Animal-Welfare Economic Research Questions

by Monica 22nd Dec 20185 comments


I hear a lot about how the animal welfare movement could use more economic analysis. I was wondering if anyone has specific ideas about what research questions are important. Is there already an ongoing list anywhere? Here are some initial thoughts on what might be useful:

What does the development literature suggest about strategies to improve the economies of rural areas without relying on agriculture? I'm guessing there are a ton of super capable non-animal-activists working on this, so I am not sure this is the best use of most animal-focused people's time, but it is so important for the movement that I will keep it in the list.

What are the cost of production implications of welfare enhancing laws? This seems like it would only be helpful to have if the estimate was low.

What are the cost of production and willingness to pay comparisons of farmed vs. wild-caught fish?

What are the impacts of various interventions to change individual's diets? How much does each intervention cost?

What are the cost-effectiveness of various higher-level (legislative/corporate/organizational/large-scale ad campaign) interventions?

How many animals get saved with various bycatch-prevention laws? Is advocating for policies like minimum net-hole size cost-effective? Various forms of these policies are already in place for lots of U.S. fisheries, but they vary.

What is the effect of the use of the “USDA Organic” label on the number of animals produced. In particular, organic crops use manure as fertilizer whereas non-organic crops tend to use synthetic fertilizer. Does that have any effect on the supply of animals?

Similarly, organic farming takes up much more land. How does that affect the number of animals killed by combines? Should we actively take a position against organic food as a movement? What other animal welfare implications does organic food labeling have? To be clear, I mean these as true questions--I don’t have a strong opinion.

What does the market for small fish used in fish-oil look like? What are differences in consumer perceptions and willingness to pay between fish oil and plant-based (e.g. flax/hemp) omega 3 sources? Are there areas that most consumers see an advantage in plant-based oils that the market can exploit? Is this a cost-effective path to spend time on?

What are likely projections of the cost of production of cellular ag? GFI has a very good report about media costs, and I don't think people outside gfi/cellular ag industry/similar organizations are particularly well-positioned to contribute here, but I'd be interested to hear if anyone disagrees.

What are the determinants of what is in the farm bill and who votes in favor of it? This has been studied some and my understanding is that votes in favor and against are determined pretty mechanically by number of farmers and snap recipients in the district. Maybe this can be used to identify swing farm bill districts and target relevant ad campaigns there?

What are the supply effects of various farm policies? This seems only useful if farm subsidy policy is a tractable thing to change, which it probably isn't. There is a literature on this but it is small and has some problems.

What are the price and income elasticities and cross-price elasticities of animal products? This is well studied and readily available, but I am not sure whether the implications are accessible to activists.

What are the cross-price elasticities between animal products and their plant based analogs? What are the own-price and income elasticities of analogs?

What kinds of people buy plant-based analogs? What are their demographics? What other foods do they buy? Does it depend on the season ? How much does a store carrying a new product increase consumption of plant-based alternatives for different types of consumers?

Does it change with age for individuals? I know faunalytics does a lot of this kind of research, but it seems to me more might be warranted for targeted messaging?

How does product placement of analogs affect purchases? It seems like people have this mostly figured out, but even marginal improvements are important.

How does product presentation affect acceptance? Eg the shape of the container. Again, I'm sure companies have already studied this, but more insights might be out there.

What are the income profiles of animal farmers? What are their off farm jobs and what percentage of their income comes from there? These are publicly available in an aggregated form but again the implications may not be readily accessible to activists.

What are consumer attitudes and willingness to pay on clean and plant based analogs under different circumstances? Jayson Lusk does a lot of work on this type as do some others, but the literature is a bit thin.

How does prop 12 and similar legislation affect number of animals? How does it affect number in cages/crates/etc.?

How do trade wars and other random non-ag policies affect the number of animals slaughtered? This does not strike me as particularly actionable, but I’d be interested in others’ opinion on that.

How are the clean and plant-based meat Industries likely to grow over the coming years?

How would different analogs affect different animal product markets in terms of number of animals slaughtered? What about import vs. exports and regional differences? This might be helpful to know for political reasons. For example, if an analog will affect mostly imports or mostly farms in a non-swing state/district, then maybe that’s less threatening to regulators that might be swayed by influential reps.

There a many situations like rbst (the hormone for cows that increases milk production), which make life worse for the cows that have it, but also result in fewer cows born (because it increases milk production). What do these trade-offs look like? For example, considering the additional effects of a lower production price per unit, how does rbst (and other analogous hormones for other animals) change the number of animals slaughtered? Answers to this question of course leave us with substantial philosophical and strategic challenges.

Conversely, there are other technologies that might be both profit-increasing (and therefore # of animals-increasing) and welfare increasing. I am thinking of interventions like Temple Grandin's slaughter houses, or more recently robotic milking technologies that increase cow mobility and reduce mastitis, among others. How much might these technologies change profit profiles and supply trends?

What animal product markets have weaknesses (e.g. declining demand, increasing input price, food safety issues that might get worse, uncertain trade partners etc)that might be particularly vulnerable to substitution?

Are there any ways that the fsa methodology systematically overestimates payments to farmers? I suspect that if the answer is yes then it is still not actionable.

I'm sure there are others to add and some of these are not super actionable. Others might be good to know but not the best use of economists’ time. Thoughts?

On another note, I am interested in Lewis Bollard's open philanthropy newsletter which seems to have some ideas about this sort of stuff but I can't find back issues. Does anyone have a link to where I might find those?