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The change cultivator
How Gene Baur is empowering consumers to make compassionate choices
Gene Baur is on a mission. He’s out to establish a new cultural norm. Ambitious, perhaps. But Gene has a proven track record of breaking the mold.
Hailed as “the conscience of the food movement” by Time Magazine, Gene has spent nearly three decades traversing the country and campaigning to raise awareness about the abuses of factory farming and our current food system. As one of the pioneers in the field of undercover investigations, Gene has documented and exposed the deplorable conditions of hundreds of farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses. He has also stood before local, state and federal courts, advocating for better conditions for farm animals, and helping to introduce the first U.S. laws to prohibit cruel farming confinement methods in Florida, Arizona and California.
But it’s not just the animal agriculture industry that Gene is changing; it’s the way society views and interacts with animals.
At Farm Sanctuary, where Gene currently serves as president, animals are “someone,” not “something.” It’s an ethos that runs through the veins of the organization, which provides rescue, refuge and adoption for hundreds of farm animals each year, and gives visitors the chance to connect with these farm animals as emotional, intelligent individuals.
For Gene, it’s about redefining the cultural standards – where compassion and kindness reign, and we live in alignment with our core values. And for many intents and purposes, the shift towards a more mindful world is already well underway. Consumer demand is changing and the industry is responding. People are making more thoughtful and healthy choices, and an increasing number of individuals are practicing the plant-based lifestyle.
I recently sat down with Gene to talk about the state of the plant-based movement and how he chooses to influence the world by empowering individuals to choose compassion:
Kerry Song (KS): You decided to adopt a plant-based lifestyle at a relatively young age. What was the mental or emotional shift that helped you reach this turning point?
Gene Baur (GB): I grew up seeing humans living in a way that was negatively impacting the environment and animals, and I had a visceral discomfort about it. Yet, I was unwittingly complicit in causing enormous animal suffering and environmental destruction. The thing is, we are social animals, and we tend to adopt and adapt to the habits of those around us. So I grew up eating meat like everybody around me, without really thinking about it.
In high school, I started to delve into various issues. Like veal, for example. My grandmother told me how veal calves are raised, and after that, I never touched veal again. I also remember coming home from school and my mother was preparing dinner, but instead of seeing food, I saw a dead chicken on his or her back on the plate. I was immediately turned off to eating it and stopped disassociating one thing from the other.
Then in college, I traveled the country and became aware of factory farming. I began to understand the vast impacts of this industry, and the enormous harm it was causing to ourselves, animals and the planet. I met people in rural communities and learned more about animal agriculture from activists about how this ubiquitous and abusive industry was obscured from the general public. Finally, when I realized it was possible to live well without eating animals, I decided to go vegan.
KS: So you made the decision in the 1980s, which was a massively different cultural environment than today.
GB: Exactly. There were a very small number of us who were vegan and who were also advocates for the vegan lifestyle. But the idea was very foreign to most people. Today, it’s become so much more popular and accepted, and it’s increasingly considered to be healthy and positive. We’ve come a long way since the 1980s, but the concept of being vegan can still be confusing or seem unreachable to people.
KS: Why do you think the word “vegan” turns so many people off?
GB: The term “vegan” has different connotations for different people. There are some advocates who are enthusiastic and excited to use the word and to identify as vegan. And there are people in the mainstream who hear the word vegan and have a defensive reaction, perhaps feeling like they are being criticized for supporting an abusive factory farming industry.
The term “plant-based” is more neutral, and it is more descriptive of what we eat. The term vegan is more about identity. For a lot of people, the word vegan creates this binary mindset that you’re either in the vegan club or you’re not. But it’s not that simple. It’s a much grayer area.
This is why I sometimes talk about being vegan as a practice. I practice a vegan lifestyle. People who don’t identify as vegan can still choose a vegan meal, and in this way, they are practicing a vegan lifestyle. To me, being vegan is an aspiration to live as kindly and compassionately as possible, and it’s an ongoing process that all of us are engaged in. Nobody is perfect. We cause harm just by living on this planet, but we can all aspire to be mindful and conscientious and to continue making improvements. The ultimate goal is to create mutually beneficial relationships with other animals, with other people and with the environment.
People who don’t identify as vegan can still choose a vegan meal, and in this way, they are practicing a vegan lifestyle.
KS: That sounds like a more compassionate approach as well.
GB: One of the Farm Sanctuary’s key values is that we speak to people where they are on their own journeys. I believe that most people are humane and want to act with compassion, and we can support each other in this intention. If people believe they have to be vegan to be part of an exclusive club, it is alienating, and I think it’s unhealthy, and, frankly, a disrespectful way of interacting with others.
KS: How do you think social media played a role in the advent of your mission and of the entire plant-based movement?
GB: Social media empowers each of us to gather and share information and to support each other in making more educated and mindful choices about food. It has helped democratize our information and offered a new level of transparency. People can go online and see videos showing what goes on at factory farms, fur farms, puppy mills, etc. The truth is available to those who are interested in educating themselves and others.
There is also a lot of information online about solutions. Cookbooks, recipes, vegan clothing. There are social media feeds dedicated to sharing these types of resources and products. Ten years ago, that was not the case. Social media has played a pivotal role in raising awareness and ultimately helping people make more kind, thoughtful and healthy choices.
KS: The tides are definitely shifting, which has influenced consumer behavior. What have you seen from the supply side? How are businesses responding to this cultural change?
GB: It’s a very exciting time. Consumer demand is changing the industry. People are increasingly looking for vegan alternatives. And whether it’s in nut-based milks and cheeses or plant-based meats, businesses are responding. This has attracted investors, who are redirecting their assets towards companies focusing on plant-based proteins and other plant-based offerings.
The meat, dairy and egg industries are now using popular opposition to factory farming to sell so-called humane animal products at premium prices. Unfortunately, well-meaning consumers are being misled. Products with labels suggesting that animals are treated well commonly come from factory farms. And, when you really think about it, the words “humane” and “slaughter” don’t fit well together. Still, the good news is that with increasing awareness and transparency, people are seeking the truth and demanding alternatives.
Investors are growing concerned about disease and other risks emerging from the factory farm system. And the environmental harm this structure creates is astounding. It is a broken system that could ultimately result in legal liabilities. Businesses leaders are also becoming aware of the inherent inefficiency involved here. The amount of land and water required to produce a pound of meat is staggering. You can produce plant-based foods for a fraction of the resources needed for animal-based products, so businesses could market plant foods for less and still make a greater profit.
KS: The progress and transformation we’ve seen is sensational. But in your line of work, you must witness suffering and devastation on a regular basis. It undoubtedly must take an emotional toll. How do you personally cope?
GB: Witnessing the cruelty and violence of factory farming can be overwhelming. I spent many years investigating hundreds of farms and stockyards and slaughterhouses, and I saw horrendous suffering and abuse. But tragically, farm animals are excluded from most state anti-cruelty laws, and from the Federal Animal Welfare Act. Bad has become normal, and legally allowed, in this industry.
The way that I have been able to survive is by focusing on the positive rather than the negative, on what I can do to make a difference, not what I can’t do. I believe it’s important to be aware of bad things that are happening, but it’s helpful to dwell in good things that are happening. I’ve witnessed horrifying cruelty during investigations, but rather than running those disturbing images over and over in my head, I focus my attention on the animals we’ve been able to rescue, and the things we’ve been able to accomplish.
Farm Sanctuary started rescuing animals back in 1986. We would find living animals literally thrown in trashcans or on piles of dead animals. Rescuing those animals allowed us to do something concrete and positive. And watching those animals recover and heal also helps us to recover and heal, and it provides hope. This is at the core of Farm Sanctuary’s transformational work – we offer hope in the midst of great suffering and model a different kind of relationship with these animals, where they are our friends not our food, where they are companions not commodities, and where they have names not numbers. This is the norm at Farm Sanctuary, and it’s become a gift for us as well. Kindness to animals is also good for people.
I also remind myself that wherever there is cruelty and injustice, there are good people speaking out and trying to make a difference. So, again, I try to dwell in, reinforce, and support positive and inspiring things that are happening.
There’s the world as it is, and the world that we want to create. I think that if we reside too much in the pain of the world that is, we may be unable to envision and create something that is different and better. Every person can be an agent of change or an instrument of the status quo. I believe most people want to evolve and to do better, and that fuels my drive.
There’s the world as it is, and the world that we want to create.
KS: What is something that most people do not realize about animals?
GB: Animals are social, just like us. Let me tell you the story of Opie, a calf I rescued from a stockyard in upstate New York on a freezing fall day. I was investigating this stockyard, and came across a newborn calf. He was still wet from afterbirth, collapsed in a heap on the ground, and dying of hypothermia. He was too weak even to lift his head. I found a stockyard worker and asked, “What’s going on with this calif?” He told me, “Well, I have to bury him later today.” So I asked if I could take the calf off his hands, and the worker agreed.
I brought the calf to a nearby veterinarian. She told me that he was in really bad shape and would cost more than he was worth to treat. In an irritated voice, she asked, “Why are you wasting your time?” So I said to her, “To me, this animal is not a commodity, or an economic unit. He is an individual who I want to help.” She eventually agreed to treat him and I brought the calf back to Farm Sanctuary where he began to recover. After a few days he was able to stand and nurse from a bottle. He was doing well physically, but he wasn’t thriving. Emotionally, there was something missing.
Then I brought him out to the cow barn and put him in a pen. The other cows gathered around and started mooing to him, and he knew he was in a safe place. He immediately perked up and started mooing back. From that point on he began to thrive.
Many people don’t realize how social animals are and how impacted they are by their environment. Factory farms are crowded with animals confined in cages, living in misery, clanking against the bars to get out. The air is thick with toxic fumes from the animals’ waste, which burns your nose and throat and makes your eyes water. It is a filthy, miserable, stressful environment that is bad for both human and non-human animals.
Now contrast that with Farm Sanctuary where you have open fields, fresh air, and sunshine. Sheep and cattle wander and graze freely. Pigs root in the soil and wade in ponds. Chickens scratch in the dirt and perch in trees. The peace is palpable, and the positive interactions between people and animals enrich both. The animals are free to express their individual personalities, and to enjoy life. Friendly, curious turkeys follow you around like puppy dogs and sit on our lap. Pigs grunt happily to communicate their pleasure at receiving belly rubs.
Unfortunately, many people have yet to see farm animals in this context and to experience this serenity. That’s why I encourage everybody to visit Farm Sanctuary*. When you look into the eyes of these animals, you see that there is somebody there. These individuals deserve respect, not the abuse that has become rampant in today’s food industry.
KS: A lot of that has to do with the cultural norm.
GB: That’s right, and it’s time for the “norm” to be re-evaluated. Slavery used to be considered “normal,” but it’s widely condemned now. I think future generations will look back on how we treat farm animals today with sadness and disgust.
KS: It’s empowering, too – not basing your actions on the norms, but on your values instead.
GB: Absolutely – very empowering. It’s about living in alignment with your heart and eliminating cognitive and emotional dissonance.
KS: Now with everything you are doing and everything you are fighting for, in your eyes, what does success look like?
GB: More and more people are recognizing that their food choices have profound impact on themselves, on animals and on the planet. I think that is a significant indicator of progress. I think the fact that there are more plant-based alternatives available, along with a burgeoning plant-based food movement, are further indications of success. And the fact that there are now laws on the books that prohibit some of the worst factory farming cruelty is another step towards success.
It ultimately boils down to the fundamental question of whether or not we are living in a compassionate way, and according to our better angels. That’s the ultimate success in my mind, and I believe most people want to do this. So we need to create social, economic and physical structures that enable kindness and respect to be the norm – where we’re eating plants instead of animals and living gently on the earth.
So, how do we create that? It’s cultural. It’s legal. It’s economic. And it’s a collection of personal decisions we make every day. We can help bring about a better world by making more conscientious choices and voting with our dollars. Gandhi talked about stages of societal change – how at first, they ignore you, then they criticize you, then they fight you, and then you win. Progress is often incremental and requires patience and persistence. It takes time, but the good news is that compassion is contagious, and can spread. We can each help create a happier, healthier, kinder world, and a significant part of that involves what we decide to put on our plates.
*Farm Sanctuary operates three shelters – one in upstate New York, one in Northern California and one in Southern California. The shelters offer tours, overnight accommodations, retreats and conferences.