How VR is Helping Usher in a New Animal Rights Era
From Virtual Reality to alternative cattle feed, read about the eco-conscious startups and animal rights activists finding new ways to reduce the environmental impact of our food supply chain.
By Jessica Miles
October 3, 2020

Do you know where your last meal came from? Probably not, most Americans are detached from their food supply. Determining the sustainability of our food choices can be a confusing process.

The EPA estimates that 12% of methane emissions come from agricultural manure management alone. Overall, livestock emissions are responsible for roughly 40% of the annual methane budget. According to the Washington Post, if cows were their own country, they’d be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

Thankfully, eco-conscious startups and animal rights activists are finding new ways to reduce the environmental impact of our food supply chain. Here are three ways technology and passion have come together to combat CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) by increasing supply chain transparency and empowering consumers:

1. A Mile in Their Shoes:

Animal Rights Groups Are Utilizing Virtual Reality (VR) to Let People See through a Cow’s Eyes

Animal rights groups like Animal Equality and Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) are using virtual reality (VR) to bring an immersive experience to citizens and expose egregious factory farming operations to captivate our collective unconscious about animal rights.

For example, Animal Equality runs a series called iAnimal, providing virtual reality tours of dairy farms in places like Mexico, Berlin and Germany. According to the NY Times, these videos have a broad reach, with one video being viewed by 63 million people worldwide.

The benefit of using VR is the immersive nature of the experience. In Wired, Andy Greenberg recounts his own experience with the technology: “the visceral stress of the scene was far more immediate,” and “the hairs on my neck stand up, and I find myself feeling something unexpected: fear.” DxE’s founder attributes VR’s effectiveness to its unique ability to “[allow] you to get out of your own head and into the head of another.” When it comes to empathizing with non-humans, inhabiting the lived experience of an animal is potent feedback.

Similar to Animal Equality, DxE is using VR to expose egregious animal mishandling practices. However, because DxE conducts open rescues, where its members show their faces in photographs and videos, DxE co-founder Wayne Hsiung is facing up to 60 years in prison. Despite that grim possibility, DxE hopes to request that the jury “be required to strap on VR headsets and be immersed in the scenes the activists captured...” (Greenberg, Wired).

If allowed as evidence, such a ruling could pave a way around state ag-gag laws, and permit additional filming of factory farm conditions. Exposing more people to the environmental and animal rights impact of factory farms through VR could eventually transform the American food system. As Jedediah Purdy writes in After Nature, “Encounters with everyday violence might help viewers to assess the things we already do but tend not to see” (242). All of us must ask ourselves the question: if given the opportunity, would we peek behind the curtain?

2. Help a Cow, Save the Planet:

Symbrosia Is Changing Cattle Feed to Reduce Livestock Methane Production

In our podcast episode Alexia Makes Meat Future Proof, Tony and Lex interviewed Alexia Akbay, the founder of Symbrosia, a startup focused on reducing livestock methane emissions through alternative cattle feed. Symbrosia claims that adding 0.2% of Asparagopsis taxiformis seaweed to cattle feed can reduce livestock methane emissions by 90%. (Similarly, in a UC Davis study, the addition of Asparagopsis taxiformis to cattle feed reduced methane by 58%).

If emissions reduction is as simple as stifling cow burps, it’s unfortunate that, as Tony points out, “There are no TUMS for cows.” However, a steady seaweed supplemented diet might just do the trick. Symbrosia makes it easy to understand their process for growing Asparagopsis taxiformis as well as how this type of seaweed inhibits methane production.

Imagine a world with a more transparent food supply chain, that included packaging labels denoting production with eco-friendly feed. Empowered customers could choose the eco-friendlier option, with little perceived sacrifice. As Alexia notes, “The consumers and consumer packaged goods further down the supply chain have a lot of control over what they’re going to pay a premium for.”

Which leads us to...

3. Radically Redefining “Meatless Mondays” with One Simple Ingredient

In our podcast episode Pasi Makes Food Out of Air, Tony and Lex interviewed the founder of Solar Foods. As a company, Solar Foods is focused on using an additive called Solein, a single-cell protein whose fermentation process is similar to yeast. Solein is competitive with traditional animal products both in terms of cost and protein content. With about 20 different food products from bakery items, to granola, to plant and meat-based analogs, Solar Food is hitting the ground running.

However, it’s up to consumers to choose sustainable alternatives. Pasi acknowledges this, saying, “Startups as a whole, and the venture capital whole as an industry, is a very agile animal [when] responding to customer pull. Companies like [Solar Foods] are here to offer products that consumers would really consume and want. If the products are bad, we don’t expect consumers to go for it.”

In Conclusion... 

The power is in your hands! In addition to supporting eco-conscious startups, concerned citizens can take immediate action by donating to animal rights groups, watching an iAnimal video, and talking to friends and family about the sustainability of your food choices. When possible, consumers can also buy from local farmers’ markets or trusted, transparent brands.


Works Cited: Purdy, Jedediah. After Nature. Harvard University Press, 2015. pg. 242.


Grab our free sustainable living E-book! Go check it out now.