Thank you to James Ozden for feedback on this post.
Edit: I added "relatively" to the title to more precisely capture my claim. To be clear, I think CWRs are still underfunded in absolute terms.
In this post I argue that corporate welfare reforms (CWRs)* are relatively overinvested in by the EA side of the animal movement (which I’ll refer to as “EAA” from here on). Specifically, I believe that while CWRs are good, and in fact one of the most promising approaches we have, our enamoration with them leads us to underinvest in other approaches in a way that is suboptimal.
*By corporate welfare reforms, I mean instances where an animal protection NGO lobbies a corporation to transition at least part of their purchasing of a particular animal “product” over to that same “product” but raised in less bad conditions. The most common examples of CWRs are cage-free commitments and the Better Chicken Commitment.
The core claims:
- CWRs currently command a significant portion of EAA’s resources.
- CWRs, while good, have serious limitations.
- A pluralistic movement is more likely to end factory farming, and our current investment level in CWRs is stifling the development and refinement of alternative approaches.
- Thus, EAA ought to either 1) grow the pot of funds to invest more in non-CWR approaches, or 2) transition some of its resources from CWRs to other approaches.
Below I explain my evidence for each claim in greater detail, and conclude with suggesting what we ought to do about this argument.
Claim 1: CWRs currently command a significant portion of EAA’s resources.
James Ozden recently calculated that the three major funders in EAA, OpenPhil, the EA Fund (EAF), and ACE, had spent an estimated 60% of their animal welfare grants in the past 2 years on CWRS. This seems like a lot, and I’ll go on to argue it’s probably too high a proportion. For what proportion of institutional EAA money ought to go to CWRs, see Implications below.
There’s one counterargument I want to address here: Even with this much money going to CWRs, there’s still a ton of money in the animal rights (AR) movement beyond EAA that doesn’t go to CWRs. For instance, PETA brought in $64M in donations in 2020, more than double what the three EAA funders distributed in that time, and it’s safe to say that none of PETA’s income went to fund CWRs. Perhaps then it makes sense for EAA to overinvest in CWRs because the other side of the AR movement is underinvesting in them, so it in a way evens out.
I find this argument somewhat compelling, but there is also a somewhat compelling response: if we believe that the EAA side of the animal movement has certain skills that the rest of the AR movement somewhat lacks, such as using and responding to evidence, it may make sense to avoid over-relying on the rest of the AR movement.
Claim 2: CWRs, while good, have serious limitations.
It’s first worth noting that as an approach to help animals, CWRs are pretty awesome: They are probably the most impactful and the most scalable approach the animal movement has found. The fact that the smart people at these EAA granting organizations invest so heavily in them is evidence of this, as is the fact that the percent of chickens in cage-free housing has gone from 6% to at least 28% since 2015. As far as I’m aware, no other approach can claim such an impressive shift. CWRs also seem to pave the way for impressive legislative reforms, such as the European Commission’s recent historic pledge to ban almost all cages and crates for farmed animals.
But CWRs, like any approach, also have their limitations:
- Enforcement is not a given: A victory is not truly a victory until it is implemented and enforced. With cage-free, groups seem to have done well with enforcement. For other campaigns, including the Better Chicken Commitment, I’m less clear how well enforcement is going. The enforcement issue is particularly salient in countries with more informal economies, such as India, where companies may be inclined to commit to something that will attract good press with little ability to later implement it.
- Actual magnitude of welfare improvement is sometimes less than expected: NGOs face incentives to make the welfare ask as palatable to companies as possible, because of the pressure they face to both 1) achieve progress, and 2) show progress to supporters. Unfortunately, the consequence of more palatable asks is that they are less impactful for the animals they seek to help. For instance, the most impactful part of the Better Chicken Commitment, the breed component, appears to have recently been watered down by Global Animal Partnership (GAP’s study of different breeds is recommending a broiler chicken breed that, while still an improvement, has worse welfare than what many advocates were hoping for and expecting).
- Possible humane-washing and complacency: Especially in situations, as with the BCC, where the actual welfare improvement is less impactful than was hoped for, CWRs risk humane-washing—the actual negative implication of which is that companies and consumers, thinking the situation already addressed for these animals, may be less motivated to make future changes. This could increase complacency, although I am unsure about this point. For more of a discussion on this, see Sentience Institute’s Foundational Questions.
- What’s the path to victory here?: Imagine that all current CWRs succeeded. Where would we be? We’d be in a world with slightly less horrible though still pretty bad factory farms. CWRs generally increase cost (e.g. see the recent freakout about California animal welfare legislation increasing bacon cost), which is good, but provided that our goal is to reach the end of factory farming, CWRs alone don’t to me seem likely to get us there. Which brings me to my third claim. . .
Claim 3: A pluralistic movement is more likely to end factory farming, and our current investment level in CWRs is stifling the development and refinement of alternative approaches.
Here are several arguments in favor of a pluralistic movement:
- When uncertain, we should explore. No one really knows what will be most impactful for animals, and we may never know. We also don’t know what the future will bring, so even approaches that seem promising today may lose traction tomorrow. Given all this uncertainty, we should hedge our bets and explore. Chloe Cockburn, Program Officer at OpenPhil, endorsed a similar view with the ‘ecology of change’ framework.
- Guard against biases and bad reasoning: In a fairly close-knit community like EAA, I believe we are particularly vulnerable to several prominent groups or figures adopting a mistaken view, and then everyone else adopting it as though it’s canon. For instance, we made this mistake several years ago, when most prominent EAA thinkers seemed to think that leafleting was the most promising strategy, until flaws were uncovered in the original leafleting studies. A pluralistic movement decreases the likelihood that we’re all wrong.
It seems difficult to become a truly pluralistic movement when the major funders are investing over half of their funding into a single approach.
How much money should go to CWRs?
Given that CWRs still seem pretty awesome (just relatively overinvested in), the million dollar question is how much ought we invest in them? I don’t have a good way to identify a proportion, but my intuition would be about 30-40%. This is a difference of 20-30% and tens of millions of dollars from what OpenPhil, EAF, and ACE have spent in the past few years. However, I am very unsure about this point.
However, absolutely I expect CWRs are still underinvested in—we should seek to grow the pie.
What other approaches should we be investing more in?
The following are my top few picks:
- Identifying new approaches itself. This could come in the form of research, such as that of Rethink Priorities, or in the form of just trying new approaches and seeing how they go. The most recent EA Animal Welfare Fund payout, for instance, seemed promising in this regard in that it invested in several more novel approaches (e.g. Legal Impact for Chickens).
- Institutional meat reduction. For instance, see Compass Group UK’s recent pledge to transition to 25% plant-based proteins by 2025, and the city of Berkley’s recent pledge to decrease the purchasing of animal-based foods by 50% by 2024. I find this approach promising because 1) it aligns well with reducetarian and climate-friendly messaging, 2) it may be very tractable (for instance, Compass seemed to make the above pledge without any NGO lobbying), and 3) it has a more clear theory of victory—asking companies to reduce animal products further and further could eventually leave them with no animals on the menu.
- International work and movement building. Although EAA has certainly improved in this respect (for instance, see again the recent EAF AW payout), the vast majority of the funding is still going to the US and Europe. If we are going to solve the problems of factory farming, it will likely require a robust, well-funded international animal movement.
For a discussion of more approaches to help animals, see Farm Forward.