#99 – Leah Garcés on turning adversaries into allies to change the chicken industry
For a chance to prevent enormous amounts of suffering, would you be brave enough to drive five hours to a remote location to meet a man who seems likely to be your enemy, knowing that it might be an ambush?
Today’s guest — Leah Garcés — was.
That man was a chicken farmer named Craig Watts, and that ambush never happened. Instead, Leah and Craig forged a friendship and a partnership focused on reducing suffering on factory farms.
Leah, now president of Mercy For Animals (MFA), tried for years to get access to a chicken farm to document the horrors she knew were happening behind closed doors. It made sense that no one would let her in — why would the evil chicken farmers behind these atrocities ever be willing to help her take them down?
But after sitting with Craig on his living room floor for hours and listening to his story, she discovered that he wasn’t evil at all — in fact he was just stuck in a cycle he couldn’t escape, forced to use methods he didn’t endorse.
Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.
Most chicken farmers have enormous debts they are constantly struggling to pay off, make very little money, and have to work in terrible conditions — their main activity most days is finding and killing the sick chickens in their flock. Craig was one of very few farmers close to finally paying off his debts, which made him slightly less vulnerable to retaliation. That opened up the possibility for him to work with Leah.
Craig let Leah openly film inside the chicken houses, and shared highly confidential documents about the antibiotics put into the feed. That led to a viral video, and a New York Times
story. The villain of that video was Jim Perdue, CEO of one of the biggest meat companies in the world. They show him saying, "Farmers are happy. Chickens are happy. There's a lot of space. They're clean." And then they show the grim reality.
For years, Perdue wouldn’t speak to Leah. But remarkably, when they actually met in person, she again managed to forge a meaningful relationship with a natural adversary. She was able to put aside her utter contempt for the chicken industry and see Craig and Jim as people, not cartoonish villains.
Leah believes that you need to be willing to sit down with anyone who has the power to solve a problem that you don’t — recognising them as human beings with a lifetime of complicated decisions behind their actions. And she stresses that finding or making a connection is really important. In the case of Jim Perdue, it was the fact they both had adopted children. Because of this, they were able to forget that they were supposed to be enemies in that moment, and build some trust.
The other lesson that Leah highlights is that you need to look for win-wins and start there, rather than starting with disagreements. With Craig Watts, instead of opening with “How do I end his job”, she thought, “How can I find him a better job?” If you find solutions where everybody wins, you don’t need to spend resources fighting the former enemy. They’ll come to you.
It turns out that conditions in chicken houses are perfect for growing hemp or mushrooms, so MFA have started their ‘Transfarmation project’ to help farmers like Craig escape from the prison of factory farming by converting their production from animals to plants. To convince farmers to leave behind a life of producing suffering, all you need to do is find them something better — which for many of them is almost anything else.
Leah and Rob also talk about:
• Why conditions for farmers are so bad
• The benefits of creating a public ranking, and scoring companies against each other
• The difficulty of enforcing corporate pledges
• And much more
Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel.