We are excited to announce the new Humane & Sustainable Food Lab at Stanford University’s School of Medicine (California, USA). Our mission is to end factory farming through cutting-edge scientific research that we are uniquely positioned to conduct. I am the principal investigator of the lab, an Assistant Professor at the Stanford School of Medicine with dual appointments in the Quantitative Sciences Unit and Department of Pediatrics. Because arguments for reducing factory farming as a cause area have been detailed elsewhere, here I focus on describing:
- Our approach
- Our research and publications to date
- Our upcoming research priorities
- Why we are funding-constrained
1. Our approach
1.1. Breadth, then depth
Empirical research on how to reduce factory farming is still nascent, with many low-hanging fruit and unexplored possibilities. As such, it is critical to explore broadly to see what general directions are most promising and in what real-world contexts (e.g., educational interventions that appeal to animal welfare [1, 2, 3], choice-architecture “nudges” that subtly shift food-service environments, etc.). We are conducting studies on a range of individual- and society-level interventions (see below), ultimately aiming to find and refine the most tractable, cost-effective, and scalable interventions. As we home in on candidate interventions, we expect our research to become more deeply focused on a smaller number of interventions.
1.2. Collaborating with food service to conduct and disseminate research in real-world contexts
We have a unique collaboration with the Director and Executive Chefs at the Stanford dining halls, allowing us to conduct controlled trials in real-world settings to assess interventions to reduce consumption of meat and animal products. Some of our interventions have been as simple and scalable as reducing the size of spoons used to serve these foods. Also, Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises is a founding member of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC), a nationwide research consortium of 74 colleges and universities that conduct groundbreaking, collaborative studies on healthy and sustainable food choices in food service. MCURC provides evidence-based recommendations for promoting healthier and more sustainable food choices in food service operations, providing a natural route to dissemination. Our established research model involves conducting initial pilot studies at Stanford's dining halls to assess interventions' real-world feasibility and obtain preliminary effect-size estimates, then conducting large-scale, multisite studies by partnering with collaborating members of MCURC. We also have ongoing collaborations with restaurants and plant-based food startups in which we are studying whether adding modern plant-based analogs (e.g., Impossible Burgers or JUST Egg) to a menu reduces sales of animal-based foods.
1.3. Building a new academic field
The large majority of empirical research on reducing factory farming has been conducted by nonprofits. We appreciate their work very much. In contrast, academics have engaged comparatively little with this cause area (but with notable, commendable exceptions). Academics have a chick’n-and-JUST Egg problem: without a robust academic field for farmed animal welfare, academics remain largely unaware of this cause area and lack the necessary mentorship and career incentives to pursue it; conversely, without individual labs pursuing this research, a robust academic field cannot emerge. Our lab is designed as a prototype, demonstrating that it is feasible – and indeed rather joyful! – for a lab to focus on an EA-aligned, neglected cause area, while also succeeding robustly by the stringent metrics of academia. We are working to build a new academic field by mentoring future researchers as PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff scientists. In 10 years’ time, we want early-career academics to view farmed animal welfare as a credible, thriving, tenure- and degree-worthy field.
1.4. Learning from EA-aligned nonprofits
As a new lab, we have much to learn from EA-aligned nonprofits that have been working on farmed animal welfare for years. To this end, we collaborate closely with organizations such as Rethink Priorities, Faunalytics, and Sentience Institute. Our lab recently hosted a “mind-meld” of several EA-aligned organizations in which we received detailed, and quite positive, feedback about our list of upcoming research priorities and specific shovel-ready projects. As our work progresses, we will continue to calibrate our approach with that of experienced EA-aligned organizations working on farmed animal welfare, while also seeking chances to contribute our own unique resources and expertise to support these other organizations’ projects.
2. Our research and publications to date
A full list of publications, most of which predate the lab’s official launch in March 2023, is available here. To summarize a few papers:
1.) We conducted a meta-analysis of 100 studies on interventions designed to reduce meat consumption by appealing to animal welfare [1, 2; Twitter thread]. The interventions consistently reduced meat consumption, purchase, or related intentions at least in the short term with meaningfully large effects (meta-analytic average risk ratio [RR] = 1.22; 95% CI: [1.13, 1.33]). We noted specific methodological limitations of this field and made concrete recommendations. Several major nonprofits reached out to us for consultation on how to apply these recommendations to their own internal research, and we were happy to do so. We have also given invited talks for venues such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the findings.
2.) We conducted several randomized controlled experiments on the effects of a professionally-produced documentary that presents health, environmental, and animal welfare motivations for reducing consumption of meat and animal products [3; EA forum post]. We introduced methodological innovations (e.g., methods to blind participants to the purpose of the study) to reduce risks of bias that are widespread in existing studies, especially social desirability bias. To our surprise, the documentary was not effective at reducing consumption. Critically, when we conducted follow-up studies that were deliberately designed less rigorously, resembling many previous studies, the documentary appeared (spuriously) extremely effective. We conclude that it is critically important to prioritize reducing methodological limitations in future research, perhaps using the innovations we introduced in this paper. We have since given several talks at venues such as the Reducetarian Summit on how animal advocacy organizations can apply these recommendations in practice.
3.) We wrote a piece in Science about the small-body problem, aiming to raise academics’ awareness of serious ethical downsides of certain dietary interventions that focus solely on sustainability at the expense of net animal welfare (e.g., switching from red meat to white meat) . While the small-body problem is well-understood in EA circles, it remains virtually unknown in academia, posing a serious problem for designing ethically holistic interventions.
4. Our upcoming research priorities
Here are just a few of our current research priorities and shovel-ready projects.
1.) Question: Do modern plant-based analogs (e.g., Impossible Burger, JUST Egg) actually replace animal-based foods in people’s diets? Or do they simply replace traditional plant-based foods (e.g., tofu)?
- Using naturalistic data from restaurants that have recently introduced a dish that uses a plant-based analog (e.g., a JUST Egg breakfast sandwich) to estimate the effects of introducing these dishes on consumption of animal-based dishes.
- Conducting controlled studies in the Stanford dining halls in which we introduce either a modern plant-based analog or a traditional plant-based dish, to assess effects on consumption of animal-based dishes. This will clarify whether adding a plant-based analog is helpful above and beyond the effects of just adding any other traditional plant-based option.
2.) Question: Have any existing large-scale interventions successfully reduced consumption or purchase of animal-based foods? Example interventions include documentaries (e.g., The Game Changers) and major news items about factory farming.
- Using advanced statistical methods for causal inference with observational time-series data, we are investigating the effects of the Game Changers documentary on nationwide consumption of meat and animal products.
This list is just a sampling; we have numerous other shovel-ready projects that we are eager to start as soon as we have the funding (next section).
5. Why we are funding-constrained
I have been genuinely surprised at the amount of interest the lab has generated in only its first month of official existence. It has become clear that there is an untapped, outstanding talent pool of students and early-career academics at Stanford and elsewhere who are very excited about contributing to farmed animal welfare. If our lab could hire more of these individuals or support their PhD stipends, we expect this would have two effects. (1) The lab could immediately pursue more of its shovel-ready projects. (2) These individuals would receive crucial mentorship at a “hingey” point in their academic careers, where – if trained and supported – they might choose to pursue farmed animal welfare as a longer-term research direction (e.g., as a PhD dissertation or even as a future career direction). Our lab has successfully secured several project-earmarked grants, but making longer-term hires and training students depends on also obtaining less-restricted funding. Resolving this funding bottleneck would substantially and immediately increase our impact. If you would like to contribute to our work, you can do so here.
We are eager to use our interdisciplinary training and access to Stanford's resources to advance the empirical field of eliminating factory farming. As the lab's principal investigator, I welcome feedback on both our existing work and our upcoming priorities. Thank you.
1. Mathur MB, Peacock J, Reichling DB, Nadler J, Bain PA, Gardner CD, Robinson TN (2021). Interventions to reduce meat consumption by appealing to animal welfare: Meta-analysis and evidence-based recommendations. Appetite, 164: 105277.
2. Mathur MB, Robinson TN, Reichling DB, Gardner CD, Nadler JN, Bain PA, Peacock J. (2020). Reducing meat consumption by appealing to animal welfare: Protocol for a systematic review and meta-analysis. Systematic Reviews, 9(3).
3. Mathur MB, Peacock JR, Robinson TN, Gardner CD (2021). Effectiveness of a theory-informed documentary to reduce consumption of meat and animal products: Three randomized controlled experiments. Nutrients, 13(12):4555.