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Collaboration instead of conflict: Using empathy to change the chicken industry

February 11, 2020
Leah Garcés

Leah Garcés is the president of international non-profit animal advocacy organisation Mercy For Animals and author of Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry.

In 2014, a man I’d once considered the “enemy” forever changed the way I think about solving hard problems. The ambitious problem I’d been trying to solve was how to stop what is, in my view, the most abusive, destructive food production system humans could have created: factory farming. Factory farms typically confine thousands to tens of thousands of animals in unsanitary barns and feedlots, treating them more like widgets in an assembly line rather than the thinking, feeling beings they are. While most factory farms are operated by large meat, dairy, and egg corporations, many smaller farms also use cruel practices, such as extreme confinement and mutilation without anaesthesia.

Around the globe, nearly three quarters of the more than 70 billion land animals raised and killed each year are reared at factory farms, and our planet can’t sustain this much longer. Raising farmed animals (not just factory-farmed animals) generates about 15 percent of the world’s human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, and one third of cropland is used to grow feed crops for livestock (read more about the land use of livestock in the FCRN’s piece What is feed-food competition?). For nearly 20 years, I’d battled this problem, but it turns out I’d overlooked a critical ally – the farmers themselves. By seeing farmers as the enemy, I’d neglected a whole bunch of possible solutions.

When I met Craig Watts, he’d been factory farming chickens for 22 years for Perdue, the fourth-largest chicken company in the United States. He was the kind of person I’d spent my whole career angry at, blaming, and ready to fight. But in the summer of 2014, I found myself in his living room after a journalist introduced us. I listened to his story, his struggles, and his own surprising hatred for a system he felt as trapped in as the chickens I was trying to protect. He was barely able to pay his bills, despite working relentlessly. I felt ashamed that I’d not once considered his own troubles or our potential allyship.

As a young adult, Craig searched for a way to stay on the family land that had been passed down for five generations in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. His town presented few job prospects, so when Perdue came and offered him a contract to raise chickens, it seemed like a dream come true. He took out a $250,000 bank loan to build the chicken houses. Perdue paid him for each flock he raised. With this money, he began paying off the loan.

Soon the chickens – 30,000 stuffed wall-to-wall in darkened warehouses, living in their own feces, and breathing ammonia-laden air – became sick. This was a factory farm, after all. Craig struggled to pay off his loan, and he knew he’d made a mistake. He was all but an indentured servant. He hated raising chickens, but if he stopped, he’d risk losing everything.

By 2014, he’d reached a breaking point: His birds were sick, and payments seemed never-ending. He also realised that Americans had to know the truth about how the chickens they ate were raised. So he agreed to work with me, to film inside his farm. Our unlikely alliance put the truth on a global platform and became compelling in itself. The New York Times broke the story, and within 24 hours, a million people had seen our video about the horrors of chicken factory farming. Our story went viral.

This experience, perhaps the most powerful of my career, got me thinking: Are other unlikely allies out there?

I’ve actively engaged the “opponent” for six years now included those that were less sympathetic initially, such as big poultry companies. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. But I’ve noticed key principles common to my successes, ones I think would prove useful for countless other careers and situations.

First and foremost, empathy is essential, as is seeing your supposed adversary as someone who may have more in common with you than one might think. This approach starts before your meeting with setting the intention to recognise shared values and talking to find commonalities rather than jumping into negotiations. Perhaps you both have children or desire long-term financial stability. Establish these similarities as the foundation of your relationship.

Also, recognise that your opponent may not be doing what you want because they simply don’t know how. Many meat, egg, and dairy producers don’t believe animal agriculture is a sustainable long-term business model. In fact, perhaps more than anyone, they know how deeply inefficient it is. But they may not see another path forward. This presents an opportunity to help them find a win-win solution.

To find these win-wins, you must avoid getting caught up in your own concept of winning. If you make a small concession that doesn’t detract from your end goal, your negotiating partner will probably be more willing to meet you in the middle. Small concessions might include giving the opponent a little more time than you’d like to achieve the goal, or achieving the goal in small steps rather than all at one, while not giving up on the goal itself.

After all, your opponent often holds the power to solve the problem. In my case, I’m not in charge of a single chicken; the farmers and big poultry companies are. If I want to work with them, I need to enter their space, understand their resistance, and really inspire them – no matter how uncomfortable I may feel at first.

Now, instead of thinking about how I can put meat companies out of business, I think about what they care about most: their bottom line, shareholders, paying their employees, and growing their businesses. I think about how we can inspire them to evolve toward different businesses that still allow them to feed the world but with plants.

I’m happy to say this approach is working. Last summer, Perdue announced its own venture into meat products blended with plant-based protein to help families incorporate more vegetables into their diets. Cargill, one of the world’s largest meat companies, recently renamed its meat department a “protein department”. The biggest animal agribusinesses are now some of the biggest investors in a plant-based future. Although it may seem ironic, just like turning enemies into allies, it makes perfect business sense.

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