Lucas Alvarenga is the Vice President of Mercy For Animals (MFA) Brasil. He spoke with ACE Research Intern Victoria Schindel on October 18, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
What are some of the animal advocacy movement’s victories and failures in Brazil?
There are not many farmed animal organizations in Brazil and most of them are local branches of international organizations. Besides MFA, some of the main groups doing excellent work in Brazil are HSI, FORUM Animal, Animal Equality, and The Brazilian Vegetarian Society (SVB). Some of the strengths I can mention for these groups are corporate policies, food policy, vegan advocacy, and others. MFA currently works on vegan advocacy, food policy, corporate engagement, and investigations.
Our corporate engagement work, in collaboration with other groups, has been pretty successful over the past years. Currently, our team for corporate engagement in Brazil consists of five people and I think we are moving quite fast. One of the first companies that committed to go cage free was McDonald’s and after this first commitment, other companies followed quickly. Just a few months ago, Brazil’s biggest retailer Groupe Carrefour committed to going cage free as well.
Regarding the corporate policy work, I believe that working to ban battery cages is the first step towards working on more complex reforms like broiler chicken reforms, which we will probably focus on in the coming years. In 2018 we have had 64 companies commit to go cage free, including Groupe Carrefour.
We also have a program called Conscious Eating Brazil, which aims to implement food policies that will reduce meat, dairy, and egg consumption by at least 20% in public schools and governments at a city and state level. Since it was started last year, the program has been incredibly successful and appears to be one of the most cost-effective programs.
I always like to remember how collaboration is important in the animal rights movement. We have also been supporting—to the best of our ability—Animals International, Fórum Animal, and other groups on their efforts to ban live exports. Since 2007, about five million cows have been exported alive to other countries, especially to Egypt and Turkey. However, this number is small in comparison to, for example, egg-laying hens, of which nearly 1 billion individuals have lived on Brazilian farms since 2007.
Fortunately, I don’t think we have had too many failures so far. We are always re-analyzing our work and our impact to make adjustments and to become more effective.
When advocating for dietary changes, do you focus on animal welfare or do you use arguments related to health and the environment?
We currently mostly focus on animal welfare and animal cruelty. We do a huge amount of work on social media and public relations to encourage people to shift towards a more plant-based diet. Although we don’t yet have any specific research on approaches and messages, some surveys and studies indicate that vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise. In 2018, IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) reported that 14% of brazilians consider themselves vegetarians compared to 8% in 2012. The Good Food Institute Brazil also recently did a survey in partnership with Snapcart indicating that 29% of the people surveyed already reduce or plan to reduce their animal product consumption. A different survey run by IPSOS Brazil (contracted by MFA) showed that 81% of respondents said that they were concerned about how companies treat animals used for food.
We have a very high rate of people who are concerned about animal cruelty. But although people seem to be very open to our message, I think that we need more research to learn more about the best approaches and ways to successfully engage our target audience digitally and in person.
Besides cage-free initiatives, what else is a high priority for improving animal welfare in Brazil?
More than six billion broiler chickens are killed each year in Brazil. This is going to be a big challenge because most companies are only beginning to understand the urgency we have to ban some of the worst factory farming practices. Fish farms are also on the rise in Brazil and the conditions seem to be absolutely horrific. We want to reduce the suffering of these billions of animals, and it’s urgent that companies start switching out animal proteins for plant-based sources.
How receptive are companies to animal welfare and what tactics do you use to engage them?
We always start with a relationship engagement approach. We presume that they are against animal cruelty and want to open a dialog with us. We know that no company wants to support cruelty to animals. Confinement methods such as battery cages and gestation crates only exist because it’s more profitable for the meat and egg industry. However, as societal values change, more NGOs expose the huge issues with animal cruelty and intensive confinement, and as the public becomes aware of these horrific practices, it becomes unsustainable for companies to continue to support this in their supply chains. So I believe most of the largest food companies in Brazil already understand this and are working to make changes.
Is it easy to engage the media and are they willing to talk about animal welfare?
I think it is still not easy to engage the media to talk specifically about animal rights and animal cruelty. However, I do see some trends with more celebrities talking about it, more serious work from NGOs, and the rise of social media influencers talking about these issues. I see these factors helping to change the scenario. In the past two years, we got some of the biggest media outlets such as Folha de São Paulo, Valor Economico, BuzzFeed, Exame and others to cover our investigations. Interestingly, the media covered the issue of live exports a lot when activists were engaged in demonstrations and direct actions at the ports. I see a lot of potential and opportunities to use this kind of momentum to draw attention to more high-impact issues such as egg-laying hens.
Are there restrictions on running a nonprofit in Brazil and what effect do these restrictions have?
Although there are no restrictions or bureaucratic and legal barriers to building and running a nonprofit, it has not been easy to fundraise in Brazil.
What is the role of education in the animal advocacy movement in Brazil?
It is absolutely important, especially given how open people are to understanding more about animals and to trying new plant-based recipes. In Brazil, there are more dogs and cats than kids, which indicates how much people like companion animals. There is something about our culture that makes people sensitive to suffering and to want to help others. Of course, it’s absolutely important to work on the governmental front as well as with companies to advocate for more plant-based options and to reduce the suffering of animals. However, pro-veg education work has played a very important role as far as massive habit changes in Brazil in the past years.
At MFA, we work on three fronts for social impact. On the veg*n support front, we have interacted more than 120,000 times with individuals to support them in switching their diet. Our volunteer program has delivered nearly 600,000 pro-veg leaflets across the country. On the social media front, we are able to reach millions of people every month with our content. It is one of our biggest strengths in Brazil. In three years, over 1.5 million people downloaded our free Vegetarian Starter Guide and received our pro-vegan emails for many months. We also believe it’s extremely important to help build a more pragmatic, professional, and structured movement in Brazil. In the past year, we have trained over 1,000 volunteers in over 35 cities across the country to understand our pragmatic approach and our choice of strategies.
Are there significant differences between the work that you do in Brazil and the other countries that MFA operates in?
Our goals and departments are the same across all regions but our strategies and approaches vary depending on culture, momentum, opportunities, compliance, and effectiveness. MFA has truly become a global organization understanding that animals suffer everywhere, and since the factory farming problem is global, we need to be where we can impact the greatest number of animals. But in order to be global, we need a global mindset—we must understand cultural differences, different momentums, and different opportunities to see where we can collaborate the most with other animal rights groups, etc.
In Brazil we had the opportunity to build a different approach with volunteers. Since our movement is relatively new, we decided to offer volunteer training for everyone who wants to volunteer with us. During this training, we talk about effective activism, how we measure our impact, strategic approaches, and why we do what we do, among other things. We believe that to build a solid and effective movement, it is important to show people how we can have the greatest impact for animals. We can also highlight our food policy program that in 2017 alone secured 10 commitments to impact over 20 million meals every year. Due to the success of this program, it is now being implemented and adapted in other countries, too.
What are the relevant implications of the recent allegations against the meat industry in Brazil and the involvement of politicians?
I think these allegations have helped us a lot. They have improved our engagement with the media. We were able to relate what we do to what was exposed by the federal police in these scandals. I think it made people more willing to understand more about how meat gets into their supermarkets. It was helpful on all fronts—the education aspect, the legislative and corporate work, even the investigations. It created a new range of possibilities for things that we are able to do in Brazil. Everybody in Brazil was talking about the issue and it was all over the media. It has enabled us to demonstrate that corruption or sanitary conditions are not the only problems within the meat industry. People definitely became more concerned about what they were eating so it was a huge opportunity for us.
Are the welfare laws that exist in Brazil enforced effectively?
Although we don’t have significant criminal consequences for animal cruelty in Brazil, the Federal law that regulates this subject doesn’t restrict the crime to only dogs and cats—it’s applicable to farmed animals as well. We also have a few state laws and regulations that could help animals. Unfortunately, the animal rights legislation and regulation in Brazil are still not enforced effectively. I see legislative work and law enforcement as good opportunities and very important work to be done in Brazil.
Are there any significant barriers we should know about?
In Brazil, we lack studies and surveys that could help us understand which approaches to choose to be more effective. The politics situation is also very fragile and turbulent which makes some of the work more unstable. When we analyze what is being said in agribusiness conferences, the pressure of the NGOs is mentioned a lot as something they need to keep their eyes on. However, I think we still have many more opportunities than barriers in Brazil.
What are these opportunities and how do you plan to act on them?
There are large opportunities on the corporate front because businesses are generally receptive to the changes we propose. Our first two years have been very successful and we have influenced a lot of companies. The general public is very open to our approach as well, and veg eating has become a trend in Brazil in recent years. Also, the biggest volunteer team I have ever seen in the movement is in Brazil. There are a lot of completely engaged activists and I only see it getting bigger.
How does your engagement with the media in Brazil compare to MFA’s media engagement in other countries?
I would say it’s pretty similar to how we engage with the media in the western countries we operate in. The procedures are pretty much the same but unlike in the U.S., it’s very unusual to arrange press conferences here. What varies are the momentum, the trending topics, and the media opportunities.
The more MFA consolidates itself in Brazil, the easier it is to get media engagement. It takes some time to build brand awareness and trust with the journalists and to really understand the approaches that lead to the greatest engagement and acceptance.