(this is mostly old content - I'm just combining this and this into a single post with slight updates)
This spreadsheet estimates the consequences of animal product consumption. I start by discounting 1kg purchased of each animal product by the cumulative elasticity factor. But when other people stop buying an expensive animal product, they may start buying a different one. Therefore, I make rather arbitrary guesses for these effects - how much more chicken will people buy when they give up beef, etc. So for each additional 1kg of beef you buy, I estimate that the additional production will be 0.68kg of beef, 0.05kg of chicken, 0.01kg of salmon and so on.
I use data on lifespan and meat yields, assumptions for intrinsic moral weight relative to humans informed by intuition and neuron counts (pigs = 0.17, cows = 0.15, turkey = 0.07, chicken = 0.06, fish = 0.03), and assumptions for quality of life (combined ratings from Charity Entrepreneurship and from Compassion by the Pound) to then estimate the net welfare lost per kg purchased. The figures are in human-equivalent welfare-days on a -100 to +100 scale, where -100 means none of your needs are met (note, still much better than torture). So when the spreadsheet says 1kg of chicken causes -37.7 welfare (cell AI3), that means that buying 1kg of chicken causes an equivalent amount of animal suffering to the feeling of being fully hungry, miserable, in pain, etc for about 6.5 hours out of a 17 hour waking day, instead of feeling completely neutral during that time.
Then I use data on CO2e emissions per kg of food produced. Note that this doesn't account for the counterfactual emissions from eating plants - but these are generally much lower than the emissions from animal products. Using both short-run and long-run estimates of the costs of climate change and other environmental costs upon humans, I get a measurement of the human cost of each kg of CO2e.
With some typical calorie/kg numbers, I get combined figures for the welfare costs of 750 calories which is approximately one meal.
I then use estimates of effective charity impacts to see how much money it would cost to Pareto offset these impacts (i.e.: donate to climate change charities to offset the CO2e, donate to animal charities to offset the animal suffering).
Finally, I look at the amount of additional farm animal suffering that is predicted when people gain income in a set of African countries supported by GiveWell aid programs - the "meat eater problem."
Note: this model ignores wild animal suffering, leaving it all to be considered unclear. The calculations for wild fish are just about the possible indirect effects on farm animal products.
- Farmed fish is the worst product, poultry/eggs/pork/beef/wild fish are similar in the middle, and cheese/milk are the most benign
- For someone with access to adequate vegan food, all typical animal products have enough costs to outweigh the direct pleasure and convenience of consumption, with the possible exception of small amounts of dairy
- Using decently conservative assumptions for charity impacts, the ethical costs of a high-meat diet can be offset with approximately a nickel a day donated to relevant effective charities (or less, if you select a more effective cause area instead of a climate & animals bundled donation)
- Increasing annual income for a poor person by $1,000/year has a farm animal welfare cost equivalent to adding several weeks of misery. To me, given the direct noneconomic benefits of efforts such as malaria prevention and deworming, such efforts seem robustly good enough to outweigh the animal costs in the short run. Things like industrialization and GiveDirectly seem to have unclear short run welfare impact, depending on the characteristics of the recipient populations
Thanks for posting this, kbog! I would be interested in your recommendation for someone donating to the EA funds. The Long Term Future and Global Development funds focus on humans and thus potentially runs into the meat eater problem. For every dollar donated to the above funds, what would be an appropriate amount to donate to the Animal Welfare Fund that is enough to offset this issue? Thanks!
In the long run it seems like the meat eater problem will drop off quite a bit. First because of improving welfare standards, second because of pressures to switch to more efficient plant-based calories, and third because people stop eating more meat or even eat less meat beyond a certain income. So making the US wealthier for instance is most likely good for farm animals in the long run.
For global development in the short run, we can see that $1000 in Africa cuts animal welfare by -800 (best estimate) to -4000 (high estimate) points. And I conservatively estimated that $1 to an ACE charity improves animal welfare by 10,000 points. So $1,100 donated to GiveDirectly (=~$1,000 received) should require between $0.08 and $0.40 if you want to offset to an effective animal charity. But it's rather arbitrary depending on just how conservative you want to be. I sort of assumed that the real effectiveness of ACE charities is 5x lower than their estimate.
Note that I don't think that offsetting as a practice actually makes sense, it doesn't make sense under utilitarianism, it's more of a methodological tool to put the impacts of different things in perspective with one another.
Thanks for your response, kbog!
Animal welfare issues are plausibly getting worse and not better so I’d be less confident to assume it will not be an issue in the future. As the world develops and eats more meat, Compassion in World Farming estimates that annual factory farm land animals killed could increase by 50% over the next 30 years. Assuming people’s expanding moral circle will reverse this trend is dangerous when the animal welfare movement has progressed little over the past few decades (number of vegetarians in US have been flat; there are some animal welfare legislative victories but also setbacks like ag-gag rules). Innovations like clean meat could help but it is still early, and there are also ways technology can make things even worse. Assuming animal welfare issues remain as they currently are (neither deteriorating nor improving) seems to me a plausible and more responsible projection.
If so, for the Long Term Future EA Fund, let's assume the Animal Welfare EA Fund “offset ratio” (to account for the meat eater problem) is the same for future generations as it is for the current generation. Based on your blog’s estimate of a nickel a day, it costs a person ~$1000 to offset a lifetime of meat consumption ($0.05/day x 365 days/year x 50 years). It seems your estimate is for people living in rich countries though, so maybe 30% of that or ~$300 is more applicable to the average human. This can be compared to the Long Term Future Fund’s expected cost effectiveness of saving a human life (for just the current generation). I’ve seen one estimate that assumes a reduction in x-risk of 1% for $70 billion dollars spent (again for the current generation only). This leads to ~$1000 per human life saved ($70 billion / 7 billion humans / 1%). If so, the meat eater problem offset ratio for the Long Term Future Fund is very roughly ~30% (~$300 offset per life saved / ~$1000 to save a life).
Let’s apply a similar logic to the Global Health EA Fund. Instead of ~$1000 to offset a lifetime of meat consumption, let’s assume 10% of that for someone living in extreme poverty, or ~$100. GiveWell estimates that AMF can save a life for ~$3000, leading to an offset ratio of ~3% (~$100 offset per life saved / ~$3000 to save a life). This is two orders of magnitude larger than your comment response (of 0.008% ~ 0.04% from $0.08 ~ $0.4 / $1000). One reason might be because you’re only accounting for one year of the meat eater problem when I’ve accounted for a lifetime’s worth of impact (which I believe is the more complete counterfactual comparison). However, I’ve not had a chance to dive into your spreadsheet so I could be mis-using your results. Any corrections or reactions are much appreciated!
Finally, I’m curious as to why you think offsetting makes little sense under utilitarianism. I’m thinking it would actually be required if one were uncertain about the conversion ratio between human and animal welfare. If we were certain about the conversion, we should just do the one intervention that’s most cost effective, in whatever domain it happens to be in (human or animal). But if we were uncertain about the conversion, we will need to ensure that one domain’s actions doesn’t inadvertently produce overall negative utility when the other domain's consequences are summed together. In the case of saving a human life, we wouldn’t want to lower overall utility because of our underestimation of the meat eater problem. On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to just focus on animal welfare if it turns out human welfare is especially significant. Offsetting cross-domain spillover effects avoids this dilemma (I teach finance, where analogies include hedging different FX risks or asset-liability matching). For the meat eater problem, it ensures saving a human life does not lead to negative utility even if we find out that animal welfare is unexpectedly important. The offset trades one animal life for another animal life, ensuring neutral utility impact within the animal domain.
Sorry for the long reply but I’ve been worrying about the meat eater problem so found your post to be especially interesting and informative. Any response you might have would be very appreciated!
Sorry I have little time and I'm just going to respond to the logic of offsetting right now. In utilitarianism ordinarily we maximize expected utility, so there's no need to hedge. If two actions have the same expected utility but one has a higher % chance of having a negative outcome, they're still equally good. Companies and investors need to protect certain interests so $2 million is less than twice as good as $1 million, but in utility terms 2 million utils is exactly twice as good as 1 million utils.
Of course you could deny expected utility maximization and be morally loss averse/risk averse, and then this would be a conversation to have. There are good arguments against doing that, however, it's a minority view
I did that because I was only looking at one year of welfare improvement. One year for one year is simpler and more robust than comparing lifetimes. If you want to look at lifetimes, you have to scale up the welfare impacts as well.
Thank you for sharing this. Unfortunately the model shared appears to be a values-only version of the model (i.e. when I go to any cell in the spreadsheet, the formula bar just shows a number, not a formula). This makes it very hard to work out how you came to your conclusions.
I don't know whether it's showing this way because of the way One Drive operates or because you deliberately removed the formulae before uploading the spreadsheet, however I would certainly find it useful if you could find a way to share the full model. Thank you.
Didn't mean to do that, not sure what's causing it or if it's fixable. Try downloading the spreadsheet and let me know if there's still a problem
I too imagined that downloading it and viewing it MS Excel might be better, but as far as I can tell there doesn't seem to be a way of downloading it. Unless I've just not found the way to download?
This is how it displays in my browser when I am logged out, with a download button. In other browsers it is the same
I can email the file to you, just message me your email address.