Episode #44: Nathan Runkle – What Non-profits (And Regular Startups) Can Learn From Mercy For Animals
“We shoulnd’t let purity be the enemy of progress.”
If there’s one thing glaringly obvious from Nathan Runkle’s new book, it’s that he downplays his role in making Mercy for Animals one of the most influential animal rights organizations in the world.
It’s always ‘we’ when he talks of its growth and accomplishments – although he emphasizes the ‘I’ when he admits he feels like he’s only just beginning his work and has much to learn.
This, perhaps, is a big reason for his success. Even though Nathan started Mercy for Animals at 15, with no idea of what he was doing, he was wise enough to recognize the need for strategic thinking, and for surrounding himself with the right kind of people.
Plus – and this is another thing glaringly obvious, not just from the book, but from everything about him – Nathan Runkle is simply one of those people who are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. His mission is to make the world a kinder place for all sentient creatures. His approach to this could very well be used as a model for building a successful business, any sort of business, not just not-for-profits.
Hearing him talk about it is both educational, and a huge inspiration. And I stand by my assertion that Nathan should write another book about running a non-profit.
Main things discussed in this episode
- Major milestones and accomplishments of MFA
- How MFA does AB testing to choose which strategies work best (like any kind of startup should)
- Why non-profits aren’t so different than for-profit organizations
- Why the focus of non-profits should still be money
- How to ask for and receive donations without feeling bad about it
- Why the bottom line should be positive change, not purity
- Plus an often overlooked side of undercover investigations that’s painfully obvious from the book
Jerry Sever [00:27] Hi, this is Jerry Sever and you’re listening to Episode 44 of the Plant Based Entrepreneur Show, the podcast for and about the people creating a plant-based future and running vegan brands where you can inspired, learn how they got to where they are, what their approach is, and what works when you’re setting up your own plant- based brand.
In this episode today we’re taking a look at the non-profit side of vegan business from the founder of one of the best known and fastest growing animal rights organizations in the world. I’m talking to Nathan Runkle who founded Mercy for Animals in 1999 at 15 years old. Since then they’ve grown into an international non-profit that’s been behind many of the most impactful undercover investigations of industrial animal farming. They’ve achieved legal victories for animal rights, and they’re heavily active in corporate outreach and education. All of that was started by a determined teenager from Ohio farm country who still leads the organization today. Nathan, welcome to the show.
Nathan Runkle [01:28] Thanks so much for having me, it’s my honor.
Jerry Sever [01:31] The honor is mine. I’m really glad that you’re joining us today. I think you’re one of those rare people who are just completely in tune with their purpose on the planet, at least that’s the impression that I get about you. So what is your purpose, and how long have you been aware of it?
Nathan Runkle [01:50] Yes, I think one of my primary purposes in life is to make the world a kinder place for all sentient creatures. This is something that I have really felt in my core and in my being since was a young child. Growing up in a rural environment in a village of less than 2000 people on a farm, I was surrounded by animals from the moment that I could remember. These early interactions really taught me that when it comes to having personalities and minds and the ability to experience not only pain, but also pleasure and joy, and have emotional bonds with family and friends, humans are not alone. These sensations and these emotions are what unify all of us in the animal kingdom.
So I think from a young age I was always able to put myself in the place of other animals, and even for just a moment ask myself what life is like for them. If they were feeling pain or suffering I had a lot of empathy and compassion for them. It was a number of different animals, including a little rat named Caesar who I talk about in my new book called Mercy for Animals, that really started to teach me that it wasn’t just dogs and cats that deserve our consideration, it was all animals, including those like rats that many people consider pests, but also cows, pigs, chickens and animals that are labeled farm animals.
It was a farm animal abuse case at our local high school when I was 15 however, that really prompted me to change course in my life, to dedicate my time to helping animals. It has been the most fulfilling and rewarding work that I could ever imagine. It is so great to not only be able to live my values everyday as a vegan, but to actively work to improve the world by being an animal advocate.
Jerry Sever [03:55] Yep, that’s kind of the impression that I got. The incident that you mention in that book, what really shocked me about it, and that’s what I think that you found out really fast as well, is that what that kid was doing with the piglet, that was actually standard industry practice.
Nathan Runkle [04:15] Yes, that’s right. So just a short recap for those who aren’t familiar – in my local high school there was an agriculture class and the teacher of that class was a pig farmer. It came time in the curriculum where they were going to do a dissection project, so the teacher decided that he would kill some piglets on his farm and bring them to school for the dissection. The morning that he arrived however, one of these piglets was still alive and a student in the class grabbed the piglet by her hind legs and slammed her headfirst into the ground. Ultimately the case went to trial on grounds of animal cruelty, but it was dismissed the very first day because it was considered “standard agriculture practice” to kill piglets in this way, it’s called thumping. It’s a standard form of killing piglets on pig farms.
So yes, at a young age I could see very clearly that there was hypocrisy in our society and a moral inconsistency of how treat farmed animals and how we treat animals labelled as food. It was clear to me that if this was a puppy or a kitten that had been killed in this way the outcome would have been very different. There would have been cruelty charges. The perpetrators would have been referred for psychiatric evaluation and likely would have been prohibited from ever having animals again.
Jerry Sever [05:34] That was really the defining moment that pushed you in the direction of what’s now Mercy for Animals?
Nathan Runkle [05:40] That’s right. I had learned about factory farming before that. I had gone vegetarian when I was 11. I started being involved in animal advocacy to some extend before that. At the age of 13 I convinced my parents to drive from our farm in Ohio to Washington DC to go to my first animal rights conference, but this incident made it very real. It made it very local, and it made it very urgent to me. I was actually training to be an Olympic competitive figure skater at that point in my life and I hung up my skates and completely shifted my life’s focus, and I’m very glad that I did, every day.
Jerry Sever [06:20] You outline a lot of that in your book. It reads a lot like Mercy for Animals just grew organically, like a grassroots organization, but I’m sure that there was a lot of planning going on in the background. So I hope it’s ok if we spend some time talking about that?
Nathan Runkle [06:28] Yes, sure. The organization is 18 years old now. In the early days I was too young to even drive. I had no idea what I was doing. So when people ask me, oh how did you start Mercy for Animals, because they’re looking to start something, whether it be a business or an organization themselves, I tell them I’m happy to share my story, but this isn’t exactly what I recommend that you do in the beginning!
A lot of the early days was just putting one foot in front of the next and trying to find footing as an animal advocate and trying to be more effective. Certainly as time went on, and I grew up and matured, and my knowledge base grew and expanded, the organization certainly became far more strategic and there was a lot more planning.
Now, the organization has 130 employees in six countries, last year a budget of about 12 million dollars, so we do a lot of strategic planning. We do a lot of review of what’s effective, where is the biggest impact per dollar spent. In many ways it is running a non-profit business with the mission being the product that we are putting forward into the world. The results of the work being the product that people are supporting. Rather than having customers we have constituents, which are animals, and we have supporters that are making donations to allow us to help our constituents.
Jerry Sever [08:14] Yes, you don’t really give out many details about this in the book, but how was growth for Mercy for Animals from those early days? I’d still love to hear what you were focusing on back then, to the point where you’re at now. What sort of reach do you have, if you know any specific numbers on the number of people that you’re reach, or the number of cases that you do each year?
Nathan Runkle [08:41] In the beginning we were trying to work on all issues facing animals. We did work against rodeos, circuses, the fur industry, and farm animals were a part of that. But there became a point where we crunched the numbers and we decided we have only so much time, and energy, and so many resources, how can we save the most lives, spare the most suffering, do the most good. For us that simple equation means that we have to focus on farmed animals. They really are the 99% when we just look at the numbers – nine billion a year, nearly 300 every second, just in the United States alone. So the organization’s focus narrowed which allowed us to be experts in what we do, and to really drive meaningful change.
Now, in terms of the scope of the organization, as I said, we have 130 employees in six countries – Canada, US, Mexico, Brazil, India, and the greater China region. We have millions of supporters, millions of followers on social media platforms. There are corporate campaigns, for example, that have won victories with over 200 companies – some of these being Walmart, McDonalds, Nestle, the largest players in the food industry – these policies affecting over 90 countries and impacting over 1.2 billion animals every single year. Each dollar that’s donated to the organization, to give an idea of impact, helps spare one animal from ever being born into a factory farm, but helps improve the lives of over 110 animals through corporate policy changes, through legislation, and working to help pass initiatives. We reach about quarter of a billion people a year just through our online video content, we get about three billion impressions from online content. There are so many different points that you can judge or evaluate the reach of the organization, but those are a few of the high level ones.
Jerry Sever [10:54] Now that you’re talking about those numbers, the thing that you mentioned before about focusing on the things that have the biggest impact and really specializing for just that one area, we could actually be talking about any sort of startup here. Because it sounds to me like you’re really taking the same approach here. You’re trying new things, you’re tracking the results, and you’re really always thinking about what brings the biggest impact.
Nathan Runkle [11:28] Yes, that’s absolutely right. We like to try things, just like any startup business or any effective business. If it doesn’t work, but we’ve learned lessons from it that we can pivot and apply to a new approach or try a new strategy, to us that is success. It’s important as an organization that we never become too comfortable in an approach. For example, when we started the organization we didn’t have YouTube, or Facebook, or Twitter, social media wasn’t around, so the approaches that we had at our fingertips were very different. We would have to go to various lengths just to get mainstream media coverage for a short amount of time in hopes of reaching a large audience, or we would need to pass out leaflets on street corners. While there is absolute value still in those approaches, every year there is new more innovative ways to reach people, and to reach people who are most receptive to our message.
We have statisticians on staff that review what we’re doing and the messaging that we’re doing. We do a lot of consumer focus groups and message testing. We’re always refining what we do for maximum impact. We do AB testing with various buttons on our website. Everything that we do, email layouts, to click through rates, to open rates, are really taken from the business world. To us R&D, whether it’s messaging , or whatever it is that we’re putting out as part of our product of helping animals, is really important that it’s not just guesswork. We do everything that we can to make sure that it will succeed.
Jerry Sever [13:21] Since you mentioned social media, did you see any big increase in reach and growth when that ball started rolling so to speak?
Nathan Runkle [13:32] Yes, absolutely. Communications is one of the largest departments at Mercy for Animals. We have one of the largest social media reaches of any animal organization, but oftentimes our engagement and reach is in the top of any non-profit organization period, in the country.
For us it’s really important to have our hand on the pulse. We do a lot of work with social media influencers, for example. If you look at young people who are really driving a lot of the diet change in this country, there’s a study done that one percent of baby boomers identify as vegetarian, four percent of gen Xers, but 12% of millennials. It’s just so clear that this is where a lot of the change is driving. A lot of these young people, their view of celebrity is very different from that of baby boomers or gen Xers. They’re looking at Instagram celebrities, and Snapchat celebrities, and YouTube celebrities – people that older generations have probably never heard of, or platforms they’ve never used. But this is the new face of celebrity and we have people at Mercy for Animals who work fulltime to engage with these social media influencers to use this platform and their channels to reach people in a new and powerful way.
Mercy for Animals I think was sort of part of a new wave of organizations that really did a lot of fundraising through online giving and through email giving, and it still is a really driving force of the organization. I think that part of that was just the time when the organization came about. People were using the internet, and starting to use the internet in a much different way. People were starting to become much more comfortable using their credit cards online and making gifts or purchases, but we did it at MFA out of necessity. We just didn’t have the funding to do direct mail programs, which are incredibly expensive and take a very long time to get a return. Now, a lot of the older organizations that really built themselves on direct mail are scrambling to try and integrate themselves into online giving.
I think the non-profit world changes and shifts just like the for-profit world does as technology adjusts. It’s important that we change with it, and that we are ahead of these changes instead of behind.
Jerry Sever [16:20] Yes, and since you mentioned it, you are definitely incredibly successful at attracting massive support. Just take the recent Mercy for Animals Gala as an example, there was a couple of million dollars raised in just one evening. Do you have any specific tips for doing that? Not a couple of million dollars in an evening obviously, but just leveraging technology and leveraging the approaches that a non-profit can take to get support and donations.
Nathan Runkle [16:53] Yes, in many ways these galas are a year of work, rather than one night. A lot of times people will say, wow you raised two million dollars in one night, and then it’s like well it’s actually about a year’s worth of work from our team to get there!
In terms of specific advice, for us as an organization it is important to have a diverse base of support. We don’t rely on one channel of support, we diversify that. So that means special events, that means raising money through social media, that means a diverse digital advertising and marketing campaign that includes email solicitations, or is direct mail, and we do work with major donors and foundations. So I think, for those that are really specifically in the non-profit sector, it’s so important to just diversify where your funds are coming from, so that if there ever is a shakeup in one form of technology, or one form of support, that the organization can still grow and thrive. And that you’re always looking to bring in new supporters while elevating the supporters that you have. It’s sort of basic business principles. It costs more money to attract new customers than it does to retain customers, but you always want to be attracting new customers because there’s always going to be a drop off and recidivism, and that’s true with other organizations as well.
Jerry Sever [18:33] I really like the way you think about it, because as I said before, it’s pretty much business but applied to a non-profit organization. I think it might actually be a stumbling block for many non-profits that they view themselves as somehow different from for-profit organizations, or in the most extreme cases, they might even view raising money as something that’s below them morally because they can just go out and hand out flyers, or do undercover work. Which obviously is how you started, but when you know how to raise those funds, you can definitely make a bigger impact.
Nathan Runkle [19:21] That’s exactly it. I started the organization because I wanted to help animals, and that is still why I do the work that I do today. However in doing that there have been lots of skills that I have had to learn as an individual and as a leader of an organization. I have had to learn how to give presentations in front of thousands of people, I used to be really terrified of doing that. I’ve had to learn how to manage people. There’s so many things that, when I started this at 15, didn’t think would be necessary to help animals, but as it became clear that these were the things that would drive the most change, you learn them.
For me, I would work myself to the bone and oftentimes still do, but I realized early on that one person can only do so much. You can work 24/7 until you work yourself to death, but there’s still only so much that one person can do. You need to grow the size of the team, and to do that you have to grow the size of the pie. Volunteers are absolutely crucial. They have always been such an integral part of Mercy for Animals and other organizations.
However, there are so many projects, and campaigns, and initiatives that absolutely require funding in order to take them on to help animals. When organizations grow it’s important to have people who are dedicated and who can dedicate their time fulltime to work on this cause who are experts in the field of what they do. At Mercy for Animals we have fulltime attorneys who are working on behave of animals in the courtroom and to change laws, and full time designers, and video editors, and communications people, and people that work with companies. This requires a diverse base of people that can work fulltime and that takes money, which takes resources. To me, when I realized that a key part of being an effective activist for animals to drive change meant that I needed to spend time to raise money for animals and embrace that notion, the organization started to grow and our impact for animals started to grow. We started to be able to help a lot more animals every single year, which again, is at the core of why I chose to do this work in the first place.
I think for a lot of people that are stepping into the non-profit space for example, they don’t want to ask for money because they feel that they’re asking to take something away from someone. That is just the wrong way of thinking about this. It is really presenting an opportunity for people to become engaged and to help become part of the solution. That is one of the most empowering things that you can do. That is one of the most empowering opportunities that you can offer people.
I have conversations with our just incredible selfless generous supporters all the time. They thank me, in fact many of them say, don’t thank me, I thank you because you allow me to sleep at night knowing that I’m making a contribution to address something that is so horrible in the world. That really is at the core of so much of this. I talk in my book about how living a meaningful life and a generous life is not an act of sacrifice, it’s an act of fulfillment. And how by giving your time and financially, studies show that people’s health actually improves, people have more meaning in their lives, and I think that that’s an important fundamental shift in how we think about fundraising. This isn’t about taking away, this is about giving people opportunities – letting them be part of the solution, part of making this world a better place.
Jerry Sever [23:31] I was going to ask you, what are some of the most important things that you’ve learned along the way? I think you’ve just answered that question beautifully. So I’m just going to turn it around, even though you’ve touched on it as well, and ask you what else do you think are some of the biggest mistakes that a nonprofit can make?
Nathan Runkle [23:50] Well, I think there are a lot of mistakes, but I think it’s important as you grow to focus on your team. There’s a saying if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together. For me, as the organization has grown and it is far larger than any one individual, it’s really important to attract the best talent, but also to build the best teams. That means that workplace culture and how teams interact and how they move together as a unit. The trust and respect that is in a team is absolutely vital.
Jerry Sever [24:37] Forgive me for repeating myself, but all of these business lessons that you are sharing here, how and where did you learn them? And have you ever considered writing a book on this specifically?
Nathan Runkle [24:55] Well, I think a number of things. One is my father was an entrepreneur. He went to school and graduated as a veterinarian. He actually had a horseback riding camp, that’s how he met my mom, and quickly realized that there wasn’t a lot of money to be made as a veterinarian, or hosting horseback riding camps. He started a computer business out of a spare piano room in our farmhouse in the early 80s, grew the business to be 700 employees, and then sold the company. He still is an entrepreneur today. I think once an entrepreneur, it’s in your brain and in your DNA, and you sort of can never quite rest, and that’s certainly my father. So I think I picked up the sort of entrepreneur bug and spirit and mentality from my dad without even knowing that these are things that I was witnessing from someone else. That’s part of it.
Another part of it is I always feel like I am just at the beginning marker of my work with MFA and as an individual. I think that means admitting ignorance, admitting that you want to learn, and that you want to grow. I think one of the biggest mistakes that we just make as human beings is thinking that we know more than we do and becoming too confident in what we believe that we know. And not having curiosity about the world, or about yourself, or about your own thought process. So for me, I always try to stay curious and open.
In terms of have I thought about getting into the for-profit space or writing a book on this, I haven’t thought about writing a book on this because there are lot of books written on this topic by people who are far wiser and more experienced than me, so I wouldn’t do that. I have thought of the for-profit space. I’ve been able to help in that space by helping to start launch the Good Food Institute which supports innovation in the food space, and also New Crop Capital which does direct investment in food companies in the plant-based space.
I see the absolute transformational power of the for-profit space in helping address the issues that animals face in our food supply, as well as the health issues and environmental issues and everything else. I believe that conscious companies are a form of activism and advocacy. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll also start a business on the side, but for now, through New Crop Capital and the Good Food Institute, I feel like I’m able to contribute in some meaningful way in a space that I have a lot of respect for and really believe is going to be large part of what helps change the world for animals and bring an end to factory farming as we know it.
Jerry Sever [28:00] Incidentally, those two – the Good Food Institute and New Crop Capital – were kind of the catalyst for me starting this podcast because I saw them as an indicator of things just accelerating. So I’d been aware of investments in the plant-based space, and the leverage that business can give us, but I remember reading about the formation of both of them, they pretty much started at the same time, and I remember reading about that and thinking, ok, so things are obviously shifting into high gear and what can I do about. So this show that we’re talking on right now is, in part, a result of your work there.
Nathan Runkle [28:47] That fills my heart and I think that’s just so beautiful. In my book I talk about things that people can do because after reading the book, or just learning about factory farming, as you know, most compassionate people want to say what do I do? I talk about some general things, like giving to effective charities as we’ve discussed, being an online advocate and getting involved in the political process. But I really do encourage people to think about how to use their unique talents, skills, connections, passions, to carve out their own niche – and that is exactly what you have done. To me, that is so inspiring. It is the sweet spot of doing what fills you up and excites you and stimulates you while also marrying it with the causes that you care about.
Jerry Sever [29:28] Yes, I have to say that it was a great combination of veganism and business, and like you said, helping conscious companies grow and hopefully get started as well. That was kind of the purpose for starting this.
If we go back to the book, back to the people that you’re talking about, when I was reading it there was this one thing that I’m sure that a lot of people will be wondering, or have been wondering before if they’ve never had the opportunity to talk to someone who actually does undercover investigations. How do you deal with the fact that you are there, you’re witnessing, but you can’t offer help to the animals that you’re directly involved with?
Nathan Runkle [30:29] This is part of the heartbreaking reality of doing investigations, and this is one of the many reasons why few of us can do investigations, and there are many. This is physically dangerous work. Slaughterhouses are one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation. And it’s emotionally traumatizing work to witness so much cruelty and not be able to immediately intervene.
For us, we have to take the big picture view. As I said, there’s nine billion animals every single year in the United States alone, 300 every single second. This isn’t an issue where we can rescue our way out of it. We can’t rescue individual animals on factory farms and pretend that that’s going to have a fundamental shift take place as a result of it. It’s important that we that, it matters to those animals, and these animals can be ambassadors, but just from a practical standpoint, we can’t save nine billion animals by direct rescue. We have to address these issues at the core, which is through policy change and through consumer demand for meat, dairy and egg products.
These investigations, they don’t happen in a vacuum. We use these investigations to push for the largest change possible. I tell a number of stories in the book about that, including investigations leading to Nestle, the world’s largest food company, adopting the most sweeping animal welfare policy of its kind – getting hens out of battery cages, pigs out of gestation crates, calf out of veal crates, ending the mutilation of cows and pigs, changing slaughter practices for chickens. This really originated from one investigator and one investigation, but we use these cases not only to push for immediate criminal charges for those that are violating the law, but to change laws and to push for national policies. Without these videos, we oftentimes wouldn’t be able to do that. We wouldn’t have the evidence necessary to bring these companies to the table. We wouldn’t have the evidence necessary to launch powerful campaigns to get these companies to take note. We wouldn’t have the evidence necessary to get law enforcement to take action.
So yes, it is heartbreaking to know that the animals in front of the investigators are going to die, even if they’re not standing there and suffering, it’s heartbreaking not to be able to help them. But this work is really for the generations to come after them, and making sure that they are spared the worst abuses, or that they’re hopefully never born into a factory farm to begin with.
Jerry Sever [33:15] One of the parallels that struck me when I was reading about this, is the fact that not just the business approach, but the pragmatic approach to activism which is often related to the way that vegan approaches approach it, I’m talking about making the biggest impact instead of making an immediate impact or wanting to get a large number of people to consider to drop their animal product consumption instead of getting a handful to go completely vegan. That sort of approach is occasionally attacked because it is viewed as someone not pure enough or not dedicated enough. I just wanted to get your thoughts on that parallel with the investigators?
Nathan Runkle [34:11] I think we are not in the movement of needing to win arguments and debates – but to win hearts and minds. The animals need us to be more than to be right, they need us to be effective. I would love for the whole world to go vegan tomorrow, but I also want to do the most good for the largest number of animals possible. If that means more people going meatless on Monday, than making no change in their diet, that’s a positive step. If that means a large number of people cutting their meat consumption in half, that’s a positive step.
I think that us as a movement, we do need to celebrate progress. There’s so many psychological studies that are done that show that the foot in the door approach is very effective. If people feel like it’s all or nothing from the beginning they will oftentimes do nothing. But if people feel that they can take small steps, and they can see that it’s easy, and in this case delicious, convenient, it’s not so bad, they actually feel better from doing it physically, mentally and emotionally, then meatless on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday becomes much more doable. Again, we need to drive down meat consumption in this country. If that means that there are more flexitarians in the world, that’s a good thing for animals.
I think a lot of the vegans forget what life was like before they had their aha moment. I think that there is so much judgmental behavior in the movement that can be so off putting to pre-vegans, or people that haven’t thought of this yet and I understand where this comes from. We are oftentimes angry. We know how badly these animals suffer on factory farms. I’ve had animals die in my arms in these factory farms. I’ve stood in the middle of kill floors and watched animals dragged in and have their throats slit while conscious. I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage from factory farms around the globe. I understand the anger and the frustration and the passion, but we need to be effective. That means we have to win people into making changes. I think that we shouldn’t let purity be the enemy of progress.
Jerry Sever [36:46] I really, really love that statement. Since we are touching on divisive topics, one of the things that you also touch on in the book is lab grown meat. We actually had a really cool conversation with Bruce Friedrich on the topic, but I would like to know how you personally feel about it and what would you say to that large segment of the vegan population who feel that it’s leading things in the wrong direction?
Nathan Runkle [37:15] Well I’m a big supporter of it. Again, this is one reason why I helped launch the Good Food Institute, because we wanted to be able to support this space, and why New Crop Capital does investment in clean meat companies.
I’m sure Bruce did a really great job of laying out the potential benefits of clean meat. Uma Valeti who started Memphis Meats, one of the premier clean meat companies, he calls clean meat really the second domestication – which is cellular agriculture. The first being the domestication of farmed animals 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic period, which of course set us on the path to start human civilization as we know it today. Cellular agriculture, in the second domestication, being a reflection of our advancements in science and technology, but also our ethical and moral advancements as well. I think that clean meat has the potential to completely disrupt animal agriculture.
I’m sure Bruce gave this example, but I’ll give it again, if you look at what got overworked abused horses off the streets that pulling carriages and buggies in the searing heat, and in the freezing temperatures, it wasn’t just an ethical uprising. It was the invention of the Model T. It was something that was better than the outdated alternative. I think clean meat will prove to be better than the outdated alternative, which is raising animals for food. Everyone listening to this understands what’s wrong with raising animals for food, not only from the ethical side, but also the environmental side and the human health side. Early studies are showing that clean meat uses fifty percent less energy, over ninety percent less land and water, and produces ninety percent less greenhouse gas emissions. So I think that this is an important technology that could be a game changer.
For vegans that don’t want to eat clean meat, to that I say that’s absolutely fine, don’t eat clean meat. Eat lentil burgers, eat veggie burgers, eat everything else, that’s absolutely fine. Clean meat is for the 98% that aren’t vegan, and many of those people, unfortunately are currently not interested in that. The three driving forces for more people’s food decisions are taste, cost and convenience. If taste, cost and convenience for clean meat can out compete traditional animal products and that becomes the default choice, that is going to be a very good thing for animals, and I believe it’s going to be a very good thing for our environment.
From an environmental perspective alone, we absolutely must have innovated approaches. There’s going to be nearly 10 billion people on this planet by 2050 and our current food system as we know is not sustainable. So this is something, I think, that goes beyond just a sort of inner vegan dialogue and really does become a matter of how can we save the planet from the catastrophe which is climate change.
Jerry Sever [40:34] I myself am actually really enthusiastic about the idea of clean meat, even though I can’t see myself consuming it either very often, or at all. What really surprised me in a very positive way was what Bruce mentioned about how ready people are to accept it when he’s discussing the idea with an audience, and not a vegan audience, an omnivores audience, how many people are perfectly willing to give it a try or would be perfectly willing to switch to that if it offered the same experience in terms of taste, and I would say, the same or better experience in terms of price and convenience.
Nathan Runkle [41:24] Absolutely. Part of what I find most exciting quite frankly is the fact that Cargill, one of the largest meat companies in the US, recently did an investment in Memphis Meats. These companies, these meat companies, really view themselves as protein companies. They’re not in the business of just wanting to cause a lot of animal suffering, they’re in the business of making money in the protein space. If clean meat gives them a path forward to make money in the protein space with less liability – whether it’s liability because of people’s growing awareness and concern about animals, or less liability because of environmental damage that traditional animal agriculture poses, or human health liability because salmonella, E.coli and campylobacter, from consuming traditional animal products.
These again are just basic business decisions. This is why we’re seeing the energy sector oftentimes, smart ones, moving towards clean energy as part of their portfolios. We see this time and time again. It’s like the horse and carriage – that was the transportation sector, it wasn’t just the horse sector. There are changes that can happen in entire sectors and the smart savvy players are always looking for what’s ahead that’s going to revolutionize their industries.
Jerry Sever [42:57] I’m really glad that you bring this up, because another thing that I was really thinking about as I was reading your book was, considering how things are evolving, what do you think about these traditional food brands, meat brands or protein brands, as we’re now labelling them, buying stakes in vegan companies? These are some of the brands that you’ve investigated in the past, or at the very least you’ve stood on the opposite side from them, so can we consider them future allies, and how can we consider them allies?
Nathan Runkle [43:34] I’m a big supporter of these companies. Like Tyson Foods, who we’re still up against and battling they’re one of the few big companies that have really taken no meaningful action on behalf of broiler chickens. They slaughter two billion birds every single year. Yet, I cheer when I hear that they do a five percent investment in Beyond Meat. So to me, this shows that the writing is on the wall. This has been happening for quite some time, as you know, with dairy companies buying soy milk and milk alternative brands. Nestle Foods just purchased Sweat Earth – this is happening all the time – Gardein being purchased by Pinnacle.
To me this has some potential benefits. This could increase the distribution of these vegan products and get them in more people’s hands, increase the advertising budget for some of these products making people more aware of them. From my standpoint, as someone who wants to help the most animals, the more that we can have the compassionate plant-based alternatives be competitive on those three factors – cost, taste and convenience – the better. I think that oftentimes these large companies do provide opportunities for these plant-based products to be more competitive in cost, taste and convenience. I think the more that these companies, like Tyson, embrace these alternatives the less hostile they’re going to be to them in the marketplace and the more that they will embrace them. I think that also is a positive thing for animals.
Jerry Sever [45:16] Just since we were discussing cellular agriculture before, another thing that really gets me excited about this is the fact that a couple of months ago when I was talking to the Perfect Day guys, I don’t know if you know them, but they’re doing cellular agriculture on the dairy side of things and they’re getting amazingly positive responses from the dairy industry, not even in terms of being threatened or anything. They’re just excited for the fact that at some point in the future they may not even need cows to get milk to create their cheeses, or yoghurts, or bottle it as milk.
Nathan Runkle [46:00] That’s exactly right. As I said, I don’t believe that executives or people involved in the meat industry want to cause an incredible amount of suffering to a large number of animals. I’m sure that there are sadists involved in the chain, but most of them, they’re business people and they’re trying to excel in their field. Again, just on basic business principles, if there is a way to produce a product that’s better, safer, more affordable, has less liability associated with it, of course you’re going to embrace that. You’re going to be curious about that.
The global meat industry is about a trillion dollar industry. We would be better off to have this large industry, in my view, embrace the changes that are happening with cellular agriculture and with plant-based meat because that can be a lot of momentum behind it in shifting things. Just like getting big, again, energy companies behind clean energy is ultimately, I think, an important step forward.
Jerry Sever [47:12] On the topic of business, if we move into the vegan business space. What do you personally see as the biggest opportunities opening up there?
Nathan Runkle [47:22] I’m really excited about a new company that we’ve been involved with called Good Catch, which is working on vegan fish products that should hopefully be coming to the market by the end of next year. It’s really phenomenal.
This, I think, is an area that has been a bit underserved. Fish are clearly killed in the highest quantities. They endure horrible suffering on factory farms, but there’s also the environmental catastrophe of trawler nets and essential clear cutting the oceans, and mercury in fish. It’s something that I think is a market opportunity for there to be far more vegan fish alternatives, which will be a good thing for animals, our environment and our health as well.
I’m really excited about Good Catch and some of the work that’s happening there.
Jerry Sever [48:12] I would really like to see more of vegan seafood on the market, definitely. Are there any particular products that we need more of to bridge the gap between people who are vegan, and people who are just trying things out?
Nathan Runkle [48:30] Like I said, I think that the seafood area, or fish, is an area where we do need more products in that space.
I think the Impossible Burger is helping to break into new territory of what a meatless burger can be, and is certainly attracting a lot of excitement there. So I would love to see further innovation in the use of haem and things, in other meat alternative products. I think that will further close the gap between what meat eaters think of plant-based alternatives.
I think there’s work to be done on egg alternatives. I know Hampton Creek has a scramble that is supposed to be coming out soon, which is good. But I think that there’s a lot more work that can be done with egg alternatives that can be easily used by consumers in place of eggs.
This is really all in the US. I think that cheese still has a long way to go before it is really on par with what most consumers are used to eating with animal based cheese.
Then if we look at the global level, many countries outside of the US, their alternatives to animal products are at least a decade behind what we have here. So I think the next stage is to get these alternatives to be much more widely available, not only in the US, but globally. And for the pricing to come down, so they’re not a niche product, but they are a cost competitive product as well.
Jerry Sever [50:08] I can kind of relate to that, because we really like the Califia milks that are available down here in Mexico, but the last time that I found them in the supermarket, they were like $10 a bottle or something like that. I’m pretty sure they cost less in the States, so yes, I hear you on the bringing down price point.
Nathan Runkle [50:32] Yes, absolutely.
Jerry Sever [50:33] Just on the global scale, since you do have presence in India and China, how do you see those economies moving in this direction?
Nathan Runkle [50:44] That’s a good question. In India, you have a large vegetarian population, but sort of the opposite is happening there than is happening here. You’re having meat consumption actually rise, especially as young people come into more education, more wealth, and look to the west for what means, which is unfortunately more of a meat centered diet. So you have the McDonalds and the KFCs coming into these countries, which is obviously a bad thing, and with that, more factory farming and the use of animals.
If you look at a global level, only about two percent of farmed animals are in the United States. About fifty percent of them are in China, much of them being fish. So the Chinese government, they updated their dietary recommendations and actually reduced the amount of meat in those recommendations, but there’s really no major effort by the government to, I think, actually drive down meat consumption in China.
So it is a challenging situation, but we have helped launch a company in India that is helping to bring accessible and inexpensive high protein plant-based meals in India. Most of the population there do not have access to refrigerators, their daily income is substantially less than the US, so it needs to be a very different approach from a business standpoint. We can’t just go in with frozen veggie burgers and expect those to be widely available in India. You start to look at more TVP products, or products that can be shelf stable. The cost needs to be much lower, which means that they need to be produced within the countries as opposed to being imported which carries a lot of costs all across the board. Each country is different, but I think that these are some of the big picture opportunities and challenges there.
I would love to see more plant-based companies starting around the globe, but certainly India and China are two really important places for that. With the hope that they could be cheaper, or at least cost comparative to the traditional animal products, because with the goal of helping animals , I don’t want to create just a market of niche products that are premium in price, but to have ones that are accessible to everyone. I think that’s the only way in which we’re really going to be able to drive down the suffering that animals endure in factory farms.
Jerry Sever [53:25] To end this on that note, if you were allowed total freedom to imagine the best possible future ten, twenty, or thirty years from now, what would it look like? What’s our food system and how do we perceive animals? 0
Nathan Runkle [43:45] Well, it’s a food system without animals – without animal agriculture, without factory farming. I think, quite frankly, it’s the only viable path forward. I think we need to be moving in that direction at lightning speed.
There was a study done recently that I found was pretty interesting. They took a group of people, they put them in waiting rooms, they gave one room essentially mixed nuts and berries and plant-based snack foods, the others they gave meats and cheeses. That wasn’t the focus, this just happened to be there. Then, they asked the different focus groups their questions about are animals smart, do their lives matter, should we protect them, the same questions to both groups. The group that just happened to be given the plant-based snacks scored much higher on their response to those questions.
Which sort of leads, I think, to sometimes attitudes can follow behaviors which I think we see a lot of times with people who go vegan for health reasons, and then they embrace the fact that farm animals matter, and that yes, they’re intelligent, because they no longer need to justify their behavior because they’re not involved in it anymore. I think this is a strong argument for clean meat, or for having inexpensive alternatives, and having it be widely available. I think as we get there, more and more the relationship that people have with animals will improve because people aren’t having to justify eating certain animals.
I absolutely believe that we can get there, and I think sometimes innovation in a space can transform industries much faster than people ever thought possible. If you think just about the way that we communicate, and how that dramatically changed with social media, and how the iPhone and iTunes dramatically changed how people receive music, and how they interact with music. History is crowded with examples of technologies and innovations that made the old way of doing things appear outdated, because it is, and inefficient, which it is.
The ability for things to flip so quickly is absolutely possible, and that’s why I’m so excited about the work that’s being done in the clean meat and plant-based sector. I think that it is absolutely essential to our success as a movement helping animals.
Jerry Sever [56:29] On that, since I mentioned that New Crop Capital was one of the catalysts for the Plant Based Entrepreneur Show, they started about a year and half ago. Since then I believe there have been about three or four new venture capital funds launched specifically for plant-based foods, or plant-based products in general, and I’m aware of at least two more that are just being formed right now. If you compare that with just one eighteen months ago, to about what seven or eight now. This means that in another year’s time we might have fifteen or twenty on the scene. That’s just amazing.
Nathan Runkle [57:14] It’s incredibly exciting. It gives me a lot of hope, absolutely, yes.
Jerry Sever [57:19] Well Nathan, it was really an honor to be talking to you, and thank you so much for sharing all of this. For anyone who wants to find out more about your work, or support Mercy for Animals, or buy your book, where should they go?
Nathan Runkle [57:36] They simply go to mercyforanimals.org we are funded, essentially, exclusively by donations, so people can become a donor. They can become a monthly donor and they’ll receive our magazine, and discount on merchandise. People can also follow us on all the social media channels, it’s simply @mercyforanimals. They can buy my book everywhere that books are sold, Amazon, Kindle, everywhere, and the book is called Mercy for Animals.
Jerry Sever [58:08] And I totally recommend it!
Nathan Runkle [58:10] Thank you.
Main website – Mercy for Animals
The info is not up yet for the 2018 gala, but you can get a feel for the event here: MFA Hidden Heros Gala
The book: Mercy for Animals
Other brands mentioned
Cellular agriculture, animal-free dairy products: Perfect Day Foods
Cellular agriculture, meat without slaughter: Memphis Meats
Animal-free sea food: Good Catch
Plant-based burgers aimed at meat-lovers: Impossible Foods
Hampton Creek about to launch vegan ‘scrambled eggs’
My favorite almond milk brand (which really should be cheaper in Mexico!): Califia Farms
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