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Nilang Gor Talks Empathy, Systems Thinking, and Plant-Based Food Policy

by the PZI Team

February 28, 2023

As humans, our wellbeing is dependent on the health and wellbeing of the world around us. We live in a global community where hundreds of thousands of different species interact to form an intimately connected ecosystem. ~ Nilang Gor

In March 2021, Berkeley, California, became the first US city to adopt Vision 2025, a progressive food policy and purchasing program that addresses the harms to people, animals, and the planet of industrial animal farming.

Berkeley has pledged to replace 50 percent of the city’s animal-based food purchasing with plant-based foods, and to create an advisory body that will “propose sustainable food policies” to Berkeley’s city council.

This achievement is due in large part to Nilang Gor.

By trade, Gor is a molecular biologist. As a systems thinker, he believes that we live in a highly interconnected ecosystem, where our wellbeing is interdependent on our fellow humans, nonhuman animals, and the environment.

To address the unethical and unsustainable animal farming system, Gor has founded Cultivate Empathy for All (CEA), a nonprofit organization focused on advancing understanding of the interdependent connections of people, animals, and the planet, and on creating a more just and equitable society by using systems change to transform our food system.

CEA mobilizes community members to educate their city lawmakers on the negative impacts of animal-based food systems and to promote local, sustainable policies and programs.

Gor is also a PZI supporter who is partnering with us on our forthcoming Impact Assessment Tool, which could revolutionize how society measures “progress” and “economic health.”

We were delighted to talk with Mr. Gor about his organization’s work, and his interest in a prevention- and justice-centered One Health approach to creating a world where everyone can thrive.

Nilang Gor participates in a human rights march in Ahmedabad, India.

PZI: Please share a bit about your background, including how you’ve come to advocate for advancing the interdependent rights, health, and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet.

NG: I grew up in a low-income family in India and decided to engage in activism and volunteering to improve conditions for the unhoused community in the Bay Area after completing my education.

I used to serve warm soups with processed meat to Berkeley’s unhoused community members on Thursday nights. I soon learned of the animal and environmental degradation caused by factory farming to produce unhealthy, subsidized, animal-derived products such as red and processed meats.

It helped me realize that human, environmental, and animal rights are interconnected. I also learned that animal cruelty is the most-ignored and least-prioritized issue in our society, which fails to understand the interconnected nature of our world.

As a result, I started my advocacy to educate policy makers on the importance of animal rights, leveraging the One Health approach.

PZI: What inspired you to found Cultivate Empathy for All (CEA), and why focus on empathy and systems change?

NG: Empathy is our ability to feel someone’s pain and suffering firsthand. We often lack systems thinking and develop apathy toward animals because of our inability to recognize how our health and wellbeing are interdependent on animals and the environment.

As a result, I founded an organization whose main focus is to address our food system by cultivating empathy for all through a systems approach.

PZI: One of CEA’s areas of focus is influencing cities to enact plant-based food policies and training advocates to take local policy action in their communities. Tell us more about why CEA chose to focus on food policy in cities as a means of systems change.

NG: In the twenty-first century, we are facing the existential threat of climate change, along with public health crises, world hunger, and biodiversity loss.

Animal agriculture sits at the center of these issues, but often it goes unaddressed.

While approximately 80 percent of the US population lives in urban areas consuming most goods and services in the country, our cities fail to recognize consumption-based GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.

As a result, most US cities and towns don’t recognize the carbon footprint of their meat and dairy consumption.

It falls to us to reduce food emissions and our ability to free up agricultural land that could be restored in native ecosystems for atmospheric carbon sequestration. It is estimated that a plant-based food system can remove up to 547 GtCO2 by 2050.

This is more than the remaining carbon budget for 1.5C warming.

As a result, Cultivate Empathy for All focuses on mobilizing local activists and residents to advocate for plant-based food policies in their communities by leveraging a One Health, systems-based approach.

PZI: Tell us more about the successes that CEA has had in Berkeley, and how you’re working to replicate that success elsewhere.

NG: We were able to organize, educate, and advocate for Vision 2025 (a 50 percent plant-based shift in Berkeley’s food procurement by 2025) and the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) Factory Farming Divestment resolutions in Berkeley.

The Berkeley City Council passed both of these resolutions in 2021.

Now, we are collaborating with organizational leaders and academic experts to provide city advocacy training to local activists and residents across the US.

We provide scientific data and facts on how animal health is intertwined with the health of humans and our shared environment. We also provide them with plant-based policy drafts and advocacy strategies.

Our goal is to create leaders in every community to replicate our success elsewhere in the US.

Nilang Gor participates in an animal rights march in San Francisco, California.

PZI: Why is systems thinking such an important tool for addressing our global challenges, and how can advocates who want to influence meaningful change for people, animals, and the planet better integrate systems thinking into their efforts?

NG: To address global challenges, we need to understand that our world is a highly interconnected ecosystem where our wellbeing and health are interdependent on our fellow human beings, animals, and the environment.

Our global challenges are not separate from one another. We don’t have the luxury to prioritize some over others.

I can’t protect human health by continuing to ignore animal and environmental health. Systems thinking is such an important tool for addressing our global challenges.

Advocates can successfully integrate systems thinking in their work by leveraging a One Health approach.

PZI: You’re also working with PZI on developing and implementing an impact assessment tool that can be used by professionals, advocates, communities, and policy makers to determine the impact of policies, industries, and/or infrastructure development on the rights, health, and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet. Why do you think that project is so essential?

NG: Many policy makers don’t prioritize animal health because they don’t recognize its connection with human and environmental health. A One Health assessment tool can really help our policy makers connect the dots and recognize the importance of protecting animal health.

It can help us cultivate a culture of empathy and systems thinking within governments.

PZI: What advice would you give to other professionals who want to influence policies and practices in their workplaces and fields of study to advance empathy, justice, and wellbeing for humans, other animals, and our shared environment?

NG: The first step is to recognize what issues your target audience or institution is prioritizing.

The next step is to help them connect the dots between their priority issues and the fact that the health of humans, nonhuman animals, and our shared environment are interconnected.

Don’t start with what you care about. Start with what they care for. Ask questions. Develop strategies. Organize. Educate.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

For tips and resources on transforming systems and advocating for positive change, explore our effective advocacy toolkit.

Find out more about Cultivate Empathy for All (CEA).

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