Sometimes, for activism to succeed, it requires someone with an unexpected point of view.
Leah Garcés — the president of Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit focused on investigating and reforming factory farms globally — is just such an activist. She’s a pioneer within the animal welfare and protection movement, where she has worked for over two decades in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world. Garcés and her team’s investigations documenting the conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses, especially for chickens, have garnered national attention and ultimately have improved the conditions of countless broiler chickens (chickens grown for meat, not eggs).
Prior to her work at Mercy for Animals, Garcés engaged in about a decade of animal protection activism across 30 countries, before returning to the US in 2009 and founding the US chapter of Compassion in World Farming two years later.
Over the course of the 2010s, Garcés improved the conditions of chickens by working with unlikely allies — the chicken farmers themselves. Historically, animal rights activists and farmers tended to be in opposition, with the farmers being cast as perpetrators in a system of violence and activists seen as attacking the livelihoods of essential workers.
But Garcés recognized that the factory farm system hurt both animals and farmers (a 2001 study found that most growers whose sole source of income was broiler farming live below the federal poverty level). She built a relationship with a North Carolina farmer named Craig Watts, who played a pivotal role by allowing Garcés and her team to film the conditions of the chickens he raised under contract from Perdue Farms in 2014.
The resulting video was picked up by national media outlets like the New York Times, and prompted Perdue Farms to improve the conditions of its chickens over the next several years.
And they’re not alone. Other chicken producers, like Costco, are now slowly improving their farming practices as well.
Much remains to be done, and Garcés is still working. At Mercy for Animals, where she became president in 2018, Garcés has become focused on helping ex-poultry farmers like Watts through a project called Transfarmation, which involves collaborating with farmers to start producing plant crops like peas and oats for food or hemp for medicinal purposes, and then connects them with businesses in need of their products. As Watts, who has become a mushroom farmer, told Stone Pier Press in an interview, “You’ve got to have something that’s good for the farmer, good for the animal, good for the environment, good for the consumer, good for the community.”
This holistic, inclusive approach has been key to Garcés’s success. And though it’s an uphill battle against some of the biggest titans in food production, it’s clear this activist is in this fight for the long haul.