Nick Cooney, Veganomics


Nick Cooney, Veganomics

NICK COONEY is the author of Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change. He is the Founder and Chairman of the Board of The Humane League, a vegan advocacy and farm animal protection organization. His work for animals has been featured in hundreds of media outlets, including Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.

Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food. How are you today on this December 3rd, 2013. It’s a really nice day here in New York city. It’s a little cool, but not too cool and I’m just chillin’ here. Thanks for joining me. It’s “Giving Tuesday” and will talk a little more about “Giving Tuesday” later what that is and what you might do about it, but right now I want to bring out my first guest, Nick Cooney. He is the author of Change of Heart : What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change. He is the Founder and Chairman of the Board of The Humane League, a vegan advocacy and farm animal protection organization. His work for animals has been featured in hundreds of media outlets, including Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times and he’s got a new book called Vegannomics and we’re going to be attacking that today. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Nick.
Nick Cooney: Hey thanks so much for having me.
Caryn: Hey, thanks for writing that book, thanks for giving us all of that information. I’m gonna be kind of highlighting “giving” today. It’s “Giving Tuesday”, and you gave us a lot of great information, but before we start talking about your book, “How was your Thanksgiving?”
Nick: It was good. It was very good. It was with my family and while they’re still eating meats themselves, they’re not vegetarians. It was about twelve or thirteen vegan dishes and then one little pile of turkey. Pretty good on their part, so I had a nice time.
Caryn: Very nice, Well my partner Gary and I made a decision this year, that we wanted to stay home and that kind of generated a little trouble with my parents because they wanted to everybody in one place with my brother’s family and some other families and we just this year, wanted to make our own food and enjoy it and see what happens and for two days we cooked with so much joy and no stress. It was just like this zen experience and at the last minute we invited some people over and we ended up having this wonderful party from like one in the morning… The food lasted like until yesterday. It was one of the best Thanksgiving I ever had.
Nick: Well great.
Caryn: Yeah, Well we might get into the social aspect of being vegetarian and vegan. I’m sure you got some numbers on it , but let’s jump into your book. I love data. I come from a science background myself and I love collecting data and analyzing it and that’s what you did in this book Vegannomics.
Nick: Yeah, absolutely, so basically the point of writing the book was – there’s hundreds and hundreds of studies out there on vegetarian and vegan themselves, but also on people who want to try vegetarian meals, cut back on meat consumption. There’s actually hundreds of studies on these individuals, who they are, why they do it, the impact it has on them and the world. It’s kind of in varied and obscure, academic journals and other places like that. So, I kind of wanted to go through the scientific record and find every survey and study that I could uncover and see what does that tell us both in terms of things that could be interesting to us, whether we’re vegans or vegetarians, someone cutting back on meat consumption or just know someone who is. So interesting in that regard, but also useful to those who may want to motivate others to make some of those same compassionate changes in their diet. That was the whole point of the book and yes it’s a definitely a database book.
Caryn: Well, I think it’s useful for a lot of reasons, certainly companies or people who have businesses that want to target vegetarians this is a good marketing tool.
Nick: It had some great interest in it from a few vegetarian meat producers who think it can be useful to them. I’m happy to hear that.
Caryn: Absolutely, and then for some of us who has been vegan’s for like forever or it seems like it. It’s just great to be able to reflect for a moment to see where the world is today compared to where it was 25 years ago and a lot has happened and that’s good.
Nick: You’re right, you know there is a lot of good happening. Americans really are starting to change their diet. I mean, just in the past seven years alone, if we look at USA data. The average per capita meat consumption in the U.S. has dropped by ten percent and that may sound like a fairly small number and certainly, I hope that that number grows. So just that change alone over the past seven years. There’s two things, first it reversed about a 30 year trend of year over year in general increasing per capita meat consumption in our country and the other thing it did is just in the past seven years as a result of that the number of animals being raised on these really filthy, confining factory farms and farms in general. The numbers or animals being raised and killed in these places has dropped by about a half of a billion just because of a reduction in average meat consumption. We really are starting to see kind of a few changes of how we as Americans eat.
Caryn: Well, 10% is not a big number but it’s significant and when businesses or politicians see numbers like that they notice and say “I got to start paying attention and making some changes.”
Nick: That is definitely the case, you know just last week, we had a Washington Post releasing the news that Al Gore is the latest celebrity to have gone vegan himself. So yeah, they’re definitely paying attention both in their politics I think and also for some of them anyway in their own personal life.
Caryn: Yeah, I’m kind of curious to hear more about Al Gore and his move, although everybody seems to be quoting this Forbes magazine one line statement and I’m waiting to hear some more juicy, meaty details.
Nick: Absolutely,
Caryn: But, it’s not about celebrities, although celebrities certainly help and politicians help when they move toward a plant based diet and make some really sensible choices so I applaud them when they do that and it’s about time, Al.
Nick: Yeah, I mean for years, obviously, He’s been one of those prominent voices against climate change.
Caryn: Climate change, hello.
Nick: Yes and certainly it’s great that he signed in aboard with addressing his own life in terms of one of the biggest things that each one of us contributes to climate change which is of course our diet and the amount of meat we consume.
Caryn: So you gave a very positive spend, pretty much throughout this book, which I appreciated, I like to accent the positive and eliminate the negative and I’m not gonna jump out in song right now. That’s for later.
Nick: Great.
Caryn: I don’t know if you know that song.
Nick: I hope I’m still on the line when that happens.
Caryn: Anyway I’m digressing, but you talk about all the different things that are good because it causes a reduction in animals being killed and less meat being consumed so for example, we talk about, we in the veg world about those folks who chose to eat free range or “humanely” raised meats and it’s frustrating, in fact, I was talking to Hope Bohanec, recently, with her new book, The Ultimate Betrayal, and she’s arming people with all kinds of responses when they ask if it’s okay to eat organic or “free range meat” and you have kind of a different spend on it, how over all, these folks are more receptive to the vegetarian message and they’re eating less meat in general.
Nick: So , I think to tease out a couple of things there. So if we look to the data and the surveys they do suggest that people who are concerned with and eating ” free range meat” or products that either have higher welfare or claim to have slightly higher welfare that those people are more opened to going vegetarian or vegan. They are more likely to eventually make those changes, and I think that speaks to the fact that these are individuals who… some of them are kind of jumping on a “trendy bandwagon”, but certainly a lot of them want to, they care about farm animals. Most people, that don’t want animals to suffer unnecessarily and so they’re understanding is that by switching to “free range”, they are now eating animals that lived a good happy life, at least up unto the day they were killed and so it’s coming from a compassionate concern. Now of course, as you know it, there would be an unfortunate reality of that most of these farms are only very very slightly better than the standard industrial farm and so the unfortunate reality is that most animals on these farms are still living a life of “day to day absolute misery.” and I think that’s why these individuals learn the reality of how animals are treated even on “cage free” or “free range farms”, many of them are then willing to change their diets. So I think they’re compassionate people who just like most of us need to learn more of the reality of what’s going on.
Caryn: All of the more reason to be loving, non-judgmental and compassionate to everyone because you never know when today’s sensitive, “free range” humanely grown meat eater might be a potential vegetarian tomorrow.
Nick: Well of course. I’m sure you could roll off lots of people that we know who certainly fell into that very pattern.
Caryn: Yeah, okay, but you talk about learning and education and there were some interesting things that I wanted to talk about because some of them, maybe I read it wrong, but some of them, kind of go against each other so I certainly read some of the studies that you highlighted where high iq, very intelligent children tend to become vegetarian more than the average and those who are high iq or highly educated also tend to become vegetarian more than average, but on the other hand, there are many many educated people who tend to eat more meat than those who have less schooling. So these are some really fascinating nuggets there, can you digest then for me?
Nick: Yeah, the interesting dichotomy and I think the reason is this. So we do see both, if we look at children and if we look at adults that there is a correlation between diet and IQ and those who have higher IQs when they’re younger and those who have higher IQs are more likely to be vegetarian and vegetarians on average have a higher IQ level than meat eaters. So, that connection is definitely there and have been shown in a number of studies anyway, but then the reason that things get tricky when we look at education overall is that just because those with a higher IQ are more likely to go vegetarian. There’s going to be competing factors as well, so when it comes to education level overall, if we look at all of those who have higher education and perhaps have a higher IQ as well. Many of them go on to having higher paying jobs and as income goes up meat consumption goes up as well. Because that’s why if we look at those who are more educated overall we have that kind of ironic juxtaposition of a higher position of them being vegetarian, but among them eat meat, the average meat consumption is higher than it would be for those of lower education and therefore those of lower income as well. Kind of a number of demographic factors that interplay in interesting ways when it comes to diet.
Caryn: Yeah, and I think it fits in when you talked about countries that have very little… well they don’t have the income gap, let’s say so the very poor versus the very rich. The range is there’s no big gap in the middle. They tend to promote more equality with humans and with animal species and are more likely to eat less meat and the countries, unfortunately, like the United States more and more, where there’s this big gap between the rich and the poor, the educated and the rich tend to really indulge themselves and eat a lot of meat.
Nick: Yeah, that was one of the fascinating findings.
Caryn: That’s very fascinating.
Nick: … that’s what I talked about in the book, if you picked the 20 or 25 high income countries around the world so, course the U.S., Canada, Germany, England, so forth and you put all those names of those countries into a hat and you pulled two countries out of the hat, and you looked at how much the average wage earners in each of those countries earned, you could not predict from that how much meats are eaten in that country, but if you look at the distribution of wealth in that country, whether there’s a roughly equal distribution of wealth or whether there’s those wide gaps between the rich and the poor, that can predict how much those people eat in those countries. Those countries that are more egalitarian has stronger social welfare systems, basically display more social concern for the poor and the disadvantage. Those countries are also have lower per capita meat consumptions than countries with more of the “me, me, me” , everyone look out for themselves sort of attitude, which is very interesting to see again that concerns for people.
Caryn: Yeah.
Nick: Social concern ties in very much with concerns for animals and not one due to cause them harm.
Caryn: Right, and you also pointed out… I just keep connecting dots here, one thing leads to the next so a many times people have pointed their finger at vegetarians saying “why do you care so much about the animals? Do you care about the people?”, but your data shows that those who care about animals care about people probably more so than those who don’t care about animals. It’s all one big compassionate package.
Nick: Yeah, that’s right, there are studies where the researches have put omnivores, vegans and vegetarians into fMRI machine and showed them images of either humans or animals in mutual situations but also in distressing situations, those who were in trouble or hurt or injured or something like that and then they took some fMRI scans of the brains of these individuals and they were seeing fMRI images and they found, lo and behold, vegetarians and vegans had a more activation in the parts of the brain associated with an empathetic response than did the omnivores which led the researchers to include that perhaps the vegetarians and vegans have more empathy and concerns for not just animals of course, but also for other human beings. There have been a number of written studies in the questionnaire that found the same thing that when people fill out questionnaires that is designed to measure empathy levels, and answer a range of questions about their part in the world and how they live their life. Vegetarians and vegans have consistently been shown to have higher levels of empathy. In fact, as you go up the empathy scale, with each scale you go up the scale, the kind of standard empathy scale that researchers use with each step you go up the scale, your likely hood of being vegetarian doubles. So, there is a very strong connection between empathy and altruism and vegetarian or vegan eating.
Caryn: Okay, so I’m feeling very smug right now and very holier than thou. Since I’m quarter century old vegan and I do it for a lot of different reasons. Firstly, for the animals and then all the other bonuses that come with it. It’s great for my health and great for the environment and etc, etc., and according to a lot of data if were eating a healthy, vegan diet we do better than Americans on a standard American diet healthwise and quality of life-wise. There’s all kinds of winning points for this lifestyle, but you mentioned that vegetarians are more depressed? what’s that about?
Nick: This is true.
Caryn: I’m depressed hearing this.
Nick: It is unfortunate, but yeah, it’s not, or at least it did not seem from the research nothing like the depression or the anxiety are results of the diet. In fact, quite the opposite, once people go vegetarian or vegan their spirits and mood actually improve, but it does seem that people who are prone to depression and anxiety, and experience those things and have those issues, are more likely to go onto or become vegetarian or vegans themselves and while there’s certainly no research on this at this point, my conjecture on it, is perhaps that because of the suffering, in their experience, then maybe have heightened sensitivity toward others who are suffering.
Caryn: Yeah.
Nick: Whether it’s other people, or animals.
Caryn: Right.
Nick: …and perhaps, that’s part of the reason that they’re more open to these ideas, more willing too identify with others in pain and therefore, more likely to go vegetarian themselves and then again, the good news is that once they do it, there are studies that show that eating vegetarian, even for those who don’t suffer depression or anxiety or any mental health issue, that eating vegetarian, increases mental happiness and energy and mental spirit in general.
Caryn: Maybe some of those folks before they became vegetarian and had issues with depression were because they had a great deal of empathy and realized how sick the world can be and how violent it is and the fact that we don’t have control over it can be very depressing.
Nick: That can definitely be the case. Sensitivity to those things could certainly both cause depression and vegetarianism.
Caryn: Right, and what I like about personally my vegan lifestyle is I know I can’t control many things out there , but I do have control over my own life and I don’t want to bring violence into my life. I don’t want to eat violent. I don’t want to support exploitation and I’m not a perfect person and sometimes I discover that some product I might have bought is associated with sweatshops or something and I’m not very happy about it so I’m doing the best that I can, but we have control over our own life’s and that’s where this vegan lifestyle is so important.
Nick: Yeah, you know it is great to be able to do something that we know has a positive impact on so may individuals and I look at the numbers on this a bit in the book and try to see if we look at USA, data how many animals do we actually fair from not just a painful and brutal death, but also a lifetime of day to day misery and cramp confinement and the good news in terms of us being able to make a positive difference in the world, is that we really do make a big impact, as I mentioned the fact the average meat consumption has gone down, has led there to be half of a billion fewer animals being raised and killed in the U.S. and if we look at this on an individual level just cutting chicken alone out of your diet, even after you count for supply and demand curves and price elasticity of these different products and all the economic factors, just cutting chicken alone out of your diet, if you are the average American meat eater, will spare about 21 chickens a year from a lifetime of misery, that’s 21 individuals who are just as intelligent and emotionally capable as probably a cat or dog that you have at home or at least close to that and going fully vegetarian will spare about 23 animals a year from the lifetime of day to day misery and so this is a situation that each one of us does have an awful lot of power. We may not be able to change the entire food system, but there are dozen of individuals, smart friendly individuals that assume if we met them we would want to pet them and we would want to hang out with them and get a picture taken with them. We can spare dozens of them a year ourselves just by choosing different equally tasty probably more healthy options while we sit down to eat.
Caryn: Chicken make up the biggest number of animals being killed for food. People don’t realize that.
Nick: That’s correct, we typically think cow. The quintessential American farm animal, but in reality, the numbers of cows that’s being raised is in the tens of millions and you asked the numbers of chickens is somewhere around over seven billion per year.
Caryn: Yeah, especially since chickens weren’t something that people really went to as their go to meat, maybe I don’t know how many hundred years ago or more and here in the United States people have been manipulated once again, marketed and told that chicken is good food to eat to a point where doctors recommend chicken and fish over beef today because for health reasons they say beef isn’t healthy but lean chicken and fish are and they’re wrong on all of that. None of its healthy at least not in large quantities. We don’t know if a little bit is good or not good, but not in the amounts that Americans are eating today.
Nick: Right and this trend has been going on for a decades is moving from red meat towards chicken has really had devastating consequences when it comes to animal welfare and the amount of suffering in this country and on this planet. Even though Americans are eating, I think it’s about 20% more meat today than they were in the 1950’s, I’m maybe a bit off, but it’s roughly within that range, even though those in the western world are only eating about 20% more meat today than they were in the 1950’s, the number of farm animals being raised and killed today compared to the 1950’s is sevenfold increase because people are switching, have switched, from the bigger animals like cows that can get many yield out of to smaller animals like chicken which have very little meat on their bones. So the number of animals being raised and being killed for food in this country has sky rocketed because of somewhat of a public shift towards chicken. Now thankfully in the past 6 or 7 years, you’ve seen per capita chicken consumption starting to drop off. It’s dropped off, I think about 7% to 8% over the past seven years. So we are seeing a shift in that regard. The one thing I point out in the book is that for those who care about animals and want to prevent them from suffering, but don’t feel that they could go fully vegetarian right now, the best first step to make is really not to go switch to “free range” or anything like that, rather to just cut out chicken because just by cutting out chicken regardless of the rest of what you do with your diet just like cutting out chicken, you’ll spare spare up to a couple of dozen chickens a year from misery and so that’s really a great first step for those who want to help animals, but don’t think they can go fully vegetarian at this point.
Caryn: I’m wondering if you came up with this expression but, a lot of people talk about having a “sweat tooth” and you say that Americans have a “meat tooth”.
Nick: Yeah, I don’t know of anyone else having used this or perhaps I coined that term in the book.
Caryn: I loved it.
Nick: We have the highest per capita in meat consumption of any country on earth. In the book I know that the tiny country of Luxembourg is the only one that actually eats a bit more, but this fall I was actually in Luxembourg and I found out that that’s quite misleading because half a third of the population people eating food there, don’t actually live there. They just come in work there during the day eat and leave and so kinds of distorts the data. So the real reality is that America does have the highest per capita meat consumption of any country on the planet right now.
Caryn: Whoa, well there you go. Well, where can people find out more about Vegannomics and you, Nick Cooney?
Nick: The book itself, you can check out and read some sample chapters and more what the book is about and if you’re interested in it to order it and my information is up there as well. If anyone wants to get in touch with me, my email is on the site again it’s
Caryn: Terrific, thank you. Thank you so much for writing this book. I really enjoyed getting all of those numbers together and kind of confirmed a lot of things that I had already felt was true, but it is great to have a resource to go to and say “see it is true.”
Nick: Well, thanks so much for having me on and doing your show.
Caryn: … and now maybe I’ll sing a verse of “Accentuate The Positive” what do you think of that?
Nick: That sounds wonderful.
Caryn: So we started this group. My partner Gary and I, called the “Swinging Gourmets” and we have put together a vegan cabaret musical and we started to present it here and there and we’re working more on it and the point of it is, to put a very positive, joyful spend on eating plant foods because it is so loving and joyful and although there’s a lot of horrible things that we talk about because there’s a lot of horrible things going on in the world, I personally like to focus on all the benefits and the joys and we put together this show, we tell a few stories and it’s really fun. You can learn more about it at, but we took one of these songs “Accentuate The Positive” and we sing a little of it.
“You’ve got to accentuate the positive.
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative.
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between”
And that’s just a little tease, I’m not gonna sing anymore, but if you want to learn more about the Swinging’ Gourmets and hear us sing this tune, you’ll have to contact me at that website. Anyway Nick, thanks for joining me and all the best to you with your book. We’re gonna take a little break and bring on our next guest in a little bit, but before we go, why don’t we just talk a minute about “Giving Tuesday” so this is a day on December 3rd, where after Thanksgiving were we eat a lot and then a couple of days later, apparently we consume a lot going to stores. The “92nd Y” here in New York city came up with this concept of “Giving Tuesday” where people have the opportunity to give to a bunch of organizations that are on the “Giving Tuesday” website and just think about giving as we head into the bigger holidays coming on later this year and I like the concept personally, I think everyday should be giving day, not just this one Tuesday and It’s wonderful to give to all kinds of charitable organizations, but financial giving is not the only way to give. You can give of yourself, your time volunteering. Your love, your compassion … There’s so many different ways to give and we may talk about that a little bit in the next portion of this show, where gonna be talking a little bit about “Effortless Meditation” , but when we take a little break just think about “giving”, it’s such a wonderful thing because we find that when we give we get back a lot more and that’s not really the motivation behind it of course, but it’s just a wonderful benefit. Okay, let’s take a quick break and we’ll be back in a few.

Transcribed by Marcia Skinner 12/6/2013

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