Why we want to start a charity fortifying feed for hens (founders needed)

by KarolinaSarek, shanna, vicky_cox3 min read19th Apr 202111 comments

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Micronutrient programsGet involvedCharity EntrepreneurshipEntrepreneurshipFarmed animal welfare
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TL;DR: Bone fractures are the biggest welfare concern for hens in cage-free systems, and the second biggest in caged systems (Schuck-Paim & Alonso, forthcoming). Charity Entrepreneurship proposes to address this issue by launching a new nonprofit. Complementing the animal movement’s ongoing campaigns for the welfare of chickens, this new charity would fortify feed for laying hens to strengthen their bones and reduce fractures. Contact us at karolina@charityentrepreneurship.com if you’re interested in getting involved, or apply to our 2021 Incubation Program (extended deadline: April 22, 2021). 

1. The welfare stakes

In 1900, farmed hens laid about 80 eggs per year. Today, this number has increased to over 300. This unnatural frequency depletes their bodies of key nutrients. Estimates suggest that a hen today needs as much as 30 times more calcium than is available in her body reserves, because so much calcium must go into producing eggshells. Lacking vital nutrients and sufficient room to exercise, a hen’s bones are left so fragile that they fracture even from simple activities when navigating their environments.

Numerous studies point to the harmful consequences for laying hens. Osteoporosis alone contributes to between 20 and 35% of all mortalities among caged laying hens, and up to three-quarters of noncaged hens suffer chronic pain from old fractures

Damage to the keel bone specifically – the bone to which the muscles that move their wings are attached – is one of the most prevalent welfare problems for hens across all production systems. One study found that as many as 97% of hens had at least one keel bone fracture. Such injuries also prevent hens from moving around freely, preventing them from engaging in their natural behaviors. 

Cynthia Schuck-Paim (co-author of a recent meta-analysis on laying hen mortality) describes keel bone fractures as “the main trigger of physical pain”. She observes that for cage-free hens, “keel bone fractures [are] the most important welfare concern, accounting for most of the time cage-free hens spend in pain of all intensity levels.”

This graphic (excerpted from Cynthia Schuck-Paim and Wladimir Alonso’s forthcoming book, Quantifying Pain in Laying Hens) shows the proportion of time in pain that the average hen endures from various welfare harms:

The researchers’ Pain-Track tool is another useful reference for the duration and intensity of suffering that hens experience in conventional cages, furnished cages, and aviaries. 

2. The intervention

Fortifying food revolutionized public health as one of the most cost-effective ways to significantly improve lives. Charity Entrepreneurship aims to bring these successes to farmed animals by fortifying feed for laying hens. Reducing the incidence of fractures through fortified feed will not only alleviate this major source of chronic pain, but also allow hens to more freely express their natural behaviors. 

The evidence base connecting deficiencies and welfare is impressively strong. For instance, a five-hour time-capped review of the impact of micronutrients on hen welfare came up with ten studies evaluating the effect of calcium, fourteen on the effect of phosphorus, and six on the effect of vitamin D3. We also found some evidence for the positive impact of betaine, as well as of optimizing the feeding time and particle size of calcium in feed. 

This intervention could improve the lives of laying hens across production systems, building on the great work the animal movement has done to secure cage-free commitments. It would most likely be effective in all countries that are transitioning to cage-free/aviary systems (for example as a result of recent wins on corporate campaigns), since keel bone fractures are the leading welfare challenge for cage-free hens. 

The intervention could also be effective in countries that haven't transitioned to cage-free yet, especially if paired with cage-free efforts. For example, India is among the top five egg-producing countries worldwide. The majority of hens are kept in cages and there’s a significant gap between actual and optimal standards for feed. A conversation with an expert who works with the government of Andhra Pradesh highlighted the inadequacy of the Bureau of Indian Standards’ feed standards, which are merely recommendations. A new organization in India would have the dual aim of promoting cage-free efforts and fortifying feed. Ultimately the choice of country may partly depend on the co-founders and their fit to work in priority countries.

In our cost-effectiveness analysis, we only modeled the impact of subsidizing supplements for farmers in India so that feed for their hens contains adequate nutrients, because an analysis of the cost-effectiveness of cage-free campaigns already exists. This aims to set a conservative minimal threshold for cost-effectiveness. A high-scale, lower cost strategy (e.g. outreach through farmers associations) could further increase cost-effectiveness. 

We quantify the impact of our animal interventions using welfare points, a system developed in-house to enable comparison between species and across various living conditions. Our model suggests that just through fortifying feed this new charity could affect 34 welfare points per dollar spent. Put another way, every dollar spent would help 1.8 hens. Even if we include counterfactual considerations, this charity would still affect 12 welfare points per dollar. Pairing the intervention with a cage-free ask would further increase the cost-effectiveness. 

Fortifying feed is a highly cost-effective, well-evidenced, and tractable intervention that could address a key welfare concern for laying hens in both caged and cage-free systems. Another strength of this intervention is the simple metrics involved: the rate of broken bones, for example, is easy to measure and informative, allowing this charity to be confident in its impact.

After hundreds of hours of research, feed fortification (along with shrimp welfare) was found to meet our stringent criteria. To read about our research process and findings in more depth, access the full report via our website. For any questions about the research, reach out to vicky@charityentrepreneurship.com or karolina@charityentrepreneurship.com – our team is always happy to discuss!

3. How you can help 

We’re keen to connect with aspiring entrepreneurs who could launch this new charity through our 2021 Incubation Program. If you know anyone who might be interested, please share this post. Further details about the Incubation Program can be found on our website (apply by April 22); feel free to contact us for more information at ula@charityentrepreneurship.com.

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11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:52 PM
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Thank you for this report. Really interesting to learn about a new animal welfare intervention - I never knew that osteoporosis was such a big problem for laying hens.

I had a couple of questions:

  • In the linked cost-effectiveness analysis, you estimate that the average flock size in 2007 was 25,500 hens. Based on a growth rate of 6-8% in the Indian egg industry per year, you estimate that the average flock size in 2019 is approximately 59,000 hens. This seems to assume that no new farms were built in that decade, and that all new hens in India were added to existing flocks. Am I understanding this correctly, as it seems unlikely to me that no new farms would have been built?
  • One of the two Indian animal advocates you interviewed raised concerns that this intervention might be 'humane-washing' and would 'actively undermine the work being done by animal advocates in the country'. Later in the report you write 'We struggled to find any empirical research on humane washing to have a good sense of whether this is a valid concern.' Although you did interview one other animal advocate in India who felt that this wasn't a concern, it seems like a red flag that 1 out of 2 of the advocates you interviewed thought that this intervention would 'actively undermine' the movement.  Personally, I'm not sure what I think about this, but I can definitely see a concern that the intervention is supporting profit-making in the industry rather than bringing systemic change. I'd be interested whether you did any deeper analysis of how this intervention fits within the wider animal advocacy strategy in India? 

Hi Jamie! Thanks for engaging with the research. 

  • On flock size, yes you are understanding this correctly. You make a good point, although the model doesn’t rely much on this factor so I wouldn’t expect it to greatly alter the endline cost-effectiveness. But to double-check, I went back to our model and replaced the current estimate of flock size in 2019 with a range from 25,500 to 59,000 hens (capturing the possibility that flock sizes remained the same as in 2007 and all hens were placed in new farms, as well as the possibility that no new farms were built and existing flock sizes increased). With this adjusted flock size, we get an updated cost-effectiveness of 32 WP/$ and 1.4 chickens helped/$, so the intervention still looks promising. It is likely the endline cost-effectiveness isn’t greatly affected by this change to the flock size number as subsidization costs play a big part in the cost-effectiveness of this intervention. Although a smaller flock size will mean fewer chickens helped per farm, it will also mean less money spent per farm. 
  • On the “humane-washing”, this advocate’s concern applied to all welfare-focused interventions that aim to improve the conditions on the farms e.g. cage-free, broiler campaigns and fish welfare campaigns. As with those, a similar long-term strategy will apply to the feed fortification organization. The end goal is a change of law to establish mandatory regulation on optimal nutrition for hens (similarly to cage-free asks, which aim at a complete ban on cages for hens. We’ve done some research into policy change for feed fortification in India and concluded that because of problems with enforcement and other barriers we would like to provide a proof of concept and transition part of the industry to production with optimal feed first. But in the long term, we would like to see legal requirements that hens are in cage-free systems with optimal feed. 

Thanks for the response Karolina. Great that you've looked at the policy change route and that legislation would be the long-term goal of this. 

In relation to your second response point: Looking at the published conversation notes from the interview with the animal advocate who raised the concern, they do not appear to be concerned about cage-free in the same way that they are about this intervention. These quotes show that the advocate thinks that cage-free does not suffer from the same concerns as the feed fortification intervention:

"Feed fortification would not increase prices to the same extent that fundamental infrastructure change, such as cage-free would"

"Although the animal advocate understands that these problems could also be problems for the cage-free campaigns, they think that cage-free is a better ask because it tackles one of the underlying issues of intensive factory farming (confinement), where feed fortification doesn’t."

I think the second quote identifies my main concern with the feed fortification intervention. It seems likely that it would increase profits in the Indian egg industry by paying for something (at an estimated cost of $27,000 per farm according to the model) which will likely increase the overall profitability of farms. This leads to concerns with increased egg production and more overall hen suffering. My worry would be that this intervention seems to clearly benefit factory farms without imposing any particular costs on them. It would be interesting to see some discussion of whether the downside of this outweighs the upside of the welfare benefits provided by feed fortification.

Obviously, if improved feed fortification can eventually become adopted in legislation due to the work of this proposed charity then the intervention seems more promising. However, I couldn't see any mention in the report of how the initial work with individual farms could be translated into policy change. I'd be interested to see this sketched out somewhere in a report if this is the main route to impact for the charity.

One point that I feel that we haven’t communicated well enough on is that cost of $27,000 per farm we have in the CEA doesn’t literally mean that we will pay the farm $27,000. As mentioned in the post, “this aims to set a conservative minimal threshold for cost-effectiveness. A high-scale, lower cost strategy (e.g. outreach through farmers associations) could further increase cost-effectiveness.”.  We want to test in our CEA the worst possible scenario and it doesn’t mean that this will be the strategy. I will make a note to structure our reports differently in the future to avoid the confusion that what we test under “charity report” is literally also an implementation that the organization is going to go with. 

“However, I couldn't see any mention in the report of how the initial work with individual farms could be translated into policy change.”


Sorry if we don’t include the details about the implementation in the charity ideas report. We usually follow up those reports with an “implementation report” to discuss long-term strategy, etc. Those are shared with co-founders who often contribute to them. Still, we prefer not to share them publicly for two reasons i) we don’t want the details of the strategy to potentially negatively affect the campaign ii) the strategy outlines the uncertainties that co-founders have to test at the beginning and how they should adopt the strategy to that, so because the plans are to some extend flexible they could change so we don’t want to create confusion. 

More specifically to your point, 

“It seems likely that it would increase profits in the Indian egg industry by paying for something (at an estimated cost of $27,000 per farm according to the model) which will likely increase the overall profitability of farms”. 


The approach that charity will take is to first try to achieve success for cage-free and feed fort through multiple means that don’t require any support from us and put costs on the producers (e.g., outreach through farmers’ associations and partnership building ). If that would be unsuccessful (e.g., because there is no proof of concept), then try to subsidize an additional cost that farmer would have to take to have a higher level of nutrients in the feed (e.g., if low-nutrient feed would cost 1$, and high-nutrient feed would cost $3, we would subsidize the $2 difference between them). That way, the new situation is that producers’ costs are the same as before the intervention, and hens have a higher nutrient feed at the same time. No change in costs = no change in price = no major change in long-term profitability. If there is still resistance to fortification, only then would we consider a higher level of subsidization to achieve proof of concept and then when more widely adopted. That would be the case only until enough farmers operate like that to push for more systemic change, e.g., new mandatory feed standards in state regulations that are not subsidized at scale. What we model in the CEA is the absolute worst-case scenario, not the scenario that is most likely. 
 

"Although the animal advocate understands that these problems could also be problems for the cage-free campaigns, they think that cage-free is a better ask because it tackles one of the underlying issues of intensive factory farming (confinement), where feed fortification doesn’t."

I agree with this advocate’s opinion that behavioral restrictions (like foraging and movement deprivation) caused by conventional cages and enriched cages are the biggest welfare problem, as you can see on the graph we linked from Cynthia Schuck-Paim and Wladimir Alonso’s forthcoming book, Quantifying Pain in Laying Hens. But keel bone fractures are the second biggest issue in conventional and enriched cages and the biggest in cage-free/aviary systems. 

That’s why in places where there is no cage-free production (e.g., in India), we would recommend a focus on cage-free and feed fort, and in places where the shift to cage-free already happened, we want to work on feed fortification to avert keel bone fracture. 

When speaking with advocates about it, we only spoke about feed fort in India, instead of cage-free + feed fort in India, so maybe that created confusion. 

I'm also somewhat concerned because this seems like a clear case of a dual use intervention that makes life better for the animals but also confers benefits to the farmers that may ultimately result in more suffering rather than less by, for example, making chickens more palatable to consumers as "humanely farmed" (I'm guessing that's what is meant by "humane-washing") or making chicken production more profitable (either by humane-washing or by making the chickens produce a better quality meat product that is in higher demand).

Hi Gordan! Happy to respond more in-depth but first, I have two clarifying points.

This intervention is for egg-laying hens, not broiler chickens. Egg-laying hens are not used for meat, but I could address your question from the perspective of egg quality. Is that fine? 

Also, are you making an argument that feed fort will specifically be more prone to “humane-washing” compared to, e.g. cage-free/broiler campaigns or that all welfare-focused interventions that aim to improve the conditions on the farms are prone to “humane-washing” and therefore may be net-negative in the long term?

Thanks a lot, this sounds really interesting. 

Do you have any sense, why producers are not already fortifying feed with at least some of the nutrients? 
If deficiencies contribute significantly to the mortality of the hen, wouldn't it be in their self-interest to do so?

Hi Tobias, thanks for your questions! 

My sense is that the producers are fortifying the feed a little bit, but to maximize production rather than for better welfare. What is optimal for those two goals diverges. A couple of reasons for that:

  • Feed cost is the largest single item in poultry production and accounts for 60 to 75% of the total production cost. So producers fortify the minimum amount possible that will still make the calculation of cost and benefits positive for them to make a profit, but not necessarily what would make a hen more healthy and happy. 
  • There is also sometimes a lack of knowledge about optimal feeding, because producers only learn about something if a feed company has an incentive to market it. Since there’s no money to be made in e.g. changing calcium timing / particle size, that knowledge doesn’t get passed from the scientific literature to producers. 
  • What is optimal for profit doesn’t equal what is optimal for welfare, and we see a difference in current nutrients and what we found to be optimal. More specifically, we looked at optimal for welfare vs current fortification of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D3 standards of the top five egg-producing countries. This table shows the difference between their nutrient standards and the optimum nutrient levels (all sources can be found in Supplement B of our full report, section 2.2.):
  • Perhaps more important than the mortality is that bone fractures are a leading source of chronic pain for hens, and keel bone fractures aren’t visible to the naked eye. Producers probably fortify their feed enough to keep a sufficient number of the hens alive (again to maximize profit, because some mortality rate is just assumed to always happen and is written into the cost-benefits of production). Mortality may be low enough that the costs of them dying vs the expense of feed isn't worth it.

Thanks for sharing and all of your great work! I still find estimating and comparing cost-effectiveness difficult to grasp, but, roughly, how would you say the potential cost-effectiveness of such an intervention (i.e. 12 welfare points per dollar) compare to that of cage-free campaigns (as defined in https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/L5EZjjXKdNgcm253H/corporate-campaigns-affect-9-to-120-years-of-chicken-life )? Thanks! 

Thanks for the question! I generally believe that it is hard/impossible to reliably compare CEAs done using different methodologies and approaches. For example, Saulius’ CEA has a different goal than ours and takes into account the overall, average cost-effectiveness of all historical work on cage-free campaigns. In contrast, we look at the marginal, future cost-effectiveness of a feed fortification ask. Naturally they will differ a lot. I would expect that marginal cage-free $ would be lower impact than average historical cage-free $. 

It’s more informative to compare CEAs within the same methodology, and this intervention is one of the most cost-effective we found. For our future research, we plan to estimate the value of marginal $ spend on an additional cage-free/broiler campaign to have a better sense of the counterfactuals. 

That said, to try to answer your questions, I’ll make a back-of-the-envelope calculation (BOTEC): 

If I read correctly Saulius estimated that outside of the US 63-210M hens were affected by cage-free pledges for an average of 15 years of impact with a follow-through rate of 76% for an average = 48M-170M hens helped. He estimated that all global cage-free work costs $36-84M. I didn’t find in his estimates how much of that amount was outside the US. Let’s assume that the cost outside the US was half the total cost, so $18M-42M.

Let’s assume that both the impact and the cost are distributed equally among 7 major orgs. That gives us an effect of 6.8M-24M hens helped for $2.6-6.1M per org. That assumes an impact over 15 years. In our CEA we assume 10 years, so let’s adjust the impact for 10 instead of 15 years – that will be 4.5M-16Mhens per org (6.8M-24M*0.66). 

That gives us BOTEC CEA of 1-4.5hens per $, compared to our estimate of approx. 1.8 hens per $. It is generally true that the more extensive the CEA, the lower the estimated cost-effectiveness. So given that BOTEC and our prior research I believe that feed fort alone will be comparable with cage-free, and feed fort + cage-free (something we suggest for India) could have ~twice the impact. 

This is great stuff, Karolina! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.