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February 12, 2020

Open Philanthropy has recommended over $90 million in grants for farm animal welfare work around the world. What have they learned? In this talk, Lewis Bollard, who heads Open Phil’s work on farm animal welfare, shares lessons on corporate reforms, plant-based meat, and the global scope of available funding.

Below is a transcript of the talk, which we’ve lightly edited for clarity. You can also watch it on YouTube or discuss it on the EA Forum.

The Talk

As advocates, we try to answer the question of how we can do the most good for farm animals. I think one of the most powerful forms of evidence we can look at, particularly in a space with such limited evidence, is what has and hasn't worked recently.

Over nearly four years, [the Open Philanthropy Project] has made over 160 grants, totalling almost $100 million for farm animal welfare. I'm going to share a few of the lessons that we've learned about:

  1. Securing and implementing corporate reforms.
  2. The plant-based meat sector’s potential and obstacles.
  3. Where money goes in the movement — and where the animals are.
Slide02

Securing and implementing corporate reforms

The first lesson is about corporate campaigns. The key takeaway here is that implementation is just as important, if not more important, than securing initial pledges.

Slide03

First, I’ll give you some background on how we reached the point we're at today. Back in late 2014, advocates started campaigning on cage-free reforms, seeking to get companies to commit to transitioning away from battery cages in their supply chains by specific dates.

Slide04

This is a photo of some particularly cool activists from the Humane League. It shows a common tactic of presenting a company and its customers with the very stark choice of facing an aggressive and ongoing campaign or making a commitment [to cage-free food].

Slide05

This slide tells the story of how these campaigns went. The blue line shows the progress on the number of millions of hens who will be cage-free in the United States once these pledges are implemented. In red, you see the progress of international cage-free campaigns.

Prior to 2014, very few companies had made these pledges — only companies like Whole Foods. In 2015, as these campaigns stepped up, the major food service companies, led by Sodexo, made commitments. McDonald's then set off a flurry of activity among fast food companies. Costco was the first major conventional retailer to come through. We then saw a cascade effect across all of the other retailers, including, ultimately, the biggest one: Walmart.

We've seen a similar phenomenon since these campaigns went global in 2016. Retailers like Tesco and Carrefour, food manufacturers like Nestle and Starbucks, and hospitality companies like Hilton have made partial or complete global cage-free commitments.

Slide06

Initially, we thought the lesson was just that this had been really easy; we viewed it as “case closed.” As of 2016, the egg industry had conceded defeat. They seemed to recognize that there was no future for cages. They said things like “We're going to get rid of our cages — it's going to take some time and it's going to cost $7 to $10 billion." All of the major egg producers made a public commitment and started to build up cage-free [supply chains].

In the last few years, though, that started to change. We started seeing headlines like [the one below] from the American Farm Bureau.

Slide07

Egg producers were saying, "We're not seeing any of these companies buying cage-free eggs, so we're scaling back our cage-free transitions. We're not necessarily going to see them through." We saw a survey recently from the egg industry indicating that egg producers don't think most hens will be cage-free by 2025. This reaction has [spurred] the question of how we’ll ensure the implementation of cage-free pledges.

Slide08
[The slide above reflects]

The first thing we can do is [focus on] legislation.

Slide09

Last year, California passed a landmark ballot initiative banning not just cages, but also the sale of eggs from caged hens anywhere in the state as of 2022. This law is important not just because of its direct impacts on up to 40 million hens, but also for its effect on corporate supply chains. Most national corporations operate in California, so for at least that portion of their supply chain, they'll have to start implementing on an earlier timeline. We think that is critical — getting companies to start implementing earlier, so that they're not all waiting until 2025 to go 100% cage-free.

The second thing [we can focus on] is public reporting of progress.

Slide10

In 2019, McDonald's said they're one-third of the way toward being cage-free. [That represents] about two million hens in McDonald's supply chain. That puts them perfectly on track to fulfill their pledge on time. But unfortunately, many other companies are not yet publicly reporting their progress. Advocates need to pressure companies to transparently report — to their shareholders and customers — where they're at in terms of fulfilling these public pledges.

Slide11

The third thing we need [to focus on] is partial-implementation progress. On the left [of this slide], you can see that the higher a company is, the more progress they’ve made on becoming cage-free. On the bottom, the X axis [measures] how much of the market the company [has captured]. And the size of each bubble represents how many hens are cage-free as a result of the company’s progress to date. We can see that McDonald's is impressive with two million hens.

But it's really dwarfed by the power of some retailers to effect major change. In particular, I would point to Costco, which is now 89% cage-free. My estimate is that's about 8.3 million hens who are cage-free in Costco's supply chain [alone]. Walmart is only 15% cage-free, but because of its massive size, already accounts for about six million hens being cage-free.

Just between those two retailers, that's about one-quarter of the hens that are cage-free in the United States today. It shows the importance of focusing on the biggest players — the huge grocery chains that control the majority of [egg sales] in America.

Slide12

To recap: I think we need to focus more on legislation to ensure that corporate pledges are enshrined into law. We need to push companies to publicly report [their progress on cage-free supply chains]. And third, in seeking these milestones, it's not enough to publicly report that you'll eventually reach 0%; companies need to report [the specific dates by when] they will reach [certain milestones].

The plant-based meat sector’s potential and obstacles

The second lesson I want to share is around the growth of plant-based meat and the remaining challenges to the industry.

Slide13

The main update here is that we've been really surprised at how quickly this field has grown. I think if you'd asked me [years ago] what was going to be the most successful IPO in 2019, I definitely would not have guessed it would be Beyond Meat.

Slide14

We're seeing huge excitement and growth around that. [We’re now] all able to have Impossible Whoppers — also something I would not have predicted a few years ago.

Slide15

To give you a sense of [the context behind that growth surge], this chart shows meat alternatives as a category in terms of sales. Up until mid-2017, it was a stagnant category. These products were relegated to a particular section of the supermarket, and brands like MorningStar that had been around for a long time weren't substantially increasing their sales. It's only in the last two years that we've seen a major change in this trend. That's due to many factors, but particularly Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods coming out with new and more appealing products, doing a much better job of marketing those products, and setting a much higher benchmark for other plant-based companies.

The challenge, however, is with the pricing.

Slide16
[In this slide]
Slide17

In this chart, I've sought to break down what's holding us back from being price-competitive. I've taken the cheapest plant-based meat I could find on the market, MorningStar chicken nuggets, and compared that to the average price of chicken, nationally, in the United States. What's astounding here is just how insanely cheap chicken is. You see the USDA provides not just the overall retail price, but breaks it down on the wholesale side, too. Producers are producing chicken for less than $1 per pound. When you break down the costs, it's almost entirely feed, [leaving] 30% for everything else: the labor, barns, chicks. The feed they're getting is incredibly cheap. They're converting it, in the case of chickens, at about a 3:1 ratio from feed to usable meat.

Contrary to [the common belief] that animal agriculture is inherently inefficient, this particular part of animal agriculture is pretty efficient. We often lose sight of [the fact that] it’s one thing for plant-based meat to compete with burgers and red meat. It's [quite another] to compete with the efficiency of the broiler-chicken machine.

Here’s [a recap of my takeaways] about plant-based meats:

Slide18
  1. The product actually matters. [This is evident in] the growth that Beyond Meat and Impossible Meat have brought to the market, whether that's been due to taste or marketing.
  2. Chicken is going to be a much harder market to enter than beef. It's one thing to compete with beef. Competing with chicken is a different [matter], and chicken is, of course, where the vast majority of animals are in the supply chain.
  3. We need to be able to convert feed into plant-based protein more efficiently than a broiler chicken does. A broiler chicken does it at about a 3:1 ratio of feed to usable meat, so we need to beat that ratio to be price-competitive with chicken.

Where money goes in the movement — and where the animals are

[The Open Philanthropy Project has]
Slide19

These are subjects that, until recently, we didn’t have good data on. This chart shows my best estimate of where money currently goes in the farm animal movement:

Slide20

These numbers might seem big; this is a fairly liberal interpretation of farm animal advocacy. I'm including the budgets of groups like PETA — at least insofar as they're directed funding toward farm animal advocacy or veganism — and other large organizations that you might not think of as part of the effective altruism (EA) animal movement, but that are nonetheless working on [improving the lives of] farm animals.

There has been huge growth in the amount of money [in the movement, relative to what was available] just a few years ago. At that time, it would have been perhaps one-third this amount. But that money is still overwhelmingly being directed toward the United States and Western Europe.

In contrast, my colleague Persis Eskander pulled together all of the underlying data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and arrived at an estimate that roughly 25 billion land-based farm animals are [alive, somewhere in the world, at any given time]. About 5.5 billion of those are in America and Western Europe. All of the rest are elsewhere, and predominantly in Asia.

Slide21

Persis [also conducted] an analysis pulling together data on the tonnage of farmed fish at any given point in time. The good news is we think there are fewer farmed fish alive — about 55 billion — than we previously thought.

Slide22

But again, there’s a huge imbalance between where the money is being spent and where the animals are. About three billion of those animals are in the United States and Western Europe, where the vast bulk of money is being spent. The vast majority are in China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.

What can we take away from this?

Slide23

First, money is growing in the movement, which is great. It’s still a lot less than we see in many other movements that are combating problems on a similar scale, but it’s an impressive level of resources.

Second, it's useful to know that there are about 25 billion land-based farm animals and about 55 billion farmed fish.

Third, we should focus on Asia, and we need to direct more resources there.

Moderator: Thanks very much, Lewis. It seems like we thought the [cage-free] campaigns were a great success, and actually, it was a bit more complicated than that. But the ballot in California seems to have made a big difference. Has that made you think about pushing more funding toward getting [issues] on the ballot?

Lewis: Yeah, we're certainly thinking about potential ballot measures. A lot of advocacy groups are.

There are constraints on the ballot measure as a form of advocacy. Only 24 states allow citizens to initiate ballot measures. Of those states, many are huge agriculture states, where we don't face much of a prospect of winning. Ballot measures are also expensive, and so there's always a question of whether they’re worth [pursuing], or whether [we could achieve our goals] by other means.

But there are some states where we could still [make progress] using ballot measures, and they are definitely on the table.

Moderator: What is the state of campaigns, awareness, and advocacy outside of the United States and Western Europe?

Lewis: I think we're at a much better point than we were a few years ago. We're seeing a lot of exciting advocacy going on, for instance, in China and India.

In India right now, there's a national moratorium on battery cages, with better cages being installed thanks to animal advocates’ efforts in the courts. It will probably be undone by the government, but it's still a sign of the movement’s strength there. Also, there are a lot of groups across Southeast Asia that consisted of a single volunteer a few years ago and now have one or [paid] two staff members. I think that's a really exciting trend for people who want to support or get involved with these groups in an effort to build up their movement further.

Moderator: Switching to the issue of meat alternatives and the price comparison you did, what is the 3:1 ratio? Is that difference in calories?

Lewis: Oh, sorry — yeah. The 3:1 ratio is the weight of grain to the weight of meat. The ratio depends on how you define the weight. Calories and protein each produce a slightly different ratio, but it's still in the same ballpark.

Moderator: Okay. That seems like a very difficult threshold to overcome. Do you have any broad sense of when [plant-based meat] might become price-competitive?

Lewis: I don't know. I think you'd be better off asking someone in the plant-based meat industry.

There's obviously a ton of innovation going on — and also a ton of private-sector money going into the space. The one thing I'll say is that it’s important to direct funding toward price competitiveness, not just toward the big brands, but toward [smaller] companies like Rebellyous Foods, which is focusing on making chicken alternatives substantially cheaper. That’s one of the most exciting things going on in the space.

Moderator: Great. We also have some questions from our audience. How much room is there for getting more of our supporters to organize around new initiatives?

Lewis: Hopefully, there’s a lot of room for that. At least among EA animal advocates, I think there's a really exciting desire to do new things, and to work out what the most effective way to do those things is. We see that across the animal movement in general.

The movement has changed tremendously from where it was five years ago. The focus on corporate campaigns and on international work reflect people’s excitement about doing new things.

Moderator: I'm not sure if the statement within this question from the audience is true, but since fish account for about 99% of the animals killed for food, how much time, and how many resources, should we direct towards fish advocacy?

Lewis: If you include wild-caught fish, and if you just look at vertebrates, then farm fish do account for about 99%, or more, of animals killed for food. I think we should have a lot more focus on fish than we do currently. Obviously, it's harder to mobilize supporters around [helping fish], but I also think that ultimately, a huge portion of our success will be governed by whether or not we make progress on fish.

Moderator: Do you think we need more collaboration in the movement? I mean, it’s unlikely that we need less, but 

Lewis: I think collaboration is always good where possible. And I think that EA groups [within the farm animal welfare movement] do work well together. I don't think we want to impose [the idea] that everyone needs to do the same thing. There's actually a lot of value to taking diverse approaches in the movement.

Hopefully, we can continue the trend [of effectively].

Moderator: What grants has the Open Philanthropy Project made for community organizing and clean meat?

Lewis: On the clean meat side, we haven't made any grants, but we have been funding a chemical engineering contractor to look into [that area], who will hopefully publish a paper on it. That will inform our funding going forward.

On the community-building side, most of the work we've been doing has been outside of the United States and Western Europe. We’re trying to help build the movement through organizations like the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations, which combines over 100 grassroots groups. We've been funding them to hold workshops that support movement-building in India.

Moderator: You mentioned Rebellyous Foods. One audience member claims that they've heard that Rebellyous Foods, formerly Seattle Food Tech, invested in new industrial equipment for extracting protein from plants. Are there other ways to try to reduce the cost of chicken alternatives?

Lewis: I'm not up-to-date on the technical ways that we could reduce the price of plant-based chicken. But I do think that, understandably, a lot of the companies that conventional investors are most excited about are those aiming for the top end of the market [that is, plant-based versions of more expensive meats like beef]. There's a bigger profit margin there.

For people in the EA movement or those who want to be impact investors, perhaps focusing on the bottom end of the market [would be impactful]. We could try much harder to compete on price than we are currently.

Moderator: That makes sense. Why did you choose cage-free campaigns and plant-based meats as topics for this talk versus other interventions? Are they the areas that you've been spending the most time on?

Lewis: No, I had a list of about 15 lessons learned. [Before my talk, I got to meet] with a public speaking coach and she told me that it was awful [to have that many lessons], and that I needed to focus on three things. [Laughs]

Moderator: How much are you growing the [farm animal welfare] team at the Open Philanthropy Project?

Lewis: Persis joined us in the last year. We now have a team of three working on farm animal welfare. I doubt we're going to expand the team much beyond that in the foreseeable future.

One thing I am really excited about is that there are a lot more EA animal research organizations popping up. Rethink Priorities is an example. That type of research capacity for answering questions helps us do our job well.

Moderator: It seems like a lot of people you're speaking with are American. How do Americans address animal suffering in Asia without having the cultural competence that they might need?

Lewis: I think that's a real challenge. There are a lot of people who want to do things to help animals in Asia, but many Americans don't have a lot of contact with the region.

One of the things we can do is direct more funding toward advocates who are in those countries. Also, a number of international organizations, as they've expanded, have recruited staff in those countries. Oftentimes, an international organization can provide the administrative [infrastructure] and perhaps the experience of knowing what worked in one part of the world, and then can hire locally to position people there who can do things better.

Moderator: That's fantastic. Thank you, Lewis, for your time.