Launch post and writeup for 60B Chickens describing the inputs into and results of the analysis, along with considerations that didn't make it into the final model.

Click here to view the full landing page


The meat industry breeds horrors on an unprecedented scale. History has never before witnessed suffering at this scale, nor seen it inflicted so carelessly and senselessly.

In 2013 alone, we slaughtered 60 billion chickens.

By comparison, the worst human tragedies cap out at around 145 million by even the most pessimistic estimates. If it’s difficult to conceive of numbers this large, think of it this way: you could murder 145 million human beings very year for the rest of your life and still not get to the chicken death toll for a single year. In fact, only around 100 billion humans have ever existed.

We can’t even blame any of this on our historical savagery. With all our sci-fi technology and economic progress, we are still choosing to commit these atrocities. In fact, it is precisely those advances that allow factory farming to function at this unfathomably grotesque industrial-scale.

Now perhaps you could argue from the standpoint of speciest solipsism. Whatever the cortical neuron counts say, we don’t really know what happens inside the brain of a chicken. Do they suffer? Are they even really conscious?

It suffices to say–as a general moral principle–if there is reasonable doubt as to whether or not a creature suffers, you should probably not kill 60 billion of them every year.


At this point, any reasonable person would just stop eating meat. But I’m not reasonable, just rationalist. So okay, let’s do the moral calculus.

Scott Alexander, Kelsey Piper and Brian Tomasik have done some preliminary analysis, but it's a lot to take in and hard to follow.

You can see the landing page here, and view the full analysis here. The rest of this post explains some of the calculations, as well as other considerations that didn't make it into the final model.


Here’s the math on moral/financial fungibility:

  • For 1000 calories of meat, chicken produces 2kg CO2-equivalent, versus 10kg CO2-equivalent for cows
    • CO2 offsets cost around $10/tonne, or $0.01/kg.
  • Both species provide ~260g protein and ~2500 calories per kg of meat
  • Per life, chicken produces around 1.9kg of meat, versus 212kg for cows
  • Chicken costs ~$7/kg, beef costs ~$8.8/kg
  • Due to elasticity, reducing consumption by 1kg only reduces production by ~0.7kg for both chickens and cows

If you’re not eating meat, you have to replace the protein and calories. At baseline, flour is 4,464 calories/dollar and 134g protein/dollar.

Since we’re talking about financially offsetting meat consumption, this analysis does not rely on estimating the relative moral patienthood of chickens versus cows, or their relative living conditions. [0]

Perhaps the most important number is the cost to prevent an animal from being farmed. Initial estimates were as low as $0.10/life, but later came under scrutiny. One estimate puts the cost at $5.70 to save a chicken life, with pigs being around $150. Since that implies costs scales about linearly with meat-produced, I’m assuming $636 to save a cow’s life, but these numbers are all speculative. Note also that these are estimates for one particular intervention.

From these conversions, we can calculate the “true” financial cost for each animal. Chicken comes out to $3.42/kcal versus $4.18/kcal for beef. Anchoring on protein yields similar results: $2.76/100g for chicken and $3.48/100g for beef. [1]


Finally, what about plant-based meat alternatives? As Kelsey Piper writes:

plant-based products are already difficult to distinguish from the originals, while having a lighter carbon footprint and no impact on animals. If you avoid beef by switching to plant-based meat products, you really are improving the world and improving conditions for the humans and animals that live on it.

The problem is still cost. Beyond Beef is $6.74/lb or $14.83/kg on Amazon (cross-check), versus just $8.80/kg for cow beef, or $10.93 for suffering and carbon offset cow beef. In other words, for the price of 1kg Beyond Beef, you could get a kg of cow beef, and use the remaining money to offset 6kg worth of meat. [2]

So it’s not cost-effective short-term. In the long run, maybe there are benefits to demonstrating demand for plant-based meat alternatives, but that’s hard to quantify and I’m skeptical. You’re probably better off eating cow beef and donating the $6.03/kg to the Good Food Institute which accelerates the development of plant-based proteins.


Thanks to Scott Alexander, Kelsey Piper and Brian Tomasik for their previous work on this topic, and providing many of the numbers this analysis relies upon. All errors are mine.


Footnotes

[0] If you’re curious anyway:

  • Chickens are treated much worse than cows. Brian Tomasik estimates as 3x multiple.
  • Cows are smarter than chickens, and are perhaps more “sentient” or morally important. The estimated multiple varies, but some sources say ~2x, 10x or 6x or 8x.

[1] As Scott points out, normal reasoning starts to break down here. If you really can offset 1kg of CO2 for just $0.01, the lesson isn’t that you can eat all the chicken you want. The lesson is that you should pour all your money into CO2 offsets!

Alternatively, rather than asking “how much does it cost to eat ethically neutral chicken”, you should just ask “how can I do the most good with my money?” Stated otherwise, I don’t really get the Supererogatory approach to ethics, and see failing to do good as similar to causing harm.

In that worldview, the real cost of 1kg chicken meat isn’t $8.55, it’s the 4 mosquito nets you could purchase for that same amount, with $0.55 leftover to eat rice and beans.

[2] Beyond Beef has its own carbon footprint. They claim to emit 90% less GHG than cow beef, which makes the offset negligible.

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19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:27 AM
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[-][anonymous]18d 34

Could you clarify what makes this a "GiveWell CEA spreadsheet"? When I saw the title I thought that GiveWell had started publishing work on chickens, but it doesn't sound like they were involved in this project?

Yeah, I was also confused. Maybe say "A GiveWell-style CEA spreadsheet"? That feels like it captures what it is better.

(Yeah, I had both these thoughts in almost exactly those words as soon as I read the title, and strongly agree.)

FWIW, I also felt uncomfortable with the title of "Why Hasn't Effective Altruism Grown Since 2015?" (since I think EA has clearly grown since 2015 on several metrics, even if maybe not on all metrics, so simply saying it hasn't grown is either false or oversimplified). So I'd personally be in favour of you (Applied Divinity Studies) generally trying to think a bit more about ways in which a title could be misleading or unclear before you make a post.

(But I don't mean this as like a very strong criticism or personal attack, and maybe it's weird/inadvisable for me to talk about "general patterns" in an author's work in a public comment rather than in a private message to them - apologies if so. I mean this as a fairly small thing.)

Sorry about all that, changed the title to "Give Well-style".

Agreed on the other title as well. I made some notes on this in the follow up post and noted that I could have picked a better title. https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/xedQto46TFrSruEoN/responses-and-testimonies-on-ea-growth

Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate the note and will think more about this in the future. FWIW I typically spend a lot of time on the post, very little time on the title, even though the title is probably read by way more people. So it makes sense to re-calibrate that balance a bit.

That all sounds good! And thanks for the very good-natured and receptive response to what I was worried might feel like or spark an uncomfortable online interaction!

And I hadn't seen that followup post - apologies for not being aware you'd already noted this in that case :)

I initially thought that CEA here stood for Centre for Effective Altruism, and only later did I realize that it stood for cost-effectiveness analysis.

Perhaps the most important number is the cost to prevent an animal from being farmed. Initial estimates were as low as $0.10/life, but later came under scrutiny. One estimate puts the cost at $5.70 to save a chicken life, with pigs being around $150. Since that implies costs scales about linearly with meat-produced, I’m assuming $636 to save a cow’s life, but these numbers are all speculative. Note also that these are estimates for one particular intervention.

I haven't followed the animal advocacy space closely, and so I'm not sure, but I worry that you might have picked an intervention that is very far away from the maximum cost-effectiveness in this space.

E.g., at first glance Corporate campaigns affect 9 to 120 years of chicken life per dollar spent suggests a cost-effectiveness that is orders of magnitudes higher. [ETA: Note it's crucial to distinguish between 'hen welfare' and 'broiler welfare', i.e., eggs vs. chicken.]

Yeah, I'm hopeful that this is correct, and plan to incorporate other intervention impact estimates soon.

For that particular post, Saulius is talking about "lives affected". E.g chickens having more room as described here: https://www.compass-usa.com/compass-group-usa-becomes-first-food-service-company-commit-100-healthier-slower-growing-chicken-2024-landmark-global-animal-partnership-agreement/

I don't yet have a good sense of how valuable this is v.s. the chicken not being produced in the first place, and I think this will end up being a major point of contention. My intuitive personal sense is that chicken lives are not "worth living" (i.e. ethically net positive) even if they are receiving the listed enrichments, but others would disagree: https://nintil.com/on-the-living-standards-of-animals-in-the-united-kingdom

But overall I'm optimistic that there are or could be much more cost-effective interventions than the one I looked at.

If true, this wouldn't change the cow/chicken analysis, but would make me much favorable towards eating meat + offsets as opposed to eating more expensive plant-based alternatives. As noted elsewhere, of course the optimific action is still to be vegan and also donate anyway.

One other thing that's important, and that I should have emphasized more in my original comment: You are specifically interested in offsetting chicken consumption (not eggs), but I believe that most successful corporate campaigns to date were about hen welfare (i.e., chicken farmed for eggs). 

At a glance, the post I linked to covers both 'hen welfare' and 'broiler welfare' (i.e., chicken farmed for meat). But it's worth paying attention to whether cost-effectiveness estimates for hen welfare or broiler welfare differ, or if we even have ones for broiler welfare (if we do, I think they would probably me more uncertain since I would guess there is less data on cost, tractability, corporate follow-through etc.).

This of course also applies to the improvement in living conditions. I think (but am not totally sure) that everything about caged vs. cage-free is relevant for hen welfare only. For this, I would recommend looking at this report. I know that animal advocates have also tried to estimate the effect of potential welfare improvement for broilers (e.g., using different breeds) - including concerns whether some welfare improvements might cause an increase in farmed broiler population due to lowered 'efficieny', and whether this could make some measures net negative w.r.t total, aggregated welfare - but I don't know of a good source off the top of my head.

Here’s the math on moral/financial fungibility:

...

You’re probably better off eating cow beef and donating the $6.03/kg to the Good Food Institute 

 

Is refraining from killing really morally fungible to killing + offsetting? Would it be morally permissible for someone to engage in murder if they agreed to offset that life by donating $5,000 to Malaria Consortium? I don't mean to be offensive with this analogy, but if we are to take seriously the pain/suffering that factory farming inflicts on animals, we should morally regard it in a similar lens to inflicting pain/suffering on humans. 

So, no, moral acts are not necessarily fungible. It is better to not eat meat in the first place than to eat meat and donate the savings to farm animal charities (even if you could save more animals). This is obvious from a rights moral framework but even consequentialists would consider financial offsetting dangerous and unpalatable. The consequences of allowing people to engage in immoral acts + offsetting would be a treacherous and ultimately inferior world.

So your calculations are not the cost of eating meat but rather, the cost of saving animals. You have not estimated the cost of chicken/cow suffering (which would require estimating utility functions and animal preferences), but rather, the cost of alleviating suffering. Your low-cost numbers don't imply that eating meat is inconsequential, but rather, that it's very cost-effective to help chickens and cows. GiveWell's $5,000 per human life doesn't make human life cheap, it means we have an extraordinary opportunity to help others at a very low cost to ourselves.

Yes that's a good point, as Scott argues in the linked post:

The moral of the story is: if there's some kind of weird market failure that causes galaxies to be priced at $1, normal reasoning stops working; things that do incalculable damage can be fairly described as "only doing $1 worth of damage", and you will do them even if less damaging options are available.

Give Well notes that their analysis should only really be taken a relative measure of cost-effectiveness. But even putting that aside, you're right that it doesn't imply human lives are cheap or invaluable.

Actually, I pretty much agree with all your points. But a better analogy might be "is it okay to murder someone to prevent another murder?" That's a much fuzzier line, and you can extend this to all kinds of absurd trolly-esque scenarios. In the animal case, it's not that I'm murdering someone in cold blood and then donating some money. It's that I'm causing one animal to be produced, and then causing another animal not to be. So it is much closer to equivalent.

To be clear again, the specific question this analysis address is not "is it ethical to eat meat and then pay offsets". The question is "assuming you pay for offsets, is it better to eat chicken or beef?"

And of course, there are plenty of reasons murder seems especially repugnant. You wouldn't want rich people to be able to murder people effectively for free. You wouldn't want people getting revenge on their coworkers. You wouldn't want to allow a world where people have to life in fear, etc etc etc. So I don't think it's a particularly useful intuition pump.

To be clear again, the specific question this analysis address is not "is it ethical to eat meat and then pay offsets". The question is "assuming you pay for offsets, is it better to eat chicken or beef?"

(FWIW, this might be worth emphasizing more prominently. When I first read this post and the landing page, it took me a while to understand what question you were addressing.)

nice, thanks for doing this!

If you’re not eating meat, you have to replace the protein and calories. At baseline, flour is 4,464 calories/dollar and 134g protein/dollar.

[...]

Perhaps the most important number is the cost to prevent an animal from being farmed. Initial estimates were as low as $0.10/life, but later came under scrutiny. One estimate puts the cost at $5.70 to save a chicken life, with pigs being around $150. Since that implies costs scales about linearly with meat-produced, I’m assuming $636 to save a cow’s life, but these numbers are all speculative. Note also that these are estimates for one particular intervention.

i'm a bit confused here. what does saving a life entail? does it mean, say, getting the proteins you would've gotten from a chicken from plant-based sources instead? if so, the numbers seem to suggest that plant-based diets are more expensive than meat-based diets, which seems pretty unlikely to me? legumes, nuts, peas and soy-based product are all pretty affordable.

edit: also, the average american's calorie intake is significantly higher than the recommended amount. so one could argue that the same amount of calories don't always need to be replaced. but of course reducing calorie intake is not feasible for everybody.

Sorry yes, "saving a life" means some kind of intervention that leads to fewer animals going through factory farming. The estimate I'm using is from: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/9ShnvD6Zprhj77zD8/animal-equality-showed-that-advocating-for-diet-change-works

And yes, it is definitely better to just be vegan and not eat meat at all. This analysis is purely aimed at answer the chicken vs cow question.

Another thing that wasn't immediately clear to me: are you comparing chicken lives to cow lives (by numerically distinct individuals), or chicken-years to cow-years? I think this is a significant difference since iirc the standard length of the life of a factory farmed chicken is on the order of 0.1 years, while I would guess that it's higher for cows (but don't recall a number off the top of my head).

Yes good question! Cow lives are longer, and cows are probably more "conscious" (I'm using that term loosely), but their treatment is generally better than that of chickens.

For this particular calculation, the "offset" isn't just an abstract moral good, it's attempting to decrease cow/chicken production respectively. E.g. you eat one chicken, donate to a fund that reduces the numbers of chickens produced by one, the net ethical impact is 0 regardless of farming conditions.

That convenience is part of the reason I chose to start with this analysis, but it's certainly something I'll have to consider for future work.

Have you compared your analysis to this previous EA Forum post? Are there different takeaways? Have you done anything differently and if so, why? 

This is very specifically attempting to compile some existing analysis on whether it's better to eat chicken or beef, incorporating ethical and environmental costs, and assuming you choose to offset both harms through donations.

In the future, I would like to aggregate more analysis into a single model, including the one you link.

As I understand it (this might be wrong), what we have currently is a much of floating analyses, each mostly focused on the cost-effectiveness of a specific intervention. Donors can then compare those analyses and make a judgement about where best to give their money.

Where the Give Well style monolithic CEA succeed is in ensuring that a similar approach is used to produce analysis that is genuinely comparable, and in giving readers the opportunity to adjust subjective moral weights. That's my ultimate goal with this project, but it will likely take some time.

This was maybe a premature release, but so far the feedback has already been useful.