Jacy Reese, research director of the social science think tank the Sentience Institute, discussed the movement towards an animal-free diet at a lecture hosted by the Yale Effective Altruism group Thursday evening.

The event was co-sponsored by the Yale Animal Welfare Alliance, the Yale Animal Law Society, the Yale Food Law Society and the Yale Center for Business and the Environment. Reese presented his new book, “The End of Animal Farming,” to around 30 attendees. The book uses the lens of effective altruism — which asks how society can best maximize its resources for the common good — to outline a road map to a more ethical and sustainable food system for humans and animals alike.

“How can we use social science, psychology and economics to improve the situation for all sentient beings, but especially the animals used in the food system?” Reese asked.

In his presentation, Reese first provided historical context for factory farming, a system that emerged in the late 1900s to meet the demands of a growing urban population that could not be satisfied by a rural food system. The development of antibiotics, which allowed more animals to be stuffed into increasingly smaller spaces, raised an ethical dilemma between promoting cost-effective farming and maintaining the quality of life for animals.

In response to factory farming, organizations such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have utilized attention-grabbing gimmicks to promote veganism, Reese said. Others have replaced animal-based foods with plant-based substitutes, he added.

Reese also presented novel forms of food technology, such as the Beyond Burger — featured in Yale’s dining halls — that provide an entirely plant-based alternative to meat. Now, he said, it is possible to produce key compounds that give food the characteristic flavor and taste of animal products using vegan ingredients. Moreover, technology has been developed to produce “clean meat” that is molecularly identical to animal-based meat but produces the product through in vitro cultivation of animal cells, rather than the slaughtering of livestock.

According to Reese, in Silicon Valley, many recognize that plant-based food has enormous financial potential. Bill Gates, for example, pointed to plant-based food as the future of food.

“It doesn’t have to be the end of meat,” Reese said. “We don’t have to change people’s behavior in the huge way that vegans have always considered. Maybe we will do that eventually. But in the meantime, when people want meat, dairy and eggs, it’s extremely powerful to have those available from non-animal sources.”

After presenting the different ways that scientists and entrepreneurs have worked to establish an animal-free food system, Reese discussed a timeline for the future of the animal-free diet movement. He said the transition to a plant-based system between 2000 and 2100 would involve four stages: foundation, revolution, stigmatization and follow-through. Each stage will last a quarter century, he explained.

The first stage, already underway, focuses on animal welfare reforms in factory farming. Activism has highlighted  the gruesome conditions of factory farms, changing the way the public talks about the meat industry. Reese emphasized that the movement will succeed when it avoids “gimmicks” such as demonstrations that feature scantily clad women, which Reese said seek attention at the cost of reputation.

At the second stage in 2025, people will realize that welfare reforms cannot force the industry to change, Reese said. He compared this to the abolition movement, in which people realized that “humane slavery” is impossible — the entire institution is incorrigible and cannot be dealt with simply through reform. Similarly, Reese contended that it is unfeasible to build humane factory farming.

The plant-based movement has emphasized individual abstinence, but that strategy has historically been unsuccessful, Reese argued. The movement should focus on changing institutions and policies.

“There should be a focus on things like ‘we need to end animal farming collectively as a society,’ instead of messages like ‘go vegan,’ or ‘you personally should eat more plant-based,’” Reese said. “There’s a lot of evidence that it’s more effective to focus on companies, nonprofits and governments, rather than individuals.”

In the third stage, Reese said the last group of remaining meat eaters will be driven to change their diets by the movement’s momentum. Animal-free diet will become the social norm, and a vegan diet will become the default.

At the fourth and final stage, the entire world, including areas where meat alternatives were previously inaccessible, will become vegan.

Afterwards, Reese said people should become concerned about the well-being of future beings, insects, wild animals and artificial intelligence.

Attendees interviewed by the News echoed Reese’s remarks on the importance of expanding humanity’s moral circle, a phrase he used to describe caring for beings that are not human.

“I think ‘moral circle expansion’ — widening the scope of beings we find worthy of concern — is one of the most important causes of our time,” said Frankie Andersen-Wood ’21, co-president of the Yale Effective Altruism group. “Jacy Reese’s talk tackled the question of how we as a global community can eliminate some of the most severe suffering that currently exists — that of animals on factory farms.”

Andersen-Wood added that she left the talk feeling inspired and hopeful that Yale students and affiliates are taking arguments against human superiority over animals increasingly seriously.

Joshua Monrad ’20, another YEA co-president, agreed, saying he was glad to see high turnout and is continuously impressed by the extent to which Yale students dedicate themselves to helping others.

“The purpose of our group is to encourage people to do that as best as they can,” Monrad said. “The issue of animal farming is a case where the status quo is morally unacceptable and where individuals can make a huge difference through their activism and political votes and dietary choices. So we invited Jacy to put that on the agenda and to inform people about what can be done.”

The Sentience Institute was founded in 2017 to encourage humanity to expand its moral circle beyond humankind.

Eui Young Kim | eui.youngkim@yale.edu