if the potential are really amazing, but say it would it would be devastating for like for cruelty to insects, like say that we’re true. We’re not in a point yet to say like this is it because it’s not ready to go like that industry is not scaled up. So I think we’re, we as a society as a global whatever, like, we need to be looking at a lot of different solutions and really comparing them and see which ones can be compatible. You know, there’s a lot of like regen ag versus plant based, but actually like something like agroforestry can be more compatible with some of these, you know, that isn’t necessarily dependent on livestock can be more compatible with with with eating more plants, there’s a lot of different combinations that can be explored I think, that they can work together, you know, even still centering like biodiversity and preventing animal cruelty. So I think that’s would have been better to like, look at a lot of these solutions together.

Ana: Agreed. Let’s, let’s make it and send it to them. Get it? Get it out there. Yeah, it would be great to create that. And yeah, really, really send out a message of what the actual alternatives are, and contribute to that discussion rather than Yeah, but yeah, well, you know, you mentioned there about farmers and I did really like your piece for Vox got the title, which was what a meatless future could mean for farmers. And in that article, you really talks about how complex it is for people who are farming animals to be a part of a plant-based future. And I was wondering, you know, either from your article or from other work that you’re looking at, like, what do you think we neglect when we’re getting excited about a plant-based future?

Jenny: Um, well, I think one of the things people don’t fully understand is just how much of the current crop like I mean, you understand, but like, the most people probably don’t understand how much cropland is going to feeding animals. So it’s just that there’s a lot of different farmers that would be impacted if we were to, you know, transition to more plants and other alternative proteins than say, just the ranchers or the farmers and then so I think that’s part one is like there’s all sorts of different types of well There’s like different crop farmers that are involved. And I think the other part is like how different and diverse livestock farmers are also just I mean, there’s sort of, in a way, the reason that the contract chicken farmers are so willing to talk about transition is because their situations are so crappy, like their contracts are very crappy with these meat companies. And they’re a lot of them are in debt or, or not making money. Because of these, they didn’t really necessarily understand the terms of the contracts, the contracts change, and all this different stuff. So but if you look inside of like a cattle rancher, that’s a whole different set of challenges. And even because meat, because ground beef and sort of, is so efficient, efficiently produced in the US, you can just there was a study that just came out of this, about this, that was sort of done with Breakthrough Institute, and Jayson Lusk, who’s an agricultural economist, basically showing that, you know, sales of plant-based meat, even if they’re sort of impressive, right now, or even as they’re growing are not necessarily aren’t displacing meat, in part, because you can get so much ground beef from a single cow, like in the US is just incredibly productive. So I feel like ranchers would be the last, you know, like, they’re gonna continue to sell meat, even if we’re selling a lot of plant-based burgers, whereas, you know, a chicken farmer is going to have a different situation, I feel like I’m not explaining this very well, because it is so complicated. Like, there’s so many different little little factors to it. But basically, each, you know, area of meat production, I think kind of has different concerns. They have different impacts, they have different financial challenges and interests. You know, there’s also like, who owns the land, a lot of farmers are leasing land, or sometimes they own part of the land, they lease the other part, there’s just a million different factors like that. There’s not also the a lot of policy interest in the US anyway, in terms of sort of looking at transitioning farmers, or, you know, sort of paying farmers or helping them transition, there is some of it in terms of conservation, it wouldn’t be really a transition, but more like, Okay, could we get you to rewild, you know, this part of your land. So there’s that sort of thing. But there, there’s not, you know, a big piece of legislation to like help, like struggling poultry farmers, as was in this second New York Times video to sort of help them get on their feet and do something else. So it’s just, yeah, it’s just really complicated. And I think, like, I had a hard time getting it all into just this one story. It’s kind of an ongoing story. And I think a lot of it’s hard to actually find successful, like even poultry farmers who have transitioned because what they do after that is so complicated, like, are just so tricky to transition to like, Okay, you’re gonna grow hemp, what’s the hemp market? Like, I mean, that’s a whole new crop areas just wasn’t as regulated. And now it’s, you know, starting to be more regulated. So, so it was kind of an exciting little boom area for some farmers. But then now there’s more regulation. And and that can be complicated, you have to basically find a whole new set of customers to replace that one who was just kind of locked in already. So there’s just a lot of challenges to it. And they’re are some hog farmers who are contract who are also interested in transitioning, but that’s an area where there’s, in terms of the concentrated facilities, there’s a huge environmental impact from the manure, and it would be great, I think, to transition some of those farmers, we would just get them to like reduce, you know, maybe not have the same size facility not have quite that many animals packed in for a variety of reasons, including animal welfare, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of people working on that. So that’s, you know, an area of frustration for sure. Like, whenever I go to cover this sort of policy part of it, it feels very frustrating. It feels like it’s not logical. So it doesn’t have like, like, in some ways, I you know, it’s nice to talk to scientists, because they sort of lay their argument out very logically, or an economist or something like that. And then you get to the policies phase is just like, I have to throw it all up in the air, because it doesn’t make sense. And it’s not going to be sort of this like science based approach, no matter what anyone’s saying. It’s really just like, who has the influence? And you know, what people can be brought to the table to make the deal, at least in the US, which I’m more familiar with, but yeah, so it’s very frustrating to cover it don’t see a lot of action. And that’s, at this point. It’s just sort of like raise more awareness about it. So maybe people can be more interested And in, and hopefully that may influence how they vote. You know, it’s not just what they do as consumers, but also, you know, we need more kind of collective action beyond that. So that’s kind of the point, I feel like I’m at with it, it’s not a lot of great news. It’s just sort of like early days of trying to get people aware of it. So we can maybe put pressure on lawmakers and also, you know, affect how, what they what they purchase and eat.

Ana: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And essentially, it’s all neglected, like coverage of all of it, of all of that issue that the farmers are facing from contract farmers to livestock farmers. Yeah, the issues that they’re facing is isn’t being spoken aren’t being spoken about.

Jenny: And even for farmers themselves, like there’s a lot of pushback for the ones who do speak out. I mean, that’s a whole huge problem. I think, like there are farmers who are willing to speak out and criticise your own industry or have conversations like really honest conversations, but it is hard to find those those farmers and when sometimes, you know, they do speak out and they’re not male and not white, they get a lot of online abuse, or in person of use. And so it’s just that that’s also like, I think, I think the culture of agriculture in the US. It is it is really a challenging one, it’s going to be a challenging one, I think, to sort of get on board with the kind of climate action we really need. And, you know, I think there’s also at the same time, a lot of disinformation coming out from these lobby groups, and industry groups who are like, you know, don’t believe this coverage, because I have this one expert here who’s going to tell you what you want to hear. And just that that way, you can just like, you know, stick to your guns and not not start, you know, working with other stakeholders, like environmentalists, like, you know, animal welfare groups, like consumers are interested in the food system, like instead of talking to them, they’re kind of like, you know, trying to stoke stoke that rage or whatever. And that that’s also hindering any kind of progress. I think not any progress, but it’s it’s hindering progress for sure.

Ana: Have you looked at like the subsidies model in the US?

Jenny: Yeah, a little bit. I feel like I’m not as well versed on it as others. But it’s also just like, confusing, because there’s, like, even the farm bill is confusing. It’s all this different, like legislation packed in. There’s so many different aspects to it, and in ways to kind of nudge things. But I know, and there’s a lot of different ways for farmers to get paid. And sometimes I think it’s I’m sort of going through this now writing a piece on carbon farming, and some of the issues with that. But part of it is like, trying to really look at the numbers and put it in context like Okay, so you could get this amount for cover crops in the state, you could get this amount for for my carbon credits company, and what a you know, what do those numbers mean compared to each other? And also, is it an individual farmer? Is it a company even though it’s an individual farmer, the head like that farmer has employees, so something that goes like, Oh my God, how did they get this much amount of money? Well, it also goes to their land holder, you know, their landlord, who owns the land, and their employees. So it’s like, sorting out putting those numbers in context is really challenging. And chasing down on the money is complicated.

Ana: Yeah, I guess that’s by design, right? They didn’t want it to be simple. One of the things that you mentioned in your I think this was still in the Vox piece as well. It’s such a comprehensive investigation. Like you say, there’s still so much more to do but one of the groups or one of the farmers that you looked at was previously growing I think in Sweden was previously growing oats to feed to animals, and now they’re selling them to Oatly like that just seems like such a simple win. Like were there any other like successes or any other like models like that that you saw where you thought this could be something that could scale?

Jenny: I don’t know if it will scale yet but I think I think it’s the beginning stages of it for sure. I think and Miyoko’s has a programme for this like they they also ran into some hurdles early on because of you know how challenging it is to get to transition a dairy farmer basically but but they’re they’re still working on it and and they seem to be truly investing in it in a thoughtful way. And so I think that’ll be an interesting company to watch. And, yeah, I mean, I think I think all of those, like Mercy for Animals, all these different projects will find more success, I think It’s just a matter of like trial and experimentation, you know, trial and error, see what works. And then maybe they get more funders for it. So yeah, I think those are some interesting projects to watch. And maybe in some cases in this in the, you know, in the state level, or I think it’s going to be a lot of creative experimentation. For a while, I was just thinking that, like, you know, you see a lot more interest in plant-based diets in cities. So I don’t know if somehow you can have some creative scheme, whereby the city government is kind of, you know, investing in some of this in a rural area, that would be wild and crazy. And, but like, you know, who knows if that couldn’t work. But I think if some of that kind of thinking is going to be maybe what gets things started? And then maybe if that can be successful, then maybe they’ll get more sort of like foundation funding, and then maybe policy could could follow suit.

Ana: That’s really, yeah, that’s a really great point. I think it, it’s so similar to the tobacco, you know, to the war on tobacco, and the changes that we had to see there in order to step away from I mean, the economy in the US was dependent on tobacco and tobacco farmers knows huge subsidies. That’s how the tobacco industry was successful. So it’s, it seems like a similar transitional period that we need to enter, and what we get, you know, how we kind of tipped that balance to actually start creating that change, and yet changing the policies and changing the subsidies. And, like you say, a lot of creative thinking. 

Jenny: The reason one thing that I mentioned that I think makes this, and I don’t know how this compares to tobacco, I should look into this, maybe you know, but I know one of the things that makes it challenging is that there’s the subsidy component, but also it is actually just become cheaper and cheaper to grow like corn, so and more efficient because of you know, the company’s making money, like, like, just the science behind it, partly, so it’s not like, I guess, the complicating factor, as I understand it, is that, yes, we wait, we subsidise the wrong things. But also, that won’t fully sort of account for like, just the how cheap it is to make sort of cheap food and various formats, and how expensive it can be to grow like fruits and vegetables. Now grains could be better. So like oats are a great thing, right? Because it could be like cheaper to farm and maybe grow it at scale. So it’s there, we need people at the policy level basically thinking like that, more sophisticated than what I just said, to really like, okay, like to sort of be thinking from that perspective, you know, rather than just like rewarding the same things. We’ve always been rewarding. That’s like the missing link. Because it’s it’s but I you know, I’m sorry, rambling, but it’s like, it’s basically there’s all these complicated factors beyond just like switching the subsidies that need to be figured out. at the policy level.

Ana: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Yeah, it is, is complex. And there were so many things that need to be considered and applied. And yeah, somebody in a policy making position would be yeah, it’d be great.

Jenny: We as the voters or whatever, like need to be really like, you know, making making a fuss for that. I guess that’s kind of the next step.

Ana: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Another issue that you look at, and I’ve covered a fair bit, especially in a piece last month for The Guardian is greenwashing. And you wrote the piece, “America has a manure problem. And the miracle solution being touted isn’t all that it seems”. And we’re talking about these digesters. Right, and which apparently convert, you know, billions of tonnes of manure from animal farms into reusable energy. Could you explain a little bit about what the digesters are for people who might not know?

Jenny: Yeah, I think it seems like they’re more they’ve been put into use more in other countries besides the US anyway. And so I guess, it’s confusing, even in this piece, where I try to explain I got people say, you didn’t make it clear that the manure is still there. And I’m like, Oh, didn’t we okay, but it’s just like, there’s so many details to it. But basically, you know, and these digesters can do it with lots of different organic material, it could be food waste, or scraps or whatever. But with when they’re located on farms, basically, they extract the methane and some other gases from the manure, the manure sort of gets concentrated, and then that gets separated out and so you can then use that methane, you can have to process a little little bit and then you can use it to sort of like power things on the farm or, and this is where it starts to get trickier is like you could sell it to the natural gas companies basically. And then somebody cases like that could be extracted in Maine, but be an offset in California, there’s just a lot of weird weird things happening with the natural, or things to watch, I should say from, from the natural gas industry perspective, and they would like to keep growing and not be restricted. So that’s one area of growth is, you know, sort of trying to figure out ways where these big farms can extract the methane and then sell it as natural gas, renewable gas. And then the manure is left over. And you know, there are some scientists who who have studied some of the best ways to use that digestate. And it is possible to apply it in ways that would be more environmentally friendly. But as with everything in agriculture, that’s not happening like this is it’s sort of like the running theme of like, there’s some great scientists are like, you know, a handful, one or two working on these ways to make things more environmentally friendly but in practice, that information doesn’t always get to the farmer. And the companies who are kind of the biogas company is growing growing area, they’re not necessarily interested in promoting that they’re not, you know, creating an infrastructure where like, this manure is, this digested manure is, is, you know, put back into the environment in a more environmentally conscious way. It’s just like, a free for all with farmers. And so they are kind of trying to figure out what to do with it, and not finding a way to sell it like they were told, like, oh, you can sell it to potting companies, garden companies, all these different things. And in theory, you can, but like in practice, there isn’t necessarily sort of a, you know, a market for it, there isn’t a person right there telling them like, oh, okay, here, like now put it on this truck and sell it here. And by the way, you’re in the middle of running like your poultry farm anyway, and you’ve got a lot going on. So the manure is just like sitting there in a you know, in a storehouse, you know, or getting distributed to fields in in, not the right way, and then it leeches off into waterways and causes more pollution. So there’s some potential there, but it’s basically like anything else. And this, this involves the agriculture industry and the natural gas industry. It’s money driven, you know, they’re just sort of figuring out ways to tell people all we’re doing we’re creating renewable gas returning poop into energy, it’s great, we’re saving the planet. And meanwhile, we’re gonna make like tonnes of money on it or get all these government subsidies for it. Like, you know, in California, there’s a lot of there’s, there’s a lot of basically passed for that kind of requires people to reduce their methane emissions. And so it’s really attractive in California. But, like, there’s no infrastructure or enforcement to make sure it actually is deployed in a way that’s, that’s environmentally conscious. Like, it just doesn’t happen, really. So I think that’s the really, really frustrating part is like, you’ll all talk to a scientist at EPA, who’s just like, oh, but like, here’s this study, you can talk to this person. And then I’ll talk to a farmer who could maybe be the beneficiary of that, a crop farmer who could have bought that digested manure, and they’re like, I have no idea that’s even in the state of Maryland, who’s doing it, you know, no one went talk to them. And so it’s sort of like, it’s just there’s no action to follow up, whatever, like good intentions might be there. On the part of the scientists anyway, I don’t know about the companies. But yeah, so the sort of the the frustrating part. And I think even worse like this, these digesters are kind of one of the few things the Biden administration pointed to is like, Oh, we’re gonna take climate action. Look, we’ve got these on farm digesters without really explaining it, and this is probably, you know, not not the best thing to be starting with when there’s all these problems.

Ana: Yeah, right. I think that’s those, essentially it. That’s where the greenwashing comes in, because they can they can say that the farm is, you know, environmentally friendly, etc, because of saying that they have the digesters, even though like you say they’re not necessarily doing anything with it. And it’s the same, you know, with the fishing industry, we see this time and time again, this is environmentally friendly fish, whatever, because, and then there’s no actual enforcement of these ideas, like you say that might be coming from the right place, but unless we’re enforcing them, then it’s meaningless is it. Yeah, we mentioned at the start about this holistic approach. And, you know, I think we’ve definitely uncovered all of the kind of facets and the complexity of what it is that you do when you’re reporting, the detail and the level to which you explore and investigate all of these different aspects of all of these different verticals. But you’re also like, you know, you’re an optimistic seeming person and you maintain optimism when you’re talking and curiosity, and you talk about mental health and well being. I was wondering, like, how do you keep your motivation, when you’re carrying out these really in depth, sometimes quite sombre investigations that you do?

Jenny: Well, it’s funny because I’m working on a little newsletter issue on this right now, because I had been covering like all these optimism, researchers and I had this kind of flawed idea of what the study of optimism is, I think, remember what year this was, time has no meaning anymore, but my sister at some point years ago, it was like, Oh, I’m reading this book on happiness. And it’s really great. And I was like, I’m not looking at it, like I was, I was sort of, I think this is one positive psychology was just kind of becoming a thing that the public was paying attention to. And I my understanding of it was more like toxic positivity, that’s kind of a term you hear where it’s like, only look at the bright side, like these sort of inspirational memes on Instagram, or whatever, and just like, you know, shut out whatever negative thing is happening. But actually, optimism, researchers don’t ask you to do that at all. And in fact, a lot of them study, people have experienced real trauma and you know, living in like civil war, and all kinds of you know, horrific situations that are able to find resilience, and how do they do that? And it starts with actually just acknowledging all the bad stuff, like no one’s trying, don’t try to change that. But how can you find meaning and hope and take small steps towards, you know, towards solutions towards, you know, just to make your life better in the in the optimism, sense, or view and sort of just like, you know, what is something that makes you happy each day, and maybe doing a little more of that, something like that, I feel like for climate action, it’s like, okay, let’s look at what are those small steps I can take that make a difference, which could be just talking to someone about climate change. And, for me, honestly, becoming vegan made me incredibly happy. Which I think is like, kind of weird and surprising, because I feel like there’s this idea that it’s like, so hard, and that, like, vegans are all like dour, and just like, you know, constantly just talking about horrible things. But I actually feel like one of the joys has been discovering, like vegan Twitter, I find it all really, like, there’s so many funny people, and I like looking at their videos, and I love looking at food, like, it just combines a lot of my interests in terms of cooking. And so little things like that, you know, make me happy, and the times that I’m not covering the sort of the bad things, I’m still covering the bad things, I keep that in my in my brain. But I also spend time, like, you know, watching some guy on Twitter make a Crazy Egg from like, a chickpea or something, I don’t know how he did it, but it’s like, you know, that’s, that just sparks my scientific curiosity, and makes me happy and keeps me going. So I think a lot of it are these little little shifts and reframing and in your own life to keep it very, very small. And also, though, acknowledge, like, all the things that are bad, and the things also that you don’t have control over, that’s a big part of it, like, I can’t change, I can’t, you know, put Cory Booker in charge of everybody. And, like, I don’t have power over that I can only do what I can do, I can, you know, maybe publish some pieces, I can, you know, I can uncover things I can report, I can do my part there, I can work on my newsletter, I can talk to people in my everyday life, I do that, but like, I can’t, you know, make these huge sweeping changes, and really few of us can, so that’s okay, and you’re just sort of, like, keep that kind of, you know, in your mind of like, okay, here’s what I can’t control. And here’s the things that I can do, and what are these little steps you can take every day. And that has worked in like many areas of my life, it kind of helped me get through the pandemic, when my kids were just like, we’re all stuck at home when this like, not have a lot of space, like just these little focusing on these little steps, little little things, you know, day by day, stay in the moment, that kind of thing. While still without trying to, you know, sort of put on this like happy facade, like you don’t have to do any of that. Just, you know, sort of acknowledging joy where you find it really, it’s just kind of like as simple as that. But I think partly because I have that scientific curiosity. Like it kind of turns that staying curious. That actually is a part of optimism research, I think that helps a lot is sort of like, you know, turning on that part of your brain that’s curious, rather than like, I must be happy or you know, like, like, just trying to like don’t try to fix yourself basically, just just sort of like you know, turn on the part of your brain that’s that, like, enjoys learning about that. or whatever those things may be. And that’s kind of how I’ve, like survived.

Ana: That’s super interesting. I’ve never thought of it like that, because you get into you do get into a rut or you get into a kind of a downward spiral or a doom loop Yeah. And you’re like this is it. But yeah, just sparking curiosity or yeah, just doing something like that, that that makes a lot of sense. I think that’s really, that’s a really nice way to look at it. I mean, I, I don’t know if it’s because I’m British and very cynical, but I hate all that Instagram, you know, you know, the whatever, in the sun, whatever stuff. Like I can’t, I can’t deal with any of it. So, but that that makes a lot of sense. What you just said. So yeah.

Jenny: It was a huge turning point for me, like, in many areas of my life, because I was pretty down for parts of the pandemic, it just felt like, I don’t know. I mean, also, because I think being part of Sai moms where we were writing a lot of, I wasn’t writing the most helping kind of editing, to edit some of these FAQs on COVID. And just looking at kind of how globally and as a country, we’re handling the crisis, it was really discouraging to see to feel like we just have not prioritized public health that was really, really hard for me. And it just, in addition to feeling like as a family, like, how am I going to get my kids to be able to socialise again, like so much was happening at once? And so, yeah, I guess just like, reframing really helped me get through. Because, yeah, it just was a matter of like switching these making these little switches and really shifting how I looked at things without trying to change who I am. And I Oh, yeah, like becomes some, some bright side or whatever, who always sees the positive didn’t have to do that.

Ana: Yeah, I think that’s also there’s something to be taken from what you’ve just said, when it comes to, you know, inciting behavioural change in others, because if we’re, you know, in the vegan movement, you’ve probably noticed on vegans, where there can be a lot of, you know, dictatorial approaches to veganism, and demanding, you know, myself included, everyone go vegan, blah, blah. But I think that that idea of actually sparking curiosity in people rather than, you know, forcing them to change who they are, whatever it is, I think that that’s a, that’s something that can be taken away for writing the way that we talk about eating meat and eating plant-based.

Jenny: Yeah, I feel like in my own life, when I was telling people that I was going vegan, it was like, such a, not my immediate family, but just like, friends was just such a like, almost, like, stop the conversation, but it was this huge stumbling block of like, what you’re doing what and why, and are you gonna eat honey and like, it seemed like to me to divert the conversation away, that was like, not helpful, like, you know, so then I always just write, like, try to switch it to just like, okay, like, we’re all trying to hopefully, you know, reduce our consumption. And I get a lot more agreement on that. And then if I think like, okay, so this is a long game, you know, just like we’re saying the beginning with like, the plant-based meat sales, like Yeah, so people might be curious about trying impossible meat or curious about what I’m doing. Instead of it being like, vegan or nothing for them, which is like, cannot, does not compute even can’t imagine it. And I was like, I had to like for long sounds like I couldn’t give up butter. It’s totally impossible. Because I love baking. So what will I do and then now I’m love vegan baking, and I just, like had to learn that but, you know, I guess I’ve used myself as an example in that way. It’s like, okay, like, over time, I have changed my thinking. And so other people will do that, too. You know, we’re not static creatures.

Ana: Absolutely. I mean, that’s, that’s a really great, great way to, to look at things. I just have one more question for you. If we have a minute longer. Are there any untold stories that you’re desperate to write if you had to pick one?

Jenny: That’s hard. I’m working on. I guess I don’t have a perfect answer for this. But because I’m like, deep in this feature on carbon farming right now, but I will say, like, I have been way down this rabbit hole of like soil science, in terms of the real not some of the debates we read and kind of the the coverage which are a little surface and more about, like, you know, kind of quick fixes, basically. But some of the deeper arguments between scientists really looking at like, globally, how can we get all these different types of land to start carbon are fascinating to me, it’s kind of my new thing that I’m obsessed with because I you know, didn’t really study I definitely didn’t study science in college. And I was not super interested in high school. So I mean, even the most basic things I had to kind of figure out like the carbon cycle. And so sort of like, okay, like, and so much is changing and soil science, like the field, like there’s this, you know that basically this idea of like whether we can permanently store carbon that was kind of the thinking or whatever recalcitrant carbon. Like that kind of got debunked basically 10 years ago. And so the field is basically figuring out like, okay, so like, it can’t be permanent, can we get it just to stay there? What’s going on? And I just like, love all that stuff. So I guess like, this is like a long way of saying, like, I think we should try to embrace and pursue like, where there’s uncertainty. Like, I think maybe it’s not one story, but like, I’m kind of trying to think about this now. Like, how can we better convey that many areas of science are evolving, they’re going to evolve? And that’s doesn’t mean that like, you know, and you can sort of see this in the immediate sense in with, like, COVID coverage of like, what the site has told me last week that this was happening, it’s like, yes, and there was a new study. And so how can we sort of convey and talk about and embrace, like, uncertainty? And I’m a control freak, so that’s hard for me, but like, how can we all get to the point where like, Okay, so the science is going to always be evolving, we’re gonna get more data, we’re gonna get more data and things we might that might change our understanding, when we have more data and sort of like, how can we kind of unlock that curiosity and everyone and learning about it? Because I think people like certainty. I know I do. But maybe, I think, ideally, we will get to a place where we’re looking where everybody maybe can become more curious rather than than just like locked in their beliefs. I don’t know how we do that. But I think that’s like, so important, because so many things change all the time. And we don’t want to sort of write something that’s like, you know, outdated, in a month. Instead, maybe it’s like, here’s what we know right now and kind of convey this idea, like, and it’s like, and it’s a story that is constantly being told, and scientists are uncovering new things like, and the same thing with, you know, animal sentience. It’s like, we didn’t necessarily know what’s going on with like, insects or whatever, 10 years ago, maybe we did, I don’t know, but like, to just kind of get that way of thinking with people of like, we thought one thing, because that’s what we did. That was the best available evidence. But that might change. And that is going to change probably because now we have more evidence. And that’s a good thing that’s exciting, like, like to kind of get into that way of thinking, I think is very important. And I do not know how to do it. But I want to know, I want to figure it out. I’m like, I’m very, I think that could be a key to maybe, I don’t know, making things a little a little better. I will no silver bullet solution. So it certainly won’t fix everything. Nothing well, but like maybe that can just I don’t know, maybe just kind of unlock our curiosity rather than you know, this way of like, being stuck in our points of view.

Ana: I love it. I think that’s a really wonderful thing to say and a really wonderful approach and being comfortable with be with uncertainty, you know, the right kind of uncertainty, I think it makes a lot of sense. And yeah, I’m excited to see what comes out with your new article, and the other, your many future pieces. And I just want to tell all of our listeners and viewers to sign up to Jenny’s newsletter future feed on substack. Is there any other obviously your website and I’ll put all the links into the shownotes. Is there anywhere else you’d like to send our listeners?

Jenny: Feel free to tweet me and I’ll answer, I answer almost everybody unless you’re just harassing me forever after a while even then I usually answer you like two or three times. That’s what a sucker I am. And I’m on Instagram to try to share my like my vegan experiments and cooking. So yeah, just I love to connect with people. That’s why I do any of this. I love that. 

Ana: Thank you so so so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you and hearing your perspective. It’s certainly opened my eyes a lot. So thank you very much for your time.

Jenny: Thanks for having me. It was fun.

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