Save the Chickens! Eat Beef: My response to Matt Ball

Matt Ball has had a long career as a full-time animal activist. He helped co-found Vegan Outreach in 1993, and served as their Executive Director for over 20 years. He was even indicted into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame in 2005. But Ball’s career took an interesting turn in 2015, when he became the co-founder and president of “One step for animals”, an organization that is attempting to save animals by – eating them?

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Ball doesn’t actually tell people to eat animals. But he does take the rather unique position that we should start by giving them a single, actionable step to help animals. And his organization, One Step for Animals tells people they can take one simple step to help animals. That step is to “keep chickens of their plates”, and replace chicken with plant-based alternatives.

My “beef” with Matt Ball’s argument

When Matt Ball presents “One Step for Animals” in the manner discussed above (stop eating chicken and find plant-based substitutes), I don’t have a problem with it at all. That is how Ball’s organization presents their case on the One Step for Animals website. But in a recent interview with Vox, Ball suggested killing a single animal (a cow), is superior to killing poultry, because it provides as much meat as 200 chickens. Hence, he finds it morally superior since only one animal is sacrificed, rather than 200.

I can sympathize with this argument from an utilitarian perspective. Of course, I’d rather one animal died than two hundred. I also appreciate that Ball’s charity may help people have more empathy for chickens. Ball is squarely focused on the suffering of farmed animals. And that’s a good thing, because we’ve all seen that loving pets doesn’t always lead to caring about other animals. So his organization does have the potential to perhaps transform people’s attitudes towards chickens.

I think Ball’s heart is in the right place. He’s tired of telling people to go vegan, and facing limited success. So he’s taking a more pragmatic approach. Instead of asking people to stop eating animals, he wants to focus on a single animal: the chicken.

Chickens suffer most on factory farms, he reasons. We also eat more of them (billions every year). But does that justify promoting beef and pork as alternatives?

The world’s smallest club?

In the past, Ball has persuasively argued that vegans must stop trying to create the world’s smallest club. I completely agree with him on this. I agree that vegans spend far too much time worrying about the possible misdeeds of other vegans. And I don’t want this post to come across as a puritanical attack on an errant adherent.

Instead, I’m going to refer to Matt Ball’s own guide to deciding when it’s worth it to address other vegans. In a 2015 interview with Tobias Leenaert from The Vegan Strategist, Ball argues three things determine whether we should take time to criticize another animal rights activist:

1. The behavior or practice we see has actual, real-world negative consequences for animals.
2. We have a realistic expectation that our actions will lead to a net good; i.e., there is reason to believe positive change is likely, and it is unlikely there will be any offsetting negative or contrary consequences.
3. There is nothing better (i.e., more likely to reduce more suffering) we could be doing with our limited time and resources.

I think these criterion are fantastic, and the vegan community would be well-served to adopt these guidelines as part of our strategy as advocates and activists. I’ve long felt that there is far too much negativity within the vegan demimonde, and while some discussion and debate may improve our overall dialogue, it generally has the opposite effect.

Do I feel that One Step for Animals is worthy of being called out? Yes and no. I think the organization, as presented on its website, is spreading a largely positive message. I’m not overly concerned by the fact that it addresses only poultry, since, as Ball notes, chickens are the most widely abused domesticated animal.

I’m sure some vegans are simply horrified by Ball’s reasoning. But I don’t mind him encouraging people to stop eating chicken, as it is (hopefully) a first step toward going vegan.

My concern lies with his suggestion that people eat beef instead.

Vegans encouraging people to eat beef  is RIDICULOUS. And hypocritical.

There are several reasons that I deeply oppose Ball’s message regarding beef (and to a lesser extent, pork).

Firstly, it’s hypocritical. If you are vegan, it’s utterly insane to go around telling people to eat one animal and not another. If you’re an ethical vegan, you believe that killing animals is wrong, period. There is no animal that is “better” to eat than any other. They all want to live. Therefore, eating any of them is morally unjustifiable (unless you’re in a proverbial desert island scenario, but last I checked, that’s not Ball’s audience).

Secondly, it’s also disingenuous to say your main concern is helping animals, when you completely ignore the #1 animal victim on earth. The following is taken from the One Step for Animals website:

“One Step is only concerned with reducing the number of animals suffering and dying. One Step does not try to be popular, does not cater to the vegan bubble, and does not pursue what we personally find most compelling or persuasive. Rather, One Step focuses on helping as many animals as possible. Period.”

Now, I can respect the fact that they might be tired of the “vegan bubble.” The vegan bubble obviously doesn’t need catering to, but what about the idea they are concerned with “reducing the number of animals suffering and dying?” I couldn’t help but notice he makes no mention of fish whatsoever on the website. Perhaps this is because he doesn’t consider fish animals? That’s the only reasonable explanation, since over 1 trillion fish are killed for human consumption each year, compared to 50 billion chickens. Obviously, that’s a lot of both, but clearly the number of fish dying is not insignificant. So, one of the most famous vegan activists on the planet thinks fish are vegetables. If lifelong activist Matt Ball doesn’t get it, no wonder I have such a hard time explaining to my friends that vegans don’t eat fish.

What we need most is activists with the courage of their convictions, who will ask people to take “One Step for Animals” without first taking a giant leap backward.

And finally, of course, we have to point out that beef is much worse for the environment than chicken. As Leonardo DiCaprio’s film Before the Flood pointed out, beef is a tremendous threat to the planet. Why on earth would an animal activist be suggesting we eat MORE of it?

I’m sure Ball means well. But I do think the viewpoint he presents in the Vox video is dangerous. It’s dangerous to human health, the animal rights movement, and the survival of the entire planet. Ball hopes encouraging beef consumption will cause people to eat less chicken, though he has presented no hard data on whether this will occur (aside from a Faunalytics study showing that ex-vegans think veganism is hard).  To this end, he is willing to overlook hard science that demonstrates increasing beef consumption will cook our planet and destroy life as we know it. His heart may be in the right place, but his mind is not.

Nearly 1 million people have just seen a video telling them to eat more beef. Whether that was the message Ball intended to convey – or not – is immaterial. He has some serious damage control to do. You see, in spite of decade old statistics on the percentage of vegans and vegetarians in the United States, veganism is undergoing a renaissance worldwide, thanks to innovative vegan outreach organizations and great vegan food companies showing that veganism is the way of the future. 

I have good news, Matt Ball. The vegan future is now. And vegans don’t need to tell people to eat animals to make it happen. What we need is activists with the courage of their convictions, who will ask people to take “One Step for Animals” without first taking a giant leap backward.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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