The Animal Rights Movement Needs to Sharpen its Cutting Edge

by Zach Groff

For those of us who aim to think about evidence and have been inside farms certified by Global Animal Partnership (GAP) - Whole Foods Market’s animal welfare program - outside of an audit, yesterday was a dispiriting day. The Open Philanthropy Project (OPP), an organization created by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, to use reason and science to address some of the world’s most pressing problems, announced its decision to fund GAP. This decision would be disappointing coming from any organization, but it’s particularly discouraging here because OPP was founded as an evidence-based organization and hosts some of the most intelligent and critical thinkers I know.

The OPP’s decision last year to invest in fighting animal agriculture was welcome news. It not only signaled the importance of this cause but also suggested a needed influx of critical thought and dollars to follow.

A diseased turkey at Diestel Ranch, given GAP's highest animal welfare rating

A diseased turkey at Diestel Ranch, given GAP's highest animal welfare rating

GAP, the OPP seems to hope, offers major promise by setting the standard for the industry at large. With standards that exceed the industry norm but that begin low enough to accommodate a large number of farms, GAP has been an early adopter of reforms such as slower-growth chickens, for example.

There are three reasons this is wrong:

First, the evidence that these sorts of reforms will lead to a better future for animals is weak and leans in the other direction. Not many of us may realize this since it’s so little discussed in the historical record, but many social movements faced similar questions about whether to focus on improving conditions or to aim singlemindedly at ending the oppressive institution. As historian Taylor Branch describes in Parting the Waters, civil rights advocates of the 1930s and 1940s vigorously debated the question of whether to attack segregation outright or to focus on improving black schools. Similarly, pro-gay rights groups aimed at improving treatment of gays without challenging discrimination at large.

These movements took off though, when they delivered an unmistakably-strong message: “smash gay oppression”; “get rid of every aspect of segregation.” A politicized message of injustice - what sociologist Doug McAdam calls “cognitive liberation” - inspires movements and motivates activists. Calling the shocking violence that happens on GAP farms anything less than shocking violence not only demotivates  activists; it also leaves policymakers unchallenged. Confront any politician or corporation about the systematic violence of animals across the world, and they will fall back on supporting animal welfare. Should our movement be saying the same thing?

Turkeys at Diestel Ranch trudge around through their own feces

Turkeys at Diestel Ranch trudge around through their own feces

We don’t notice these things because they’re so common in our society, but when GAP refers to animals’ bodies as “products” and offers turkey giveaways, it should be clear that they are not an organization with much potential to transform our society’s view of animals from commodities to individuals, and that shift in attitudes is essential for long-term change.

Second, even if one thinks GAP is good, we can change GAP more, and without the complacency, by challenging them from the outside than by directly supporting them. There’s no denying that many advocates - from conservationist John Muir to modern-day lobbyists - have made change by lobbying elites. Attempts to persuade elites though, are far more effective when the winds of change are at our backs and people are out in the streets.

For decades, the environmentalist movement struggled to succeed by depending on a small number of professional activists working with industry and government. Once large numbers of people hit the streets behind a strong message for the end of fossil fuels, things started to change: climate agreements got signed, regulations passed, and pipelines got vetoed. From labor strikes to the Tea Party, the record for nonviolent contention is strong.

Our movement has limited money and resources. Investing it in the top without a base is a recipe for stagnation, if not failure.

What it looks like to meet GAP's strictest, highest animal welfare standards at Diestel Ranch

What it looks like to meet GAP's strictest, highest animal welfare standards at Diestel Ranch

Third, to the extent GAP sets a precedent for other farms, it is not a precedent that merits our movement’s support. The OPP admits that GAP’s “standards are not as strict or rigorously enforced as they might be.” These standards can never be strictly or rigorously enforced, though, for reasons included in OPP’s post - there are “roughly 580 animals certified per dollar spent.” That is, even the small portion of the U.S. agricultural industry that supplies Whole Foods has too many animals to supervise. This is what our investigations, PETA’s investigation, and the USDA’s investigation of former rabbit farms all found. To the extent GAP sets a standard, it sets a standard for advocating compassion while committing violence behind closed doors. Is that the standard our movement wants?

If we want incremental change, there are far better ways to go about that. Advocates of GAP and other programs often point to the fact that nearly every movement in history has had large elements of incremental change. This incremental change, though, often came in geographic rather than moral increments. Think of the state-by-state emancipation of slaves in the U.S. that preceded national emancipation. Think of city and state enactments of child labor legislation. DxE activists are forming “Project Berkeley,” an effort to get substantial local legislative change first in Berkeley, then in other cities around the country, then the world.

I will always remember the night I visited a farm advertised as a 5+ on GAP’s 5-step program. I had been skeptical when DxE first launched its Whole Foods campaign: why protest a company who was at least trying to make a difference and improve the ways animals are raised? As I walked through a country field in the dark of night and saw the voluminous sheds rise up before me - I thought they were hills at first - I was stunned. When I saw the fear and misery in a turkey’s eyes, I thought to myself: if this farm was an improvement, it was a pathetic one at best.

All the more sad, then, that this represents our movement’s attempt at effectiveness - our movement’s cutting edge. Devoting our most treasured resources and talent to GAP represents a serious failure of imagination. It says we are unwilling to stand by the ideals we all share deep down. It attempts to make an end run around the challenge of building a social movement by making changes here and there.

If we want to change the world for animals, we have to tear down those mountainous sheds I saw that night, not build them up. The very name “Global Animal Partnership” evokes a joint effort involving animals or representing their interests, but the purpose of the organization is to figure out ways to do things that animals would never have us do: hold them in captivity and, ultimately, kill them. With a mountain of confidence and not even a brief mention of history or social science, the OPP just say they believe that this is the most effective thing to do. This belief is not to be believed.

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