Note: This piece was originally published by Jess Whittlestone in 2017. It has been updated by other authors in the time since. Some figures in the piece may not be up-to-date; be sure to note the age of any sources linked in the footnotes.
One of the greatest problems in the world today may be the suffering of animals in the meat industry. In 2015, roughly 9.2 billion animals were raised and slaughtered in factory farms in the US alone,fn-1 in conditions likely to cause extreme suffering.fn-2
This problem seems to be incredibly neglected. Many experts now believe that animals have conscious experiences,fn-3 and are capable of experiencing pain.fn-4 We tend to give much more weight to the suffering of humans than to the suffering of animals - this is potentially a form of “speciesism”, valuing animals much less than they deserve.
There are things we can do to help solve this problem. Three main types of intervention look promising: persuading people to change their diets, lobbying for better welfare standards, and developing alternatives to animal products. However, the evidence in this area is not as strong as it is for global health interventions.
This profile sets out why you might want to work on improving animal welfare - and why you might not. This area looks particularly high-impact if you think animals’ capacity to suffer is similar to that of humans, and the treatment of animals is unlikely to improve naturally as humanity makes progress.
How can you tell where your resources will do the most good?
Each year, tens of billions of animals are raised for meat and slaughtered on factory farms. This is many times more than the total number of humans alive today (~7 billion). A report on the conditions of modern factory farming by the Humane Society of the United States details how dire these conditions can be. Chickens raised for meat are kept in densely populated sheds with large amounts of waste accumulatingfn-5. Egg-laying hens are packed together in small cages, while male chicks are ground up alive or gassed.fn-6 Some dairy cows are kept inside all year roundfn-7 and more than half of them are separated from their calves within 14 hours of birthfn-8. Breeder pigs are kept for years in stalls where they cannot even turn around.fn-9
It has also become clear that factory farming is harming the environment. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 percent of all human-induced emissions.
The problem of animal suffering looks even larger in scale when we also consider wild animals, which vastly exceed factory farmed animals in number. For example, it’s estimated that between 0.97 and 2.74 trillion wild fish are caught and slaughtered each year for human consumption.fn-10 Many more wild animals suffer in the natural environment.
Especially given the scale of the problem, animal welfare seems incredibly neglected. Around 97% of philanthropic funding in the US goes towards helping humans.fn-11 The remaining 3% is split between the environment and animals. Even within the funding spent on animal welfare, only 1% goes towards farmed animals, although over 99% of domesticated animals are farmed animals.fn-12 fn-13 In total, an estimated $10-40 million is spent each year on reducing animal suffering in factory farms,fn-14 roughly a tenth of a cent per animal.fn-15 Work to improve the welfare of wild animals is even more neglected.
There is a small but growing base of evidence on animal welfare interventions which suggests that there are cost-effective ways to make progress on this problem.
Campaigns to try to get large companies to reduce their impact on animal suffering are one of the most promising types of intervention. Corporate campaigns to date have resulted in cage-free pledges from around 100 companies, sparing about 60 million hens annually from confinement.fn-16 Lewis Bollard (Program Manager for animal welfare at the Open Philanthropy Project, and fund manager for the Animal Welfare Fund) conservatively estimates that these campaigns will spare about 38 hens a year from cage confinement per dollar spent - and may save up to 250 hens a year from confinement (depending on how the money spent on these campaigns is counted).fn-17
Working to promote alternatives to meat consumption may also be a promising approach. While people have eaten vegetarian and vegan diets for thousands of years, we've only recently begun to produce products that don't just substitute for meat (e.g. tofu), but also mimic its appearance, taste, and texture, to such a degree that a large fraction of meat-eaters might be happy to make the switch.
Many restaurants, including large franchises, have recently begun serving vegetarian or vegan options based around products from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Consumer sales of meat alternatives have also risen sharply in recent years. The proportion of vegetarians and vegans seems to be rising in some countries (like the United Kingdom and the United States), though global data is hard to come by. Attempts to replicate meat on a cellular level are also underway, and could someday produce affordable meat that is identical to what we eat today, but does not cause the slaughter of animals.
While global meat consumption has been rising as people become wealthier, it now seems possible that we could reach a future where people have overwhelmingly adopted meat alternatives -- not out of moral concern for animal welfare, but because they offer a similar consumption experience at lower prices. Organizations like The Good Food Institute and New Harvest are working to encourage scientific, political, and entrepreneurial progress toward this goal.
Overall, cost-effectiveness analyses suggest that there are opportunities to have a large impact on animal welfare. The evidence from corporate campaigns seems particularly promising. However, the evidence base here is still relatively small, which suggests we should be less confident in these estimates of direct cost-effectiveness than we are for similar estimates around global health interventions.
This is because we might think that most interventions are not very cost-effective, so we should be skeptical of weak evidence of high impact. However, it also suggests that it may be worthwhile to invest more resources into evaluating the impact of animal welfare interventions. This could help us to make better decisions in future - focusing our efforts elsewhere if these interventions do not seem to be effective, and scaling them up if the results are more promising.fn-20
To summarise, we believe that it’s possible to have a large impact in animal welfare because of the issue's:
Some people object to the idea of reducing factory farming by claiming that eating meat is natural - or that we need to eat meat in order to be healthy. There are a few important points to note in response to these concerns.
First, something being “natural” does not necessarily mean that it is good. For example, it is natural for children to go unvaccinated, and for many to die very young as a result. But this state of affairs seems clearly wrong.
Second, even if some amount of predation were natural and necessary, factory farming is not particularly natural. Hens are not naturally kept in tiny cages indoors, and cows are not naturally separated from their calves. At best, wanting to do things that are “natural” could justify personally hunting animals and eating them - but not buying factory farmed, prepared meat from the supermarket.
Moreover, many of the unnatural conditions in factory farms are avoidable. We have the resources to raise animals in a more humane way, alleviating their suffering.
Many people defend the mass production of meat by arguing that we need meat in order to be healthy. However, it’s far from clear that humans today need to eat animals or animal products, with some evidence suggesting that vegetarians and vegans are in fact more healthy than meat-eaters.fn-21 fn-22
There are still risks that a vegan diet can lead to deficiencies in certain micronutrients, such as B12 and Omega 3.fn-23 It’s relatively easy to find vegan foods that contain these nutrients (such as dark green vegetables and fortified cereals/drinks), and/or to take supplements, but this does require a bit of thought and effort.
Animal welfare seems to be a promising cause area. But there are also several reasons why you might be unconvinced by this analysis, or why you might think that a different cause area is likely to hold even greater opportunities to do good.
The evidence base here is still relatively weak, especially when compared to global health interventions. It is normally clear exactly where and how more money directed towards global health can improve and save lives. By contrast, much less research has been done on animal welfare interventions.
However, even if there is not enough evidence to say that the most promising animal welfare interventions are definitely highly impactful, there seems to be a significant probability that this is the case, which could make the expected value high.
Strength of evidence aside, you might choose to prioritise human-centred cause areas over animals simply because you think that improving human lives is a higher priority. Deciding how to prioritise animal welfare relative to the problems faced by humans depends on a number of complex issues:
1. The significance of animal suffering relative to human suffering
Though it seems likely that animals have the capacity to suffer and feel pain,fn-24 it seems reasonable to be more confident of human consciousness than of animal consciousness. We have direct evidence of the former, but we still know very little about which physical or functional characteristics are needed to create conscious experience. Depending on how much more confident we think we should be of human consciousness, this might suggest assigning considerably less moral weight to animals than humans, and therefore prioritising interventions in human welfare.fn-25
There are other reasons you might decide to prioritise human welfare. You might believe that humans’ greater cognitive complexity means that their capacity to suffer is greater or more significant. For example, perhaps freedom and dignity are more important for humans than they are for animals. Or perhaps you think that more complex forms of consciousness - the ability to reason and reflect, for example — are more important than pleasure and pain, and that only humans are capable of experiencing these.
2. The indirect effects of poverty interventions versus animal interventions
Human societies are capable of development in a way that animal societies are not, and so we might think that the indirect effects of human-focused interventions will be greater.fn-26 However, improving attitudes towards animals might increase our circle of empathy generally, which could itself have positive indirect effects.fn-27
However, improving the lives of humans could also have negative indirect effects for animals,fn-28 since people generally eat more meat as they get richer. This is sometimes known as the meat-eater problem.
The long-run future could be incredibly morally important. We could have billions or even trillions of descendants. This means that even a low probability of improving the lives of future generations, or ensuring that humanity survives into the future at all, could be significant. (We make this case in more detail in our profile on the long-run future.)
In the case of animals, focusing more on the long-run future might mean focusing more on changing attitudes and reducing speciesism, and less on changing present-day farming practices.
One argument in favour of this:
In addition, we may be biased against taking the suffering of animals seriously. This bias is sometimes called “speciesism”. There is experimental evidence that people think of animals as having far fewer mental capacities than they in fact do. This bias is perhaps because of the widespread acceptance of meat consumption and farming practices. For someone who eats meat, acknowledging the harm this causes is likely to be emotionally difficult. This means that they may have a strong incentive to turn a blind eye and find ways to convince themselves that the problem is not so big after all.