I'll be running an Ask Me Anything session on Friday, 26 February. I'll start around 9am PST and will finish up by 6pm PST, so try to get your questions in on Wednesday or Thursday.
About me: I lead Open Philanthropy's work on farm animal welfare, and am a fund manager for the EA Animal Welfare Fund. 80,000 Hours released a podcast with me a few weeks ago, and I write a research newsletter on farm animal welfare.
Some topics I’m excited to discuss:
- Alternative proteins: progress to date, key challenges, future directions
- Farm animal welfare: current conditions by species, progress on various issues, and new strategies
- The global farm animal movement: status by country, challenges, and new opportunities
- Animal welfare’s place in EA, and what other EA movements can learn from it and vice versa
- Frontier topics: wild animal welfare, invertebrates, cultivated meat, etc
But feel free to ask me anything!
What's your current thinking on potential tradeoffs from the Better Chicken Commitment between number of life-years per amount of meat and average welfare per life-year, and other considerations?
This is a tough one. I recently surveyed a dozen of the most informed and aligned people on their estimate of the average welfare gain per life-year -- a mix of aligned animal welfare scientists and EA researchers -- and got a very wide range of answers. There's lots of reasons for that uncertainty but the biggest is that the underlying broiler welfare science isn't all that helpful. That's in turn mainly due to a combo of (1) it's really hard to measure the subjective experience of animals (preference tests are the best evidence we have, but they're not that helpful for cases with many interacting variables), and (2) most welfare science hasn't traditionally focused on the subjective experience of animals, but instead on weakly related factors like mortality and health.
But there's a broad consensus amongst the informed / aligned researchers that the welfare gain of the Better Chicken Commitment outweighs the potential increase in life-years. This is mainly because the higher welfare breeds most likely to be adopted are only slightly slower than conventional breeds -- we're most likely talking about a 10-20% increase in days, not a >30% increase or anything. (Some ap... (read more)
Do you have a sense of what the appropriate pricing for what "OpenPhil's last pro-animal dollar" is or should be? Either grounded concretely in terms of specific interventions that you'd fund, or in terms of how much animal welfare can be "bought" per dollar.
Also, how much does relatively abstract reasoning on benchmarks and metrics like the above factor into your decisions on whether to fund specific interventions?
This is a major question for us, and one we continue to research. Our current very rough estimate is that our average $ spent on corporate campaigns and all supporting work (which is ~40% of our total animal grant-making) achieves the equivalent of ~7 animals spared a year of complete suffering. We use this a rough benchmark for BOTECs on new grants, and my best guess is this reflects roughly the range we should hope for the last pro-animal dollar.
Of course there are many caveats! They take two forms. First we have lots caveats on the number above. There's lot of empirical uncertainty: about the # of animals impacted by each corporate campaign, the likelihood of implementation of each corporate pledge, how much the campaign sped up the reform relative to the counterfactual, the welfare of animals before the corporate reform, how much the reform improves that welfare, etc. And there's a lot of moral uncertainty: about how to compare acute and chronic suffering, how to compare welfare improvements with sparing an animal from living in a factory farm at all, how to compare across species etc.
Second, we have caveats on how to apply the benchmark and how mu... (read more)
What are your main takeaways and ways forward from the pretty pessimistic report on cultivated meat Open Phil commissioned?
Thanks for the question Michael. A few thoughts:
... (read more)
- I think cultivated meat could be a game-changer. It seems to have a clear route to competing with the most expensive animal products (think foie gras or bluefin tuna) and to improving plant-based meats as an additive at a low percentage. But the biggest prize would be if cultivated meat could compete with cheap animal products at scale. We commissioned this report because we’re uncertain about whether cultivated meat can reach that price point.
- The report outlines a number of major technical challenges to lowering the cost of cultivated meat. I encourage people to read the whole report. But the tl;dr is that growing animal cells in bulk is really hard, and in particular constraints on bioreactor size and sterility make this really challenging. As a result, you should probably be skeptical of claims that cultivated meat will be price-competitive at scale within the next decade.
- I think how much the report should update you beyond that depends on your priors, and what they’re based on. For someone who thinks, based on media articles or some general intuition like Moore’s Law, that it’s inevitable that cultivated meat will become pri
... (read more)
- Invertebrates: I’d love to see more research on invertebrate sentience and welfare, of the kind that I know you and Rethink Priorities are doing. We’re also excited to see more advocacy on the welfare of aquatic invertebrates, which seems like it may be more politically feasible than work on other invertebrates’ welfare. For instance, we recently funded Crustacean Compassion to push for the inclusion of crustaceans in UK animal welfare laws. I’d love to see more researchers and advocates working on invertebrates, since the numbers are obviously huge and my sense is that a lot of low-hanging fruit remains. For instance, I was very pleasantly surprised to see CP Foods, the world’s largest shrimp producer, last year announcing an end to eyestalk ablation — it would be great to see more work on reforms like this.
- Wild animals: I’m excited about the work that Wild Animal Initiative is doing to build an academic field of research in welfare biology. I think we need a lot more research on questions like the relative welfare of different species in different ecosystems and the prevalence and severity of various welfare harms like disease and starvation. I’d also like to se
You are quoted in the 80,000 hours article about management consulting as saying:
In your most recent podcast interview you stated:
Your quote in the 80 K article seems pretty lukewarm on management consulting, and I'm wondering if this talent gap in animal advocacy has made you more positive?
It seems that at least some European countries are seriously considering a meat/climate impact tax. What impact, do you expect, this could have? Do any unexpected potential flow-through effects come to mind?
What kind of specialized research expertise is missing most from the movement? It seems that Open Phil has been commissioning research from experts who aren't affiliated (or necessarily even value-aligned). In what areas do you think this is a good enough substitute, and in what areas should we get more value-aligned full-time researchers with specialized expertise?
Could you comment on economics, welfare science (farmed and wild), psychology, cognitive science/neuroscience, philosophy (e.g. philosophy of mind), statistics, and fields related to alt protein... (read more)
If we focus on cost-effectiveness, what would be the most effective top 3 interventions for animals at the moment?
Apart from funding, are there other leverage points you see to move the animal welfare movement as a whole towards higher impact? As an example scenario: early hits causing other organisations to alter their strategy?
What possibilities exist to support and fund structured organizing around social theory and movement building based initiatives towards plant-based transitioning? In particular I am interested in the Canadian context, as I have not observed many efforts of collaboration towards building collective power and unity or a movement that revolves around structured organizing within the Canadian context. There are many organizations that seem to function within their own theory of change. However knowledge around movement ecology that combines the different theor... (read more)
What's your take on diversifying approaches to address the human element of diet change? The species that suffer the most also seem to have the most resistance to cultural diet change. As a movement, we seem to have gone all-in on chicken welfare commitments. What are some alternative interventions that you're excited about?
Which issues/cause areas, do you think, could benefit the most from undercover investigation footage?
What criteria do you use while deciding which charities are gonna be given funding from EA AWF?
Is Open Phil ever going to move Farm Animal Welfare out of U.S. Policy? :P
And given support for work on wild animals, it's not just farmed animals anymore, anyway.
Hi Lewis, since this is AMA, this one is not EA related.
I've spend most of my teenage and college years as a competitive international debater. How do you look back at your debate experience? The good and the bad. Would you recommend that EAs (and more people in general) take up debate? Or would you rather see it be replaced with some other form of structured discussion?
Also, the WUDC finals are one of my favorite competitive debates of all time, I would often use it when coaching my teams. I'd love to hear your take on it. What was it like for you to prop... (read more)
Question: In the past 2-3 years, we have heard troubling news about how employees in the animal movement are treated. Are there any plans of creating a safe, global space for employees, where they could:
Problem: I have two examples in mind:
Thanks for drawing attention to this important issue Ula. I’m very sorry to read of the experiences you and others have shared, which I’ll address here and in separate replies to Daniela and Eze’s posts below.
I completely agree the animal movement needs to do better to ensure it’s a safe place for all its employees and volunteers. We’re supporting a number of groups and individuals working to create a more inclusive and supportive global movement. For instance, we’re major funders of Encompass, ACE, and Animal Advocacy Careers, as well as a number of regional efforts (like a new China EAA fellows program). And in response to complaints last year about the FAST listserv not being a safe place, we funded Amanda Cramer to work full-time on fixing it. But there’s a lot more work to do, and we’re always looking for new initiatives we could fund to help.
More broadly I think our movement needs to continue to professionalize its approach to management, HR, and employee development. I’ll address more specific issues around sexual harassment and mismanagement in my answers to Daniela and Eze below. But I’ll say for now that we’ve encouraged grantees to raise salaries and invest more in... (read more)
Thanks for pointing this out, Ula. I'm aware that several activists in other organizations have also suffered similar situations, along with derogatory comments because of their origin and gender.
Hey Daniela, I've been an animal activist for 20 years now and I had seen so many people suffer mobbing or hostile work environment. People suffering severe burnout, mostly due to poor leadership. The sad thing is, they are too afraid to say anything because some of the leaders and organizations are big and well respected. I don't really know how to help them, but I believe they don't deserve the anxiety, self-doubt, low self-esteem, depression, and all the other repercussions. Just don't really know what to do about it, but what worries me is that there is no follow-up. Like ACE is pointing out things and you can see no official response from the orgs. So is anything changing, or is it swept under the rug? What can we do?
Hi Ula! I agree with you. I myself stopped working directly as an animal advocate after being mobbed, harassed, and listening to regular discriminatory comments for being a woman, an immigrant, and because of my origin. I've seen so many activists going through the same.
In my case, the continued support of other advocates, especially of the Encompass community (www.encompassmovement.org), has been invaluable. I highly recommend it.
Second, I also believe that it's time to stop normalizing activists' mistreatment and discriminatory practices, especially in organizations where there is evidence that these issues are structural. In this regard, it's very disappointing that organizations with ongoing and severe management and leadership problems continue to receive large grants or support from the EA community.
Third, I think organizations should develop active policies to prevent these situations from happening in the very first place. We should not have more advocates burning out or leaving the movement to take this issue seriously.
I'm glad that you're also concerned about this problem, and I'd be happy to talk about this further with you :). I'm also open to discussing it with Lewis– if he considers it appropriate.
Thanks for sharing this Daniela. I’m very sorry to read of what you experienced. I completely agree we should stop normalizing activists' mistreatment and discriminatory practices, and that organizations need to develop active policies to prevent these situations. (I’ll address your point about continued grants as part of my reply to Eze below.)
On the policy point, over the last three years we’ve strengthened our requirements for grantees around sexual harassment policies and procedures. We now require all of our farm animal welfare grantees to implement a list of best practices prepared by our law firm. Most recently, in response to specific concerns raised, we added two more requirements: (1) forbidding grantees from asking for NDAs in harassment cases, and (2) requiring grantees to commission outside investigations of all harassment cases involving leadership. We also provide special grants to cover grantees’ costs to develop stronger policies, implement them, and train staff to abide by them.
And yes, it’d be great to discuss this with you further — I’ve just emailed you to find a time.
I know testimonies of people in the animal rights movement who have suffered the same thing you are talking about here, this is worrying and obviously it is not an isolated case.
In my experience this problem is unfortunately wide and common in so many organizations :(
If you could travel back to 2015 and talk to your past self about developments in animal advocacy, do you think anything would really surprise him?
If so, is there anything Lewis circa 2015 could have been tracking/paying attention to that would have made those developments less of a surprise? Would that have helped Open Philanthropy to make any additional good grants?
Interesting Q! I think there's a lot that would surprise 2015-me. A few highlights:
... (read more)
- Plant-based meat: I didn't expect Impossible to get into Burger King so quickly, the popularity of the Beyond Meat IPO, the surge in sales of plant-based meat in US retail over the last few years, or the resulting investing boom in the space in the last few years. I think following the industry more closely would have given me a bit more foresight here, but I'm not sure it would have resulted in a lot more good grants, since there are limited grant opportunities (and the top investment opportunities all got taken without us).
- Corporate campaigns: I didn't expect advocates to so quickly get most large North American food and European food businesses to commit to go cage-free, or to succeed in extending these campaigns globally. But I also didn't expect US broiler welfare campaigns to get as slowed down as they have. I think the main update here is the significance of momentum. I think one wrong lesson would be that we should ask for more -- this was a lesson that we took from rapid US cage-free progress which I think led us to ask for too much on the US broiler ask.
Which interventions seem most promising to you but have had little support from the EA community so far?
Are there any specific cases / guidelines where you think it might be better for individual donors to donate to specific animal welfare organisations directly rather than the EA animal welfare fund? (apart from perhaps tax reasons)
First I'd like to thank Ula for raising the important issue of how employees in the animal movement are treated. Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that these are not isolated cases. Former employees of other organizations like Animal Equality have reported similar disturbing practices, for example:
Given all this, I'd like to ask:
Thanks in advance for your answer.
I was an employee of Animal Equality for years and I have witnessed several cases of harassment from the leadership. Retaliation and harassment are common practices in the organization. Unfortunately, Animal Equality is a dictatorship. If you are an employee and you disagree to some degree with the leadership you might be fired without any prior notice. Even people that exceed the goals and expectations for the role are fired without any previous bad feedback.
In order to avoid more retaliation for the current staff, I suggest that OPP requires a strict policy and process in which Animal Equality's directors must follow in case they want to lay off someone.
PS: I am also writing with an anonymous name since I don't feel safe showing my name.
I'm so sorry you went through this. I have also met a few people in AE that went through the same thing :(
Thanks for the questions Eze. I encourage readers to also check out my answers to Ula and Daniela above, since they apply here too. I’ll focus here on your specific questions about how Open Phil addresses problems at grantees.
In general, when we learn of problems at grantees — like mistreatment of employees — we first try to learn more about the specifics of the situation. We then have a range of proportional responses we consider and adjust depending on how they go. This ranges from extensive discussions with grantee leadership to specific demands of them (e.g. that they adopt an independent board or investigate a particular case) to ultimately cutting off funding.
We have cut off funding to grantees that have proven unwilling to address major problems. But we do treat this as a last resort after all attempts at internal leverage and change have failed. We take this approach because we’re such a large portion of most grantees’ funding that us cutting off funding will typically result in them having to lay off employees, in some cases many. For this reason we often find that employees raising concerns with us don’t want us to cut funding to their employer (to be clear, this is not d... (read more)
I am also a former employee of Animal Equality. I just registered here anonymously because speaking out publicly will get me in trouble with the current AE-leadership that I can not afford to deal with financially or emotionally anymore.
With all respect – just from what I know, OPP has so much information about what is going on at Animal Equality – reading „I would like to hear more about your experience and other cases you’re aware of“ is very, very frustrating.
„We take this approach because we’re such a large portion of most grantees’ funding that us cutting off funding will typically result in them having to lay off employees, in some cases many.“
The number of people who where fired or have left AE because of the behavior of the current leadership is so high, that I do not think a complete cut of funding could have resulted in more lay-offs.
It seems at Animal Equality Germany alone enough people left just last year to justify drastic measures? https://www.kununu.com/de/animal-equality-germany-ev/kommentare
Can you explain what exactly has changed at AE since you have become aware of the issues?
Thanks Charlie and Oat for sharing your experiences with Animal Equality. I understand your skepticism and I’m sorry to hear about how things have gone for you and too many others.
You’re right that we spoke with a lot of former and current AE employees in 2019. We heard concern about practices but also concern about the potential fallout of us just cutting funding. It was a tough decision, but we chose to use our leverage to push for changes rather than to cut funding.
I wish I could get into more specifics of the conversations with AE leadership, but think it would violate both their trust and that of a number of employees we spoke with. So all I can really say is that we've had ongoing candid conversations with AE leadership about our concerns and think they're taking a number of significant actions based on our conversations, for example adding new independent directors to their board, making key personnel changes, and working closely with a consultant on management changes. But we're continuing to monitor and engage on this -- including continuing to welcome new information.
Hi Lewis, I am another former Animal Equality worker who prefers to remain anonymous for reasons already mentioned in the forum. I want to give more information and make a reflection on this issue:
- 85% of the team in Germany quitted the organization in the last months when the international board took over the control of the German organization. Most of the team opposed the management style and HR values of the international board. See here how ratings on the German anonymous employer review platform Kununu collapse over time, reporting the situation, when the international board took over management.
- Power continues to be held by the founders and their trusted people, some of them taking on other roles to make it appear as a more balanced management structure that does not exist. The systemic and structural problem will persist as long as large donors and the effective altruism philanthropists continue to allow this situation to persist.
- Predatory management, far from being isolated cases, the leadership model is based on coercion of employees. Hence, employees are afraid to speak up, as we have already seen here. A dissenting opinion means dismissal. It is common practic... (read more)
Quite honestly Lewis, what violates our trust in OP is seeing that after all the risk many of us took nothing has substantially changed. While you continue having "candid conversations with AE leadership", AE leadership has not extended the same grace to its staff and has been anything but candid to its employees. As you confirmed yourself, OP has been aware of and addressing the problems with AE since 2019. You claim that significant actions were taken since, however, in 2020 what we actually saw was the issues escalating and not improving, culture becoming much worse to the point of affecting mental health of employees, leadership becoming much more authoritarian and despotic. To speak only about what is already public knowledge, in 2020 AE lost almost the entire Germany office and fired more than one employee on medical leave as retaliation. How then do you affirm that they are making significant changes? The said changes are clearly only on paper, and the discourse does not reflect the reality of the culture. People who are still working at AE continue telling us about the same problems, but they are afraid of speaking up since they know many of us already did and nothing has b... (read more)
Lewis, I would like to comment on your points in detail but I can not do that without jeopardizing my anonymity which I think it pretty clear. And I know that anything I could say OP already has been made aware of by several people. People have been treated and are being treated horribly and forced out of the organization after the changes you mentioned had been implemented. These are ongoing issues. Asking for more information at this point feels like people have been speaking out in vain so far. Reading things like this over and over again is really not helping the mental health of people who have been treated horribly but dared to speak out despite the risk.
Should people in positions of power who seem to have a track record of mismanagement be granted the same level of trust – and by extension protection – as the many, many people who are treated badly and people who want to hold people in power accountable? I can not imagine what more information could be necessary. How much worse do things need to become to justify more drastic action in your eyes? Animal rights advocacy is hard enough as we all know. But even without that baseline of stress – no one should be treated like a disposable human resource and be forced to witness unbelievably incompetent leadership being protected like this.
Thank you for your response, Lewis, but you understand if many of us are very skeptical. Writing anonymously on behalf of a number of former Animal Equality employees from at least three different countries who were all forced out of the organisation or resigned due to our attempts to hold leadership to account for their horrible treatment of staff, lies, nepotism, and complete lack of transparency. OP reached out to some of us in 2019, following the departure of a number of Directors (both country EDs and international department Directors) and staff, to discuss the situation. Many of us risked our careers, reputations, and likelihood of retaliation by AE leadership to speak with OP in the hope that we could help protect employees still working at the organization. Some of us spoke with OP about this more than once, and many of us provided specific examples of extremely problematic behavior by leadership. OP assured us it would protect us as well as those still working at AE but failed to take any concrete action to hold AE accountable, thus putting at risk the whistleblowers who took the risk to protect others. But instead, OP continues funding the organisation and this financing... (read more)
First of all, I would like to explain that I have just registered on the forum to maintain anonymity and not to harm anyone.
Unfortunately, the case you give as an example of Animal Equality is not the only one of bad practices towards their employees. As a former employee of Animal Equality, I have witnessed on numerous occasions harassment at work, abuse of authority, lack of transparency, lack of democracy, falsification of statistical data and fraudulent campaigns by the international direction.
It is very sad, it would be good if finally the appropriate actions were taken so that these bad practices do not continue.
This is such a sad thing to learn :(
... (read more)
- What are your current views on egg-laying hen welfare in caged vs cage-free systems? It looks like mortality rates are higher in cage-free to start, but decrease over time and then match after around 10 years based on this meta-analysis.
- Are there worthwhile ways to try to speed up the decrease in mortality? Maybe there's enough industry incentive already?
- How likely do you think it is that the increased mortality rates (and any other issues) still outweigh the welfare benefits to egg-laying hens? Or, how long do you think it takes for the welfare benefits t
I'm an aspiring food scientist half way through my degree. Do you think there is more potential for for impact if I focus more on plant based or clean meats? Plant based seems easier from a scientific point of view, but more low-hanging fruit seems to be taken there already. Thanks!
Hi Lewis! Where are we with in ovo sex determination technology at scale? Among the start ups and solutions so far (eggxyt, FFAR egg tech winners, seleggt) which are the most promising? Where are there still challenges?
More broadly, are there other neglected opportunities for scientific research to improve animal welfare ? Could genetic engineering play a role in improving animal welfare?
How do you see Open. Phil's focus on farm animal welfare evolving in the coming years vs other focus areas?
What strategies do you view as most impactful in terms of moving producers who seem to have drawn a line in the sand against higher welfare initiatives, particularly pork and chicken producers?
Can you please summarise/suggest top funding opportunities for individual donors by region?
What do you expect to be next for chicken welfare reforms after cage-free eggs and the Better Chicken Commitment, if anything?
What did you learn in your legal schooling/career that has been useful to your other work?
Do you have any recommendations for people who want to learn more about said useful thing(s) without going to law school?
What are your thoughts on pledge programs like Challenge 22 and Veganuary? They seem promising to me, but I think current research hasn't adequately addressed the counterfactual of whether these people would have gone vegan anyway.
Some of the research:
Hey Lewis, 3 of us in EA Philippines are doing some research/scoping work on how Filipinos can make an impact on local farm animal welfare and/or alternative proteins, so these questions are going to be oddly specific:
1. If you could advise 3 generalists who could spend ~5 hours per week each on one or two of the following issues by doing research/direct work/advocacy on them, how would you rank the 5 issues below, and why?
The ranking above is currently how I think we should prioritize between the different issues, but they're still very tentative. We've done ~30 hours of desk research to draft an initial problem profile on local land animal welfare, and had 7 expert interviews already with players working on these problems locally, including Animal Kingdom Foundation for layer chickens / cage-free, Humane Society International for plant-based advocacy, Worth the Health Foods (a plant-based... (read more)
Hi Lewis, I'd love to know if there are any particular aspects of research on existing, emerging or desirable strategies to promote the transition of agricultural subsidies away from animal (especially factory) farming and towards plant-based agriculture that you would like to see more of. Context - I'm beginning to design a MSc dissertation (in animal welfare science, ethics and law, UK-based) and think this would be a good area to generate a bit more work on, but it's obviously moving fast so I'd love your thoughts on any especially worthwhile approaches... (read more)
Hi Lewis, thank you for doing this!
Thank you for doing this AMA! I have three questions:
1) The FDA has approved at least one alternative to pig castration (the brand name is Improvest) that involves two injections behind the ears rather than surgery. Similar technology has been shown to work in cattle but I don't believe that has FDA approval. I've heard that this product works well and is cost-effective for farmers but that it has not been widely adopted because processing plants tend to reject in-tact pigs more or less out of inertia. Do you have thoughts on whether working to address thi... (read more)
What are your thoughts regarding potential welfare and environmental concerns of using insects/insect meal for animal feed and human consumption?
I have a draft post about the Comparison between the hedonic utility of human life and chicken suffering, and would very much welcome your feedback regarding the modelling of the Moral weight of chickens and Living conditions of chickens.
I appreciate that these are very hard to quantify, and that more research is needed, but I think modelling our current beliefs could still be useful to make trade-offs explicit. Ideally, I would like the distributions (of the moral weight and living conditions) to reflect some kind of aggregated "best guess" of the most in... (read more)
In a recent newsletter, you suggested getting plant-based meat cheaper would revolve around cheaper ingredients and production efficiency.
Couple of questions around that since it felt like there was some abstraction for brevity in that newsletter
First, some data to work off. According to Beyond's latest filings for nine months up to Sep 2020, their per pound price is probably more like $3.97 per pound vs your $3.5 per pound estimate (I'm including outbound shipping and logistics as well which is probably more accurately a cost of goods sold item but ... (read more)
You recently said:
Do you have a sense for why the animal advocacy movement is so strong in Israel? You mentioned that they have limited amounts of land for farming, but this seems more like an explanation for why the governmen... (read more)
What is the most effective intervention for fish? Is anyone working on it? How many organizations are working on change for fish right now? What do we expect to achieve for fish in the next 2-3 years?
What are the key challenges in alternative proteins production that we need to overcome to meet the meat :) price point?
Given the industry funding and incentives in the alt protein space, where do charities and advocates have the biggest role to play?
How much do labelling laws actually matter?
What are some meaningful ways in which local groups can contribute to the animal movement?
How might we avoid making effective philanthropy seem paternalistic, or condescending?