Summary: evidence from a survey suggests that campaigning for farm animal welfare reforms and promoting animal welfare certified meat could in the long run result in a suboptimal state of continued animal suffering and exploitation. Campaigns to reduce or eliminate animal-based meat and promote animal-free meat substitutes are probably more effective in the long run.
Note: this research is not yet published in academic, peer-reviewed literature.
The debate: welfarism versus abolitionism
There is an ongoing debate within the animal advocacy movement, between so-called welfarists or moderates on the one side and abolitionists or radicals on the other side. The welfarist camp aims for welfare improvements of farm animals. Stronger animal welfare laws are needed to reduce animal suffering. The abolitionists on the other hand, want to abolish the property status of animals. This means abolishing the exploitation of animals, eliminating animal farming and adopting an animal-free, vegan diet.
The abolitionists are worried that the welfarist approach results in complacency, by soothing the conscience of meat eaters. They argue that people who eat meat produced with higher animal welfare standards might believe that eating such animal welfare certified meat is good and no further steps to further reduce farm animal suffering are needed. Those people will not take further steps towards animal welfare because of a believe one already does enough. Complacency could delay reaching the abolitionist’s desired goal, the abolition of the exploitation of animals. Animal welfare regulations are not enough, according to abolitionists, because they do not sufficiently reduce animal suffering. People will continue eating meat that is only slightly better in terms of animal welfare. In the long run, this results in more animal suffering compared to the situation where people adopted animal-free diets sooner. In extremis, the welfarist approach could backfire due to people engaging in moral balancing: eating animal welfare certified meat might decrease the likelihood of making animal welfare improving choices again later.
Welfarists, on the other hand, argue that in the short run demanding abolition is politically or socially unfeasible, that demanding animal welfare improvements is more tractable, and that these welfare reforms can create a momentum for ever increasing public concern of animal welfare, resulting in eventual reduction and abolition of animal farming. According to welfarists, animal welfare reforms are a stepping stone to reduced meat consumption and veganism. Meat consumers will first switch to higher quality, ‘humane’ meat with improved animal welfare standards in production. And after a while, when this switch strengthens their concern for animal welfare and increases their meat expenditures (due to the higher price of animal welfare certified meat), they will reduce their meat consumption and eventually become vegetarian or vegan.
The stepping-stone model
Who is right in this debate between abolitionists and welfarists? There is no strong empirical evidence in favor of one side or the other. But recently, economists developed an empirical method that can shed light on this issue: a stepping stone model of harmful social norms (Gulesci e.a., 2021). A social norm is a practice that is dominant in society. In its simplest form, the stepping stone model assumes three stones that represent three social states. The first stone represents the current state where people adopt a harmful social norm or costly practice L (for low value). In the example of food consumption, this state corresponds with the consumption of conventional meat with low animal welfare standards. The idea is for society to switch to the most desirable stone, the state H with highest value. For animal advocates, this is the state without animal suffering or exploitation, where people go vegan and no longer eat animal-based meat. People want to jump from a low to a high stone, but the distance between those two stone might be too wide. An intermediate state M (for medium value) might act as a stepping stone. This stone corresponds with the welfarist approach, the consumption of animal welfare certified meat. People can first jump to this intermediate stone, which represents a state with a less harmful social norm or slightly less costly practice, and then jump to the desired stone, the state where the harmful social norm is eliminated.
The intermediate state M is a stepping stone if three conditions are met. First, the state L is stable against switching to state H: the benefit of jumping to state H, measured in terms of the difference in height of the L and H stones, is smaller than the transition cost, measured in terms of the distance between the stones. Second, the state L is not stable against switching to M: stones L and M are sufficiently close to each other. Third, the state M is not stable against switching to state H. In other words, people are not willing to switch from L directly to H, but are willing to switch from L to M and then from M to H. Without the stepping stone, society is locked in a bad equilibrium. The stepping stone facilitates the transition to the most desirable state.
The question is whether society will jump from the intermediate stone to the most desired stone. Instead of being a stepping stone, this intermediate stone might be an attractor stone that represents an absorbing state, a new stable equilibrium with a slightly less harmful norm. Society will get stuck on this stone. If society could have jumped to the high utility stone H, but instead chose to jump to the intermediate stone M and gets stuck there, welfare in the long run is suboptimal. Hence, the intermediate stone might be counterproductive if it fails to be a stepping stone.
The stepping-stone model is based on social influence, which means that a person’s preference for stepping on a stone depends on (or is influenced by) other people’s choices to step on that stone. If more people step on a stone, an individual’s preference to also step on that stone increases. For example, a person’s preference for a food product depends on what other people eat. In a situation where everyone else eats conventional meat, a vegetarian gets a disvalue from social pressure, from doing something (eating vegetarian) against the social norm (eating meat). Hence, a person’s preference to eat vegetarian can be lower than the preference to eat meat, not only because the person does not like vegetarian food that much, but also because vegetarianism violates the social norm. But if the person also cares a lot about animal welfare, it could be that this person has the highest preference for eating vegetarian in a situation where everyone else also eats vegetarian.
Four possible mechanisms can explain the social influence on food choice.
- Conformism or social compliance: people may be susceptible to group pressure and want to match their behavior to group norms.
- Conditional cooperation: people want to do what is good, but only when enough other people also do it. A person who cares about animal welfare might want to eat vegetarian, but might believe being vegetarian is futile or unfair when everyone else keeps eating meat.
- Information: when other people switch to animal welfare certified meat or vegetarian food, this gives a meat eater information that conventional meat is not good in terms of animal welfare. When everyone else keeps on eating conventional meat, a person can deduce that eating conventional meat is fine.
- Convenience: people who believe vegetarianism is difficult because lack of cheap, healthy and delicious vegetarian options, might imagine that vegetarianism becomes much easier when everyone else would eat vegetarian.
Together with a graduate student in economics at KU Leuven, I conducted an online survey in Flanders, Belgium, in January 2023, to test the stepping stone hypothesis of the welfarist approach. 291 respondents completed the survey and answered a test question correctly (average age 42, minimum age 17, maximum age 86, 58% female, 68% having a higher education degree, 60% living in a city).
A first group of respondents got the text (here translated into English): “Suppose there are animal-free (plant-based or vegan) meat substitutes on the market that have the same nutritional value as meat and are about as tasty and cheap as meat. Try to imagine a situation where almost everyone else buys and eats those animal-free meat substitutes.”, followed by an order randomized list of four questions: “On a scale from 0 (not at all) to 100 (very much), how much would you like eating mostly [meat, animal-free meat substitutes] when almost everyone else eats mostly [meat, animal-free meat substitutes]?”
Next, a description of animal welfare certified meat was introduced (such meat is not yet available on the Belgian market). Respondents got the text: “Suppose meat with a “better life” animal welfare quality label comes on the market. Meat with that label comes from farms that have stricter regulations for mutilation (dehorning, castration, debeaking, tail docking) and better air quality. The animals on those farms have more space and barn enrichments (e.g. toys, animal brushes, hay) and fewer diseases. Suppose meat with this animal welfare label costs 50% more than meat without an animal welfare label, and animal suffering for meat with the animal welfare label is half the amount of animal suffering for meat without a label.” This is again followed by a randomized order of five questions: “On a scale from 0 (not at all) to 100 (very much), how much would you like eating mostly [non-welfare-labelled meat, animal-welfare-labelled meat, animal-free meat substitutes] when almost everyone eats mostly [non-welfare-labelled meat, animal-welfare-labelled meat, animal-free meat substitutes]?”
These questions refer to what people would mostly eat. Some ‘flexitarian’ or ‘reducetarian’ meat eaters may eat animal-free meat substitutes most days of the week, and therefore they may think of themselves that they already eat mostly animal-free meat substitutes. In this interpretation of the questions, these people are already choosing action H. They are already on stone H. Therefore, the analysis of the stepping stone model excludes these ‘flexitarians’ or ‘reducetarians’, i.e. the respondents who eat meat “a few days per week” or less. The remaining 124 respondents ate meat on most of the days during the previous week.
A second group of respondents got slightly different formulations of the questions. The word “mostly” was deleted, and “eat animal-free meat substitutes” was replaced by “eat vegetarian”. Hence, the questions include e.g.: “How much would you like to eat vegetarian if everyone else ate vegetarian?” and “How much would you like to eat meat that does not have the animal welfare label if almost everyone eats meat that does have the animal welfare label?” Respondents who are already vegetarian are excluded. In particular, the remaining 117 respondents ate meat at least once during the previous week.
The values between 0 and 100 measure personal utilities or preferences. For example ULH measures the person’s utility to eat mostly animal-free meat substitutes (i.e. to step on the high value stone H), when everyone else mostly eats conventional meat (i.e. everyone else is on the low value stone L). The transition cost of stepping from stone X to stone Y when everyone else remains on stone X is given by the social sanction SXY=UYY-UXY. The benefit of going from stone X to stone Y is given by BXY=UYY-UXX. The middle stone M is a stepping stone if three conditions are satisfied (for a proof, see Gulesci e.a., 2021): SLH>BLH, SLM<BLM and SMH<BMH. The first condition says that the cost SLH, the social sanction for switching from stone L to stone H, should be larger than the benefit, the gain in intrinsic utility. That means people are not willing to switch directly from L to H if no-one else switches. The first stone L is stable against the most desired stone H. The other two conditions mean that people are willing to switch from L to M and then from M to H. Importantly, if SMH>BMH, then the intermediate stone M is not a stepping stone but an absorbing state. Once stepping on that stone, people will remain there.
A first crucial condition is met: the ‘reductionist’ or ‘abolitionist’ stone, where everyone eats mostly animal-free meat substitutes or eats vegetarian, is more desired (has a higher preference) than the harmful norm stone where everyone primarily eats conventional meat. For the first group of respondents (who mostly eat meat and state their preference for eating mostly animal-free), the average UHH=65, which is significantly higher than ULL=54 (p=0,005). For the second group (who do not eat vegetarian and state their preference for eating vegetarian) UHH=63, also higher than ULL=57 (p=0,08). As expected, eating vegetarian while everyone else eats conventional meat, has a lower preference ULH=48. But the reverse, eating conventional meat oneself while everyone else eats vegetarian, has the lowest preference UHL=42.
So as a first result, we can say that on average meat eaters prefer the situation where they themselves and everyone else eats vegetarian or mostly animal-free meat above the situation where they themselves and everyone else continue eating conventional meat. Does that mean that people will collectively switch to vegetarian diets? No, because for the non-vegetarians (who ate meat the previous week), the transition cost to eat vegetarian SLH=16, which is significantly higher than the transition benefit BLH=6 (p=0,02). Reducing meat may perhaps be possible: for the frequent meat eaters, the transition cost to eat primarily animal-free meat substitutes SLH=12, which is slightly higher than the benefit BLH=10,7, but this difference is not statistically significant (p=0,38).
What about the stepping stone? The results are clear: the intermediate, ‘welfarist’ stone where everyone primarily eats animal welfare certified meat, is not a stepping stone but is an absorbing state. First, people may switch from the lowest stone L to the medium stone M. For the first group of respondents, the transition costs are smaller than the benefits: SLM=8<BLM=9, but this difference is not statistically significant (p=0,4). For the second group of respondents, taking the step from L to M is clearer SLM=4<BLM=10 (p=0,05). But second, the problem is that once people are on this intermediate stone, they do not step to the third stone H. According to the first group of respondents, SMH=16>BMH=1,6, and similarly for the second group SMH=11>BMH=-4 (p-values less than 0,001). In the latter case, the benefits are even negative, meaning that animal welfare certified meat is preferred over vegetarian meat. The intermediate stone M is higher (has a higher value) than the third stone H: UMM=67, compared to UHH=63 (although this difference is not statistically significant: p=0,17).
In summary, it is not entirely clear that the jump from the least desirable state where everyone eats mostly conventional meat to a more desirable state where everyone eats primarily animal-free meat substitutes, is unfeasible. But it is very clear that once people jump to an intermediate desirable state where everyone eats mostly animal welfare certified meat, they will stay in that state and not jump to the state where everyone eats primarily animal-free meat substitutes.
This is the first empirical evidence for the abolitionist’ concern that the welfarist approach could be suboptimal or counterproductive in the long run, by keeping society in a locked-in equilibrium with a slightly less harmful social norm, i.e. animal farming that still contains some animal suffering. Instead of campaigning for farm animal welfare reforms and animal welfare certified meat, animal advocates could better focus on campaigns to reduce or eliminate animal-based meat and promote animal-free meat substitutes.