Can Our Choices Make a Difference?


Talk, as prepared, for Madison, WI, and Chicago, IL, June 2016.
-Matt Ball

Let’s start with a pop quiz. How many vegans does it take to change a lightbulb?

LightbulbLightbulbs aren’t vegan!

For some of us, the question, “Can our choices make a difference?” seems silly. Of course our choices make a difference! A lot of people, though, think that in a world of seven billion people, what is actually silly is to think that one person’s choices can make a difference.

A good friend of mine, Jason Gaverick Matheny, wrote a scholarly analysis, Expected Utility, Contributory Causation, and Vegetarianism, that was published in a peer reviewed journal. In that paper, he lays out calculations that indicate our choices supposedly do make a difference. 

However, I don’t know many people who choose what food to buy based on a utilitarian calculation of weighted probabilities and Bayes’ Theorem. For example, I stopped eating animals thirty years ago because I realized I couldn’t consider myself a good person if I was paying others to raise and butcher animals simply so I could enjoy a taste of flesh. Actually making a difference in the real world wasn’t a consideration.

This is a good example of my early days: I was concerned with being “right.”


I wanted to “win an argument with a meat eater.” I wanted to ridicule meat eaters. I wasn’t focused on actually changing the world, actually reducing the number of animals suffering.

Contrary to my approach then, Peter Singer took this question seriously in his book Animal Liberation. He was sympathetic to the idea that one person, acting in isolation, may very well not make a difference.

I can see this now. Even if we are the strictest vegan, some of our economic activity eventually pays the salaries of non-vegetarians, allowing them to buy more meat. In the end, the only way our food choices could have absolutely minimal negative impact would be if we didn’t exist.

So let’s set non-existence as our baseline.


Can we do better than that, in terms of making the world a better place?

Let me try to answer that by starting with some history.

When I stopped eating animals, I was simply angry.


As I said, I wanted to fight with meat eaters – attack and mock them. I obsessed and worried about abstractions and words and principles. I argued about exploitation, oppression, liberation.

The single most important lesson I’ve learned since then is that the irreducible heart of what matters is suffering. Back then, although I was sure I knew everything, I really didn’t know anything about suffering. Since then, though, I’ve developed a chronic disease, and experienced times when I thought I was going to die, times when I wished I would die.

Back in the mid-1980s, I didn’t take suffering seriously. Now, however, knowing what suffering really is, and knowing how much there is in the world, all my previous concerns seem – well, to put it kindly, silly.


Today, I realize that our individual day-to-day food choices matter very little compared to the impact we can potentially have with our example, our advocacy, and our donations.


So let me summarize, really quickly, a few facts and statistics from the past 30 years that can help us make a real, meaningful difference in the real world.


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You’ve probably all seen this graph from Animal Charity Evaluators. I know you can’t see it clearly, but the take-away is that to a first approximation, every animal killed in the United States is a farm animal.


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Compare that to this second graph, which shows where animal-related charitable donations go. Now, farm animals are the tiny sliver in the bottom right. In short, when trying to make a difference for animals, we’re working with one hand tied behind our backs, because resources are in no way allocated proportionally.

Not surprisingly, we’ve not done the best job.


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Here we see the results of the Vegetarian Resource Group’s surveys of the last sixteen years (without error bars, which are huge). Although from within the vegan bubble, it can feel as though there are tons more vegans, the actual surveys of the actual population in the United States shows no clear growth in the percentage of the US population that is vegetarian. Or, to look at it on the appropriate scale:


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In terms of meat consumption, it is even worse.

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This graph shows per capita meat consumption in the US. While beef has declined, chicken consumption has more than doubled. Given how small birds are, this means many many more animals are dying every year, compared to when Peter Singer published Animal Liberation.

As an aside, I know we all have a much greater affinity for mammals than for birds.


But not only are chickens being killed in vastly greater numbers than cows or pigs, they are suffering absolute horrible cruelty.

Here is one more piece of bad news.


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According to a number of surveys, including the most recent one by Faunalytics, the vast majority of people who go vegetarian or vegan eventually go back to eating animals. More than four out of every five individuals who go veg eventually quit!

It would be bad enough to realize that we’re throwing away more than 80% of advocacy efforts. But it is actually worse than that. Everyone who quits being veg becomes an antispokesperson against compassionate eating – a public (and often loud) example opposing taking any steps that help animals.

So with all that said, what do we know that might actually help us?

First is a graph from Ben Davidow.


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This shows the relative number of animals harmed by the standard American diet. And you can see that the vast, vast majority of those animals are birds.

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Looking at it a different way is this graph from Mark Middleton at AnimalVisuals, showing the number of deaths caused by producing a million calories of different food, including grains, vegetables, and fruits. Mark explicitly concludes, “Leaving chicken and eggs out of our diets will have the greatest effect on reducing the suffering and death caused by what we eat.”


Now I don’t want to just focus on death in and of itself. I would much rather be a field mouse living free until killed by a combine harvesting soybeans, compared to a chicken whose entire life is utter agony.

And I don’t mean that as hyperbole.


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Harish Sethu of Counting Animals did an analysis of how many chickens actually suffer to death before making it to the slaughterhouse. These birds die of disease, or are killed because they aren’t growing quickly enough, or have their hearts just give out, or their legs break such that they can’t make it to water. Harish’s calculations show that so many chickens suffer to death that their number dwarfs all the animals killed for fur, in shelters, and in labs, combined. Again – this isn’t the number of chickens killed overall, just the number who suffer to death before even getting to slaughter.

The numbers are incredibly stark.


Again, based on research by Harish, Joe Espinosa notes that the average American consumes about two dozen land animals a year. If one person decided to give up eating birds – just birds – they go from being responsible for the deaths of over two dozen land animals a year to fewer than one. Fewer than one!

However, the converse is also true. Anything that might possibly lead someone to start to replace red meat with chickens will lead to a lot more suffering and killing, as noted by Ginny Messina:

So with all that said, let’s get to some good news!


Previously, we saw a graph that showed the number of chickens being slaughtered going way up.


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But in recent years, this trend has reversed somewhat (upper right).

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The decline might not seem like a lot, but given the size of birds and the numbers we were starting with, a small decline translates to many fewer animals suffering – hundreds of millions fewer.

So how does this specifically inform our advocacy?

I would love to say that the decline in the number of land animals killed in the US has been driven by a rise in the number of vegetarians and vegans.

However, as various researchers have pointed out, the change has actually been driven by meat reducers – people who are eating more meat-free meals, but aren’t (yet) vegetarian.

Turning to Faunalytics’ study on recidivism, their data shows that people who went veg for health reasons are the ones who go back to eating meat.


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The single biggest difference in motivation between those who quit being vegetarian and those who stay vegetarian is: concern for animals (42% difference).

This is backed up by research by The Humane League Labs, which showed that concern for animals is what inspires lasting dietary change.


So clearly, we need to keep animals at the center of our efforts to help animals!

Research has also told us more about how we can refine our message in such a way as to get the most useful change for animals in the real world.


The Humane League Labs specifically pointed out that we should not focus on dairy when initially dealing with the general public. Not only because of the numbers, but because it is the last thing people think they can give up. Rather, we should focus on chickens, which people can give up and actually makes a significant difference in terms of the numbers of animals suffering. (Of course, this is absolutely not meant to dismiss or downplay the suffering of dairy cows and calves. Rather, this is simply a discussion of how best we can promote a message that will have the biggest possible impact in actually reducing suffering.)

This relates to research I was a part of in 2014 at the University of Arizona.


One of the many interesting take-aways from those four studies was that each one of them found that the general public thinks veganism is impossible, and vegans are, to put it kindly, annoying. This obviously doesn’t matter if we only want to promote veganism regardless of the consequences. But if we actually want to make a difference and reduce the amount of suffering in the world, we should take note of this.

Similarly, many people quit being vegetarian because they found it too hard to live up to the demand for purity.


Again, if we only care about the purity of those who call themselves vegan, then the fact that we’re driving people away is irrelevant. But if we actually want to reduce suffering, we should do everything possible to both embrace and encourage everyone…


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…instead of reinforcing people’s stereotypes and trying to build the smallest, angriest, most exclusive club in the world.

The upside is that there is a great deal opportunity out there.


A number of surveys (including the University of Arizona study, quoted in the graphic above) have discovered a shocking willingness among the general population to reduce meat consumption.


And if we are really going to help animals, rather than just police our club, we can reach these members of the general public with an honest, realistic message that actually has a profound impact for animals – reducing and eliminating chickens from our diet.

How can we best do this?


I know this slide from the Humane League Labs is hard to read, but it shows that of the advocacy tools available to us, movies, conversations, websites, and online video have proven to be the most impactful.


Now I know this is a lot to take in in only a few minutes.


But I find it very encouraging to realize we have so much information available to us, such that we know what positive, constructive steps we can take to help change the world for animals.

Two last thoughts. The first is my absolute favorite quote from Gene Baur.


Even while building the world’s leading farm animal sanctuary, Gene was looking at what will be necessary to make sure that one day, as soon as possible, sanctuaries are no longer needed. We simply must go upstream and end the demand for animal products.

And finally a quick note as to why this matters.


For us here, we can debate and argue, philosophize and condemn. We’re all relatively safe and well off, enjoying our sparring and our agreements, our discussion about who’s attacking whom on Facebook, how angry we are about the latest tweet, how delicious the new vegan product is.

On the other hand, it is a cliche, of course, to say that this is a matter of gravest consequences for animals.

As much as I would love to think otherwise, we currently can’t do everything. We do not have infinite time, or infinite resources. But we have to realize that when we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do another. We need to choose wisely; we are the animals’ voice. We are their hope.

We can each strive to make choices that have the greatest possible impact, that reduce the most suffering, regardless of labels and definitions, regardless of how it makes us look or feel, regardless of popularity. We can make a real difference. We can change the world! Thank you.


Yes, we CAN ask for less than “go vegan”

Another guest post from Tobias Leenaert.

An often heard crede – especially among so called “abolitionist” vegans – is that “veganism is the moral baseline”. It seems to mean that being vegan is the minimum we can do for the animals if we want to be moral creatures. Conversely, anything less than vegan is immoral behaviour. I don’t agree with that, and the way many activists use the sentence often seems quite ineffective and often condescending to me.

From idea that veganism is the moral baseline, it seems to follow (at least for those who adhere to the moral baseline motto) that our outreach towards omnivores can never be anything less than suggesting them to go vegan. Asking people to be reducetarians, for instance, would be an immoral demand, just like, believers hold, asking or demanding that a childbeater become a parttime childbeater rather than doing it every day (I have written about that before, here and here).

Let us assume for a minute that asking anything less than veganism is immoral (and that veganism is the moral baseline). Let us, however, at the same time assume – for the sake of the argument – that asking “things less than veganism” leads to a higher reduction of animal suffering and killing.What, in that case, should we prioritize: the morality of our outreach, or its impact? In other words, should we – again assuming for a minute that we know for sure – use a less effective message because we believe it to be a more moral one?

driving force

Those who would answer that the morality aspect is the most important, will often claim that the impact is actually on their side too, and that what is painted above is some kind of false dichotomy. I want to briefly examine here if that is true. In other words: is it possible that asking other things than “go vegan” is more effective in reducing animal suffering and killing?

People who follow this blog will know that my answer will be that that is definitely possible. I give three reasons why I think a smaller ask may (often) be more effective than the bigger, go vegan ask. I am not implying that everyone should do “reducitarian” outreach – more about that below.

One: bigger total impact
It seems to be common sense that when we ask people to do something easy, more of them will do it than when we ask them to do something hard. The difference between the small number of people doing the hard thing, and the higher number of people doing the easy thing is big enough, the people doing the easy thing may all together have a higher total impact. Say we ask one thousand people to go vegan and say we get ten of them to actually do so (it definitely is possible to go vegan overnight, no one is denying that). On the other hand, say that we ask another thousand people (our control group) to participate in Meatless Mondays, and say that 300 do so. You can do the math. One might object that the few people that were convinced become fulltime vegans might also become active in reaching out to others, but actually the same can be said about the meat reducers, who can also advocate for Meatless Monday.

Two: meat reducers may more easily become vegan
I believe our main challenge today is to get as many people as possible totake the first steps, to cross a certain treshold.That is in many cases one of the most important things we can help them do, because it is a lot easier to move up the vegan scale when you have made a first step. Being a reducetarian is not an end, but a beginning.

Three: meat reducers make veganism easier and may tip the system faster
Meat reducers are the driving force behind demand, and companies producing vegan products, do so in the first place for *them* and not for vegans. In other words, meat reducers help to make it easier for everyone to eat more and more vegan, or even to go vegan overnight.

These are three reasons – and in my upcoming book they will be better referenced – that could indicate that asking people to reduce might have a bigger impact than asking them to go vegan. One could argue that if this would be so, this demand would actually be the more moral one. After all,what’s moral about using a message that is less effective than one we know to be more effective?

Let me explicitly state my purpose in writing all this. I am not saying that our movement should never use the “go vegan” message. I *am* saying, conversely, that we are under no moral obligation to *always* use the “go vegan” message. And I am suggesting that those who think they should criticize people who do “less than vegan” outreach (be they vegans themselves or not) stop doing that.

Recidivism Part 3: Be Honest and Thorough about Nutrition

We are reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s insights from her research on veg recidivism. This week, we feature “Why Nutrition and Nutritionism Matter.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

Eating healthy whole foods is important—and so is paying attention to individual nutrients. Lately, though, that’s become an unpopular thing to say. It’s what food activists like Michael Pollan refer to as “nutritionism.” That is, he and others say we should stop worrying so much about nutrients and just eat food (or “real” food as they refer to it). As celebrity nutritionist Dr. David Katz says “If you eat whole foods, the nutrients sort themselves out.”

But this is not exactly a science-based observation; it’s an opinion or at best a hunch or casual observation of the world. Pithy observations like this make for engaging writing and perky sound bites, but not always great advice. It’s one of the reasons I’m not on the food celebrity bandwagon. After all, even Dr. Katz has been called out for defending quackery and for sharing a perspective that is not always evidence-based.

To be fair, though, unlike Pollan whose understanding of nutrition is practically non-existent and whose advice is sometimes complete nonsense, Dr. Katz frequently brings a balanced perspective to hot button nutrition issues. And it’s probably not entirely wrong that people should worry more about eating whole, nutritious foods and less about micromanaging their diets.

Or at least this is probably not wrong in the world that Michael Pollan and Dr. Katz inhabit. It might be wrong in mine, though. Because the plant-based, whole-food diet that Katz, Pollan and others are talking about includes a bunch of foods that you and I don’t eat. It includes—in moderate amounts—cheese and eggs and chicken and fish. So they aren’t really thinking about how we can achieve optimal intakes of omega-3s, calcium, vitamin B12 and iron on the kind of diet that I promote. The idea that the nutrients will “sort themselves out” doesn’t always hold up for vegans.

The diets that have long protected the health of people in Asia and southern Europe are based on whole plant foods, but they aren’t vegan. A vegan diet omits foods that are traditional sources of nutrients in cultural plant-based diets. And, when people stop eating animal foods they need to know a few things about nutrients. For example, they need to know that it is important to include legumes—at least 3 servings—in vegan diets to get adequate amounts of all amino acids. They need to know which leafy greens provide calcium that is actually absorbed by the body. They need to know which type of vitamin B12 supplement is the best and how much is required.

We vegans are sort of pioneers when it comes to ethical eating because a world that honors justice for animals is very different from the world that has existed up to now. We don’t have the history, so we must be guided by the science. Does it make it look like being vegan is hard? Does it sound like nutritionism? It doesn’t matter. Our job is to ensure that vegan diets can be a viable long-term choice for anyone who wants to be vegan. That requires solid, evidence-based vegan nutrition information. Attention to nutrients is critical for preventing ex-vegans. The animals can’t afford for us to take risks with fuzzy, unsupported advice about how whole foods automatically meet nutrient needs.

Recidivism Part 2: Why Feeling “Normal” Matters

We are reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s insights from her research on veg recidivism. This week, we feature “Why Feeling ‘Normal’ Matters.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

There are other important issues that we all know about—giving support, and especially sympathetic support when people are struggling with their veganism. Our community needs to provide a safe place for people to admit when they have made a mistake or a non-vegan choice. We need to honor effort and intention even when perfection (whatever that means) is elusive, to respect the challenges that some people face, and to let them proceed at their own pace.

But the last thing that I want to talk about actually covers a lot of ground in terms of encouraging a commitment to veganism. It’s the importance of making veganism feel “normal.”

A study from Cornell University titled “Who We Are and How We Eat: A Qualitative Study of Identities in Food Choice,” looked at this issue. The researchers found that many people (these were non-vegetarians) expressed a desire to view their food habits as “normal,” rather than “extreme.” This is important for our advocacy because surveys of ex-vegetarians found that many did not like feeling “conspicuous.”

We vegans eat (and live) in a way that is very different from the rest of the population. For some of us, it’s not a big deal. For those who value feeling normal, it might bring considerable discomfort regarding their vegan lifestyle. We can’t change the desire to be normal, but we can take steps to “normalize” veganism.

One way is to provide more vegan options that mimic usual eating patterns. The food industry has done a remarkable job of this and the choices are getting better and more diverse all of the time. Veggie cheeses and meats are much better today than they were ten years ago. It’s easier to find vegan options in mainstream eateries, too, and this is something that vegan activists should support.

I am frequently chastised for my stance on veggie meats—which is that it’s okay to eat them. Recently, a blog reader told me that they are “junk foods” that are “worse than meat” (as she had learned in an online course on plant-based nutrition).

I understand that avoiding these foods is an important part of some plant-based dietary philosophies. But nutrition isn’t a philosophy; it’s a science. I know of no evidence that a few servings of veggie meats per week will harm your health.

And it’s not just about convenience—although that is a big part of the benefit they bring to vegan diets. Just as importantly, these foods and others may make veganism more socially and psychologically comfortable for some people. They make it feel a little bit more like what some of us grew up with. They allow vegans to eat at restaurants with friends without having to ask the server to create something special for them—something that perhaps makes them feel conspicuous and uncomfortable.

We know that veganism isn’t about us. And a little discomfort on our part shouldn’t be a big deal given what the animals endure every day. But we also need to be realistic. Going vegan presents a huge challenge for many people. It’s not just about learning to like new foods and giving up old favorites. It’s about choosing a path that puts us out of step with much of society. Depending on who you are, where you live, and what your social circles are like, it can be alienating.

What we really want, of course, is for vegan to become the norm, not the fringe. But until that happens, making it look normal might be what is needed to help some people go and stay vegan.

Former vegetarians: Who they are and why we lost them

By Nick Cooney

May 1, 2012

Why do many vegans and vegetarians go back to eating meat? When I was in college, one of the most active members of our campus animal rights group went from dedicated vegan activist to dedicated chicken eater in a matter of months. If you’re like me, you’ve probably scratched your head wondering why some people stick with veg eating and others don’t.

Academic studies published over the past 10 years, as well as an informal survey by Psychology Today columnist Hal Herzog, give us some insight. According to former vegetarians, they’ve typically put meat back on their plates for the following reasons:

Taste – Many craved meat and were bored with vegetarian food

Health – Some had less energy, were anemic, or had other health issues

Inconvenience – A number felt eating vegetarian took too much time, they didn’t know how to prepare veg food, or it was annoying to be vegetarian when eating with friends.

We need to keep these issues in mind when encouraging individuals to eat vegetarian. Aside from just telling people why they should change their diet, we need to tell them how: how to make or buy quick, delicious, meat-like meals, and how to eat healthy.

Of course, those of us who stayed vegetarian or vegan encountered the same problems. We just had the resources and dedication to work through them. So what gives? Are there simply fundamental differences between people who stay vegetarian and people who don’t? A new study published in the journal Appetite suggests there are. The study found four key differences:

Motivation – Both current and former vegetarians care about animal welfare, health, and the environment. But those who stick with veg eating care more about these issues, especially animal welfare. Concern for animals represents, by far, the biggest difference in beliefs between current and former vegetarians. Therefore, regardless of why people initially went veg, after they’ve made the switch we need to inspire them to care about farm animals. The more they start to care about farm animals the more likely they’ll stick with vegetarian eating. Since their behavior is now animal-friendly, it will be easier for them to adopt an animal-friendly attitude if we encourage them to do so.

Identity – People who stay vegetarian think their food choices are an important part of who they are. This was never the case for former vegetarians, even when they first went veg. Why is this the case? Well, it’s a fact of human psychology that we don’t like to change our sense of self-identity. The more we see veg eating as part of our self-identity, the harder it is to go back to eating meat. Therefore, after someone becomes vegetarian we should encourage him or her to see vegetarian eating as an important part of who they are. For example we might give them vegetarian bumper stickers or t-shirts, encourage them to talk to their friends about why they’re vegetarian, or sign them up for Veg News magazine or a vegetarian email list.

The Switch – People who stay vegetarian are more likely to have made a gradual switch. Maybe that’s because a gradual switch is easier, both for the person going vegetarian and also for family members with whom they eat. In contrast, former vegetarians were more likely to have made an abrupt switch when they first went veg. With this in mind, we should encourage people to take the first steps towards vegetarian eating rather than encouraging them to go from zero to vegan in sixty seconds.

Support – Those who stay veg are more likely to have joined a vegetarian potluck group, message board, or other social circle. These support systems provide both encouragement and practical advice on veg eating. Of course, people who see vegetarianism as part of their self-identity (in other words, those who are already more likely to stay vegetarian) are also more likely to seek out vegetarian social groups. So it’s possible that, for many people, social support is just icing on the cake and not the reason they stay veg. Still, social support can only help, especially if we can get less-enthusiastic vegetarians to join.

Whew! That’s a lot of information to take in. Who knew that helping people eat vegetarian could be so complicated?

To boil it down, if we want to help more people stay veg, we should help current vegetarians: a) learn how to cook or buy quick, delicious, meat-like meals; b) learn how to eat healthy; c) care a lot about farm animals; and d) see vegetarianism as an important part of who they are.

Any time we do one of these things, we will help current vegetarians stay the course. As Ben Franklin wrote, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Helping someone stay vegetarian can be just as good for animals as inspiring someone else to go vegetarian.


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