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What if a single tool could utilize animal numbers as well as economic, political, and cultural data from a multitude of countries to help effective altruists identify where and how they can make the greatest impact for animals? Learn about the new Farmed Animal Opportunities Index, an open-source tool that offers a research-backed formula for evaluating high-impact opportunities to help animals.

Leah is an animal advocate who has partnered with some of the largest food companies in the world with a mission to end factory farming. She is the president of Mercy for Animals and established, and was the first executive director of, Compassion in World Farming USA. She also serves on the advisory boards of Encompass and Seattle Food Tech (now Rebellyous Foods).

Leah's work has been featured in many national and international media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Vice Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune. She is a contributing author to The Huffington Post and Food Safety News. She is also the author of Grilled: Turning Adversaries Into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry.

Below is a transcript of Leah’s talk, which we’ve lightly edited for clarity. You can also watch it on YouTube and read it on effectivealtruism.org.

The Talk

Hi, everyone. This is Leah Garcés. I'm the president of Mercy for Animals. I'm so glad to be able to still talk to you [during the COVID-19 pandemic]. I wish I could see you in person at EA Global, but this is a pretty good second option. I hope that wherever you are, you're staying sane and healthy and safe, and that this provides a distraction for just a minute or two from these uncertain times that we are in.

Today, I'm going to present to you something that Mercy for Animals is calling “the 80%,” and a new tool that we are developing specifically to help us understand how we can best help farmed animals in the most neglected and potentially highest-impact regions in the world — especially considering that farmed animals receive such a small portion of the philanthropic dollars available to all causes.

If we look at the world and how it is, and how it has progressed in recent times, the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] estimates that 850 million people around the globe are undernourished. They’re going to bed hungry every single night. That could make us feel extremely pessimistic. But if we look at the trajectory of this number, we should be feeling optimistic. In fact, the world is getting better. 

Of course, we continue to have huge and urgent human problems to solve, but overall, we're seeing significant improvements [over time] on many, many fronts. These include things like a rise in people living in democracies, and a rise in vaccination uptake and availability (which increases overall human health). And this has resulted in a decrease in child mortality, especially in countries like China and Brazil, where we're seeing large portions of the population lifted out of poverty and into the middle class.

That's a great thing for humans, of course. But while the world has gotten a lot better for humans, this unfortunately means that it has gotten a lot worse for farmed animals. In fact, today we're living in a time when we are producing and consuming more farmed animals than ever before in history. In terms of individual numbers, that especially applies to chickens and fish. Today’s farms are more concentrated than ever before. They confine 11 times more vertebrate animals than they did just 50 years ago — about 150 billion animals at a time.

The FAO projects that if we carry on as we are with our production and consumption of animals, factory farms will confine an additional 90 billion farmed animals by 2050. That's [240 billion animals, or nearly] 20 animals for every human being on the planet [based on 2050 population projections]. The number of animals we confine and slaughter only for human consumption every single year is more than the total number of humans that have ever lived on the planet, and that's just in one year. 

If we take a step back and look at how many animals were confined and slaughtered for food over the last 20 years, it's more than 30 times the number of humans who have ever lived on the planet. We're talking about huge amounts of individual suffering. Almost 200 billion land animals and fish are confined and slaughtered every year for food worldwide. And this number doesn't include crustaceans like shrimp or wild fish. If it did, it would be in the trillions.

Of course, the way these animals are kept causes huge amounts of suffering. They're confined in factory farms and they spend the entirety of their life closely confined, unable to express their natural behavior or get what they need and want as sentient beings. 

Battery cages, which confine laying hens to produce eggs, make hens unable to do the most basic instinctual behaviors like scratch, peck, perch, and nest. The hens are confined with six, eight, and sometimes more animals. They're unable to flap their wings freely. They're unable to move around freely. They often fight to the extent that they cannibalize one another. And the industry solution to that is to cut off the tip of the beak instead of improving the environment they're in.

[Another example] is the typical way in which mother pigs are kept in the industry. They're called gestation crates. These are narrow metal crates, where the pregnant pig is unable to turn around at all during her pregnancy. She can barely find her way down onto one side or the other, and then barely find her way back up again. And if you don't know, mother pigs are instinctually driven to do things like build nests before they give birth, but she is unable to do that. She's living on a concrete floor.

A third example is how dairy cows are typically kept around the world. They're tethered, unable to move and unable to express even the most basic instinctual behaviors.

[I haven't discussed] fish and meat chickens. They are equally confined in close quarters and suffer all kinds of problems related to their fast growth. These include disease and other welfare issues related to their inability to live a life in which they can express their natural behaviors.

There is a tremendous amount of suffering in these systems, and the suffering is happening every year and increasing every year.

Let's look at where this suffering is happening in the world. Currently, 6% of farmed animals alive at any given moment either live in the United States or the European Union. However, 85% of the total farm animal budget that we are spending as a movement is spent in these regions. If you flip that coin, 80% of farmed animals alive at any given moment live in Latin America and Southeast Asia, including India and China. And only 10% of the total budget is going to this region. That's why Mercy for Animals is starting a new project called “the 80%,” and beginning to frame the way we're making decisions so that we increasingly put our resources towards this 80%.

There are few organizations and efforts or resources addressing this issue. Because of the scale and the neglect, which are two really big issues and ways of framing problems for an effective altruist, there are big opportunities for the movement in this region.

So how can we help the entire movement maximize its impact in this region? The fact is that most effective altruists and most animal rights movement members are totally aware of this fact, and most want to intervene in Asia. But the problem is there are very few case studies on how to do it. There's very little data available on what's working and what's not. There are very few local groups, relatively speaking, and they're not resourced that well.

Mercy for Animals is creating a new tool, an index that will allow us to try to look at this. We started by thinking about the three things that frame an EA problem: scale, neglect, and tractability. Scale and neglect are relatively easy for us to figure out. There's plenty of data available for the movement. That's why we have a significant number of organizations planning to work in Asia. However, the last criterion, tractability [how easy it is to make progress in a given area], is a much more challenging one. And it's often not one that movements and organizations consider fully, because different countries — especially developing countries — have completely different social, cultural, and economic dynamics.

For this reason, when evaluating how and where we're going to prioritize our animal rights efforts at this time, tractability has become the most important factor for Mercy for Animals as we move forward. It's become very important in the tool that we are developing, which I'm going to share a bit about.

When we look at tractability in the United States and European Union, for example, we tried to think about why [the movement] has been successful in these regions. Yes, there are huge numbers of animals, and at some point there probably was neglect of the problem, but the real reason that we've had success in these countries and regions is because of tractability. 

What does that mean? There's a long history of awareness, a stable democracy, and a stable food economy. We've tried to think about what tractability means for the animal rights movement. We tried to lay that out as a number of factors that we're going to start measuring and looking at in any new region we enter.

Tractability measures can help provide a more complete understanding of Southeast Asia and Latin America as we move into them and try to figure out where our resources will be best spent. These measures include things like:

* The political climate. In other words, what is the prevalence of democracy, level of corruption, extent to which there’s freedom of the press, and level of xenophobia?
* The economic environment. What are the income levels and population projections? What about the percentage of income spent on food and the education levels? 
* The food economy. The amount of income spent on food would again be a factor in this category, along with meat consumption and production. 
* The attitude toward animal cruelty.
* The level of freedom of speech. Can people in the region participate in social media? Can they participate in protests? 
* Whether there are laws in place to protect animals. 
* The country’s level of cultural influence on the region or whole world. [Advocacy is more] important if the country is an influential one.

These are some of the factors that we've begun to include in what we're calling the “Farmed Animal Opportunity Index.” We’re doing it to help the entire movement address this question [of tractability]. Mercy for Animals plans to introduce this index sometime [in 2020]. We're developing it now, and I want to share a little bit more about it. 

The index is a composite indicator that provides a holistic assessment to help us understand where and how we can help farmed animals, and which programs and projects might be the most successful as we move forward.

Each factor has several sub-factors that help us see the whole picture. And [we've used] the EA framework — the three areas of scale, neglectedness, and tractability — behind the factors we’ve identified. Each sub-factor helps us calculate whether we’ll be successful. 

Factors we've identified in the tool include animal statistics, human statistics, global influence, export/import rates, neglect by the movement, political and legislative environment, and audience analysis. 

We’re going to pilot the project with a focus on China, India, and Southeast Asia, plus the countries in the Americas that Mercy for Animals is already working in: the United States, Mexico, and Brazil.

We've divided the factors under the three EA areas; scale, neglectedness, and tractability. We have several sub-factors under each of these that will help us create the composite tool.

Because some of the tractability issues are subjective and difficult to measure, we're going to allow people to play around with the tool. We will give users the chance to give each area [scale, neglect, and tractability] the weight they think it should have. So they'll be able to play with those depending on what they think is important for their analysis, which might be different from our analysis. And since it's much easier to evaluate things like scale and neglectedness, Mercy for Animals is putting a little more weight on tractability. In some cases, the work would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, [in an environment with low tractability].

Basically, our index will highlight potential work in the four most common programmatic areas that the movement works in right now:

1. Public engagement, which is awareness-raising;
2. Movement-building;
3. Corporate engagement; and
4. Government policy work. 

There will be sub-indexes created for each of these four areas, which we've assessed as those that most groups are working in and that the movement has identified as important for moving the farmed animal issue forward. There will be something like a grade or index for each of the four areas when you use the tool. 

Depending on the animal advocacy group, the index can help inform decision makers in different ways. For example, you might be able to identify potential opportunities to increase awareness work, but then see that institutional change has big challenges. Or in other regions, the index might show potential opportunities for awareness work and legislative work, but let you know that the ground is not fertile for corporate engagement.

[The results will vary] based on all of the factors and sub-factors feeding into the index. We're playing around with this. We're working with the tool. We're using as many resources as we can globally to help us inform the tool as we create it.

Now, I will say that this is not a magic tool. That's a point I really want to get across. The index is not meant to be the only tool you use to make a decision on how to move forward and what to move forward on; it's meant to be one of the tools that you use. We recommend using a mixed-method approach to make your decision. We hope this tool will be really helpful and give you more information as we all move forward into these regions that are neglected and represent 80% of farmed animals.

There are a lot of factors that we have not accounted for in our index — ones that are very difficult to measure and that we don't know of anyone measuring them well. These unaccounted-for factors are things like social media influencers’ impact, people’s attitudes toward animals, and the extent to which food neophobia is present in the region (i.e., whether people are afraid of new foods and how that might affect, for example, society’s receptiveness to a new plant-based product).

Again, this isn't a magic tool; it's meant to be something that helps inform your decision, but doesn't make the decision for you. We're planning to release all of this information later in 2020. We want it to be a tool for everyone. We're very excited to share and accelerate the movement's progress into the 80%.

If you're working on this too, let's work together. My brilliant coworker Rashmit Arora has been leading this project. He's our agricultural economist. His email is RashmitA@MercyforAnimals.org. You can also contact me at LeahG@MercyforAnimals.org if you have suggestions, thoughts, or ideas.

I hope I provided an interesting and stimulating idea today. I hope to see you all again soon. In the meantime, stay sane, stay happy, stay healthy, and good luck with all of the work you're doing. It's very important. Carry on.





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