With cruelty rampant on factory farms, and vegetarians currently a small minority, it is easy to dismiss the hope for a truly compassionate world. “My Uncle Dick hunts, and my cousin Jeb is always mocking me for being vegan. You’re crazy if you think they will ever change!”
These are legitimate concerns. However, it is nevertheless possible to achieve our goals – and much more quickly than we imagine.
Taking a longer perspective can help guide our advocacy. Society has advanced an incredible amount in just the last few centuries. Even though democracy was first proposed in ancient Greece, only during the eighteenth century did humanity see the hints of a democratic system. Only recently was slavery abolished in the industrialized world. It was not until the last century that child labor was ended in Europe and North America, child abuse was criminalized, and women were allowed to vote. Some minorities have attained more equal rights only in the last few decades or even the last few years.
It is hard to comprehend just how much society has changed in recent history. Prejudices we can hardly fathom today were completely accepted just decades ago. For example, if we read what was written and said about slavery – fewer than 150 years ago – the defenders were not just ignorant racists, but admired politicians, civic and religious leaders, and learned intellectuals. What is horrifying to us now was once not only accepted, but respected.
However slow our progress may feel, we are advancing at lightning speed compared to past social justice movements. A century ago, almost no animals received any protection whatsoever from abuse. Now, according to a Gallup poll, 96 percent of Americans want to see animals protected from abuse, and 32 percent believe that animals deserve “the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.” Until 1990, only a single ballot initiative to protect animals that had passed at a state level – just one! Since 1990, animal advocates have passed dozens, including several directly abolishing some of the worst abuses on factory farms.
Not only do the vast majority of people oppose cruelty to animals, many question eating animals, at least on some level. In 2011, Grist’s Tom Laskawy reviewed a survey from agribusiness front group Center for Food Integrity: “The study’s analysis notes that 51 percent strongly agree that they have ‘no problem’ eating meat and dairy. It’s still a majority, but the number is down a full 12 percent since 2007.” Consumers losing faith in Big Food.
Thus, the discussion now must focus on helping people see that eating meat violates their own principles. This effort is only just beginning. In the 1980s, most animal advocacy in the U.S. was focused on fur and vivisection, mostly ignoring the roughly 99 percent of animals who are butchered for food. Only relatively recently have more individuals and groups focused on this ninety-nine percent by exposing the cruelty of factory farms and promoting compassionate eating.
In large part because of this shift in advocacy, factory farms – which most people knew nothing about 10 or 20 years ago – are now considered by many to be ethical abominations to many. As noted in The Animal Activist’s Handbook:
Twenty years ago, few people had heard the word “vegan.” Finding mock meats and soymilk was nearly impossible. According to market research by Mintel, “Until the mid-1990s, change was slow in coming to the world of vegetarian foods, and many average consumers relegated ‘vegetarian products’ to a counter-cultural movement, not a mainstream trend.”
Today, even cousin Jeb doesn’t need “vegan” explained to him. You can find veggie burgers, soymilk, and various other convenience foods in most grocery stores. And plant-based meats, milks, and cheeses is a huge trend across the market.
As we continue our efforts, more plant-based products arrive on the market every month. Having convenient options available is vital, as it makes it easier for new people to try and, more importantly, to stick with a compassionate diet. As more people sample plant-based meats and other products, competition will continue to increase the supply and variety, improving quality and driving down prices. This cycle of growing numbers of vegetarians and the increasing convenience of vegetarian eating is self-reinforcing. Essentially, the technology of vegetarian meats and other foods is both driven by and a driver of moral progress.
If we continue to expand and refine our advocacy, the growth of compassionate eating will accelerate to a tipping point, where opposition to factory farms and the adoption of plant-based foods become the “norms” among influential groups. Legislation, as it usually does, will continue to follow these evolving norms, and we’ll see more of animal agriculture’s worst practices outlawed and abolished – something that has already begun. Corporate practices will also continue to adjust to the demands of an increasingly aware market.
At the same time, powerful economic forces will kick in, because ultimately, meat is inefficient. It is more efficient to eat plant foods directly, rather than feeding plant foods to animals and then eating some of the animals’ flesh. Of course, people aren’t going to substitute tofu for meat, but that is not the choice they’ll be making. Food science has advanced such that the best plant-based meats are able to satisfy even hardcore carnivores. Products including deli slices and strips from Tofurky, burgers from Beyond Meat, Gimme Lean sausage and ground beef, Gardein’s fish fillets, and many others clearly show that giving up meat is now not a deprivation.
The faster the growth in the number of people making compassionate choices, the faster plant-based meats will improve in taste, become cheaper, and be found in far more places. (Compare a 2016 Impossible Burger to a 2006 Boca Burger to a 1986 Nature Burger, and imagine how good a 2026 veggie burger will be!)
We are now challenged to expand the plant-based market by explaining to more meat eaters the reasons for choosing compassion, while exposing them to new – though similar – products. The more rapidly we do this, the sooner cruelty-free eating will be widespread.
After his first heart attack, Uncle Dick will shift over to plant-based meats that have no cholesterol or saturated or trans fats and are high in omega-3s. Cousin Jeb’s second wife – a vegetarian since seeing an online video in 2003 – will use that as an excuse to only cook meat-free meals, and Jeb will hardly notice the difference! Their daughter Barbara will grow up to oversee McDonald’s shift to non-animal chicken in their sandwiches.
Despite the current horror and continued suffering, if we take the long view and are willing to commit to the work that needs to be done, we should be deeply optimistic. Animal liberation can be the future. With our efforts, it could be achieved with a whimper, not a bang. Change will come not by revolution, but through person-by-person outreach progressing hand in hand with advances in technology, leading slowly but inexorably to a new norm that, to most people, hardly seems different. But an unfathomable amount of suffering will be prevented.
It is up to us to make this happen.
Initial version published in 2006 as “A Roadmap to Animal Liberation,” also published in The Accidental Activist