Book review: Paul Shapiro (2018) Clean Meat (Gallery Books: New York)

Price: ***
Ease of use: **
Value for EAA beginners: ****
Value for EAA pros: **

Shapiro explains the concept of clean meat (also known as in vitro meat, cultured meat or cellular agriculture, i.e. real meat which is grown in a fermenter, or brewery, rather than in an animal), its advantages, and the history of its development in this book. He explains these ideas from a personal perspective, leading with experience and anecdotes, and the stories of the key players in the development of clean meat. This is a book intended to engage the reader and convince them of the importance and worthiness of clean meat more than it is about trying to create a reference work for those whose work or advocacy requires a deep understanding of clean meat.

The book does explain some of the technological basics, and does refer to various studies relating to likely consumer acceptance of clean meat. Shapiro points out the contrasting results of these, and suggests that the phrasing of the less optimistic studies, such as the 2005 European Commission poll which saw that “more than half of the respondents said they’d “never” approve of it” renders them less informative than some of the more positive studies. A 2017 survey published in the PLoS One journal saw two-thirds of respondents probably or definitely willing to try clean meat, for example. (This is a sentiment echoed and developed by Bruce Friedrich of GFI in his 80,000 Hours podcast. Friedrich argues that similar surveys which tested for consumer acceptance of chickens raised in factory farmed conditions would likely be similarly negative, and yet consumption of such products is both high and rising.)

Combining the results of multiple surveys, studies and polls into one book is helpful, but they are dotted throughout the book. From an advocate’s perspective, the organisation of the book is slightly frustrating, with topics and issues abandoned and revisited later, as and when they relate to the various stories that Shapiro is telling. This does make the book engaging to read, as it has natural and flowing prose, rather than a dry, informative tone, but makes it harder to use as a reference for specific topics or issues. There are no footnotes or references, which makes the ideas and reports harder to follow up on. The chapter titles are also confusing; combined with the lack of an index, this does make it harder to look up or revisit useful information discovered. For those who do want to use the book as a reference, here is a rough explanation of the contents:

  1. “The Second Domestication” – introduction and overview
  2. “Science To The Rescue” – early scientific development; comparison to some previous scientific developments
  3. “(Google) Searching For A Solution” – more of the same as the previous chapter, but brings the science a bit more up-to-date
  4. “Leading With Leather” – development of leather through cellular agriculture
  5. “Clean Meat Coming To America” – overlaps with chapters 2 and 3, nut slightly more specific to US developments
  6. “Project Jake” – the story of Hampton Creek; consideration of how clean meat intersects with plant-based meat; comparison of clean meat chicken to clean meat beef
  7. “Brewing Food (And Controversy) – acellular agriculture, i.e. growing dairy products, egg products, and gelatine without (much) use of animals
  8. “Tasting The Future” – conclusion and epilogue

For me, the book’s main use was to help me to become more familiar with the various stakeholders in the field; what each company does, and the roles of various investors, incubators and supporting non-profits (especially learning about New Harvest, which I knew relatively little about before). This is picked up gradually; it would have been helpful if the book had a short table as an appendix summarising what each company does. Open Philanthropy Project did something along these lines here (see the section on “private companies”), but this is now relatively out of date, having been published in December 2015. Indeed, one of the book’s main advantages is that it is currently the most up to date, comprehensive survey of the field.

An additional advantage was the numerous historical comparisons to previous new technologies, to understand how consumers, businesses and regulators responded to them. These ideas will be addressed more fully in another blog post, with reference to Sentience Institute’s more detailed technology adoption study.

The book also convinced me that some products may be more immediately marketable to the public (and quicker to develop) than others, from gelatin, which is already on the market, to leather, to foie gras – this last one chiefly because it will become cost competitive with conventional foie gras more quickly, and its welfare advantages will be even more apparent.

One mild criticism of the book is that it seems to slightly downplay the barriers to development. Although Shapiro regularly poses the question of whether consumers will accept clean meat, he slightly brushes the scientific and developmental difficulties aside by noting the beliefs of those working in the field that progress is inevitable. Open Philanthropy Project’s 2015 report into clean meat concluded that “we currently see developing cost-competitive cultured muscle tissue products as extremely challenging, and we have been unable to find any concrete paths forward that seem likely to achieve that goal”. The report provides a clear list of the barriers going forwards.  A more recent talk from EA Global (especially 8:15 to 24:27) notes the same difficulties, but maps out some potentially solutions. For an analysis of the estimates of when clean meat will be available by – significantly less optimistic than those of some of the individuals considered in the book – see ACE’s report here. It seems odd that Geltor is largely excluded from ACE’s analysis, however, given that they already began selling their cultured gelatine to other businesses in mid-2017.  Indeed, Bruce Friedrich of GFI is also much more optimistic than ACE, as you can hear here.

The book also serves as a great advert for careers in technology start-ups, especially as a co-founder. The book certainly makes this seem glamorous and exciting, through its personal stories and anecdotes; at several point, you are hooked waiting for the verdict of a large investor or a taste test. This career path has high potential, but wouldn’t work for everyone. Those interested should read as a starting point 80,000 Hours’ review of that career path and their review of being an early employee in a start-up. Also relevant is Friedrich’s 80,000 Hours podcast, where he encourages ambitious people interested in this area to aim to become CEOs of such start-ups, or conduct the relevant scientific research and work as CTOs.

The book is a really enjoyable, easy-going read. It’s a great introduction to the topic if you’re looking for something quite casual. For those already somewhat knowledgeable on the topic, the book may help you to feel more familiar with the history and current landscape of the field (although I suspect that it may become slightly out of date quite quickly). Costing between £13 to £20 in the UK, it’s unlikely to break the bank, but isn’t too cheap either.

For those looking for a shorter (free) introduction to clean meat, I’d recommend New Harvest’s “about” page and Sentience Politics’ 2016 report (although note that there has already been progress in eliminating the use of foetal bovine serum).

For those interested in relevant research and surveys (either so far, or upcoming), I would advise that people read the blogs and research libraries of the following groups, and sign up to their newsletters:

  • New Harvest – original research and advocacy to support the development of clean meat / cellular agriculture
  • The Good Food Institute – some original research, otherwise supporting and coordinating the development of clean meat / cellular agriculture and plant-based meat
  • Faunalytics – summaries of relevant research on their research library, some original research. and a “bibliography for cultured meat research” here
  • Animal Charity Evaluators – reviews of the non-profits working in the space, and occasional research relating to the development of cellular agriculture
  • My own blog, butcantheysuffer.wordpress.com – I will be publishing relevant reviews, reflections and updates over the next few weeks and months

Veganuary: An Effective Charity?

Price: *****
Ease of use: ****
Value for EAA beginners: ****
Value for EAA pros: ***

Explanation and resource links

“Veganuary: An Effective Charity” was a talk that I hosted with Effective Animal Altruism London, where Matthew Glover, the co-founder of Veganuary, made the case that his charity was indeed a charity on a par with Animal Charity Evaluators’ top-rated charities in terms of reducing animal suffering. This was then followed by a question and answer session with myself and representatives of Animal Charity Evaluators, Animal Equality and Open Cages.

“EAA beginners” may be interested in the talk itself, but will mostly likely find some of the questions discussed in the Q&A more helpful. “EAA pros” and large donors may find the conclusions of the talk (and this post) interesting and encourage them to shift their understanding of the effectiveness of Veganuary, and possibly the wider intervention type of month-long vegan pledges.

The full video of the talk can be seen here. You can see the Q&A here.

You can also listen to the audio of the talk here (start listening from 2.15 minutes in) and of the Q&A session here.

You can also see Matthew’s slides here. These come with notes attached which cover the majority of Matthew’s points. You can also see my introductory talk (no sound recorded) here.

The rest of this post is mostly a summary of the talk itself, with a few additional reflections.

 

Summary of the talk

Early in the talk, Matthew noted that Veganuary faces funding difficulties. Many people do not realise that Veganuary is a charity, or needs funding. But they also haven’t successfully attracted much funding from the Effective Altruism community yet. In 2016, Veganuary was reviewed by ACE – you can see the review heresee the review here – which included the estimate that “Veganuary spares between 5 and 20 animals” from life on a farm per pound sterling spent (which translates to between 3.8 an 15.2 animal lives spared per dollar, at current exchange rates). This compares very favourably to ACE’s top recommended charities. The (more recent) rough estimate for Animal Equality is that they spare “between -2 and 2 farmed animals per dollar spent”, for example. Nevertheless, these estimates are not precise calculations of cost effectiveness, and ACE has a variety of criteria in their evaluation process. As a result of these other considerations, Veganuary did not receive a recommendation as either a top charity or a standout charity.

Matthew then went on to consider some of the weaknesses that ACE identified, and suggest that there had been progress on these issues. He also confirmed that the strengths identified by ACE have been subsequently entrenched or developed.

 

Difficult to assess capacity for growth

When the review was carried out, Veganuary was a relatively young charity, with limited evidence of successes to date or of capacity for growth. Following the review, participant numbers grew from 23,600 in 2016 to over 165,000 in 2018. Veganuary has also become a UK-registered charity and created a more robust organisational structure, developing this capacity for further growth. Their website and social media results also suggest growth.

The average cost per sign up has decreased each year, from £12.12 in 2014 to £2.06 in 2018.

 

Opportunities to expand corporate outreach and PR work

Many UK supermarkets have launched new veg*n ranges this year. Some of this was supported by direct communication with Veganuary.

There are also many examples of the pledge leading restaurants to promote Veganuary off of their own efforts. For example, Zizzi promoted in both 2017 and 2018, this time launching a new vegan pizza and offering 2 for 1 on vegan dishes during January.

Their joint campaign with The Humane League aims to support corporate outreach to restaurants, with a catering guide, window stickers and cards to leave in restaurants to encourage vegan options.

 

Veganuary’s own impact estimates reconsidered

In February of 2017, Veganuary analysed their survey results and publicised that they had spared roughly 14m animals through the 2017 campaign. This led to an estimate of Veganuary sparing 108 animals for every £1 spent, which would put their cost effectiveness far above that of ACE recommended and standout charities.

This figure was derived from the number of participants and the self-reporting of omnivores and pescetarians as to whether they were likely to stay vegan. It factored in a recidivism rate of 85%, based off Faunalytics’ study.

With support from an economist engaged with the effective altruism community, Matthew has adjusted these calculations to come to a more conservative estimate of 5 animals spared per £1 for those going vegan directly as a result of Veganuary, and the total impact of Veganuary’s spending on likely being somewhere between 5 and 20 animals spared per pound sterling donated – similar to ACE’s initial calculation in 2016.

The downgrade of Veganuary’s direct impact

The downgraded figure of £1 came from three downward adjustments. Firstly, factoring in the likelihood that average Veganuary participants likely consume fewer animal products than average omnivores (estimated at 50% fewer). Secondly, that Veganuary likely did not cause many people to go vegan, but rather sped up their transition to veganism (estimated at the transition happening 2 years earlier). Thirdly, that various biases and data collection issues misrepresented how many participants stayed vegan (estimated to have inflated the figures by 50%). To see these ideas in more depth, see Matthew’s slides 58-66 here.

The potential importance of Veganuary’s indirect impact

The total estimate of 5 to 20 animals per dollar is to allow for the – so far unquantified – factors suggesting Veganuary’s wider impact than their own survey data suggests.

These include the fact that many people attempt Veganuary without signing up to the website. In the UK, there is a mass of anecdotal evidence of veganism gaining in popularity and mainstream recognition. The Google trends spike for the word “vegan” in January 2018 is larger in the UK, where most of Vegauary’s advocacy is, than for the rest of the world. It seems likely that Veganuary is responsible for a large part of this.

Additionally, supermarket and restaurant product changes encouraged by Veganuary further encourage veganism. Matthew made the point that many people take part in Veganuary without signing up directly. The Vegan Society undertook a survey last Summer suggesting that 1.3m had taken part in Veganuary 2017, and the real figure seems likely to be somewhere in between this figure and Veganuary’s own records of 59,500 for that year.

Widespread mainstream media attention likely encourages further dietary change.  Since the 2016 review, Veganuary have written a book entitled How to go Vegan, expanded their online publicity and resources, paid for posters on public transport, as well as had high-profile radio interviews, TV, press coverage and TV appearances.

All of these changes likely also encourage many omnivores and pescetarians to decrease their consumption of animal products without going fully vegan – or to try veganism and give up, but to consume fewer animal products than they did previously. As Veganuary’s direct influence grows, these knock-on effects will quite possibly grow proportionately.

Indeed, it would seem likely to me that these changes account for a far larger reduction in animal product use consumption than Veganuary’s official sign ups do; perhaps even more than the increase Matthew’s estimates have accounted for.

 

Resulting adjusted comparison to ACE recommended charities

This puts Veganuary’s own estimates back in line with Animal Charity Evaluators’ initial estimate of 5 to 20 animas spared per dollar.

Nevertheless, Veganuary has improved on a number of measures and concerns that ACE had in 2016, that might make it a much safer bet as an effective use of donations for reducing animal suffering.

Initially, ACE was concerned that Veganuary was a relatively young charity, which limited its track-record of success and made it difficult to assess its capacity for growth. In the subsequent years, Veganuary has quite clearly shown its rapid growth, and capacity for further increases in efficiency, as mentioned previously. Veganuary’s own targets for 2018, based off their growth so far, is for 300,000 participants (up from 165,000) and £1.50 per sign up (down from £2.06).

Another concern was the difficulty of interpreting Veganuary’s own survey findings; these problems have not been solved, but further analysis has made progress on this (and I know from personal conversations that Matthew is seeking solutions to improve the collection of reliable feedback and data). This may have led to some progress in the uncertainty around month-long pledges.

Given this uncertainty, ACE also noted concern that 95% of the budget was invested in the pledge. In response to this, Veganuary has conducted 3 undercover investigations like this one, which is an intervention that ACE recommends “in most instances when done by experienced organizations”. In a broader sense, they have expanded the variety and reach of their promotion of veganism, as noted above.

My quick reflections and conclusions

I haven’t checked the calculations myself, but it certainly seems plausible that Veganuary is one of the most cost-effective charities for saving animal lives. The steady growth and improvements reassure me that ACE’s concerns have been met. Even if they weren’t met sufficiently for an ACE recommendation, I think it would make sense for knowledgeable donors to meet funding gaps Veganuary would have.

Additionally, I believe that this intervention type has a place within the Effective Animal Advocacy movement. Even if minimal resources were put into expanding and publicising pledges like this, then it makes sense to have them in operation, to redirect interested people towards. Nevertheless, it seems likely that some of Veganuary’s most significant impact comes from the knock-on effects of its publicity efforts, so I do think that these are worth pursuing too.