This is a linkpost for #91 - Lewis Bollard on big wins against factory farming and how they happened. You can listen to the episode on that page, or by subscribing to the '80,000 Hours Podcast' wherever you get podcasts.
In this episode, Lewis and Rob discuss big wins in the farmed animal welfare movement over the past five years, as well as:
- Switzerland’s ballot measure on eliminating factory farming
- What a Biden administration could mean for reducing animal suffering
- How chicken is cheaper than peanuts
- The biggest recent wins for farmed animals
- Things that haven’t gone to plan in animal advocacy
- Political opportunities for farmed animal advocates in Europe
- How the US is behind Brazil and Israel on animal welfare standards
- The value of increasing media coverage of factory farming
- The state of the animal welfare movement
- And much more
Biggest recent wins for farmed animals
I think we’ve had a lot of really exciting progress over the last few years. There are three areas that stand out. The first would be on plant-based meat. I think we’ve seen a huge amount of progress in this space. In the last few years, the world’s largest meat companies like Tyson, JBS, Hormel, CB Foods, have all gotten involved in the space. The largest food companies, like Nestlé and Unilever, have been making major plays. It was only two years ago that Burger King launched the Impossible Whopper in the U.S., and since then they’ve rolled out plant-based burgers almost globally.
A second area where we’ve seen a lot of progress is on corporate farmed animal welfare reforms. Groups have secured over 1,200 new policies since you and I last spoke, especially eliminating battery cages.
And then the third area I would call out is European farmed animal welfare reforms, both making progress on broiler chickens, but also seeing the European Union committing to issuing new farmed animal welfare directives in years ahead.
Why is plant-based meat more expensive?
The most recent price data I have is from about a year ago. In the U.S. market, the retail average of plant-based meat being sold in the meat aisle — ‘fresh’ plant-based meat — was around $10 a pound, and for frozen plant-based meats, around $7 a pound. That compares to beef at about $5 a pound, and chicken at about $2.30 a pound. So, we’re still 2–4 times the price of the relevant meat comparisons.
I think there are a couple of reasons for this. So, one is that plant-based meat products are a lot more complicated than, say, lentils. So, you’re using plant protein isolates, or concentrates, which are substantially more expensive than the underlying plants. You’re sometimes using plants that are more expensive — so crops like peas, or chickpeas, are more expensive than soy, or wheat. And then the next thing is you have this need to process, to distribute, and it’s still relatively small-scale. Factory farming has had a 70 year head start in building out crazy scale and just constantly reducing costs by reducing every last little bit of the cost process.
As a result, it’s crazy cheap. I think one thing people lose sight of is that chicken is insanely cheap. And so it’s a really hard target for a new product, for a product that still is relatively small-scale, that still has a number of complicated steps to make. But I do think we’re seeing progress on that.
Strategy for farmed animal documentaries
You have a lot of documentaries that cost $100,000 or less. And then you have a lot of documentaries that cost several million dollars. And the documentaries that cost several million, on average do better than the documentaries that cost $100,000. But on average, they don’t do 20–40 times better, which is what you would need to think to justify that cost difference. So, that’s the key piece. Now obviously that doesn’t take into account the time of people going into this. So, if a documentary only costs $100,000, it’s probably partly because the documentary filmmakers are not valuing their time very highly. So, that’s another factor to consider.
It’s a hits-based business. It’s very much the case that every year there are over 15 new documentaries on factory farming. And you don’t hear about the vast majority of them. And although there are some things you can predict ahead of time on whether something is going to succeed or not, there are definitely plenty of really good documentaries out there that no one ever sees. And because a number of these factors are hard to predict, that’s where I think it’s really valuable to have more plays, rather than just kind of put all your focus on having that one critical play.
Do we know how to get people to reduce their meat consumption?
Josh Tasoff and colleagues did a study where they had a setup of a leafleting table and half the people got leaflets that had nothing to do with factory farming, and the other half got leaflets that were factory farming related, and they were able to track the subsequent meat purchases of those people. Impressively, they were able to track it over the course of two years. So they now have two years of data.
The unfortunate headline result was that there was no statistically significant reduction in meat consumption over time. There were two interesting sub-results, which they did pre-register that they were going to look at, so they’re definitely worth considering. One was that they did see a short-term reduction in overall consumption of meat by men.
Then the other, very unexpected, result — and again, this is just one result within the study — was that for women, they saw a substitution. So they didn’t see an overall reduction. They saw a substitution from beef toward chicken. This is particularly troubling, given that these leaflets were about the animal harms on factory farms; this was not climate messaging, this was not health messaging.
So if these two effects can be taken as real, the net effect of the intervention would be marginal, possibly slightly negative. Now, of course, this is just preliminary evidence. Both of those are sub-results within the broader group. But I think the broader finding is that any effect that does exist is pretty small.
Are companies following through on their commitments?
On the negative side, we have seen a number of major companies — particularly major retailers in the U.S. — not making much progress toward implementing their pledges. For the most part, those pledges would go 100% cage-free by 2025 or 2026, but the thing is that there haven’t been any milestones. So from the companies’ perspective, they’re not violating their pledges. They say things like, “We’re going to go 100%. It’s only 2021, don’t worry.” But right now they’re somewhere between 10% and 20% of the way there, and it does not seem like they are on track. So that’s going to be a major challenge.
On the positive side, 28% of the U.S. flock is now cage-free, up from 6% in 2015. That’s over 70 million hens newly out of cages over the last few years. And that has been driven by some companies that have made really impressive progress. So Costco, which is the second largest retailer in the U.S., is now over 95% cage-free. We have Nestlé and a number of other major brands that have already implemented their cage-free pledges. And we have the majority of companies that are being asked by Compassion in World Farming to report in their Egg Track report now reporting. So for instance, Walmart, Kroger, and these big companies are reporting. The percentages are too low, but they are publicly reporting where they’re at. And we have other companies that are publicly reporting and are on track. So McDonald’s, for instance, is on track to meet its commitment on time. So very mixed signs, and definitely recognition by the groups that they need to focus more attention on this.
Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show
- Open Phil’s Farm Animal Welfare Newsletter archive
- How to Lower the Price of Plant-Based Meat
- Why Is Meat So Cheap
- Documentaries and Farm Animals
- What Could a Biden Administration Mean for Farm Animals?
- Will Companies Make Good on Cage-Free Pledges?
- Seven Bigs Wins for Farm Animals in 2020
- Political Opportunities for Farm Animals in Europe
- But Can They Suffer? newsletter
- Is the percentage of vegetarians and vegans increasing? by Saulius Šimčikas
- Sentience Institute Survey of US attitudes towards animal farming and animal-free foods
- Replication of Sentience Institute’s study by Bailey Norwood at the Oklahoma State Department of Agricultural Economics
- 2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood by Luke Muehlhauser
- Do ethics classes influence student behavior? Case study: Teaching the ethics of eating meat by Schwitzgebel, Cokelet and Singer (2020)
- Game Changers (Documentary film about the optimal diet for human performance)
- Forks Over Knives (Documentary film about the connection between a plant-based diet and human health)
- Blackfish (Documentary film about the cruel treatment of orcas in captivity, specifically following an orca named Tilikum who lived at SeaWorld)
- Swiss to vote on banning factory farming
- New York Times Op-Ed by Bill Maher urging Costco to go cage-free
- Farm Animal Welfare Program Associate open role at Open Philanthropy
- Compassion in World Farming’s Egg Track report
- Horizon 2020 initiative
Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
I suspect today’s guest, Lewis Bollard, might be the single best person in the world to interview to get an overview of all the methods that might be effective for putting an end to factory farming and what broader lessons we can learn from the experiences of people working to end cruelty in animal agriculture.
That’s why I interviewed him back in 2017 for Episode 8, and it’s why I’ve come back for an updated second dose four years later.
That conversation became a touchstone resource for anyone wanting to understand why people might decide to focus their altruism on farmed animal welfare, what those people are up to, and why.
But I’m happy to let you know that this episode certainly isn’t only for vegetarians or people whose primary focus is animal welfare. The farmed animal welfare movement has had a lot of big wins over the last five years, and many of the lessons animal activists and plant-based meat entrepreneurs have learned are of much broader interest.
With that in mind Keiran has done some editing to make sure the parts of the interview that have broadest interest come first. Some of those include:
- Will plant-based meat or clean meat displace conventional meat, and if so when? How quickly can it reach price parity with animal meat?
- Do big and famous documentaries or lectures on moral philosophy successfully convince people to become vegetarian or vegan? And if so, how much and for how long?
- What’s up with surveys suggesting many Americans would be open to criminalising factory farming?
- And why has Costco almost eliminated caged eggs from its supply chain years before it had to?
One thing we don’t rehash is the nature of the problem and why Lewis is working on it, so I’ll just quickly do that now — skip ahead 3 minutes if you’ve heard one of our animal-focused episodes before and don’t want an introduction.
In brief, 25 billion land animals are being raised in factory farms around the world at any given moment, including around 2.4 billion in the U.S. At any point in time there are 300 million egg-laying hens in the U.S., and roughly 72% of them are in battery cages, which prevent them from moving and prohibit almost any natural behaviors. While that 72% figure is pretty shocking, it’s down from 99% just a decade or two ago.
Similarly, there are 72 million pigs being raised for food in the U.S. at any point in time. These animals are intelligent and social, and — as with hens — the sows are confined for months in crates that prevent them from even so much as turning around. Hideous acts of cruelty that would immediately get someone sent to prison if they did it to a pet dog — such as cutting off body parts without anaesthetic — are completely legal and simply standard operating procedure for 99.9% of farmed animals in the U.S.
While some European countries have meaningful animal cruelty laws, the situation in the U.S. is pretty typical of the world as a whole.
So if animals deserve any moral consideration, there is almost certainly a vast amount of suffering being inflicted on animals in agriculture. While we don’t know how to weigh the moral importance of animals relative to humans, the amount of suffering among farmed animals in the US might be not so different than the amount of suffering experienced by all the people in the US.
On top of this, until recently, the issue has been extremely neglected, with only tiny numbers of people spending their careers trying to end this appalling state of affairs, and having almost no money to work with. That suggested there might be a lot of low-hanging fruit, should people set their mind to ending factory farming.
And indeed as you’ll hear in this conversation, the issue seems to be very practical to make progress in.
Alright, with that short introduction out of the way, here’s my conversation with Lewis Bollard.
The interview begins [00:04:37]
Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking once again with Lewis Bollard. Since 2015, Lewis has led Open Philanthropy’s program on farmed animal welfare. Open Phil is a large foundation that is aiming to have the greatest possible positive impact on the world with its giving. And flatteringly, given that it has that goal, it is one of 80,000 Hours’ biggest donors. Since Lewis joined, Open Phil has disbursed about $130 million in grants to nonprofits as part of its farmed animal welfare program. Prior to joining Open Philanthropy, Lewis worked as a policy advisor and international liaison to the CEO at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Prior to that, he was a litigation fellow at HSUS, a law student, and an associate consultant at Bain & Company. He has a BA from Harvard University in social studies, and a JD from Yale Law School. So thanks for coming back on the podcast, Lewis.
Lewis Bollard: Great, thanks Rob. It’s great to be back.
Robert Wiblin: So I plan to talk about how to make plant-based meat much cheaper than it is today, and what you’ve learned since we last spoke in 2017. But first off, what are you working on at the moment and why do you think it’s important to do?
Lewis Bollard: Sure. So we are working on expanding the global movement on farmed animal welfare, both improving the conditions of animals in factory farms and reducing the demand for animals to be in factory farms in the first place. And I think this is particularly important work, given the scale of the problem. We’ve got over 100 billion vertebrate farmed animals alive at any point in time — there are over 7 billion layer hens in cages at any time. But I think it’s also particularly important because there have been a lot of tractable opportunities to make change in this area. And I’m excited to talk with you about some of them today.
Biggest recent wins for farmed animals [00:06:13]
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Well, with something as horrible and ubiquitous as factory farming — and I guess animal agriculture writ large — I find that it’s kind of easy to get down about how things are going and how terrible the situation is. To be honest, living in lockdown here in London and not really leaving the house, I am trying to make an active effort every day to focus on the positive in order to stay motivated and keep my mental health good. So, although I’ve got a lot of questions today, I’m keen to start out with a list of what wins there have been in the animal space over the last four years since our interview in 2017. So yeah, it’s possible to summarise what’s gone right for farmed animals?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, absolutely. I think we’ve had a lot of really exciting progress over the last few years. There are three areas that stand out. The first would be on plant-based meat. I think we’ve seen a huge amount of progress in this space. In the last few years, the world’s largest meat companies like Tyson, JBS, Hormel, CB Foods, have all gotten involved in the space. The largest food companies, like Nestlé and Unilever, have been making major plays. It was only two years ago that Burger King launched the Impossible Whopper in the U.S., and since then they’ve rolled out plant-based burgers almost globally.
Lewis Bollard: A second area where we’ve seen a lot of progress is on corporate farmed animal welfare reforms. Groups have secured over 1,200 new policies since you and I last spoke, especially eliminating battery cages. And then the third area I would call out is European farmed animal welfare reforms, both making progress on broiler chickens, but also seeing the European Union committing to issuing new farmed animal welfare directives in years ahead.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. So let’s maybe go through those one by one. The plant-based meat space, I guess that kind of breaks down into plant-based meat, and then I guess there’s ‘cellular agriculture’, or ‘clean meat’. Has that gone above expectations? Do we have a sense of how much is being sold relative to the market as a whole? Maybe expand on that a little bit.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, absolutely. I think it definitely has gone above expectations. So just take the U.S. market as one example. When we last spoke, plant-based meat had been increasing by about 1–2% in retail for the few years leading up to 2017. Since then, it’s been increasing by around 16–18% per year in terms of sales, driven heavily by the introduction of new products like Beyond and Impossible. And then we’ve also seen a huge rollout in fast food. And then similarly on the fast food side, we’re seeing a globalisation of this. So we’re seeing new Impossible Burgers being rolled out in Asia. We’re seeing in China, the leading state planning commission welcoming investment in plant-based meat in the country. So I think we’re really seeing a huge level of global interest in the space.
Robert Wiblin: So what’s likely to be next for that? Do you think that we’re going to be seeing this significantly eating into actual purchases of meat products at the supermarket anytime soon?
Lewis Bollard: I hope so. I think it’s still early days. It’s definitely worth bearing in mind that still less than 1% by volume of total meat purchases in the U.S. and in most markets are plant-based. But I do think if you look at the trajectory of something like plant-based dairy, which is now about 15% of U.S. dairy sales, I think there’s huge scope for that to increase. And I think also when you look at this taking on a major role in food service and fast food chains, I think there’s huge scope for plant-based meat to take over more of the market share there.
Robert Wiblin: What’s the market share in fast food at the moment?
Lewis Bollard: We don’t have good data on that, unfortunately. The best data we have is on retail in the U.S. market, which just crossed about $1 billion in sales this year. And the best estimates on fast food say that it’s about $1 billion more in sales on the U.S. fast food side.
Robert Wiblin: Do we have reviews that people are giving on these things? Are people just trying it out as a novelty and then sticking with it? Do we have qualitative impressions?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. I mean, we have some positive reports, for instance from Burger King, which rolled out the Impossible Burger first of the major chains. And it has reported strong sales. I think we’re also yes, seeing some really positive qualitative reports of people saying the products are substantially better than older variants of plant-based meat. So I think there are a lot of promising signs there. And perhaps the most promising sign is that we are seeing fast food chains doubling down on their bets on plant-based meat. So we’re seeing Impossible launching additional products, Dunkin Donuts is also launching additional products using plant-based meat, which I think is a really promising sign.
Robert Wiblin: What’s motivating the fast food companies? They think maybe this is going to be a big market in the future and they want to get in before it’s too late to set it up properly?
Lewis Bollard: I think there are probably multiple motivations. One initial motivation I think is what’s called the kind of ‘veto vote’, where if there’s one member of a family or a group going to dine out who’s vegetarian or vegan, or even just looking to reduce their meat intake, it’s really important to have something good to offer that person so you don’t lose the rest of the group.
Lewis Bollard: I think the second thing driving this is a general trend we’re seeing of people trying to reduce their meat consumption. And so flexitarians or Reducetarians, people who are trying to eat less meat if it’s an easy option, that might make it more appealing to go to that fast food chain than to go to a competitor that doesn’t have a similar offering.
Robert Wiblin: I guess it seems to me like McDonald’s over the last 20 years has done quite a big turnaround from being well, a fast food place that’s happy to lean into its reputation of not being super healthy to a place that’s trying to offer lots of healthy options as well. I guess just because that’s a larger fraction of the market now, is people who want healthy food. And maybe this is part of a similar thing where they’re trying to appeal to just a large fraction of people…or at least a sufficient fraction of the market is interested in healthy options or non-meat options that they feel they have to have something to bring those people in?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, I think that could well be part of it. It’s interesting actually, that McDonald’s has been a little bit behind on this trend.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, really?
Lewis Bollard: So we’ve seen Burger King now has a plant-based burger in all of its major locations. It recently launched in Brazil, in Mexico, in the Philippines, globally. McDonald’s has plant-based burgers in a lot of European markets, and has had them for a very long time in India, but doesn’t have them in key other markets, including the U.S. And they did recently announce planning to roll out the ‘McPlant’ sometime in the coming year, but it is kind of interesting that they actually have been a little bit of a leg out on this one.
Robert Wiblin: That’s interesting. Do you think that Burger King is thinking maybe they can gain market share or they can get people to come to them because of this veto issue? People won’t be able to go to McDonald’s, and they’ll say, “Oh you know Burger King has plant-based meat,” and people might be interested in the novelty and that will get them in in the first place?
Lewis Bollard: I think that’s probably been a major driver. I do think there’s been a real benefit to companies like Burger King being the leader on these things. And it’s cool to see that kind of competition. I mean, I think we’re really seeing a dynamic of companies trying to catch up with one another. We’ve seen this too on the meat company side, the food company side. We’re increasingly seeing CEOs during investor calls being asked, “What are you doing on plant-based meat? Why are you behind Tyson? Why are you behind Nestlé or Unilever on this?” And so I think we’re seeing a lot of really positive pressure for companies needing to have a play in this area.
Robert Wiblin: And this isn’t the most important thing, but is it just me or is it kind of strange that half of the sales is in fast food or is in restaurants, when I assume that most of food sales is not in restaurants, it’s at supermarkets? It seems like people are more likely maybe to try these plant-based meats in restaurants rather than at the supermarket?
Lewis Bollard: Actually in the U.S. about half of meat is consumed — by value, I should say, not by volume, but by value — about half is consumed at restaurants. So that’s not atypical. With Impossible, this was very much their strategy, was to start in restaurants, which I think both reduced the barrier in terms of the novelty — it’s sort of hard to seek out in a supermarket, where there are many items, easier to see if something is featured on the menu. It’s a common preparation, you’re used to seeing the Whopper… But the other thing is that it ensures that products are produced the right way, that they’re cooked properly. I think the problem with a lot of products is that it matters a lot how you cook them. And so if they’re sold for retail and people first try them at home doing a poor job cooking them, that’s not going to be as compelling as… You know, Impossible started at high-end restaurants with top chefs preparing their products. And I think that’s a really clever way to show the product in the best presentation possible.
Robert Wiblin: That makes a lot of sense. And then I guess people try it out there, they like it, and then they might be interested in buying it at the supermarket.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right.
Robert Wiblin: I thought I ate out quite a lot, that I was spending quite a lot of money at restaurants…but evidently I’m behind the ball game on this one…50%, that’s impressive.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So I think that the second one you mentioned was that corporate campaigns were going pretty well. What fraction of all farmed animals are potentially being affected by these corporate campaigns?
Lewis Bollard: So our estimate is that campaigns just over the last few years will affect at least 170 million animals once implemented. And I should say it’s 170 million animals alive at any point in time. There have really been two sorts of campaign wins. So the first is on the cage-free side. We’ve seen over 1,000 new policies over the last few years, both in key geographies and globally. In Brazil, the three largest retailers have now all committed to going cage-free. In Europe, the largest retailers in all the largest European countries are now committed to going cage-free. And we’re increasingly seeing global cage-free commitments. So for instance Burger King pledging to go cage-free in all of its markets.
Lewis Bollard: And then the other main type of corporate campaign we’re seeing is on broiler chickens. These are the chickens raised for their meat. Improving their genetics, giving them more space, improving their conditions. And on this score we’ve seen a lot of pledges in Europe, and it’s particularly exciting to see all the largest retailers in France have made commitments to improve the welfare of their broiler chickens in the coming years.
Robert Wiblin: You said 1,000 policies? I’m just guessing given the sheer number, that many of them must be doing this kind of off of their own bat, because I don’t imagine that the nonprofits have enough people to be running 1,000 pressure campaigns in 1,000 different companies to get them to change their policies? Is it just kind of snowballing because people see the writing on the wall?
Lewis Bollard: It’s actually mainly advocacy groups working with people.
Robert Wiblin: Alright, wow.
Lewis Bollard: And, I mean, I think it’s a testament to the global scale of these campaigns now. A lot of those commitments are country-specific commitments. So for instance, through the Open Wing Alliance, you have over 70 groups working across over 50 different countries, and they are routinely securing new commitments in different countries. So in Mexico, we’re seeing constant new commitments. In Brazil, in Thailand, in France, in Germany. So a lot of that is the scale you’re seeing is working through different food sectors in all the biggest countries in the world.
Robert Wiblin: Right. Okay. So last we spoke, you were saying that these campaigns, they go to one company and they say, “We’re just going to keep hassling you and damaging your reputation until you make a commitment like this”. And those advocacy groups had a reputation at the time of never having given up. So the companies eventually fall because they think “Well, we’ll probably end up doing this anyway. Better to do it right away than suffer a whole lot of brand damage, then get ground down into doing it anyway.” Do these organisations still have a reputation for just never having lost and given up and walked away, or have they had to abandon some fights perhaps?
Lewis Bollard: I actually don’t know in terms of individual campaigns. I think there’ve been so many more campaigns at this point that it’s hard to keep track across all countries, or all geographies. But I think that logic you outline remains the same, that groups do seek to make it very clear that battery cages are going to be obsolete. They’re on the way out. And the only question is whether you pledge to eliminate them now, or you wait until some of your competitors have already pledged, and until you’ve had a campaign alerting your consumers to your slowness on this issue, and then you’ll make the pledge. And by the way, you’ll still have only the same amount of time to get rid of those cages as your competitor that did this more proactively.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah interesting. Okay. So I guess there’s other factors. One thing is this commercial incentive of not having people tarnish your reputation. Have the costs shifted at all, or the technology shifted, or even the attitudes of people in these companies to make them perhaps more willing to make this change? Because it’s happening faster than I would have expected. Because you would think they’d be so reluctant because it would increase their costs, and that’s just a key issue for them.
Lewis Bollard: That remains the major barrier for sure. And to be clear, there’s still a huge amount of work needing to be done on this, particularly in new markets. So for instance, in East Asia, we’ve seen the first pledges, but it is much harder to get those initial pledges than it is to get the remaining pledges in Europe. So I think you are seeing a couple of factors that have helped a lot in increasing that number have been the momentum built, particularly the momentum built in Europe, both on seeing that all of their competitors have now made these pledges, but also seeing on the implementation side that in a lot of countries, the egg sector is now moving heavily cage-free. And so it becomes a lot easier to fulfill these pledges. So in Europe, for instance, the majority of hens for the first time last year were cage-free rather than in cages. And as that trend changes, there is this kind of positive cycle where the more hens that are cage-free the easier it becomes for companies to make these pledges, to implement these pledges, to go cage-free.
Robert Wiblin: It becomes easier because their competitors are doing it so they won’t be at a disadvantage, or it becomes easier because people are so familiar with this farming technique that it’s more straightforward?
Lewis Bollard: Both. So certainly the fact that their competitors are doing it and they’re not worried about getting undercut, but also just having widespread availability. So one concern that companies will often have is if you’re the first company in a new market to go cage-free, then you need to go and find cage-free eggs near all of your stores. If you have retail stores all across the country, you might be relying on 20 different egg producers, you need to work with all of them to transition. It’s a lot easier if your egg producers are already transitioning, they’re already supplying your competitors with cage-free eggs and you don’t need to start that conversation, you don’t need to work on the transition. You can just start buying the same thing they’re supplying your competitors.
Robert Wiblin: That makes sense. Okay. So when it’s half of all hens, then it, of course, it’s just they’re spread out over everywhere and there’s going to be high availability.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Let’s move on to the third positive area, which I guess was policy change. Can you flesh out a little bit more what policy changes there have been in the U.S. and U.K. and E.U. that have been good?
Lewis Bollard: Absolutely. I think there’s been a lot of exciting policy changes in the last year. So the most significant is the European Commission — after years of inaction on farmed animal welfare — committed last year to revisiting its key directives, which are effectively legislation on farmed animal welfare and specifically on chickens, and laying hens, and broiler chickens. We’ve also seen a number of national commitments. So for instance, both France and Germany have committed to end castration without pain relief for piglets and have committed to end the killing of day-old male chicks by the egg industry, replacing that with technologies that can sex the embryos and avoid the need to hatch them in the first place. And we’re seeing a number of initiatives in other countries, for instance, in the U.K., the potential for farrowing crates to be banned, for live export trade…they recently announced that that would be banned, and we’re seeing the potential to ban cages there too.
Robert Wiblin: And in the U.S.?
Lewis Bollard: In the U.S. it’s been slow on legislation for sure.
Robert Wiblin: Really now? Have there been any impediments in the last few years? Any political challenges that I haven’t been following? [Laughs.] Sorry, go on.
Lewis Bollard: I’m sure you’ve been following as closely as we all have been.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah it has come up occasionally on the news.
Lewis Bollard: In the U.S. there’s a core structural challenge in that you have factory farming states overrepresented in the Senate and heavily overrepresented on the agriculture committees in both the House and Senate where any legislation would need to start at the federal level. We’ve seen a little more progress at the state level. In particular in California, there was Proposition 12 in 2018, which was the most ambitious ballot measure yet on farmed animal welfare. And that passed with over 60% of the vote. And that will result in not just a complete ban on cages and crates in California, but also a ban starting at the beginning of next year on the sale of caged eggs in California.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Alright. Let’s turn back to the U.K. and E.U., what has allowed these policies to get through now, where they weren’t able to previously?
Lewis Bollard: I think that’s a great question. I think there have been a number of factors that have been helpful. But one that I would cite is I do think that the advocacy groups have built up some really positive momentum on this issue. So we’ve seen groups like Compassion in World Farming in the U.K. and Europe, and Eurogroup for Animals have been working with policymakers on the need for new legislation and the specifics of new legislation. I think funnily enough, that Brexit actually helped on both ends, both because in England, one thing the Conservative Party made a big deal of was that Brexit would allow them to raise farmed animal welfare standards in ways that they hadn’t been able to, for instance, by banning the live export trade. On the other side in Europe, it seems it’s reduced a lot of the legislative logjam, and there’s a lot more desire on the European Commission and European Parliament’s part to be seen to be legislating proactively again, and they’re much less taken up with the issues of Brexit than they were a few years ago. They’re now looking to proactively do new things.
Lewis Bollard: And then I think the other thing that’s been feeding into this a lot is the corporate progress proceedings. So it becomes a lot easier for legislators to imagine, for instance banning cages, when the industry is already moving in that direction itself. So when retail is fully committed, when the egg industry is already signed to be majority cage-free, enshrining that in law becomes a lot easier than before we had those pledges.
Robert Wiblin: To what extent do you think the progress is driven by, I guess, specific advocacy campaigns and nonprofits and the work of individuals versus maybe some kind of background moral change that’s going on, where people are becoming more humane and more concerned about animals, just in general, perhaps as they become wealthier and more educated?
Lewis Bollard: I think it’s always hard to separate those out, but I do think the advocacy piece is critical to it. And one piece of evidence for that would be that we’ve seen reform comes in spades. So we saw this first in the 1990s with the European Union putting in place a whole bunch of reforms. And then we saw advocacy for various reasons, focused elsewhere. We saw various obstacles and we didn’t see that legislation, even though Europe was still getting richer, potentially getting more humane during that period of time. We didn’t see legislative moves again until very recently. Similarly, you can look at counterexamples where you have similar factors, but you don’t necessarily have that advocacy, that organised advocacy that you have placed in the European Union, and you aren’t seeing the same degree of legislative progress.
How to lower the price of plant-based meat [00:24:57]
Robert Wiblin: Alright, pushing on. You’ve got this amazing, roughly monthly newsletter that Open Phil puts out on farmed animal welfare research. Despite being so interesting every month, it hardly gets promoted and lots of people I know don’t know about it. What’s going on with that? Why don’t you make a blog out of it and push it a little bit more?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, that’s a great idea. It started as something very informal that I was just sharing with a small group of people who were interested, and I’m happy to see that it has grown over time. We have become marginally more public. You can now find the archive of all those newsletters on the Open Philanthropy website. But I think it’s a great idea to be more public with it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, you should make a Substack, Lewis! Make all that cash money, get subscriptions.
Lewis Bollard: I’m not sure if I fully understand Substack, but it sounds cool.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. So I have been reading back over these and there’s three of them that I had some questions about. The first one was about the price competitiveness of meat and meat alternatives. So, you were writing in one of these newsletters that an important issue may prove to be whether alternative proteins can reach price competitiveness with meat. Could you just lay out for the audience kind of what are their relative prices now?
Lewis Bollard: So, I can tell you the most recent price data I have, which is from about a year ago. In the U.S. market, the retail average of plant-based meat being sold in the meat aisle, ‘fresh’ plant-based meat, was around $10 a pound, and for frozen plant-based meats, around $7 a pound. That compares to beef at about $5 a pound. And chicken, about $2.30 a pound. So, we’re still 2–4x the price of the relevant meat comparisons.
Robert Wiblin: And why are plant alternatives more expensive? I mean, generally, meat is among the more expensive things that people buy. If you eat lentils instead, it’s usually cheaper. So, you might have naively thought that these plant-based alternatives would cost less.
Lewis Bollard: So, I think there are a couple of things going on. So, one is that plant-based meat products are a lot more complicated than lentils. So, you’re using plant protein isolates, or concentrates, which are substantially more expensive than the underlying plants. You’re sometimes using plants that are more expensive, so crops like peas, or chickpeas are more expensive than soy, or wheat. And then the next thing is you have this need to process, to distribute, and it’s still relatively small scale. So, factory farming has had a 70 year head start in building out crazy scale and just constantly reducing costs by reducing every last little bit of the cost process.
Lewis Bollard: And as a result, it’s crazy cheap. I think one thing people lose sight of is that chicken is insanely cheap. And so it’s a really hard target for a new product, for a product that still is relatively small scale, that still has a number of complicated steps to make. But I do think we’re seeing progress on that.
Robert Wiblin: I think I read that chicken is actually cheaper than peanuts by weight. That’s just bananas. How is that possible? Yeah, it’s extraordinary. I mean, I guess that’s part of why it’s so barbaric is they just cut every margin that… Yeah, they made no concessions to animal wellbeing, or really anything other than making it cheap.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right. I mean, it’s really insane. If you look at the price structure for producing chicken, 70% of the wholesale cost of chicken is just the cost of feed. And chickens eat the cheapest feed. They eat corn, soy, wheat. And they convert it very efficiently. So, feed isn’t even that big a cost. And yet, that’s 70% of the cost. They’ve gotten things like labor down to the most tiny cost, and it’s basically… They’ve created this process where there is almost no labor involved. There are almost no people involved in the system. There is almost nothing involved in the system, other than very large sheds in which the birds are continually fed until they’re fat enough to go to slaughter.
Robert Wiblin: From what I’ve seen elsewhere it’s also the case that most of the people in the poultry industry also don’t get paid very much, and in fact, have a pretty terrible time. They’ve managed to kind of squeeze every cent out of those folks as well. We mostly don’t talk about that, because I’m not super sympathetic to people who are involved in this industry that I regard as barbaric. But yeah, it’s not as if the people involved in the industry are benefiting either.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right, yeah. I think for chicken producers, it’s a pretty hard and tough life. I mean, they make very little money. They need to take on huge amounts of debt. They’re on the hook for their facilities. And they face constant pressure from the big chicken producers who are constantly sending them less money and expecting them to do more and more.
Robert Wiblin: Do we have much evidence on how much lower prices would actually raise demand? I was thinking, as I was writing these questions, could we do an experiment where we subsidise Beyond Burgers in some city for a little while, or in at least one supermarket and see how much that drives up demand, if we can make them price competitive?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah so we don’t have great evidence. I think it would be really interesting to see experiments like that. I can tell you that in general, meat is pretty price inelastic to demand. However, when we see changes between the relative price of beef and chicken, that seems to make quite a bit of difference, how people switch within meat. And so, one question will be, do people view plant-based meat as a direct substitute for chicken, as a direct substitute for beef? How relevant is that?
Lewis Bollard: Another, I think, interesting data point is on plant-based dairy, which is about 15% of U.S. retail sales now, and it’s still more expensive than cow-based dairy. So, they’ve managed to get to a substantial market share without hitting price parity yet, but there are some really exciting developments on this front. I mean, I think one is seeing Beyond and Impossible are reducing prices substantially. So, it’ll be really interesting to see how much of a difference that makes in their total sales in the years to come.
Robert Wiblin: So, intuitively…yeah. You’re saying that the demand for meat in general is price inelastic. So, if all meat becomes more expensive, people would still feel like they want to eat a particular amount of meat as a fraction of their diet. They kind of insist on that. And so, they’ll tend to just pay the extra price. But then they’re much more willing to switch between the kind of meat that they eat, in as much as the relative price is changed, which makes intuitive sense.
Robert Wiblin: I guess that would suggest to me that you could see a big impact if these substitute meats, alternative meats were around the same price, then a whole bunch of people would just maybe become more indifferent, or it suggests… From another point of view, you could say, there’s a lot of people who want to buy meat, but they are choosing between the meats based on price. And then if you could get it to be the same, then suddenly this huge impediment for them, this huge deterrence factor has gone away. Yeah. How quickly are their prices converging? You said that the alternative proteins have gotten cheaper. How quickly is that happening?
Lewis Bollard: So, we’re particularly seeing this with the more expensive products, with Beyond and Impossible. But, we’ve seen the cheaper brands traditionally, like Boca and Morningstar, are seeing sort of steady, but slow declines in price. Beyond is really interesting, in that because they’re now a public company, we can look at their SEC filings and not only see what they’re doing in terms of pricing, but also see their underlying production cost decline.
Lewis Bollard: So, we can make sure that the price declines are not just coming from them needing to slash prices. The really encouraging thing is that between 2019 and 2020, the SEC filings suggest that Beyond’s cost of goods sold fell from about $4.50 a pound to $3.50 a pound. So, there was a $1 a pound drop just over the course of a year. At Impossible we don’t have that kind of production cost insight, but their costs of the ultimate end product have fallen about a third over the last year and a half.
Robert Wiblin: Whoa, that’s great. I spend a decent amount of money on these, so that’s not only good news morally, but also financially for me. Yeah. I guess, could we get much money out of governments or something to fund this research? What do you think might be possible to do in order to drive the price down faster than what would happen otherwise?
Lewis Bollard: I think government funding would be huge. We can see that, although we have a lot more going on in this space, the scale of research and development that we still need is the kind of scale that governments are best at providing. And there have been some promising signs on this front. So, one is in Canada over the last few years, they’ve committed to spending over $160 million on plant protein optimisation. Singapore and Israel, I mentioned, have both been spending over $10 million a year on supporting plant-based protein startups and doing research and development in the space. And then the European Union has done — by our count — over $50 million in the last few years on alternative protein-focused projects, mainly through this Horizon 2020 initiative that funds environmental initiatives.
Lewis Bollard: We’ve seen smaller grants recently from the U.S. government through the National Science Foundation, from governments in Brazil, Spain, India, Japan, and even China. So, we’re starting to see that, but there’s a huge amount of additional scope. And just to give you a sense of what that could be, in the U.S., the annual just U.S. ag research budget is about $3.7 billion. So, if you were just to take a relatively small fraction of that budget, we could see a huge amount more funding coming into the space.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I guess, you’re saying, China’s interested in this from a food security point of view. That kind of brings in national security budgets, and other very big concerns that potentially could… A relatively small amount of money for national security would be 10x or 100x of the money going into this kind of research.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I certainly don’t know what’s going on with the Chinese national security budget, but I think you’re right, as governments view this as not just something that is motivated by animal welfare, or even just the environment, I think that’s really helping with funding, but also, is motivated by food security, by creating jobs, by creating new sources of food and economic development. I’m really hoping that we will see a lot more government funding in the space.
Robert Wiblin: So, the prices are going down, but at some point presumably they’ll level out, because we’ll run out of ways to make it a whole bunch cheaper. I guess it’s kind of speculation at this point at what point they would level off? And whether they will actually be able to get down to the same price as meat. But do we have any indication on that?
Lewis Bollard: I don’t think we have a great indication. I think that is the huge challenge for companies. And I think that particularly, the biggest challenge is competing with chicken. So, there are already products on the market that are as cheap as ground beef. There are no products on the market that are as cheap as commodity chicken. And so, I think the real challenge for companies is, yeah, how close can you get to that? What are the steps required on that? And that’s a place where I think too, we need to see both government funding, but I would also love to see more startups doing work like Rebellyous Foods, which is a startup that is focused on bringing down the price of chicken alternatives through process engineering improvements.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I eat a bunch of the chicken substitutes. I guess the good news is… Well they are a bit more expensive, I suppose, but yeah, in terms of taste and texture, they’re very similar. I guess it’s a relatively more simple meat perhaps to mimic.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, I think that’s right. At least for the processed products, so for the patties and nuggets, which at least in the U.S. market, that’s about half the market is for the processed chicken. And so, that makes sense as a place to start. There’s then another set of challenges on texture for the other half of the market, which is primarily whole cuts, so breast meat, or wings, or thighs. All of that, of course, is going to need its own work on improving texture to compete with that.
Robert Wiblin: The answer may well be no, but do you have any thoughts on career opportunities that listeners might be able to take if they’re interested in pursuing careers that would make these alternative proteins cheaper?
Lewis Bollard: So, certainly if you have the ability to do science, I think then working at a startup, but also working in academic labs. We’re seeing a number of universities working on this now. I think there’s huge potential for people to bring in additional government funding by becoming an academic researcher or applying for scientific grant funding, etc., or applying for funding for the universities. So, that would be one route. I think another route is going the business side, and whether that is working at a startup, whether it’s trying to work somewhere like the Good Food Institute, and working on, yeah, what are these economic barriers, and how can you take out those barriers?
Documentaries for farmed animals [00:37:05]
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Another newsletter that you wrote last year was about documentaries about animal agriculture and animal wellbeing. Your team had cataloged a growing number of big budget documentaries that looked at these issues. And some of them recently seem to be reaching pretty big audiences and had a fairly big budget, like Game Changers or Forks Over Knives. Do you think they’re having much social impact, maybe by creating activists or changing people’s diets? And if they are, is there any way to know?
Lewis Bollard: So, it’s hard to know. We have a few pieces of partial data, so one piece is there’ve been a number of surveys over the years of current vegetarians and vegans, asking, “Why did you go vegetarian or vegan?” And about 10 to 40% of people cite a documentary as a key factor. So, that’s one piece of evidence. Another piece would be looking at Google trends data. So, for instance, Game Changers, we saw a significant uptick in searches for plant-based diets around the time that movie came out. And then there have been a few movies, like Blackfish on SeaWorld, that have had a very clear targeted impact. Blackfish, I think, basically contributing to the demise of SeaWorld and to ending its orca program. But it’s hard, it’s hard to assess. And I think this is a real challenge with this kind of social persuasion work, is working out whether you’re having an impact at all, and what the right benchmarks for that are.
Robert Wiblin: What kind of advice for prospective documentary makers did the research turn up?
Lewis Bollard: So, I think one thing which is not totally within the control of prospective documentary makers is that established documentary makers have a lot more success. Not just in terms of making a good movie, but it seems like the key bottleneck right now is getting onto the platforms. So, very few documentaries make it out to movie theaters, even if they were open. Really, where all the action is now is getting on Netflix and then to a lesser degree, getting on Amazon Prime, getting on the other platforms. And it’s very hard to get onto those platforms. So, one thing was that IMDB tracks about 4,000 documentaries coming out a year. Only a few hundred of those make it onto Netflix.
Lewis Bollard: A few hundred more make it onto Amazon. And one thing that was hugely helpful was having first an established director. You’re much more likely to get on Netflix if they already have something of yours on there. A second thing was that there was a lot of value to having established production companies involved and established distribution companies. So again, this probably has more to do with just the connections and the reputation they bring, but it does seem like there is unfortunately an aspect of, it is a lot easier for more established players to produce hits in this industry.
Robert Wiblin: Reminds me of that quip about how you found a great research university…the answer is you start it 500 years ago. So yeah, how you produce a successful documentary is to already be a successful documentary maker.
Robert Wiblin: Something that surprised me was that it did seem like there was such a strong correlation between the size of the documentary’s budget and how many viewers it got, or how successful the movie was. There was some correlation, but you came down on thinking, people should just try making lots of cheap documentaries and some of them will take off and maybe you shouldn’t focus on making it so big budget necessarily, rather than just increase the number.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, and I think that’s mainly to do with the variation in potential budget size. So, you have a lot of documentaries that cost $100,000 or less. And then you have a lot of documentaries that cost several million dollars. And the documentaries that cost several million, on average do better than the documentaries that cost $100,000. But on average, they don’t do 20–40x better, which is what you would need to think to justify that cost difference. So, that’s the key piece. Now obviously that doesn’t take into account as much the time of people going into this. So, if a documentary only costs $100,000, it’s probably partly because the documentary filmmakers are not valuing their time very highly. So, that’s another factor to consider.
Robert Wiblin: So, it could be that this result might shift if you thought about the opportunity cost of the staff, and maybe just the money isn’t the main input in those cases. But I suppose I might also just suggest that there’s kind of a spark that you get with some documentaries, where just the topic really works somehow and it’s a bit hard to buy that with more money. And so, you just kind of want to throw a lot of stuff at the wall and then figure out what thing is compelling. And it’s better to do that 10 times on a low budget, than once on a big budget.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So, definitely one finding from this is that it’s a hits-based business. It’s very much the case that every year there are over 15 new documentaries on factory farming. And you don’t hear about the vast majority of them. And although there are some things you can predict ahead of time on whether something is going to succeed or not, there are definitely plenty of really good documentaries out there that no one ever sees. And because a number of these factors are hard to predict, that’s where I think it’s really valuable to have more plays, rather than just kind of put all your focus on having that one critical play.
Robert Wiblin: A listener wrote in when I said I was going to be interviewing you and said that they’d read this piece on documentaries and were curious whether it had any implications for the potential of maybe social media and Instagram influencers or advertising to promote the same ideas? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Lewis Bollard: I think there’s been some really exciting work on social media by a lot of advocates and groups. So, groups like Mercy For Animals and The Humane League have had really active social media presences. And definitely things like viral videos I think have done a huge amount to publicise the plight of animals on factory farms. So, yeah, definitely excited to see more focus on that.
Lewis Bollard: I think what’s even better, in my mind at least, is if some of that work could be targeted at institutional change. So, for instance, you see relatively a lot of content on social media just about factory farming, just about veganism. I think that’s very valuable. But I think it’s even more so when it can be in support of a corporate campaign, or a legislative change, or something else where we can bring about a more tangible, direct change.
Political opportunities [00:43:07]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Okay. The third newsletter that I was interested to talk about was about political opportunities. So, the Biden administration has just taken office. Does that create many opportunities for any change in policy in the United States, or is it maybe a little bit disappointing?
Lewis Bollard: So it’s hard to say. I think in general, factory farming has definitely been an ignored political issue, especially in the U.S. And so, we’re not going to see major new legislation any time soon. We’re not going to see huge new real changes. The signs so far from the Biden administration have been mixed, so I think they put together a good transition team for the Department of Agriculture, had some real performers on it. And they have already withdrawn a Trump administration rule to speed up poultry slaughter lines, which would’ve been bad for animal welfare, amongst other things. On the flip side, they appointed Tom Vilsack, the former USDA Secretary as the new Agriculture Secretary, and he spent the time in between working for the dairy industry, so he’s certainly not a reformer.
Lewis Bollard: So, we’ll see where things go. But I think… I certainly am cautiously optimistic that we can see some progress, first on research. So, the USDA has a very large research budget, both devoting some of that toward alternative proteins, but also toward farmed animal welfare improvements. Secondly, on humane slaughter, both improving the enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and extending that to cover chickens, who are currently excluded from enforcement of that act. And third, on procurement standards, where the federal government buys a lot of meat. And so, it could really do a lot to improve animal welfare through setting stronger standards for the procurement of that meat.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, you have some thoughts in that newsletter as to why it is that the Democratic party doesn’t really do much about animal welfare, despite the fact that plenty of their voters are liberal suburbanites who are very concerned about this kind of thing. But, we won’t cover that. I’ll leave that to motivate the audience to check out the newsletter, which of course we’ll link to in the show notes.
Do we know how to get people to reduce their meat consumption? [00:45:03]
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Let’s move on to a new section on social science. So yeah. Last time we spent a while discussing how better-run experiments had suggested that it was a whole bunch more expensive to convince someone to become vegetarian or vegan than we had previously thought when we had only fairly low-quality studies. I’m curious to know, yeah, what is the nature of the new evidence that has come out since 2017, and how much more pessimistic is it than what we might have hoped?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, so we don’t have a ton of additional great evidence. I think one common challenge for studies in this space is that we’re dealing with a really small potential effect size, and a small potential effect size could still be worthwhile, but it’s really hard to pick up, even in decently powered studies. So there have been a couple of exciting new studies though, and I think the most interesting four I’m aware of are a set of four studies focused on measuring actual meat consumption in dining halls at colleges in response to various interventions. So two of them looked at lectures. One of them looked at changing the menus, and the most recent one published has looked at leafleting on that.
Lewis Bollard: The fourth one found really mixed results. So in three of the four, there were some significant results, and the fourth there was not. But in each case, those are largely short-term results, and so we don’t know to what degree those effects endure.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Interesting. I think you funded an attempted replication of a study that had come back negative. What was that one?
Lewis Bollard: So this was a study by a group called Animal Welfare Action Lab, where they had pulled together people initially on MTurk and had them read articles and then measured the effect on their self-reported attitude toward farmed animals and intention to eat vegetarian and vegan both initially and a month later, and they had found significant effects on that.
Lewis Bollard: We funded them to replicate that study on a larger platform and also to add in addition to the article treatment, to add a video treatment. Unfortunately, they failed to find any significant effects on any of those treatments relative to the control group, but still of course, useful to know that we don’t have those significant effects that we thought we did.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Interesting. So hold on. So the four studies you were mentioning earlier, three of them found significant effects. So they were statistically significant, but small…is that the issue? So the number needed to treat effectively is quite large? So it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be cost effective to focus on giving lots of people lectures or giving them leaflets?
Lewis Bollard: Well, it could be. I think the jury is still out. So two of them found relatively small results. Those were both lecture-based studies. The main challenge is that first, it’s hard to do that intervention, to have university students captive. They were basically able to because professors participated in this program and were able to inflict this on their students. We saw immediate effects, but what we don’t know in those cases is what happens months later. So we saw some reasonably-sized but short-term impacts.
Robert Wiblin: So one of these I think Peter Singer was involved? And yeah, they were philosophy students, and they got them… They randomised them between, I think, a series of lectures about the ethics of factory farming versus the ethics of some other issue I can’t remember, but nothing to do with food. I think they found that the share of meals that the students then ordered at the cafeteria with meat fell by 15%, I think. So it was something from like 52% to 45% from memory, which I mean, I guess they reported that as kind of impressive, because this was maybe the first time that anyone had shown that studying moral philosophy did anything to produce moral behaviour… [Laughter]
Robert Wiblin: I mean, I think that was in part because the topic hadn’t been studied all that much. Yeah. I suppose you could interpret that in a positive way. But as you were saying, it’s a pretty intense intervention. It would cost a lot to try to get students to go through that. So maybe it doesn’t really scale that easily, although I guess it at least provides proof of concept that information about the ethics of eating meat might be persuasive to at least some people. What about the leafleting one? Because that’s one that people were so excited about earlier, because it seemed like you could just walk around a campus giving leaflets to people. So cheap per person that even if only one in a hundred or one in a thousand were persuaded, then it could be good value for money.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, this is a really interesting one. They’ve just done a draft, and I think it should be published soon. This was by Josh Tasoff and colleagues. They did a study where they had a kind of similar setup of a leafleting table and half the people got leaflets that had nothing to do with factory farming, and the other half got leaflets that were factory farming related, and they were able to track the subsequent meat purchases of those people.
Lewis Bollard: Most impressively, they were able to track it over the course of two years. So they now have two years of data. So the unfortunate headline result was no statistically significant reduction in meat consumption over time. There were two interesting sub-results, which they did pre-register this, that they were going to look at these. So worth considering. One was that they did see a short-term reduction in overall consumption of meat by men.
Lewis Bollard: Then the other, very unexpected, result — and again, this is just one result within the study — was that for women, they saw a substitution. So they didn’t see an overall reduction. They saw a substitution from beef toward chicken, which is particularly troubling, given these leaflets were about the animal harms on factory farms, where this was not climate messaging, this was not health messaging.
Lewis Bollard: So if these two effects can be taken for real, if we can aggregate from them, the net effect of the intervention would be marginal, possibly slightly negative. Now, of course, this is just preliminary evidence. Both of those are sub-results within the broader group. I think the broader finding is any effect that does exist is pretty small.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. For listeners who don’t know, once you start analysing lots of sub-questions, like what was the exact effect on this subgroup of this consumption of this particular subset of meat types, then you’re at a pretty substantial risk of getting false positives. So yeah, seeing things that aren’t really there. I mean, there is a theory behind why you could imagine that some people would substitute from beef to chicken, and I think that this isn’t maybe the first time this has ever been observed when you talk about why meat is bad, because for some reason, people view beef as more meaty than chicken and certainly than fish.
Robert Wiblin: So if they have a negative affect towards meat, then they might just feel less bad about chicken for some reason, even though it’s pretty clear that eating chicken is far worse from an animal welfare point of view.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right. The far stronger evidence on this substitution effect is at the population level, we’ve seen this over the last few decades. So in both the U.S. and Europe, total per capita meat consumption is not really increasing. It’s been pretty stagnant, up and down a little bit over the last few decades. But we’ve seen a huge shift away from beef toward chicken, and there are potentially multiple factors behind that. But the end net result has been far more animals being factory farmed than were previously.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Every so often I’m talking to someone who’s outside of my immediate friendship group, and I talk about animal stuff, and it’s not uncommon to hear people say, “Oh I’m not fully vegetarian, but I avoid eating beef.” I think 10 years ago, I would bite on that very aggressively. But these days I’ve mostly just learned to… But it’s not going to help, or maybe I’m just too tired of having that conversation.
The fraction of Americans who don’t eat meat [00:52:17]
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Different thread. Yeah. I read this fairly careful analysis from a researcher called… You might know how his name is pronounced, but Saulius Šimčikas. I think it might be a Czech name, I’m not sure. But either way, it was on the Animal Charity Evaluators blog a couple of years ago, and it suggested that the fraction of Americans who choose not to eat meat at all seems to have barely budged in the last couple of decades, which a lot of people, including me find somewhat counterintuitive because it seems like people are talking more about vegetarianism now than in the past.
Robert Wiblin: If I recall correctly, what they found was the number who identified as vegetarian had been going up. So more people felt positively about vegetarianism. More people aspired to be vegetarian perhaps, but the trouble was when you then asked people whether they eat meat or not, it turned out that maybe it was three quarters or four fifths, so people who identified as vegetarian said that they also ate meat, which is a little bit baffling. Do you have a view on this question of whether there is an increasing number of people who decide to not eat meat, or whether it’s flat?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. As you say, this is kind of counterintuitive and fascinating on two levels. One is that the majority of self-described vegetarians and vegans actually eat meat, and this is a very robust finding across lots of surveys, that most people who consider themselves vegetarians or vegans do eat meat, at least sometimes. It’s…
Robert Wiblin: …It’s just like how I’m Catholic, but I don’t believe in God, nor do I go to church. Sorry, carry on.
Lewis Bollard: …Yes, one of the many similarities between Catholicism and veganism. But I think the other counterintuitive piece here is exactly that, that it seems like vegetarianism and veganism are getting way more common in society. It feels like there are more products, people talk about it more… Just generally, I mean, I can tell you on a personal level, having been vegan for 15 years now that it’s gotten way easier. I mean, it’s just easier being a vegan today, and yet the underlying data is pretty mixed on whether it’s actually been increasing. I think one challenge is just measuring something this small in population-level data.
Lewis Bollard: So if you’re surveying people and you’re trying to measure, has something increased from 0.5% to 1%, and the margin of error on the survey is 3%, you can have a lot of noise. So I would give everything a grain of salt on this. But yeah, I think we don’t have strong evidence either way, honestly. I don’t have a great explanation for that. I think again, the positive here is that we are seeing, in spite of that, in spite of not seeing a very clear upward trend in vegetarianism and veganism, we are seeing a lot more attention to this topic. We’re seeing a lot more product launches. We’re seeing a lot of really exciting things in this space.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I wonder if what’s going on is… People do just find it hard to eliminate meat completely, or for most people, that’s quite challenging. But more and more people aspire to do that, and they’re kind of making some significant inroads and doing it. So it could be that… From memory, it was something crazy, like 5% of people identified as vegetarian, but then only 1% of people said that they never ate meat. I guess you could easily imagine that other 4% are trying to make some significant effort to reduce their meat consumption. But if it is only 4% of the whole population, that kind of explains why we don’t see large reductions in meat consumption at the total level.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, there’s also an interesting dynamic where you constantly get survey results showing that most people or a substantial share of people say they’re trying to reduce their meat consumption, and yet each year it either stays stagnant or goes up slightly. So again, I think there is potentially this kind of divide between people expressing an aspiration when they’re asked about it on reflection and then what they actually do on a daily basis in terms of what they buy.
Lewis Bollard: I guess it does get to the fact that this is just a deeply ingrained habit, and it’s also not something people are thinking about the ethics of a lot. So this is where I think the movement has made a wise decision to focus less on trying to convert lots of individual vegetarians and vegans and more on institutional-level and technological-level changes. So how do we get institutional changes that are better for animals, but also, how do we get the technology in place? Because I think the movement has reached the realisation that you can’t rely on every single individual to make this moral choice three times a day. That alone is not going to get us to the place we want to be.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just coming back to something you mentioned earlier, you were worried about this kind of ‘fade out’ issue, that you might be able to convince somebody to become vegetarian one week after a lecture about the topic, but then they’re going to go back to normal. I mean, that’s very intuitive. But do we have any evidence on how quickly these effects of reading persuasive literature might disappear as people go back to their normal lives, and the people around them are eating meat, and suddenly, they lose their enthusiasm?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So we only have really weak data on this. Largely because it’s really hard to keep studying people over an extended period of time. Obviously, your response rates go down. You get more of a problem with who’s responding to you in the later surveys. So one benefit of this new study I mentioned with the dining hall data, is that they have that data on everyone for two years, and at least in that case, the even limited impacts they saw within those sub-groups fade out within a few months, unfortunately. So we’re not seeing prolonged changes based on the leaflets in that context.
Lewis Bollard: Now, we don’t really know when it comes to lectures. Obviously anecdotally, plenty of people seeing a lecture or getting a leaflet or all kinds of things led to lifelong changes. But I think we really do not have good data on long-term impacts of these kinds of interventions.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I do know people who’ve become vegetarian forever because they read something, and I know people who stopped eating meat for a while or reduced it and then went back to normal. You know the whole, “It’s easy to stop eating meat, I’ve done it dozens of times”…Yeah.
Surprising number of people who support a ban on animal farming [00:57:57]
Robert Wiblin: Another line of research is… Sentience Institute ran this survey a couple of years ago where it was just this shocking number of people who said that they were in principle willing to vote to end factory farming, to just ban it outright.
Robert Wiblin: They found that, was it 33% of people supported a ban on animal farming, and 54% were trying to consume fewer animal-based foods and more plant-based foods. Another thing is you recently tweeted a study that suggested an astounding fraction, 85% of Americans who said that they had farming experience supported a ban on new factory farms. What do you make of these kinds of survey results?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So it’s a tough one. I mean, I think one general challenge is when you survey people on questions they’re not thinking about, you get some weird results. You know you have these sort of funny political surveys where they ask people about their belief in ghosts and UFOs and things, and you get all kinds of interesting results. So there may be a little bit of…
Robert Wiblin: There’s a famous survey where they asked people whether they supported bombing Agrabah, which you may recall was the city from Aladdin, and I think 10% of Americans said they did support bombing Agrabah. Sorry, carry on.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. There was one about whether Ted Cruz is the Zodiac killer, and I think 40% to 50% of American said yes. So yeah…
Robert Wiblin: …Not the worst thing about him, though. Sorry, carry on.
Lewis Bollard: But yeah. I think looking at the survey, I mean, first I would say this survey result really surprised me, and my initial reaction was, “Well, this isn’t going to replicate”, and then it did replicate. Someone replicated it. So take everything else I say with a grain of salt based on my failure to predict these results. I think it’s worth noting on the ban on factory farming question, which I think was actually higher than 33%, had some level of support, but only 9% ‘strongly’ agreed, was the term in the survey.
Lewis Bollard: I remember when we used to do ballot measures at the Humane Society of the U.S., we had a threshold for bringing a ballot measure. You want to see higher than 60% total support, but it was also, you wanted to see greater than 50% saying they strongly agree. The basic theory was that the strongly agrees are the people who stick with you, and the other people are very amenable to how much advertising gets spent.
Lewis Bollard: So this leads me to think we probably shouldn’t be putting this on ballot measure questions anytime soon, particularly because of course a ban on factory farming would provoke a huge onslaught of advertising from industry and would be a weird case, where I think the thing going on in these surveys is people don’t necessarily understand what they’re saying.
Lewis Bollard: So for instance, in the same survey, the vast majority of people agreed, over 60% strongly agreed, that the decision to eat meat is a personal choice, and yet they were also saying that we should ban the means of creating that meat. So I think that people maybe when confronted with that reality, you might see their opinions change quite a bit.
Robert Wiblin: I’m very interested to see a ballot initiative anyway. I just want to see it done somewhere to see what would happen. I mean, I think we would learn a lot about what would be the reaction of people, what would be the reaction of industry. It seems worth trying once, just as a learning experience.
Lewis Bollard: You’re partially in luck. In Switzerland, there is a ballot initiative to ban factory farming that is in the works. It’s a different situation, because in Switzerland, it has the world’s highest farmed animal welfare standards already. It has, I think the most benign version of factory farming that exists anywhere. But they are pushing for a complete ban, and I should note it’s a 25 year phase out, which is what they’ve judged necessary to make this politically feasible. But that will be in the next… In the next few years, they’ll be putting that on the ballot.
Robert Wiblin: Wow. Okay. Yeah, great. I look forward to seeing how that goes. Are they planning to ban imports as well? Because I could imagine maybe they would get out of this just by importing the products that they can no longer make domestically.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right. Yeah, exactly. So yes, they do have an import component too, and I think there are some details on how far you can go on that, they’re going to seek equivalency rather than applying actual Swiss standards to imports. But yeah. As you say, it’s very important for these kinds of things that you also cover imports. So you don’t just undercut the local producers and bring in all the lower welfare stuff from elsewhere.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Alright. Fantastic. Look forward to seeing how that plays out.
Robert Wiblin: How has the quality of social science in the animal advocacy field changed over the last five years? Has it continued to improve? My impression is that it’s getting more rigorous.
Lewis Bollard: I think that’s right. I think that’s definitely right. Yeah. I think we’ve seen some really rigorous new approaches to this, both in terms of original studies, like some of the ones we discussed using real dining hall data rather than self-reports of people, but also in secondary research and combining that work. So for instance, the work that Rethink Priorities has been doing, or Faunalytics. I think there’s been a lot of work going back, looking at some of these earlier studies saying, what are the problems? What in here can we actually rely on, aggregating data from different sources. So I think we’ve seen a real improvement on that front.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s fantastic.
What we’ve learned over the past four years [01:02:48]
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Okay. You’ve got me optimistic and energised here. It seems things are going pretty well. Let’s look a bit more in an open-ended sense about what we’ve learned over the last four years in this area. I guess back in 2017, you were much newer to Open Philanthropy, and it felt to me like the animal advocacy movement was less professionalised perhaps than it is now. And just like less resources had gone into it. So I’m kind of curious to know, what have we learned in this era of expansion and professionalisation of the movement? And I guess through making all of these grants and trying to figure out how to do the most good with the money that you have.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think one thing we’ve learned yeah, is the need to professionalise. As you know, I think groups have made a lot of progress in terms of, for instance, getting independent boards, paying their staff more sustainable salaries, focusing on building out organisations from the kind of shoestring operations that a lot of them were just a few years ago. I think a second thing that we’ve learned tactically is the importance of focusing on implementation of animal welfare pledges more heavily in addition to securing those pledges. I think when we last spoke, I was overly optimistic that a lot of pledges would implement themselves. And I think we have seen that to a certain degree in Europe. But what we’re certainly seeing in the U.S. is, although there have recently been promising signs, for instance, on cage-free implementation, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there. And we know the retailers are not just going to implement their promises on their own, they’re going to need a combination of hand-holding and in some cases campaigning to really bring them to the point of implementing those pledges.
Robert Wiblin: Right. Okay, let’s go through those two. So the first one is professionalisation. We’ve talked briefly back in our interview — I re-listened to our interview from 2017, so it’s somewhat fresh in my mind — we talked about how it had been the case that traditionally the animal advocacy movement, I guess it had relied a lot on volunteers, and a lot of people who were willing to work for very little money, which I guess often meant somewhat younger, perhaps inexperienced people. And I guess people for whom their work in the animal advocacy movement is kind of the primary thing in their life, rather than perhaps a side hustle or something that they are just doing in between other more professional careers. Has that professionalisation played out and had the benefits in the same way that you expected? And what is the mechanism by which increasing salaries and perhaps professionalising the industry changes what you’re able to do and how likely you are to succeed?
Lewis Bollard: I think that there’s a real challenge on this for any movement that as you grow, you both want to maintain that passion that brings people in in the first place, and the motivation that gives them the drive, but you also want to create structures that enable people to work on these issues sustainably for the long term. And I think that groups have been working on trying to establish those structures, the boards, the better pay, and so on, so that people can really envisage this as something they could do for their entire career. So people aren’t burning out after a few years, people aren’t running into repeated management problems. At the same time, being conscious of not just becoming a huge established nonprofit or bureaucracy with all the problems that can entail. And I think we’re still pretty far away from that. I mean, the groups are still tiny in the scheme of nonprofits out there. But definitely, I think that’s been a challenge for the groups.
Robert Wiblin: I guess I would have imagined that inasmuch as salaries are very low and a lot of the input is coming through volunteers or those recent graduates, maybe that just kind of limits the sorts of projects that you can take on, because there might be some things you can only do if someone is willing to stick, if you’re willing to have people stick around for decades. And also maybe if you’re able to hire people in their 40s and 50s and 60s who have enough experience to pull off something that’s just more challenging? Do you think that’s been an impact? Are people trying to do different things now?
Lewis Bollard: I think they are. And I think one thing there’s been a recognition of is the need for greater expertise. So the movement traditionally was very fueled by generalists who were very passionate. And I think there’s still a huge amount of value to generalists entering the space. There’s a lot of things in the movement that can easily be learned. But I think people have recognised that there is value to bringing in expertise, both in specific technical areas like animal welfare science, but also just in areas like management and in running larger organisations. And that does often require bringing across people further along in their career, people who may need to be paid somewhat more, and also ensuring that those people have the support that they’re used to, working at a larger organisation.
Robert Wiblin: That makes sense. Alright. Let’s talk about the issue of companies following through on their commitments to change how the animals whose products and flesh they’re selling are raised. We talked about this in 2017, people were raising the possibility that these companies would make these commitments that say oh sure, in 2020, far in the future, we’ll make these changes…but then they would complain at the time, “Oh, no, it’s not the right moment. We can’t source enough…” They’d come up with excuses and then push it out. And by then perhaps the activist groups have dispersed and are no longer focused on them and they manage to get away with it. To what extent has that happened, and how much are people managing to return the focus and hold people accountable for what they said they would do?
Lewis Bollard: So I think this has been a really mixed picture and it’s definitely been somewhere where we have learned. So I would say first on the negative side, we have seen a number of major companies, particularly major retailers in the U.S. not making much progress toward implementing their pledges. And for the most part, those pledges would go a hundred percent cage-free by 2025 or 2026, but there were no milestones. So from their perspective, they’re not violating their pledges. They say things like, “We’re going to go 100%. It’s just only 2021. So don’t worry.” But right now they’re somewhere between 10% and 20%, and it does not seem like they are on track. So that’s going to be a major challenge getting those companies. On the positive side there, we’re now at 28% of the U.S. flock is cage-free up from 6% in 2015.
Robert Wiblin: Wow, that’s a big shift.
Lewis Bollard: That is a big shift. That’s over 70 million hens newly out of cages over the last few years. And that has been driven by some companies that have made really impressive progress. So Costco, which is the second largest retailer in the U.S. is now over 95% cage-free. We have Nestlé and a number of other major brands that have already implemented their cage-free pledges. And we have the majority of companies that are being asked to report by Compassion in World Farming in its Egg Track report, are now reporting. So for instance, Walmart, Kroger and these big companies are reporting — the percentages are too low, but they are publicly reporting where they’re at. And we have other companies that are publicly reporting and are on track. So McDonald’s for instance, is on track to meet its commitment on time. So very mixed signs and definitely recognition by the groups that they need to focus more attention on this.
Robert Wiblin: My attention is drawn to this Costco thing. So Costco, over 90%, I would have thought Costco is very focused on being cheap, it’s kind of their whole thing. It surprises me somewhat that they’ve gone ahead of the competition on this. Why did they make that change? And I guess, how have they gotten around perhaps the impediments that other groups have faced in scaling up and sourcing all of the cage-free eggs that they would like?
Lewis Bollard: I think Costco is actually a really interesting story because they were the first major retailer to be campaigned against by groups. This was back in 2015 and they were a huge hold out. This was over a six month long campaign. It featured Brad Pitt writing them a letter, there was a New York Times Op-Ed by Bill Maher. It was a major campaign and they kept holding out on making a commitment. And when they eventually did make a commitment, they were very careful not to publicly attach a year to it, but in private they told advocates we’ll do this really soon. And you would sort of think that might be a bad set up…
Robert Wiblin: …a red flag.
Lewis Bollard: …Yeah, exactly. But in actuality, they did. And so they impressively, they not only did really prioritise doing it, they’ve also made huge progress in other markets where they haven’t even made any promises.
Lewis Bollard: So we’ve seen, for instance, in Mexico, they’re majority cage-free. Costco has made significant progress in European markets that they hadn’t made pledges on, is making progress in Asian markets. And so I think it’s really just a great example of, if a company does apply itself to this task, does take it seriously, then it can absolutely do this. And I think in particular, it’s a great example to take to other companies, that if this huge retailer very focused on price can do this, then clearly they can too.
Robert Wiblin: It’s kind of a deep general question. How much does any… Does individual human agency and values matter in business? Have you seen any cases where someone in one of these companies, say a top-level manager or CEO at Costco actually just thinks that caged hens is brutal and unacceptable and they would prefer to get away from it quickly, where that has kind of made a difference, or is it more bottom-line focused, profit-focused, and people don’t have so much discretion in their jobs?
Lewis Bollard: I think it varies a lot, but I really do think there are a lot of people within companies who are trying to do the right thing. And depending on the company, they have various levels of discretion to do that. One positive example would be Perdue Farms. They’re the fourth largest U.S. chicken producer. And they did have a number of campaigns targeted at them back in the 2000s and the 2010s. So certainly I’m sure that played a role. But what we’ve seen over the last few years is they have gone way ahead of the other companies on animal welfare. They’re recently reporting, I think about a quarter of their chickens now have outdoor access, which is way beyond what any other industrial chicken producer is doing. Majority of their hens are in barns with natural light. They’ve been working on stocking density, they’ve been working on genetics, huge amount of progress on those things. And again, definitely there was pressure, but I think when you look at the leadership of Perdue, it really does seem like they’ve decided this is the right thing to do, and that they’re really committed to it.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think perhaps they’re thinking well, this is going to happen eventually anyway, so maybe we can have… Even if it’s costly now, we’ll be ahead of the curve and it’ll be easier for us later on when other companies are coming around and making these changes later?
Lewis Bollard: Yes. I think that’s definitely part of the case. And it’s true for instance, that Perdue has traditionally sold primarily to food service and some higher-value users. So their customers are more likely to care about this than the customers of some chicken companies. So yeah I think from a business perspective, certainly they’re trying to get ahead of the curve and I think that hopefully will put them in a good position in the years ahead.
Robert Wiblin: Do any of these companies use this as kind of a selling point? Does Costco advertise hey it’s great that we’ve mostly managed to eliminate cages from our egg supply?
Lewis Bollard: As far as I know they don’t, and I can see why…
Robert Wiblin: …can understand why.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, it first begs the question of why you didn’t do this sooner, but it also just draws attention to the continuing problems. So as we discussed last time, cage-free is far from perfect, industrial cage-free systems still have lots of animal welfare problems. And so I think because for most companies they’re still so far from a place on animal welfare that the consumers would actually find defensible, they’re probably…
Robert Wiblin: …better not so say anything.
Lewis Bollard: …not inclined to advertise where they’re at.
Robert Wiblin: This is actually a very general issue sometimes where you want a company to make the product better in some way, and you think, well, can’t they use it as a selling point and then you realise oh, no, they can’t. Because even raising the issue is fundamentally problematic. I think there was an era when car companies were less motivated to make their cars safer because pointing out that they’d made the safety improvement… They were worried about — and maybe at the time when driving was more dangerous, it really was a concern — they were worried that pointing out that they’d improved the safety would raise the question of how dangerous cars are, and it turns out very dangerous. So it actually just taints the product that they’re trying to sell with this negative aspect that they’d rather just people pay no attention to.
Lewis Bollard: That’s I mean, that’s definitely, I’ve seen some of these marketing summits, for instance, of what poultry industry executives tell one another to say. And the general thing is try not to talk about animal welfare. Talk about our efficiency gains, tell another story, but even if you’re talking about progress you’re making on animal welfare, it’s still so far worse than where consumers think things are already, that you’re just going to draw attention to that disconnect.
Robert Wiblin: Right. Okay. So we talked about two areas where we’ve learned a whole bunch, which is around professionalisation and risk of corporations not following through on their commitments. Are there any other big areas where we’ve learned something?
Lewis Bollard: I think on alternative proteins, we’ve learned about the potential growth of the market. So, I mean, I definitely did not predict that the Beyond Meat IPO would be such a huge success. And I did not predict that we would have Beyond and Impossible Burgers in so many places. Or another example would be in China where three of the largest fast food chains, Starbucks, Dicos, KFC, have all made major plant-based meat plays in the last year. Those are things I definitely didn’t see coming, and I think to me are really positive updates in terms of the potential for plant-based meat to take on significant market share.
Robert Wiblin: Do we have kind of a model of why this has run ahead of expectations? So things are going better than we thought. What did we misunderstand about the situation to start with?
Lewis Bollard: So I think for me, a lot of my predictions start with the base case, right? And so I mentioned to you when we last spoke that U.S. retail sales of plant-based meat had been increasing by 1–3% per year. And there were definitely reasons to think that would increase, but to expect that growth rate to increase 5–6 times, as it did, requires… And I think one thing that’s tricky in the plant-based meat space in particular, is there isn’t great underlying data. So there isn’t great data on the scale of the global market, there isn’t great data on these things. A lot of the fundamentals are relatively hard to divine. And so you’re forced to kind of go on this combination of people saying, “Hey, this has potential. We have these new products that seem better qualitatively. We have a few different data points”, but then trying to plug that together and work out what does that mean in terms of the future forecast… I think that’s the challenge.
Robert Wiblin: Does this maybe say that there could be discontinuities where you can have… Say you’re improving the product bit after a bit, but it’s still well below perhaps the tastiness of meat for most consumers. And so it’s still only the die-hards who are eating it, until you get to the point where it’s approaching parity or it’s not too far off, and then suddenly you get this very rapid growth takeoff. And so it’s not linear changes in market share.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, I think that definitely fits with what we’ve seen from Beyond and Impossible. And I do think that Beyond and Impossible really do look like a step change in that regard, both just qualitatively and in taste tests, people report those products being substantially better than other plant-based meats. But also they’re kind of unique in the plant-based meat ecosystem. In that they have invested so heavily in research and development. Both of them took years focused on research and development before they came to market at all, and they really did have significant innovations in their product. For a lot of other plant-based meats on the market, they’re using very similar processes, very similar ingredients. So I do think it’s a real update in favor of the importance of actual technical innovation in that space, in the potential creation as you say of a step change.
Robert Wiblin: I guess one of those is a public company now, and one of them is still privately held, but is there any way that we can look at how much they’ve spent in total on technical food science R&D over the course of their existence, and maybe think about how much that compares to what had been spent before and what we’ve gotten out of that incremental increase?
Lewis Bollard: So there are kind of rough estimates because as you say, Beyond is the public one. And I think that they have disclosed over $100 million spent on research and development, but I think less than $200 million. In the case of Impossible, it’s harder to say because they are still private, but potentially they have spent upwards of $200 million on this challenge. It’s hard to separate out obviously the work you’re spending on building a new production facility or a pilot facility, how much of that is R&D, how much is the other stuff. But certainly it’s the case that both of them have much larger teams of scientists than we’ve seen anywhere else, and have also just pioneered improvements that seem much more substantial than we’ve seen anywhere else.
Robert Wiblin: So hundreds of millions, I mean, that’s a lot. I don’t really know what the standard is for food science, how much does Nestlé spend on product innovation… I guess it’s a fair bit, but it seems we could in theory, 10x that, the economy is much bigger than that and there’s much more than that spent on R&D in general and food in general. So I guess maybe that bodes well, if this market keeps growing and people continue to buy more and more of these products, maybe we could be spending $1 billion a year in principle on R&D in this area.
Lewis Bollard: I hope so. I really hope so. I mean, I think there’s an interesting analogy from clean energy where you’ve seen major investments of R&D there, and it gets to the importance of having not just reliance on private companies, but also having public funding for that R&D, because a lot of it needs to be longer term, needs to be more patient. The other thing I think it speaks to is the need to have patient investors and the need to have that business model that allows for that. So I mentioned, I think within the plant-based side, these are the only two companies we’ve really seen investors that have allowed a company to spend that much money on R&D. And so one thing I would love to see is more R&D-heavy companies moving forward, more companies taking years before they go to market, focusing on some of those key innovations.
Robert Wiblin: How are they going on the manufacturing/production side? Because I’m always trying to buy these things, and at least in the U.K. there’s so often sold out. I can’t get the fake meats that I want, which I guess is a positive sign in some ways, but maybe it suggests that they’re having trouble just growing as quickly as consumers are gaining interest.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right. I think it’s been a real challenge. And I think this has been a really interesting piece, a lot of these companies have taken on the model of tech startups, but a huge difference with tech startups is that you’re producing this physical product and you need to produce a lot of it and you need to distribute it to lots of different locations. And they really struggle with that. And I think two positive developments we’ve seen on that. So the traditional model that plant-based meat companies used was very reliant on using co-manufacturers, which are general facilities that make all kinds of different products. And if you’re a small plant-based meat company, you’re not going to get priority at those facilities. What would happen is Beyond Meat would get a few shifts, and then another company comes on and takes a few shifts, and they weren’t able to adjust production.
Lewis Bollard: So the first thing we’re seeing is we’re seeing both Beyond and Impossible have invested in their own production facilities. And the challenge with that is that that’s infrastructure, that’s really capital intensive. And so most companies aren’t able to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars to build those new facilities. Thankfully, both of them now have access to the capital to do that. The second thing we’re seeing is more plant-based meat focused contract manufacturing. So for instance, in the U.K., the world’s largest plant-based meat focused contract manufacturing facility just opened. And the hope is that the more we see those the more we’ll see plants that can really focus on these challenges, can prioritise that, and can also help with process improvements focused on plant-based meat.
Robert Wiblin: People have told me that so Impossible and Beyond Burger, not only have they designed a better product, but they’ve also spent a bunch more time thinking about marketing and how to make this product appealing to a broader audience and trying to make it cool in a way that I think veggie burgers previously weren’t. How big a role do you think that has played?
Lewis Bollard: I think it’s probably played a really big role. I’m definitely no expert on marketing, but two things stand out. So in the case of Beyond, they did a lot of work seeking the endorsement of athletes, which I think has been really significant in changing the perception of plant-based meat from something that is just for health nuts, or is just for people who aren’t highly physically active, aren’t into strength, all those kinds of things. The other thing we’ve seen from Impossible was working with celebrity chefs and working with top restaurants and getting the buzz that that gave in the food community, which traditionally plant-based meats were not known for wowing food reviewers, for getting into the culinary scene. And so I think that too probably played a major role.
Robert Wiblin: Nice. So I noticed that we’ve almost exclusively been talking about plant-based meat. What’s going on with cellular agriculture, I guess… What do people call it these days? I remember, so in 2018, I interviewed Bruce Friedrich as somebody who promotes this idea, and he chewed me out for not being willing to say ‘clean meat’, which is apparently the new term that everyone was meant to use. But I feel I don’t hear ‘clean meat’ as much anymore, so I’m not sure what it is… I guess, ‘alternative proteins’? What’s the party line on the right terminology?
Lewis Bollard: I don’t know the party line. I think that there are a lot of acceptable terms, so ‘cultured meat’, ‘clean meat’, ‘cell-based meat’…whatever works for you.
Robert Wiblin: Whatever works. Okay. Alright. So what’s going on with clean meat?
Lewis Bollard: So we’ve seen some really exciting developments. I think one has been in Singapore, the regulators approving the first cultured meat product for sale to the general public. And while the scale of that initial product is very small, I think it does really augur well for regulators approving a path to market in other geographies as well. I think a second thing we’re seeing is a lot more money going into the space. So Memphis Meats has raised over $100 million for its continued research in the space, which I think is very exciting. And then the third thing is seeing a lot more work in cellular agriculture outside of just meat. So Clara Foods, for instance, which is working on egg proteins or Perfect Day, which is working on dairy proteins seems to be making a lot of progress, again raising a lot of funding on that side too.
Robert Wiblin: Haven’t really thought before… So eggs are not cells that are constructed in the normal way that a muscle is, and I guess milk neither. It’s biological in some sense, but it feels it’s an extrusion of something that a cell produces. So I’m not quite sure how you make that in a cellular agriculture sense?
Lewis Bollard: So I’ll definitely defer to the scientists or companies on the expertise here. But I think the broad thing is using a fermentation or using bioreactors and recreating the cells. One thing that I think is often missed in the discussion about cellular agriculture is people just have this image of you need to structure cells together into slabs of meat, and that’s one thing you can do. But the basic process of working at the level of cells, getting cells to replicate, getting cells potentially to perform new functions… So, I mean, another interesting example of this is in some sense Impossible Foods is using cellular agriculture because they’re getting cells to perform a new function for the heme iron in Impossible Burgers. So there’s a lot of things that cellular agriculture can do, not just at the full product level, but also at a functional ingredient level, which I think sometimes gets missed.
Robert Wiblin: Makes sense. Do you know what the big technical challenges are in clean meat these days? I think I’ve heard stuff about getting the texture right in the way that the cells kind of combine, because when you put them in a bioreactor, they don’t form tissue in the normal way or that that can be tricky. And I guess there’s also the bioreactors it’s easy for them to get invaded by bacteria or fungi that want to grow in there because it’s obviously such a conducive medium. So you’ve got to ensure that pathogens stay out. Are you up to date on that, or is that a bit outside of your area?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. We actually have a new report on this that we commissioned by a chemical engineering consultant, David Humbird. And he goes through a number of the key challenges. But one of the key ones that he focuses on is getting bioreactors to have the necessary scale while also maintaining the biosecurity. So what you were alluding to of ensuring the cells are completely sterile within that setting while getting scale and without increasing the costs too heavily.
Things that haven’t gone to plan [01:26:30]
Robert Wiblin: Alright. We’ve talked about things that have gone well, and I guess things that we’ve just generally learnt over the last four years. Let’s talk now about the ugly, or the things that haven’t gone quite as well as had been hoped. What maybe hasn’t gone to plan or has proven more difficult than we thought, I guess, other than trying to get companies to follow through on their commitments?
Lewis Bollard: I think there are a number of areas that have proven a bit more challenging than we’d hoped. One that I would highlight would be in India. I think that there have been more delays than we had hoped for. So one of the most exciting things there has been ongoing battery cage litigation. And one thing that advocates have achieved is a national moratorium on new battery cages, across all of India, which is in place. We were hoping we would also see a ruling by now on potentially banning battery cages or at least requiring substantial reforms, and a combination of egg producers pursuing delaying tactics, which turns out to be quite easy through the Indian Judiciary and then COVID having a major impact and derailing litigation in the country has slowed things down substantially unfortunately.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Let’s just back up a second. So India in theory has banned battery cages. Why is that? Is that just generally consistent with India being more progressive on animal wellbeing than most other countries?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, so India is fascinating in that it has one of the strongest animal welfare laws in the world, really. And this dates back to the 1960s. And that law specifically says that farmed animals need to have enough space to turn around, to move, to fulfill all their basic behavioural needs. So the litigation that advocates brought a number of years ago argues that the practice of battery cages is fundamentally inconsistent with that law, that under existing Indian law battery cages should be illegal. And so far, the courts have largely agreed with advocates. They’ve issued a number of preliminary rulings saying they agree that that law appears to ban cages. Where we’re at currently is they have issued a moratorium on new cages. They have not issued a ban on existing cages.
Robert Wiblin: What’s the legal idea behind that? Because you’d think if the law says it has to be this way, there wouldn’t be a distinction between existing ones and new ones?
Lewis Bollard: So this is the challenge of never-ending litigation or just going through the courts is that this is still an active case before the courts. So the rationale of the courts is we’ll put an injunction on new cages while we decide this matter, because we are inclining toward thinking this, but we’re not going to require everyone to remove the cages. While it’s still possible we’ll rule that their cages are just fine or we’ll rule something else. So the challenge is that it’s long-running litigation that’s been going on for over five years now, and there’s not an immediate end in sight.
Robert Wiblin: Do we now think that maybe the courts will decide that cages are okay, or is it more just that we’re finding that it’s going to potentially take an extremely long time to wind up these court battles because they’re going to manage to delay at every opportunity, so we just have to grind them down over years or decades?
Lewis Bollard: I think these are all challenges. So I think one challenge is that the egg industry is clearly banking on keeping this in the courts for as long as possible. And there being no action to get rid of cages during that time. The second challenge is that egg producers are now pushing for a compromise, where they say, “We accept that the current battery cages don’t meet the law, but we’ll make the cages a little bit bigger. And then the animals can at least move around. And we think that meets the law.” And the court hasn’t ruled on that yet. And so I don’t know what they’re going to ultimately think. My biggest concern on that will then be on the enforcement challenge. But obviously first of all, it’d be great if they just ban cages entirely, but even if they were to issue, say for instance, cages need to be twice as big, they have to be a lot better in a lot of ways, that could make a real difference for animals if it was enforced, but we’ve had huge challenges with enforcement of existing animal welfare regulations in India. And it’s going to be very hard for regulators to ensure that every farm is keeping animals at exactly the density they’re supposed to versus just checking whether they’re using cages or not, which is a far easier thing to verify.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So I guess this is very important just because, well, in part because India is such a huge country. There’s so many people and I guess they eat a decent number of eggs and are going to be eating even more in the future, probably. So maybe the number of eggs produced in India is almost as large as all of these corporate campaigns that we’ve discussed combined. I mean, I guess, do you have a sense of how large it is by comparison?
Lewis Bollard: It’s huge. So it’s about 400 million laying hens. It’s the second largest laying hen population after China, and in front of the U.S. So yeah, huge, huge potential scale there. And that’s also obviously been increasing too. So there’s also that growth rate to take account of.
Robert Wiblin: So this has proven more difficult than we hoped. What’s the response to that? Do you kind of double down and put even more resources into it in order to win, or is it one where maybe you think, Oh, this is not as tractable as we thought, so maybe we’ll give up?
Lewis Bollard: So I don’t think we’re giving up, but I think advocates have been looking at ways to increase momentum for other angles. Unfortunately, I think it’s pretty hard to just speed up the litigation process, particularly when COVID is driving some of those delays. So instead advocates have been working first with some companies to get some more corporate pledges in India. That’s harder because the corporate sector is far more fragmented. There aren’t huge retailers with the same kind of market share as we see in the U.S. They’ve also been working for instance, with the Law Commission, getting a report from the Law Commission, endorsing an end to cages, working with a number of other authorities on getting them to endorse this, getting state authorities, working with the banks to ensure that they are not financing new battery cage facilities that violate the moratorium. So there are a lot of other things advocates have been doing in the meantime, but I think unfortunately, a lot of this does just depend on what happens on the litigation front.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Is there anything else notable that’s been harder than we thought that we can learn from?
Lewis Bollard: I think another challenge has been on the broiler welfare campaigns in the U.S. So this is kind of interesting in that we’ve actually seen more progress recently in Europe than I expected. So I think I mentioned in France, the largest seven retailers have all now committed to implementing the higher welfare broiler welfare asks that groups are pushing for. We’ve also seen commitments from companies like Aldi in Europe, from Pizza Hut, from KFC in the U.K., some major brands. In the U.S. we have seen less progress in the last few years. It’s proven a bit harder. And I think that’s been in part due to uncertainty on the breeds, there’s been a major question mark around what higher welfare breeds will be required through the ask. And I think it’s also just been that it turns out companies buy a lot of chicken, and even small increases in price is significant.
Lewis Bollard: And the other thing I would say is that I actually think it’s turned out that producers’ resistance is really important here. So you have a number of major producers that are basically refusing to offer higher welfare chicken to their corporate customers. So you’ve got companies going to Tyson, Sanderson Farms, Pilgrim’s, the three biggest chicken producers and saying, “We want you to implement these changes.” And those companies are so heavily concentrated that they’re able to just say no. They would say, “No, we’re not doing it. And neither are these other big ones, and you won’t be able to find any chicken if you want to do this. So screw you.” Which on the egg side, we never saw anything like that, so that’s been an added challenge for advocates.
Robert Wiblin: Why is that? Why are they doing that in this case, but not with the eggs?
Lewis Bollard: So, I think the biggest explanation is market concentration, which can be a mixed bag. On the retail and fast food side, market concentration can actually be helpful, in that you want enough big brands that can push their suppliers to make these changes. But on the producer side, it means that the producers, on the chicken side… And I should clarify, I mean, the agribusiness, not the actual people producing the chickens, who are very powerless in this situation. The producers have a huge amount of power.
Lewis Bollard: The industry is so concentrated that it is just the case, that if you are a nationwide chain, you might be dependent on Tyson or Sanderson Farms, and it’s very hard to switch your supply. In the egg industry, by contrast in the U.S., it’s far more fragmented. Far more smaller producers. And so, if a producer said, “We’re not going to do this,” and I’m sure a few of them did, it’s very easy for a company to say, “Cool, we’re just going to switch to a different producer.” They can do that overnight.
Animal advocacy in emerging countries [01:34:44]
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Yeah, moving on to something else. Back in 2017, we spoke about trying to foster animal advocacy movements in emerging countries like China or India and South America. And at the time, you remarked on the fact that interestingly it seemed like despite… Contrary to expectations perhaps, people in South America were extremely interested in content about animal welfare and factory farming. Yeah. I’m curious to know, how have things been going in each of those locations? Have they met expectations?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, I think they have for the most part. I would say first, in Brazil, we have seen some really exciting progress. The three largest retailers GPA, Carrefour, and Walmart have all committed to going cage-free. The largest pork producers in Brazil have not only committed to phasing out gestation crates, but have also made progress on castration and tail docking, that is far ahead of where the U.S. pork industry is at. So, we’re actually seeing Brazilian pork producers doing a lot better than U.S. pork producers. We’re generally seeing, I think, a very vibrant movement there.
Lewis Bollard: Things have proven harder in Mexico. In Mexico, in general, it’s been harder to get corporate commitments. Companies have proven more litigious, much more likely to just sue advocates whenever they get campaigned against. And you’ve seen it just being a lot harder to make momentum in Mexico. And then the rest of Latin America, I think has been mixed, but we’ve seen some really promising progress in Colombia and Argentina, with a number of major corporate pledges recently, so I’m optimistic about seeing further progress there.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Have we learned anything about the culture there? Do you want to try to explain why it is that South America seems quite receptive to the ideas, or at least some countries are?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, so, I mean, I think that some of it just fits with Latin America being relatively wealthier than other parts of the world. And obviously, the wealthier a region is in general, that enables more progress on these kinds of issues. I think otherwise, it’s hard to generalise. I mean, I think a lot of it does come down to the advocates in a country, it comes down to the corporate culture and how receptive they are to corporate social responsibility in general and animal welfare in particular. And it perhaps also just comes down to attitudes on environmental issues and related issues like that, that I think impact a lot of sentiment on animal welfare.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Alright. Yeah. How about China?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, so China, I think we’re seeing some steady and exciting progress. So, on the animal welfare side, we have seen a number of small to medium producers making animal welfare commitments, and in particular, Compassion in World Farming has been working with companies on giving them awards to improve their practices. They have a good chicken award, a good pig award to raise the standards. On the alternative protein side, we’re seeing not just companies interested in this, but also seeing interest from the government in encouraging investment in plant-based protein. And I think that is partly motivated by wanting to keep up with a global trend on this and wanting China to be at the head of things internationally.
Lewis Bollard: But the other interesting trend I think we’re seeing is a food security motivation, where China in the last few years, in addition to COVID supply shocks, has also had African swine fever and about half of the pig herd in China died off. And China after that saw major shortages of pork and proteins. And so, we’re seeing a lot of interest in plant protein’s ability to be a more secure source of protein, to diversify away from complete reliance on pork.
Robert Wiblin: That’s amazing. Yeah. In India, apart from these legal issues, has there been any luck fostering activism and greater visibility for animal welfare? I suppose… It sounds like it might be one of the leading countries in the world on this anyway.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, so I think there’s a really vibrant movement in India and we’re seeing a lot of advocates really interested in advancing animal welfare. And I think we’re seeing a lot of local progress in terms of drawing attention to animal welfare. Interestingly, we’re not seeing increasing meat consumption in India. So, both… About a third of people are vegetarian. But even amongst the two thirds that are not vegetarian, we’re not seeing this huge increase in meat consumption that we have seen, for instance, in Indonesia, that we have seen in countries across Southeast Asia, as they’ve grown wealthier.
Lewis Bollard: And yeah, I think we are also seeing a lot of interest on the alternative protein side. We’re seeing the Indian government put some money recently into cultured meat research. We’ve seen some interest… Some new plant-based meat startups in India. And on the fish welfare piece, just the other day a cooperative of fish producers in Southern India made a commitment to improving fish welfare. So, yeah, seeing some exciting progress there.
Robert Wiblin: I’ve heard that Israel for some reason has just had an explosion of interest in veganism, and animal welfare, and the issue of treatment of farmed animals. What’s going on with that?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think that there are a couple of factors at play. So, one is, Israel has a really strong animal advocacy movement, has a strong vegan movement, but also a really strong animal welfare reform movement. And I actually think it’s a great example of how these two don’t need to be diametrically opposed. Israel has very high rates of veganism, but also some of the most progressive animal welfare laws.
Lewis Bollard: Then on the food technology side, I think you’re seeing two trends. So, one is just significant government interest in promoting startups. Israel, as the sort of startup nation. The other thing is a real interest in food self-sustainability. So, the other country that I think has been really ahead of the curve on government support for alternative proteins is Singapore. And of course, Singapore and Israel both have in common that they’re small nations with relatively small amounts of land for farming. So, I think in both cases, the desire for food self-sustainability, combined with government backing for research, for science, for new startups, I think is really critical.
### Fish, crustaceans, and wild animals [01:40:28]
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. Back in 2017, we talked about the outer frontier of animal welfare work being fish, and crustaceans, and I guess possibly insects. Although, I’m not even sure, or I’m not even confident really that insects can feel pain. Yeah, what’s been going on for those animals that are not cuddly enough that they can really arouse very much human sympathy?
Lewis Bollard: We’re seeing some promising signs on this. So, first on fish, I think we’ve seen a number of important milestones. So, one is the European Union official advisory body has adopted fish welfare standards, and I think there’s really the potential for the European Commission to adopt the first fish welfare legislation in the years ahead. Secondly, we’re seeing some of the major sustainability certification schemes starting to launch animal welfare standards. So, Friends of the Sea, which is a major farmed fish certification scheme, launched standards this year.
Lewis Bollard: And then on the crustaceans, I think we are finally starting to see some attention to that. So, two things I would call out. One is, CP Foods, which is actually the world’s largest shrimp producer, it’s a Thai agribusiness, recently adopted new animal welfare standards across multiple species, including shrimp and it included a ban on this particularly nasty practice called eyestalk ablation, where they cut off the eyes of female shrimps to make them grow faster.
Robert Wiblin: Good going. Just unbelievable.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, it’s… Yeah, the ingeniousness of factory farming never fails to amaze. The other piece of potential progress on this is the U.K. government is currently reviewing the evidence on decapod crustacean consciousness, and this was partly as a result of lobbying by a group Crustacean Compassion, that we actually just made a grant to. And hopefully, the U.K. government will soon be reporting back on basically whether they think decapod crustaceans are conscious. And if they are, the potential for them to be included under existing U.K. animal welfare legislation.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Back in 2017, you hadn’t funded anything focused on helping wild animals, so animals that aren’t in animal agriculture. But you were curious about the problem and kind of… It was interesting to see that there was a growing number of people who were taking a general interest in this and trying to create nonprofits out of the issue. Yeah, is that a topic that Open Phil has dipped its toes into yet?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, we have a little bit. So, we’re funding some basic research on the topic. We’re not funding advocacy, or interventions, but we’re funding work to better understand the problem and drivers of welfare in wild animals. One example, we’ve made a couple of small research grants now on the advice of Wild Animal Initiative. And one example I’m excited about is a grant to Samniqueka Halsey at the University of Missouri, who’s looking at the impact of various wildlife diseases on the welfare of animals.
Lewis Bollard: So, this is somewhere where you’re already seeing active management. People go out and try and prevent wildlife diseases for all kinds of reasons. They can spread it to farmed animals, they can spread it to people. So, we’re already studying it, we’re already… There’s already active advancements going on. Just looking at what the welfare impacts of those are I think offers a really interesting avenue into exploring this issue.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, has there been any exciting research on animal consciousness since 2017, or is this kind of one of those eternal, 1,000 year long mystery, philosophical issues that doesn’t really move very much over a four year period?
Lewis Bollard: It’s definitely a major mystery, and I’m not sure we’ve seen a huge amount of new research on this. But, one thing I have been excited to see is, Rethink Priorities has done a number of research reports, really actually picking up on where my colleague, Luke, left things at with this moral patienthood report. And they’ve been looking at this huge amount of different pieces of evidence out there about animal consciousness and they’re trying to work out which of these pieces are most relevant, and what do these pieces collectively tell us. So, if people are interested, I’d really recommend, first, checking out Luke’s moral patienthood report, if you haven’t already, from a few years ago. But then second, looking on the EA Forum. Rethink Priorities posted a number of these pieces about how we can think about different considerations on animal consciousness.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, we’ll stick up links to all of those, as always, in the link section on the blog post attached to this episode.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I’ve kind of noticed that I think a major split among effective altruist-focused animal advocates is between those who think that the problem is ultimately going to be solved by technology that makes meat no longer a very appealing product for people to use, and those who think that it’s more likely to be solved through moral suasion, convincing people that the way we’re treating animals is just unacceptable. Yeah, do you have a view on that, or do you lean one way or the other, or are you just kind of hedging your bets and investing a bit in both strategies?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, definitely hedging our bets. I mean, I think that makes sense for a couple of reasons. So, one is that I think each of those bets is far from certain. I hope both of them come true, but I think there are major obstacles to both technology and moral suasion. And so, it makes sense, given the scale of factory farming and the importance of addressing it, that we have multiple plausible bets. A second thing is that they do reinforce each other, I think, in important ways. So for instance, a lot of the founders of the most promising startups on the technology side were motivated by concern for animals and were motivated by the moral arguments.
Lewis Bollard: And the third thing is that I think there are benefits to the moral suasion, beyond just solving the problem of factory farming, which is a huge thing to solve and I’m not saying we’ll solve that any time soon. But I think, for instance, when you look at wild animal welfare, even if the technology were to solve factory farming, the importance of having people concerned about the wellbeing of individual animals for doing something about the scale of suffering for wild animals, I think is really important too.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, yeah. I was going to say, there definitely are people out there who go for the moral suasion angle just because they think the moral progress will have benefits in the longer term. Because, they may say, “Well, what if we find some other use for animals, or there’s some other way that we can harm other beings that replaces factory farming?” If you actually manage to change people’s moral values, then you’re guarding more against that than if you’re just changing the technology, which changes what’s most convenient for people.
Lewis Bollard: I think that’s right. And I think that when you look at a lot of the areas where technology is making huge progress, it both seems to be heavily motivated by moral concerns — if you look at climate change, where we have clean technology making huge inroads…a lot of that, I think, is moral concern from investors, moral concern from governments that’s fueling that technological progress… But also, it’s the case that if you just had that technological progress and there wasn’t any moral concern, then you could have technological progress in making new cleaner coal technologies and people might say, “Oh, actually, now that’s more efficient again. Great, let’s switch back to that.” So, I think that it’s important that you have both.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Does that line of reasoning affect your grant making very much, or I guess it just nudges you a bit more towards the moral suasion than you might have otherwise? But, not a dramatic impact.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right. Yeah, I think that it definitely keeps us interested in both. And I should say, we’ve done more on the moral suasion, animal welfare side, than the technological side, but that is more motivated by seeing where other people’s funding is going. And particularly, I’m very happy to see a huge amount of private sector funding going to alternative proteins. And so, we’ve seen more neglectedness on the moral suasion and animal welfare reform side.
Open Philanthropy grants [01:47:43]
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah, speaking of the grants. I’ve put out a couple of the larger grants that you’ve made over the last year or two and I was curious to hear in brief why it is that those organisations stood out and perhaps why the interventions stood out, or why you decided to fund that organisation in particular? Does that sound good?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, that sounds great.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Yeah, you gave a $4 million grant to the Good Food Institute, which is a nonprofit that helps to promote, I guess, clean meat and plant-based meat alternatives, or to support the growth of that industry. Yeah, why them?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So, we’re really excited about the potential on the alternative protein side. And although we’re seeing a huge amount of private sector investment, we’re seeing far less on the nonprofit side of this. So, we’re still seeing in the tens of millions on all nonprofit philanthropic work on alternative proteins. And we think there’s a lot of important stuff that companies aren’t going to do themselves and that the Good Food Institute is doing a really good job of advancing those priorities. So, one example would be policy work, both lobbying for funding for alternative protein research, and also, opposing attempts by the meat industry to throttle the industry before it gets going.
Lewis Bollard: So, for instance, I think the Good Food Institute helped contribute to the defeat at the European Parliament this last year of a meat industry-pushed initiative to ban labels like ‘veggie burgers’ or plant-based chicken labels on products. So, yeah, I think it’s really important to prevent those kinds of efforts to undermine the industry before it gets really going. Another example, I think of something exciting that the Good Food Institute is doing is working with companies. So, meeting with major meat companies, major food companies, with investors, providing them with information, getting them more excited about the space, giving them good information they need to get into the space to make the right choices. So, I think a lot of work building the whole sector of alternative proteins.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. How about the grant to The Humane League’s Open Wing Alliance?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, so we’ve been really excited to see the expansion of this over the last few years. This is a network of now over 70 animal protection organisations around the world. And the way it works is that The Humane League identifies promising local groups, often in countries where there’s only one or two groups, they’re very small. And it works with them both to build capacity, to train them in campaigns, to give them funding, but also to focus them on some of the highest impact interventions. So particularly focusing on cage-free campaigns, and in some geographies now, broiler chicken campaigns. And we’ve seen that both help local groups get the first wins in countries.
Lewis Bollard: So, for instance, SPCA Selangor, which is a Malaysian group, getting a win from Subway to go cage-free in Malaysia. And we’re secondly seeing them coordinating these major global campaigns to get global commitments from multinationals. So, for instance, Burger King I mentioned, but also from major hotel chains, like Hilton have recently committed to going cage-free globally, thanks to the campaigning of this group across many countries at once.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Yeah. And finally, you gave some money to The Guardian, interestingly, to do journalism about factory farming and animal cruelty. That’s slightly out of left field. Yeah, why that grant?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. This was definitely an unusual one for us. And I should emphasise that we don’t have editorial control. It’s funny, every time they write an article as part of our series, I get a few emails from people who wished that we’d gotten them to write the article differently.
Lewis Bollard: But, I think the main challenge here is really trying to increase the mainstream media’s attention to factory farming as an issue. It’s interesting, it’s not that it’s covered in a biased way by publications or anything, it’s just that it’s not covered. It’s really shocking how little coverage gets devoted to factory farming. And I think part of that is the ailment that because it’s an institution that has existed for a long time and is just continuing to exist, it’s not a news story. It’s not a sudden disaster. It’s just an ongoing, long-term disaster. And so, really the hope in funding this is to draw more attention to this issue to get more reporting on the issue.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Do you think it’s an impediment that people don’t want to know because they don’t want to… It’s just so inconvenient for them to find out. They’d rather read something else.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. I think that’s a major impediment. That’s definitely something that we do hear that from journalists, of both that when they write articles, they’ll get negative feedback of like, “Oh God, we didn’t want to hear about this.” Or, that will even result in internal pushback, so journalists who want to write about this and their bosses or editors will say, “Oh God, not another article on factory farming. Ah, that’s… There’s enough bad news in the world right now.”
Robert Wiblin: Too gruesome, isn’t it?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So, that’s a real challenge. And I think we talked about this last time, that the craziness to me of factory farming is that it is so gruesome that you can’t just share all the details. You can’t just post a video on Facebook that is just standard factory farming footage, because a lot of it will violate the images, guidelines on Facebook. You can’t run this on a major news show in its entirety, because a lot of it will violate their content policy. So, that just gives you a sense of how gruesome the system is, that a lot of it is censored under our standard guidelines on content.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s like, if it’s less bad, it would be more shocking somehow.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, exactly.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So, I know Open Phil has made some investments in alternative proteins and I think those are commercially sensitive, so you haven’t released a lot of the details. Maybe though, at the industry level, do you have a sense of roughly, say, how much money is going into the for-profit business side of this? All of the food tech companies, as against the nonprofit sector. I don’t really have a sense of which one is larger than the other.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, the for-profit side is definitely a lot larger.
Robert Wiblin: A lot larger.
Lewis Bollard: So, on the alternative protein side, I think over the last few years, we’re now well over a billion dollars invested in alternative protein companies. If you include acquisitions of alternative protein companies, we’re over $2 billion in the last few years. By contrast, on the nonprofit side, you’ve got the Good Food Institute, which is about $15 million and then you’ve got cumulatively all the other nonprofits in the space, less than $10 million a year. So, way smaller. And I should say too on our investments, we invested in Impossible Foods a number of years ago. We haven’t invested in anything else in the space since then. And that’s really just driven by this imbalance in money.
Lewis Bollard: We’re really excited about what a lot of startups in the space are doing, but we’re also really excited to see that there are lots of for-profit investors out there who are happy to pick up those opportunities. Whereas, for people like us, or anyone listening, there’s a greater willingness to donate, I think there is a far greater need on the nonprofit side.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Does that have any implications for people in their careers? I suppose, if the food tech stuff is flush with money, then does that mean they need people more, or does it really not affect whether you should go into the for-profit or nonprofit sector as a staff member?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, I think it will probably still be dominated by personal considerations. So, if you’re a scientist, particularly a food scientist, then there are just far more promising things to do on the company side. I think if you’re a generalist, it could be an argument in favor of going to the nonprofit side. Because I think we’ve seen a similar dynamic that we’ve seen on the money side, we have seen on the talent side, where the amount of media attention that plant-based meats have gotten recently, I think particularly with the Beyond Meat IPO, with the Impossible Whopper, with a number of these sort of iconic things, I think we are seeing a lot more general people trying to come into the space.
Lewis Bollard: So, I have friends from college who don’t care about animals, who graduated from business school and are trying to go work at Beyond Meat. Which is awesome. I mean, I’m really excited. We have lots of smart people, talented people going into the space. If you were just looking to maximise your impact and you’re neutral, yeah, I would say I think we have a greater need on the nonprofit side.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, interesting. I guess another thing would be if those companies just have tons of money, then they could just pay for the talent. So, I suppose, yeah, not only are they really cool, but they can probably pay good salaries to get the people they need as well.
Lewis Bollard: Right. They can pay. And the other thing, of course, for a lot of the startups, they can offer stock options. And at least right now, with the sector doing so well, that I think looks very, very enticing to a lot of people.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Are there any common factors you’ve noticed in which projects have succeeded and gotten more funding over time, versus those where perhaps you lost interest over time, or they didn’t seem to work out quite as well as you’d hoped?
Lewis Bollard: In general, we’re obviously looking for size, tractability, and for feedback loops, and that’s where we have seen a lot of progress on cage-free campaigns, implementation, and we’ve continued to fund that additionally as we’ve seen that kind of funding. I think where we have struggled more is on the question of, how much to fund the new larger scale, more neglected areas, where there isn’t as much of that feedback loop.
Lewis Bollard: And I think that’s really an open question. So, I think, for instance, on fish, we discussed some positive developments. But, it’s still a major question of how much additional progress we see. I think that’s true in a lot of Asia, that there’s a huge importance to funding there, it’s where half the world’s land farmed animals are, 90% of the world’s farmed fish. But the work is harder. It’s less tractable. And so, I think the challenge that we constantly are working on is adjusting between scale and tractability, and how you weigh those two considerations.
Robert Wiblin: If you’re comfortable going into it, are there any focus areas or interventions that you were excited about in 2017 that you’ve subsequently decided not to keep funding or not to fund as much? And what drove that.
Lewis Bollard: There have been a few things that didn’t work out exactly as we hoped. I think one interesting example would be that we had more optimism on broiler chicken welfare breeds, that there could be higher welfare outcomes without sacrificing growth rate.
Lewis Bollard: As you and I discussed, the value to keeping animals in factory farms for as little time as possible. You want them to suffer as little as possible, but also be there for as little time as possible. And unfortunately, the studies that have come out since then have suggested a pretty clear trade-off between efficiency and welfare, between growth rates and welfare. And at least for now, this could change over time, we do see this pretty clear correlation between growth rate and key welfare outcomes.
Robert Wiblin: A negative one?
Lewis Bollard: That’s right.
Robert Wiblin: I see. Okay. So, the hope here might have been that you could have an animal that grew more quickly and produced more meat more quickly, but that would mean… And that might be bad for their welfare, but maybe not very much, and that would mean that they’d have to live for much less long, and so they’d suffer less in the meantime. But it seems like, in fact, there’s just not much efficiency gain in either direction here, because the faster they grow, the worse their lives.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, exactly. That’s right.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. That is grim.
Robert Wiblin: There’s a bunch of listeners out there I think who try to have an impact by donating… They’re either giving 10% of their salary, or they’ve gone into a higher earning role in order to be able to give more. And some of them give with hope of helping farmed animals. So, if you had something like $30,000 a year to give away, how would you suggest that someone go about figuring out how to disburse it in the most effective way possible? Is there any kind of general process that someone could use that would work as well in 2023 as it will in 2021?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So, I think there are multiple good ways to do this. I think if you have a lot of time, then researching effective groups in the space. I think one thing that can make sense is to just support a relatively small number of groups you’re excited about and get to know well. I think if you have less time, two promising options. One would be to give to Animal Charity Evaluators’ Standout Charities. I think it’s a good list of charities that do good work. Or another option would be to give to something like the EA Animal Welfare Fund, which full disclosure, I’m the Fund Chair of, though, I do not get any royalties on donations, so my interest is philanthropic. I mean, I can say that for myself, for instance, my personal donations, I do a mixture of those three. I give to a couple of groups that I know well. I give some money to ACE Standout Charities, and I give money to the EA Animal Welfare Fund.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah, that makes sense.
Audience questions [01:59:29]
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Yeah. People were sending a lot of audience questions when I mentioned on social media that we were doing this interview, so I’ll hit you with a couple of them. Yeah. Are there any patterns in kind of the differences of opinion between the animal-focused researchers on the Open Phil team and the other kind of animal charity analysts like at Animal Charity Evaluators? Or I was going to say, or the Effective Altruism Animal Welfare Fund, but you lead that. So maybe there’s not a lot of daylight perhaps between you and you. Yeah. Is there much difference between the Open Phil team and the people at Animal Charity Evaluators?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So I mean, first I’d say on the EA Fund, I think there is some difference. We definitely try to bring in a diversity of opinions here. So I am one of four Fund Managers. The other three are not with Open Philanthropy, and I think they’ve brought some really valuable, diverse perspectives to that. In general, for the EA Fund, we’re looking for more speculative opportunities, for looking for things that are smaller, things that are more international. In terms of the difference between Open Philanthropy and Animal Charity Evaluators, I think we have very different assignments and very different… In terms of just what we can fund and where we’re going.
Lewis Bollard: So in the case of Animal Charity Evaluators, they’re tasked with finding groups that you can support everything they do. So Open Philanthropy, most of our grants are restricted, we go to a group, and we see one project that we’re really excited about, and we fund that one project, and we don’t have to worry about the whole rest of the organisation, are you excited about all 10 things they’re doing, we’re just going to fund this one thing we’re really excited about to scale up as big as it can get.
Lewis Bollard: A second thing is we can make new things happen. So we can do a lot of things where we go to groups and say, “Hey, how about doing this other thing you weren’t doing? We’ll give you money to do that”, and they’re now in a position to do that. I think the other thing is although we try to be open and transparent, we don’t have the same need to go through and explain every factor and why they’re effective, the way Animal Charity Evaluators does.
Lewis Bollard: So I really like the list of Animal Charity Evaluators’ Standout Charities. I think if you look at their list of Top Charities, it overlaps with some of our biggest grantees. We have some other groups we’re really excited about that aren’t on their lists that we’re supporting. I think one mistake people can make, for instance, is looking at that list and deciding any group that’s not on that list must be bad, that it must have been evaluated and there must be something wrong with it, and that is often not the case. It’s often the case that those groups haven’t been reviewed or they have, but they have particular strengths that can’t be recognised in some way, whatever. So people should not limit themselves to that. But I do think it’s a good starting place, particularly for new donors.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Another person asked how we would know when the effective altruism community’s investments in plant-based and cultured meat alternatives is no longer cost effective?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So I think this gets to the difference between the for-profit and the nonprofit side of this, where I already think it’s the case that if you are impact investing in alternative proteins, you’re probably not having a lot of counterfactual impact right now. So just because so many of the most exciting things are oversubscribed, which is awesome. There are all these investors, non-impact investors who want to fund it. That could change. But for now, there’s a lot of money on that side.
Lewis Bollard: By contrast, on the nonprofit side, there’s still not much money. So we’re still working on alternative proteins on less than $25 million a year. I think there’s still huge scope. Now, if we reached a point where we were at $100 million a year on alternative proteins on the nonprofit side, maybe that’d be different, but I think unfortunately, we’re probably still quite a ways from that point.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. Interesting. So it sounded like you’re interested in some people donating to the Good Food Institute and nonprofits like that. But also, what are the academic research labs? You sounded earlier like you were saying that there’s potentially really a need for scientists within academia to look at some of these topics because they’re not yet commercial ready.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right. So the challenge with academic work is obviously, it’s expensive. So ideally, we’ll have that funded by governments and by universities. But I do think there’s an important role for philanthropy in getting projects to that point where they can be funded. So getting researchers to the point where they can submit to the National Science Foundation. People can do that directly for universities.
Lewis Bollard: So for instance, the Berkeley Alt Meat Lab, or UC Davis has a major program. They can also do it through the Good Food Institute, has a major grant program to universities for academic research. Then you also have other groups like New Harvest, has a major grant program on cultured meat research.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Someone else writes in, what does Lewis think about longtermist arguments for prioritising animal welfare? So these arguments tend to run something along the lines of one of the ways that the long-term future could go very badly is if people have inhumane values or decide to do harmful things to animals or analogs of animals in the future, potentially. I guess that some people worry about a mistreatment of artificial intelligence, so suffering on computers or just mistreatment of any beings for the purposes of making profit or advancing your goals. So I guess that’s one line of argument. Do you have any thoughts on these motivations that some people have for prioritising work on animal wellbeing and promoting humane treatment of animals?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So I would say I’m definitely not an expert on longtermism within EA and certainly not on AI or on digital sentience or other topics like that. So I’ll leave that to people who know a lot more than I do. But I do think that there is a lot of value to influencing societal values for the long term. I think that if we were to assume that the future were just to have values similar to the values that it has today, those would be values that would both allow continuance of things like factory farming but also simultaneously argue against helping wild animals in a lot of circumstances.
Lewis Bollard: So I think there’s a lot of value first just on future animal issues, like, nature and wild animals could be around for a very long time, and just I don’t think it’s a given that we will do things to help them and improve their welfare. I also think that yeah, the potential values, the way we treat animals could be an interesting proxy for the way we treat other beings in the future and other sentient beings or systems.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. One response I’ve heard to this is the idea that it’s true that the reason that we mistreat animals so badly is in a sense technological advancement that has created this kind of technological system that requires animal suffering in order to be profitable, at least the way that it’s set up now. But people don’t want to do this. They do mostly think in their hearts that it’s wrong for animals to suffer, and if it weren’t costly to get rid of it, they probably would be happy to get rid of it if it didn’t come at their culinary expense or their financial expense.
Robert Wiblin: So eventually, as technology matures and we stop being constrained by our… I mean, human technology is very impressive in some ways, but it’s very feeble and pathetic relative to what might be possible in the very long term. Why on earth would we set up a factory farming system once our technology is space-age level? Therefore, similarly, if we’re unconstrained technologically in the future, why… There wouldn’t even be a trade-off necessarily between creating suffering and making more money. These things would be compatible. This starts to get very speculative. But do you have any reaction to that?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So I mean, I think one thing is that, that value is a very partial value you’re describing. Yeah, I would rather not have this if it weren’t for all these other constraints. The strongest evidence is that we not only have this, but it’s getting bigger, and it’s getting worse, including in the most technologically advanced or just nations of the world. I think that if I were someone in 1900 who was saying like, “Hey, how will the future go?” I would have said like, “It’s pretty good progress so far. We’ve got a good trend on how humans are treating one another. Things are looking good.” Generally, I would not have forecast, “Oh, it’ll become slightly more convenient to mistreat animals in horrific ways, and we’ll just start doing that.” Because…
Robert Wiblin: …So we’ll 100x it.
Lewis Bollard: …Yeah. In spite of our values, which in the 19th century, there were already strong values of concern for animal welfare and humanitarianism, we’ll just completely ignore those. So that’s one thing. A second thing is I think people just assume factory farming will become obsolete. Maybe. But I think there are still major technological challenges and also just major cultural factors where people have this weird thing, where a lot of people would still rather just eat meat, even when confronted with something that is technologically superior.
Lewis Bollard: Related to that is wild animal wellbeing, where even if you think there’s a clear trend toward the extinction of factory farming, I think the trend you mainly see in the West, at least on wild animals is a trend toward complete non-interventionism, a trend toward reverence for nature as it is. Even amongst people who are otherwise very concerned about the plight of animals, there’s surprisingly little concern about the plight of wild animals in many circumstances.
Lewis Bollard: So I guess I’m less optimistic on that. Then similarly, I would just say that I think that value of… If we have a value of like, “Yeah. We’d rather not torture things unless it’s convenient to do so”, you can imagine that value working out poorly in the future if there were other life forms, where it was slightly more convenient to torture them. So I guess that’s kind of my concern.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. My reaction to this argument… I guess I think it should get some weight. There’s something to be said for it. I feel like the point that I would push on is the idea that in the future, even as technology gets very advanced, it might not be the case that the most profitable or the most efficient thing won’t involve suffering. So you could imagine that the most efficient computer algorithm or something could be one that involves anxiety for the program or pressure on the program to do this or that.
Robert Wiblin: We’re starting to get off into really speculative territory, but I’m not sure that that idea that there won’t be a trade-off between maximising profit or maximising output and having a negative sentiment, that there’s such a strong tendency in that direction that we can be confident about that and not worry about it.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, that sounds right to me. Obviously, yeah as you say it gets very speculative. So to me, the most useful thing is when we look at the past and the trends historically. It seems to me like generally there’s been a huge amount of progress for humans, and technology has achieved a huge amount of progress. But often, critical to technology realising that progress and doing good things rather than bad things has been human moral sentiments, has been the fact that we care about doing good things for humans, and we either have governments restrict the bad things the technology can do, or people have their own ethical qualms about that, and are not inclined to use it for those purposes. So to me, it just seems like a broader symptom of this trend of technology has huge potential, but human morals really still matter as to how that technology is used and what impact it has on sentient beings.
The elimination of slavery [02:10:03]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I was speaking to a researcher who I guess I won’t name because this research is very preliminary, and I think that they’re not ready to put it out there yet. So take it with a grain of salt. But their impression was that the elimination of slavery may be far more morally and historically contingent than many people imagine. So I think many people, including me, have kind of thought, “Well, as technology advanced, as we had the industrial revolution, as people learned more, it was just inevitable that slavery would be a combination of morally repugnant and economically inefficient, so we would get rid of it.”
Robert Wiblin: They pointed out that for most of history, slavery was very profitable, and in fact, there were ways that you probably could have set it up in the modern world, such that it would be profitable, at least for some purposes. Yeah. I won’t go into the details of the arguments there, but the idea that slavery can’t be profitable for the owners of slaves probably isn’t strictly true.
Robert Wiblin: Another thing they point out, is just that basic… Okay. So in the ancient world, there were very large numbers of slaves in a wide range of societies. Basically, no one thought that slavery should be abolished. We can’t really find almost any writings saying that, even from slaves, even from slaves that were freed. Perhaps most shockingly. None of them, even when they go on to become prolific authors say slavery is bad and we should end slavery.
Robert Wiblin: There is a tradition of writing about humane treatment of slaves in the same way that now we have discussion of the humane treatment of animals. So they’d say you should treat slaves with dignity, that was a line of thought that some people went down although certainly not everyone. But yeah. You basically don’t see this apparently in any widespread way or almost at all until the Quakers, I think, in the 17th century, and they’d just become strict abolitionists, I think, and then it spreads from there.
Robert Wiblin: But it suggests that what if we had…this has just continued. Maybe it was actually just a particular vein of moral thought that ultimately caused us to decide that slavery was an atrocity and had to be eliminated, and we could’ve gone down a different path where that didn’t happen. Now, this is an argument that they’re thinking of researching and writing up. I think we need to probably pin down some of these empirical details because I’m not 100% sure that all of the claims just there are true, but an interesting line of thinking.
Lewis Bollard: I think that’s a great point. Actually, just by chance, you’ve come across one of my hobbies is reading about abolitionist history. So I can tell you that I think that is broadly correct, particularly on that point of profitability. I think there was this old narrative within abolitionist history that slavery was on the way to extinction. What we’ve seen is that in the U.S., the invention of the cotton gin had made slavery more efficient and more profitable than ever in the lead up to the Civil War, and there were more slaves than ever.
Lewis Bollard: In the U.K., when the U.K. abolished both the slave trade and ultimately slavery in the empire, it accounted for a huge portion of British GDP. It was an incredibly important industry. The one that gets neglected perhaps the most was in Russia, the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s, which was the largest number of people enslaved in the world. It was an incredibly profitable structure at the time.
Lewis Bollard: As you say, it was an institution that hadn’t been questioned, until the 18th century. Particularly, looking at the U.K. and the U.S. example, if the Quakers hadn’t come along, if you hadn’t had this group of people who were very morally concerned and financially very successful, and they had a lot of money to fund a major crusade against slavery, I think it’s a fascinating question of what would have happened otherwise. At the very least, you can see this in places like Brazil, which took another 50 years to abolish slavery after most of the rest of the large slave-holding nations had abolished it.
Lewis Bollard: So yeah, I think you’re absolutely right, that there are plenty of these examples from history, where technology helps and moral progress helps, but it was really important that there was a concerted band of advocacy and that there was a lot of work actually on ending the practice, on reforming these institutions.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. We’ll try to get more about this topic on the show. Perhaps we’ll discuss it once they’ve been able to look into it more. Yeah. I think another interesting angle from a series of lectures from someone called Robert Garland that I’ve been listening to over the last year, a couple of different history courses is that it seems like there was a couple of aspects of Christian thinking and parts of the Bible that provided kind of fertile ground on which groups like the Quakers could point to scripture and argue that slavery was no longer permitted, at least in the New Testament.
Robert Wiblin: If, say, the original pagan religions of Greece and Rome had persisted and not been displaced by Christianity, which seems also historically contingent, at least to some degree, there just wouldn’t have been the raw material there about the dignity of each individual and their relationship with God as a creator. There was simply no… There were no underlying principles within pagan religions that would allow you to object to slavery on principle, because they didn’t really believe that the gods cared about any individuals or that individuals all had dignity or should be treated properly or anything like that. It just was quite absent from those religions at the time, which is partly a reflection of those religions, partly also just a reflection of that time in history more generally. It’s not only a religious issue.
Robert Wiblin: But yeah. It suggests that history could potentially have gone down many different roads of moral thought. If you had a religion that really had as one of its fundamental underlying ideas that slavery is acceptable, then maybe it would have been much harder to dislodge, even if some subset of people did conclude that it was immoral.
Lewis Bollard: Right. Yeah. Well, I mean, the irony of course is that slaveholders also cited the Bible as their justification for slavery.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Absolutely.
Lewis Bollard: It’s interesting looking across different societies on this, because you did see slavery-like practices in China and India challenged earlier in history than you did in the West with some basis in Eastern religions. So yeah. I’m not sure if this is specific to Christianity or specific to any one religion. I think in a lot of religions, you have a number of really important things, both about the dignity of individuals, but also often about concern for individual sentient beings. Then you also have language, which at least if people want to, they can use to justify whatever practices they want.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, totally.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Let’s move on to a little section with some career advice. Sorry. Slight tone change here. So we did a section on career advice for listeners back in 2017, which covered I think a lot of the material that we would want to talk about today, and we just don’t need to repeat all of that. I’m curious, are there any things that you’ve learned or changed your mind on since then about topics like the best things to study or the best ways to build career capital early on in your career or the orgs that you’d be particularly keen for people to work at? Yeah. Any news that people should be aware of?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So I think the main update is that I’ve just become more uncertain in general. I think one thing I’ve realised over time is that the opportunities in this space keep changing and are hard to predict. So I wouldn’t want to give hard and fast advice, and I certainly would encourage people to seek out multiple data points in advising them on this.
Robert Wiblin: That’s good advice for everyone all the time.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right. And it’s funny because it sounds generic — I mean, it is generic — but one thing I have found is that there is a general tendency of people to assume that, “Well, if you’ve been successful in this space, whatever you say is the thing to do”. I made this mistake when I entered the space early on. I remember listening to a relatively small number of people who had been successful, and they told me that whatever they were doing was the most important thing, and definitely I should follow exactly their path and do whatever they were doing.
Lewis Bollard: I think I didn’t sufficiently adjust that for me and for what interests me, for what I’m good at, for what would be sustainable for me. So that’s something which I really do think, yeah, can be challenging. If you’re new in the space, you just want to do the most good for animals. You look to someone who is doing a lot of good for animals, and they tell you, “Hey, you need to go out and start leafleting”. If you’re someone who hates interacting with other people, it’s not going to work. So yeah. That’s just a general note of caution.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just in general, I think by and large, we would like our audience to maybe think for itself more than some people are inclined to, or… It’s very understandable that people would like straightforward answers to, where should I go study? Or what question should I do? We do our best to try to provide as useful guidance as possible. If there ever are clear answers on questions, we’ll offer that. But it’s not really possible to build a career in these areas without doing a lot of your own legwork to figure out what’s the best opportunities for you, what’s the best fit for you. Yeah. What topics are available at your university, who do you get along with… All these are really specific things.
Robert Wiblin: Also, just in so many of these areas, a question like, what is the most important research to be done within this field of animal advocacy? There hasn’t been enough work done on that to have a clear answer to even that question. So if you’re going to go and do that kind of research, you probably have to spend some time thinking for yourself. I guess actually one benefit of this show and interviewing lots of different people is that it makes clear that there aren’t simple answers to this and people disagree, and you go back and forth.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. I think that’s a great point. I would just say, I think the other benefit to exploring things for yourself, taking in many data points, is you might see opportunities that no one is currently thinking about. So some of the most exciting things might be starting a type of company, a type of nonprofit group, doing a type of activity or research that no one is currently doing or thinking about. So yeah. I definitely encourage people… I think often people are sort of reticent when they come into the area and think like, “Well, this must be a silly idea because no one’s currently doing it.” Yeah. Sometimes they are silly ideas; run them by some people. But sometimes it could be the most important thing and counterfactually can have the greatest impact because no one else is doing it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just a general observation is that the number of people who are, say liberated enough in their life, because they’re, say sufficiently wealthy or educated or privileged that they can decide what to do based on social impact or personal interest or yeah, intellectual engagement, the number of people who are in that situation even globally is not large relative to the number of problems and relative to the number of plausible approaches that one might take to solve problems, such that in areas where there isn’t say already a huge pile on of lots of people just focusing on this particular intervention style or this particular narrow problem, there’s just lots of fertile areas of you know, businesses that could be started, research projects that could be done, things that could be checked to see whether they’re any good that just…it hasn’t been done because there aren’t enough people.
Robert Wiblin: Even in a world of 8 billion people, it’s just not enough to cover all of the territory. So I mean, yeah. I think my colleagues would agree with me on that, that you shouldn’t take the fact that someone hasn’t already done something as that strong an indicator that it’s a bad idea, unless it’s a niche area where it’s gotten an unusually large amount of attention relative to the surface area of ways that you could do things about it.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. I agree with that. I think that’s only magnified in the area of farmed animal welfare where the movement has traditionally been so small, and there have been so few people working on this full time. It also makes me think of another consideration that I think people sometimes overly discount, which is your own personal constraints. So I think sometimes people look at this startup co-founder who had no constraints and was able to go and do this or that, and I should do that.
Lewis Bollard: I think it’s really important to consider your own personal constraints, how risk tolerant are you? To what degree do you need to make a steady salary year on year for your family, etc. So I think really that sometimes some of the advice people give is given as if there were no personal constraints in this world, and most of us are not lucky enough to be in a place of no personal constraints. So I definitely encourage people to factor that in.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just thinking that a question like what’s the most impactful career… I feel like we could go away and study this for ages and come back with an answer like 42. The question might be ill-posed, or yeah, it’s not a question with an answer like that.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. Okay. Back to where we were. Yeah. What’s some stuff that you’ve learned that the audience could give some weight to in terms of planning their career if they want to do something to help animals?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So I mean, I think in general, there are two broad categories of things to think about, the alternative proteins and the farmed animal advocacy movement. On the alternative protein side, I do think there is huge value on the science piece. We sort of already knew this, but we’ve seen this continually, a real shortage of scientists at companies, and in government. So if you have a science inclination, think hard about going into alternative proteins. I think we’ve also seen the value of business-inclined people, particularly people who have experienced in other settings coming into this.
Lewis Bollard: On the advocacy side, I think there is a need for all kinds of roles, and particularly generalists. I think there’s a lot of scope on this. I think we have seen greater need for managers, makes sense. As groups are growing, are professionalising, there is more of a need for people who have management expertise and who are learning management and thinking hard about it. Then I think one other area would be on the research side, ability to synthesise existing information. I think a lot of the work we had going on previously was really focused on doing new studies, primary research.
Lewis Bollard: I think one helpful realisation from groups like Rethink Priorities and Wild Animal Initiative is that there’s a lot of information out there that is relevant to these questions but it has been done on other topics. And that people who can synthesise that, bring that together, make it usable for decision makers. That has a really high value.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any good opportunities outside of… Well, people who want to help animals they might imagine going to work at these food companies or going and working at an animal advocacy org. That’s very natural. Are there any oddball opportunities outside of those areas that people might not think about, but actually do have a lot of promise?
Lewis Bollard: So I think it depends a lot, obviously on people’s individual circumstances, but a couple of areas I would flag. So one would be going to work in government in various roles. So obviously, there’s the potential to regulate farmed animal welfare, for going to work in politics or in administrative positions. There’s also the potential, I think, to help allocate research funding by becoming a scientific grantmaker within government, by being involved in scientific administrations. I think a second area is going to work for large established food companies, not just on the… I think we talked last time about the potential to influence things on the farmed animal welfare side. But also, on the alternative protein side, now, you have the big meat companies, the big food companies making major plays in alternative proteins. They’re going to need people with expertise in that, and I think there really is scope to ensure that they’re doing that well, that they’re focusing on product categories that are gonna impact a lot of animals, that they’re producing products that are as good as possible or that everything is being done as well as possible there.
Lewis Bollard: Then I guess the third category would be thinking about some of the international institutions that have a role in this. This is perhaps sort of tricky as a career path of how do you get to these places. But if you look at organisations like the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation or the World Animal Health Organisation, each of them is doing work globally on farmed animal welfare. It’s very limited, and it could really use a kind of shot in the arm. My sense is that the few people in those places who work on this potentially have quite a bit of influence, and they’re the sort of organisations that I think are often overlooked. People may not even know they exist in the first place. If they do, they may not know they work on animal welfare, and then it’s hard to work out how to get to those places. But I think particularly for folks who have a scientific background in animal welfare science or in relevant animal health areas, that could be a path, but also just the people who are pursuing that kind of international governance career. That could be an interesting angle.
Open Philanthropy job opportunity [02:25:06]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So I think when we last spoke in 2017, you were maybe the only person at Open Phil who was working on the farmed animal welfare program. But I think you’ve got a little team around you now. Yeah. How many people are involved, and I guess, what does the picture of the work look like now?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah, that’s right. We’ve expanded, which is awesome. So we have my colleague, Amanda Hungerford, who actually recently got promoted to being a Program Officer on farmed animal welfare, which I’m really excited about her work. And we have Adam Mohsen-Breen, who’s also working with us on broad program assistance and I’m excited to announce that we’re actually going to be hiring for a new program associate role as well now.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Fantastic. What does that work involve? What can people look forward to if they apply and get this job?
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So we’re looking for someone to basically help us with our existing grantee portfolio. We have over a hundred grants in farmed animal welfare now and… Yeah, which is exciting. Obviously, keeping up to speed on what everyone is doing and how it’s going is a real challenge. So the core of this Program Associate role is going to be doing check-ins with all of those grantees. So if you’re someone who’s really interested to learn about what groups are up to all around the world, what they’re doing on different issues, you’re really intellectually curious. Obviously, we’re also always looking for people who are analytical, who are good at communicating. But yeah, a lot of it will be focusing on maintaining those relationships and in the process, giving us a clearer picture of how our current grantees are doing and the kind of key information on how those grants are going.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So you’re based in San Francisco, but I guess with COVID, everyone’s working from home. Would someone have to be able to move to San Francisco in order to be able to apply for this role?
Lewis Bollard: No, they don’t. So the good news is, yeah, you can apply from anywhere. You can work from anywhere. We have a question on there about whether you would need U.S. work authorisation, but we’re happy to consider sponsoring people for work approval, and I’m really happy about that. So yeah, I really hope that people apply wherever they are. Would love to have people from more geographically diverse locations working on this. I think particularly given that our work is global, would love to have people who are international working on this too. So wherever you are, if you are interested in this role, definitely encourage you to apply.
Robert Wiblin: What kind of seniority are you thinking of hiring? I mean, what would be a typical age or salary, or how far through someone’s career might the right person be?
Lewis Bollard: We have flexibility on this. So I would say that regardless of where you are in your career, I encourage you to apply. Depending on that level of experience and expertise, we may adjust both the seniority of the role and the tasks and the related compensation. I think that the most important thing is having the core skills and having the core inclination and interest in this issue and the interest in the work, and yeah, beyond that, I think people can check out the job description. But if it generally describes you, I would definitely not let a shortage of career experience or great length of career experience be an impediment to applying.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right. Exactly. Yeah. It should be online by the time this podcast comes out.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Fantastic. Yeah. We’ll link to that in the show notes as always. I guess, yeah, people should also know that farmed animal welfare, I think even sometimes wild animal welfare jobs are listed on our job board. So at 80000hours.org/job-board. Yeah. Maria Gutierrez curates a section of jobs from some organisations. They haven’t all been super thoroughly vetted because we want to potentially offer quite a wide range of opportunities to people who want to advance their careers, not just the top one selected a job within an area.
Robert Wiblin: But yeah. That’s potentially a really good place to start if you’re interested in moving into a new problem area and want to get a sense of what opportunities are out there in general. Or if you’re thinking about, you’re looking for a career change and you want to look at applying for five jobs that are available right now, yeah, the job board can be really helpful.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. I’ve taken up a pretty large fraction of your day now. So I should probably let you go in a minute. I guess, for listeners who are interested to get an update on how the farmed animal scene is going more than once every three or four years on this podcast, what kind of maybe Twitter feeds or newsletters or blogs could people follow to stay abreast of what’s going on?
Lewis Bollard: Sure. Well, in addition to my newsletter, which you can find on the Open Philanthropy website if you just Google ‘Open Philanthropy farmed animal welfare research newsletter’, another newsletter I found really helpful is called ‘But Can They Suffer?’ It’s a summary of research in the space. I think there are some really good posts on the EA Forum to follow, particularly from groups like Rethink Priorities. Then on Twitter, I think it’s more just sort of following a whole bunch of accounts. So I’d encourage people to follow kind of key animal advocates, some people who are experts on the space.
Lewis Bollard: Another source I found helpful has been setting up Google news alerts. So another way to just kind of pull together different information on the space. But you won’t see… There aren’t a ton of great compilations of material on the space. So it’d be great to see more on that front.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Alright. I guess a final question. I was talking to your colleague Ajeya Cotra a month ago, and everyone always talks about this thing called ‘AI timelines’, which is like when will AI change the world, or when will AI achieve some particular threshold. I’m curious, do you have kind of a ‘meat alternative timelines’ thing? I guess, I suppose that could be like when will we have a veggie burger that’s as intelligent as a human being…but maybe more realistically, yeah, when do you think we’ll have… What kind of forecast do you have about alternative proteins that might match meat in terms of tastiness and price?
Lewis Bollard: I was really hoping you were going to have me predict on when the veggie burger would be as intelligent as human beings.
Robert Wiblin: Well, I suppose it’ll be as intelligent as an AI at that point, potentially.
Lewis Bollard: Right, right, yeah. So many variables. I don’t have a great prediction on meat timelines, and it’s funny because it’s very low stakes because probably it’s far enough away that people won’t remember this podcast by then…
Robert Wiblin: Just say something, Lewis, just whatever. I mean, 30 years, no one will remember. That’s the sweet spot.
Lewis Bollard: Yeah. But no. I mean, I would love to see more predictions in this space. I am not going to throw out just a year because it’ll be ill-defined, and I don’t want people to start thinking that I have this high confidence in something like this. But it would be great to see people doing more predictions on the future of alternative proteins, on the future of meat, and I definitely am optimistic that this is something we’ll see major change on within our lifetimes.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. This seems like a topic where if one actually was willing to do some legwork, I think one could make a real forecast, and it wouldn’t be completely arbitrary. You could, yeah, do analogies to other products, look at the trend over the past, and say something meaningful.
Lewis Bollard: That’s right. Honestly, I think this is somewhere that EAs are really well positioned to do good stuff. I mean, a lot of what’s out there right now is done by market research firms, and their projections, including even from well-established investment banks tend to be total rubbish. You look at them, and it’s kind of embarrassing. The underlying data is bad. The projections are crazy. So I would love to see some EAs doing some more rigorous work on this.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. We do love our calibrated forecasts. Alright. My guest today has been Lewis Bollard. Thanks for coming back on The 80,000 Hours Podcast, Lewis.
Lewis Bollard: Great. It’s been great chatting with you, Rob.
Rob’s outro [02:32:26]
If you’d like to learn more about the most effective ways to reduce animal suffering, you might want to check out our previous episodes on the topic, starting with Lewis’ first episode: Number 8 – Lewis Bollard on how to end factory farming in our lifetimes
We then recorded an episode on undercover investigations, Number 14 – with Sharon Nunez & Jose Valle
Finally, we explored one of the most counter-intuitive ways to reduce animal suffering on Number 56 with Persis Eskander – that’s all about wild animal welfare.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering by Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts are available on our site and made by Sofia Davis-Fogel.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.