Thursday, July 18, 2024

An Interview with Robert Grillo- American author, activist and speaker

Robin Bhuyan (Editor-In-Chief)

Mohsin Khaiyam (Senior Sub-Editor)

In an insightful interview with Robert Grillo, a prominent American activist, author, and speaker for all species, we delve into his journey through the world of animal rights and veganism. His odyssey began in 2008, when he launched “Free from Harm,” a non profit in the US, aiming to counter misconceptions and promote awareness about veganism and animal rights. His book, “Farm to Fable,” is one of the most talked-about books on the subject. In this interview, we explore his perspectives on the popularity of veganism, the myth of “humane slaughter,” the challenges within the animal rights movement, and a lot more. Read on!

How and when did you get involved in the fields of animal rights and veganism?

I started getting interested back in 2008, when I realised that I had been living under a spell that most of us, from all cultures, are under. I felt compelled to write about it. So since I was a writer for many years and came from a marketing background, I decided to use my marketing skills to create an online presence through the FFH website and social media channels. Since 2009, it has emerged as a leading online source for people to learn more about veganism and animal rights.

Do you feel that veganism has been immensely popular in the past few decades?

I think when we use the word vegan, we are looking at things from a very consumer-oriented perspective. We narrow our audience down to only around 2 percent of the population. I feel that one of the reasons we haven’t expanded that much is because we only appeal to the professional class but not the 99%. We haven’t attracted the 99% because we haven’t approached this from a grassroots organising model. We’re basically a movement limited to the 1–2%, the professional class. If we want to see a transformational shift, In our food system, we need to develop a grassroots, people-powered movement that demands a plant-based food system for the benefit of all. We have given power to the powerholders of our food system, who are now abusing that power. These powerholders are making decisions that are bad for us, bad for the animals, and bad for the environment.

The concept of “humane slaughter” is a very controversial subject. What would you say about this?

I believe that the meat industry uses this word to divert attention away from veganism. Their message is, “You don’t have to give up animal products, as we will provide you with humane alternatives.” So I have been working for years on debunking this myth of “humane slaughter”. Our campaigns work to expose what we call “the humane hoax” by documenting the actual conditions of animals raised and killed at so-called “humane” operations. Their customers believe that they are getting something different, but that is not the case. When people see the actual conditions, they are shocked. If this is the best the industry has to offer, the only truly humane solution then becomes plant alternatives.

Your book “Farm to Fable” has obviously been one of the most talked-about books. Could you tell us your story in detail about what motivated you to start writing?

Prior to writing the book, I was working for ad agencies, where I worked on ads for food companies. I started to realise that I had a strong sensitivity to the branding and the way the food products were marketed to us. I began to recognise the immense power that advertising has over consumers and how it manipulates people’s decisions and food choices. Farm to Fable is an analysis of the fictions in popular culture that condition us to consume animals in a variety of ways.

There are still many people who are hostile to the idea of veganism. So do you think that a lack of communication is a reason for this?

Yes, communication, that is, messaging, is one of the many challenges for our movement. I already addressed this problem when I said that the term veganism appeals to the consumer. It says we are a movement trying to convert individual consumers, but not taking on the food system and its powerholders. But successful social movements need a lot more than personal transformation efforts; they require a huge effort to change society’s dominant institutions, the pillars of support that maintain the animal industry’s own dominance.

More and more celebrities are turning to veganism. What do you think about this? Do you think it helps turn people to veganism?

Yes, getting people who have large social networks, like celebrities, to become spokespeople for the movement is a good strategy. For example, our Mary’s Chicken campaign exposes the highest welfare chicken brand on the market here. One of Mary’s customers is Lisa Vanderpump, a well-known celebrity who also has a growing restaurant empire. She’s also the founder of a dog rescue foundation that rescues dogs from the global meat trade. With a celebrity like Lisa, we know that every time we can get face-to-face with her to talk to her about Mary’s chicken and why she should cut ties with this company, it’s going to get media attention and therefore have a strong impact. It might get mainstream media attention, and there is a chance that it will go viral on social media as well. So when you have a celebrity, it does help proliferate the cause and the message that we need to get out to more of the public since building public support is the goal of any campaign.

Do you think that since most vegan products are kind of expensive, it may act as a deterrent for people to embrace a vegan lifestyle?

Are we talking about the products that are only available to the upper classes, like gourmet cheeses and meat alternatives, or are we talking about the staples of most civilizations like pulses, legumes, tubers, and grains? It wasn’t until very recently that animal-heavy fast food became aggressively marketed and made available cheaply to the poorest classes in our society. Outside of the US, Western advertisers have successfully tied greater affluence to eating more animals in countries that historically have produced very few animal products. So it’s kind of ironic for people to say that vegan food is too expensive because eating animals is associated with being more affluent. And people are paying for a lot of the hidden costs of the animal industries with their tax dollars. Our tax dollars are cleaning up the industry’s environmental mess and public health nightmares, for example.

Do you have any plans to expand your social activism to the Indian subcontinent?

Oh yes, we would absolutely love to develop allies that we can work with as collaborators so that we can work here. We developed some great connections in African countries where western countries are trying to come in and introduce factory farming of animals in places where it never existed. Outside investors are telling developing countries that investing in animal agriculture is very lucrative and creates a lot of jobs. But in fact, some of these foreign investors, like those from China, are actually bringing their own workers to work in the animal factories where jobs were promised to local Ugandans or other African countries.

I’m sure India is a completely different situation, and we’d love to explore working with activists there. We have lots of Indian Americans here, and they are part of our movement, many of them second- or first-generation.

What advice do you have for people who are passionate about animal rights in India or any other part of the world?

The first thing I think is important is to look outside of our movement and at other social movements. Look at what they’ve done well, and try to capture that knowledge and insight and use them for our own benefit. A lot of other social movements, past and present, have done great things and made great progress. How did they do that? How do we apply that to what we’re doing? That’s what we should be thinking about, and unfortunately, there’s not enough of that strategic thinking. So, for example, in India, you have an iconic figure like Mahatma Gandhi. Not only was he known for leading the effort towards Indian Independence, but he also became an icon of grassroots movement building for the rest of the world. He was a brilliant organiser, and he was brilliant in many ways in shaping narrative, building allies, negotiating, and organising masses of people to do something symbolic. As much as the professional class cares about facts and figures, the rest of society cares about emotional stories and issues of symbolic importance. That was something that Gandhi knew. Because salt was something that the British government taxed and salt was something Indian people valued greatly, he chose salt as the symbol of a movement to free India. He knew that could become a symbol of something very big that could galvanize a mass of supporters for the cause, and so it did!

So what’s our symbol? What is the big story for the animal rights movement?

I don’t think that we’ve found out yet! I think there have been some very interesting examples out there, but I don’t think we’ve quite found them. So we should be learning from other social movements and trying to see how we can connect and build the way they did.

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