Sandra Lopes is the food policy manager at Humane Society International/Brazil. She spoke with ACE Research Intern Victoria Schindel on October 17, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
What are some of the effective animal advocacy’s past victories and failures in Brazil? Why do you think they were, or were not, able to achieve their goals?
Our campaign for animal product reduction in Brazil is really growing. We are reaching millions and millions of plates each year. A very big success has been in Bahia, where all of the school districts in four different cities are gradually replacing animal protein with plant protein on school menus. We started at the beginning of 2018 with a 25% reduction in animal protein, and then schools implemented another 25% reduction in August of 2018. Next semester we will take out 25% more, and our goal is that by the end of 2019 all school districts in the four cities will be 100% plant-based. It’s a big achievement because this is the first time we have had a commitment to go 100% plant-based. Most of the time, in other cities, the commitment is to go plant-based only once or twice a week.
We have had some resistance from nutritionists from the Federal Council who have said that is it not appropriate for school-aged children to eat a 100% plant-based diet because it lacks the necessary nutrition children need to grow. There is a federal fund from the government that helps cities buy ingredients for school meals, and the nutritionists reached out to the fund and said that they should not be funding meals in these cities unless the school districts backtrack on their commitment to go plant-based.
While this was an obstacle, it did give us the opportunity to have a meeting with the national providers of school meals, the federal fund that pays for the meals, and the mayors of the four cities. This was the first time we had the chance to talk to the federal government about meat reduction. We knew it wouldn’t be easy because it is very common to eat a lot of meat, dairy, and eggs in Brazil—it’s very much a part of the culture. In that meeting, we decided to create an official study group that is comprised of nutritionists from the national providers of school meals and the Ministry of Health, a doctor, a nutritionist who works with us, and myself. The result of that meeting was that we had the federal government on our side, and therefore they were not going to ask the schools to backtrack on their commitment. So at present, we have achieved a 50% reduction in animal protein from school meals, which the government is happy with. We’re also going to start the discussion to see if it’s okay for us to go forward with taking out the other 50%. We’re very happy with this achievement.
Do you think that Brazilians are becoming more aware of farmed animal welfare? If so, what factors are driving this change?
Yes, Brazilians are becoming more aware of farmed animal welfare, but what really motivates people to make changes to their diets is a concern for human health. Although I work on behalf of the animals, most of the time that is not the main argument that persuades people to change their diets. People are increasingly concerned with what they are eating because of the prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases at very young ages. Some children now have to take pills for heart disease at only nine or ten years old because of diets containing too many animal products. There’s also a lot of childhood obesity in Brazil. Being able to talk about health with people makes it easier to discuss animal protein reduction. Lactose intolerance is also a growing problem. For example, the four cities we work in are a long way from the capital of Bahia, and they are very poor. We can’t suggest people buy industrialized plant-based milk because they are very expensive here, so we teach people how to prepare their own plant-based milk and they love it. We also have culinary schools for the cooks that work in the school districts and teach them how to make plant-based meals and prepare plant-based milk.
People are also becoming more concerned about the environment, but a lot of people in Brazil are animal producers. Some of these are just small-scale egg or milk producers, but many people rely on animals for income in one way or another. The small producers care much more about animal welfare than the big factory farms.
What are the challenges to growing the plant-based alternatives market in Brazil?
There are a few plant-based alternatives on the market in Brazil, but they’re not as common as in Europe or North America. There are not many options to replace meat, and our work is with the population who cannot afford the options that we have here. We always work with legumes, beans, chickpeas, and lentils. We also work with soy protein but the cheaper option here has to be rehydrated, so we teach people how to prepare and cook that. We did not have any kind of plant-based milk options 15 or maybe 20 years ago, although we were able to make soy milk by cooking soybeans. There was no industrialized soy milk back then and even now, we make our own because it is so expensive to buy. The cheapest plant-based milk on the market is five times more expensive than cow’s milk. If plant-based alternatives were more affordable, I think more people in Brazil would want to consume them, but at the moment they are not accessible for most people. If we had more products, it would be easier to talk to people about animal welfare as well as their health and the environment.
Are there any barriers to running nonprofits in Brazil?
Our culture here in Brazil is not used to nonprofits. Often it will take two or three meetings with decision makers to convince them that the work we offer is completely free. They will usually expect to pay us for our culinary training or the changes we make to menus because they are not used to the work of NGOs—especially groups specializing in meat reduction, as they are very new here.
There are no restrictions on receiving funding from outside of Brazil but there are very high taxes on money received from foreign countries (I think around 20%). This does make it difficult to receive funding from outside of Brazil.
What research is needed to help improve effective animal advocacy in Brazil?
We have very little coverage in the media, so people don’t know how animals are produced for food. I think this is something we need to understand how to do better. When I was working in Bahia, I sent a press release to over 300 media outlets in Brazil, including television news, web news, and newspapers, and only one vegan website covered it. There was one journalist who was interested because he had just become a vegetarian and he asked me for an interview. But there was no coverage from national media on the story. In international media, we have a lot of coverage all over the world. In Brazil, the media has no interest in talking about animal welfare or anything that will reduce animal product consumption because farming animals is an important source of income. Animal producers fund a lot of the media, and anywhere you go in Brazil, you will have to face someone who produces animals for profit. The government banks finance animal producers, so it is easy to set up as a business in animal agriculture.
What role do you think education plays in animal advocacy in Brazil?
None of the national or international organizations working for animal advocacy or dietary change in Brazil work directly with children. We work with decision makers and we work with nutritionists and cooks, but we are not addressing the awareness that children need to have. I speak to my colleagues in other institutions and tell them that it would be great if they were able to secure funds to begin working directly with children. It’s a shame, but at the moment we don’t have the budget or the staff to be able to do it.