Josh Balk is the outreach director of the Humane Society of the United States’ factory farming campaign, where he works with corporations to end their purchasing from factory farms that use the most intensive confinement devices, such as battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates. As part of HSUS’ “No Battery Eggs Campaign,” grocery stores, fast food chains, food service providers and hundreds of universities have moved away from buying and selling eggs from caged hens. Josh took time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding his activism, what brought him to the movement and how even one person can make a difference for animals.
What was your “a-ha” moment when you decided to go vegan?
I went vegan about eight years ago after watching the documentaries The Auction Block and Hope for the Hopeless. The first video is about the cruelty endured by dairy cows and other animals at livestock auctions and the second is about the battery cage-egg industry. Ironically, prior to coming to HSUS, I went on to work for Compassion Over Killing for three years, where I conducted undercover investigations, worked with Washington, DC, restaurants to add vegan items to their menu and did tons of vegan outreach to consumers.
Could you describe the industry cruelties you saw in those two documentaries?
The Auction Block, filmed by Compassion Over Killing, is a behind-the-scenes look at several farm animal auctions where dairy cows, their calves and other animals are sold to the highest bidder, many times to factory farms and slaughterhouses. Inside the closed doors of auction houses, animals are often kicked, shocked with electric prods, dragged by their legs and beaten. I can’t imagine the confusion and fear they’re undergoing, especially the calves who only a short time earlier were taken away from their nursing mothers.
Hope for the Hopeless, another Compassion Over Killing documentary, shows what’s it’s like inside a giant egg factory farm where hundreds of thousands of hens are confined inside barren battery cages. These living, feeling beings are turned into egg-producing machines within an industrial assembly line. There’s little consideration for their welfare other than providing them water and food — the barest necessities to keep them alive for another day’s worth of production. They’re given so little space they can’t even spread their wings. It’s like forcing someone to live in an elevator with six other people for your entire life.
You’re well known in the movement for working with college campuses, getting their dining halls to buy cage-free eggs. Does that take up the bulk of your activism?
So far, more than 350 universities in the country have eliminated or reduced their use of battery eggs. While I’d love to take credit for this enormous success, most of the victories are due to the relentless and effective activists on college campuses I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years.
That said, most of my time is spent working with major retailers, helping them move away from using the cruelest animal products and adding vegan items to their product line. Working with corporations to enact purchasing policies that help animals is one of the most effective things we can do for farm animals.
Can you explain what the Cage-Free Campus campaign is?
The Cage-Free Campus campaign is one of HSUS’ signature campaigns to help abolish battery cages. University cafeterias often use hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of eggs a year. Whether anyone likes it or not, this will be the case for the foreseeable future. The question is: Is it better that these eggs come from hens confined in cages so small they can barely move for their entire lives, or from hens living in a cage-free environment where they’re at least able to lay eggs in a nest, dust bathe, perch, flap their wings and walk? I think the answer is clear.
Of course, “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “cruelty-free.” However, while cage-free hens can and do still suffer, it doesn’t mean we should ignore that the alternative for most major egg buyers, including universities, is eggs from caged hens who are given less space to live than a single sheet of paper. In other words, cafeterias aren’t likely to stop serving eggs anytime soon, but they may stop serving the cruelest types of eggs.
I think most animal advocates would agree that putting an end to battery cages would reduce an immense amount of animal suffering. It’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and force millions of hens we all know are going to be exploited to wait until a future utopia exists before they’re at least freed from the misery of battery cages. In order to so, we have to get major egg users in the country to stop buying eggs from these extreme confinement systems.
You’ve also helped activists overseas working on the same goal. For example, Mahi Klosterhalfen has made some real progress for hens in Europe. Are you open to working with activists in other parts of the world to help them with cage-free campaigns?
Over the past few years I’ve had the honor of working with some of the best animal advocates from around the world. Mahi’s unbelievable work in Germany getting major retailers to end their sales of eggs from caged hens is a testament to his tenacious and effective activism. He’s one of the best activists the animals have; Compassion in World Farming is lucky have him run its German campaigns.
Up in Canada, Bruce Passmore has engineered a campaign that has resulted in numerous cities passing government resolutions opposing battery cages and has convinced some of the largest universities in the country to stop using battery eggs in their cafeteria.
And down in Australia, Kathleen Chapman is launching a veg commercial campaign similar to what Compassion Over Killing and Mercy For Animals have done in the U.S. This is after she got her university to be the first to switch away from battery eggs.
There’s no reason why others can’t duplicate the efforts of these dedicated individuals. I’d be more than happy to work with anyone from any part of the world on campaigns to help farm animals. Billions of animals suffer worldwide, and it’s going to take a global effort to win tangible advances for them.
What’s the best piece of activism advice you ever received?
Something I learned from many of my heroes in the animal protection movement is that I should make strategic decisions as an activist with the end goal being reducing as much animal suffering as possible. Since roughly 95 percent of animal exploitation in the U.S. goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms, I’ve made it may life’s mission to help those animals raised for food. You get the best bang for your activist buck, so to speak, by working to help farm animals.
The path I chose — corporate and university outreach ― isn’t the only way to help farm animals, but it’s the way I think I’m most effective. Others, like one of my heroes, Jon Camp from Vegan Outreach, give out tens of thousands of booklets every year to college students encouraging them to eat less meat as part of the Adopt-A-College program. Another hero of mine, Kath Rogers from Animal Protection and Rescue League, is in the midst of transforming her hometown of San Diego into the most vegan-friendly, anti-factory farming city in the country. Whatever our interest or our skill set, there’s always something each of us can do to have a major impact in the lives of farm animals.
Can you offer any parting advice to the individual activist who doesn’t work with an organization? Are there any simple things they can do to reach out to restaurants, for example, or approach their college?
The great thing about animal activism is that one person can make a tremendous difference. One way for students to get involved ― on the individual level ― is to meet with their dining director about moving away from using eggs from caged hens and/or add vegan options to the menu. There are numerous universities that have stopped serving battery-caged eggs and added vegan options because one student brought this issue to the attention of the dining staff.
For instance, at Georgetown University, just one student met with the director of dining, and only a few weeks later the entire university ended its support for battery-cage confinement and went exclusively cage-free. The university used one and a half million eggs a year, meaning that one victory led to improving the lives of literally thousands of animals. If someone is interested in doing this type of effort at his or her university, they should feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.