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2020 Annual Report

Preventing the next pandemic by ending factory farming

Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare/The Guardian

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Letter from the Founder

The iron has never been this hot. In 2020, Farm Forward reached an unprecedentedly large and influential audience of millions with our messaging around the link between pandemics and industrial farming. Despite this success, it is clear to me that we have only just begun to realize how profoundly the post-pandemic world has changed, and how much more favorable the new order is to transforming animal agriculture. The price of social transformation has temporarily plummeted. This is an enormous opportunity for the anti-factory farming movement.

The public is still deciding what we really expect from the leaders pledging to protect us from future pandemics and, if we play our cards well, we can expect that part of the emerging normal will be a new level of opposition to factory farming and increased openness to alternatives like regenerative agriculture and plant-based protein products. The public has generally accepted factory farms are cruel, which has created enormous new pressure on industry—pressure that is just beginning to mount—but the general public is still only dimly aware how the meat industry, especially the poultry industry, menaces public health by generating new potential pandemics. To build the will to end factory farming, we need to help the public connect the dots.

In the coming years we see unprecedented opportunities to win the public over to policies that would first put a moratorium on new CAFOs and then work to transform the future of agriculture in new directions. But we are not the only ones working to take advantage of the extraordinary potential for change in the present moment: so is Big Ag. Industry achieved some major wins in 2020, including, for the first time, convincing a President to knowingly send slaughterhouse workers to their deaths for no other reason than to increase meat industry profits.1 I can hardly believe those words are a statement of fact, but that is indeed what happened when Trump ordered slaughterhouse and meatpacking plants to reopen despite the obvious risk to workers (and the predictable result that slaughterhouse towns became COVID-19 hotspots). As Farm Forward Board Member Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in the Washington Post, “For years, we have knowingly destroyed our planet for the sake of a protein preference. Now, we are sending humans to their deaths.”2

Much is possible at this moment, but whether that potential is taken advantage of by the factory farm industry or advocates seeking a more humane, sustainable, and just farming system will be a matter of the resources each constituency can wield in the coming months and years. We need to fight like all heck, but if we can press our case at this crucial and influential time, the coalition we will unleash will be the beginning of the end of factory farming.

2020 began to rouse two new and massive constituencies who I predict will increasingly become vocal critics of factory farming: public health advocates concerned with pandemics, and racial justice advocates concerned with the plight of workers and farmers. Part of our challenge in 2021 will be to reach out to these new constituencies, join with them, learn with them, and grow with them into a larger coalition capable of challenging factory farming as none of us could alone.

I founded Farm Forward in 2007 because there was not a single nonprofit in the nation specifically focused on ending factory farming. Building a coalition has been the goal from day one. This is why a crucial effort in those first years was supporting Jonathan Foer in the creation of the book we have always described as the fullest articulation of our organizational vision, Eating Animals. After helping make Eating Animals into an international best-seller, in 2018 Farm Forward helped make it into a critically acclaimed documentary narrated by Natalie Portman. Both the book and film gave enormous attention to the factory farming pandemic link well before it became a timely topic; the book devoted an entire chapter to the topic back in 2009. This is why we were able to so quickly pivot and capture so many eyeballs. We were not starting from

Farm Forward had decided over a decade ago that the story that will finally build the public will to end factory farming will be multi-faceted. We knew then that animal suffering was a central part of that story, but so was climate change, the threat of pandemics, and the racist abuse of workers. In recent years, as more public attention has been given to climate change, we have found increasing support to end factory farming from environmental groups, but before coronavirus, little support was found from public health advocates or those concerned with racial justice. Now all this is changing, slowly but decisively.

What we now have before us is a perfect storm in the making, the storm that will end factory farming. One front is the egregious suffering of farmed animals and the increasingly public desire to have food that is aligned with their values. Another front is the urgent need to fight climate change, which is simply impossible to achieve at a fast enough rate without dietary change. A third front is the threat of pandemics and the hard fact that most infectious disease is zoonotic. And a fourth front is the realization of the deep racism of the factory farm industry which this year sent people of color working in slaughterhouses to illness and death.

Without the present pandemic, the latter two of these four storm fronts might have taken years and millions of dollars to build. As history has unfolded, though, these fronts have blown in all on their own. Our task must be to seize this important moment.

The obvious job before Farm Forward is to continue and amplify our efforts to educate the public and influencers about the link between industrial farming and pandemics in ways that can shift policy, investment, and law. The more funds we have to capture public attention this year the better we can do this work. The other dimension of this work is recognizing and undermining the ways in which industry seeks to capitalize on the COVID-19 moment. Here is where our recent efforts to expose humanewashing are crucial, for it is through humanewashing that industry seeks to create the impression that it is responsive to all these emerging new public concerns.

It is not an accident that the primary target of our humanewashing campaign, the One Health Certified label, is an attempt to improve the flagging image of the poultry industry as more consumers become concerned not only with cruelty, but with the health implications of eating sickly birds regularly dosed with antibiotics, especially during a pandemic. It is also not an accident that the people profiting from One Health Certified donated millions of dollars to Trump’s campaign.3 Humanewashing, greenwashing, healthwashing and related forms of deception are the only way for industry to survive as the public becomes more knowledgeable. Ending the industry’s capacity to deceive the public in this way before it is well entrenched is crucial.

The bottom line is that recent history has made sure the iron is hot, more than a decade of organizational learning has made sure we are ready, and now is the time to strike.

Aaron S. Gross
Founder & CEO



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