Disclaimer: From 01/08/18, I will be working full-time for Sentience Institute. I was also considering a potential role at Veganuary and have been in regular contact with the co-founder. I hold both organisations in high regard; probably higher than average within the EAA community. Thanks to Connor Jackson, Vicky Bond and Matthew Glover for their feedback on the first draft. This post represents entirely my own views, rather than those of the commenters or of my new employers.
Recently, Jacy Reese of Sentience Institute posted a blog post on “3 Big Changes We Need in the Farmed Animal Movement”. It seemed like a useful post for members of the Effective Animal Advocacy movement, in that it clearly outlines three suggestions for major reforms. I would encourage all readers of this blog to read that post. It has also inspired me to create a similar list of areas where I suspect I disagree with others in the EAA community, broadly defined. This is less of a confident, well-informed plea to those involved in EAA organisations (which is broadly how I see Reese’s post) and more of an attempt to draw attention to some potentially important issues. These issues might potentially meet Reese’s criteria of being “important” and “under-discussed”, although I am not yet particularly confident about any of my own thoughts about the long-term implications of animal advocacy strategies, and I can’t claim that my reflections here have as extensive a research basis as those in Reese’s post.
This post may generate useful feedback for myself, so that I can update my own views, but may also encourage others to change their own views and behaviours.
For simplicity’s sake, I have focused on three issues. For those interested in wider debates within EAA, some of the best resources are Sentience Institute’s list of foundational questions, and Animal Charity Evaluators’ intervention reports, plus materials on cause prioritisation.
The three focus areas are:
- High profile vegan pledge campaigns have been relatively under-utilised as a method of taking some of the low-hanging fruit of individual transitions towards veganism, but also as a method of generating momentum for corporate outreach. This view comes with some important caveats, however.
- Animal advocates should start explicitly paving the way for wide-reaching legislation to restrict factory farming. This is more tractable than we might assume, and potentially more desirable, although there are risks involved.
- Some EAA efforts are close to saturation in developed, Western countries, and greater effort should be placed on expanding into countries with less of an EAA presence. This must be done in a very careful manner, which is considerate to varying cultures and conditions.
High profile vegan pledge campaigns have been relatively under-utilised
Supporting individuals to reduce their consumption of animal products has short-term benefits by reducing the demand for animal products, and therefore reducing the number of animals suffering in factory farms. Reduced use of a particular behaviour can correlate to (and may directly lead to) reduced support for a wider practice; reducing animal product consumption might therefore help to challenge speciesism and encourage wider moral circle expansion. Where it is cost-effective to do so, this is therefore a useful intervention.
Proactive, individual vegan outreach is difficult, for a number of reasons. Vegan pledges are more “reactive” in the sense that they support individuals who are already close to making the switch to veganism to do so. They essentially pick the low-hanging fruit of potential vegans. I suspect that the main benefit of widespread publicity of pledges is in redirecting people towards the pledge itself and its supporting resources, rather than in independently changing people’s attitudes. Even if the EAA movement de-emphasises a vegan ask, there will likely be those who wish to personally abstain from cruelty, as discussion of animal issues becomes more widespread and pledge campaigns support those individuals to do so.
Perhaps most importantly, high-profile pledge campaigns have the potential to have a large indirect impact by provoking businesses to perceive there to be an increase in demand for vegan products. Rather than simply encouraging veganism among the low-hanging fruit, high-profile pledge campaigns may therefore also drive corporate and institutional change which makes consumption of plant-based foods instead of animal products easier and more widespread.
An important caveat, however, is that there are a number of ways in which pledge programmes could fail to be effective, thereby wasting resources, or could even be counter-productive. Although far from failing completely, other charities in the UK (see here and here as examples) have run vegan pledges which have never achieved the same publicity or success as Veganuary has. This suggests that the specific planning and marketing of the campaigns could be crucial, although the differences in success may partially reflect differing levels of resource input. For an example of a potentially counterproductive pledge, see this one, which encourages reductions in red meat consumption, which could potentially lead to increased consumption of chicken meat and therefore an increase in total animal suffering (for an estimate of the suffering caused by different animal products, see here). Furthermore, there may be some dangers of encouraging veganism, and it may be better for the EAA movement to focus primarily on institutional messaging. See a summary of that debate here.
The potential for more widespread change arising from vegan pledge programmes is untested at this point. This seems like a promising avenue to explore, however. I would encourage those looking to found new charities outside of the UK to consider focusing on a pledge programme, and those who are happier to donate to riskier intervention types to consider funding pledge programmes.
In support of the claim that reducing animal product consumption will possibly challenge speciesism more widely, this study, though with a small sample size, suggests that those who consume animal products extend compassion to a smaller “moral circle” than those who do not. Psychological understanding of cognitive dissonance more widely makes this seem plausible, although I am not aware of more conclusive evidence that this process is inevitable.
There is a wide variety of evidence showing that individual outreach is difficult. Some of this will be considered in more depth in the second section, below, but a speculative cost-effectiveness comparison makes the basic point. Individual outreach can often be costly to lead to meaningful change for animals, when advocates are seeking to proactively reach out to potential vegans. One of the most promising interventions in this area has turned out to be disappointing. Recently, Peter Hurford and Marcus Davis’ reanalysis of the study by Faunalytics and Animal Equality into individual video outreach “points to an estimate of $310 per pig year saved (90% interval: $46 to $1100)”, which is incredibly expensive compared to other intervention types, such as corporate outreach or undercover investigations. Although their cost effectiveness estimates are speculative, and they don’t place much weight on them, Animal Charity Evaluators estimate that undercover investigations might spare between 0.15 and 820 animals from living through factory farming conditions per dollar spent (with their “realistic” estimate being 210 lives). By comparison, Hurford and Davis’ analysis suggests that, if applied to chickens and converted into a lives per dollar figure, video outreach might spare between 0.03 and 1.4 animal lives (with a manipulating of their main estimate suggesting 0.18 lives). Although we shouldn’t take such cost-effectiveness comparisons as particularly reliable, the figures here would suggest that undercover investigations were over 1000 times more cost-effective than individual (video) outreach at sparing animals from living through factory farming.
In contrast to this expensive form of outreach, a relatively thorough evaluation by Veganuary suggests that their pledge programme is sufficiently cost-efficient to make their impact per dollar comparable to ACE top charities, and could spare between 5 and 20 animal lives per pound, which translates to between 3.8 an 15.2 animal lives per dollar, at current exchange rates. They are currently seeking fuller evidence and external review from ACE to corroborate this, but this could suggest that their pledge programme is well over an order of magnitude more impactful than individual video outreach, if we compare the figures to those from Hurford and Davis’ reanalysis of the Faunalytics study.
Veganuary’s experience has shown that their pledge programme has led companies to provide more plant-based foods and sometimes to actively promote plant-based foods and diets. The pledge campaign has also led to opportunities for direct corporate outreach. Although Veganuary’s success in these areas has been mostly confined to the UK, it seems possible that success with highly-publicised pledge programmes could drive momentum for wider corporate and institutional change in other countries too, whether through Veganuary or other charities.
Animal advocates should start explicitly paving the way for wide-reaching legislation to restrict factory farming
Although there are a variety of different forms of individual vegan outreach, as noted above, this does not seem to be a particularly tractable area for reducing animal suffering in many cases. This suggests that a shift towards institutional interventions and messaging would be more impactful. A shift from individual to institutional interventions is advocated by Jacy Reese, Tobias Leenaert and other EAA researchers, whilst the wider debate is summarised here.
Political and legislative efforts are a particular type of institutional intervention. There is evidence that wide-reaching legislation to restrict factory farming is more tractable than common sense would suggest (see below).
Efforts to implement such radical legislation to reduce animal suffering are high-risk, but potentially offer high-rewards.
They are high risk in the sense that they seem ambitious and difficult, and could fail. This would drain significant resources from the EAA movement, that could otherwise have made a huge amount of difference for animals. Perhaps worse than the resource cost, however, is the risk that failed efforts could set a dangerous precedent or perhaps lead to a backlash effect, either in terms of legislation or in terms of changed public perceptions of animal advocacy. This might make further victories for animals more difficult.
Radical legislative efforts would, however, probably have an extremely high impact for animals, if successful. Such legislation could not only make significant improvements in animal welfare in the short-term, but would cripple the profitability of the animal agriculture industry by forcing businesses to use less efficient practices and may therefore help to make widespread animal agriculture impractical.
The closest effort that I know of to the sort of far-reaching legislation that I am proposing here is being pushed by Sentience Politics in Switzerland; read more here.
As noted in the first section of this post, efforts at proactive vegan outreach can be expensive. This study by Animal Welfare Action Lab seems to suggest that a reducetarian ask is not significantly more cost-effective than a vegan ask. The differences were not statistically significant between the treatment groups; compared to a control group, those exposed to an “eliminate” appeal reported to have reduced their meat consumption by around half a portion over 30 days on average, whilst those exposed to a “reduce” appeal reported an average reduction of around three-quarters.
More widely, there is a range of psychological biases and effects that reduce the tractability of efforts to systematically change individuals’ behaviour. Many of these are listed here and here. Efforts at vegan outreach have been ongoing for decades, and yet have had extremely limited success. Animal product consumption continues to rise, both globally and, in some cases, within developed countries, whilst the proportion of vegans has not risen substantially.
There is a range of evidence from social movements showing that efforts to change individual consumption habits have not played a significant role in wider successes for social movements, except where it has been used in a targeted way to facilitate wider political campaigns. As an example, one historian of the Free Produce Movement to boycott slave-made items in the USA has written that “there is little evidence that slaveholders or their political representatives paid much attention to [the free produce movement] and no evidence that it had a discernible economic impact on them” (I’ve cited them second-hand from here). In the British anti-slavery movement, there was a boycott of West Indian sugar, but this only reached 4-6% of the population, and yet slavery was abolished in 1833, after being severely damaged by legislation that ended the slave trade in Britain in 1807.
Furthermore, the historical success of this movement suggests that a single piece of significant legislation, which fundamentally weakened the institution and industry of slavery helped to lead to its eventual full, formal abolition (at least in that country). Legislation banning factory farming, or perhaps even slaughterhouses, could have a similar effect on ending animal agriculture. Other historical social movements, such children’s rights, also suggest that legislation can be successfully implemented without full public support for an issue, but can subsequently shape both attitudes and behaviour.
The best evidence that wide-reaching legislation to restrict factory farming is surprisingly tractable is that in a recent survey (which has been replicated, and its findings confirmed), 49% of US adults said that they support a ban on factory farming, 47% said that they support a ban on slaughterhouses, and 33% said that they support a ban on animal farming. That said, some countries are probably more amenable to such legislation than others. In Canada, modest animal welfare measures (against practices which are unpopular and illegal in other countries) were rejected in 2016, for example, suggesting that more radical reforms are not tractable there, unless political circumstances change.
One benchmark for how much such a campaign might cost in a developed, Western country could be a comparison to the campaign costs for the Brexit referendum, which were limited to £7 million. Clearly costs could be far higher, or somewhat lower than this, however. Given that Open Philanthropy Project has recommended grants totalling over $48 million in the past few years towards animal welfare causes, such costs seem large but achievable, if the EAA movement prioritises legislative efforts enough.
Many examples could probably be found of times where failed legislation either has or hasn’t delayed progress of a social movement or popular goal. An intuitive political analogy is how in the UK, in 2011, the issue of electoral reform was shaped by the Liberal Democrat Party into a referendum on the issue of whether or not to changed the voting system from First Past The Post to Alternative Vote. AV was an unpopular system, and the public rejected the change; voting reform has not been discussed much in the UK since, and I suspect that the political campaign has delayed progress on the issue by many years. One example which serves as counter-evidence is that in the late 18th century, several abolition bills were suggested and rejected, and yet the slave trade was abolished in 1807.
Greater effort should be placed on expanding into countries with less of an EAA presence
Many developed, Western countries have had animal advocacy movements for decades, and this has combined with Effective Altruism ideas to develop the EAA movement in recent years. There are, however, many countries in the world which have not had substantial animal advocacy movements and are comparatively disconnected from the developments in the EAA movement. Some of these countries are also countries with incredibly high use of animals for food (in total, if not per capita), or are currently on a trajectory towards increasing use of animals as food. This website is useful for easily visualising and comparing countries’ animal product use, and comes from UN FAO data. Note how China produced 18.19 million tonnes of poultry meat in 2014, second only to the USA. Brazil produced 13 million tonnes, while even India, known for relatively widespread vegetarianism, produced 2.76 million tonnes. See Lewis Bollard’s newsletters for excellent summaries of both the problems and opportunities in China and India.
These countries with high total animal product use have had various forms of animal advocacy; see PETA India as one example. Nevertheless, my impression is that the proportion of people working on animal advocacy in some of these countries is far smaller than in much of the developed, Western world and that this is even more the case for those connected to EAA research and ideas. Given the huge scale of (potential) animal suffering, and the relative neglectedness of advocacy in such countries, the EAA community should be focusing its resources, where possible on exploring opportunities for action there.
This will almost always involve trade-offs for organisations, and will often be a relatively “risky” opportunity. But the expected value of seeking to expand into countries with a lower track record of animal advocacy seems higher.
The leadership of multiple charities have expressed explicitly to me that fundraising reasons at least partially underpin their expansion into the UK or USA. But by entering such countries, charities are essentially trying to compete with other animal advocacy charities already in that country. This may still be beneficial overall, if the charity is more impactful than other animal charities. However, by entering countries with less of a track record of animal advocacy, I suspect that animal charities are more likely to locate and open up new sources of funding for the movement, which may be small at first but may grow over time.
I hold the views expressed in this section slightly less strongly than those in the previous sections, however. This is because there are still intervention types which have not come anywhere close to saturation in many developed, Western countries. I also suspect it is possible that the leadership of EAA organisations also share my priorities longer-term, but that they are simply being relatively cautious, and focusing on expanding their successful programmes into culturally similar countries before they attempt to expand them elsewhere.
If you agree that more neglected areas should be a higher priority, even if the tractability of interventions there is unclear, then there is still a need for caution. We don’t want organisations to take action in a culturally insensitive manner, which could potentially reduce the tractability of future actions, by alienating the governments or wider populations of those countries. Some relevant concerns are listed here, such as the danger of creating bad first impressions, although I’d suggest that some of the concerns about Effective Altruism there apply less to EAA specifically; there is less of a requirement for specific, complex concepts, for example.
For further reflections on a related issue, see Max Harris’ recent post on But Can They Suffer: “Effective Animal Advocacy in China: Perspectives from a UK Activist and Tourist”.
In the past year or so, I have seen The Humane League and Open Cages expand into the UK. Veganuary are currently hiring to expand into the USA. I have also seen several new EAA groups spring up in the USA, such as Better Eating. I use these examples not to criticise the specific organisations or decisions, but merely to point out that EAA organisations are continuing to focus significant efforts and resouorces on expanding further through developed, Western countries. In some expansions of EAA organisations within Western, developed countries, a niche is being filled that other organisations have either neglected or lacked the resources to fill. Whilst Compassion In World Farming have been working on chicken welfare for decades, the rapid rate of success achieved by The Humane League in the UK proves that they have made a valuable contribution. Similarly, even if PETA have been working on banning fur in the UK for decades, Open Cages have brought an EAA perspective and a different campaigning style.
There have been some efforts to expand into areas where animal advocacy is neglected and potentially highly important; ProVeg have a team focusing on China, for example. The Humane League have staff in Mexico, and Animal Equality is active in South America more widely. Lewis Bollard has been keen to fund work in countries in Asia and South America, both with EA Grants and Open Philanthropy Project. Excluding money given to international meta groups (you might disagree with my categorisation here), 69% of the money from 2018 animal welfare EA Funds grants have been to “international grassroots groups” or groups in Asia and Latin America. For OPP, the figure is 32% (see my quick calculations here).
Nevertheless, the growing number of groups active in western, developed countries and the relatively small number of groups active in Asia, South America and Africa suggests to me that there is still an imbalance to be addressed. Whilst Lewis Bollard is funding groups outside of North America and Europe, the main focus of most of Animal Charity Evaluators’ top recommended charities and standout charities remains in those areas, and so I suspect that most money from smaller donors in the western, developed world is still focusing on causes closer to home.