Food awareness organisation ProVeg is on a mission to halve animal consumption by 2040, by raising awareness of the multiple benefits of a plant-based diet. As part of the Activism in Existence series, the Soapbox team speaks to Jimmy Pierson, the UK director of ProVeg, to hear his experience of being an activist
Activism in Existence is a Soapbox series that seeks to uncover the individual’s story and their experiences of being an activist. In this series, those that advocate for human, environmental and animal causes, answer the same six questions, and through their answers reveal what they are passionately fighting for. In its entirety, the series showcases the diversity within activism and the challenges and wins of moving towards a better future.
What is your story?
I’m currently the UK director of ProVeg International, which is a food awareness organisation that is all about trying to accelerate the transition to a more plant-based society. If someone had told me even as recently as five years ago that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I just wouldn’t have believed them. I grew up in a relatively working-class household and ate as much meat as I could.
I would never have been described as an animal lover. It was never on my radar and nor would I say I was an environmentalist; climate change was a term that I never would have mentioned. It was only when I stopped eating meat and animal products, initially for health reasons, that I made a connection with both animals and the planet, and felt compelled to do something about it.
The compulsion to do that was rather inconvenient for me because at the time I’d just landed what I thought was my dream job. It was my childhood ambition to be a football writer and I’d got a job as a football journalist for The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London. I’d made a big shift to do that because, before that, I was a lawyer in London, and that was going really well, so I’d made these two changes and I felt, ‘Oh I’ve got to do it again,’ but it was completely and utterly the right thing to do.
What is your idea of activism?
My idea of activism is what I’m doing now in this current role, and it’s to bring about positive change, as effectively and efficiently as possible. As I explained, ProVeg is an International food awareness organisation. We believe that the best way is to work with companies, organisations, public institutions, and governments. We view this as influencing the influencer. It’s a much more effective way of bringing about change than trying to persuade individuals to change their diet. It’s about being as strategic as possible.
For example, there’s the campaign that we launched last summer called ‘School Plates’, in which we were trying to bring about menu change within primary schools. We didn’t go to individual schools, we approached the local authority that has 350 schools within its control, and if we’re able to influence that local authority, the person that makes the decision, then the change is rippled down into those 350 schools. So it’s that kind of activism that really excites me.
What does it mean to be an activist as an individual?
I don’t think activism should be narrowly defined. What I think is really important (and some of these values and principles are often forgotten and sometimes neglected), is just being a nice person and being kind. If you’re kind in everything that you do, good things happen and positive change happens. You’re putting good stuff out there into the universe and I think that is wholly underestimated.
Activism, in the field that I’m in at the moment - which is all about trying to reduce meat consumption, and promote a plant-based lifestyle - has veganism at one end of the spectrum. Veganism is still viewed in some sections as extreme and a bit out there, so I think it’s really important as an individual to normalise it and come across as someone who is relatable. It is achievable and it is desirable, I think it’s really important to have that normalising of something.
Who or what has given you strength in your activism?
I’m tremendously influenced by the founders of ProVeg International, particularly an individual called Tobias Leenaert who also goes under the name of ‘The Vegan Strategist.’ I just love his thought processes and the way he goes about trying to create change. He’s got a book called How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach. I think he’s fantastic in every single way, and I’ll give you an example of the thought experiments that he does.
People in our movement want the world at some point to be vegan, that’s the dream, the end goal. His example is this: say you’re taking out a meat-eating friend for dinner. They’ve agreed to come with you this once and agreed to try whatever you recommend. You go to the restaurant, and on the menu, there are two options. One of them is a vegan burger, but you know that it’s not very good; it’s a bit dry, doesn’t taste that good, and hasn’t got much flavour. The other one is a vegetarian burger. It’s got lots of cheese on it, and there’s egg in the actual burger, but you know it’s really good. Which one do you recommend? Ideally, you’d want to promote the vegan burger, but Tobias’ view and mine is to be pragmatic. You want that person to have a good time and to have a good experience. So we’d go with the veggie burger, even though there are some animal products in it. It’s sometimes those counterintuitive thought processes that I really like.
Another thing that Tobias talks about is being an effective altruist, and this is a notion that I really subscribe to. It’s all about doing the most good that you can do, and often it’s using reason and scientific evidence and also looking at your own skill set. In that way, I’m very influenced by him.
In terms of what gives me strength, it is undoubtedly the animals. And while I said at the outset that I wasn’t an animal lover, I now have a very deep connection with animals, and now I can see the injustice of what’s going on and the catastrophic impact of what’s happening on an enormously wide scale. I just feel that it’s wrong and I want to do something about it.
What has activism done to change you?
It occupies a lot of my thoughts, it occupies a lot of my heart, and a lot of my time, because I do it full-time for a living. On a very practical level, it’s all-consuming at times, but I love it. Another thing I noticed - I quit this job as a football writer, and I always say football was my first love. I was obsessed with it, lived and breathed it, I read about it as much as I could, I watched what I could. I found this cause to bring about some change, and football sort of felt trivial, like I’m not that bothered about it anymore. So some of the things I was interested in before feel less interesting now, and I feel that there are some more important things going on in the world.
What do you consider a win?
Well, I’ll just give you an example of a recent win. We persuaded two local authorities to implement the menu changes on our School Plates campaign and that covered a total of 110 primary schools, which over the next 12 months means that 3.1 million meals are going to be going from meat-based to meat-free. It is going to have a whole range of benefits for animals, the planet, and the health of the kids in those schools, and that’s a win. But I think we should celebrate wins more often, even the little ones. It’s very easy to get bogged down and just keep going and going, and not be satisfied, and keep pushing it. So actually I think we should celebrate all the little wins along the way.
If you’d like to know more about Jimmy and his work you can follow him on Twitter @JimmyMPierson or visit the ProVeg International website proveg.com