Vegan animal rights activist and former head of Compassion in World Farming US, Leah Garcés, swapped confrontation for communication to persuade intensive chicken farmers to change. She spoke to Wicked Leeks about the journey behind her new book Grilled.
What is the one thing you’d like people to take from your book?
Leah Garcés (LG): Where many activists might see the meat industry as a monolithic beast to be destroyed, we could instead see lots of individuals, just like you and me, simply trying to do their jobs. Solving difficult problems is always about connecting with people, especially people we don’t agree with. We must expand the conversation. There is no ‘us against them’. There is only us against a destructive, unjust system—industrial animal agriculture—that is entirely within our capacity to change.
What drove you to change tact and work alongside intensive chicken farmers, rather than at opposite sides of the table?
LG: My book and my journey demonstrate the path of nonviolence followed by historical figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Around the time of meeting Craig Watts, the chicken factory farmer I ended up partnering with, I had been reading a lot about this way of achieving social change. So when the opportunity presented itself to meet and collaborate with a factory farmer, I found myself deeply curious about whether this could in fact be a better path.
What was the hardest moment of the experience for you?
LG: In the summer of 2014, I found myself sitting in the living room of a man who was by every definition my enemy. I was scared out of my mind. The man was Craig Watts, chicken factory farmer. I was a vegan animal rights activist. My career was devoted to protecting farmed animals and ending factory farming. He raised chickens in warehouses, destined for slaughter. Until that point, I’d spent my life working against everything Craig Watts stood for. That first step, meeting Craig and moving totally out of my comfort zone, was the hardest. But each time I stepped out of my comfort zone, it got easier.
Did you ever encounter hostility or accusations of idealism from those in the industry?
LG: Actually, most of the time industry leaders were very surprised by how reasonable the request was. We weren’t saying they should stop farming animals altogether. They knew I was vegan and that was where I personally sat, which I think made it all the more surprising when I presented a request that would reduce the suffering of chickens one step at a time.
Can chicken farming ever be humane and fair on a mass scale, or do we need to shift towards small-scale and localised supply, in your opinion?
LG: The economics of raising chickens humanely is extremely challenging. For that to be successful, consumers must be willing to pay a lot more if they want animals to live as natural a life as possible. There are some forms of regenerative organic farming emerging now that are both environmentally beneficial and better for the animals. But for us as a population to adopt this way of farming en masse would inevitably mean that people would need to eat significantly fewer animals. What I think is gaining traction as a promising solution is plant-based meat. This has great potential to feed the masses protein without the environmental or animal welfare problems that inevitably come with most industrial animal agriculture.
You talk about the potential of lab-grown meat – what do you see as the benefits and problems with this?
LG: Lab-grown meat for me is the light at the end of the tunnel. Our population is set to reach 10 billion by 2050. Since meat is very culturally ingrained, a large portion of our growing population, I believe, will want to continue eating meat in some form or another. I’m excited to see that science is bringing us to a point where meat from animal cells is possible without slaughtering a single animal. I’m also excited that plant-based meat is getting very close in taste and texture to animal meat, giving people what they want but without the cholesterol and without the negative environmental impact and animal cruelty involved in industrial animal agriculture.
How do farmers fit into a future food system that includes lab-grown meat?
LG: I always try to look for the win-win. Instead of thinking about how I could put factory farmers like Craig out of a job, I considered how I could find them a different job, like growing mushrooms, peas, or hemp. In fact, a farmer I later worked with did just that. When Mike Weaver of West Virginia became fed up with raising chickens for the same reasons as Craig, we teamed up to film and expose what was really happening behind the closed doors of his warehouses. But Mike didn’t stop there. It turns out that the conditions for raising chickens aren’t very different from those needed to grow hemp. It’s an environment-friendly way to stay on the land and pay the bills.
Do you have a view on organic or small-scale mixed (veg and livestock) farmers, where animal manure helps fertilise vegetables?
LG: Regenerative forms of farming are critical for not just sustaining our planet but fixing it. These methods look at the whole ecosystem on a farm—the soil, the animals, the labor, all of it. I worked to create the Regenerative Organic Certification, the first in the United States. I feel strongly that this mixed regenerative form of farming is a key solution to repairing our planet and the soil we rely on to grow our food.
What one act would you do if you were President of the US for one day?
LG: We are so far behind in the United States when compared with Europe regarding legislative measures to protect farmed animals. I would abolish ‘ag-gag’ laws in the United States, which are intended to keep the American public in the dark about the realities of factory farming. These laws punish the whistleblower rather than the abuser for cruelty found on the farm. I’d also ban all close confinement, cages and crates for farmed animals.
Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry, by Leah Garces, is published by Bloomsbury. For a 30 per cent discount for Wicked Leeks readers, use the code GRILLED30 at purchase.