The meat-eater problem wonders whether making poor humans richer could have significant negative consequences for non-human animals because of increased meat consumption as people become richer. With some sets of parameter values (for inter-species comparisons, market elasticity, consumer behaviour etc) this could mean making humans richer is morally net negative.

I am wondering about an analgous issue whereby the prima facie good thing of reducing the extent of animal agriculture will increase the amount of wilderness in the world, thus increasing the amount of wild animal suffering. Again, depending on how the lives of farmed and wild animals compare, this could mean reducing animal agriculture is net bad.

I find both of these propositions intuitively repellant, I think because I am used to thinking about direct consequences rather than flow-through effects. My immediate worry is that these concerns are generated by motivated reasoning of people not wanting to donate money to GiveWell or be vegan. (fyi I have donated to GiveWell and am mostly though not entirely vegan.)

However, I think they both deserve to be addressed on their merits.

There has been significant discussion of the meat-eater problem, but I have not seen any of the wild-animal equivalent. Could someone direct me to some work on the effects of animal agriculture on wild animal welfare? Alternately, what do you think? If one's view on whether wild animals have net-positive lives turns out to be a crux for whether ~veganism is morally obligatory, this seems important. If you are a relatively ardent vegan for whom this concern does not seem important, I am curious to here why.

In a recent event launching the NYU Wild Animal Welfare Program Jeff Sebo made a passing remark on this sort of issue:

If anyone ever tries to use wild animal welfare as a reason not to end factory farming and animal agriculture because 'oh plant farming harms wild animals' yes it does, and we shoud care about that, but animal agriculture uses more land and requires more plant farming and therefore more wild animal deaths in plant farming than plant based agricultrue does, so please push back against that argument when you encounter that.

If you are reading this Jeff, my worry is a bit different: not that agriculture harms animals directly (though yes of course that is terrible), but that land that is not used for agriculture will be used by wild animals, and I have significant credence in the wild being a bad, perhaps very bad, place to live as the average animal.


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Brian Tomasik has written quite a few articles on precisely this: 

Although he mentions the caveat that "That said, before we become too gung ho about eliminating natural ecosystems, we should also remember that many other humans value wilderness, and it's good to avoid making enemies or tarnishing the suffering-reduction cause by pitting it in direct opposition to other things people care about. In addition, many forms of environmental preservation, especially reducing climate change, may be important to the far future, by improving prospects for compromise among the major world powers that develop artificial general intelligence.

I think he also pointed out somewhere that most of expected future wild animal suffering wouldn't take place on Earth, and getting societal support to prevent space colonization-induced future wild-animal suffering is more important.

I agree this merits further serious and careful analysis. But even if we were to believe Tomasik's claims at face value (that the wild animals that would use the space and resources generated by less animal farming have substantial moral weight and would be suffering in net, etc.)

... he still says:

pork, chicken, eggs, farmed fish: I would avoid because these foods cause significant farm-animal suffering and have unclear net impact on wild-animal suffering.

And these are the majority of the farmed animals people eat worldwide, both by weight and by numbers[1]

  1. OK, maybe this excludes farmed insects, which he also advises against. ↩︎