The Animal Rights Advocate Reenvisioning the Future of Food
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because cruelty is cruelty, no matter the victim.
By Molly Fosco
When Nathan Runkle arrived at school one spring day in 1999, he found several of his classmates distraught. Mr. Jenkins, the agriculture teacher, had brought in a bucket of tiny piglets for a dissection lesson — only one was still alive. A fellow 10th grader had picked up the piglet by the hind legs and repeatedly slammed its head into the ground until it bled from the mouth. Runkle helped rush the baby pig to a trusted teacher, who took it to be euthanized.
The experience changed 15-year-old Runkle, inspiring him to start Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit fighting to protect farmed animals around the world. Nearly two decades later, MFA has worked to reduce their suffering through corporate lobbying and legislation, and Runkle continues to speak out against animal cruelty from factory farms to classrooms and courtrooms. His goals are twofold: to convince fast-food giants that animals are more important than their bottom line and to encourage the world to stop eating meat.
Runkle’s advocacy training began when he volunteered for PETA, protesting to save animals of all kinds. When he started MFA, he chose to focus on farm animals for one major reason: “Of all the animals that are mistreated at the hands of humans, well over 90 percent are used for food,” Runkle says.
As a target of cruelty himself, Runkle feels a unique connection with farm animals. Growing up gay in rural Ohio, he was often bullied and harassed. In 2008, he was the victim of a hate crime in Dayton, suffering a broken nose and facial fractures. “I think that gave me a much deeper level of sympathy and empathy for anyone that’s been the victim of violence or bullying,” Runkle tells OZY. “To me, that includes animals. While animals are different from us, they are like us in all the ways that matter.”
Runkle’s drive to protect farm animals has translated to measurable accomplishments: In the past six years, he’s grown MFA’s staff from 13 to 130 and increased annual revenue from $1.8 million to $12 million. They’ve helped pass legislation like California’s Proposition 2, outlawing confinement that doesn’t let an animal turn freely or extend its limbs. They’ve convinced big players like Burger King, Wal-Mart and Perdue to change their animal welfare policies. If you ask MFA executive vice president Matt Rice, he’ll say their success to date is a testament to Runkle’s leadership: “The organization draws really talented, committed people, and Nathan is able to guide that for maximum good.”
If you can’t use the full force of the law to change their practices, how can you get Fortune 500 companies to care about animals?
Roughly 9 percent of the U.S. population identifies as vegan or vegetarian, according to a 2016 Pew Research poll. Runkle is trying to increase that number through undercover investigations MFA has led exposing shocking cruelty imposed on livestock in the meat and dairy industries. “Investigators are the unsung heroes of the animal protection movement,” Runkle says. “This is dangerous work. It’s not, you know, sexy James Bond missions.” The footage is hard to watch: Dead hens left decomposing next to live ones, piglets having their tails and testicles ripped off and cows beaten with sledgehammers. Videos taken at factory farms and slaughterhouses have resulted in some corporate policy change, but they’ve also encouraged states like Iowa to pass ag-gag laws that forbid recording inside a farm.
So if you can’t use the full force of the law to change their practices, how can you get Fortune 500 companies to care about animals? “It’s a great question,” Runkle admits. “Some companies have people who legitimately care about this issue, [but] sadly that’s the exception. We have to have people protesting and signing petitions, showing these companies there is a liability to supporting animal cruelty.”
While MFA works the levers of public opinion to shape corporate practices, Runkle is also focused on developing and promoting “clean meat” technology. “I think there is a humane way to produce meat, and that’s through cellular agriculture,” he says, referring to “cultured” meat made by growing cow, pig or chicken cells in a lab. Runkle describes it as “meat without the murder,” and it’s catching on: Memphis Meats, a clean-meat startup, recently raised $17 million from investors including Bill Gates and Richard Branson. For its part, MFA has launched a venture capital firm, New Crop Capital, and a nonprofit that promotes food innovation, The Good Food Institute, to fund companies making this futuristic food, like Hampton Creek and Mosa Meat.
But not everyone is singing the praises of cultured meat. “It’s a false notion that animals are inherently bad for the food system,” Nicolette Hahn Niman, livestock rancher and author of Defending Beef, tells OZY. Instead of focusing on “fake meat,” she feels we should improve livestock grazing practices. “When the solution is presented as meat that isn’t actually meat, I think we’re having the wrong conversation,” Niman says. She likes to quote her friend, environmental scientist Russ Conser, who sums it up nicely: “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”
Another hurdle facing cellular agriculture is that it requires the use of fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is obtained by removing the fetus from a pregnant cow before slaughter and inserting a needle in its heart to extract blood. FBS quickly evaporates the idea of cruelty-free meat, which is why companies like Memphis Meats (funded by New Crop Capital) are currently developing a plant-based serum. Runkle points out that FBS is in limited supply as well. “There isn’t enough FBS in the world to produce significant amounts of clean meat,” he says. Cultured meat also faces the twin challenges of scaling production and lowering cost. The chicken from Memphis Meats would retail for about $6,000 per pound, according to a June report from Quartz. (That’s a 99 percent drop since the lab-grown meat technology debuted in 2013 but still has a long way to go before it reaches people’s kitchens.)
Despite the obstacles, Runkle is redoubling efforts to push for new laws in the U.S. while prioritizing MFA’s efforts in countries with high numbers of livestock, like China and Brazil, because, he says, “where an animal was born shouldn’t determine whether they’re subjected to horrible cruelty.” Runkle knows the fight’s far from over, but he’s not backing down. “Change is messy,” he says.