Mercy for Animals Founder Nathan Runkle Discusses the Future of Food

His name is instantly recognizable to nearly every animal activist. Nathan Runkle serves as the founder and director of Mercy for Animals, an organization devoted to protecting farmed animals.

Runkle has been an animal lover and activist for essentially his entire life. In 2001, at the tender age of 17, he participated in his first undercover investigation with like-minded friends. Together, frightened but determined, they documented chicken abuses at the Buckeye Egg Farm in Ohio.

Runkle’s life changed forever the day he saw a piglet being killed for classroom dissection. A member of Runkle’s high school agricultural class slammed the piglet to the ground. Despite this horrific treatment, the piglet didn’t die — though later it had to be euthanized at a local veterinarian’s office.

Young Nathan Runkle with his animal friend, Caesar the rat.  Photo credit: Nathan Runkle/Mercy for Animals

Young Nathan Runkle with his animal friend, Caesar the rat. Photo credit: Nathan Runkle/Mercy for Animals

While the teacher, a local farmer, ended up facing animal cruelty charges, the court dismissed them. The decision maintained that what happened to the piglet was merely “standard agricultural practice” — and, therefore, not considered cruelty.  Yes, this was an acceptable way to kill piglets on a farm.

Runkle was appalled. And he hasn’t stopped fighting for farmed animals since, founding Mercy for Animals shortly thereafter.

Recently, Care2 interviewed Nathan Runkle about the future of food, factory farming, the growing mainstreaming of veganism and what it takes to be a good undercover animal rights investigator. You can read his responses below.

CARE2: How do you feel about the phenomenon of “cultured” or “lab-grown” meat? Some vegans hate it, claiming that the of use animal cells makes it objectionable. Others view it as a big step forward for animal welfare.

RUNKLE: I’m a huge supporter of clean meat — also known as cultured or lab-grown meat. I believe it has the potential to completely eliminate factory farming, sparing billions of animals’ lives. Clean meat could also save our planet; many estimate that it will require up to 80 percent less water, land, and energy to produce than meat from slaughtered animals. As the global human population races toward 9 billion by 2050, innovation in the food space is desperately needed, not only to save animals and our environment but the future of our own species.

CARE2: I was fascinated by the tales of undercover investigations at factory farms in your new book, “Mercy For Animals: One Man’s Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals.” How do organizations like MFA know whether prospective investigators really have the chops for such emotionally draining work?

RUNKLE: Undercover investigators — those who risk their lives to expose the sickening abuse animals endure at factory farms, slaughterhouses, and hatcheries — are the hidden heroes of the animal protection movement. Their work shines an important spotlight on the often-forgotten fate of the over 9 billion animals raised and killed for food each year in the United States alone. Each of these cows, pigs and chickens has a unique personality, mind and story — just like the dogs and cats so many of us know and love. Yet they are crammed into filthy cages and stalls barely larger than their bodies, mutilated without painkillers, separated from their families, beaten and violently slaughtered to satisfy our nation’s addiction to meat, cheese and eggs.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Thanks to undercover investigators, we can reveal this abuse and push for important change through corporate policies, laws, and consumer action.

It takes a very special, dedicated person to be an investigator. The work is not only physically demanding but emotionally traumatic. In fact, many factory farm and slaughterhouse workers suffer from PITS — Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress, a form of PTSD. This is because they are forced to carry out cruel practices, such as cutting the tails off piglets, burning the beaks off chicks and slitting the throats of cows, day in and day out. Animals aren’t the only victims of factory farming.

The truth is that we hire only a minuscule percentage of people who approach us about going undercover. Some people have a romanticized view, believing they are signing up for some exciting James Bond-type assignment. But this work is gruesome, not glamorous; and sad, not sexy. Once people realize this, most opt out. But a small number of brave, selfless, dedicated heroes are willing to do the work. And I’m incredibly grateful to them for doing it.

CARE2: Can you reflect a bit on veganism becoming so much more mainstream than it has ever been before? What factors do you think has made this happen?

RUNKLE: Veganism has totally gone mainstream, and for good reason. It’s an idea that’s time has come.

Everywhere you look there are vegan products. The rising number of amazing plant-based meats and milks is incredible. Impossible Foods has created a vegan burger that actually “bleeds.” Beyond Meat is wowing consumers with the Beyond Burger, and Miyoko’s Kitchen is using cashews, not cows, to create world-renowned artisanal cheeses and cultured butters. Vegan cheeses now melt and stretch. People are waking up to the fact that we sacrifice nothing but cruelty by going vegan.

Photo credit: Mercy for Animals/Travis Chantar

Photo credit: Mercy for Animals/Travis Chantar

I think there are many things driving this change, but one of the largest is social media. Never before have we been able to share information, including videos about factory farming and veganism, so massively. Social media has leveled the playing field for big business and everyday consumers, placing the power to share ideas back in the hands of the people. It has also thrown open the doors to a rich international discussion about animal protection, factory farming, and veganism.

I also believe that undercover investigations are helping drive this change by opening hearts and minds. Netflix is also helping by being an open platform for powerful films like “What the Health,” “Cowspiracy,” “Forks Over Knives” and “Okja.”

CARE2: Do you see a day coming in which factory farming will really be a thing of the past? To get society to that point, what will it take?

RUNKLE: Absolutely! A recent study found that 1 percent of baby boomers are vegetarian compared to 4 percent of Gen Xers and 12 percent of millennials. Clearly a generational shift regarding animal rights is underway.

I believe that animal rights is a social justice issue. And social justice movements always get stronger. Just as views toward sexism, racism and homophobia have shifted over generations, I believe the views of future generations toward animals will continue to evolve in an inclusive and compassionate direction.

But our work is far from over. We must continue to educate people about who farmed animals are and about the power of our food choices. We must continue to inspire people to move toward a vegan diet. I also believe we must push for stronger laws that recognize animal rights. We must stop viewing animals as mere property.

I also expect innovation in the clean meat space to be a major driver in making animal agriculture a thing of the past. I have no doubt that future generations will look back in absolute horror at the way we treat animals today. That we ever had factory farms or slaughterhouses will disgust them. Every generation faces moral tests, and I believe animal rights is a moral test of our time.

Photo Credit: Cornelius von Tiedemann/Unsplash


Marie W
Marie W8 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Michelle Spradley
Michelle Spradley11 months ago

Soylent Green?

heather g
heather gabout a year ago

Thank you for an article that has left many of us full of hope for a better future.

Peggy B
Peggy Babout a year ago


Marija M
Marija Mabout a year ago

Thank you Nathan.

Telica R
Telica Rabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing

ANA MARIJA Rabout a year ago

Thank you Nathan Runkle! World is better with you. 💕

Terri S
Terri Sabout a year ago

Keep up the good work, Nathan!! Thank you for all you do for the animals!!

Mike R
Mike Rabout a year ago

You're a wonderful man Nathan!! Thank you

Philippa Powers
Philippa Pabout a year ago