Animal Law Conference Brings the Pieces Together

Written by Elizabeth Umlas

October 28, 2020

How do climate change, factory farming, consolidation in the food industry, COVID-19, racial discrimination, dangerous workplaces and environmental injustice fit together? This question, and much that flows from it, was at the heart of last weekend’s 28th annual (virtual) animal law conference of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). ALDF is a leading NGO dedicated to protecting and improving the lives of animals through the legal system. Its conference, entitled “Impacts on animals in a changing climate”, gave top billing to issues such as climate change, industrial animal agriculture and zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animals to humans). But themes such as racial equity, workers’ rights and the structure of the US food industry were also given prominent coverage, and were woven together with animal welfare issues. Indeed, multiple sessions underscored the interrelated nature of these problems, as well as the importance of movement building across sectors to address them.

One of the very few benefits of the current pandemic has been its illumination of “vital truths” that were always there but rendered invisible: the impact of the brutal trade in wildlife on the health of human beings all over the world[1]; the “frontline” nature of food industry workers who are, nonetheless, treated as disposable; the fragility of our food supply chain. All of these themes and others were brought to the fore in the conference. Although the concept of One Health, which “recognizes the connection between the health of people, animals and the environment”,[2] is not new,[3] it may take a global health crisis to bring it home to the average person. The usefulness of ALDF’s conference was not only in making these connections vivid but in laying out how activists, scholars and lawyers in a wide range of sectors can – and must – work together to address injustices in all of these areas rather than simply staying in their lanes.

Panelists examined systems that cause deep harm to human and animal populations and the environment alike. Examples included:

Factory farming: a presentation by ALDF noted that 9 billion land animals in the U.S. alone are raised and killed for food yearly in a sector marked by extreme concentration (a few large companies account for a huge portion of the meat industry). These same companies failed to plan for, or react appropriately to, COVID-19. The predictable results have included high rates of illness and death from the virus among slaughterhouse workers – disproportionately people of color – and the mass killing of animals through extremely cruel methods (euphemistically called “depopulation”) in response to the pandemic’s severe disruptions to the food supply chain and the economy as a whole.

Environmental racism: on the same panel, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) described the institutional racism underlying the placement of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in communities of color in eastern North Carolina. These operations have led to enormous hardship for local residents, including water, soil and air pollution; poor health; children missing school; and extreme property devaluation. Naeema Muhammad of the NCEJN spoke of the meat companies’ denial of these communities’ “basic human rights”, such as clean water and a clean environment.  

Wildlife trade: on another panel, speakers noted the trade in wildlife and factory farming as major drivers of zoonotic diseases.[4] The enormous suffering of non-human animals in these operations brings tremendous risk to human beings, or as Aysha Akhtar of the Center for Contemporary Sciences put in it in her presentation, “hurting animals hurts us.” In the same session, Erica Lyman of Lewis & Clark Law School pointed out that many emerging infectious diseases affect people in the Global South but are driven by consumption levels in the Global North, again underscoring the (in)justice angle.

Speakers across the board highlighted how their organizations were using lawsuits, policy advocacy, petitions and formal complaints to state agencies and support for progressive legislation[5] to fight systemic injustices. Jessica Culpepper of Food Justice pointed out that systems that oppress people, animals and the environment “are not inevitable” and can be changed. She pointed to the need to “shift the narrative”, for the stories of those affected to be told and made visible and for movements in different sectors to align and push for structural reform.

In fact, presenters expressed the same notion in different ways: we cannot seek justice for one stakeholder at the expense of another. Racism, climate change, food insecurity, worker rights violations, environmental destruction and cruelty to animals are tied together through systems that perpetuate and externalize these harms, and attacking them requires unity and cross-fertilization. Just one example of a far-reaching coalition, the HEAL Alliance (Health, Environment, Agriculture and Labor) is a multi-sectoral group working to improve the food industry.[6] HEAL’s José Oliva noted during a panel on food policy that the coalition’s work stretches across issues of health, environment, access to good food, animal welfare, agriculture and labor. He pointed to HEAL’s theory of change: “no single organization, alliance or sector can transform the system working alone or in isolation.”

By far the most hopeful strand for me as a conference participant was precisely the number and clarity of calls for collaboration across sectors, and for animal advocates and groups fighting for environmental and social justice to work together. These calls are not new, but they have taken on a new urgency in the face of the global health crisis, climate change, rising social and economic inequalities and growing public awareness of the brokenness and cruelty of our existing systems. As Kathy Hessler of Lewis & Clark Law School put it, there is a need to “find common ground”, to use “intersectional thinking” and to “break out of silos.” This message of unity is not only practical and strategic: it is one that brings hope and motivation in these troubling times.

Croatan Institute’s work around financing sustainable and regenerative agriculture includes an emphasis on social equity and animal welfare. Learn more about Croatan Institute’s current USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant developing an innovative, place-based financing model to support the adoption of farming systems that improve “soil wealth” –  what we call the constellation of benefits associated with building both soil health and community wealth through regenerative agriculture. This project on Regenerative Organic Agricultural Districts (ROADs) builds off our pioneering work on Soil Wealth (2019). For more information about this project, contact

Liz Umlas is a senior fellow at Croatan. Her background is in business and human rights, with a more recent focus on animal welfare issues.

[1] COVID-19 has been identified as a zoonotic disease. One scientific article, discussing the emergence of COVID-19 in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, notes that “based on current evidence, [COVID-19] may not have actually emerged” in the seafood and wet animal market in Wuhan. But while it might have begun elsewhere, the same authors assert “it seems very likely that the virus was amplified in the market”, and “there is therefore a strong reason to ban unregulated wild animal sales in Chinese wet markets…both from a public health perspective and for ecological reasons.” John S. MacKenzie and David W. Smith, “COVID-19: A novel zoonotic disease caused by a coronavirus from China: What we know and what we don’t”. Microbiol Aust 2020 Mar 17  doi: 10.1071/MA20013  

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “One Health”,

[3] See, for example, B.R. Evans & F.A. Leighton. A History of One Health. Rev. Sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz., 2014, 33(2): 413-420,

[4] Well-known likely examples of zoonotic diseases include HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS, Avian influenza and COVID-19.

[5] Two examples of proposed legislation mentioned frequently during the conference are: the Farm System Reform Bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren; and the federal Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, introduced by Democratic Representatives Marcia Fudge, Rosa DeLauro and Bennie Thompson. The proposed laws seek to benefit both people and animals.

[6] HEAL is an initiative of the Food Chain Workers Alliance.