Progressing animal issues with policy makers

Emily Carter

Relaying animal rights philosophy to the court is nothing new. Since the 18th century, people have been organizing to make the public more sensitive to animal issues. The movement really picked up in the 1970s, when a new fundamental definition of animal rights emerged: that animals have an inherent right to live, free of exploitation and unnecessary death. 

Because it is seen as a major source of injustice, the most pressing issue in animal rights today is animal agriculture. In 2018, over 43 billion animals were killed for food in the United States. Global animal production accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and other environmental issues.

Another major animal issue is animal experimentation. Over $12 million is spent by the government on animal experiments such as injecting hamsters with steroids and forcing them to fight ($300,000), inducing heart attacks in dogs ($500,000), inducing depression in baby monkeys ($1.7 million), and more. 

In the past decade, the popularity of animal ethics has increased among the public. In Britain, the vegan population increased from 150,000 to 542,000 in the past 10 years, alongside a vegetarian population of 1.14 million. 

Conveying animal ethics to policy makers is a different story. This has proven to be a struggle because it is an unpopular philosophy that interferes with daily lifestyle, government relationships with the livestock sector and other industries, as well as current policies surrounding animal rights. Addressing animal issues calls for the restructuring of food systems, in part by communicating with private entities, farmers, and producers.

Some believe that engaging with the government and industry enough to promote real change is ineffectual, but a recent study by Erica Chenoeth at Harvard University showed that nonviolent protests are twice as likely to be successful, and a movement consisting of at least 3.5% of the population has never failed to bring about major change. 

The risk of climate change will most likely harm all living things, highlighting the ties between the animal justice movement and environmental and social justice movements. With high emotions being felt by the social injustice in the world, the conversation can continue.

However, the public can only do so much. The burden should not fall on the public to increase the demand for plant-based products, though we are very successfully doing that. The plant-based meat industry is projected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion in 2030. 

Historically, economics and politics, rather than science, have dominated the way policy makers reach decisions. The general public also cares about economics, but they also care about humanitarianism, climate disaster, and ethical living to a degree that does not align with current government action. 

Animal rights topics are sensitive in politics due to the reputation built by activists. However, the identity is gaining a new momentum. The awareness of animal agriculture is becoming more familiar in politics. In the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign, candidate Cory Booker, who is vegan, was asked if people should follow his diet. His answer: “No.”  He continued: “One of the reasons that I have a bill to put a moratorium on this kind of corporate consolidation is because this factory farming is destroying and hurting our environment, and you see independent family farmers being pushed out of business because of the kind of incentives we are giving that don’t line up with our values. That’s what I’m calling for.”

This 20 seconds of screen time was a revolutionary moment for veganism and animal rights. It surprised a lot of people, including Booker. His position and response tell us something about how veganism is received in politics and by the public. He was essentially mocked for his lifestyle, and this is exactly the sort of attitude we have to change. Communication from the public, media, and food producers are needed, and require a commitment to building trust, shared values, ethics, and credible expertise.

Framing a controversial issue like excessive animal consumption is difficult when the general public, including politicians, do not know where meat, dairy, and eggs are sourced. There are many different ways to approach the subject, but focusing on facts and statistics is a good place to start the conversation. Engaging with policy makers often requires data presentation and economic reasoning, however we also need to start considering the role of emotion and ethics in decision making. Reconciling logic with emotion is an important component of political engagement regarding animal rights. Afterall, ethics are the core of the movement. 

The political association of the policy maker you are speaking to matters. Climate change is a bipartisan issue: 95% of liberal Democrats, 88% of moderate/conservative Democrats and 68% of liberal/moderate Republicans, but only 40% of conservative Republicans believe climate change needs to be addressed, according to a Yale study.

Government opinions differ from public opinion on climate change. In the U.S. 38% of people think climate change is a crisis, and 38% think it is a major problem. Additionally, 37% think we need to make major sacrifices to combat the issue, and 48% think we need to make minor changes. Convincing policy makers to align themselves with public opinion is the main issue we face. The good news is there are precedents being set for legal intervention on excessive animal usage. Some countries, like Germany and Denmark, are considering a 19% meat tax to reduce the progression of climate change. Substantial impact would be possible if the U.S. and Australia, which together consume the most meat per capita per year, also adopt the tax. The general idea is that people who consume massive amounts of meat would pay for the impact of their choices on others. 

In fact, recently, top British Barrister Michael Mansfield claimed that eating meat could become illegal. He compared the issue to smoking indoors: “There are plenty of things that were once commonplace that are now illegal such as smoking inside.”

Sources: Animal Kill Clock, BBC News, Food Dive, The Guardian, Independent, New York Times, Oxford Academic, PETA, Vox, Washington Post, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication