A Q&A with Jacy Reese
Animal farming as we know it may go the way of the dinosaurs by 2100. That’s what Sentience Institute cofounder Jacy Reese forecasts in his new book The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System. With the developments of innovative food technologies such as cultured meats and plant-based protein, we can put slaughterhouses and industry farming out to pasture so that our clucking, oinking, and mooing friends can graze peacefully in wide-open pastures. But what does this mean for Thanksgiving, America’s most food-centric holiday? What options will we have as our food tradition evolves? And will they be just as tasty? Jacy has the answers to our questions.
Beacon Press: What are some of the major issues that consumers should be concerned about when it comes to factory farming, especially as it pertains to poultry farms?
Jacy Reese: First is the scale and ubiquity of suffering on factory farms. Over 100 billion animals are in the food system, and over 90% live on factory farms. That figure is over 99% in the US, based on USDA farm size data and the EPA’s definition of a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. The animals on these farms are confined in dreadfully tight spaces; even on a cage-free egg farm, there is usually less than a square foot of space per bird. Chickens and turkeys grow so much meat so quickly that they often topple under their own weight and die from heart attacks or organ failure. Many have their beaks tips cut off without anesthetic. They are usually bled out while still conscious, and some make it all the way into scalding hot defeathering water before dying.
Second are the wide range of human health and environmental harms. 80% of US antibiotics are fed to farmed animals, leading to so-called “superbugs.” Animal agriculture is responsible for 14% to 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transportation sector. Factory farms pollute local land, water, and air, leading to increased rates of asthma and cancer, not to mention the stench and other nuisances that drive down local property values. The health and safety of workers is especially at risk, and these local workforces and communities are disproportionately people of color and undocumented immigrants.
Finally, all animal farming is just incredibly inefficient, wasting taxpayer and consumer dollars as well as natural resources. It takes around ten calories of plant-based food to produce one calorie of animal-based food. Animals aren’t meat machines; they have hair, skin, brains, and metabolic functions that all require large amounts of energy. One entrepreneur I interviewed for my new book, Alex Lorestani at Geltor, said he was motivated to address animal agriculture because, as a scientist, he felt “technical outrage” (as opposed to “moral outrage”) at the fact that humans still use animals this way. In his words, factory farming is “the dumbest way to make the things that we need and love,” given we can make meat, dairy, and eggs without animals.
BP: In your book you write about a future where meat is no longer the centerpiece of the American diet. What changes do you see coming for holidays like Thanksgiving that focus so predominantly around food, in a food culture that still relies so heavily on animal products?
JR: The biggest reason for optimism about the end of animal farming is that it doesn't have to be the end of meat. We can have a turkey on the table. In fact, we can have any animal product and the food culture that goes along with it, without raising and killing animals. This can either be done with plants—blend together the right proteins and fats to get the same taste, look, and texture of a holiday roast—or with cells—scientists are now able to take a small sample of cells from an animal and grow meat directly, in a big cultivator that looks like one of the tanks at a beer brewery. This process cuts out the middleman, cuts out the inefficiency, and provides consumers with “clean meat,” named in an homage to “clean energy” for the ethical and food safety benefits.
Of course, adopting a new technology isn’t that simple. So, a lot of the book goes into the technical research being done, the regulation of these products by governments, and the psychology and sociology of consumer acceptance. But the prognosis is optimistic; I think we’re on track to end animal farming by 2100.
BP: What are some companies currently working in the area of plant-based meat substitutes that consumers can turn to this holiday for alternatives to turkey, butter, milk, and any other staples they might want to substitute?
JR: Usually what consumers want most during the holiday season is a big protein-and-fat-rich meat product in the center of the table, like turkey or ham. Fortunately, there are several holiday roasts available today. My favorites are Field Roast, Tofurky, and Gardein. I think at least one of those can be found in most US supermarkets if they aren’t already sold out. If you’re feeling more adventurous in the kitchen, consider looking up “vegan roast recipe” on Google. Most versions are nut-based or wheat-based, but they do require you to follow the recipe pretty closely to get the taste and texture right.
For side dishes, I would also steer people towards Google for recipes. The most important rule here is that making vegan food takes more than just cutting out the animal products. If you take cow’s milk out of a recipe, remember to add a plant-based milk or butter product, ideally high in fat content. If you take out egg, remember that different plant-based products can fill the same culinary niche: flax or chia seeds are best for precise baking, but in more casual applications, you can use fruits like bananas or avocados. Finally, if you want scrambled eggs for your holiday breakfast, rejoice with the latest plant-based product to wow vegans and omnivores alike: Just Egg.
About Jacy Reese
Jacy Reese is the research director and cofounder of Sentience Institute, a nonprofit think tank researching the most effective strategies for expanding humanity’s moral circle. He previously served as board chair and a researcher at Animal Charity Evaluators. Reese’s writing has appeared in Vox, Salon, and the Huffington Post, and he has presented his research to academic and nonprofit audiences in fifteen countries. Follow him on Twitter at @jacyreese and visit his website.