A systems advocacy approach to promoting veganism

A discussion on systems advocacy and how it applies to vegan advocacy.  This was a talk given by Greg McFarlane, Director of Vegan Australia, to the Animal Activists Forum in Melbourne on 20 October 2013.


In this talk I will discuss systems advocacy in general, give some examples of it and then look at how it applies to vegan advocacy. I will finish with a brief diversion on why promoting veganism is important to the animal activist movement.

What is systems advocacy?

Advocating for progressive change can be done both at an individual level and at a systemic level. Much vegan advocacy is done by appealing to individuals to change their attitude and behaviour. But by changing larger systems, such as the health system, legal system and educational system, we can reduce the barriers that prevent many people from being vegan. This talk will concentrate on advocacy directed at changing systems as distinct from individual advocacy.

A definition of systems advocacy is given in here:

Systems advocacy seeks to influence social and political systems to bring about positive change for certain groups [of people] through changes to laws, policies or practices.

Note that the usual meaning applies only to human animals, but I believe it is a useful concept and we can apply it to animal advocacy as well.

Examples of systems advocacy

  1. Health and other social issues, eg, motor neurone disease (MND Australia)
  2. In animal advocacy, eg changes to the law or practices regarding animal treatment
  3. In vegan advocacy

I'll give a couple of examples of systems advocacy. Many organisations dedicated to particular human health issues carry out both systems and individual advocacy. One example is the organisation MND Australia which advocates for people suffering motor neurone disease. As well as directly helping individuals with the condition they also try to influence changes at a systems level, such as lobbying for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The animal movement also operates at these two levels although some organisations concentrate their work on just one of these. At the individual level, many organisations directly help animals, through rescuing, fostering and caring for them. The systems level includes the animal law area, which tries to influence governments to improve treatment of animals through legislation. Other efforts are put into changing industry regulations and animal welfare standards.

Applying systems advocacy to veganism is slightly different, because in a sense that is all we do. We don't directly help individual animals in the same way other movements help the individuals they are concerned about. But if we change our focus to vegans themselves, then this distinction does make sense. Individual advocacy covers things like holding stalls, leafleting, social events and advertising, which all encourage people to consider veganism.

Changing our focus from animals themselves to vegans may seem misdirected, but I will talk about that a little later.

Why is systems advocacy useful?

  • Wide ranging impact
  • Change social environment
  • Able to respond to hidden influences
  • Lower barriers to veganism

Systems advocacy can be time consuming and often does not result in a quick outcome. Trying to change laws or policies can be frustrating. So why do it? Well, it is important because one positive outcome may significantly change many people's lives in the long term.

These outcomes move veganism towards the mainstream. They change the social environment that people live in to one where veganism is viewed in a more positive light. They make it easier to be vegan. In other words, successful systems advocacy can break down the barriers to becoming vegan. By barriers I mean all the practical, social and psychological things that prevent someone, who becomes aware of the cruelty in the animal industries, from responding by going vegan. These barriers have been built up over a lifetime and can be hard to overcome.

If we ask a vegan what influenced them to become vegan, they will probably be able to tell you what triggered their change. But if you ask a non-vegan what influenced them to become non-vegan, they may not be able to give you an answer. This is probably because they have not questioned it and their whole environment supports the consumption of animal products. They have internalised all the messages about meat, dairy and egg consumption as being normal. They may not even realise they have been influenced at all or that they even have a choice. They may have been fed animal products all their life, been bombarded by advertisements for animal products and been taught at school about the "four food groups". They may have celebrated religious or cultural festivals by consuming animal products. To most people "it's just normal".

It is these more hidden influences that shape people's attitude towards food and animals that we can try to change using systems advocacy. Even someone who claims to have gone vegan due to a particular movie or book has been influenced throughout their life in positive and negative ways. The trigger that brings them to an awareness of veganism is just the end of a long chain of other influences. We need to discover what these influences are, what forces are behind them and then try to make changes to affect those forces.

Influences and barriers to veganism

  • Babies are born vegan (but not for long)
  • Young children are usually compassionate to animals (until they are taught otherwise)
  • No one supports animal cruelty (unless it tastes good)
  • A vegan diet is healthy (but we are told otherwise)

Many of these influences occur early in people's lives, before they may have even heard the word "vegan". Let's start with the earliest influences. Babies are born vegan. I find this a lovely concept, that while a baby is drinking their mother's milk they are vegan (in a dietary sense). There is plenty of evidence to show that babies can continue to thrive on a vegan diet, and to continue throughout their lives. So it is parental and social influences on the vegan baby that push for the consumption of animal products. During pregnancy, birth and infancy, the health and medical professions have a huge influence on parents. And the unified message from all these professions is that animal products are necessary for a healthy child. Regardless of all the evidence that this is not true, it is still the message presented by these "authorities".

To counter this influence, we need to advocate for changes to the health and medical systems so they educate the Australian public about the healthiness of vegan food and to support people in adopting vegan diets. I am happy to say that we have made some good progress in this area recently. The latest update to the Australian Dietary Guidelines that came out this year now clearly states that a vegan diet is a viable option for all Australians. I will talk more about the campaign to change the Australian Dietary Guidelines later.

Another early factor in forming people's attitudes to other animals is that young children are usually compassionate to animals. If you give a child a rabbit and a carrot they will usually play with the rabbit and eat the carrot. Children are upset by scenes of cruelty to animals. Parents recognise this and try to hide these scenes from their children. Parents rarely tell their children where their meat comes from. When they discover that the meat on their plate comes from an animal that is, in many significant ways, the same as the dog or cat that they love, some children refuse to eat any more meat. It seems instinctual in children that it is wrong to mistreat other animals.

One way to foster this compassion in children is for schools to include in the curriculum consideration of different ethical approaches to how we relate to other animals, including veganism and rights-based approaches. We need to lobby education departments and curriculum boards to make these changes to the education of our children, including honest education about the consequences for animal well-being involved in the production of meat, fish, eggs, dairy foods and other animal products.

A survey carried out on behalf of the Vegan and Vegetarian Society of Queensland showed that 99% of Australians are opposed to animal cruelty. This is a very important point. Just like children, adults also are basically compassionate. They already believe one of the tenets of veganism - that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to animals. This is wonderful news. Most people have already taken the first step to veganism. Most people can empathise with non human animals, especially pets. And many people feel guilty about eating meat when they become aware of the cruelty involved in animal production. Vegan advocacy groups need to research how we can make best use of this fact, how we can most effectively guide people to align their "theoretical" opposition to animal cruelty with their behaviour. In other words, we need to find what systems are preventing people from making their behaviour consistent with their beliefs and we need to change those systems.

Let's look at some other real and perceived barriers to veganism. These barriers include common beliefs that a vegan diet is unhealthy, that veganism will not be accepted by their peers, that it can lead to social isolation or is inconvenient. Other beliefs are that vegan food is not appealing, is hard to find or hard to cook and is expensive. Some of these barriers are real, for example it can be more inconvenient to find vegan meals at many restaurants than non-vegan meals. Some of these barriers are perceived, such as that a vegan diet is unhealthy.

So, for those of us advocating for veganism, we need to look at the reasons behind these barriers and find ways to lower them. For example, let's look at the perception that a vegan diet is unhealthy. Where do people get this idea from? If you are a vegan, you may have heard the question "Where do you get your protein from?" or "Where do you get your calcium from?". This gives us a hint as to the sources of these ideas. Advertising, schools and health professionals are three of the main influences on people's beliefs about diet and health. So how can vegan advocates work to change these influences? Once again we can lobby the educational system to ensure that basic vegan food literacy and vegan skills education is available in all schools in Australia. This would complement the animal ethics education mentioned before. We can encourage higher education institutions for doctors and dieticians to include instruction on vegan diets. And we can initiate our own vegan health education campaigns. Finally, advertising by the animal industries are of course biased and we should attempt to have advertising of animal products legally banned on health grounds.

Some recent examples of vegan systems advocacy

  • Australian Dietary Guidelines
  • Cheaper insurance for vegans
  • Cruelty Free Super
  • International Vegan Rights Alliance

I'll just go through a couple of examples of vegan systems advocacy.

The Australian government issues guidelines for healthy eating, known as the Australian Dietary Guidelines. These guidelines form the basis for a wide range of decisions made by health professionals, policy makers and food manufacturers. Last year these guidelines were reviewed and the National Health and Medical Research Council called for submissions from the public. Along with many other groups and individuals, Vegan Australia prepared a submission calling for the guidelines to recognise that humans do not need to consume any animal products to be healthy and are able to live a healthy life on a vegan diet. Another Vegan Australia submission detailed the environmental impact of animal agriculture.

I am pleased to say that the new release of the Australian Dietary Guidelines now clearly states that vegan diets are healthy and nutritionally adequate and are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle. The Guidelines also state that people should eat foods from five food groups and give clear plant-based suggestions for each of them.

Why is this important? Firstly, it gives vegans a quick answer to objections from people claiming that a vegan diet is unhealthy. We can now say that the peak government health body says that appropriately planned vegan diets are healthy. But more importantly, it may influence health departments, medical schools, doctors and nutritionists and this changing view of vegan diets would finally filter through to the general public. No longer can a well-informed doctor advise a vegan patient that to get well they need to eat meat.

Recently there has been news of an Australian insurance broker who is offering vegans discounts for life and income protection insurance. While this may seem a long way from animal activism, this action helps move veganism into the mainstream. It shows to non-vegans that the health benefits of a vegan diet are taken seriously and promotes its acceptance by the general public. It may become another systemic change, like discounts for non-smokers, that cements the idea that a vegan diet can be very healthy. Advocates should embrace this example and extend it to other areas of insurance and business.

As we have just heard from Lee Coates, Cruelty Free Super is another great example of mainstreaming veganism. Vegan advocates should give it full support and find other areas where this concept can by applied.

As an example of other organisations active in vegan systems advocacy, the International Vegan Rights Alliance has recently been established to raise awareness of the legal recognition of veganism. The IVRA campaigns for the end of discrimination by public authorities, workplaces and services such as care homes, hospitals and prisons, by not providing for vegans, such as food and personal products. They also campaign for the right to veganism being included in school curricula and the right to accurate labelling of food and other consumables. They use the various UN and European human rights and anti discrimination laws to campaign for these rights.

To quote from their website, "International law requires nations to implement equal rights for all and prohibit discrimination. European case law has recognised veganism as a belief for the purposes of rights legislation. As such we believe that society has a moral duty to accommodate vegan belief and generate wider respect for veganism."

Relating their work to animal activism, they go on to say "Legal protection for vegans impacts positively on the struggle for animal rights. The animal rights movement has never before formed a strong vegan pressure group because the focus has quite rightly been on the suffering of non-human animals. Wider respect for veganism means more and deeper consideration for not just vegans, but for non-human sentient life, our environment and other related issues in the vegan world view. Claiming our vegan rights in law will also contribute to the dismantling of the violent, exploitative belief system of carnism."

Why is promoting veganism important?

  • Public now aware of cruelty
  • Choose "humane" or choose vegan?
  • Is "humane" animal agriculture possible?
  • Be clear that the goal is the end of animal use

I'd like to say a few words about why promoting veganism is so important. This is an animal activists forum, so why am I talking about veganism? After thinking about this for some time to me the connection is very clear, but there may be some here who haven't made the connection between animal advocacy and vegan advocacy.

Over the last few years, most mainstream conscientious consumers have been made aware of the suffering of animals in factory farms and know that these products should be avoided for moral reasons. After realising this, people have a choice between continuing to consume animal products but only consuming those that have not been treated as cruelly as on factory farms, or they have the choice to avoid these products entirely. In speaking up for animals, what should we be asking people to do? The first choice, of continuing to consume "humane" animal products, is becoming extremely popular.

But there are all sorts of problems with this choice. If the whole animal industry were to be transformed to a "humane" system, this would do three things: it would reduce the output of meat, it would increase the price and it would increase the land required. If we reduce the amount of meat available, how would we feed seven billion people who all expect to continue eating meat? If the price of meat increases, this would disproportionately affect poorer people all around the world. And the increase in the amount of land required to "grow" the animal products would have an immense negative impact on the environment, especially causing deforestation. And lastly, "humane" farming still involves slavery, cruelty and early death for all the animals. In the end, we are killing an animal to fulfil the desire for a taste of a food that we do not need.

So the answer to the evils of factory farming is not a change in the way farming is done. It is to avoid animal products altogether. That is, veganism. And we, as animal activists, have the responsibility to make the message known that veganism is a valid and ethical choice.

As advocates for animals, our message should always be clear that the goal of our work is a world where humans do not own, use or exploit other animals. In most other social justice movements, the goal is very clear. The goal of feminism is the end of sexism. In fact, the goal of those fighting against any discrimination is the end of that discrimination. This means that we should not be asking people to do half-measures. We should not ask them to go vegetarian (and hence continue involvement in the horrific dairy and egg industries) or ask them to have a meat free Monday or be vegan before 6 or to consume "humane" animal products. We should be giving a clear message of what the right thing to do is. And then we let people decide how they respond to this information. If they decide to go only half way, at least they have heard the full message and know that they can go further.

So that is why promoting veganism is important to the animal activist movement.




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