Meet affiliated faculty Joanne Cacciatore

In this series, we're sitting down with the Swette Center-affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Joanne Cacciatore, Senior Global Futures Scholar and Professor in the School of Social Work.

1) How did you get interested in food systems issues? 

I've been interested in food systems since I was a child. I became a vegan for ethical reasons. When I was seven years old, I watched a documentary about the unsustainability and cruelty toward animals in Big Ag. That was in 1972, so a long time ago, and I stopped eating animals then, but I didn't become an advocate or start reading more about the environmental impact of food systems until I became a scholar. And while it's not directly my scholarship area, it's tangentially related. I was an odd little kid who was obsessed with Carl Sagan and the show Cosmos, and he actually was the one who inspired me to head toward veganism.

2) Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation. 

My research applies to food systems transformation very indirectly, but we work on the hearts of human beings, and we're doing it in microdoses. We started the Selah Carefarm just outside of Sedona, which will hopefully become a place for a research institute. One of the things that we do here is to help people understand the connection between their food choices and what happens to animals. We do that by rescuing farm animals and letting people who have experienced traumatic grief interact with and care for these animals. The humans who come here know loneliness, grief, loss, terror, confusion, and so do the animals. Our research has also shown a significant reduction in meat and dairy consumption and a greater commitment to sustainable lifestyle choices. It's preliminary, but we're hopeful and want to continue expanding it. 

I take more of an existential, spiritual route to veganism of oneness, henosis, ahimsa, or anima mundi: this idea of one soul, one consciousness, Oneness. What we do to the mother cow and her baby, we're doing to ourselves and our own babies. It's a very ethereal concept that may be hard for some scholars to absorb, but it's not mere fluff. This is an ancient way of thinking that's been documented throughout history. Almost every major human culture, religion, and spiritual practice has a concept of Oneness. I'm a Zen Buddhist priest, so I take a more spiritual route, but I believe in the practical, too. Of course, macro changes are also important. I am not opposed to legislation that changes how animals are treated and how we destroy the environment with Big Ag. And I'm not opposed to legislation that stops Big Ag from buying off politicians. Yes, let's do that - but I also wanna go after the hearts of individuals. I want people to understand why this is important. 

People come from all over the world to the care farm from Ghana, Cambodia, Thailand, New Zealand, Canada, and Mexico - all over the world. I want to appeal to people's hearts and for them to bring this idea home with them. Even if they don't go fully vegan, they're much more aware, and it seems to be sustained, at least anecdotally. What we're hearing is people are continuing these behaviors. We're going on our eighth year at the Carefarm, and most people are maintaining these behaviors and writing to us about it. 

But widely speaking, the change to veganism is not likely to be a quick change. Human beings didn't evolve to be violent and cruel toward animals the way we are today in mass overnight. There has been an erosion of our compassion, ethical practices, and moral duty of stewardship to the planet and the animals with whom we share Earth. It's going to take a while before we can recenter. Legislation would be faster, but getting people on board will take a lot of work. Many humans tend toward speciesism; the anthropocentric view of the world, however, has gotten us into trouble. So, it's an entire change that has to happen at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. And to be honest, I don't really care why people go vegan; I just care that they go vegan or significantly reduce the amount of meat and dairy in their diets. 

I've had students who went vegan for vanity reasons. I'm pushing up on 60 years old, and some students tell me, "Wow, you've got a lot of energy, you're physically healthy, and you don't look as old as you are." And they ask, "Do you think it's because you're vegan?" And it 100% is due to being vegan! I wasn’t genetically blessed with healthy or youthful genes, so this has to be related to lifestyle. So, really, I don't care why people come to veganism; just come to it because it benefits everyone. We're just doing a little bit of work here in this corner of the world to perpetuate this model. We started a second carefarm in Knoxville, Tennessee, with one of our CBC providers. It's her farm, but she is using our model, and we helped and consulted with her to set it up - They're vegan, sustainable, and teach people empathy- Oneness- for all too. Some people come to the carefarm and are vegan for a week, and they feel amazing. They come expecting to be tired and lacking energy but are surprised to discover that they feel fantastic because they are only putting good food in their body.  

3) What's an innovation in the food systems world that you're excited about? 

I am excited about lab-grown meat. If lab-grown meat saves a cow, veal calf, or a goat's life and also has less impact on the environment, then I’m all for it. We must do whatever we can to save the lives of these animals and stop the systematic torture of innocent beings. Lab-grown meat is obviously better for the environment; at least, that’s the reasonable hypothesis. Yet, there needs to be much more research conducted in this area. But at least preliminarily, I'm excited about the possibility of cell-grown animal products. I'm hopeful that research will show that its impact on methane and land destruction is significantly less - it would have to be. But also beyond that, I'm very committed to the animal cruelty piece. We know it gets animals out of the slaughterhouses, and that's what I care about the most. 

4) What's your favorite weeknight meal?

I eat so many things. I love vegan sushi and rice and beans and creative salads and pasta. I'm a basic eater, too. I'll just eat some corn, a bag of green beans, or some soybeans. And I hate to admit that I love sweets. I'm obsessed with red velvet vegan cupcakes from Sprinkles but only indulge about once a year. When I have time, I love to go to The Giving Tree. It's my favorite vegan restaurant in downtown Phoenix.