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Eating meat is such an everyday thing for most people that discussions about on animal protection are pretty rare or almost nonexisten. A lot of farmed animals are raised inhumanely and treated not as living things but as mere commodities. In this episode, Corinna Bellizzi chats with AJ Albrecht, Managing Director of Mercy for Animals, an organization that aims to end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a sustainable food system. She talks about the dangers of factory farming to animals, the need for more organic food choices, and the benefits of adopting a plant-based diet. AJ also shares their efforts to pass a bill that shifts the responsibility of the broken food system from everyday consumers to major corporations profiting from factory farming.
About AJ Albrecht
AJ Albrecht is the Managing Director of Mercy For Animals in the United States and Canada. She joined Mercy For Animals in 2019 as the organization’s first U.S. government affairs team member, where she built and led the government affairs and public policy team for three years before stepping into her current role. A licensed attorney, AJ is the immediate past chair of the American Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee, a past chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee, and the founder of the East Orange Animal Alliance. AJ is a frequent speaker on animal advocacy issues and has published on topics relating to our food system, farmed animals, and animal law.
Guest LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andreajoyalbrecht/
Guest Website: https://mercyforanimals.org
Guest Social: https://www.instagram.com/mercyforanimals/, https://www.facebook.com/mercyforanimals, https://twitter.com/mercyforanimals, https://www.pinterest.com/mercyforanimals/, https://www.youtube.com/mercyforanimals
00:00 – Introduction
06:30 – Impact of industrial farming
08:33 – Adopting a plant-based diet
13:02 – Bird flu epidemic and water crisis
22:56 – Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act
26:56 – Incrementalism and improving food choices
33:13 – Searching for better food options
40:44 – Transformation
43:13 – Impossible burgers
46:45 – Is animal protection a worthy cause?
52:08 – Closing Words
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Mercy For Animals With AJ Albrecht
I want to start by sharing a story of me as a little girl when I was nine years old. At that age, I had to swallow a couple of hard pills. The first was that my beloved grandmother had skin cancer and her prognosis was not good. As an internal geek myself, I started to read research journals at the library instead of going to storytime because I wanted to understand what was happening to my grandma.
That was the moment when I first learned about animal testing, LD50 levels, the point at which 50% of animals in a study die, and the many atrocities that we subject animals to in the name of medical research and in the world of farming as well. This is also when I led my first petition going door-to-door in a small lumber town of Southern Oregon, trying to get people to sign off on a petition to keep the rhesus macaques from being used in medical research. While I haven’t covered much about animals yet on this show, I feel like it’s about time that I start.
In the previous episode, we talked about the welfare of bees and how we should let them be. We talked with Hank Svec to learn about how he is turning his farm into a bee sanctuary. We’ve talked about how farming operations, the industrial farming complex, and our love of synthetic petroleum-based chemicals including glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup, have decimated populations of other pollinators even, including monarch butterflies, as well as many other insects. We’ve also mentioned here and there how and why CAFOs, which are Concentrated Animal Farming Operations, are critically bad for our planet, our people, and the animals themselves.
We’re going to deepen that part of our conversation as I’m joined by our guest, AJ Albrecht. She serves as the Managing Director of Mercy For Animals in the United States and Canada, having joined them back in 2019 as the organization’s first US government affairs team member. A licensed attorney, AJ has a plethora of experience defending animals in our legal system. She’s the Founder of the East Orange Animal Alliance and is a frequent speaker on animal advocacy. She has published on topics relating to our food system, farmed animals, and animal law. It’s time to bring you to the stage, AJ. Welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having me.
I set the stage for you to tell a story perhaps about what brought you to this line of work and what seems like already a lifelong path in defense of those that can’t defend themselves.
In reflecting, it has been a lifelong path, although I don’t think I realized that until my career had already begun. Similar to you, I grew up loving animals and found myself trying to learn as much as I could about animals. I shared my home growing up, thanks to an animal-loving mom, with everything ranging from a tarantula to your average dogs and cats. I feel very lucky that I had that exposure as a child.
When I found myself in law school, there was no animal law track. I didn’t even realize that was an option for me. Instead, I found myself doing quite a bit of work throughout law school and at the beginning of my legal career defending victims of domestic violence. Some of the most impactful cases that I had the opportunity to work on were those where non-human animals were also victims of domestic violence. I found myself advocating even harder than I was in the rest of my cases when I knew that these defenseless animals were being used in these cases to further hurt the survivor or the victim.
From there, my eyes started opening to opportunities in animal law. At first, I was working for a nonprofit organization focused on dogs and cats. As is the way with many advocates, once you start dipping your toe into a social justice issue, you realize that you can do more. That’s what led me to my organization, Mercy For Animals. It is focused on farm animals, which are the animals that truly need us most. Mercy For Animal’s mission is to construct a just and equitable food system. Our vision is to see a world where animals are respected, protected, and free.
An organization that more of our audience might be familiar with is PETA. Are you working in some collaborative way with organizations like PETA or do you have any relation to them?
We work in collaboration with quite a few other animal protection organizations, including PETA in some instances and some coalitions. We believe that in order to crack this incredibly difficult issue that we’ve chosen to focus on, we’re stronger together. Each of our organizations has different focuses, different niches, and different interventions to try and liberate animals as much as possible. Because of that, we frequently focus on what we have in common and how we can work together with other organizations.
I love that answer. I know some people might be diametrically opposed to certain activist groups, particularly if they see them as more fringe. At the same time, much like when we talk about climate activism, it takes collaboration across many different categories for people to push for change. It’s not that they’re indefensible, but they don’t have the ability to defend themselves truly. They are at our mercy, which is part of the reason why I love the name, Mercy for Animals. It feels like it’s on the nose but in a way that helps us step into the power that we could have to protect them. I love that. Let’s talk about the impact of industrial farming on the environment and local communities. What have you learned thus far in your work?
I have learned so much. It’s sad when you start digging into the impact of industrial animal agriculture or factory farming on our planet, on humans, and on animals. If you look at the life cycle of greenhouse gas emissions associated with how we’re producing 99% of the food in the United States, it’s creating more greenhouse gas emissions than planes, trains, and automobiles combined. That’s a dirty secret that most Americans and most folks who consume food from the grocery store don’t realize.
We see the farming and agriculture sector in such a positive light, but the vast majority of farmers in our country are exploited by only a handful of behemoth meat companies that have a stronghold on our food system. As a result, they are destroying the planet. The amount of arable land that’s being used to grow crops not for human consumption but for consumption by livestock is enough to feed the entire world population and end world hunger. Instead, we’re focused on growing these plants to feed animals and get them as large as we can as quickly as we can to send them to slaughter.
Truly, it’s a broken system that is bound to crack and has already been cracking. As a result, we’re focused on trying to reform our food system to be more plant-focused to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce these devastating climate change impacts that the industrial animal agriculture system is creating.
You mention plant-focused. There’s a standard misconception on the part of many people who think plant-based means vegan or that vegan means plant-based, and that they’re somehow the same thing. Those that are more of the omnivore sometimes dismiss the entire package as extreme. I was wondering if you could talk about what it means to be plant-based in this context, and the impact that could create in the way of energy savings, food savings, and also CO2 emission savings.
At Mercy For Animals, we believe in meeting people where they’re at. To your point, although in an ideal world, it would be amazing to see everyone go vegan. We recognize that not everyone is there yet. Many people are interested in perhaps trying meatless Mondays or shifting to 1 or 2 meals a week. The data that we’ve seen shows that the number one individual choice you can make to reduce your CO2 E or let’s say carbon footprint is by reducing as much as possible and hopefully someday eliminating consumption of animal-based food products.
That doesn’t mean you have to go cold turkey overnight, but simply beginning to reduce the amount of those food products you’re eating can have a tremendous impact. The reason for that is that it is consumer demand that is driving this mass production of meat. What’s striking to look at is that a recent Gallup poll found that more people are veg-curious than ever before. However, on the flip side of that coin, we’re seeing meat production rising year over year. This is despite the pork industry, for example, claiming in 2020 that they needed a tremendous amount of subsidies in order to continue producing at the beginning of the COVID crisis. We then see when they release their statistics to the USDA years later, they had a 300% profit increase during that exact timeframe.More people are becoming veg-curious than ever before. But on the flip side of the coin, meat production continues to rise every year. Click To Tweet
Does this not remind you of the oil companies? I’m sorry. Isn’t it exactly the same thing?
Absolutely. That means the taxpayers like you, me, and anyone tuning in to this are propping up this broken system. It is reminiscent of these other systems that we’ve since realized should not be receiving the subsidies. Instead, we should be focusing on shifting the way we’re producing our food to be more sustainable.
The parallels are daunting. It’s because what we’re talking about here are big pharma and big food. When a business gets to that size where there’s so much governmental assistance and subsidies for the production of food, for example, then they figure out ways to take advantage of taxpayer contributions and what governmental assistance programs are available. It’s those things that small businesses can’t take advantage of. It’s astonishing.
I had on the podcast my friend, Helbard Alkhassadeh. He has a farm that I’m sure you’d love called Little Hill Sanctuary where he rescues animals that would otherwise end up on plates and gives them a forever home. They’ve been challenged by the weather systems that have been coming through. We had storm after storm hit us here on the central coast of California. It meant that their farm was underwater. Speaking of pork, the pigs that they have were happy as pigs should be. There’s no keeping them out of the mud. They were thrilled, but everybody else was struggling to keep the levy from breaking and bringing too much water onto the property.
They’ve had to make a lot of shifts and changes in how they build their corrals, fencing, and everything else to try and keep water at bay. The reality is when you have two atmospheric rivers come back to back and my office is flooded, it’s impacting us. He shared that he had no subsidies available to him to help with these animals because these animals weren’t considered food animals. If they had been considered food animals, suddenly, government assistance is there to support them.
We also saw the bird flu epidemic that was sweeping across. This was something we touched on as well in that episode. It is still problematic here from coast to coast. It was creating situations where entire flocks are dispatched or killed because there was fear of it spreading to more animals. We also have our food systems that can become disrupted.
Many of the problems that we’re seeing are the result of human encroachment on animals or us creating situations where the animals don’t have enough space to grow and thrive. Something like the avian flu can spread from wild birds to domestic birds and back again. It can dramatically impact not only the animal life populations but also our ecosystems because the wildlife falls out of balance too. It’s not like the avian flu stays on the flock in a CAFOs farm. It could spread from your shoe to the wild to then another bird.
With regard to the avian flu. There has been so much in the news about the price of eggs. Anyone who has grocery shopped knows that eggs are expensive, and that is largely due to this avian flu outbreak. What you described is what the industry calls depopulation, which is a humane washed way of saying mass on-farm killing. What that means is that these animals who already have horrific lives that are in confinement, most of them don’t see the light of day throughout their short lives, are killed on the farm at the CAFO, the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, rather than going to slaughter.
The way that they’re depopulated is truly horrific. For poultry, the standard practice is to use foam, which looks very much like the foam you would see in an attic in between rafters. It’s a water-based foam that is sprayed all over the birds until they drown and suffocate. It’s a slow and painful, horrific death. This depopulation that we’re hearing about is largely preemptive.
The problem that we see is that the Federal mechanism for creating disaster preparedness, which is a disaster that farmers should be equipped to be prepared for, is not receiving the funding, the training, or the incentive to be prepared. Instead, they’re incentivized to grow as many chickens as large as they can, and as quickly as they can. That isn’t what the focus should be on. The focus should be on ensuring that these animals are treated humanely and healthily, and that the food that winds up in our grocery stores is safe. This is an example of our very fragile food system cracking as a result of one interruption in the supply chain that is putting American consumers in a tight spot. Since these diseases are very frequently zoonotic, it is putting all of us at risk.
I also wanted to touch on the water in California. I’m down here in San Diego. We’ve also had more water than we have had in a very long time down here. Although, we are still in a crisis when it comes to the Colorado River. The Colorado River, Lake Mead, and Lake Powell are quite frankly drying up. We are reaching dead pool levels, and it’s scary. The eight states that rely on this river cannot come to an agreement about how to slow the evaporation of that river.
When you start digging into it, it’s clear that the driver of losing that water is livestock production. Seventy-nine percent of the water in the Colorado River is used for crops that are being grown, specifically alfalfa, for livestock. Humans don’t need alfalfa. It’s being grown for cows, and many of those cows are in China. We are growing this alfalfa and using a tremendous amount of water to grow it, and then shipping those crops overseas. There are climate impacts there as well. As a result, folks like you and I in California and others in Utah, Nevada, and surrounding states are losing our water supply. When you start peeling back the layers of the onion on how much we are prioritizing meat production over safety, health, and human rights. It’s shocking.
As somebody who has owned horses for a good chunk of my life, I watched the alfalfa prices skyrocket and droughts a decade ago. What we’re seeing is that happened ow. Those that are buying hay recreationally may have been paying $20 a decade ago for a bale of alfalfa. Now, they’re paying triple that.
It’s something where we are directly impacted by these things from season to season. We talked about the fact that we’re getting fewer cuttings from every season, and this has to do directly with water allocations. Farmers of alfalfa, grass hay, oat, and all of these different seed grasses that are grown to feed livestock and recreational animals are not getting into their 6th and 7th cuttings anymore. They might be getting 3 or 4 per season because they haven’t been able to get the water allocations they had prior.
We also discussed this in a prior episode when I interviewed a cattle rancher that turned to the world of IoT or the Internet of Things, optimization, and everything. He shared that on part of his farm, he’s growing cannabis. If you go from one season to the next and, let’s say, you only needed X amount of water to grow your crop, even if you needed less than you were allocated the prior year, the farmers will make the judgment call to go ahead and say, “I need exactly the same,” even if they could have made the water go further. It’s simply because it affects future allocations and they have this fear point of where it’s heading.
What does this mean? It means that most of the hay that we get by mid-season in the state of California, even when we’re under this deluge of water that we’re getting all of once, it’s not enough to sustain the summer growing season for these grains. We then start going from California to Oregon. We’re like, “There are fires in Oregon. Where else are we going to go? Colorado? There’s not enough there. Utah?” Suddenly, we’re both expending a lot more fuel to get hay from one area to another.
We’re also running too lean on these resources to the point where those that have horse farms or other animal farms are shifting to things like cubes instead of their typical flakes of hay. For those that are familiar, you understand what I mean by cubes. These aren’t necessarily preferred for their animals. If they’re horses, they’re more likely to end up with colic or something like that. You have to soak them and do other things to mitigate whatever feed you’re able to get, which means that all people are impacted. All the animals we’re farming are impacted. You’re right that we need to shift how we’re running things.
When we talk about plant-based, this is something I have a fair amount of knowledge about. I have another show I host called Nutrition Without Compromise. On that show, we focus on nutrition and health without compromising your ethics or the health of the planet. I bring on a variety of doctors and medical professionals, some of whom I’ve also hosted on this show, including Dr. William Li. He wrote a book called Eat to Beat Disease. He’s releasing another book called Eat to Beat Your Diet on March 21st, 2023.
One of the things that these researchers have in common is these doctors who are on the cutting edge of what nutrition science means are saying something resounding and clear, and repeated from one to the other. That is that we need to go to mostly plant foods. If anything, we need to look at meat as a condiment. We need to start consuming more fresh foods and less processed foods. We need to do what we can to get back into the kitchens and engage with foods that are healthy instead of things that come with a barcode. That is pretty consistent.
Even if this humane aspect isn’t enough to drive you towards going more plant-based, it’s my belief that with time, we’ll all end up there anyway because we’re talking about our waistlines, our health, longevity, and ultimately, safe food for the long term. I know that was a bit of a soapbox for a moment, but I’ll leave it to you to comment on.
Thank you. I hope you’re right. I hope that we are on the precipice of the beginning of a plant-based future. Going back to what we spoke about at the beginning of this chat about meeting people where they’re at, having more accessible, affordable, and delicious plant-based options is key to making this a reality for the majority of consumers. The fact of the matter is the way you described of eating very fresh food is expensive. It’s expensive for many families, and we need to change that.
Mercy For Animals is working hard on a piece of legislation that is then introduced by Senator Cory Booker in the Senate. That’s called the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act. There are many titles to this act, and you can check it out. In a nutshell and to sum it up, it shifts the responsibility of this broken food system that we’ve described through various anecdotes and statistics back onto the factory farming industry.
It essentially says that this is a problem and a broken system that has been created by factory farming. It’s exploiting not just animals, but consumers, farmers, and people who live nearby these factory farms and don’t have clean air or water, and are dying of alarming diseases as a result of this pollution. It shifts the responsibility back to big ag. It makes it so that they need to be the ones to take responsibility for this and start making some changes.
It’s sad. That sounds radical, but against the backdrop of COVID, we saw lights shone on our slaughterhouses. We saw slaughterhouse workers not even able to receive personal protective equipment. They were dying at rates higher than folks who were incarcerated simply because they were forced to go to work and forced to keep working through the pandemic when most of us were privileged enough to shelter in place and stay home.
This is a problem that we’re working hard to address. It goes hand in hand to also partnering as much as possible with corporations while we shift that responsibility, and urging them to have more plant-based options. It’s important that when we go to a movie theater, a restaurant, a fast food chain, or anywhere, there’s an option that doesn’t include animal food products. We’re seeing more of that. There’s so much innovation happening in the food space. We’re working hard to create those shifts across the board as much as possible.
I might want to have my first politician come on this show. Do I want to interview Cory Booker? I think I do. I’d like to talk to him about this. What do you think the chances are of it passing, unadulterated at least to the point where it’s no longer meaningful?
Unfortunately, the vast majority of agricultural policies in the United States are dictated by the Farm Bill. This Industrial Agriculture Act is what’s called a marker bill, meaning it seeks to amend the Farm Bill that every five years is passed the same as it was five years ago unless there are amendments to it. Knowing how difficult that already is to get changes to the Farm Bill, this is going to be a long road.
We are not just trying to pass a policy. We’re shifting a narrative. We’re trying to reframe the public’s understanding of what farming and agriculture mean in the United States. We’re trying to make it clear that people are suffering as a result of the way we’re farming and creating our food. It’s not just people, our planet, and animals but the entire system is broken and exploitative.
That’s a long way of saying that this is the first step in what we anticipate to be a very long road. We will be happy if any part of this act passes. We believe that the changes that it makes are incremental and reasonable. Time will tell whether folks are ready to take a hard look at the way we’re creating our food and what we’re relying on as food.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times here that in some way, it is connected to this idea of incrementalism. Do a little bit better today. Perhaps consume a little bit less meat. Perhaps choose a product that comes with the humane certified badge. I’m not honestly sure how much that means, but I’m sure it’s more than just getting the cheapest egg that you can buy from the store.
I also love the simple way that Jonathan Safran Foer put it in his work, We Are the Weather. He even produced an essay from that book that is in Paul Hawken’s Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. In that work, he suggests that we stop consuming animal products before dinner.
By making that simple shift, we’ll be both supporting a movement away from overconsumption of animal products and reducing our consumption of saturated fat even because perhaps the butter, yogurt, cheese, dairy, and all of those things might be endemic in your diet already, and then you have a reasonable portion of an animal product in your dinner. You haven’t gone vegan. You might even be able to consider yourself mostly plant-based, but you’re minimizing the animal that you consume on a daily.
Another individual that I have a lot of respect for is David Moscow. I did interview him on this show about his work and his book called From Scratch by David Moscow. He shared in his story when I interviewed him on the show that he has started consuming far less meat since getting more connected to its procurement.
As he traveled the world, he was telling the stories ethnographically through his TV show of the same title, doing things like traveling to Peru, living with families at that super high elevation, and consuming Guinea pigs for dinner. It is things that we’re not used to here. As somebody who even owned three Guinea pigs as a child, I don’t know if I’d ever be able to manage consuming one. He got to a space where he reveres the animal life he’s taking. Most dinners don’t even come with an animal component to them.
It’s one part getting reconnected with food because when we have a direct relationship with its procurement, we value it differently. We will not take it for granted the same way that we do when it comes in some plastic packaging or in a bag out of a takeout window. That’s my perspective anyway. I’m finding a lot of people share it, including David Moscow.
Thanks for sharing that. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for Americans, Canadians, or most of us who are living in the Western world to be able to go to the grocery store and buy animal-based food products that are from animals that were treated humanely. We’ve worked very hard on initiatives that would grant animals some basic protections. For instance, Proposition 12 in California was a ballot initiative passed in 2018.
That entire ballot initiative came down to whether pigs should be allowed to turn around during their entire lifetimes because they are kept in cages about the size of their bodies. Those are female pigs or breeding pigs. It was also whether egg-laying hens should be allowed to extend their wings while living in a cage. The truth of the matter is that in the United States, we don’t have the luxury of being able to make the choices that you described. It is a difficult thing to be able to buy food that is humanely raised. That’s not how our system is structured.
We think it’s extremely important to make sure that the options that are available to American consumers are plant-based as much as possible so that we can keep animals off of our plates, remain healthy, be able to afford that food, and be able to find it. If folks are going to still consume animal products, it is that the animal products they are purchasing are at least not coming from cages and crates. They are coming from cage-free and crate-free conditions. We’re not there yet.In an ideal world, everyone would be consuming animal products that come from cage-free and create-free conditions. Click To Tweet
The Supreme Court of the United States is considering a constitutional challenge to Proposition 12. The meat industry is fighting tooth and nail against the will of the Californians that passed that in 2018. It comes down to whether or not these animals should be allowed to have enough space to turn around. My hope is that plant-based options will continue to be mainstream, that we’ll continue to see more of them, and that they’ll continue to be something that consumers choose over these animal-based products.
To your point, humane treatment is something I’ve continually questioned. Even when I do see the humane certified on eggs at the grocery store, the reality is that so few of us understand what these things mean.
That’s intentional. That’s the intent of the industry controlling the certifications and controlling the humane washing. There’s a reason why that’s confusing and inaccessible for us to understand what it is that we’re purchasing. A confused consumer is unable to make smart choices.
It’s always best to invest in your food if you can, and spend more money on your food or allocate more money so that you can buy the organic options. You can focus on a broader spectrum of foods. You’re not always eating the same ten things each week. Get back into the kitchen and discover these beautiful plant-based foods that are available.
Something else I want to mention as we talk about this is there are options available that are more regeneratively farmed where you do have certain growers of both produce as well as farmers and ranchers that are working to be part of the solution. I would advise people in their local areas to try to get to know their food sources.
If you can, be a part of a program where you’re getting your weekly vegetable box and it’s locally grown and in season. It’s going to be more nutrient dense. You’ll eat a wider variety of foods. You will get more creative in the kitchen, which is also going to support you long-term as well. If you are connected to continuing to consume animal products, you’re doing so with knowledge of where it’s coming from and supporting local people. You’re not just buying the cheapest thing that you can find at Costco. A chicken for $6? You can’t even raise a chicken for that much.
Spending more money on food sounds wonderful. Unfortunately, that’s not possible for everyone. We recognize that in order to make a change, we can’t just be targeting those folks like you and me who have the privilege of being able to spend more on food and have a budget that allows us to make those choices. It comes back to shifting this responsibility to our policymakers and to the corporations who are controlling our food system.
It’s unacceptable that the cheapest products are animal-based food products. We need to be raising our voices and having our elected officials hear us that we want plant-based food products and healthy food products to be accessible and affordable. Until they are, we’re going to continue to see health issues. We’re going to continue to see folks who live in food deserts and struggle with those health issues like heart disease, diabetes, or asthma more than those of us who don’t. That’s something that needs to change.
We all have a responsibility to narrow that gap between folks who can afford this type of food and those who can’t. You walk into a grocery store and there are the cheapest products. Costco Chicken is a great example. Mercy For Animals released an investigation a couple of years ago showing the conditions that those $6 or $5 Costco chickens are raised. It’s horrific. These chickens are being grown so fast that after a few weeks, they can no longer stand up on their own two feet. They’re being grown so fast and so quickly to go to slaughter. Nick Kristof wrote a piece in the New York Times breaking that investigation when it was released.
We have had Costco come to the table and make commitments about how they’re going to treat their chickens going forward. We need more of that. We need more of these corporations to be held accountable for the way that they’re raising their animals and the way that they’re bringing food to market. Hopefully, the more we can shed a light on this, the more change we’ll see so that more folks can make these choices.
I agree with that wholeheartedly. That’s a lot to think about. This can be overwhelming for a lot of individuals, especially those that are already saying, “I’m doing my best. I don’t have the pocketbook to be able to go and eat this way all the time, but I’m going to do my best.” I will also note that when I go grocery shopping, if I do the produce at a farmer’s market, I’m getting my food that has grown locally, typically with a lot less packaging, and more affordably than the stuff that I buy at the grocery store.
I like to encourage people to engage with things like the farmer’s markets that are in their areas. You’ll be getting food that is staying within the local area that’s not going on mass trucks and going across state lines or onto a container and shipping from another country to here. You’re supporting local economies. You’re saving a buck or two here and there.
Also, if you are a consumer of eggs, I still eat eggs. I find that I’m able to connect with those at my local farmer’s market. They have pictures of their chickens and their names on them and everything else. It’s a more connected experience. I can go to their farm and see how they’re raising their animals. It’s not the standard operating CAFOs type of concentrated chicken-raising situation. Here in Santa Cruz County where I am, a lot of people farm their own. They have their own chickens in their backyard. They raise them lovingly. They get the eggs they get each year and even sell them to their friends. We have some of that here too.
I also can’t help but plug that plant-based egg options are more affordable than eggs, or at least they are in my grocery store. If you look right next to those eggs, at least that’s how they’re organized. Where I shop, you can find some plant-based options that are delicious and worth a shot. You can prepare it as you would the eggs that you’re used to, save some money from your wallet, and be saving animals as well.
There is also even some vegan milk. They’re grown via fermentation. They have the same milk proteins in them. I’m sensitive to milk. I can’t drink them. They have a mouthful feel and taste that is identical to milk. You could theoretically replace milk with that as well. There are a lot of great plant-based cheeses, too. The assortment available is getting to be immense.
There is so much innovation. I’m not well-versed in that fermentation product that you’ve described, but I have tried the Brave Robot ice cream, which is part of that process. My partner considers himself plant-based and comes at it from a health angle, and he was weirded out by it. He thought, “This is the same as real dairy. It’s wonderful. The more that we can have innovation and the more that we can have these discussions about our food choices and why we’re making our food choices, as the consumers and as the ones who are eating this food, we should be the ones who are driving these changes. Seeing more of these products come to market is exciting because it’s making it easier for folks to make those choices.
It’s also important to highlight the work that we’re doing in the government affairs sphere related to food procurement, which goes back to an earlier part of our conversation. We’re working with states and local governments to make plant-based or veg options more of the default and shifting cafeterias in state houses and government buildings to having more plant-based options available or perhaps even the default for people who are eating there.
Not only do we know that this helps animals, health, and the environment, but it saves a lot of money if you shift food purchases away from animal products and towards plant-based ones. It’s making it easier for folks to make these choices and taking the burden off of the individual and onto the entity or the decision-maker to commit to those choices and that accessibility.
You had this creative term in your onboarding form that you called Transfarmation.
I would love to talk about it. Transfarmation is a project of Mercy For Animals that we began back in 2019. We are partnering with former contract growers. What that means is a farmer who used to be under contract with one of the large meat companies growing chickens or hogs. We’re not working with any cattle farmers, but perhaps in the future.
They realized how terrible the system was, how they were being driven into debt, how they were impacting their communities and polluting the air, and how they were treating animals. They decided they didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. What they’re left with are these large CAFO structures. Whether that’s a poultry house or a hog house that they don’t know what to do with. These are the size of football fields in many cases. We’re talking about very large structures. We’re partnering with them to give them the resources and information they need to grow plants for human consumption or specialty crops.
We have a farmer who is growing mushrooms. It turned out as a poultry house. It’s dark and a little damp. It’s perfect for growing mushrooms. We have another farmer who’s growing hemp. The houses are a great place for drying that hemp to create things like CBD oil. We even have a farmer who’s using one of their structures as an animal shelter. He had come full circle and realized that there was a need for a place to house stray dogs and cats and give them a place to stay until they were adopted. They’ve put kennels inside of that structure.
The Transfarmation project is about growing a movement, showing what’s possible, and creating a replicable model so that future contract farmers when they look at their options and look at how they can make a choice that betters the world instead of being a part of that factory farming system, it shows them, “Here’s how you can do it. It’s sustainable and lucrative, and it’s using your existing infrastructure.” It has been an exciting project for us thus far.
You’re transforming our farms. I love that. I have a question for you that relates to some of the vegetarian options that are available that might also come at a very large carbon cost. It’s namely things like the Impossible Burgers of the world. I understand they are working to disrupt our reliance on something like a standard hamburger that’s in the middle of our plate. I have some respect for it, but I also understand that they’re coming under a lot of fire namely because the investment isn’t proving out. Perhaps you have an opinion on that because it probably relates to subsidies. I’ll leave that on your plate.
This is a two-part answer to a two-part question. First, the climate impacts of an Impossible Burger are less than a beef burger as you noted. We believe that we have to have options for everyone and meet people where they’re at. The Impossible Burger has opened the door for many people by being able to get that at Burger King and try that for the first time. We do believe that it’s an important part of these reforms that we’re working towards creating a plant-based food system.
The second part is subsidies in short. It’s comparing apples to oranges when you look at these small disruptors in the space. They are still small. There’s so much press and news surrounding some of these plant-based options, but the fact is these are still small businesses when you compare them to these massive meat companies that benefit from these incredible subsidies and protections by the government.
I hate to keep going back to COVID and what happened with slaughterhouses in the meat industry, but it did shine a light on what’s going on. In the previous Federal administration, at the beginning of COVID, President Trump invoked the National Defense Act which makes it mandatory for folks to continue working. I’m blanking on the name of that tool, but it’s usually used during wartime. For example, if there were soldiers who needed ventilators in a hospital, an executive order could be signed to make sure that those resources are pooled during war times.
It could also be used for manufacturing.
Instead, this was invoked to force slaughterhouse doors to stay open and slaughterhouse workers to continue working without the requisite amount of PPE. It was so that meat could continue to be produced and these meat companies could continue to make a profit on top of the billions of dollars of bailout funds.
A lot of people got very sick because they also worked closely with one another.
That’s right. When you compare that, this is what these companies are up against. It’s the subsidies that are so much more than a safety net that is truly propping up big ag and the meat industry. It is clear that all of the critiques are comparing apples to oranges. It’s not accurate when you start peeling back the layers of that onion.
I so appreciated your transparency and your willingness to speak so openly. I know that we may have touched on a few trigger points for people because it’s hard to talk about these things without invoking that uncomfortable moment. It’s my feeling that we all have to get comfortable leaning into that uncertainty in a way so that we can push for change. Thank you so much for that. I’d like to ask you before we part if there’s a question that I haven’t asked that perhaps you wish I had. If so, you could ask and answer it.
What I would like to answer is this. Do most people think that animal protection is a worthy cause? The reason that it is such an important question to answer is we have so much data showing that the majority of Americans believe that protecting animals is a worthy cause that we should pay attention to. It’s an American data set. Going one step further, there is even data showing people believe that farmed animals and animals raised for food should be treated humanely.
That’s so important to highlight and underscore because I know the focus of your work is largely on sustainability and climate change, which are so intertwined and go hand-in-hand. At Mercy For Animals, we’re working to continue centering animals in the conversation and not shying away from that. We’ve done that as a movement for some time now. We tried to remind decision-makers that we focus on animals, but we also care about climate change. We also care about workers. We also care about health. All of that is true. There are wonderful organizations that are solely focused on that work. We’re so grateful to partner with them on many of these initiatives.
We should all feel empowered and reminded that non-human animals are also deserving of being centered in this conversation and having advocates that are not afraid to say, “I don’t want to eat an animal. I don’t want to have something on my plate that suffered horrifically at the hands of humans before coming to me.” Sometimes, that could be a trigger point or it could raise some cognitive dissonance of folks not wanting to lean in or talk about that. We have to talk about that, and I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to talk about it with you.Animals also deserve love and care. You don’t want to have something on your plate that suffered horrifically at the hands of humans. Click To Tweet
Thank you again. Something you didn’t know before we started this conversation is that I’m also working to shift people into more of a plant-based world through my work. I worked for a decade building the fish oil company of Nordic Naturals. I have spent the last seven years in the algae-exclusive space trying to educate people that this particular ingredient or the world’s first plant or first life on earth can be part of our solution for the photosynthetic nature of sequestering carbon and producing oxygen. More than half the air we breathe is from algae. It’s also providing vital nutrition from micronutrients to proteins and Omega-3s.
I see it as part of my penance for the success of an industry and a company that I helped to build to educate people on the fact that we can cut out the fish altogether. We can go to a plant source for the proteins and the omegas. Anybody curious about that should check out my other show, Nutrition Without Compromise, and also OrloNutrition.com. Örlö Nutrition is the brand I helped to build for VAXA Technologies, harnessing the power in the work that they’re doing, growing algae photosynthetically, and only using green energy to do so. I’ll happily share some of that with you if you’d like to try it too.
What a wonderful full circle of it’s never too late and it’s never enough. We can all be doing something to make these changes. It sounds like you’re doing a very big thing. How exciting.
I’m a couple of years into the project. With this particular one, we’re creating more from less. We’re trying to come from that perspective too, where all these resources that we throw into animal production are insane.
It’s David and Goliath.
It’s so hard to bite off that piece. When you get to understand it and dig in more deeply, we’re growing all this food to grow our food. We grow all this food to feed the animal, then butcher them, put them on our plates, and create the cycle. At every phase of this, we’re expelling a lot more carbon. In every phase of this, we have foods that we have labeled as animal-grade. Even when we have a surplus of them, we can’t feed them to humans because the FDA has put a stamp on them. I’m talking about things like corn, which could be food for humans all over the globe. Soybeans are another example. It’s maddening. Sometimes, we allow big businesses to run the ship. If we have seen that unfold in a negative way many times already, we got to learn the lesson.
We have to continue fighting for it. Unfortunately, the system is not set up to cater to these reforms. We’ve become pretty entrenched in this structure of cheap and quick food at the expense of all of us. We have to keep fighting for change.
Thank you again so much for joining me. This has been my absolute pleasure. I hope that you’ll come back.
Likewise. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
To connect with AJ Albrecht and all of her important work, please visit MercyForAnimals.org. Sign up for our newsletter and receive weekly tips with our #BeBetterChallenge. Subscribers also receive a welcome gift. It’s a five-step guide to help unleash your inner activist. It operates like a plan to help you reach more people and do more good in the specific area that you want to champion. It could be climate science. It could be Mercy For Animals. It could be any number of things. You could even apply this to a business that you wanted to get off the ground.
I want to hear from you. I’d love to hear your voice. I have this microphone icon and the bottom right-hand corner of my website. You can click on it and leave me a voicemail message. I’d love to hear your story. Perhaps you have one similar to mine where you went door-to-door to get people to sign a petition for something that you are passionate about. I want to hear that story. I’d love to tell it if you’ll let me too. Thank you now and always for being a part of this show and this community. Together, we can do so much more. We can care more and be better. We can even reduce our reliance on animals for food, improve our global health at the same time, and save this planet. Thank you.
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