[Thanks to Pablo S. for suggesting that I cross-post this here.]

A year ago, Scott Alexander argued that it’s better to eat beef than chicken, on the (interesting but questionably relevant) grounds that it’s vastly cheaper to offset the climate costs of beef than the animal welfare costs of chicken:

Eating beef causes more climate change than eating chicken, but eating chicken causes more animal suffering than eating beef. Offsetting the climate change effects of beef would only cost $22 per year, which seems really good. Offsetting the animal suffering effects of chicken might only cost $360 per year, but this is a very tentative estimate and maybe shouldn't be taken seriously. Also, these only work if you're actually doing the offsetting. If not, you should probably default to eating beef over chicken, but I can't prove it.

So I was excited to hear Kevin Kuruc’s talk on ‘Monetizing the Externalities of Animal Agriculture’ (you can find the full paper on his website), extending standard economic models of the “social cost of carbon” to additionally estimate the “social cost” of factory-farmed animal suffering. The headline result:

We find that the welfare costs of global animal agriculture are very large in the case that animals do not have net-pleasurable existences: the monetized costs of producing the meat consumed for the Standard American Diet (SAD) for one person is on the order of $100,000 per year under our baseline parameters. In other words, eliminating the production of meat required for one individual’s diet for one year confers social welfare benefits equal to the benefits of increasing annual global output by more than $100,000.

While this particular number is highly sensitive to the baseline parameters of the model, the broader conclusion that animal welfare costs completely swamp the climate costs of eating meat turns out to be almost unavoidable once you grant that factory-farmed animal lives are net-negative.

Note that, while the animal welfare costs of the Standard American Diet are on the order of $100,000 per year, the climate costs are a mere $47. Combining these with Scott Alexander’s estimates of offsetting efficacy yields some interesting results. Suppose for simplicity that the SAD involves equal parts beef and chicken. (This is presumably incorrect, so take the following numbers with a large grain of salt.) $47 worth of climate costs could then be prevented with a mere $11 to effective climate charities. (Good value!) Whereas >$100,000 worth of animal suffering costs could be prevented with ~$180 donated to effective animal suffering charities. (Insanely good value!)

I should re-emphasize that these numbers are unreliable. But they indicate at least some back-of-the-envelope reason to expect effective animal charities to do (vastly!) more good per $ than climate charities. And even when replacing all chicken with beef, the welfare costs still dwarf the climate costs by many orders of magnitude. So for reasons of both efficacy and reparative justice, it seems that meat eaters should eat (only) beef and then prioritize further offsetting the animal welfare costs of being non-vegetarian, rather than merely offsetting the (comparatively trivial) climate costs.

So that’s an interesting result. One thing I’d be curious to hear more about is how the ~$100,000 in negative externalities compares to the (i) intrinsic value, and (ii) positive externalities of a Standard American year of life. IIRC, the value of a statistical life-year in the US is itself on the order of $100,000. So the harm of a Standard American Diet roughly balances out the intrinsic value of a standard American life (on standard economic approaches). If you’re neither vegetarian nor offsetting, here’s hoping that you produce enough positive externalities to get your life (overall) back into the green!

Please add a comment if you know of any good work on the average value of (ii).  Or of how to adjust for effects on wild animals of reducing agricultural footprints. But in any case, I highly recommend Kevin's paper to anyone interested in this topic!

78

New Comment
12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:25 AM

While this particular number is highly sensitive to the baseline parameters of the model, the broader conclusion that animal welfare costs completely swamp the climate costs of eating meat turns out to be almost unavoidable once you grant that factory-farmed animal lives are net-negative.

This sort of question depends enormously on the parameters, and I'm not convinced that it gets you all the way to "completely swamp"? The paper seems to be https://nbviewer.org/github/kevinkuruc/Papers_for_Download/blob/main/SCWDraft.pdf and while it's not easy to read I think it is valuing suffering equally whether experienced by humans or animals? If you instead think animals matter much less than humans (ex), which is a common view, that would bring the cost down well below $100k.

Yes, that's true, but you'd need to count animal interests for (something like) less than 0.001 (which seems a pretty extreme discount of genuine suffering!) before they were in the ballpark of the climate costs.

You can get your factor-of-1,000 from a combination of:

  • Valuing instrumental effects more than short term suffering (perhaps because of taking a longtermist lens in which case this could get you more than a factor-of-1,000 by itself; but one doesn't need to adopt longtermism to think some more moderate factor-of-adjustment is correct here);
  • Upweighting the climate costs to count economic impacts on the poorest more than economic impacts on richer people (probably correct and important, but I'm not sure if this is like a factor-of-2 adjustment or a factor-of-20 adjustment);
  • Upweighting climate costs to account for tail risks in addition to central projections of economic cost (if 90% of your worry about climate change is about tail risks this should be a factor-of-10 adjustment; different people will have different takes on that);
  • The direct moral importance of suffering of different beings (reasonable views vary a lot, but Jeff's linked post seems like a careful thinker trying to have a reasonable take and arriving at figures in the vicinity of factor-of-1,000 just from this factor)

I don't think it's that hard for combinations of these factors to push you over to "climate effects matter more".

Question from a friend who isn't super familiar with EA's monetization-focused approach to welfare economics:

How are costs for Animal Welfare calculated? A happy animal doesn't generate any money.

Anyone feel able to explain this from scratch concisely?

It's asking "how much richer would the whole world have to be to make people happier (because richer) by the same amount?". World GDP is ~$10k/person, so I think $100k means "about as big a welfare boost as giving 100 people a 10% increase in income".

(This is a legit way of measuring things, but I think arguably it gives the wrong impression compared to the climate numbers, which I think are more directly economic costs, which fall disproportionately on the poor, rather than equivalences. There's also a decent case that the main reason to care about climate change should be tail risks, which I think aren't assessed here but could change the conclusion that animal welfare effects are robustly a bigger deal than climate change.)

iirc, a couple of the key parameters are:

(1) Determining the "neutral" consumption level, i.e. the level of consumption that (on average) makes a human life on the borderline of worth living.  In the base model, this is assumed to be the absolute extreme poverty level of $1.90 per day.

(2) Determining what level of consumption would yield experiences on a par with those of an average factory-farmed animal.  In the base model, this is assumed to be below the neutral level (so: a negative existence), specifically $1 per day.  Basically a made-up number, but -- interestingly -- varying this doesn't make a huge difference to the verdict that beef > chicken so long as you pick a value below the neutral level of consumption.

Very nice! I'm curious whether this type of analysis could shed some light on the meat-eater problem

Thank you for writing this! It's interesting and encouraging to learn that welfare economists are starting to take animals into account, and even calculate the impact on monetary terms!

eliminating the production of meat required for one individual’s diet for one year confers social welfare benefits equal to the benefits of increasing annual global output by more than $100,000.

...

If you’re neither vegetarian nor offsetting, here’s hoping that you produce enough positive externalities to get your life (overall) back into the green!

This sounds like a really high bar, but it's much less than it appeared to me at first read. It's not $100k to the world's poorest or $100k to the marginal EA charity, but something closer to money to everyone equally, right? Back of the envelope, world GDP per capita is $10k/y and GiveDirectly recipients are living on ~$300/y. Figuring that additional money is valuable in inverse proportion to what you already have, GiveDirectly receiving money is ~33x as valuable as increasing GDP. GiveWell thinks they can find giving opportunities at 5x to 8x GiveDirectly, like AMF, bringing marginal global poverty spending to ~166x. That brings the initial $100k down to ~$600. I think almost all EAs are doing something at least as beneficial as donating $600/y to AMF!

(If the $100k is actually money in proportion to what people already have, then it's even more dramatic)

(If the $100k is actually money in proportion to what people already have, then it's even more dramatic)

I think it is in proportion to what people already have, but this doesn't make it much more dramatic because you've done the calculation for money to an average person, whereas if it were actually split equally among people the benefits would be dominated by the share of money going to the world's poorest.

Yes, I would certainly expect EAs to be net-positive for the world!  

Note that this is a link post, and the original post was not directed specifically at EAs.  I do also genuinely hope that others generate enough positive externalities to put them in the green (and would be interested to learn more about any empirical assessments of that question).

See also this study (of mine): Bruers, S. (2022). The animal welfare cost of meat: evidence from a survey of hypothetical scenarios among Belgian consumers. Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy, 1-18.

And here: https://stijnbruers.wordpress.com/2022/11/29/the-deathprint-of-replacing-beef-by-chicken-and-insect-meat/