How passion for animal welfare brought Priya to Sweden

Behind cheese is a cow. Behind the internet’s favorite food, bacon, a pig. It may seem simple, but this drives Priya every day in her work. Learn how her passion and expertise in animal welfare put her on a path that finally led to IKEA, and why these issues are important for a global furnishing company.

Some of Priya Motupalli’s best memories from growing up in Southern California include animals in some way or another. Today, in her new hometown Malmö in Sweden, she jokes that one of the joys of walking along the beach are the many dogs she meets. As far as she can remember Priya has always had an affinity for animals. Her interest for farm animals in particular was sparked one day in an undergrad class in college. They were discussing agricultural commodities in California, and dairy calves and almonds were at the top, and something struck her.

“I had never really thought about animals as commodities before—and certainly not in the same breath as almonds. If we thought about them as commodities did that influence how we treated them too?”

She was hooked. The rest of her degree she spent learning about different production systems, how different animals were reared on farms and about farmers responsibilities towards these animals. She also worked with researchers who designed improved environments for animals.

Trained as an animal welfare scientist and with a PhD in her hand with a focus on dairy cattle, she joined a global animal welfare non-governmental organization in the USA. There, for a few years, she taught about farming systems, supported food companies, trained third-party auditors and conducted farm assessments around the world.

“I was also lucky enough to be involved in the rescue of an injured harbor seal pup as part of our marine mammal welfare work!” says Priya.

Working for an NGO gave her a lot of exposure to global farming systems and she met a number of food producers. She describes those years as a time when she received good training in the basics of what is possible and what “sustainable agriculture” means in different places.

Then, one and a half years ago she packed her bags, moved to Sweden and joined IKEA. Her assignment as a sustainable sourcing specialist is to develop and support the implementation of IKEA Food’s sustainable sourcing strategy connected to the animal-based products in our food range called the IKEA Food Better Programmes. This strategy consists of a set of programmes which covers animal welfare, environmental impact, and public health issues at the farm level. They are based on current science, expert opinion, and supplier feedback. The ambition is for these programmes to be implemented for all species— chickens, laying hens, pigs, salmon, beef and dairy cattle—at the latest by 2025.

“This is a unique position where I get to place animal welfare at the heart of our vision for more sustainable agriculture.”

Why did you choose to work for IKEA?

“It was definitely the culture! Through my previous employer, we supported IKEA with basic animal welfare education and supply chain risk assessment. I was even able to go out and see a local chicken supplier with IKEA Food co-workers. I was really impressed by the kindness, willingness to learn, and genuine interest and commitment to animal welfare and a more sustainable supply chain exhibited by IKEA,” says Priya.

Priya has slowly been making her way through IKEAs animal-based supply chain. She has been visiting pig, poultry, and cattle operations globally at both the farm level and at the slaughterhouse.

“You learn a lot from simply talking to farmers—building a picture of how and why they do what they do, picking up best practice as you go along.”

During the visits she tends to spend a lot more time with the animals than other folks do, and she thinks it is important to watch how the animals behave and interact with their environment, including the people they encounter on a daily basis.

“These visits are crucial because we have to hold ourselves accountable for what’s going on in our own supply chain, be it good or bad. We can’t expect to be leaders in this space if we don’t listen and learn from the people that are actually doing the work,” says Priya.

Why is working together with experts, organizations and suppliers important?

“Simply put—because we don’t know everything and creating lasting change doesn’t happen alone.  Working with folks who are on the ground on a daily basis or at the forefront of the changing landscape of animal agriculture —farmers, researchers, and NGOs only strengthen our work. We may not always agree, but we can actively learn from each other and ensure shared value,” says Priya.

Creating engagement is also important, says Priya. Most people still don’t make the connection between animal products and the animals themselves. And people’s awareness should rather start with something more fundamental than a specific animal welfare issue.  “Behind cheese is a cow and behind the internet’s favorite food bacon is a pig. As long as we use animal products, we have a moral obligation to provide the animals themselves with decent lives where both their physical and mental needs are met—it’s as simple as that.”

That is why it is as essential to ensure that the people who work most closely with farm animals are trained appropriately, feel good about their job, and are treated well, that translates to better animal care. Supporting them means supporting the animals.

“For things to really change in any meaningful way we have to provide good incentives for food producers to be able to produce food in a certain way. With animal welfare specifically, we need to focus on broadening the definition beyond the traditional focus of basic biological functioning, to one that encompasses what animals want as well as what they need. And I’m not saying it’s easy by any stretch of the imagination, but we have to be willing to push the boundaries—sometimes even when the solutions aren’t clear yet.”

 And intent matters, even if everything is not perfect.

“It is not that common for a global food company to have a full time resource dedicated to improving animal welfare in their supply chain—this is what real commitment looks like,” says Priya.

Five facts about Priya:

Where and when: Born in Illinois, USA, 1987. Grew up in Southern California. Moved to Sweden 1.5 years ago.

Reading right now: “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah.

Favourite podcast: The news quiz podcast “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”

Item that means a lot to me: A friend of mine had this idea to buy postcards from all the places she’s travelled and write down what she did in each place. I adopted this idea, so I have a lovely box full of postcards with all my memories!

A talent I wish I had: I wish I was more creative! My brother is a brilliant artist and I always admired this about him. I wish I had a natural talent for art or music. Oh well!