Almira Tanner

Published on:

April 1, 2021

How does a city become plant-based? You start by divesting from animal agriculture.

While there’s no one simple path or silver bullet to a just, plant-based food system, getting local governments to withdraw their financial support from the animal agriculture industry is critical. That’s why we’re campaigning to pass an ordinance in Berkeley that would transition 100% of city funds spent on animal products towards sustainable and healthy plant-based foods. And the support we’ve received so far makes me hopeful this victory is not too far off. 

Here’s why divestment would be a game changer. 

  1. We’d stop giving Big Ag so much money. And it really is Big Ag - Berkeley purchases animal products from some of the most notorious corporations in the industry, including Smithfield, Tyson, and Foster Farms. DxE activists have investigated several Berkeley suppliers and found horrific cruelty and disease; the impact of animal agriculture on climate change is undeniable; and during the pandemic, Smithfield and Tyson-owned slaughterhouses refused to provide basic personal protective equipment and sick leave to workers and even lobbied to speed up slaughter lines, leading to severe COVID-19 outbreaks among workers and the surrounding communities. While isolated individual consumer boycotts have a limited impact when animal agriculture is subsidized to the tune of $38 billion, the purchasing power of city and state governments is much greater. Berkeley itself is still too small to really hurt Smithfield’s or Tyson’s profits, but as you’ll read in point #4, Berkeley is just the beginning.

  2. More important than the direct financial impact is the symbolic value of divesting. Governments aren’t known to be particularly radical. So when a bureaucratic, moderate institution condemns animal agriculture to the point of refusing to spend any money to support it, it sends a strong signal to the industry: your days are numbered.

  3. Divesting also sends a signal to the public and sets an example for what “normal” and “good” behavior is. Just like the US dietary guidelines normalized and praised the consumption of milk, divesting from animal agriculture will normalize plant-based diets and stigmatize eating animals. When San Francisco wanted to ban the sale of bottled water across the city, they started with city-owned properties and government agencies as a way to shift the culture. Government agencies can model good behavior, provide opportunities for businesses to try out transition plans, and serve as a beacon for the public of what’s to come.

  4. And what’s to come after Berkeley divests? If history tells us anything, it’s that Berkeley will lead the way and other cities and eventually states will follow. From free speech to disability rights, Berkeley has been on the forefront of social justice. Anecdotally, when talking to elected officials they almost always ask if anyone else has done something like this before. People can be afraid to be bold and go first. And while legislators in Berkeley can be hesitant too, they have a legacy to live up to. It will be our job as activists to give them both the pressure and the support they need to take a stand and, once again, go first. Like the fur ban in Berkeley that spread to San Francisco and then all of California, passing this ordinance in Berkeley could launch a wave of divestment across the state.

  5. And finally, that wave will continue in Berkeley, too. Once the city council divests taxpayer funds from animal products, they are admitting that there is something inherently wrong with animal agriculture, which could send them on the path to other animal-friendly legislation. If the council acknowledges that any dollar spent funding the Smithfields of the world is one dollar too many, we’ll be one huge step closer to making Berkeley a truly compassionate and just city. 

For all of the above reasons, it’s time for Berkeley to fully divest from animal agriculture. Furthermore, even if the city didn’t care about their broader impact on the world or the human and nonhuman animals on factory farms far from sight in Berkeley, this is a good move for the city. It will help them meet their stated climate goals, save money, and invest in the health of some of the most vulnerable populations. 

DxE protest at Berkeley City Hall in September 2020

Over the past month, we’ve been meeting with Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin who has assured us that he too shares our goal of fully divesting from animal agriculture. It will be up to us to ensure he follows through. Symbolic declarations and resolutions are no longer sufficient. It’s time to take real action. And when he does and Berkeley becomes the first city in the country to move toward a plant-based food system, the rest of the state will follow.