Research review: J. Mohorčich (2018) “What can the adoption of GM foods teach us about the adoption of other food technologies?” on Sentienceinstitute.org

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

Disclaimer: I will be working full time for Sentience Institute from the 1st of August.

Sentience Institute’s research is available here, and the report is available here.

This report from Sentience Institute looks at the history of Genetically Modified foods and draws lessons for advocates of clean meat (and to a lesser extent, plant-based meat technologies).

The report is very easy to access and read through. The “introduction” and the “summary of implications and findings” are mostly similar in that they summarise the key takeaways of the report. If you are happy to trust Mohorčich’s analysis, then reading these sections will only take a few minutes, and will give you most of the main ideas.

The report starts with a summary of the history of GM foods and the contrast between their adoption in the USA and rejection in Europe. The analysis then clearly lists “analogies” to clean meat, as well as “disanalogies” and points of “unclear relationship”.

Overall, the report may have the effect of making the successful implementation of clean meat (which completely or nearly completely eradicates the use of traditional animal agriculture) seem less tractable. This is mostly through the analogy to the “two-phase industry model”. Initially, GMOs were supported and developed by optimistic startups who wanted to change the world and deal with environmental issues, which were backed by venture capitalists. This phase looks very similar to the situation clean meat is in at the moment. Later, however, the optimistic startups underwent mergers and acquisitions from larger companies, which led to a variety of issues and fears around corporatization and centralization of the food industry, which reduced consumer acceptance of GMOs.

If the analysis makes EAA readers less optimistic about clean meat, it also suggest important actions that could be taken, and serves as a useful warning to the startups and to clean meat advocates. For example, one lesson from the failings and difficulties of the proponents of GMOs is that “clean meat advocates should probably [focus] on developing a robust industry advocacy group in each market they plan to enter”.

Another key finding of the report is that concerns around unnaturalness were insufficient to prohibit adoption of GMOs; it was a broad coalition of concerns which led to reduced support in Europe and caused problems elsewhere. Furthermore, “constant discussion of safety concerns, even if to answer these concerns in a technically-sound manner, tends to displace positive framing of an issue and reinforce the idea that there is something to fear.” Accordingly, advocates should focus on the positives (especially the ethical positives) of clean meat, rather than focus on responding to dangers. This also fits with the implications of Eva Vivalt’s studies, which found that “embrace naturalness” messaging was more effective at encouraging support for clean meat than messaging which tried to disprove claims about its unnaturalness. Interestingly, her conclusion on the tractability issue, much like that of “Mohorčich”, is that “clean meat is not a panacea”.

Those newer to the topic may like to start with the resources recommended here, or by reading Paul Shapiro’s book, Clean Meat. For those involved in the clean meat space or considering intervention prioritisation within EAA, however, this analysis is essential reading.

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Book Review: Erik Marcus (2005) Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money (Bio Press: Boston, MA)

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

This book is divided up into several different “parts” or sections, each of which fulfils quite a different function and would appeal to different readers.

  • The first part, “Animal Agriculture”, pages 1-60, covers the state of animal agriculture as it was in 2005, with some statistics in chapter 1, some descriptions of the suffering of various types of animal in chapter 2 and some suggestions for possible reforms in chapter 3. This will likely be a useful resource for newer advocates.
  • The second part of the book , “Dismantlement”, pages 61-126, analyses “the three existing movements for animal protection” – “the vegetarian movement”, “the animal rights movement” and “the animal welfare movement” – and suggests the creation of a fourth movement, to unite these various parts – “the dismantlement movement”. This is primarily a call for a shared proactive approach to helping farmed animals, including both institutional and individual outreach. The idea was proposed a while ago, and does not seem to have been taken up (a Google search revealed nothing obviously relevant, except a single reference back to the book itself), even if some elements of Marcus’ ideas are now fairly commonly held views in the EAA community. Nevertheless, some more experienced EAAs might be interested in the term as a potential driver of progress and unity within the movement. For instance, if we think that more consistent messaging is a priority for animal advocates, might this be the sort of term that they could unify behind?
  • The “Activist Essays”, pp. 136-178, summarise various intervention types, but some are outdated from an effectiveness perspective. For instance, the EAA community has shifted away from a focus on leafleting. They may, however, be useful for those seeking motivation – reading about the actions of others may inspire you to act too.
  • The appendices, pp. 179-232, focus on discussion of some issues related to the animal advocacy movement. These may be useful starting points for advocates, although there are a variety of free websites which address these issues equally well. Many animal advocacy non-profits cover such information in their “why” or “about” sections online. Additionally, some of the data may be a little dated now, though I only skim read these sections.

The book is therefore partially intended as a “go-to” introductory resource. It could still serve this function, but some content is outdated now. It is also partially intended as an argument in favour of specific suggestions for reforms to animal advocacy. This is primarily through the idea of the “dismantlement movement”, but contains some other core ideas, such as the note that individual outreach hasn’t been very successful to date, an emphasis on increasing the use of institutional outreach, and support for measures which might decrease trust in the animal agriculture industry, to pave the road for more radical reform at a later date. Some of the ideas are quite well-supported among more experienced EAAs, while others may prompt a little reflection.

As with the recently reviewed book by Ball and Friedrich, the book is notable for sharing some ideas which later became associated with the EA and EAA movements, despite being written before these movements were established. For example pp. 93-4 attempts some rough and ready charity evaluation (although it misses the EA focus on cause prioritisation), with quotes reminiscent of the story of the foundation of GiveWell: “donating is, after all, simply a form of investing – with the payback being social progress rather than money”. Pages 112-119 give some career advice similar to that of 80,000 Hours, including a focus on “dabbling” and career exploration.

At many points, the book touches on some of the key questions that face the EAA movement today. For instance, chapter 9 on “the militancy question” is similar to the confrontation vs nonconfrontation debate (and reflects a common EAA perspective), though it is more about use of illegal tactics compared to outreach.

The book starts by providing some useful statistics about the animal agriculture industry in the USA, but as a whole is based mostly off personal experiences and intuition. References to external research are few and far between after first two chapters. There is some reference to evidence from historical social movements on pages 81-82, though this is neither thorough nor well-explained, and as such is potentially more misleading than helpful.

The book is very easy to navigate, with a clear contents page, and is available very cheaply on Amazon. I think the title is misleading, as only a relatively small portion of the book focuses on the “meat market” or on the role of “money”. Discussion of “ethics” is also quite limited.

Potential volunteering opportunities at But Can They Suffer

I have been running But Can They Suffer on my own, in my spare time, so far. I think that BCTS fulfils relatively useful functions in developing some deeper engagement with Effective Animal Advocacy ideas for readers (thereby, hopefully, increasing their effectiveness and impact), and for helping to save wasted time, effort and resources of individuals by providing reviews to help them locate information and resources that will be most useful to them.

Working on BCTS has also been useful for myself to 1) provide a focus and an output for reading I was planning/hoping to do anyway, and to help motivate myself to do it, and 2) to demonstrate engagement and interest in Effective Animal Advocacy issues, which has benefits for my own employability prospects.

In order to slightly increase the positive impact of the blog, and to help others to receive similar personal/career benefits that working on BCTS has brought me, I am opening up some potential volunteer opportunities.

I do not necessarily need any of these positions to be filled, and I would not want to divert individuals from more productive projects towards this. I therefore encourage you to contact me if you think that any of these opportunities would provide useful exploratory value for you, would help you to practise and develop an existing skillset, or would help you to fulfil wider career goals.

My own situation is that I have recently accepted a full-time position in the EAA field, and would prefer to move into an editorial / managerial role at BCTS.

  1. Volunteer writer: see the “about” section for more information about what this might involve, and see previous posts for ideas about the style and format of reviews, reflection posts etc. Anyone can write a piece for BCTS if it is relevant to the purposes described above and is well-thought out and at least partially researched.
  2. Communications manager: I have recently started up a mailing list via mail chimp, but manage this quite poorly, and otherwise only promote the blog via the Effective Animal Advocacy – Discussion Facebook group and occasionally via my own social media. The blog isn’t remotely googleable. Somebody to manage these things might be relatively low time input, but would possibly be the most useful position for someone else to take from my point of view.
  3. People in charge of specific types of content, to ensure that they are up-to-date and (moving towards being) as comprehensive as possible.
    • E.g. someone to take responsibility for seeking out resources which would be suitable for review and which have not yet been reviewed;
    • E.g. someone to start generating valuable reflection / original resource posts regarding career paths and development within EAA;
    • E.g. someone to start developing a series of podcasts, similar to those done by 80,000 Hours, but perhaps with slightly less focus on careers and slightly more focus on strategies and particular interventions within EAA.

If any of these positions sound of interest to you, then please contact me at james_a_harris@hotmail.co.uk with the following information:

  1. Full name
  2. Experience and/or interest in Effective Animal Advocacy (1-3 sentences)
  3. Experience and/or interest in writing, research, publishing or social media management, as applicable to the role you are interested in (1-3 sentences)
  4. A post proposal, if applicable (2-5 sentences)

If you have any other ideas for development of BCTS, or questions about the above, then please also feel free to contact me.

Book review: Melanie Joy (2008) Strategic Action For Animals (Lantern Books: New York)

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

This is a book which focuses on strategy for organisations advocating for animals, but which also considers many ideas about individual activism and effectiveness. By the end of the book, Melanie Joy summarises that the book has “examined how social movements evolve and win; the difference between animal liberation and human liberation movements and how this impacts animal advocacy; the divide-and-conquer counterstrategy that makes the movement kill itself; how to maintain a strategic organization and run strategic campaigns; why and how to start your own animal liberation organization; how to be a strategic advocate for animals; and how to make sure your activism is sustainable.”

The book, consisting of 147 small pages with large font, does indeed consider all of these topics, though without much depth. The book primarily consists of some common sense thinking and some checklists of ideas to consider for each of these respective issues. The checklists may be useful if you are having to consider any of these issues, for instance tips on pages 44-46 about holding valuable “strategic meetings”, or ideas for ensuring that your campaigns have a clear goal and focus on pages 56-68. The disadvantage is that these checklists seem to be based primarily off of common sense and past experience, with only occasional reference to external literature, and no explicit reference to any particular kind of research. As a result, the checklists act more as toolkits and lists of ideas that you might like to consider, rather than as a go-to guide for the most important research or factors for each particular area.

The book is clearly subtitled – if you are soon to face any of the issues described, and don’t have much experience in the area yet, then you might find the checklists useful. A Google search might provide similarly useful information, although at least with this book you can have faith that the reflections come from an experienced and intelligent animal advocate. As with the animal activists’ handbook, this book is old enough to pre-date the majority of effective altruism writings and EAA research; whilst I am sure it was an excellent resource for its time, I probably would not recommend this book to anyone who didn’t have a specific need that I thought the book was particularly focused on.

I have copied photos of the contents below, in case any parts of the book seem particularly relevant to your needs.

Joy contents