Not Small Potatoes: An Interview With Tiny Beam Fund
As animal advocacy in North America grows and progresses, more and more advocates are thinking of expanding their attention and their work to non-Western countries. On one level, this is intuitive: China is already one of the major producers of animals in the world, and the BRIC nations collectively consume a vast quantity of meat, a quantity which is expected to only increase in the coming years. On the other hand, Western advocates turning their attention to countries like China or Brazil brings up the specter of cultural colonization, especially as white advocates with a lot of resources but little connection to a particular country or region may position animal advocacy issues in a way that actually does more harm than good.
Founded in 2019, Tiny Beam Fund has made it a mission to provide support for animal advocates who wish to make progress for farmed animals in non-Western countries, and who understand that the best advocacy is contextual. In the short time since their founding, they have funded numerous projects and made a name for themselves with their laser-beam like focus on advocacy that will win over hearts and minds through an understanding of the unique cultures and economic forces that shape non-Western countries.
In the following interview, we find out more about what TBF’s name means, how they approach their work, and whether your project will be a good fit for the work they do.
First and foremost, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed! Could you please give us a bit of background on what exactly the Tiny Beam Fund is, what you do, and if you don’t mind, where your excellent name came from?
Tiny Beam Fund is a charitable grant-making foundation. It is registered as a tax-exempt non-profit organization in the U.S. It opened its doors in January 2019. And it ran a pilot project for two years before that to test the water.
We focus on a single issue: The problem and negative impacts of industrial food animal production, especially in low- and middle-income countries. We are concerned with all sorts of negative impacts, from animal welfare, environmental pollution, to smallholder local farmers experiencing unfavorable impacts from industrial producers.
As for our name, well, sometimes people are more interested in our name than our work!
Before setting up the foundation, we talked to a range of individuals about our plan so we could benefit from their feedback and guidance. And in just about every conversation, we emphasized that our resources would remain tiny (similar to that of a “small family foundation” in the U.S.).
The big question and concern we always have is this: “How can such a tiny pool of funds make any difference in our mission of understanding and addressing the hugely complex problem of global industrial animal agriculture? Aren’t we kidding ourselves? Aren’t we wearing a hat that is way too big for our heads?” In other words, we are acutely aware of our smallness from day one. And we really want our name to reflect that. At one point, we wanted to call the foundation “Small Potatoes Fund.” That was rejected as too frivolous and possibly misleading — people might think the foundation focuses on growing and selling baby potatoes.
There is another thing we find ourselves harping on constantly: Supporting others. Our main goal is to help others – help them to do a better job, to ask better questions, to see things more clearly, to learn more, to share more purposefully with those outside their own communities (such as academics sharing their research with persons working on the front-line).
Offering support led us to think of the word “beam”. A long sturdy piece of timber or metal supporting a roof or floor is called a beam. “Beam” can also mean a ray or shaft of light. This appeals to us as shedding light on something that is not well understood is another key goal of ours. Last but not least, as a verb, “beam” means smiling radiantly. The issue the foundation seeks to address is grim, and it is marvelous to have a word that reminds one to not lose sight of hope and joy.
That’s the story of our name Tiny Beam Fund.
That is such a wonderful explanation of the name and really shows how your name helps to articulate your mission. You mentioned that supporting others is a key goal. Can you talk a bit more about how you see mutual aid in the animal advocacy movement? What do you think are some ways the movement as a whole could support each other more?
Before saying a few words in response to your questions, we should disclose that we honestly are not qualified to comment on the animal advocacy movement. We have followed it for a number of years as independent observers, so we won’t say we know nothing about what is going on. But we are merely outsiders looking in, and we can’t pretend to be a “movement pro” by any stretch of the imagination.
So just a couple of thoughts:
- Share with each other the underlying thinking, reasoning, basis, etc. that prompts a certain approach to be taken or a campaign to be launched. One group explaining to other groups what prompts, motivates, and influences it to do something can improve appreciation for each other’s work and avoid misunderstandings. It’s like a bunch of freshman medical students swapping stories of why and how they end up in that medical school. Learning about each others’ backstories help them to bond, to be more considerate, to be less judgmental as they weather the ups and downs in their journeys through med school.
- One-upmanship is probably not something the movement wants to encourage if it’s looking for ways to support each other more. Competition (subtle and not-so-subtle) to be the smartest guy in town who has all the answers, knows things that no one else knows, and does things no one else can do, won’t be good for the town as a whole. People will be deterred from discussing failures and lessons learned, fresh but untested ideas and opportunities, for fear of being ridiculed as incompetent.
One of the Tiny Beam Fund’s focuses is making academic journal articles more understandable to animal advocacy groups. Why do you feel this is important?
Peer-reviewed academic journal articles and other publications by academics contain nuggets of valuable data, information, insights, and perspectives that cannot be found anywhere else – not in the mainstream media, not in facebook groups, not in the research and investigations done by advocacy groups themselves.
But these gold nuggets are scattered in a wide array of journals, from agricultural economics to sociology, and they are hidden beneath academic jargon and research methodology that is totally unintelligible to non-academics. The process to extract these nuggets is like panning for gold. It is unbelievably laborious. And more often than not, it turns up a lot of dull stuff of zero value to advocates, stuff that can never be put to practical use.
That is why we feel it is very important to: a) pin down those articles that contain content that can help advocacy groups enrich their understanding of the issues they work on and sharpen their action plans; b) make the content in the articles digestible and usable.
Another focus of the Tiny Beam fund is in promoting research about animal advocacy outside of a Western context — you’ve shown a special focus on the African continent and Asia. Tell us about this choice, and why you feel like animal advocates should be paying attention to these regions of the world.
First, the choice and decision to focus outside a Western context is partly prompted by our realization very early on that funders in this space focus almost exclusively on Western countries. Although of course every extra penny helps, adding our three tiny pennies to the 3,000 dollars other funders are already providing to advocacy groups is not going to make any meaningful difference to anyone. As it happens, we are very interested in non-Western countries, and we already have quite a bit of familiarity with Asia and various other social issues that have a global dimension. So it makes sense for us to NOT focus on Western countries. That would add more value and leverage to our pennies, as well as allow us to pursue our interest in non-Western regions.
Second, as far as the issue itself is concerned, non-Western areas of the world are the new frontiers. We think a number of animal advocates are already well aware of that fact. Just to highlight a few reasons why these regions are important and why one needs to pay constant attention to them:
- The rise and projected continual ascendancy of China as a top-tier producer, consumer, investor, importer/exporter of everything connected to animal-source food, which has reverberations across the world, from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, to Zambia.
- The emergence (and dominance) of multinational agribusinesses that are headquartered in non-Western countries.
- The heterogeneity of non-Western countries (in terms of size, economy, political system, culture, etc.). This means there is no “one and done”, no one-size-fits-all. One cannot take a single trip or workshop, and feels confident that one knows all the countries or regions reasonably well. Even a person raised in an Asian country may not know how to navigate flawlessly in a neighboring country.
Third, we seriously doubt that Western animal advocates can just parachute into these places and start fixing things there. The rich experience and successes they have gained from working in Western countries cannot easily be transferred over the oceans and mountains to be replicated in Argentina or India. Many new questions need to be answered (and asked), new jigsaw puzzles to be put together, new social norms to be learned, new networks to be formed, new tools to be forged. And that’s when we can step in and say to them, “Perhaps we can lend a hand with understanding these places.”
In a nutshell, we see an opportunity, a need, a gap, that is a good fit for us.
I would imagine that many of the animal advocacy groups you are in contact with are based in North America or Europe. With your focus on other parts of the world, how do you think Western animal advocates should approach working on such issues?
There are many non-profit groups that have labored constructively in non-Western parts of the world for decades (on issues such as poverty, health, environment). Many academics (such as China experts) have peered into the fabric of these societies methodically, collected data scientifically, and scrutinized their inner workings rationally. These folks have deep experience with these parts of the world. They know what works and doesn’t work, what makes people tick and things hum in these places. After all, these non-Western countries are not like unexplored places in Mars or areas in medieval maps where large chunks of the world are marked “Here Be Dragons” :-).
So we suggest that Western animal advocates who are making an entry into non-Western countries learn as much as possible from these knowledgeable groups and academics. Read things they have written; speak to them; pick their brains. Try not to confine only to engaging with local animal advocates in those parts of the world. Broaden out the network and radar path to hit as many different parties and sources of information as possible to gain perspectives, to gather “intelligence”, to soak up all the nuances. Find sources they can trust and persons who can help them that are OUTSIDE of their own animal-related circles.
Tiny Beam Fund has emerged relatively quickly as having a very broad knowledge base when it comes to non-Western animal issues. What would you say are the most important issues that animal advocates should be looking at as they seek to expand their work?
We don’t think we can name specific issues that are the most important to work on. But there is a general outlook or mindset that we think is particularly useful to hold when working in non-Western countries.
Before embarking on major campaigns and serious projects, take the time and effort to truly understand a problem or situation. What are the real drivers and causes of the problem? Why is something the way it is and why is it trending in a particular direction? What is holding something stubbornly in place? How exactly will a proposed solution break apart these strong holds or overcome existing barriers?
Think things through very very carefully. Don’t rush. This is not a race. Take the time to connect the dots, to see if the dots do actually join up to get you to your goals, and be crystal clear as to what those goals are. Consider what trade-offs you are willing to make to reach them (there are bound to be trade-offs). Come up with a roadmap with each concrete step and benchmark delineated to see if something is missing. Dig down deep and really get under the skin of the problem to interrogate it.
That is because societies and situations in non-Western countries are markedly different from those in Western countries, full of surprises for newcomers, and not what they seem at first – or even sixth and seventh – glance.
Animal advocates are a wondrously passionate and dedicated lot. They dream of the many ways they can help to make the world a better place for all. But when working in non-Western countries, it is super-important not to let the dreams, aspirations, and impatience cloud one’s assessment of the reality on the ground or raise false hopes within oneself as well as in one’s supporters. We are absolutely convinced of this need to be extra clear-eyed and hard-nosed, to call a spade a spade when working in non-Western countries.
For example, how EXACTLY does reducing meat consumption in a country in Asia lead to industrial meat production to drop in that and/or another country? What are the links in this chain? How exactly does Step A lead to Goal Z?
Take the recent case of Singapore approving cell-cultured chicken products for human consumption. (Singapore imports more than 90% of its food. Its government said that the key reason for favoring cell-cultured protein is that it fits into the country’s ambitious plan to produce its own food.) Let’s unpack this case and look at it more closely:
- People in Singapore consume X number of chickens, almost all imported.
- Replacing X chickens with cultured-chicken means meat producers/processors in some other countries can no longer bank on exporting X chickens to Singapore.
- Do these producers /processors then raise /acquire X fewer chickens? What is the evidence backing up this claim?
- On the other hand, another scenario is worth considering. It is no secret that when a large producer /exporter loses a certain market for whatever reason (changes in government regulations, cost, consumer demand, etc.), it often seeks and shifts to new replacement markets rather than simply throws up its hands and reduces its level of production accordingly.
- So let’s say many chicken products imported by Singapore come from two Chinese corporations that obtain their chickens from large poultry farms in China.
- Having lost Singapore as an export destination, these two firms start to look for other markets to absorb the chickens meant for Singapore. Vietnam is a handy alternative. It is right next door, its cuisine is not dissimilar to China’s, it has a great trading relationship with China, and people there are eating more meat.
- The two Chinese firms then proceed to flood the Vietnam market with the chicken products previously destined for Singapore. These exporters can offer Vietnam retailers and consumers an attractive price because the chickens are produced in highly cost-effective large facilities.
- What this means is that Singaporeans’ consumption of cultured-chicken has not caused less chickens to be raised in industrial farms in China.
- And that is not all. Local small-scale Vietnam poultry farmers cannot compete with the flood of Chinese products and are driven out of the market (because of a combination of factors including lower price, appeal of advertising and marketing, greater availability and convenience, etc.). Consumers in Vietnam now purchase lots more chicken products that come from industrial farms in China instead of from small local farms in Vietnam that have higher animal welfare husbandry practices.
- In other words, cultured-chicken in Singapore has displaced high-welfare chickens in Vietnam rather than industrial chickens in China.
Of course this scenario is only a conjecture. It needs in-depth investigation. It may turn out to be totally off the mark. But the conjecture and reasoning is not baseless. It has been well-documented that Chinese pork did flood the Vietnam market and seriously harm local pig farmers who raise their pigs on small-scale farms with reasonably good welfare.
That is why no matter which specific issues the advocates want to work on, we think it is critically important to not make assumptions and jump to conclusions. Proceed with abundant caution. It really pays to think through everything in order to avoid unintended consequences, falling into traps, and stings in the tail.
Can you describe your ideal candidate for funding? Or perhaps what kinds of projects or advocates are not ideal to fund, from your perspective?
We always refer to our four pillars when we review grant proposals from advocacy groups: 1) Focus on low- and middle-income countries; 2) Focus on making use of academic research and/or researchers; 3) Focus on industrial or large-scale production; 4) The clear presence of deep and nuanced understanding.
The first pillar is straightforward as we use the latest World Bank country classification by income level. The second one is also not hard to spot. We look at how big or significant is the role to be played by academic studies and/or academics in the work that the grant will fund.
As for the third pillar, we have a fairly clear interpretation of “industrial” and “large-scale”. We can determine without too much difficulty whether a proposal addresses such types of animal farming. In case you are curious about our interpretation: For our purpose, “industrial” production refers to a distinctive method and system of production and type of value chain characterized by features such as hired labor, confined housing, controlled feed and diet, high throughput, products geared for commercial purposes, vertical integration. (“Industrial” may be interchangeable with “intensive” in some cases, but not always. Production can be intensive without being industrial.) As for “large-scale”, the number of animals kept in “large-scale” farms varies from country to country. One has to look at government categories or widely accepted figures on sizes and scales of farms in a particular country to determine whether certain farms in that country are considered to be large-scale.
The fourth pillar is less easy to describe precisely and may appear vague. A sophisticated understanding of an issue or problem can be displayed in a number of different ways in grant proposals. But in our experience, we can recognize it fairly easily when we see it. Occasionally it even leaps off the page and really grabs our attention! It helps our assessment when the applicant articulates clearly the questions it is trying to answer. These questions often reveal to us whether the applicant has an in-depth understanding of the problem it is trying to tackle, or whether it is simply following some facile ideas and shallow, ostensible reasons.
An ideal application is one that scores high in all four categories. Let us mention a real grant proposal (submitted by Group A) that is is close to being an ideal:
- The proposal is focused on a lower-middle income country.
- The grant is used entirely to support the work of four academics who hail from the most prestigious research institution in that country.
- And this research work concerns comparing the costs of switching from battery cages in large/industrial operations to enhanced cages versus to cage-free systems.
- The applicant understands (and explains cogently in its proposal) that in the country concerned, the egg producers’ serious doubt that investing in cage-free systems is financially viable is an extremely important reason holding back their willingness to change to such systems and their preference to just add some enrichments to cages. Presenting to the producers concrete figures from a highly respected and objective source that spells out that cage-free systems are economically justified and actually a very good investment will therefore vastly increase the producers’ confidence and motivation to sink their money into cage-free systems.
- – Bonus point: Group A is based in that lower-middle income country.
Perhaps we can borrow this cage-free egg example to illustrate the kinds of proposals we will probably NOT fund, again guided by our four pillars:
- A proposal will not be within our scope if the country involved in the proposal is a single high-income country (we don’t mind if high-income countries are mixed in with non-high income countries).
- If Group A relies solely on its own staff members who do not have a lot of experience or training in doing this type of highly specialized calculations (e.g. non-PhD level generalists who are not familiar with that particular country), we will not provide funds for that project. The reasons are: a) We do need the involvement of academics (meaning individuals who are currently working in academe, preferably PhD holders or students). b) In developing countries, analyses from advocacy organizations are not taken seriously by industries (and governments) unless there are exceptional circumstances; so the work done by Group A’s staff is unlikely to convince the egg producers.
- Even though we absolutely agree that all farmed animals need help – not only those kept in industrial farms – we have “drawn a line in the sand” so to speak, and are reluctant to review proposals that have little to do with animals raised in the systems that we focus on. So we will not fund Group A’s proposal if it is about the welfare of free-range hens raised by smallholders for subsistence.
- We think Group A’s astute identification and explanation of the need to provide high-quality economics/finance evidence to industrial egg producers shows that Group A has delved into the question of key obstacles blocking the way forward. Furthermore, the reasons they give for commissioning academics from a renowned local institution to do the research provide us with further clues that Group A realizes what it takes to persuade egg producers. Group A’s application would NOT have been successful if it were to say that even though there have been months of protests against egg producers without a positive outcome, it still believes (without giving any sound evidence or justification to back up the claim) that the only reason the producers are not budging is that they are not bothered enough by activists’ protests, and researching how to increase the effectiveness of these protests should cause the producers to cave in swiftly. And it is seeking a grant for this research. These statements would raise a red flag for us. They would signal to us that the applicant is not familiar with the big picture, is not interested in looking beyond what it has been doing, and does not understand the fundamental reasons why the egg producers are unwilling to change to cage-free systems. And this is not the sort of project we are keen to support.
To find out more about how the Tiny Beam Fund is helping advocates understand and address the complex problem of industrial food animal production around the globe, you can check out their website.