How Internet-driven activism has improved animal welfare

The Humane League - chicken picture
© The Humane League

Over the past 15 years, awareness and interest in livestock conditions and wellbeing have increased exponentially, leading to significant improvements. How much further can it go?

There was a time when animal rights activists set fire to slaughterhouses and fur farms as a way of protesting the treatment of animals. Activists were viewed as existing on the margins of society; they were disruptive, aggressive, and extreme in their views, which did not seem to meld well with the views of the mainstream population.

Over the past 15 years, however, a significant shift has occurred. Views on animal welfare that were once upheld only by self-professed animal rights activists are now commonplace and shared by the general population. At the same time, the approach has shifted away from extremism toward gentle pressure and more serious conversations with farmers and companies for improved livestock conditions. The results have been highly effective.

This is largely due to the Internet. Now that undercover investigative videos released by groups like the Humane Society and Mercy for Animals can be viewed millions of times, awareness of what’s really going on behind closed barn doors has increased exponentially. Campaigns reach a wide audience and gain sufficient traction to scare companies and producers into changing their policies. Food bloggers and celebrity chefs have a platform from which to sing the praises of high quality, ethically raised ingredients, piquing the interest of home cooks.

An article in the Washington Post, written by Karin Brulliard, looks at the specific case of eggs, which she describes as “a victory for the animal welfare movement.” What used to be a battle between hard-core vegan types wanting hen liberation and farmers with thousands of hens in battery cages has become a calmer, more serious discussion about the benefits of improved living conditions for hens, primarily cage-free.

Now everyone is talking about it. McDonald’s has promised to go cage-free. So has Walmart. Global food supplier Sodexho just pledged to switch to cage-free eggs. Supermarkets and restaurants, including Burger King, Chipotle, Subway, Unilever (owner of Hellman’s mayonnaise), Costco, Safeway, Kroger, and Target, have all made similar promises.

California and Michigan have passed laws banning the practice, and Massachusetts is currently considering a law banning the sale of meat or eggs from caged animals raised anywhere in the United States. Interestingly, Brulliard writes, the United Egg Producers are not giving any pushback, despite spending $10 million to fight the initial California proposition in 2008. It seems that producers understand the direction in which the public attitude is moving, and more ethical conditions is the inevitable outcome.

The Humane League is one example of powerful Internet-driven activism, a young Millennial-led group that relies heavily on metrics and “boasts of creating online databases on egg-buying companies, lobbying investors and methodically testing the palatability of its public messaging.” The Humane League was a recent recipient of a $1-million grant from the Open Philanthropy Project and is responsible for convincing Sodexho to make the shift to cage-free.

While some may view cage-free as a cop-out, many activists believe that incremental changes are what’s necessary for a global overhaul of our animal livestock system. To ask the world outright to go vegan is impossible, so it’s better to start with subtle changes. If such a major shift has already occurred in 15 years, just imagine where we could be in another decade or two with the power of the Internet; perhaps a world in which animals are not kept at all for human consumption isn’t an impossibility.

Tags: Agriculture | Animal Rights | Animals | Animal Welfare | Factory Farming

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