Advocacy for Institutional Change

- By Nilang Gor, Founder of Cultivate Empathy for All

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How can we quickly move towards a plant-based food system? This is the inevitable question for those who care about our environment, animals, public health, as well as social and racial equity. We only have 6-11 years' of global carbon budget left for 1.5C temperature target. Meanwhile, billions of land animals continue to be brutally killed for human consumption, while marginalized communities fall victim to the injustices and environmental harms from industrial agriculture. Rather than feeling helpless, each one of us has a responsibility and the potential to change our institutions to be more responsible stewards of our global resources and collective health.

Institutions Over Individuals
The Vegan community understands the on-going animal cruelty in addition to the myriad consequences of industrial animal agriculture on our environment, public health and social and racial equity. Observed injustice can flood our hearts with anger, frustration and sadness. However, channeled positively, this emotional energy can fuel a movement until justice is achieved, but it has to be funneled into non-violent, strategic activism in order to achieve permanent changes on a large scale. The majority of the vegan community is currently engaged in raising individual consciousness, mainly through social media activism. While raising individual awareness can be effective, targeting institutions can bring change on a large scale.

Advocacy for institutional change recognizes that each one of us has the capacity to shape our workplaces, schools and government. As stakeholders, we have an opportunity to educate our institutions’ decision makers about the association between their food procurement and the consequences on our global resources and wellbeing. At first, it may sound time consuming or intimidating to be advocating for an issue of this scale. However, your engagement level can be flexible depending on your availability, resources and comfort level.

Significance of Cities
Government is one of the biggest influences in our democratic society. It defines social norms, establishes policies and regulations, and protects human, animal and environmental rights. Today, our government sanctions industrial animal agriculture, failing to realize that the health of humanity, animals and our shared environment are interdependent. Big money from corporations can often force government to turn a blind eye to the negative impacts of the livestock industry. But mostly, corporate influence stays limited to federal and state legislature. It is not feasible for corporate lobbyists to stretch out their resources across nearly 20,000 U.S. cities. This allows cities to function with the core principles of democracy, for the people by the people, and opens the opportunity for residents to bring around plant-based shifts through local advocacy.

Today, 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas and their consumption trend has the potential to transform the social and environmental footprint of our food system. Moreover, local public institutions spend billions of taxpayers' dollars each year to purchase food for senior centers, jail facilities, hospitals and schools. Generally, government agencies use competitive processes to contract with the lowest priced supplier. As a result, tax dollars are spent on highly subsidized meat and dairy from suppliers that cut corners to produce cheap foods at the cost of environment, meatpacking workers and animal wellbeing. It is, therefore, the right and responsibility of city residents to educate their city councilmembers on the social and environmental impact from animal-derived products and demand plant-based policies.

Why U.S. Cities are Failing to Address the Food Sector?
Most cities in the U.S. are failing to address the GHG emissions associated with our food-sector. This is because most of them are only following production-based GHG inventory. With few exceptions, production-based GHG inventory accounts for emissions generated from the goods and services produced within the city limits. Most food and many other goods are often produced outside the city and, therefore, their emissions are never included in production-based GHG inventory.

Figure 1: Example-the City of Berkey's production-based GHG inventory showing no account for food related emissions.

Figure 2: Example-the City of Berkeley's consumption-based GHG inventory showing food emissions.

On the other hand, consumption-based GHG inventory accounts for import-export trading and measures emissions through the life cycle analysis of consumed goods and services within the city. For example, if 1kg of imported or locally produced beef is consumed by city residents, the consumption-based GHG inventory will include its emissions across the supply chain, including manufacturing, transportation and retail. It is, therefore, crucial to educate our city councils on this gap of GHG accounting along with a recommendation to recognize consumption-based GHG emissions.

Meet the Change Makers
Cultivate Empathy for All (CEA) is a non-profit organization that solely focuses on empowering city residents to advocate for plant-based policies. Since 2018, the organization has focused on educating Berkeley City Council on the interdependent nature of our ecosystem and how our social and environmental wellbeing is impacted by industrial animal agriculture. The organization has also drafted Vision 2025 to bring a 50% plant-based shift in the City of Berkeley’s food procurement by 2025. This resolution was adopted by Berkeley Council on March 9th, 2021 and was swiftly followed by another resolution committing to a 50% plant-based shift by 2024. The volunteers at CEA also found that California’s Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) invests nearly $679 million in industrial animal protein and factory farming companies, including Brazilian companies associated with Amazonian deforestation. CEA’s strategic advocacy led Berkeley to become the first U.S. city to adopt a resolution urging CalPERS to divest from factory farming companies and, instead, invest in California’s local plant-based economy. The volunteers at Cultivate Empathy for All are not the only ones leveraging city advocacy for plant-based policies.

Figure 3: U.S. dietary scenarios showing 50% plant-based shift can reduce the nations food emissions by 35-51%.

Mohan Gurunathan is an engineer and volunteer who acts as an advisor to several environmental and animal advocacy organizations. His work includes legislative activism, writing articles, public speaking and fundraising. Mohan worked with the City of Mountain View to get “Promotion of Plant-based Diet” to be added to their Sustainability Action Plan, with a budget of $30,000 for outreach activities. As a result, the City of Mountain View has now started organizing free public education events for residents on the benefits of plant-based foods. Mohan’s legislative advocacy is a great example of how local residents can bring plant-based shifts to their cities.

A group of Los Gatos grassroots activists, “Plant-based Advocates”, has been working closely with their Town council to promote the adoption of plant-based diets. The group has been meeting with council members in-person and by Zoom, and supports other community groups to expand their base of support. They have mobilized the community to speak at council meetings and send emails in support of their initiatives. In 2019, the Plant-based AdvocatesTown adopted a Green Monday Resolution that resulted in educational programs such as a cooking class. They are now working hard to expand this program and include it into the General Plan 2040, which is the Town’s long-term framework or “constitution” for future growth and development. Learning about these change makers makes us think how our food system would look if most U.S. cities had city advocates promoting plant-based policies.

Be The Change Maker
The solution makers we are looking for are staring at us in the mirror. If you haven’t advocated for a city policy in the past, don’t worry. There are several resources to help local residents advocate for plant-based policies. The Green Monday team has been working with motivated individuals to implement Green Monday and other plant-based programs. They also offer a Guide for Citizen Lobbyists with simple instructions to garner your city council’s support for Green Monday. Amy Halpern, Director of Strategic Partnerships, has been working with several local advocates, including volunteers at CEA, Mohan Gurunathan and Los Gatos’ Plant-based Advocates. She also brings change makers together to help amplify our voices in order to strengthen our collective efforts.

CEA's Guide for Vision 2025 Empathy Educator provides extensive guideline to be an effective city advocate. It acknowledges that apathy, greed and selfishness are the root causes behind our social and environmental deterioration and, therefore, the guide recommends keeping 7 core values at the center of your advocacy in order to shift our cultural mindset while establishing plant-based policies. The organization also recognizes that speciesism exists because most of us are unable to comprehend “One Health”, the concept that human health, the health of our environment, and animal health are all deeply connected. As a result, CEA frames policies through the lens of animal abuse in industrial agriculture leading to environmental degradation which ultimately impacts our collective wellbeing. These policies are crafted in a way to help policymakers cultivate systems-thinking by recognizing the interconnected nature of our ecosystem.

So, where should you start? If your city council has not yet adopted any plant-based policies, Green Monday might be the best program for your city. Vision 2025 makes an effective next step If there are existing plant-based policies, or if your council is progressive on environmental issues. In any case, collaborate with respective organizations to prepare a draft policy for your city. It might be best to help your councilmembers understand the urgent need to reduce GHG emissions associated with the city’s food consumption, while proposing an appropriate plant-based policy. If your councilmember wants to learn more about the proposed plant-based policy, you may request a virtual meeting with a brief presentation. Don’t be concerned about knowing every detail about the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Remember that your city council is not enacting plant-based policies because they are not well-informed on the topic to begin with. If you are nervous about the meeting, you can always invite other allies and partners to attend the meeting with you.

During the process of local policymaking, many people are educated along the way, including your councilmembers, their policy aids and city staff. Therefore, even if your proposed policy does not get passed by the city council, your advocacy will raise awareness that could pave the road for future plant-based policies. If your proposed policy gets adopted by the city council, use that momentum to circle back with advocacy organizations and draft the next plant-based policy for your city. By advocating for institutional change, you are guaranteeing a safe future for us all. It is win win for our beautiful planet!  

Nilang Gor
Nilang Gor, is a Molecular Biologist and the founder of Cultivate Empathy for All. Nilang is global citizen and active member of the community with his constant participation through activism/volunteering for homelessness, animal rights and environment. Nilang believes our ecosystem is built on the principle on interdependence and exponential growth in globalization is making our well-being more interdependent than ever before. As a result, he believes cultivating empathy for all is the key factor in creating systemic harmony on our planet earth.