Which institutional tactics can animal advocates use?

by Jamie_Harris9 min read29th Apr 2020No comments

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Meat AlternativesCommunityFarmed Animal Welfare
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Cross-posted from the Sentience Institute blog.

We at Sentience Institute have argued that the farmed animal movement should shift many of the resources currently used to change individuals (e.g. handing out leaflets, running pro-vegan Facebook ads) to change institutions instead (e.g. campaigning for policy change, supporting animal-free food technology).[1] We found agreement with this suggestion in our 2017 survey of effective animal advocacy researchers and the evidence base for this proposed strategic shift has gotten stronger as we have conducted further research.

However, what is the landscape of institutional change? What sorts of tactics can advocates pursue, and how do they work? This blog post outlines examples of institutional tactics and links to available resources on how to maximize their effectiveness. We include a list of organizations currently using these tactics in each section, though the inclusion of particular organizations is not intended as a comment on their cost-effectiveness or as donation advice.

Influencing food industry policies and practices

The most common institutional use of movement funding seems to be directly influencing the food industry, such as by convincing corporations to implement welfare reforms (e.g. cage-free eggs) or to produce, develop, or sell more plant-based foods.

Evaluations by multiple research organizations suggest that corporate welfare campaigns have been highly cost-effective methods of reducing animal suffering over short timeframes.[2] Some advocates are concerned that such interventions increase complacency about the current food system, such as through a “humanewashing” effect; the available evidence suggests that welfare reforms will generate more momentum than complacency  — meaning they tend to increase the amount of future progress made for animals, though perhaps not enough to make corporate welfare campaigns the most cost-effective interventions available to the farmed animal movement on longer timeframes.[3]

Organizations conducting corporate outreach or campaigns on animal welfare include:

Numerous organizations devote substantial effort towards convincing corporations to prioritize the production, development, and sale of animal-free foods over animal products.[4] The effects of these interventions have been less thoroughly evaluated, though they may be promising.

Organizations using these tactics include:

Disrupting the food industry through animal-free food technology

Cultured meat — real meat made with animal cells instead of a whole animal — and new forms of plant-based foods such as the Impossible Burger can lower the barriers that individuals face to cutting conventional animal products from their diet.[5] The development of these technologies can be supported with technical research by academics, nonprofits, and for-profit companies.

Organizations supporting the development of these technologies include:

Alternatively, social scientists, nonprofits, and companies can focus on the marketing, consumer acceptance, and sale of these products. Investors, nonprofits, and incubators can provide finances, advice, and support to the startups developing and marketing these technologies. Legislation and regulation affecting animal-free food technology can also be influenced. We have summarized the evidence and arguments for whether to prioritize social change or the technical development of animal-free food technology on our foundational questions summaries page.

Organizations supporting the successful marketization of these technologies include:

A fuller list of organizations focusing on this topic is available in the alternative food landscapes by The Global Alternative Food Awards.

Influencing legislation

Legislation can institutionalize attitude change, if the public already supports a new law, or drive social change by introducing changes that do not yet have popular support.[6] However, the largest US farmed animal advocacy organizations only spent 7% of their resources on influencing policy and the law in 2016. Only around 5% of roles in effective animal advocacy nonprofits seem to be specifically focused on “[g]overnment, policy, lobbying, or legal” tasks.

Legislators can be influenced directly, with tactics ranging from one-on-one pressure by full-time lobbyists, to public letter-writing campaigns, to mass demonstrations. The relative cost-effectiveness of these tactics is difficult to assess in aggregate,[7] but they may all contribute to desirable policy outcomes.[8] Legislators can also be influenced indirectly, through political action committees, animal-focused political parties, and voting.[9] In some jurisdictions, policy goals can be achieved through direct-democracy ballot initiatives.[10]

As with tactics focused on influencing the food industry, proposed policies could focus on welfare reforms, animal-free foods, or regulation of animal products.

Reforms to production practices could vary from small but relatively tractable reforms such as bans on cages for laying hens through to radical reforms that would cripple the animal agriculture industry, like banning factory farming. Alternatively, advocates could seek bans on whole product categories, comparable to the bans of production or sales of fur. Pushing directly for the rights of animals, such as to secure their legal personhood, could make animal farming more difficult.

Subsidies affect the production costs of animal products and animal-free foods, though requiring animal agriculture to pay for its own negative externalities may be a more effective method of encouraging a transition to an animal-free food system because subsidies actually seem to account for only a very small portion of the price of animal products. Open-access research and development for animal-free food technologies could be funded by governments. Legislation could support the development of animal-free foods through other means, comparable to the Renewable Fuel Standard in the US which supported the development of biofuels by requiring standard fuels to be blended with renewable fuels. Governments could even be encouraged to implement large-scale industrial reforms, comparable to the 1974 Messmer plan that led to France’s shift from fossil fuels to nuclear power.

Consumer behavior could likely be influenced by a meat tax or other legislative manipulations of the relative price of conventional animal products and animal-free foods.[11] Legislators could also enforce behavioral “nudges” such as new labelling requirements.[12]

Organizations seeking to influence legislation or legislators include:

Influencing the judiciary

In many countries, including the US, judges can make rulings that alter the interpretation of the Constitution or otherwise set legal precedent. US Supreme Court rulings that are favorable to social movements’ goals can encourage positive changes in public attitudes, behavior, and policy, though they can also encourage substantial backlash. Advocates can use litigation to push for radical legal changes, draw attention to particular issues, or enforce the implementation of legislation. Judicial change may be particularly important on issues where there is historical precedent, such as legal personhood.

Organizations using litigation include:

Influencing or creating other institutions

Educational institutions can be encouraged to promote moral circle expansion through their curriculum.[14] It may be more cost-effective for advocates to seek to institutionalize this sort of education than to provide it directly themselves. Advocates could also seek to encourage the creation of new institutions, such as new branches of government or research bodies.[15]

Organizations influencing or creating other institutions include:

  • Nonprofits like ACTAsia that promote humane education,
  • Animal Rebellion, who are demanding a new Citizens’ Assembly.

Asking individuals to contribute to institutional change

Our co-founder Jacy Reese has written that a shift towards institutional tactics “does not mean forsaking individual change altogether”:

For example, in the call to action of an overall institutional-leaning message, such as, ‘End factory farming’, one can discuss individual diet change as one possible action to take, though in some cases activists might prioritize a different call to action, such as supporting a current policy campaign. Similarly, if one is working to change an institution such as a company or government, boycotts can be an important tool in the activist toolbelt to pressure the institution into changing, at least if they are framed as a symbolic action in the service of that targeted goal rather than as a personal choice.

To facilitate institutional changes, advocates may need to undertake a number of actions focused, at least initially, on individuals, such as:

  • Trying to shift public opinion on specific farming practices, to facilitate policy changes or corporate campaigns,[16]
  • Trying to mobilize votes for particular candidates or ballot initiatives,
  • Trying to recruit individuals to sign petitions, lobby their representatives, or participate in protests,
  • Trying to encourage participation in targeted boycotts of particular products or services.

Most of the tactics currently being used by advocates to encourage individual diet change could be used for these purposes, including factory farming investigation videos, media outreach, the publishing of books and reports, leafleting, online ads, video outreach, and one-on-one discussion.[17]

General spillover of individual tactics

There are some cost-effective uses for advocacy that focuses on individual consumer change. For example, some online pledge programs may identify some of the low-hanging fruit of consumer advocacy, help to shift social norms, or otherwise facilitate institutional change. It also seems possible that some consumers will not switch from conventional animal products towards high-quality animal-free food products, even if those products are cost-competitive; in this scenario, diet change advocacy may be necessary.

Where individual tactics are employed, institutional messages can still be centered, such as encouraging individuals to contribute to the “end of animal farming,” rather than asking them to “go vegan.”[18] Even if an entirely individual message is used, there can still be spillover effects on the behavior of institutions, such as through changing consumer demand, institutions making decisions based on consumer behavior, and encouraging other behavioral and attitudinal changes in those consumers.

Footnotes

[1] An “institution” is typically a formal or informal organization, such as a business or government, but can also be less organized social structures, such as communities or the social norms that govern everyday human behavior.

[2] See the evaluations by Rethink Priorities, Founders Pledge, Animal Charity Evaluators, Open Philanthropy Project, and Charity Entrepreneurship.

[3] Of course, this is highly debatable, depending on how much weight one places on the different arguments and pieces of evidence.

[4] The ask can vary from the introduction of new products to the use of “nudges” to promote animal-free products. For instance, the World Resources Institute suggested 57 interventions that “the food service sector can use to encourage diners to select more plant-rich dishes.”

[5] See, for example, “A Systematic Review of Cell-Cultured Meat Acceptance,” Animal Charity Evaluators (February 2020), https://animalcharityevaluators.org/research/other-topics/a-systematic-review-of-cell-cultured-meat-acceptance/#full-report.

[6] For example, Jamie Harris, “Social Movement Lessons from the US Anti-Death Penalty Movement” (forthcoming) notes that, “the implementation of legislation by elected officials is only indirectly related to public opinion, so change can occur without public support. Educated elites may be exposed to different information sources to the general public, such as broadsheet newspapers rather than tabloid newspapers, which may encourage rifts between the opinions of the public and the educated elite. If different polities engage differently with public opinion, then a similar divergence between elite and public opinion may be translated into substantially different legislation. Various long-term and indirect factors also affect death penalty legislation in US states, reducing the influence of public opinion. In 1936, only one state had public support for the death penalty below 50% (Wisconsin, with 49% support) and in 1990-2, no state had lower than 61% support; nevertheless, 5 and 12 states respectively had no (or very limited) capital punishment laws at those two points in time. Outside of the US, many countries have abolished capital punishment in spite of majority public support for its use and variations in levels of public opinion do little to explain variations in capital punishment between Asian countries.”

Additionally, Jamie Harris, “Social Movement Lessons From the US Anti-Abortion Movement” (November 26, 2019), https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/anti-abortion notes that, “[p]olitical scientist Rosemary Nossiff compares the states of New York and Pennsylvania to better understand the causes of legislative change in the period 1965-72… Nossiff highlights several factors as of potential causal importance in securing legislative change in the desired direction, including successful political maneuvering and alignment with influential politicians (the Democratic party in both instances)... In support of this conclusion, a paper by economists Marshall Medoff and Christopher Dennis found that ‘Republican institutional control of a state’s legislative/executive branches is positively associated with a state enacting a TRAP [Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers] law, while Democratic institutional control is negatively associated with a state enacting a TRAP law.’ In contrast, ‘The percentage of a state’s population that is Catholic, public anti-abortion attitudes, state political ideology, and the abortion rate in a state’ are statistically insignificant predictors.”

[7] For some relevant considerations, see:

[8] See, for example, the section on “Social Movement Ecology” in Paul Engler, Sophie Lasoff, and Carlos Saavedra, “Funding Social Movements: How Mass Protest Makes an Impact” (January 2019), https://ayni.institute/fundingmovements/.

[9] There is a robust literature on increasing voter turnout, such as through mail and door-to-door canvassing.

[10] Ballot initiatives have been used successfully by a number of movements. On “Animal welfare,” “Electoral reform,” “Criminal justice,” “Catastrophic risk preparation,” “Global development,” “Psychedelics,” “Lead poisoning,” and “Research and development,” see Rethink Priorities’ report. On the anti-death penalty movement, see Jamie Harris, “Social Movement Lessons from the US Anti-Death Penalty Movement” (forthcoming). On the use of ballot initiatives to resist gay rights, see Thomas M. Keck, “Beyond backlash: Assessing the impact of judicial decisions on LGBT rights,” Law and Society Review 43, no. 1 (2009).

[11] Jamie Harris, “Lessons for Consumer Behavior Interventions from the Health Behavior Interventions Literature” (forthcoming) notes that, “[t]he included reviews and studies mostly found that increasing prices or taxes of unhealthy products reduced consumption of them, and that subsidies for healthy products increased consumption of them. I place high weight on this evidence suggesting that taxes, subsidies, and price changes are likely to be effective at changing behavior in the farmed animal movement. Two included meta-analyses suggested moderate effects, with mid-points of estimates suggesting that a 10% increase in the price of undesired products would result in a decrease in consumption of 6%. The models in different studies and reviews suggest that a change in price of 10% has an effect on consumption ranging from as low as 2.3% (from a review of smoking) to as high as 12% (from a review of dietary behavior). It is unsurprising that models for dietary behaviors suggest greater price elasticity than for smoking, where the addictiveness of nicotine means that many smokers continue to buy cigarettes regardless of price increases.”

[12] Jamie Harris, “Lessons for Consumer Behavior Interventions from the Health Behavior Interventions Literature” (forthcoming) notes that, “[t]he evidence from research relating to diet and nutrition, smoking, and medication adherence tends to suggest that packaging interventions would be effective, whereas the research relating to alcohol suggests no effects. Three included meta-analyses focused on diet suggest that labelling might reduce calories consumed by about 6%, although CIs ranged from nearly double this to very small negative effects.”

[13] Other groups, including The Humane Society of the United States have also worked on ballot initiatives in the past.

[14] Consider, for example, the various university courses on animal law, and courses on animal studies (such as at New York University).

[15] Many of the suggestions on this list of “Institutions for Future Generations” could be modified to focus on animals.

[16] As noted on our foundational questions summaries page, “[s]ocial movement scholars have found that public opinion is often an important determinant of legislative outcomes. Some animal advocates likewise believe that successful lobbying is dependent on supportive public opinion, perhaps even dependent on attitude polarization.” See also the footnotes for these claims (122-4) on that page.

[17] Research on the cost-effectiveness of some of these tactics and how to maximize their impact can be found at:

[18] As Jacy Reese has written, “[t]hese are each short messages, and sometimes activists have opportunities to communicate at length, such as in a one-on-one conversation or in the several pages of text in a leaflet. In long-form, messaging also face the trade-off of individual and institutional messaging, though they can also include multiple comments and suggestions for their audience.”

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