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. . .
(Thanks to this FB post and Linch’s recent Forum post for inspiring the previous point.)
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.
I know this is CRAZY belated, but I just wanted to thank you for the shout out to Legal Impact for Chickens! ❤️🐥 (Seeing our name in a recent EA Forum post made me wonder if we had ever been mentioned in past EA Forum posts which I missed. So I checked and found this!!!)
Thanks for writing this post, I think that this type of questioning is very valuable as it can directly lead to changes in funding. There are some assumptions in it that I think are held by many people in the movement and I wanted to challenge those assumptions for a while. I’ll do that in the comments of this post. I hope that’s ok.
The other assumption I’d like to challenge is that welfare reforms would lead to “slightly less horrible though still pretty bad factory farms” and that they have serious limitations.
I think that welfare reforms lead to big changes in welfare. How much chicken welfare reforms help chickens have been researched in detail by the welfare footprint project and summarized in these graphs:
In this spreadsheet, I estimated that if we assume that hurtful pain is 15 times worse than annoying, disabling pain is 100 times worse than annoying, and excruciating pain is 500 times worse than annoying, then broiler reforms avert 50% of suffering, switch from conventional to cage-free averts 60% of suffering, and a switch from enriched to cage-free averts 36% of suffering. That’s a lot. If you don’t like those subjective values, you can enter different ones but the situation doesn’t change drastically when I enter different values. And these are only current efforts. Eventually, we may improve conditions even further. Since chickens are something like 75% of farmed land food animals alive at any time, these are very significant changes.
Yes, enforcement can be an issue, but these campaigns seem to help many animals per dollar even when enforcement concerns are taken into consideration. And yes, watering down sometimes happens, but sometimes it doesn’t. Broiler commitments seemed to be doing well in the EU last time I checked, and most cage-free commitments with a due date in the past have been fulfilled. We don’t make 100% shots we take but that doesn’t happen in any animal welfare field. And we do make most of the shots we take.
Another way of putting this is that these corporate welfare reforms are about half as good as preventing their births, or better, for their welfare. So, corporate welfare reforms over a region (a country, a US state, a province, the EU, a continent, the world, etc.) would be as good as cutting present and future factory farming in that region in half or better (in welfarist terms, ignoring other effects, assuming no new lower standard farms under the reform scenario, etc.).
Thanks for this Saulius. This is a slightly positive update for me that both cage free and broiler reforms are more impactful than I thought.
One concern I have with the Welfare Footprint study (caveat: I have no experience in animal welfare science or with the BCC). The Welfare Footprint study people say (bolding added by me):
My concern is with the claim that reaching 2.5kg in 56 days necessarily is the growth rate experienced by BCC chickens, or whether the final BCC birds are actually faster growing.
Given the watering down concerns Farm Forward discussed, and that I wasn't sure how up to date WF's study was, I looked into the different breeds accepted by the BCC (you can see the latest breeds GAP approved here) and how long they take reach WF's cited slaughter weight of 2.5kg.
Of the 11 breeds GAP approves, 2 of them (Aviagen Ranger Classic and Aviagen Ranger) reach 2.5kg below significantly below the 56 days benchmark WF uses (they reach 2.5kg at 50 and 51 days, respectively). 5 to 6 days may not seem like much, but remember we're only talking about a difference between 14 days (difference between reaching 2.5kg at 42 vs 56 days) that accounts for half the suffering these animals experience. The other breeds were either around 56 days to reach 2.5kg, or in the case of the Hubbard Redbro significantly above it.
Worst case scenario then, if you just use average weight gain as a simple welfare proxy then I estimate these BCC approved breeds to be half as less bad off as Saulius estimates.
I find this concerning because 1) companies will likely congregate to the fastest growing breeds still available, and 2) it possibly illustrates the watering down concern.
This sounds like a legitimate concern that I don't remember seeing raised elsewhere. Thanks for raising it! We'll pass it along to the Welfare Footprint Project.
Thanks so much for sharing this analysis Saulius. I wasn't familiar with these numbers, and admittedly also weakly held the uninformed view that corporate welfare reforms had limited impact on the welfare of farmed animals. However, I'm curious to know, have any other non-industry aligned animal welfare experts expressed their opinions about the welfare footprint project's estimates?
Good question. I don’t know. But I can tell that the review process seems to be legitimate. I’ve just googled all the people they thank for comments and suggestions for the laying hen report in the acknowledgements. Some people seem like they should be qualified: Kaitlin Wurtz (PhD in animal science, worked as a farm inspector for laying hens), Ivelisse Robles (PhD in animal behaviour and welfare), Elsa Negro Calduch (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), maybe Andrew Rowan. I couldn’t find info on some other reviewers. But I don't know how deeply any of them reviewed it.
Recently, I was managing Michael St. Jules when he was reviewing (for the second time) their book on laying hens and I also expressed some concerns to the Welfare Footprint Project myself. I can say that they were very responsive to our comments, gave comprehensive answers (that convinced me to drop my concerns for whatever that’s worth) and encouraged more comments, despite the fact that they had moved on from focusing on layer hens at that point. I know that they also are keen to get reviews on their broiler work too and were offering to pay certain people for their reviews.
This is really great to hear! Thanks for your response and bringing this to our attention.
I should also point out that at least for the laying hens, the Welfare Footprint Project strived to be conservative in their assumptions so as not to inflate the benefits of reforms. You can read about the exact ways they were conservative it in chapter 9, starting with "The empirical estimates presented here are conservative" on page 10. I haven't examined the book on broilers but I assume that the same approach was taken.
Last point on this: Even if the animals impacted by these reforms suffer only have as much, that's still thousands of hours of equivalent annoyance level suffering per animals (per your spreadsheet). Though this takes nothing away from the good done by these reforms, to me this still qualifies as pretty horrible factory farming.
We should be happy by the progress we have made, but there is still a long road ahead.
All in all I'm now thinking that switching from battery cage to cage free averts ~60% of suffering (per your figures), and switching from conventional to BCC-approved broilers averts 30-40% (your figures plus a downward estimate for the breeds growth rate concern I mention in the other comment).
The first assumption I’d like to challenge (in this comment) is that we should think more about how to end factory farming and that this should be the goal of the movement. I think that such a goal would be too ambitious and also it’s not even clear if it would be good.
Take a look at these graphs from https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production
Global meat production is growing because both per capita consumption is growing and the world population is growing.
The graph above doesn’t include fish, eggs, and diary but the first two are also on the rise:
Fish farming has been growing very fast. And all the projections I’ve seen suggest that animal farming will continue to grow. I’ve talked with someone from 50 by 40 who disagreed with those projections because they thought that they don't take into account innovations in plant-based and cultured meat but I personally haven’t been convinced that those predictions are majorly wrong. To me, when I look at these graphs, I don’t think “how can we better optimize for a faster complete elimination of factory farming?” I think that such a goal is too ambitious for a movement that only gets $200 million per year (and only a fraction of that is EAA) and is fighting against the growing behemoth that is animal agriculture. I think about how we can at least make a dent in all of this suffering that the industry is creating.
I think that the end of factory farming may come due to human extinction, or because transformative AI changes everything, or because cultured meat eventually becomes good and cheap (which doesn’t necessarily require that much investment from EAs maybe). But to me, it’s not obvious that we shouldn’t just let future altruists take care of that. Because only we can help animals that are suffering now and future altruists will also be able to help animals that will be suffering later. Also, even if you do care about the end of factory farming, welfare reforms do contribute to that by making meat more expensive and by making animals closer to neutral well-being. To me doing welfare reforms until farmed animals live neutral lives seems like a legitimate way to solve the issue.
And just because it’s easier to imagine how institutional meat reduction can lead to total elimination of factory farming, doesn’t mean that it actually leads to more progress towards it. To me, to be excited about such campaigns I’d need to see a promising cost-effectiveness estimate. When I looked into such campaigns briefly some years ago, they didn’t seem too exciting but please don’t put much weight on this as I didn’t look into it deeply.
Also, to me it’s not even clear that the end of animal farming would be good for animals in the short term. Animal farming impacts how ~40% of habitable land is used, and hence has a huge impact on wild animal suffering, and we don’t even know if that impact is positive or negative. It’s discussed a bit here and here, although I think we should discuss it much more. If we are saying that the end of factory farming is the ultimate goal, we should at least make sure that this would be a good thing. When I say stuff like this, some people answer that they think that moral circle expansion is the ultimate goal, not the end of factory farming. But then I think that we need to be much more concrete about situations in which moral circle expansion would bring value, how likely they are, etc. And I’m unsure if we’d end up with the same ideas of what to do afterwards. Other people say that they only want to decrease suffering that is caused by humans and not wild animal suffering. If you hold this position, I guess you can just ignore this paragraph. Ending factory farming might also be good for reducing climate change but that’s a different topic.
Regarding the concern about whether it's useful to think about how to end factory farming, my intuition is that having an endgame in mind will do much to help guide us there. Even if the endgame is just more humane animal farms, I think making that more explicit will help us shape strategies today.
The project of improving farmed animal welfare is a decades-long project, and it seems highly suboptimal to not plan what outcomes we'd like to be achieving decades on down the road.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't think about ending factory farming at all. I was just arguing against favouring interventions just because it's easier to imagine how they would completely eliminate factory farming because it's so far away. Also, I wouldn't think about the endgame a lot at this stage when we are so far away from it.
Apart from reasons I discussed in the original comment, I'd like to mention one more reason why I think that. It's very likely that due emerging technologies (AI, cultured meat, large-scale insect farming, etc.), environmental problems, political changes, possible global catastrophises, etc., the World might look very different by the time we are in the endgame (which I imagine in at least 50 years). And it's difficult to predict how it will look. Hence it's also very difficult to plan for it. Furthermore, interventions that are tractable now may not stay tractable forever (e.g. people may grow numb to corporate campaigns). Hence, any plan we come up with now will likely need to be changed anyway. It still makes sense to think a bit whether our current actions will be valuable in various plausible future scenarios though.
I'm sympathetic to a lot of what you say in this, including the fact that welfare reforms can and are an important part of the road to ending factory farming. It just unlikely that they will be all of that road (or even most of it).
Regarding the concern about whether we ought to even seek to end factory farming (or animal farming broadly), my views on this have been updated towards the affirmative to this based on Jeff Sebo's arguments (EAG talk and paper). Essentially, he argues along the moral circle expansion angle: If we're the sort of people who tolerate the human-caused suffering of factory farms, even if factory/animal farms are someday not so bad, then we're more likely to accept other forms of exploitation that will lead to significant suffering (e.g. the exploitation of digital minds).
There should be easier ways to argue against exploitation of digital minds than taking down a growing industry worth trillions of dollars and employing a significant portion of the World's workforce. E.g., direct advocacy for digital minds which can happen in the future when digital minds start being a concern. Future advocates will have a comparative advantage in helping digital minds so it might make sense for us to use our comparative advantage for helping current animals, especially since the EA movement is likely to grow.
Also, I think that what Sebo argues in his talk though is there being more advocacy for animal rights and veganism. That would be enough to have some of the effects that he is talking about.
Also, I do wish that people advocating for changing people's views would be much more concrete about future scenarios where this end up mattering a lot. That would allow to see if what they are advocating is really the best way to influence those scenarios.
Despite your clarifications within the post here to say that we should grow the pie, and that CWRs are still underfunded, I find the zero-sum tone of much of the post (I.e. saying that we should do less CWR work and more other stuff) off putting and poorly supported.
It is not obvious to me that other areas such as those you mention can readily absorb that much extra funding that quickly, or that anyone is currently erring in their approach here not finding a particular intervention and funding CWRs instead.
I would guess that e.g. Open Phil are eager to find other good opportunities in these areas and are more constrained by lack of good opportunities than by having committed large amounts to CWRs and therefore not having the budget to give more. Do you think this is wrong?
I'm late to the discussion, but I might add that I have a hypothesis that we have heavily underinvested in finding, connecting, and supporting existing supporters of farmed animal welfare. One symptom of this would be a seeming lack of diversity in the funding opportunities. Another symptom might be difficulty finding these opportunities, even if they do exist, due to lack of social network connectivity (i.e. there are no easy ways to find opportunities outside of our well-connected local social networks). Thus, perhaps one of the first things we should invest more heavily in is building up this connective infrastructure for the movement.
Lastly, I think the definition of "good opportunity" varies wildly, and a more holistic understanding of risk and uncertainty would nudge us in the direction of valuing strategic and tactical diversity as an inherent good, above and beyond any kind of impact evaluation or estimation. Thus, at an extreme, if you had 100% of funding invested in CWRs, then nearly any non-CWR opportunity would be seen as a good opportunity due to increasing the diversity of approaches.
Of course, we don't have that extreme case of 100% investment in CWRs, but I think Kato's point is that a more pluralistic movement (i.e. a more diversified one than we currently have) does probably lead to higher impact, which would expand our definition of good opportunities to include things we might otherwise pass on.
I believe Harish Sethu gave an excellent talk at the AR Conference a few years back using an apples and oranges market analogy to demonstrate this same kind of idea.
Nope, I think that is mostly (though not 100%) correct. My impression is that OpenPhil in particular is both more opportunity- and operationally-constrained than it is by funding. I do think though that they (and other funders) ought to do more active grant-making to try to identify non-CWR opportunities to fund (though they could very well already be doing this).
I also agree with your point that few if any other approaches could absorb significant amounts of money currently (though I also expect that there's many orgs you could talk with trying more novel approaches who would disagree with us here, so perhaps I'm just not sufficiently aware of them).
My point is more that many of the EA funders seem to have found a local optimum with CWRs, and if we put more efforts into exploring we would find other approaches that also look very promising. What I'd like to see is more work from EAA and funders to incubate and help build new approaches. I realize that that can be a difficult role for these organizations to play though.
While I absolutely think CWRs have a lot of upsides, one thing I will add to the discussion of their downsides is that there is almost always a productivity tradeoff that causes more animals to be raised in factory farms under the more humane conditions. For example, slower growing chicken breeds tend to weigh less at slaughter than faster growing breeds, and switching from from fast to slow growing breeds may increase the number of chickens consumed. Obviously this may be partially offset by price increases but the net effect may still be more chickens living better but still not lives worth living. A similar situation arises with caged vs cage-free eggs. Even if you agree with this calculus, I completely understand thinking that it is a worthwhile tradeoff and I think that myself half the time, but I do feel torn.
This is not a problem if you trust the welfare footprint project methodology that I wrote about in this comment. For broilers, they assume that slower growing broilers reach the same slaughter weight but in more time (56 days instead of 42) and find that BCC chickens still experience much fewer hours of suffering.
They haven't taken the productivity into account for laying hens. I've been confused about how many more eggs caged hens lay but my impression is that it would be at the very most a 15% difference which is not nearly enough to outweigh the impact of welfare reforms (again, if you trust the welfare footprint estimates). If in this spreadsheet I assume that caged hens lay 500 eggs and cage-free hens lay 420 eggs, I still get that the switch from conventional to cage-free averts 50% of suffering (instead of 60% of suffering). But I think that the actual difference is much smaller than 500 eggs vs. 420 eggs.
To be clear, it is entirely plausible to me that you are right and that there are large net moral gains to be had from CWRs. I only mean to bring up an area of uncertainty not to say I think it clearly comes out to CWRs=bad.
The Humane League has some discussion of the relationship between broiler welfare, growth, and slaughter weight. While I agree that you might be able to find some slower growing breeds that get to the same weight eventually as some faster growing breeds, I would guess that if slower breeds were widely adopted, we would be looking at a 5-10% average difference in slaughter weight. However, I certainly concede that the harms of the bird being unable to hold their own weight might far outweigh the harms from any increase in the number of birds.
As for the egg-laying case, I agree that 15% sounds like an upper bound to me and I suspect much lower.
BCC broilers already can grow to the same slaughter weight. Though I do remember reading that it might be more optimal for producers to slaughter them before they reach the same weight. But that would also mean that they are live for fewer days, which might mean that they suffer less, since I imagine that the last days when they are very heavy might be more painful than average. In any case, 5-10% in average weight wouldn't outweigh estimated 50% difference in suffering.
That said, if you think that a significant portion of suffering comes from slaughter, then the difference in slaughter weight is more concerning. And there are people who think this because they weigh excruciating suffering very highly. E.g. Brian Tomasik thinks that the pain during chicken death is equivalent to the pain experienced throughout 10 days of chicken life. That still wouldn't come close outweighing 50% decrease in suffering during life though. But perhaps I will mention this to the Welfare footprint project. I don't know if they take these considerations into account because the section on broiler slaughter is not yet uploaded to their website.
Here is a quote from Welfare Footprint Project: