Vegans and meat consumers do not typically enter into common cause.  To the meat eater, vegans are bleeding heart, elitist scolds, and to the vegan, meat consumers are infuriating enigmas constantly making decisions that harm themselves, other sentient beings, farmers, the state of world health, and the environment.  We have been so trained that the gap between the interests of these two camps is so unbridgeable that the polite thing has become to avoid discussion altogether.  As a consequence, those who want reform in the massively wasteful and industrially cruel food industry traditionally face two choices – either work as an activist and attack the system from the position of the adversary, or remain silent so as not to make others feel shame over their choices and hope that a better future will somehow happen, eventually.

Silence or attack – no matter what you choose, the divide between the food reformer and the animal eater can only grow.  Silence invites the continued normalization of animal consumption, and attack invites a doubling down of bad behavior, the “Now I’m going to eat twice as much meat, just to annoy those science-types” mentality of self-destruction in the name of trolling that has seemingly become the norm for public behavior.  As an elitist scold, I have always leaned towards attack in my public existence, even as a bookish nerd I tend towards silence in day to day interaction, and I had well resigned myself to that irreconcilable and unworkable dualism until Leah Garcés’s new book, Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry found its way into my hands.

Garcés shows that a third path is possible for those who can see past their indignation in the name of empathy and the accomplishment of large scale goals. Grilled is, among many other things, a memoir of Garcés’s discovery of this third route to a more responsible food future.  After obtaining her degrees in zoology and sustainable development, she found her way to Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), an animal welfare organization founded in 1967 by Peter Roberts in the UK to shine a light on the wasteful and unethical practices involved in factory farming.  Garcés proposed to CIWF that they set up a branch at factory farming’s grim birthplace, the state of Georgia.  On the thinnest of budgets, Garcés established CIWF USA in Atlanta, Georgia, and began her career as an activist lifting the veil on the deeply secretive American broiler chicken industry.

Georgia by itself is responsible for the raising and killing of around 15 percent of the United States’s nine billion chickens produced annually.  In some counties, the chicken population outnumbers the human population by 900 to 1, animals kept in intentional perpetual darkness, living in layers of their own feces, developing any number of nightmarish diseases at the hands of the quick-growing genetics that have been foisted upon them.  Georgia originated the contract farming system by which large corporations give individual farmers baby chicks to raise, and then buy back the chickens six weeks later for slaughter.  75 percent of the chicken industry is controlled by five companies who have a lock on the fate of these animals and the farmers who go ever deeper in debt attempting to raise them to the companies’ expectations.

A half century ago, chickens took 112 days to gain their full weight of 2.5 pounds.  In the early 2010s, thanks to selecting quick-grow genetic strains, a steady stream of low-level antibiotics that improve growth rate while developing dangerous antibiotic immunities that can work their way into the human population, and the perpetual darkness and gross overcrowding that discourages movement and thus reserves energy for growth, chickens gain a literally crippling weight of 6.2 pounds in 47 days.  Whereas once the chicken farmer’s job was ensuring the health of his flock, today it amounts to little more than patrolling cavernous warehouses, looking for the individuals whose genetic defects make their existence a living hell, and snapping their necks, one after the other, after the other.

Understandably, the chicken industry was incredibly anxious lest anybody see inside one of their contracted farmer’s operations, and even lobbied for laws in certain states to make it illegal for anyone to film what actually happened in their facilities.  Enter Leah Garcés.  Working with some chicken farmers who had had enough of what they were being asked to do by the chicken industry, and were tired of the lingering debt that had been foisted on them as a result of the losses incurred from birds who died because of industry-stipulated practices but that the industry wouldn’t subsequently pay them for, Garcés shot footage of the realities of a typical chicken farm and dove deep into the economic situation of the typical contract farmer to reveal a system of unchecked barbarity built on the backs of billions of sentient creatures who lived in their own filth, undercarriages raw and featherless, dying by the bucketful as their twisted legs and oversized bodies lacked the ability to drag themselves to sources of food and water.

The release of those videos, and the New York Times features that accompanied them, raised public awareness of the reality of the suffering caused by their insatiable hunger for cheap chicken meat, and placed Garcés firmly on the path to a collision with the massive lobbying and governmental power of one of agriculture’s largest industries.  What ought to have resulted from that confrontation is the story we’ve seen before: an individual unveils the horrifying truth about how an item of food is made, the industry blames the individual farmer for not following its policies, and then retreats into the smoke of its own PR machines while continuing to do exactly what it had always done, but maybe with a few more government laws against filming their operations to shield them the next time around.  Garcés could have gone the rest of her life, filming where she could, and hammering away at the industry while it used its influence and money to reassure people back to the costly and unethical status quo.

Garcés’s first campaigns did indeed go that way, but as the 2010s wore on, an amazing confluence of events occurred.  Garcés approached the industry with her findings, addressing meat producing professionals directly, and speaking with executives who themselves were becoming concerned about the direction of their business.  Pressure from animal activists exposing their operations met with rising death tolls from genetically overtaxed birds, met with environmental concerns from an agricultural industry that was stretching itself to feed the livestock industry, and inundating America’s waterways with ocean-killing fertilizers in the process, met with enthusiasm of the American public for the possibility of protein sources that tasted like meat but came from plant-based sources to produce, at last, a meat industry unsure of its next move.  While growth in the chicken sector limped along at 1%, plant-based proteins were zooming by at 9%, with investors scrambling for pieces of the new approach to the world’s food problems.

Any halfway competent executive could read the writing on the wall – given the choice between two things of comparable taste, one of which involved the consumption of 50 times more resources than the other, resulting in corresponding amounts of pollution, and at the expense of a life lived in darkness and genetic malformation, and the other of which didn’t, the response of all but the most unbalanced of consumers would be to choose the latter, every time, and if the Tysons and Purdues and Aramarks and Pilgrim’s Prides of the meat industry did not start investing in that sector of the protein market, they would soon find themselves outpaced and playing a desperate game of catch-up.  Industry professionals began approaching Garcés, to draw on her expertise in analyzing what they were doing wrong, in order to correct their path and outline new procedures for the future.

Grilled tells us the success that can be had… in attempting to find the humanity in the adversary and look for common ground from which change can arise.

Garcés, at that point, had a choice.  Either retain the activist purity of her position by rejecting these requests for consultation, or lend her aid and voice, and risk alienating those who looked up to her as a hard-hitting, no-compromise advocate of animal welfare.  Should she help the industry slowly reform itself, or continue whacking at it in the hopes of toppling it all at once?  1688 or 1789? Grilled tells us the success that can be had in taking the former path in a resolute but open manner, in attempting to find the humanity in the adversary and look for common ground from which change can arise.  Acknowledge when progress is being made, but never shy from pointing out what still needs to be done.  Be firm, but never let yourself stop seeing the humans behind the decisions you are trying to undo.

As a result of her work extending expertise to executives desperately seeking the changes that will see their companies survive the coming food revolution, some of the largest producers in the country have made commitments to sweeping changes in the broiler industry by 2024, including windowed housing so that the chickens have a normal cycle of light and day, clean space in which to engage in activities that are part of their regular psychology, the phasing out of fast-growth chickens, and the reform of the industrial slaughter lanes that add a horrific and gnarled end to a life of mangled, dark, and confined desperation.  All of that, as good news as it is, represents a mere stopgap effort to the ultimate goal – the elimination of sentient creatures as sources of food altogether.  And here again Garcés’s influence has born fruit as large companies are now investing in the creation of plant protein divisions, and the most adventurous are exploring the possibilities of lab-grown meat, both of which avoid the no longer bearable 50-to-1 energy and resource inefficiency of the current system (50 calories of feed being needed to produce 1 calorie’s worth of meat) and the suffering of a living creature.

The most optimistic forecasts hold that the meat industry will, by 2040, hold a place similar to that of the tobacco industry today – a niche market for those bent on slow self-destruction for reasons entirely their own, but otherwise entirely avoided by people seeking good, ethical, and healthy lifestyles for themselves and their families.  To get there, we need all sorts of people.  We need the firebrand activists who use the tools of public shaming to pressure corporations to correct their worst practices.  We need the industry executives who honestly assess what their companies are doing and seek a better path forward.  And perhaps most importantly, we need the Leah Garcéses of the world – people to be the bridge between those worlds, to risk their reputation to do the often thankless work of practically pushing forward the highest dreams of activism through the murky officialdom of corporate policy.

Want To Help?

Besides the obvious step of reducing or eliminating animal protein from your diet, you can learn more about Compassion in World Farming and the organization that Garcés is currently president of, Mercy for Animals, to support their efforts at introducing better standards and holding companies responsible for immoral practices.

Lead photo: Leah Garcés, via Mercy For Animals site; Grilled book image: via Mercy for Animals site