Tobias Leenaert's Six Word Story: 'Eating The World A Better Place'
This is the fifth post in our “6-Word Story Series,” highlighting insights, how-to’s and stories from the world of social impact driven specifically by our network of over 3100 Fellows across the globe. Click here to read the fourth post in the series. (And here for the sixth.)
After learning that the livestock industry sector is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the world’s most serious problems—cardiovascular mortality, deforestation, and food insecurity, to name a few—I wanted to change my meat-eating dietary habits. I truly did. But every time I ended up at a grocery store, I stuck to my usual shopping routine. It was cheaper, more convenient, and it was the only life my taste buds knew. The moral of the story is not new; it has been taught by behavioral economists for decades: when it comes to changing behaviors, though education is important, it is not nearly enough. After all, people don’t necessarily act upon what they know is in their best interest.
But why is that?
The answer is wired into your brain. Literally. Bob Nease, Chief Scientist at Express Scripts explains that when you’re making a decision, your brain weighs the benefits against the cost. However, one lobe (your prefrontal cortex) does so regardless of time while another section (your limbic system) weighs the trade-off in the present moment. Or in Dr. Nease’s words, “your prefrontal cortex tells you that exercising is good for you in the long-run, but the limbic system is the two-year-old that doesn’t want to work out right now.” The result of such brain-wired inertia is surely not unfamiliar to those of us who have wrestled with procrastination, or as Ashoka Fellow Tobias Leenaert, labeled it, “analysis paralysis.” This explains why my genuine intention to avoid meat consumption has remained a fleeting figment of my procrastinated and forever-imagined future.
However, Tobias has found an effective method to manipulate procrastination in people’s favor and activate good intentions. Beginning in Belgium, and afterwards reaching Germany, France, Brazil, the United States, and South Africa, Tobias has developed a model that applies principles of behavioral economics to public health by encouraging modest changes in meat consumption. Throughout his trajectory of conceiving, founding, and directing Ethical Vegetarian Alternatives (EVA)—the only government-funded vegetarian organization in the world—Tobias has identified three key lessons for every entrepreneur.
1. Envisioning complex issues as “wonderful problems”
Tobias described the overarching goal of his organization in five letters: mmmmm!, otherwise known as “making meat moderation mainstream and marketable.” In order to do so, he had to help people shift deeply rooted cultural eating habits and biologically wired inertia—a challenge that he met with a truly entrepreneurial approach. While capturing the inspiration that led him to his work, Tobias explained:
I discovered that meat was what I call a wonderful problem in the sense that it carries within it the seeds of a lot of solutions for health, world hunger, [and] the environment. And through that, the impact eating less meat has is impossible to underestimate. It has such an impact; it changes people’s lives entirely. I know no other product or activity among humans that is so far reaching.
Tobias proceeded to explain EVA’s problem-solving strategy, which is double-pronged. On the one hand, he seeks to address people’s lack of awareness regarding the problem of excessive meat consumption by publishing informative newsletters and hosting seminars—satisfying the prefrontal cortex. On the other hand, he recognizes that to design change he must redesign the environment within which people are making decisions—appeasing the limbic system. Because no newsletter, no matter how intellectually persuading, and no speech, no matter how emotionally stirring, can reasonably be expected to stimulate decreased meat consumption when meat-centered entrées are the most common option on restaurant menus. To mobilize decisions, the most desirable choices (in this case, more plant-based diets) must be the easiest to make at any present moment.
So Tobias was refreshingly frank in acknowledging that his vision of restructuring dietary environments required a structural top-down approach. His “wonderful problem” mindset necessitates working with parties who have historically been part of the problem to make them part of the systems-changing solution.
2. Mobilizing and uniting “steak-holders” through bite-sized messaging
These parties, or “steak-holders,” range from cafeteria cooks in schools to politicians with whom EVA positively engages through one unifying campaign: “Thursday Veggie Day.” The campaign asks people to consider eating vegetarian one day a week and paves a path that enables them to do so. By collaborating with government officials, EVA has successfully integrated “meat reduction” as a key target within Belgium’s environmental protection plans. And while coordinating with health professionals to communicate lifestyle benefits of plant-based eating to a large-scale audience, EVA also lobbies with caterers and food businesses to help them develop delicious veggie recipes—one for every Thursday of the year—featured in cookbooks and on menus. Partnering with key stakeholders has allowed EVA to expand its mouthpiece, Tobias explained: “I just heard, for instance, that ‘Veggie Day’ is now an official part of the Dutch language. We have made a culture!”
EVA’s long-term vision is to encourage a dietary environment where plant-based entrées become the default option, rather than meat, in homes, restaurants, and airplanes alike. But to stride towards that vision one Thursday at a time, expounded Tobias, “is what makes our campaign irresistible.” It is also impressively effective; after EVA worked with a Belgian elementary school to make veggie meals the default choice (and meat the alternative) every Thursday, 94% of the school’s students began eating vegetarian once a week. This opt-out example epitomizes EVA’s ability to transform human-wired inertia and “analysis paralysis” to facilitate plant-based eating, rather than hinder it.
3. Empathy as a gateway to affect change
Aside from feeding human intellect to foster healthy intentions and structuring the environments where people can activate those decisions, Tobias discovered that true behavior change includes a third element, also wired into our neurological system: empathy. Indeed, the driving impulse for choosing ethical vegetarian alternatives is embedded within our psyche from a young age. Children’s initial engagement with empathy—understanding and sharing feelings with others—oftentimes begins with animals, while befriending a new pet or visiting the zoo and perhaps questioning the meat contents of their dinner plates afterwards.
Although parents may commonly respond to such questions dismissively, Tobias believes that doing so has further implications when it comes to mastering empathy. It is a missed opportunity to engage with compassion in its most visceral and unbridled form. Such deep-rooted moments of empathy, if nurtured and mastered as a skill, have the potential to help future generations thrive in a world of rapid change and collaborate across sectors and cultures. Thus, Tobias believes that engaging childhood compassion and EVA’s mission are intrinsically intertwined in laying the foundation for a healthier, food secure, Everyone a Changemaker world.
This post was written by Ayah Abo-Basha (@ayahabasha), a summer associate on Ashoka’s Global Venture and Fellowship Team and student of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.