Guilherme Carvalho is the CEO of Sociedade Vegetariana Brasileira (SVB). He spoke with ACE Research Intern Victoria Schindel on October 25, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
What are the most promising opportunities for animal advocacy and dietary change in Brazil?
The professional dietary change and animal advocacy movement in Brazil is very young. I personally have been involved in vegan advocacy and activism for about 12 years, but until a few years ago I think that most of the activism was more grassroots and didn’t really have professional or consolidated organizations. The Sociedade Vegetariana Brasileira (SVB) has existed for 15 years now, but it was 100% volunteer-run until about 2012 or 2013 with no paid staff at all. SVB did amazing things even when it was a 100% volunteer-run organization, and I joined as the first paid staff member.
Humane Society International came to Brazil in 2009, and in the past five years or so we have seen a boom in organizations coming from abroad such as Mercy For Animals and Animal Equality. I’m aware that there are more organizations considering entering Brazil, but the movement is still limited in the number of native Brazilian organizations operating here. I would say that at the moment SVB is the only professional organization in Brazil working on vegetarianism and meat reduction that’s not from abroad. There are other organizations that work on food production, food systems, and consumption patterns, but none of them are really focused on meat reduction or vegetarian eating. There are environmental organizations (such as Greenpeace, which is well established in Brazil) that are starting to work on meat reduction—so there are growing efforts. It’s an opportunity because at the moment there are not many doing this work in a professional manner. I would say the other native Brazilian organization that is more professional is Fórum Animal, and they work directly on animal welfare issues.
Brazil is a huge country with 27 states. The state of São Paulo has around 20% of the total population, and the city around 10%, so this area is a priority for us. At the same time, we feel there is huge potential—and a huge need—to grow in other cities and other states. We have had great success in São Paulo, but that is not so much the case in other parts of Brazil. SVB is not working in those other regions very much at the moment due to our strategic focus on São Paulo, but Humane Society International and Mercy For Animals are working on meat reduction programs in other locations. There are also still areas that are not being covered by anyone.
The fact that SVB is not thought of explicitly as an animal charity opens doors for us. In the United States, there are many organizations that don’t appear to have much to do with animals but in reality do a lot for them. It’s an opportunity that we barely see groups taking advantage of in Brazil at the moment.
Animal protection is very strong in Brazil. Many people keep pets and value kindness to animals. People are just beginning to understand that farmed animals are animals too and need to be protected, so it’s a gap that needs to be filled. I don’t think people currently understand that the vast majority of animals are farmed animals, and I don’t think they’re very aware of the cruelty involved. However, there is a rapidly growing understanding and engagement in animal welfare issues.
What are the biggest challenges for animal advocacy and dietary change in Brazil?
I think that the social and cultural status of eating meat is a challenge all over the world, but it is particularly significant here in Brazil. Meat is associated with financial wealth, strength, and fuel for working. It causes practical problems when you try to implement Meatless Mondays—for example, in factories, workers’ associations sometimes complain; even with the goodwill of the managers or company owners, some people are still resistant.
In addition, the movement is very immature and there isn’t a consensus about which approaches are the best to take. For example, some people will argue that meat reduction isn’t effective or that welfare reforms aren’t the best way to go. It’s not something that is exclusive to Brazil, but when I look at the movement in the United States I can see that we are still lagging behind in terms of having a better understanding of other organizations’ work and different approaches. I think this is something we need to improve.
How has the movement been working for institutional change in Brazil?
The welfare reform approach has been gaining support and momentum in Brazil. Before I worked for SVB, I was the campaign manager at Humane Society International and worked on cage-free campaigns. It was very challenging for various reasons, but we even faced challenges due to simple things like not knowing how best to express what we were doing—terms such as “cage-free” don’t necessarily translate well into Portuguese. We ended up using a phrase that literally translates to “for the end of intensive animal confinement,” but it just didn’t work. The campaign wasn’t very successful, partly because of the name, but also because there was so little awareness in the population about intensive confinement practices. We had to educate from a very basic level to get to a point where we could actually effect change in corporate policies. It was part of a broader set of awareness-raising efforts that other organizations were also doing around 2009 and in the following years. Now, there is very strong and successful cage-free work being done, particularly by Fórum Animal, Mercy for Animals, Humane Society International, and Animal Equality.
At SVB, we have been working on meat reduction efforts since 2011. Meatless Monday was launched in Brazil in 2009 with the support of the São Paulo City government, but it was more of a symbolic launch. After two years, it began to actually be implemented within food policies—it started in public schools in São Paulo City as a pilot project and grew significantly to most of the schools. It used to be that twice a month, there would be a vegan day. Now it’s held every week and about one or two years ago, it was implemented at the state level. By 2017, we had served 47 million meatless meals as a result of Meatless Monday programs, and this number reached 67 million in 2018. We are working alongside other organizations for further implementation in other government agencies, in other states, and in other cities. We try to keep in close communication with other organizations to avoid overlapping our work.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of being a Brazilian organization rather than an international one?
There are advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is the funding issue. The Brazilian Real (BRL) is much lower in value than the U.S. dollar or the euro. We also have difficulty fundraising from Brazilian donors. This has been a struggle for SVB for 15 years and is one of the reasons we were a 100% volunteer-run organization for the first 10 years. Over the last three to five years it has gotten a lot better, but it’s still far from ideal and is one of the reasons that we are now seeking funds from abroad. Now SVB has 17 paid staff, but in 2017 we only had eight, and the year before that we only had four. It has been difficult to grow the team with limited funds, whereas an international organization would be able to establish a team of paid staff straight away.
On the other hand, we do have the advantage of legitimacy. The vegetarian community is estimated to be 30 million people, and we are seen as the primary organization that represents this community. It’s not that people in Brazil don’t like things that come from abroad—probably the opposite—but being a Brazilian organization gives us a better grasp of Brazilian reality and we don’t have to spend time explaining complex cultural factors to a head office elsewhere. Of course, we are happy to explain the Brazilian context to partners and funders abroad, but that is very different from having management in another country. I think international organizations have been growing more sensitive to cultural factors and are giving more autonomy to the national Directors, but having management abroad can still place constraints on the work being done locally.
What are the biggest challenges to the growth of the plant-based food market in Brazil?
The Good Food Institute recently released research that shows that personal health is still the strongest argument for people to change their diet toward plant-based food and that it’s a much stronger motivator than the animal welfare argument. It also showed that the plant-based options offered on the market have really been lagging behind the growth in demand. It is a major barrier to people changing their diets—we conducted a poll in April 2018 which showed that 14% of Brazilians now claim to be vegetarian, and 60% said they would consume more vegan products if they were the same price as the equivalent animal-based products. I think the food industry is the worst sector in terms of offering viable options, especially ready-to-eat products.
We have a program at SVB called Vegan Option which is aimed at the food service sector. Restaurants have been very willing to implement vegan options and it’s growing at a good pace. There isn’t as much of a price gap compared to industrialized products intended to replace meat. I’m aware that in the United States, you can get a good quality vegan burger for the same price as a meat burger. Here the quality of plant-based alternatives is not as good and they are not priced competitively. For example, the vegan cheese that you can buy in Brazilian supermarkets is at least three times more expensive than regular cheese because it’s made with cashew nuts, or because it has significant production, distribution, or scale constraints. It’s great that the Good Food Institute is here working to improve that. We also have our own vegan label and are working to educate the supply chains, but we still have a long way to go. There are problems obtaining a good taste, a good price, and a good distribution for these products and it is causing a bottleneck.
Can you talk about how VegFest Brazil started and how it has developed over the years?
In 2004 SVB had just been created and held the 36th International Vegetarian Conference, which was a huge success. It appears to have been the birthplace of many vegetarian and animal rights organizations and projects. Then, in 2006, there was the first Brazilian Vegetarian Conference which later became known as VegFest. It was held every two years, always in a different city. Now it will be held every year, in São Paulo on even-numbered years and in other cities on odd-numbered years. Next year, it will be in Brasília. This year it was the largest yet with around 90,000 people attending, partly because it was in São Paulo. From a pragmatic point of view, it’s difficult to know exactly what the impact of VegFest is because it’s hard to measure, but we’re highly confident that it has a very important role in the movement—although it’s not measurable, people get very motivated. If we could measure motivation, that is where we would show that VegFest is important for the movement. Activists and organizations are very motivated for VegFest and that helps them to deliver results throughout the rest of the year.