Effective Animal Advocacy in China: Perspectives from a UK Activist and Tourist

Post author: Max Harris. Max is a UK volunteer for The Humane League who has travelled around East Asia.

In December 2016, Lewis Bollard of Open Philanthropy Project laid out his vision for improving animal welfare in China. This post is intended to complement the work of Bollard and others, by throwing out some ideas based on my personal experiences in China, and considering what the EA community knows about this issue currently. I shall begin by evaluating how successful attempts to reduce animal suffering have been in the west. Using this information I will look at the situation in China (mainly), and make suggestions about what may be the best methods of reducing suffering over there.

Animal activism has been going for a while in the western world, with varying degrees of success. Here is my take on some of the most successful things which have helped the cause in the West:

  • Vegan products now have a much larger share of the market than they used too, plant-based milk sales growing 61% in the US over the last 5 years for example, which makes reducing animal product consumption much smaller and easier to try out for those interested.
  • We aren’t solely reliant on the number of vegans/vegetarians to drive the consumption of non animal products, various market research (e.g. here) suggests that a large amount of consumers for non animal products are meat reducers. This means a percentage of people have been convinced that it’s worth leaving animals of their plates for at least some of their meals of the week, for whatever reason. Tobias Leenaert has written about the importance of this in his book.  
  • Groups like The Humane League and Mercy For Animals have successfully campaigned to get commitments from companies to improve the lives of livestock in the worst conditions (see here for a report from THL).
  • The clean meat industry is making significant progress, some sources saying it could be in stores by then end of 2018.
  • There are large amounts of material available to help those who want to transition to a vegan diet (youtube, documentaries, vegfests, veg societies at unis) that make it easier for people to transition and not be alone in their journey.

With all the above listed out it’s easy to see a light at the end of the tunnel where in a some number of years the number of animals forced to live in horrific conditions is significantly reduced. However it hasn’t all been perfect, there are some challenges which include the following:

  • The number of animals being slaughtered has increased in the US.
    • Consumption of pigs and cows has gone down, whilst consumption of fish and chickens has gone up. This is an issue because you have to kill more chickens to get the same amount of meat as when you kill one cow (see here for more).
    • This is likely due to the health benefits of avoiding eating cows and pigs are becoming more apparent, so people are avoiding them in terms of “healthier meats”.
  • Vegetarians and vegans have a hard time sticking to it.
    • I personally would say this is because sometimes we demand perfection from people. If a person is 80%+ vegan then they’re still doing a significantly more good than if they aren’t vegan at all so that should be encourage and not chastised. Five 80% vegans does us more good than 1 vegan and 4 non vegans. Basically we should be more accepting of people who aren’t completely vegan.

So there’s still some things to iron out, but with this all in mind let’s have a look at how things are going in the China (and a little in Japan).

This is going to be quite anecdotal, but one of the reasons I’m writing on this topic in particular is that I recently spent about a month travelling around Japan and China. I prepared myself for a drop in the variety of options of foods I could have, of course. However I was actually pleasantly surprised to find that Tokyo has over 50 vegan only restaurants on Happy Cow (which may not reflect the full local variety). Japan in general feels quite heavily influenced by western trends. This lends itself to relatively smooth expansion by Western groups;  the American charity The Humane League has expanded into Japan with some success.

After visiting Tokyo though I hopped over the pond to China to find a very different picture. The level of respect for animals seemed to be quite minimal. In other parts of the world I have been to, when I explain that I don’t eat meat, they generally understand, even if they assume that I’m “probably one of those hippies that cares about animals or something”. In China, though, outside of areas where there are temples that generally serve veggie food, when I explained that I didn’t want meat, it was generally a look of confusion that I got. Why on earth would I not want to eat meat? The level of respect the general public holds for animals like pets seems barely present in China (think of the Yulin dog festival). This translates horrifically into the scale of the farming and legal protection for the animals on said farms (although it is improving slightly). In one survey, a majority of Chinese respondents said they had never heard of animal welfare and/or approve of factory farming in general! Thankfully this does show some signs of improving thanks to a new government initiative to introduce basic animal welfare teachings into schools, but this is far from enough.

In my time in China, I travelled in sort of a line from Shanghai to X’ian, and I experienced quite a mix of city living and small towns where they were even shocked to see foreigners. In the larger cities like Shanghai, when I used Happy cow, I found  about 8 places with vegetarian options (as opposed to Tokyo’s 50+ vegan eateries). I didn’t come across any dedicated vegan/vegetarian places in my time in China. Luckily, Chinese restaurants and people in general are very friendly and flexible, so I was still able to eat out vegan all the time. I pretty much just had to insist on the phrase 不要肉 – Bùyào ròu, which translates to “I don’t want meat” – a fair amount. They’ll happily just invent something or edit a menu item to serve you some noodles and vegetables fried in oil! Also dairy is not commonly part of the diet in China so you don’t have to worry about that so much, just eggs and meat.

Moving on from my anecdotes about my travels, the reason I’m writing this blog post is that the level of respect for animals I observed in china is concerning. Given the size of China’s ever growing population and the fact that the country is responsible for the highest amount of amount of slaughter for any country in the world and that number is rising by the year. I think it would be an effective action to look into how to best reduce animal suffering in China.

China graph

The graph above (data sourced from here) demonstrates graphically that China controls the fate of nearly 20% of the world’s animals. Lewis Bollard mentions mentions in his post about China about the scale of the issues, and has some stats demonstrating how China confines as many pigs as the rest of the world combined, as well as other shocking things.

First off, let’s start with the negatives and what we should avoid: I think a hugely important approach to avoid in China is the environment and health being emphasised too much by animal charities as a reason to ditch meat (because it leads to an increase in consumption of smaller animals like fish and chicken). From my limited personal experience observing the haggling that goes on in some parts of China, and the openness that they seem to have to street food, I’d honestly expect price to be the main driving factor in food adoption. Granted I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I hope a different angle like that could be tried out.  

There is some very interesting research however about how a large portion of Chinese like to import food from the west and the primary driving factor for this appears to be food safety. It’s quite easy to highlight the safety issues with fish (pollution in the sea making fish contain scary chemicals) and chicken. So perhaps another way to go would be market plantbased products as a safer option?

Another thing I think it would be prudent for the movement in China to avoid, would be being seen as the West trying to impose their views on China. The activities charities like Mercy For Animals and The Humane League do when campaigning against businesses probably wouldn’t fly in China either. An organisation from outside China campaigning against a Chinese business would likely get shut down by the government very quickly; China has a history of protecting chinese businesses over western ones, even when Chinese businesses are in the wrong, committing something like copyright fraud. From this, I think it would be a good idea to have seperate Chinese based charities which are set up in China which we can support (perhaps rather than extensions of American ones? ProVeg is setting up a branch in China currently, so hopefully I’m incorrect about this and their expansion goes smoothly.

I think my main issue with the animal charities in China is that, to my knowledge, none of them are anywhere near as effective as Animal Chariy Evaluators’ top recommended charities. My reason for saying this is there is no charity (that I can find) set up and going which is dedicated solely to reducing meat consumption, which is the leading cause of animal death and suffering. My favourite chinese charity is probably TACN (mentioned below), who spend time promoting a vegan diet but also spend a significant amount of effort rehoming dogs. While this is lovely, if they focussed solely on farm animals/vegan diet promotion, they’d save more animals overall. I do recognise though that there are fewer dog adoption charities in China than the West so it’s not as if another charity will do this if they don’t. This means it’d probably be a very difficult decision to stop doing this work for the dogs now that they’ve started, as it’d essentially be condemning them to live on the streets.

From this point onwards let’s take a look at some current animal charities in China and from that I’ll draw some observations based on what I think is lacking. Here are some animal charities of note in China:

  • ProVeg
    • Is working to set up in China (hopefully will fill the role I mentioned earlier when they are up and going!)
    • Hosted a vegfest in Shanghai which was quite popular
  • TACN (Towards a compassionate nation)
    • A Chinese charity
    • Primarily focuses of saving dogs and anti dog meat
      • I think this is still quite high priority work because dogs are really terrible to farm because you have to feed them meat which multiplies the amount of animals that die depending on the type of meat that is fed to the dogs
    • Works with Veganuary to promote veganism in China, especially around the time of January. They claim to be a big part of the 3000+ participants that signed up to Veganuary in China this year
  • GoalBlue
    • Promotes environmental living
    • Promotes eating chicken and fish over cows and pigs which is terrible if you’re concerned about animal suffering.
    • I personally would not recommend donating here due to the promoting of eating smaller animals which increases suffering.
  • No To Dog Meat
    • Lobbies to ban the dog meat trade in countries where lobbying is allowed and in countries where lobbying is not allowed they pressure other countries to put pressure on them.

I could go on but pretty much all of them are dog meat or dog rescue charities. Based on this, I think the core of what we need in China and possibly Asia more widely is:

  1. General farm animal charities
  2. General animal welfare promotion charities
  3. Charities which measure their effectiveness and are transparent
  4. Charities that promote a vegan lifestyle (there’s ProVeg and TACN but those were all I could find).
  5. I think we could potentially benefit largely from having a charity which tries to put out cheap plant based meat/vegan products in china, but this one is just a hunch based off anecdotal evidence from me.
  6. More effort just trying things out, there really haven’t been that many intervention types tried in China, so we need to see what works and gather evidence.

It’s fantastic to see that work has already begun towards several of these goals, funded by the Open Philanthropy Project – which has made 16 grants to charities operating in China, which has helped to fund, for example, advocate summits in China – and by EA Grants.

Also one thing to note is that if clean meat becomes cheaper to produce than normal meat then I think we can probably win China if it can be emphasised that clean meat is a safer (and cheaper) product than normal meat. However, this successful transition is not guaranteed, and there’s plenty of work to be done in making the lives of animals better before this point far in the future.

(The photo at the top is a picture of some vegan food from Max’s travels in China)

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Book Review: Nick Cooney (2011) Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach us About Spreading Social Change (Lantern Books: New York)

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

 

This book by Nick Cooney is an excellent resource for understanding how psychology affects our work in social movements. It draws primarily on external psychological studies, combined with Cooney’s personal advocacy experience, primarily for the Humane League (he had worked for or helped to found many organisations by 2011, and done so for more since then) and some strategic thinking and common sense.

The book is intended to be applicable to any social movement, with his examples frequently alternating between animal advocacy, environmentalism and other causes. This does not significantly detract from its value for animal advocates (even if some of the specific suggestions aren’t directly relevant), although I suspect that advocates for other causes might find that the book focuses on issues most pertinent to animal advocacy.

The structure of the book is simple. Chapters 1 to 3 lay out a variety of cognitive biases that affect how successful various types of advocacy efforts are likely to be. This section leaves you with the impression that successful advocacy is incredibly difficult, and that you shouldn’t rely on your intuitions.

After building up your sense of the gravity of the problems (in the manner of a successful salesman?), Cooney then moves on to demonstrating solutions for the issues. Chapters 4 to 7 all list a huge number of “Tools of Influence” to support our advocacy. The final three chapter then contain wider social scientific learnings and business strategy ideas which put the ideas from the rest of the book into context.

The book is therefore packed full of useful information. Here are some of those who might benefit, organised roughly in order of who I think would benefit most:

  • Advocates hoping to increase the effectiveness of their individual outreach, or increase their chances of success in discussions with corporate, institutional or governmental contacts, partners and targets
  • Those currently working for non-profit organisations who might want to read through to see if the ideas contained might help to streamline their work, and improve efficiencies.
  • Aspiring social scientists, EAA researchers, or those working in non-profits interested in measuring the impact of their own programmes, to read through the first few chapters to broaden their understanding of how cognitive biases might affect their research.
  • If you are already familiar with both psychology and the animal advocacy movement, you might not learn as much from this book, although I imagine that it might still piece some ideas together in ways that you had not already done yourself.

The wide appeal of the book necessarily means that it won’t be consistently 100% useful, word for word, for any one reader. It contains an overwhelmingly large number of useful new ideas for those new to the field of psychology, which makes the book almost intimidating to use.

For those under time pressure, I’d encourage you to follow one of these two strategies to get the most out of the book:

  • Read this list I have created of 23 of the different cognitive biases and 42 of the tools referred to in the book. This list cuts out much of the useful explanation and examples given in the book, but condenses the key concepts. You could copy and paste the information into a separate Excel/Google sheet and add an additional column for the relevance of the concepts to your work. I would advise also buying the book, so that you can look up the specific examples and relevant studies, as and when appropriate.
  • Flick through the book, looking at the clearly labelled subtitles, and stopping to read those strategies which seem most useful for you.

As usual for such books, the Kindle edition is relatively cheap, but the paperback is more expensive than most paperbacks. It gets 4*s anyway, because the book is so packed full of information, most readers would easily get their money’s worth!

For those looking for easier (i.e. less research-heavy) introductions to effective animal advocacy outreach, I’d recommend starting with Friedrich and Ball’s Handbook or Leenaert’s book.

Note, that whilst I am fairly unreservedly endorsing the helpful information and advice contained within Cooney’s book, I am not endorsing his personal conduct. Although I know very little about the issue beyond hearsay, this article addresses some of the concerns. It is a complicated issue, so if you are engaging with it, I encourage you to read to the bottom of the article, which includes some replies. The accusations are grave, but we should not stop benefiting from Cooney’s (otherwise unrelated) productive work – to do so would be to prioritise personal purity over effectiveness in reducing animal suffering.

An additional criticism might be that some of Cooney’s suggestions essentially accept (and therefore, implicitly endorse?) certain assumptions and prejudices. To reject these strategies in favour of challenging privilege might lead to reduced effectiveness in the short term, but might be considered important for the long-term health of the movement, or for its intrinsic value. I don’t have strong views on this issue, but if your views are stronger than mine then you might reject some of the advice in the book, although only a relatively small proportion of the book would be affected. Those interested in the topic might find Melanie Joy’s new essays on privilege useful.

There are some other reviews of Cooney’s book. This one has some interesting rough and ready estimates about the (meta level) impact that this book might have on the effectiveness of animal advocates.

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.