Largely out of public view, factory farming began on America’s poultry farms in the 1920s and quickly spread to every sector of the meat, dairy, egg, and seafood industries. By the 1970s, this new form of animal agriculture had begun to devastate rural economies and ushered in an era of systematic animal abuse and pollution of the environment. Today, 99 percent of our nation’s meat, dairy, and eggs are produced on factory farms,1 and nearly all seafood comes from factory fishing.
But resistance is mounting, and the transition back to sensible and sustainable practices has already begun.
Incorporated in 2007, Farm Forward is a new kind of nonprofit advocacy and consulting group at the forefront of pragmatic efforts to transform the way our nation eats and farms. Our vision is encapsulated in the critically acclaimed international bestseller Eating Animals by Farm Forward board member Jonathan Safran Foer, and our executive staff and board have been working on behalf of farmed animals since the early 1990s. This accumulated expertise informs Farm Forward’s unique role as the first centrist organization where disparate interests opposed to the abuse of animals on factory farms can unite in coordinated and effective ways.
Below are some of our current projects. We hope you’ll join us in moving farming forward. Please join our mailing list to receive updates on our progress and information about how you can help.
Creating a Resource to Educate Consumers on Poultry Welfare and Guide them to High-Welfare Products
Funded in part by a successful Kickstarter that received national media coverage in outlets including Wired and Fast Company, Farm Forward spent years working with leading poultry farmers and animal welfare experts to create BuyingPoultry—a free online and smart phone-based buying guide that takes the guesswork out of finding alternatives to factory farming. BuyingPoultry ranks every poultry brand and product in the US, so you know how they treat their animals. With BuyingPoultry, consumers can see who’s best and who’s worst nationally and in your local grocery store, find information about what these companies can do to improve conditions for animals, and it’s easy for everyone to add their voices to the cause. The site also provides information about the best plant-based alternatives and where you can find them.
Enhancing the Effectiveness of Leading Organizations
Farm Forward’s consulting services allow us to amplify our impact within the movement by shaping the strategic goals of and enhancing the effectiveness of larger organizations that share our mission. Our team has been recognized as having a diverse set of skills in farmed animal welfare advocacy that even the largest and best-funded groups cannot easily duplicate internally.
The ASPCA is the oldest animal welfare organization in the Western hemisphere and boasts more than 2.5 million supporters. Since 2011, Farm Forward has been consulting with the ASPCA to inform the development of their new farmed animal welfare policies. At the ASPCA’s request, we prepared 15 policy briefs, covering all major farmed animal species and based on the latest scientific research. These briefs are serving as the foundation for revamping the ASPCA’s approach to the most abused and forgotten of all animals.
Farm Forward also provided support to launch the ASPCA’s “Truth About Chicken” campaign, which informs the public about the need to address the genetic health of broiler chickens. The campaign immediately began garnering massive public support. In 2013, the ASPCA delivered a petition with more than 72,000 signatures to the National Chicken Council urging them to incorporate slower-growing birds and better living conditions into their chicken welfare guidelines. Most recently, in 2015 we continued our consulting work with the ASPCA by revising and helping submit for publication an academic paper on the financial costs and welfare benefits of adopting the ASPCA’s platform of better husbandry practices and healthier genetics for broiler chickens. The paper will be submitted for publication in 2016. We look forward to continuing our work with the ASPCA in 2015 and beyond.
Farm Forward has also provided consulting services to UK-based Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), which hired our team to draft content for the food-animal section of their new US-focused website. We were tasked with outlining the welfare issues for all major food-animal species and providing information about how consumers can help promote higher-welfare practices through their purchasing choices. In all, we drafted content for 34 webpages with citations for CIWF. We consider CIWF’s increasing US presence a major asset to the movement and are pleased that we have been able to support its development.
We are also developing several avenues for possible consulting relationships that would help engage America’s faith communities. The largest animal protection group in the US, the HSUS (Humane Society of the United States), is also the only group with a developed program of outreach specifically geared towards religious communities, especially Christian churches. Farm Forward Founder and CEO Aaron Gross has served on the Faith Advisory Council of the HSUS since its inception and is now working with the HSUS to expand their successful outreach programs to more effectively engage the American Jewish community.
Recently we concluded a fee-based consulting agreement with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to help expand their faith outreach work with the Jewish community. HSUS hired us to develop new partnerships and programs with the Jewish community and we successfully brokered a partnership between HSUS and Hazon, the largest Jewish environmental group in the country. Under the terms of this collaboration, we have helped Hazon revise a wide range of educational materials, including its popular “Food Audit,” to incorporate food animal welfare in a community-specific manner. We also worked with Hazon on incentivized distribution of some of these newly created materials in the context of an educational meat-reduction campaign at nine Jewish summer camps this past summer.
Creating the First Post-Factory Farm Poultry Ranch
Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch is a unique network of Heritage poultry farmers that includes the nation’s preeminent expert on Heritage poultry, Farm Forward Board Member Frank Reese. In 2009, with the pro bono assistance of Farm Forward Consulting, Good Shepherd was able to expand its production beyond turkeys to include chickens. Good Shepherd is currently the market leader in the sale of chicken and turkey products that come from birds who are raised entirely outside of the factory farm industry using humane and sustainable methods. Good Shepherd has served as a model for animal welfare standards developed by several nonprofit groups, including the nation’s largest certification organization, Global Animal Partnership and the most rigorous certification, the Animal Welfare Approved program of AWI. With ongoing pro bono assistance from Farm Forward Consulting, Good Shepherd continues to grow to meet more of the pent-up demand for poultry produced using humane and sustainable methods.
Crucially, Farm Forward’s analysis of the growth of Good Shepherd has shown that new orders to Good Shepherd are virtually always replacing purchases of factory farmed poultry. When a family orders a turkey from Good Shepherd for Thanksgiving, it means they don’t buy a factory farmed bird. When Chipotle ordered thousands of pounds of Good Shepherd chicken, they also ordered that much less meat from factory farms. Our analysis also suggests that as individuals and companies move to higher welfare birds, the increased cost mitigates towards an overall reduction in meat consumption.
The work of Farm Forward has been of decisive importance to me and all of us at Good Shepherd. Without their ongoing support my work would come to a standstill. There are plenty of people who have tried to help with the best of intentions, but good intentions aren’t enough. Farm Forward’s hands-on, practical assistance—on my farm and in the public square—is absolutely essential. At a time when almost no one is talking about the crucial importance of preserving both genetics and husbandry techniques, they are. They see what needs to be done and they have the know-how to help make it happen. Farm Forward gets it.” –Farmer Frank Reese
Advocating for Improved Animal Welfare Certification
Another critical way we’re working to protect heritage poultry is by enhancing the ability of heritage producers to effectively communicate their products’ unique welfare and taste properties to consumers. Currently, farmers raising heritage poultry have very limited tools for differentiating their products from non-heritage imitations (slightly slower-growing birds colored to appear “rustic” but with profound welfare problems), which has in turn discouraged serious outside investment in heritage operations. To help solve this problem, we are currently developing “Certified Heritage” branding and intellectual property for use by all legitimate heritage producers. We are also evaluating strategies for discouraging companies from using the term “heritage” to describe non-heritage poultry products. We believe that this work will help alert consumers to the benefits of heritage poultry while making the heritage movement more inviting to investors.
Unfortunately, terms like “free range” and “all natural” are not independently regulated. Virtually all poultry—regardless of a label on a package—come from the same industrial systems. As the factory farm industry continues to find clever ways to mislead consumers, reliable certification has become more important than ever. The current “gold standard” of animal welfare certification is the Animal Welfare Approved Program (AWAP) of the Animal Welfare Institute, which has a single, rigorous standard that producers must meet. We are huge fans of the AWAP program, but it’s reach has been limited by the lack of a tiered program that not only identifies the very highest welfare producers, but also helps consumers appreciate the range of welfare available. Global Animal Partnership (GAP) has set out to meet the need for a tiered welfare certification system, allowing consumers to distinguish the range of different levels of welfare and make their own choices. Farm Forward has supported GAP’s “5-Step” tiered approach since its inception, and in late 2011 we began providing hundreds of hours of pro bono and at-cost consulting services to assist the organization as it continues to grow. At the same time, we are also advocating for even higher poultry welfare standards for both the AWAP and GAP’s 5-Step program, and utilizing our seat on the GAP board to further expand its transparency and reach.
Farm Forward also contributed to the revision of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) meat and poultry standards. SASB provides voluntary, sustainability-related accounting standards for companies that need to disclose sustainability activities to investors. Late last year, SASB began revising its Meat, Poultry & Dairy Sustainability Accounting Standard. Farm Forward (as well as Humane Society International, which Farm Forward invited to participate) successfully requested that the three best welfare certifications—Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership, and Certified Humane—be added to the SASB standards as examples of certifications that companies adhering to SASB’s standards could use when identifying the percentage of their animal protein that is certified to a third-party animal welfare standard.
In New Jersey, US Senator Cory Booker recently worked with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) to draft legislation that would define the word “humane” for meat and poultry (but not egg) products. As part of this process, Farm Forward participated in discussions with AWI and other animal organizations to determine what level of welfare, as well as which welfare certification programs, should form the basis of that definition. The group concluded that the definition should fall somewhere between Global Animal Partnership’s Step 3 and Step 4. If legislation were passed that reflected this standard, this would mean that GAP Steps 1 through 3, American Humane Certified, and very likely Certified Humane could not be marketed as “humane.” While the likelihood of such legislation passing is very small, this effort is still critical both because of what it is—a US Senator championing food animal welfare—and, perhaps even more importantly, because the mere threat of the government’s preventing welfare certifications from describing themselves as “humane” because of lax standards puts pressure on those certifications to ratchet up welfare in order to meet rising consumer expectations.
Throughout our efforts to strengthen welfare certifications’ regard for the genetic health of poultry, there has been a perennial need for additional demonstrations of the relationship between reduced poultry welfare and genetically accelerated growth rates. As part of our work to provide additional evidence of this relationship, we have designed a study comparing the welfare and productivity of fast- and slow-growing hybrid chickens to that of standard-bred (heritage) chickens. We are currently in negotiations with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to undertake the project and hope to begin the study next spring.
Collaborating to Shape Public Discourse on the Humane Treatment of Farmed Animals
Since our inception, Farm Forward has found the fullest expression of our vision in Farm Forward board member Jonathan Safran Foer’s international bestseller, Eating Animals. We supported Jonathan when he wrote the book and are featured prominently within it. Eating Animals is now being used in an increasing number of classrooms, bringing what we believe is one of the most powerful cases against factory farming ever written to young people across the globe. For example, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently required every incoming freshman to read the book and participate in a series of events around the book’s themes. We are now working with select high school teachers and university professors who already use Eating Animals in their classrooms to develop additional support materials for educators, including annual “Virtual Visits” to classrooms by Foer himself using video conferencing technology.
In 2013, Farm Forward and Foer hosted eight Virtual Classroom Visits to discuss problems associated with factory farming with more than 3,300 high school and college students at nearly 100 institutions around the world. Participating schools included Rutgers, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Texas at Austin, and Oberlin College. In conjunction with the 2014 Virtual Visits with Foer, celebrated German journalist and animal advocate Hilal Sezgin led Farm Forward’s first series of Virtual Visits in Germany. Sezgin’s book No Animal Welfare without Liberation has become a landmark text in Germany for its powerful arguments against industrial agriculture and animal exploitation, and nearly 70 groups throughout Germany signed up to discuss these issues with her. One of the major highlights of the day was a joint session which took place with both Sezgin and Foer as co-hosts. Participants were thrilled to have the opportunity to interact with both writers and to see them exchange ideas with one another.
As of December 2015, Farm Forward has hosted more than 11,000 students from around the world have taken part in this exciting program—more than 85 percent of participating students have had the opportunity to interact with Jonathan live. The response from teachers and students has been overwhelmingly positive. We continue to develop to generate discussion surrounding Eating Animals and look forward to the next series of Virtual Classroom Visits as we continue to encourage students to examine these important issues from a variety of perspectives.
The response from teachers and students has been overwhelmingly positive. We continue to develop curriculum materials to generate discussion surrounding Eating Animals and look forward to the next series of Virtual Classroom Visits as we continue to encourage students to examine these important issues from a variety of perspectives.
We’ve also worked hard to help turn Eating Animals into a documentary that could reach many times more people than the book. Scheduled for completion in 2016, Eating Animals the film is now being produced by Academy Award®-winning actress and Farm Forward supporter Natalie Portman with funding from Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams. Christopher Quinn, the award-winning director of God Grew Tired of Us, will direct the film. Farm Forward Founder and CEO Aaron Gross, Ph.D., has met with Portman and Williams and is working closely with Quinn on the documentary, just as he did with Foer on the book.
Gross has also expanded the reach of Farm Forward’s approach through academic publications and public lectures. His first book, Animals and the Human Imagination: A Companion to Animal Studies (Columbia University Press, 2012), explores the new interdisciplinary field known as “animal studies” to challenge the way we think about animals. Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee called the edited volume “a richly intelligent mapping of the field” and “accessible—even engrossing—to the ordinary educated reader.” Harvard Professor Kimberley Patton called it “impressive and startling. . . . an oracle” and the University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger predicts that it will not only “inspire more scholarly work on animals, but it will also supply fuel for activists who hope to treat animals more humanely . . . in the world outside the academy.” Gross’s second book, The Question of the Animal and Religion (Columbia University Press, 2014), extends the work of Animals and the Human Imagination to help us think more carefully about how religion and the plight of animals intersect. Gross is also a sought-after speaker at businesses, college campuses, academic conferences, and public speaking events internationally, bringing Farm Forward’s message into the ivory tower and the board room. Recent talks have included presentations at Google’s headquarters, the University of Cambridge, the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, and at the Chicago Humanities Festival.
Farm Forward also helped best-selling author Kathy Freston complete her book, The Veganist. This accessible, informative, and popular book advocates the big picture connections between farmed-animal welfare, human health, and conscientious life choices. The Veganist quickly became a New York Times best-seller and has been featured prominently on shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Good Morning America.
Conscientious Consumption Through Social Media
It’s hard to overstate the influence that social networks like Facebook and Twitter wield today. Farm Forward’s team has been on the cutting edge of these trends, combining social media and the publication of original content to spread a message of conscientious consumption to a wide audience that is harder and harder to reach through traditional marketing. Our online presence offers a fresh, relevant perspective on the difficulties associated with finding higher-welfare food and the systemic problems that create those difficulties.
Because we know that social media is becoming increasing visual, we’re crafting new videos that expertly and succinctly explain the problem of factory farming and how we can solve it.
As our platform has grown, so has our ability to generate real and exciting changes in the industry. In 2014, we launched BuyingMayo.com to raise awareness about the killing of male chicks who are deemed worthless for egg production. Almost half a million people watched our videos, signed our petition, and made phone calls in support of our campaign. As a result, Unilever, the parent company for Best Foods and Hellmann’s mayo, has promised to seek alternatives to killing male chicks for its products—a first for a global brand. Unilever also agreed to meet with Farm Forward regularly to update us on their progress.
Since Farm Forward’s inception we have worked to build an unprecedented network of connections in diverse religious communities, which has created a launching point for our new Faith in Food Initiative. We’ve cultivated ongoing conversations about the plight of farmed animals with leading Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Daoist spiritual leaders through annual participation in multiple national conferences and live presentations at dozens of seminaries, departments of theology, and departments of religious studies.
The Faith in Food Initiative was given an enormous boost in 2015 when we forged the organizational partnerships and secured the grants that have made possible our new Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA). This October we hired a full-time, three-person team for JIFA. Their efforts are already empowering Jewish communal institutions across the US to create ethical food policies that are challenging the status quo of factory farmed animal products. We’ve also helped provide financial support for Christian theologian David Clough’s new CreatureKind project—a UK-based initiative working to engage churches in new ways of thinking about Christian ethics, with a special focus on farmed animal welfare issues.
Both of these initiatives are part of a larger plan to stimulate religious institutions to take community-specific approaches to the problem of factory farming and specifically to develop ethical food policies that reflect their own values. In our view, secular nonprofit groups like Farm Forward have no business telling religious institutions how they should regard animals, but we can and have called upon people of faith to work with us and with their communal institutions to engage in faith-based advocacy to transform our food system and end factory farming.
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