Long time animal rights activist Matt Ball, who co-founded Vegan Outreach, posted a video on YouTube on May 27, 2017 titled “Want to save animals’ lives without going veg? Eat beef, not chicken,”
Perhaps many animal rights advocates can sympathize with Matt Ball’s frustration that vegan advocacy has not had more effect, but his assessment that the movement has been a “failure” is grossly overstating the point. Even more alarming is his “new-and-improved” message of telling people to exclude only chickens from the diet. While his data is essentially correct, his strategy does not follow. It is true that the majority of farmed animals slaughtered are chickens, and it is true that if someone stopped eating chickens– even if their beef and pork intake increased, which it most likely would– they would kill fewer animals as chicken’s bodies are smaller and produce less meat per animal.
I use this same data to emphasize the need to focus our advocacy on chickens, since they are 97% of the animals killed for food. However, while I encourage activim focued on chickens for reasons similar to Ball’s contention, I feel that we should not focus on chickens at the expense of other animals.
Let’s take a closer look at Ball’s message of solely cutting out chickens from one’s diet. If someone stops eating chickens and instead replaces chicken flesh with beef and pork, that will increase the demand for cow and pig slaughter. While it would reduce the amount of animals killed overall due to the animal’s size, the end result is not a non-violent world where no animals suffer in slaughterhouses. It’s creating a world where a smaller amount of different animals suffer in slaughterhouses, but the numbers of animals killed is no less staggering. While one could say this is slightly better, does this message facilitate our goal of creating a non-violent, vegan world?
Ball’s recommended strategy seems like a confused and mixed message that is discordant with the overall spirit of our objective (as animal rights activists)– to end the suffering of all animals. His message would need to be thoroughly explained and nuanced if it were to make any sense for the general public. On the surface is seems as arbitrary as “don’t eat a dog, but do eat a pig.”
There is also the consideration of fish. If someone stops eating chickens and instead eats fish, then no improvement will have been made to reduce animal suffering since fish are similar in size to chickens. In fact, some fish consumed are smaller and weigh less than a chicken. If the focus is solely on the number of animals killed, switching to fish could increase the number if by-catch (non-target marine species caught and killed in the nets, long-lines, etc.) is included as well as the consideration that some fish are smaller than chickens.
Ball is vague about his recommendation. Are we to understand that the main message of the animal rights movement should be to not eat chicken but instead to eat larger animals? If that is what he means to say, this strategy makes little sense if it were delivered to people who would be willing to go vegan–or even to reduce meat consumption– with some support, tactful persuasion, and education. Delivering Ball’s message to such a potentially “vegan-inclined” or “flexitarian” audience would amount to enabling people in their meat eating by endorsing the consumption of animals.
Ball’s message (i.e. to focus on persuading people to stop eating chicken only) may be an effective message in certain circumstances where someone has expressed that they would never give up or reduce meat consumption, but may still have the desire to help reduce overall animal suffering. In such a specific, isolated instance this message could be offered as a step –albeit a small one– that one might take in the right direction of relieving some modicum of animal suffering. But it is a dangerous overstatement to say, as the video seems to, that the vegan message has been a failure and the entire movement needs to change our strategy to this new rhetoric of focusing on the abstention of chickens from the diet.
If Ball’s strategy were followed, we would be offering people who may have the potential of reducing total meat consumption, going vegetarian, or even becoming vegan an endorsement to eat meat. In fact, we wouldn’t be anti-meat anymore; we would be pro-beef, pro-turkey, pro-lamb, pro-fish, and pro-pork. If Ball’s suggestion is that this should be the predominant (or exclusive?) message of the movement, then it would no longer be a movement to end animal suffering.
If Ball’s message was exclusively delivered to people who would never consider either giving up meat, or cutting back on meat, then perhaps his message could save some lives within this small, targeted audience. However, the problem remains as to how an activist is to distinguish between someone who would be willing to reduce overall meat consumption or become a vegan/vegetarian, from the ardent, intransigent meat-eater. The stakes of this discernment are high: an activist either becomes complacent with a watered down message or engages in effective activism. In the absence of a clear method of discernment (if such a method could exist), it would be best to err on the side of reducing the most suffering rather than complicity. Ball’s message of cutting out the consumption of chickens should therefore not be generalized to the public because it would have an enabling effect on the consumption of meat for people who would just as easily be persuaded by recommendations to reduce or eliminate meat consumption.
It’s important also to address Ball’s overstatement that the vegan movement is a “failure.” While society might not be changing as fast as we want, we have certainly made significant progress. Ball states that the movement started in the 1970’s, but the shift in focus from animals in laboratories and entertainment to animals bred and killed for food only began in the 1990’s. This movement is in its infancy, especially when compared to the time frames of other historic social movements.
There is ample evidence to counter Mr. Ball’s claim that the number of vegans is not increasing. This is a quote taken from the Wikipedia page “Vegetarianism by Country” about the amount of vegetarians and vegans in the United States:
“In 1971, 1% of U.S. citizens described themselves as vegetarians. In 2008 Harris Interactive found that 3.2% are vegetarian and 0.5% vegan, while a 2013 Public Policy Polling survey found that 13% of Americans are either vegetarian or vegan—6% vegetarian and 7% vegan.”
This Vegetarian Resource Group poll (in association with Harris Poll) has concluded that in 2016 there were 3.7 million vegans compared with half a million in 1995. This is a substantial increase in just twenty or so years. Another assessment from a report called Top Trends in Prepared Foods in 2017 concluded that veganism is up 500% since 2014.
The signs and examples of the proliferation of veganism in our mainstream culture are too numerous to list. But just to mention a few– the American Medical Association (AMA) just passed a resolution that calls on hospitals to serve plant-based meals and to eliminate bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham, and all other processed meats. Kaiser Permanente advises cardiac patients to adopt a plant-based diet. The availably and diversity of animal-free meats, cheeses and other foods has increased not only in Los Angeles and New York, but also in rural areas like Kentucky and Oklahoma. Harvard Magazine recently published an article about the rise of vegan culture. This is only one such article out of hundreds that are written every year.
What we as animal advocates want is nothing short of a complete transformation of our food system to a world where animals are no longer exploited and harmed for food production. This is not going to happen overnight. While any effective social movement needs to adapt and evolve strategies, we must stick to our message of decreasing and eliminating animal products– not just a shift in the types of products consumed. We should always evaluate our effectiveness and our tactics–and I applaud Ball for doing so– but shifting the primary message of our entire mission (if that is in fact what he is proposing) is confusing and risky.
We must not give up on the potential for people to make compassionate choices and we must be steadfast in our dedication to the dream of a non-violent world for animals. We cannot let our goal be obstructed by our tactics. The vegan message is working, so let’s be resolute in our objective of total animal liberation and not weaken or neglect this as the primary message of our movement.