(update: see https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/EztxZhPQ8Qv8xWe3v/kbog-did-an-oopsie-new-meat-eater-problem-numbers)
I decided to do some analysis to gain insight on the impact of economic growth on meat consumption in the developing world, which has occasionally been discussed in the past.
First I took the finding of York and Gossard (2004) that for every $1,000 increase in per capita PPP GDP, African countries consume 1.66 kg more meat per person per year.1 For some perspective on the significance of that difference in GDP, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP%29_per_capita.
Then I used FAOSTAT data on meat production2 and consumption3 from various samples of low income African countries which are targeted by Givewell-recommended top charities to determine what proportion of that 1.66 kg is likely to come from various types of meat.
I excluded dairy and eggs because I figured that all those animals are also slaughtered for meat at some point and therefore are already taken into account, given that these are developing countries. Moreover, egg production numbers are not available whereas dairy farming causes by far the lowest amounts of suffering. I also excluded game meat because its impact is on wild animal suffering, it isn’t farmed, and I doubt that marginal meat consumption includes game meat. Finally, I excluded meat of “all other types” from the analysis.
I also excluded fish because there is no significant correlation between income and fish consumption in African countries.1
Then I used Brian Tomasik’s estimates of suffering per kg to determine days of suffering caused to various animals. For cattle, camels, horses, mules, and asses I used his estimate for suffering per kg of beef; for pigs, sheep and goats I used his estimate for suffering per kg of pork; for all poultry and rabbits I used his estimate of suffering per kg of chicken.4 Even though Tomasik is uncertain about these numbers themselves and points out that they shouldn't be taken at face value, they provide a decent general guide.
This gave me numbers of days of suffering for the various kinds of animals farmed in sub-Saharan Africa. Note that Tomasik adjusted the number of days of suffering to account for the differences in average subjective badness based on how different kinds of animal farms operate in the US.
Here are some significant considerations not taken into account in the model that will affect the amount of suffering caused to farm animals. (Plus sign means that this consideration will cause the amount of suffering to be greater than the analysis indicates. Minus sign means that this consideration will cause the amount of suffering to be less than the analysis indicates. Question mark indicates that the direction is unclear.) Together, they give strong reason to be uncertain about the results of these calculations.
· Domestic animals are smaller in developing parts of Africa than they are in US factory farms, meaning more animals are raised per quantity of meat. (+)
· African farms are subject to generally weaker standards of regulation, slaughter methods, etc. (+)
· Most of the new meat consumption in Africa is poultry and pork,5 so the numbers in these calculations give too much weight to less-suffering-intensive cattle. (+)
· Marginal African farm production is not always going to be factory farming and may involve less intensive conditions than farming in the US. (-) (However, much of the new production is factory farms,6 and traditional farming may not be any more humane.)
· There may be supply side elasticities on a regional level. (-)
· Suffering per kg could be different for goats and sheep than it is for pigs. (?)
· Production ratios may differ from consumption ratios of different types of meat in the target countries. (?) (Not the case for the 4th calculation.)
· Consumption ratios of different types of meat for poor Africans may differ from that of Africans in general. (?)
· The income effect on meat consumption for poor Africans in the target countries may differ from that of Africans in general. (?)
Due to these considerations, I would say that the numbers here should be taken with a grain of salt, probably allowing for a factor of +/- 10 for reasonable but not great confidence.
Considerations entirely outside the model: impact of development on wild animal suffering, climate change, technological progress, global economic development, etc.
Another thing to underline: this is the effect of economic development on meat consumption. It is not the effect of economic aid on meat consumption. Depending on how much you think AMF/SCI/DWI contribute to changes in income per capita, you will have to evaluate them differently. Even GiveDirectly’s effects aren’t straightforward to calculate per donor because GDP here is being measured in terms of purchasing power parity, not a nominal currency conversion.
I’ve left the actual numbers for the end because I didn’t want anyone to take them and run with them without first having to read all the disclaimers about uncertainty and assumptions. So here is my quick summary: depending on how we are measuring meat consumption in aid target countries, and including my +/-10 guesstimate for certainty as well as taking the highest and lowest values of the 4 different calculations I performed, an increase in $1000 to a person’s income will generate:
Between 0.04 and 13 days of large animal suffering (per person per year at $1000 additional income); median about 1
Between 0.16 and 41 days of pig, goat, and sheep suffering; median about 2
Between 0.65 and 138 days of chicken and rabbit suffering; median about 10
Clearly if the answer is at the low end of the range then economic development is unequivocally good in direct well-being respects. If the answer is near the high end then it could be difficult to claim that the welfare benefits of economic development are more important than the animal suffering, depending on how much you care about animals.
Now as Carl Shulman points out in the comments, if this possibility is troubling to you, then you should reconsider why you aren't prioritizing animal-advocacy charities over poverty charities in the first place.
Finally, here are the Excel sheets so that you can view them:
And here they are in editable form:
1. http://smas.chemeng.ntua.gr/miram/files/publ_141_10_2_2005.pdf York and Gossard study on incomes and meat consumption
2. http://faostat3.fao.org/download/Q/QL/E FAOSTAT data on production
3. http://faostat3.fao.org/download/FB/FBS/E FAOSTAT data on consumption
4. http://reducing-suffering.org/how-much-direct-suffering-is-caused-by-various-animal-foods/ Brian Tomasik’s numbers on farm animal suffering
5. http://www.slideshare.net/guycollender/trends-in-livestock-production-and-consumption-cees-de-haan-world-bank World Bank slideshow, shows that most new meat consumption is poultry and pork (slide 4)
6. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1826 Factory farming is the fastest growing type of food production, especially in the developing world.
I think this whole line of analysis is usually misguided, for reasons I wrote about under a post about effects of poverty alleviation on existential risk (and recently again in a thread about overpopulation) and will now quote:
If we are considering this as a reason to spend money on other causes than poverty alleviation, then yes I agree. But this is probably more relevant for other kinds of decisions where the tradeoff between supporting different causes is less clear. Secondly, apparently some people do change their causes based on this issue, so even if they're not being rational at least it can help them sort out their priorities better.
Finally, if people want an across the board positive moral portfolio, those people who donate primarily to poverty alleviation may want to know how much to support animal advocacy in order to offset the animal harm, so quantifying it will help them figure it out better.
Strongly agree with this Carl, great point.
I wonder if a way to steel man this type of analysis is to interpret it as an argument that you're focusing on the wrong metric?
Yep, I think the best way is to see it as a different social welfare function people are optimising for. Even if they focus only on the bits that don't cross over on a Venn diagram..
But its clear still seems that this social welfare function implicitly values the lives of low meat consuming beneficiaries of effective aid less than the original model.
Honestly, Carl, this is one of the best pieces of feedback I've read on the EA Forum, and I thought that from last time I read the original comment. May I suggest you turn some version of this argument into it's own top-level article on the Forum?
I wonder what the bundle is here that brings you out ahead on everything - $1,000 to AMF and $20 to Animal Equity?
This is a really important consideration, and thank you for writing about it. Economic growth (both for developing and developed countries) is not as straightforwardly good as some people make it out to be. Generally I expect that making people wealthier will be good in the long term, but I'm pretty uncertain about this, and I'm concerned that GiveWell top charities are not as straightforwardly good as people make them out to be (I discussed this in my post yesterday).
I'm somewhat bothered by the downvotes here, and by how a lot of EAs seem hostile toward "weird" ideas. Given that a lot of really important subjects sound "weird" (wild-animal suffering, AI risk, etc.), it's really important that we're able to talk about weird subjects.
Thanks, your post was actually the thing that reminded me about this topic and inspired me to try to go out and make some progress on the issue.
I don't think these numbers are likely to make aid bad because I think that aid improves welfare more-than-proportionally to its impact on the economy. In other words I suspect (uninformed opinion here) that the impact of aid on well being is significant while its impact on economic growth is smaller, in comparison to the normal correlation between wealth and happiness that we see when economies develop for normal reasons. So the human welfare/animal welfare tradeoff for charities could easily be good even if the human welfare/animal welfare tradeoff for economic development in general is bad.
I think at least I've given a low enough upper bound on the issue that we can have an easier time determining that certain other far-reaching concerns can outweigh it, and that's an important step.
The only thing that really worries me about the discussion taking place is that no one's pointed out any problems or adjustments to my calculations, and I wrote this between midnight and 4am, so I have a high prior for having messed something up or done something contentious, and I'd hope that people would do more to point out issues with the methodology rather than taking the results at face value.
I haven't looked over your calculations that carefully but I don't see any obvious problems.
This piece gives a little more information (just a little, not the book's worth that some commenters are demanding) to those who value both humans and non-human animals, and who must decide how to allocate charitable contributions among causes.
I must say that I'm greatly disappointed by the reaction this post has received. Encouraging rationality is more important to the EA movement than avoiding a small blemish on its PR record. The analysis and information you've provided, while incomplete, seems logical and is useful to me.
Also, I don't think changing the title of your post is warranted. Most EAs who care about human and non-human animals are donating to humans in "poor" countries and/or donating to promote animal welfare. Therefore, meat eater behavior in "poor" countries is an important "problem" for these EAs.
Thank you for this - I found it to be very useful. While I recognise the PR issue, I think it's also very important to explore all areas when it comes to cause-prioritization.
I agree with Bernadetter Young that these kinds of discussions have the potential to harm the movement in terms of public relations, but I'm also principally committed to free speech as it is important for our assumptions to be challenged. I think renaming this topic is a good start on the PR front. I think it is important to realise that in the longer term increases in development will most likely lead to improvements in animal rights as the rich have more time to think about these things.
"... and traditional farming may not be any more humane."
Even if my idea of traditional farming is a bit romantic, I still find this hard to believe. And this would be a significant factor.
Upvote. This is a very nice analysis, and something I personally have been missing for a long time.
Regarding the PR-problem: it is worth noting that if the EA-movement has a negative net effect on total well-being - for example because of animal suffering resulting from encouraging human-centred aid - then it might be a good thing for the EA-movement to suffer such a problem. After all, if our movement shrinks in such a scenario, this increases total well-being. For this reason, whether the "PR-problem" is good or bad depends on the results of precisely these kinds of analyses.
True. Of course, some people are confident that helping the global poor is positive overall, so can be straightforwardly concerned about the PR problem.
I think we can all agree that the days of suffering for all animals should be reduced to zero.
I have been using my creativity to find ways to reduce the cost of producing synthetic meat.
Naturally a lot of people don't want to eat synthetic food, but this would be identical to real meat as far as containing the same compounds.
Since it would be produced without any animals, it would eliminate significant amounts of suffering.
Hi kbog, I appreciate you've done a lot of work here, but I've downvoted because I have a strong ethical and practical objection to this issue being discussed as 'the poor meat eater problem'. These objections have been hashed out every time this topic comes up. It makes me very sad that the meme persists, and I think it's terrible for it to be associated with EA discussion.
I think the so-called 'poor meat eater problem' is based on 2 fallacies, at least one of which appears somewhat prejudiced: 1.: the decision to focus on only one long term consequence of advancing development 2: the failure to apply the same reasoning to developed countries
Clearly the vast bulk of meat is eaten by rich people. If you want to discuss the implications for animal suffering of economic development, then why limit the discussion to poor countries? Why limit the consideration to 'what might be the effects of increasing aid to developing countries'. If one was to take this line of reasoning as am important one (ie we should limiting animal suffering by limiting human economic development, since the latter is associated with more animal product consumption), then I would question why you don't also recommend the following:
I hope you think those would all be terrible things to do, and I think the suggestion that we should limit our help of the global poor because they may as a result consume more animal products is likewise awful.
(edited for clarity, typos and niceness)
Ok, I didn't put any thought into the title, if that's a potential issue then I have no problem changing it.
I don't assume that this is the only thing to worry about, and I didn't want to leave this impression which is why I tried to be as clear as I could with my post about how many other consequences I left out of consideration, and didn't draw any conclusions nor even speculate about aid being net good or bad.
Yes I didn't write about that but I just consider it to be a separate discussion. I've thought about looking at developed countries in the same way, but right now I felt like this was a more relevant topic to EAs.
I guess you take this as a reductio ad absurdum against the idea of reducing animal suffering in the developing world, but I don't see that as the case. It seems perfectly morally plausible to me, in theory, that we could be justified in limiting the growth of a society founded on animal exploitation, so while I haven't done any analysis of it, I can't say the idea is so ridiculous as to justify shutting down discussion. Again, I'm not saying that I support these things, I'm saying that the possibility that in a different universe I might be committed to supporting them doesn't seriously disturb me. Now I would expect economic harm to the developed world to have negligible effects on meat consumption - meat consumption levels off above a relatively high income, so preventing future economic development of wealthy countries doesn't accomplish anything in that regard. I also see social stability as having positive x-risks and economic growth as reducing wild animal suffering so that's why I'm against the things you mentioned.
Besides, what do you make of fossil fuel advocates who think it's morally wrong to restrict fossil fuels used by the developing world? Maybe they have a point, but they're not obviously right.
I think the phrasing of the 'problem' is bad, but the title really isn't the only issue.
"Considerations entirely outside the model: impact of development on wild animal suffering, climate change, technological progress, global economic development, etc."
I'm afraid this really doesn't read to me as being clear about how narrowly a focus this argument takes. I have literally seen people say "Now I've heard about the poor meat eater problem I've stopped donating to SCI", so simply saying you don't draw any conclusion is not, I think, sufficient justification for advancing such a one sided argument. Those things you wave away in the sentence above will in all likelihood completely dwarf the numbers below.
I do think that considering meat eating in the developed world to be "a separate problem" that is not a "relevant topic" is discriminatory. It's an 'us and them' divide, which is purely conceptual.
I don't think my objections are a reductio ad absurdum, I just think they are harmful actions that are not justified by the reduction in animal suffering they might indirectly lead to. I do find it odd that you see social stability as having positive x-risk only in developed countries though.
If people make bad decisions then that's unfortunate, but all other things being equal more information leads to better decisions and EA is the last movement which needs to have its strings pulled. I would expect that giving more information about different aspects of issues is always good and I would be happy to see people weigh in on those issues. I don't have the time to write about everything. Personally I had no idea that anyone in the movement had even mentioned this at all within the past few years and I had never seen someone object to it, so I didn't expect there to be this problem.
I didn't say anything yet about the impact on x risk of developing countries. Again, that's outside the bounds of what I'm looking at.
If you'd like to have a broad discussion of cause prioritization then I'd be happy to, but it would have to start with me laying down a full set of ideas, as opposed to having my priorities be extrapolated from a very narrow analysis.
"If people make bad decisions then that's unfortunate, but all other things being equal more information leads to better decisions and EA is the last movement which needs to have its strings pulled. "
To be clear: I am not advocating censorship. I'm advocating putting information in a context that makes its scope and importance apparent. It would be naive to ignore that some ideas have mimetic pull, particularly if you're being counter-intuitive by advancing an argument that aid is bad.
"I don't have the time to write about everything."
No of course not, but of all the problems in all the gin joints in all the world, you picked this one. That is a form of cause prioritisation, and I think it's reasonable to draw some inference from that action.
I put my argument in a good enough context for someone who was interested in reading and understanding my point of view to fully understand my scope and assumptions. I trust people on this forum to be rational enough about the issue, and I believe I clearly did make the scope and importance of this issue apparent by explicitly stating the many limits of my analysis and drawing zero conclusions or speculation about whether "aid is bad", so I suppose we're at an impasse about that.
It's possible that the issue of meat consumption in the developing world has overly strong "memetic pull", but I don't see why I should be more worried about that than the "memetic pull" of pro-aid arguments (which, for the longest time, EAs have been deliberately trying to make more emotionally appealing) as well as the memetic pull of x-risk arguments (which have earned accusations of being cultish and ridiculous because of their memetic appearance) and so on and so forth.
Yes, because in many months/over a year of watching this forum, the EA subreddit, many EA blogs/organizations/websites, and multiple EA facebook groups, I have never once seen someone bring it up. So as far as I could tell, it's been comparatively under-recognized. Whatever flame wars broke out about this in 2012 and 2013, I haven't seen them, and I suspect that many others on this forum haven't either.
I searched the EA Facebook group, it looks like it has come up a total of three times:
The first two threads have a decent amount of discussion.
There's also a Facebook group, although it's inactive:
If you use the search function in the main facebook group it's quite straightforward to find plenty of discussion.
I think your general argument:
is a good one.
But I think you could present it better. At the moment some of your examples are very partisan - in a US context you have two very anti-right-wing examples, and no anti-left-wing examples. Thinking about Politics is the Mindkiller, this is likely to make it hard for right-wing readers to appreciate your point. Their instinctive reaction to your post will be hostility and defensiveness:
Now, these responses would miss the point of your argument. Your argument doesn't depend on which policies would make people in the first world poorer. Ideally, your right-wing reader would instead substitute
for your suggested examples and then come to agree with your substantive point. But I think in practice this is unlikely - it takes substantial effort to overcome the instinctive negative response
But you can avoid this reaction, and make it easier for people from diverse political backgrounds to agree with you, by either including political examples from a variety of perspectives - say, swap out one of the anti-right-wing examples for an anti-left-wing one - or better yet by simply not using any directly political examples at all. Your first and last examples do this well - sufficiently concrete that people can understand what they mean, but sufficiently abstract that readers can think of examples consistent with their other views.
I also support renaming this the 'rich meat eater problem', or something like that. It's absurd to have to focus be on the very poor in this regard when the problem is on what happens when people are no longer poor.
It is also bizarre to focus on only this one long-term effect when there are so many others that seem as significant, or more so. To start with, a richer world means more researchers working on better meat-replacements, and a bigger market for any business that succeeds in developing such a novel product.
Impacts on developed society's economic progress are a long way removed from economic development in the developing world, and impacts on developed society's research progress from economic growth constitute another leap entirely. I can come up with countervailing scenarios too - "the expansion of high intensity, high efficiency African agriculture will lead to net exports that will outprice meat replacements." And so on and so forth.
It's totally disingenuous to shut down a discussion by claiming that the issue in question is less significant than something else. If you wanted to apply that strategy then you could find plenty of other discussion topics to be equally 'bizarre.' I'm not sure what to make of that accusation except to hope that you simply misinterpreted my original post where I said that I wasn't evaluating other possibly greater issues.
I'm not trying to shut down the discussion, I just think the concern about 'more meat eating' should be put in the context of a more comprehensive list of positive and negative flow-through effects of economic growth, in which it wouldn't particularly stand out.
The causal connection between making people wealthier and them eating more meat is pretty strong. It's much less clear that donating to GiveDirectly will lead to better meat-replacements (or pretty much any other technological benefit).
You say its strong but doesn't development also reduce fertility? I hate to bring another argument that is positioned in a hypocritical farm owner mentality to wonderful and often downtrodden people,, but within your frame, how do you know that this doesn't just bring forward a bit of raised meat consumption while reducing the eventual human numbers after 20 years on a permanent basis, reducing total animal suffering?
Development reduces fertility, but developed countries still eat way more animals than developing countries do. According to Wikipedia, rich countries eat about ten times as much meat per person as poor countries, which overwhelms differences in population size. Also consider that rich countries use factory farming more than poor countries do, so the animals they eat suffer a lot more.
Most EAs who care about human and non-human animals are donating to humans in "poor" countries and/or donating to promote animal welfare. Therefore, meat eater behavior in "poor" countries is an important "problem" for these EAs.
The problems are a) it looks bad to have a bunch of rich people blaming the 'poor' for a problem created by the wealth they already have and others don't; b) the problem isn't about 'poor meat eaters', it's about 'no-longer-poor meat eaters' so in that sense it's a misnomer .
We shouldn’t really care if it looks bad. We should only care about what course of action leads to the most good. If it looks SO bad that the efficiency gains from rationality are outweighed by people repelled from the EA movement, then we’ve got a problem. Personally, I don’t think this is likely.
Disagree. The problem will still be about “poor meat eaters” because the unfortunate likelihood is that they will remain poor for some time.
For example, AMF operates in Malawi and DRC.
Malawi’s nominal GDP per capita is only 6% of the median country's measured by the IMF. DRC’s is only 8%.
To increase each country’s nominal GDP per capita to the median country for just one year, Malawi would need a cash donation of $88B and DRC would need $428B. It’s safe to say these countries will remain extremely poor for the near future.
Sources: GiveWell, Wikipedia - IMF, Wikipedia - Malawi, Wikipedia - DRC
"We shouldn’t really care if it looks bad."
I give up.
No need to give up. I think it's beneficial to calculate the costs of "looking bad" and have it as a factor that we make in our analysis of the situation. Only by weighing "Bad PR" as a cost can we make a thorough analysis of the situation.