Jacy Reese thinks that someday, we’ll look back on factory farming as one of the greatest moral mistakes in history. In his new book, The End of Animal Farming, he lays out a road map to get us to that point.
Reese is the co-founder of the Sentience Institute, an organization that researches effective animal advocacy. According to Reese, the first step toward a meatless future is developing better alternatives: plant-based products like the Impossible Burger or Just Mayo, and so-called clean meat — meat products that are cell-for-cell identical to slaughtered meat but are factory-produced without animals.
Then, once we have delicious, cheap alternatives to animal products, Reese argues that vegetarians and vegans will find themselves with a host of new allies — people who are bothered by the conditions animals experience under factory farming, but who can’t quite give up meat today.
The animal rights movement, he believes, has been too focused on individual diet change — which isn’t always easy — at the expense of communicating the big picture: the plan to end animal farming by developing safe, cheap meat alternatives that taste as good and have the same nutritional benefits.
So The End of Animal Farming is all about the big picture. It lays out the steps, over the next century, to end the farming of animals, and it often gets even bigger-picture than that, discussing how compassion toward animals is part of a broader societal trend toward wider “circles of moral concern”: caring more than we ever have about beings who are very different from us.
I talked with Reese about his vision for the future of animal farming. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What drove you to write this book, and what do you think makes it different compared to other books that are out there about factory farming?
There are a lot of books out there — and documentaries and articles and every form of content you can think of — explaining all the problems with animal farming, whether that’s environmental or animal or health or workers’ rights. We’ve got that down, I think, as a society. I think people don’t internalize the information, but at least it’s out there.
What we don’t have as much about is how we get to the solution. Psychologically, I think that’s a really important part of how people understand the problem and kind of take it to heart and see it as an important movement. You know they need to see a path forward, not just a gaping problem.
People have what psychologists call a collapse of compassion when they see an insurmountable problem — a million deaths is a statistic; a single death is a tragedy. And they don’t appreciate that scale because they don’t see a concrete possibility. How do we actually go about solving this? I was able to look from a perspective of psychology, sociology, history, economics, etc., and really ask, How do we pave the path forward?
So you make the case that there are a lot of people who are against factory farming but they’re eating meat. And we’re going to need good meat alternatives for those people to get on board with ending factory farming.
There are lots of people today who I think have some awareness of factory farming as an issue, or know people who care about it — a sibling or a friend who’s vegetarian — but aren’t the sort of person who is willing to make what they see as a significant lifestyle change. And I think you can still bring them on board, but it’s so difficult with the current products and the current social climate that we have right now.
But you know once they have more and more friends who are eating plant-based foods, once there’s more availability in their local restaurants and local retailers or the community, once you have a better and better product — whether that’s the Impossible Burger 5.0 or whether that’s a cultured hamburger — that’s going to make it far easier.
One of the statistics that popped out to me from your research was that something like 47 percent of Americans want to ban slaughterhouses. You know that’s a really amazing number compared to how many Americans are vegan today.
Yeah. When I was starting the research on trying to understand US attitudes toward animal farming, I asked a lot of my colleagues and friends what they would expect for how many Americans would support a ban on slaughterhouses. The survey question was: “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? I support a ban on slaughterhouses.”
I’d expect that to be really low.
Yeah. Everyone thought it was at least under 20 percent. Most people even said, “You know, to support a ban on slaughterhouses, you have to not only be vegetarian or vegan yourself but you have to want everyone else to adopt that.” And they guessed that’d be a minority or at least a fraction of the vegetarian population. And the number came out and it was 47 percent. That’s a ton of people.
I thought it would be higher than the number of vegetarians. I didn’t think it would be all the way up to 47 percent. That surprises even me. But my reasoning was that people find it easier to take collective moral action. For some practical reasons: If everyone is eating vegetarian food, they’ll be somewhat easier to find. It won’t be seen as weird. You won’t be seen as an outlier. And then institutional change can be a lot easier.
For example, take cage-free eggs. I don’t think it was above 10 percent of the US population opting in to purchasing those. And yet when you survey people and ask whether they want a retailer to adopt cage-free eggs, you get numbers well about 70 percent. When you try to pass a ballot measure for cage-free animal products, you get definitely a majority, usually over 60 percent of the population on board with that. You can really get people on board when the focus is institutional change.
Taking an action that’ll solve a problem forever is more exciting to a lot of people than taking an action that’s a drop in the bucket.
Exactly. This is the concept of collapse of compassion, and this is the apathy that happens when we see a large problem that doesn’t have a clear solution. If people choose to feel compassion and feel empathy toward farmed animals, it’s a pretty significant commitment because then they start to recognize what a moral atrocity animal farming is. And if they don’t see that that problem can be solved, then at some level, I think they understand that they’re going to be stuck in this cycle of sadness, of anger, of whatever negative emotions they feel about the issue.
But if people see a path forward, they hear it’s solvable, then instead, the incentive structure is that you can choose to care about these issues. You can even choose to fight these issues, and a few decades from now, you know. … Maybe that’s a long way away, but you’ll be seen as being on the right side of history. You’ll have won. You’ll have achieved a victory. You will have worked together with your community and with society as a whole to achieve moral progress. And that’s very compelling to people and it opens up their hearts. It opens up their minds to consider the scope of this issue, and they’ll hopefully take action.
When I talk with people who are working on technologies like clean meat, one thing they say often is we only get one shot at this. I’m curious about your thinking about that.
Right now, the industry of clean meat or plant-based meat, and the movement itself, is in a sense in its infancy. And that means people aren’t sure about it. The initial commercial launch, the initial regulatory discussion, all these events over the next decade are very, very important. They will set the stage and decide whether there is enough momentum to carry on all the way to the end of animal farming.
If there’s some sort of food safety concern because a company moved too quickly or anything like that, that could be quite damning. So I think it’s important to be cautious. It’s important to be very thoughtful. It’s important to not move too quickly at this stage from where we’re introducing a new product and introducing it to consumers and the government and other stakeholders.
Another recurring theme in your book was the expanding moral circle: the idea that it’s not just that we’re ending factory farming. It’s that we’re changing the way we think about others and changing the way we think about animals.
Expanding the moral circle is increasing the number of beings for whom we extend compassion and respect and rights and all these other instruments of moral concern. Ideally, in the long run, I want this moral circle to include all sentient beings.
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