Factory farming and other forms of animal exploitation represent an unimaginably large amount of suffering, as well as other grave ethical concerns. Despite concern for animals being arguably at an all-time high and the many apparent successes of corporate campaigns, meat consumption has been rising (Tim and Nathan 2019). In the face of this seemingly bleak situation, many animal advocates placed hope in cultured meat, but recent analyses from outside the industry have been pessimistic about the prospects for this technology, leaving some animal advocates without hope for victory. This report outlines how victory might be achieved with the patience and dedication of the movement.
To develop a sophisticated theory of change, we must understand what victory might look like and what the most plausible avenues to it are. A well thought out theory of change allows us to make this kind of alignment between our actions and our ideals. Current actions that do little to contribute to our most plausible victory scenarios could then be reconsidered and actions that contributed substantially towards these scenarios could be reinforced.
For example, we find that welfare reforms have made strong, tangible progress, and so remain a strong option for now, but may have difficulty in later stages. In contrast, sudden progress approaches like ballot initiatives and fundamental rights, that potentially achieve rapid progress for animals, may struggle to achieve their goals for now, but may become more promising once more progress has been made and ambitious asks become more realistic.
Turning to animal product replacements, we find the reasons for thinking that cultured meat will inevitably lead to victory for the movement (by replacing all or most animal products), are far less compelling than they formerly were. Plant-based meat represents a pathway that will likely play an important role in assisting other pathways, but is less likely to lead to strong progress on its own¹. In contrast, other alternative protein technologies represent a kind of wild card, which may result in a great deal of progress or may not result in any progress.
We also review the respective arguments for abolitionism and animal protectionism since this was a crucial consideration in this report. We conclude that strong forms of abolitionism, such as those defended by Francione, are not well supported, but that there are lessons around framing from abolitionism that animal advocacy organisations should take on board.
This is a broad, thorny and speculative subject, so our conclusions should be treated as tentative and preliminary. We have tried to appropriately qualify our conclusions to reflect this background level of uncertainty; however, it would clutter the writing to insert all of the necessary qualifiers and so we hope the reader will understand that this is a speculative subject and that our statement should be interpreted in that light.
WHAT WOULD VICTORY LOOK LIKE?
As a shorthand, this report will use the term victory to refer to a range of possible outcomes in which the animal advocacy community achieves its goals. There are different conceptions of what this might look like. At a minimum this would involve the end of state-sanctioned factory farming in many countries, and many might also call for the end of all animal farming, as well as further steps to protect the interests of animals.
Different moral theories have more substantive answers to this question. For example, consequentialist theories would want to see a future where animal interests are properly taken into account in human decisions such that the well-being of animals is maximised (Sinnott-Armstrong and Zalta 2015). It is sometimes thought that utilitarianism would not necessitate fully ending animal agriculture or other forms of animal exploitation. However, there are utilitarians who dispute this. They argue that we should end all animal farming based on the implausibility of producing animal products in a way that does not involve suffering and because the consumption of meat may lead to judgements of animals as having less moral worth, potentially leading to us disregarding their interests in other ways (Reese 2018; Bastian et al. 2012; Vinding 2014; Ozden 2022).
There are also consequentialist views that place special importance on improving the lives of the worst off. Versions of these theories include negative utilitarianism, the view that suffering has stronger moral weight than happiness; egalitarianism, the view that equal distributions of well-being are especially valuable; and prioritarianism, the view it is especially important to improve the wellbeing of the worst off. These views will be especially inclined to reject all animal exploitation because animals are among the worst off of beings alive today (Vinding 2014; Animal Ethics n.d., n.d.).
Rights-based approaches in contrast may view certain actions as wrong if they violate the rights of individuals, even if those actions increase overall well-being. They may also call for a broader range of rights than simply those that directly concern well-being (Alexander and Moore 2007)². Rights-based approaches are sometimes seen as calling for more radical changes, though this is not necessarily the case. For example, Alasdair Cochrane (2012) argues that most animals do not have a right to certain forms of liberation, because they are not beings like us to whom autonomy is valuable so do not have an interest in it. Note that he still believes that they have an interest in some forms of liberation, such as liberation from confining cages that stop them from performing natural activities.
Consequentialist theories can also have more radical implications than rights-based theories because consequentialist theories are famously more demanding than rights-based theories. Some argue that consequentialist theories should have no limits on how much they can morally demand of individuals (Kagan 1989). Notably, most consequentialist theories imply that we should help animals in the wild whenever we can do so without more harm than good (Horta 2017; Animal Ethics n.d.). Moreover, some argue that there are many cases when intervention could be beneficial and that in the future we will be in an even better position to help because of greater technology and knowledge (Horta 2017).
Francione offers a harder line rights-based approach (Francione and Garner 2010). He would like to see the end of all treatment of animals as property. This would include ending all use of animals from animal agriculture, animal testing, the use of animal products for clothing, and even the use of animals as companions. Francione focuses chiefly on the use of animals as problematic, rather than their suffering. This goal is shared by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP n.d.). We will discuss the methods of NhRP and Francione in greater detail later in the report.
In this report we will use the term “victory” or “victory for the animal advocacy movement” loosely to refer to this range of scenarios. For further discussion of the goals that animal advocacy organisations might have beyond the farmed animal context, see the section “After animal farming”.
Here we will review evidence behind the different potential pathways to victory. It appears most likely to us that if victory is achieved it will happen for a variety of these pathways, with each of them synergistically boosting the others (interview proceedings). This is because no single pathway seems much more likely than another and because there are plausible accounts of how each may support others, such as by increasing public concern, making raising animals less appealing for the industry, and presenting alternatives. Many pathways share these instrumental goals, and so will naturally support each other. This has been called “an ecology of social change”, with different organisations playing complementary roles in the ecosystem (Cockburn 2018).
An example of this is the “radical flank effect”. This refers to the interplay between a radical flank of the movement and more moderate wings. They can function as foils to each other, enhancing respectively how radical or moderate their messages are. In particular, the radical flank can help shift public perceptions about what is acceptable discourse, which can help the message of the moderate wing ultimately become accepted. However, there is also the potential for negative reactions to moderate flank effects. The moderate wing may come to be equated with the radical wing, or at the very least responsible for it, discrediting the moderate message and producing a backlash against it (Haines 2013).
Having different groups with different levels of radicalness and differing views also allows the movement to capture the enthusiasm of many different people. Some might be turned off by a more radical approach, opting instead for a more moderate one, whilst a moderate approach might be too tame for others who will be drawn to the radical group.
For these reasons, in most cases, the optimal distribution of movement resources will not be that the approach with the strongest arguments for effectiveness gets all the resources. Instead, the optimal approach will likely be a mix of priorities amongst different organisations. A diversity of approaches may be effective because it allows the movement to learn from trial and error and achieve results that particular approaches are better at achieving while avoiding diminishing returns (Ozden 2022). Having said this, some approaches have evidence of larger effects and so warrant a larger share of movement resources. Some approaches may also be counterproductive or harmful and so may warrant no movement resources.
Table 1: Pathways
|Pathway||Strengths||Limitations||Crucial Considerations||Overall conclusion|
|Reformed into adequacy or out of existence||Empirical track record||Reforms are far from liberation||Moving from reforms to liberation||Quite promising, at least in the short term|
|Fundamental rights||Aims close to the target, so very impactful if successful||Less tractable||Is it too much of a moonshot? How much will wins for sapient animals help other animals?||The current level of investment seems justified, and significantly larger investments may be warranted in the future|
|Consumer choice||Public opinion seems to be a bottleneck for many other pathways||Evidence for moral advocacy is limited and not strong||The evidence base for the efficacy of this approach||Lack of strong evidence for efficacy and more research is needed on this front. Shows promise|
|Ballot initiatives||Allows for a relatively clean translation of public opinion into victory||Requires public opinion and can only be practised in some regions||How should we interpret some of the poll results that appear promising?||Quite promising organisations working in areas that support ballot initiatives and especially promising in the future once more support has been built|
|Cultured meat||Allows for victory by simply outcompeting conventional meat||Various potential technological bottlenecks as described by Humbird (Humbird 2020)||Are recent criticisms of its technological feasibility decisive?||Still some chance this will lead to victory, though recent analyses make this look substantially less likely|
|Plant-based meats||We already have many plant-based products on the market||Not perceived as having the essence of meat||Can the products overcome the psychological attachments to conventional meat?||Likely an important part of any solution, but perhaps unlikely to constitute a solution on its own|
|Knockout animals||More proven in concept than other technological solutions||Unclear if it would remove all suffering and significant risks if it does not||Will all forms of suffering be removed||Most likely not a pathway worth pursuing, though more research to check this conclusion would be valuable|
|Other alternative protein technologies||Some potential to outcompete conventional meat||Not proven||Technological feasibility||Unlikely to be worth focusing movement resources on currently, but may help the movement in the future|
Reformed into adequacy or out of existence
A commonly imagined pathway – and one that is arguably assumed by most animal advocacy organisations – is that of incremental progress through a series of corporate and legislative welfare reforms. This is exemplified by the large investment in and apparent successes of corporate campaigns, as well as other welfare reform work. They suggest steady progress towards victory.
The reform pathway could lead to a much smaller number of higher welfare animals as welfare reforms progressively increase both the welfare and the price of meat. This could be regarded as an adequate situation by some, and it is also possible that this effectively shuts down the industry by making farming unprofitable with competition from alternative proteins.
Corporate campaigns have been astonishingly effective in securing commitments for welfare reforms. For example, over one third of hens in the US (over 100 million) are now cage free, up from 7% in 2015. The successes have been mirrored in Europe as well with the proportion of cage free hens in Italy and France approximately doubling over the same period (“Ten Big Wins for Farm Animals in 2021 - EA Forum” 2021). The Humane League (Evans 2021) estimates that 85% of corporate commitments to go cage free by 2020 have been met. This has been achieved through a substantial proportion of effective animal advocacy funds, an estimated 60% of their total spending (Ozden 2021).
This is arguably much more tangible progress than has been seen elsewhere from animal advocacy organisations. It might then seem reasonable to expect that corporate work of this kind will be primarily responsible for driving the animal advocacy community to victory. If progress continues in a similar way, this could happen by a series of incremental, though rapid, welfare reforms ultimately leading to the end of factory farming.
There is some indication that corporate campaigns have worked synergistically with legislative reform. For example, the cage free commitments that corporate campaigns have been particularly successful in achieving may have paved the way for the EU’s historic pledge in 2021 to phase out the use of cages (EA Forum 2022).
Despite the success in achieving welfare reforms, some might be sceptical about the ability of the reform pathway to lead to victory. For example, some people who are influenced by abolitionism might think that corporations will only be willing to go so far and that, perhaps, they have agreed to these reforms because they are reasonably cost-effective for the corporation to make, but that critical reforms will be much more expensive and this is where we will see progress stall.
An advocate for corporate campaigns might reply that this is based on more speculative theory and that the corporate campaigns approach has much stronger empirical support. If at a later date the progress begins to stall, we can re-evaluate at that point, but it does not make sense to abandon a well-supported approach based on speculative theory. For more discussion of this debate, see section Crucial Consideration 1: Abolitionism Versus Protectionism.
Another line of criticism against corporate campaigns is the relative amount of investment going into them. The user Kato on the Effective Altruism Forum (EA Forum 2022) acknowledges the successes that corporate campaigns have had but thinks that there is somewhat more relative investment in them than is optimal. Their chief concern with the current level of investment in corporate campaigns is that a broader, more pluralistic approach would enable the animal advocacy movement to learn and grow more effectively. This does not represent any strong criticism of the corporate campaigns approach, it is just an argument that focusing a majority of resources on corporate campaigns may be a mistake.
Because of the particularly tangible progress that has been made with the reform pathway, it seems particularly promising. A downside may be that each welfare increase is relatively small, considering what we might imagine an average member of the public would find acceptable and it is possible that, at least in the future, more ambitious asks will be more effective.
Additionally, more so than any other pathway, the reform pathway falls afoul of the abolitionist critique that it may reinforce some of the practices that it seeks to change. We argue later that the strong form of this critique, as put forward by Francione, is misguided, but there are some remaining worries around framing welfare reforms that people working on the reform pathway should take heed of.
The reform pathway may be a strong option for now because of the tangible welfare progress that it has made and because it can increase costs to industry and/or consumers, making alternatives more attractive. A weakness of the reform pathway is that it may be difficult for it to make the final push towards ending animal farming. It may leave us with a small number of farmed animals with higher welfare standards, but may therefore not satisfy more ambitious theories of victory (Ozden 2022), though at that point a full ban would no longer be a large step and could be pushed for directly.
In contrast to this incremental approach, the most prominently discussed way that change can happen more suddenly, from the top down, is through a successful court case or successful push for legislation for fundamental rights. One example of this that is held up in the animal advocacy movement is an event in the anti-slavery movement in the UK. This is the case of Somerset vs. Stewart, which put considerable pressure on the institution of slavery in the UK³ (Cotter 1994).
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) uses cases like this as a model for how we could grant fundamental rights to animals such as chimpanzees or whales for whom the case under the law is strongest⁴. They take cases for particular animals who have been mistreated such as Happy the elephant and Kiko the chimpanzee and file a writ of habeas corpus on their behalf. Habeas corpus is used in possible cases of unlawful detention and when applied the detainee is brought before the court to determine if the detention is indeed unlawful. The NhRP claim if the court agrees that habeas corpus applies in the case of the animal, that establishes personhood for the animals. They argue for this to be done because the animals have the right to liberty and bodily integrity. They suggest that the animals could be sent to sanctuaries instead.
Fundamentally, NhRP believe that our legal system either recognises them as persons or as property, and they regard this property paradigm as responsible for most of the harms that they suffer. They imagine that this could be extended to many other animals, through future legal work which could imply the end of animal farming or even broader implications for treatment of animals (see our After Animal Farming section) (Wise 2014; NhRP n.d.). However, speculatively, the personhood and autonomy arguments might be harder to make with animals such as farm animals who are sometimes perceived as less cognitively complex and less similar to us. This may mean that there is significantly more work to be done after sapient animals are recognised as bearers of fundamental rights in many countries.
There have already been limited small-scale successes in granting fundamental rights and even personhood to the sapient animals. Most of these cases have been through legislation rather than court battles. The most significant case is that the Balearic Islands, an autonomous archipelago in Spain, granted effective legal personhood to great apes. This was followed by an approval by the Spanish Parliament to extend this to the rest of Spain (Glendinning 2008). There have been various other cases that came close to granting great apes and some other animals legal personhood but have fallen short in various ways (Wise 2014)
This idea that change will come suddenly is supported by the punctuated equilibrium theory of policy change and was first proposed by Frank Baumgartner and Brian Jones (Baumgartner and Jones 2010) in the context of lobbying. According to this theory, there are periods of stagnation and policy change, punctuated by periods when there is much greater change. These periods of much greater change occur when the interest groups supporting the change are able to shift the framing around the policy, as well as the understanding of it and the underlying culture (Baumgartner and Harris 2020). For example, currently the framing around animal agriculture could be said to be that it is natural, traditional, and wholesome, and with this dominant narrative, as well as the reluctance of government to address the status quo, change is unlikely. However, if the framing could be shifted towards the typical animal advocate view of animal agriculture as being industrial, cruel, and unsustainable, change might begin to happen rapidly.
One part of punctuated equilibrium theory is that issues are often seen as either problems or as solutions to problems (Baumgartner and Harris 2020). Therefore, if animal advocacy organisations can successfully shift the view of animal agriculture from being a solution to the problem of a supply of healthy protein, to a view of it as a problem of animal cruelty, environmental degradation, and global hunger, rapid progress may begin to be made.
Some examples of cases where societal changes were achieved suddenly (at least in Western countries) are same-sex marriage and the rejection of smoking (Baumgartner and Harris 2020). For example, in the height of tobacco use in the US, 45% of surveyed adults reported smoking a cigarette in the last week, compared to only 16% in 2021 (Courtney Dillard, Tess Morrison, Marcy Regambal, Alan Presburger, n.d.). In contrast, many other advocacy causes (including animal advocacy itself) do not appear to have had this kind of rapid success.
We remain uncertain about which of the respective views of sudden or incremental progress is correct. Speculatively, we see a sudden victory as unlikely at this time, and we see incremental approaches as valuable in moving us forward for now, but later on more ambition may be called for and may be more effective in achieving more rapid changes.
A simple possible pathway to victory is through more and more people becoming vegan. This could happen through outreach efforts convincing more and more people to become vegan, adding further strength to the movement, and eventually a tipping point could be reached when veganism becomes the moral mainstream. This is arguably the pathway that Francione and some other abolitionists assume as at least the appropriate way to make progress in the short term. Though it might be impossible to get close to a moral consensus on this issue, once a tipping point was reached it would be much easier to get legislation passed to abolish the remaining vestiges of the industry.
However, the principal shortcoming of the consumer choice pathway is that it seems that moral advocacy to individuals on social issues such as animal farming is difficult (Tamler 2011). The animal advocacy movement used to rely more on the consumer choice pathway, but it has since moved away from this approach in response to more rigorous studies finding at least forms of individual outreach being much less effective than expected. Recent studies on leafleting suggest that it is not an effective intervention and may in fact accomplish nothing (ACE 2013) and the evidence for online ads has also been lacklustre⁵ (Reese 2016). Additionally, despite what looks like greater cultural enthusiasm for the diets, it is not clear that rates of vegetarianism and veganism do not appear to have increased substantially over time, despite advocacy efforts (Reese 2018).
Reese (2020) argues that this kind of individual focus has a number of shortcomings including lack of successful historical precedents, the defensiveness it arouses, and the comparative difficulty of individual versus institutional solutions, amongst other reasons. Additionally, a survey by Sentience Institute shows that a majority of survey experts thought that institutional messaging is a stronger advocacy option (note that Jacy Reese Anthis and Kelly Anthis are included among the 21 experts that they surveyed) (Anthis 2017).
A recent study by Faunalytics (Polanco 2022) evaluated many types of individual outreach. Of these, they recommended social media posts and news articles on animal advocacy because they reduce meat consumption in meat avoiders and did not have a negative backlash effect on meat eater behaviour. Animal advocacy videos, leaflets, and celebrity endorsements were also weakly recommended by them based on this evidence. This data is more optimistic about outreach, but many methods were still not put in the recommended categories due to either limited evidence or weak evidence of negative effects.
Similarly, Mathur et al. (2021) conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of 100 studies on the effect of different advocacy techniques on meat consumption. They conclude that certain interventions are indeed promising, though they also highlight limitations such as reliance on self-report and the short-term nature of the studies. They call for more rigorous studies and analysis of the most promising interventions that they identified.
Moving from reviews and meta-analyses to another strong form of evidence, Carfora et al. (2017) conducted a randomised control trial using daily text messaging and documented a decrease in processed meat consumption from 3.13 to 1.74 portions of processed meat consumed throughout the week. The participants were undergraduates.
Though it may be unlikely to constitute a pathway in its own right, public choice and opinion remains an important background factor in many of the other pathways. Public opinion in particular is arguably a very significant driver, or even the most important driver, of many of the other pathways. For example, animal advocacy organisations are able to exert pressure and ultimately secure reforms during corporate campaigns because of the actual or potential public backlash. Similarly, legislative reforms may be much more likely if politicians can be shown that their constituency is very supportive of the reform.
The consumer choices of the public in reducing animal product consumption in favour of plant-based products (eventually cultured meat products) can also have a significant impact. However, despite this strong supporting role, as long as moral concerns do not play a large role in dictating many of their purchasing decisions, it may be hard for much change to be driven from consumer decisions.
It may also be the case that political and corporate interests can successfully oppose the demands of public opinion in some cases, so majority public support for something may often not be enough to get it passed. Overall, there is some positive evidence of some forms of moral advocacy as an approach, though evidence is limited.
Another way in which victory could be achieved is through ballot initiatives. Ballot initiatives are particularly notable here for their potential to achieve sudden striking results for the animal advocacy movement. Ballot initiatives are a form of direct democracy that are distinguished by both being created by the public and voted on by the public, unlike referenda which are voted on by the public but created by the legislator (Schukraft 2020). Ballot initiatives are not widely practised, with 24 US states and Switzerland being responsible for most of them.
Nevertheless, some important victories for animals have been achieved with ballot initiatives. In the US, amendment 10 in Florida banned gestation crates and proposition 204 in Arizona banned gestation crates and veal crates. Finally, proposition 2 in California banned gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages (Schukraft 2020). Meanwhile, Sentience Politics has been active in Switzerland. In 2016, they led a ballot initiative to require schools and town halls in Lucerne, Basel, Zurich, and Berlin to offer at least one vegan option per day. They are also currently working on a ballot initiative to ban factory farming in Switzerland and a ballot initiative to extend fundamental rights to primates in Basel (SP n.d., n.d.).
Ballot initiatives offer the promise of being a sort of direct conduit of public opinion. When public opinion is indeed favourable this stands to be very useful. There are some indications that this is the case. For example, this Sentience Institute survey (J. R. Anthis 2017) found that a total of 47% of the US public supported a ban on slaughterhouses (14% strongly agree, 10% agree, and 17% somewhat agree). If this is accurate it could be taken as strong support for pursuing bold ballot initiatives now, as Sentience Politics’ ballot initiative to ban factory farming in Switzerland (SP n.d.). However, the answers to the Sentience Institute survey are strongly at odds with this result, suggesting that public opinion is inconsistent, but overall not yet strongly favourable towards animals. As such, we think these survey results should be treated with extreme caution, though note also that a poll by Viva! in the UK found even higher support for banning factory farming, 85% (Viva! 2021).
The cost of ballot initiatives varies widely. For example, in their report on the subject Rethink Priorities (Schukraft 2020) describes cases costing between $47,000 and $23 million USD, with cases in larger jurisdictions tending to cost more (but probably less per capita). Also notable is that even a failed campaign may generate public awareness of the issue and generate a debate on the subject (Schukraft 2020).
Despite their great promise in converting public opinion into dramatic and sudden change, since there are only a limited number of countries and areas that allow ballot initiatives, ballot initiatives could not by themselves lead to victory for the animal advocacy movement. However, they could lead to local victories that could later spread to other areas. Switzerland is a well-respected country that is seen as a world leader in many areas. It is relatively small as well, which suggests that the investment needed to achieve this may be smaller. In this light, the work of Sentience Politics on ballot initiatives in Switzerland seems particularly valuable.
Investment in the states that allow ballot initiatives may also be promising. In this case, there is the potential for other states to be influenced by the decision, and the potential for it to later be adopted at a federal level. This would require substantially more work, especially since the animal welfare standards of the United States are substantially weaker than the animal welfare standards of Switzerland (World Animal Protection n.d.), though the United States is perhaps the most culturally influential country, as well as being responsible for a great deal of animal farming and animal product consumption.
Ballot initiatives seem very useful for getting a foothold to press for wider adoption, though it may well be that more work is required before more ambitious asks, such as ending factory farming, will be able to pass. The cost-effectiveness of ballot initiatives is not completely clear in most cases, but they should be considered, especially in areas where public support is particularly high, but politicians may be reluctant to move (Wrenn 2012).
Cultured meat (or clean meat) is meat from animal cells cultured and grown on a medium inside a bioreactor, outside the body of an animal. Though current production involves some use of animals, such as for bovine growth serum, it is possible that it will become economically feasible to avoid this in the future, meaning that no direct animal suffering will be required to produce the meat. Industry also claims that it will be possible to make cultured meat significantly more environmentally friendly than conventional meat by reducing carbon emissions, water usage, and land usage, as well as potentially making the product more healthy, for example by removing cholesterol (Swartz 2021).
Because of the perceived promise of the technology in outcompeting conventional meat, in doing away with the need for difficult moral advocacy, cultured meat has been regarded by many at animal advocacy organisations as the most promising way to victory. This enthusiasm was buoyed by many optimistic estimates about the timelines for the technology, as well as the theoretical argument that it is in principle much more efficient than standard animal agriculture, since only the meat is grown, not extraneous parts of the animal.
Bruce Friedrich, co-founder of the Good Food Institute, claims that the main arbiters of people’s food purchasing decisions are taste, price, and convenience. He suggests then that once cultured meat is able to perform competitively with regular meat in these categories, it will begin to overtake conventional meat in market share, and, he claims, will eventually become dominant by becoming cheaper than conventional meat (Wiblin and Harris 2018).
These enthusiastic forecasts were driven largely by those inside the industry who are also likely to be biased in favour of shorter timelines, as well as being selected for optimism because people who were pessimistic about the industry are unlikely to work in it. However, a number of recent external evaluations of the technology have painted a less rosy picture of it and timelines for it.
For example, building on the work of a Mother Jones article (Philpott 2021), this Rethink Priorities article (Dullaghan 2021a) collected a total of 273 predictions associated with cultured meat. At the time of writing, 84 of these predictions had resolved, with 9 of them resolving correctly, and 75 resolving incorrectly. Note that many of these predictions were quite vague, and so interpretation of them is tricky. In many cases, literal readings were taken, though other interpretations are possible. Nevertheless, this broad trend suggests that predictions in this space have been overly optimistic.
Another report by Rethink Priorities (Dullaghan and Zhang 2022) paid a team of highly ranked Metaculus forecasters to predict cultured meat timelines. There predictions on cultured meat timelines were as follows:
Aggregated probabilities of cultured meat production targets
|50M||Not asked||Not asked||9%|
Though any prediction of the future is difficult, forecasters with traits similar to those chosen in that report have been found to be best at the task, outperforming field experts. The efficacy of forecasters, however, has largely only been studied up until the 10 year mark, and so these predictions should be treated with caution (Tetlock and Gardner 2016).
100,000 metric tons would only be a small fraction of the current global alternative protein production of 13 million metric tons and would not be in significant competition with the current global meat market of ~545 million metric tons (including fish) (Dullaghan and Zhang 2022). Therefore, these forecasts should be seen as relatively pessimistic, at least compared to many of the industry predictions about cultured meat.
An important study on the technical feasibility of cultured meat was conducted by David Humbird (2020). This study was important in influencing the Rethink Priorities analyses and predictions of cultured meat described earlier. The problem areas he identified were “[l]ow growth rate, metabolic inefficiency, catabolite and CO2 inhibition, and bubble-induced cell damage will all limit practical bioreactor volume and attainable cell density”. Further, he claims that “a significant engineering effort would be required to address even one of these issues.” The overall conclusion is pessimistic about the prospects for cultured meat being able to overcome these prospects and become cost competitive.
Chriki and Hocquette (2020) argue that there are substantial technological problems remaining and no real advances on these problems. Moreover, they argue that the data on whether cultured meat represents reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared with raising animals is equivocal, with some studies finding reduced emissions and others finding increased emissions.
Post et al. (2020) is more sanguine, arguing that though there are substantial technical and consumer acceptance problems, they see progress and anticipate that cultured meat will become a food commodity in the near future.
Despite this overall pessimism, progress has been made in this time. For example, Eat Just has been serving cultured meat in its Singapore restaurant since 2019. The nuggets are sold at 23$ per meal at a loss to the company. Eat Just have not disclosed how much of a loss this currently represents, though they revealed that in 2019 the cost of producing a single nugget was 50$ (McCormick 2021)⁶.
Even if the technology is developed, there are reasons to think that there will at least need to be more work to achieve broad consumer acceptance. Bryant and Barnett (2020) reviewed studies of consumer acceptance of cultured meat, finding that typically a majority are willing to at least try it and a substantial proportion are interested in consuming it on a regular basis. One pattern is that people typically see benefits as accruing to society, but risks accruing to themselves. Perhaps because of this, frames that highlighted both individual and societal benefits were most effective. This data is fairly encouraging, though it does suggest that a majority of the population would continue consuming animals and therefore that cultured meat has an important, but not decisive role to play. However, optimistically, if the price became lower than regular meat and its taste and convenience were similar, some of these people might become accustomed to the new technology and begin to eat it regularly.
Perceived consumer concerns with cultured meat included unnaturalness, food safety, nutrition, and economic concerns, as well as simple disgust and neophobia. Though the unnaturalness of the product was perceived as a significant downside to it, consumers were largely not receptive to arguments that cultured meat is in fact natural. They were more convinced by arguments for the benefits of the product. They found that the term “clean meat” led to significantly higher rates of acceptance, “lab grown meat” led to significantly lower rates of acceptance, and “cultured meat” led to rates of acceptance between these two (Bryant and Barnett 2018).
Beyond taste, price, and convenience, another framework for thinking about people’s stated reasons for consuming meat is the four Ns framework that eating meat is natural, normal, necessary, and nice. Piazza et al. (2015) tested this theory, finding that an impressive 83% - 91% of rationalisation for eating meat fell into one of these four categories. Since these categories are moral justifications, people will be less likely to mention factors such as price and convenience, because these look trivial or even offensive when invoked to justify an immoral action. That people feel comfortable bringing up ‘niceness’ as a moral justification may be a testament to how small of a moral issue the consumption of animal products is regarded, since this would be viewed as unacceptable in the context of other moral issues (Piazza et al. 2015).
Overall, we are much less confident about the cultured meat pathway than we previously were. However, if the technological hurdles can be overcome, it would show a great deal of promise. Because of this, and because the recent scepticism regarding it is relatively speculative, we do not discount it as a pathway. One of the experts we interviewed argued that many technologies have similar hurdles that must be overcome, and, since we have not solved these yet, they may look difficult to solve from where we are standing. They also noted that the track record for predicting that various technologies were impossible is quite poor (interview proceedings).
Perhaps we do not need to go as far as cultured meat in order to take over the market share from animal agriculture. Though plant-based meats are still a small share of the market currently, Impossible Foods and especially Beyond Meat have shown some popularity amongst meat eaters, and have gained some market share from them (Chiorando 2018). These products were designed to appeal to meat eaters and are sold in the meat aisles in supermarkets (Chiorando 2018).
The overall plant-based meat market has been seeing significant growth with a rise of 19% in value of sales from 2018 to 2019 and 46% from 2019 to 2020 (Bollard 2022b). However, the 2020 to 2021 period saw this stall, with 0% growth during this period (Bollard 2022b). Despite growth in some recent years, current consumption is low compared to regular meat, amounting to only 0.25% of the global meat market (including fish) according to one estimate (Dullaghan and Zhang 2022) or 1.4% of the U.S meat market according to another estimate (PBFA 2022). This covers plant-based meats, though plant-based milks have been more successful. They represent 16% of all milk sales in the US (PBFA 2022)
Plant-based meats already exist and we can likely expect improvements without the same sort of technical hurdles involved with cultured meat production. Some of these improvements have also brought plant-based meats molecularly closer to real meat, such as the plant-based heme content of Impossible Burgers, the core molecule in blood, which is an key ingredient for the distinctive flavour of meat (Choudhury et al. 2020).
However, even if plant-based meats can begin to compete on price and further improve flavour, people may have particular psychological and cultural associations with meat that may mean many will continue to eat regular meat. Meat is the centre of many cultural traditions involving food across the world. Being traditionally more expensive than other forms of food, it is also seen as a higher status form of consumption (Charles et al. 1988). Meat is also associated with masculinity and male virility, being seen as something that “real men” eat (Adams 2018; Loughnan, Bastian, and Haslam 2014).
Even when plant-based meats are functionally very similar to regular meat, the perceived essence of them and these corresponding psychological and cultural associations may be very different. This is also a significant worry for the adoption of cultured meat, but less so given that it is physically the same product, reducing the ease at which people can psychologically differentiate it.
A recent survey asked people what they would consume if taste and price were equalised and it found that 30% would opt for “meat-like alternatives from plants” instead of “real meat from animals” (Bollard 2022b). Similarly, another survey asked people if they would choose regular meat or Beyond Meat if the two were equally priced. 27% said that they would choose Beyond Meat (Tonsor, Lusk, and Schroeder 2022; Bollard 2022b). Surveys like this should be interpreted with care because they ask consumers to predict how they would act in hypothetical situations. More compellingly, a study in a UCLA dining hall where consumers did not have to pay extra for the Impossible Burger found that 11-26% opted for it over the meat option when it was heavily promoted based on environmental benefits (Bollard 2022a; Malan 2020). More pessimistically, an analysis by Lusk et al. (2021) suggests that for each 10% reduction in price for plant-based beef products, there would be only a 0.15% reduction in US cattle production, in a slightly lower decline in global cattle production.
This offers some preliminary evidence that plant-based meat could serve as part of the solution, but would not see the kind of universal uptake it would take to end animal agriculture on its own. It is possible that a higher consumption of alternative proteins would mean that fewer people are resistant to reductions of the size of animal agriculture in the future. Considering this along with current low intake of plant-based animal products suggests that plant-based meat will play a supporting role at best in the victory of the animal advocacy movement.
Even if the industry does not manage to avoid “the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing”, future technology may still offer us a pathway to avoid at least the worst suffering of these animals (Smithsonian Magazine and Eschner 2017). Shriver (2009) proposes that this may be done through making “knockout animals”. That is, animals who have a gene involved in pain perception are knocked out, meaning that they do not experience the affective dimension of pain and therefore do not ‘mind’ the experience. Morphine has a similar effect in removing the affective component of pain experience, and pain blunted by morphine is typically regarded as morally unproblematic, though it is difficult to be sure that the same holds true for animals, who are unable to share details of their experience with us (Shriver 2009). Shriver argues that because the sensory component of pain would be retained, some protective behaviour would remain, which could allow the animals to avoid some of the injuries that they might otherwise experience, and so making the raising of these animals potentially economically feasible.
Utilitarians should probably view this scenario as not inherently ethically problematic on the face of it. Deontologists might object to the use of animals as property or as “mere means”. Still, all plausible moral theories take consequences (especially suffering) into consideration in some respect and it would be hard to object that this scenario is not greatly preferable to the status quo (Shriver 2009).
Moral common sense might regard it as unnatural and as a perversion of the animal nature or of the dignity of the animals (Schultz-Bergin 2017). However, these are already greatly violated by the status quo that uses them for their flesh and causes them to grow unnatural proportions, in conditions that do not allow them to express their natures. Knocking out the genes responsible for pain would largely just be removing the suffering associated with this (Shriver 2009). Additionally, the idea of ‘naturalness’ is hard to define and it is hard to justify and reflectively endorse the moral importance commonly assigned to this term (Shriver and McConnachie 2018). Concern for “naturalness” here may simply reduce down to status quo bias and disgust, which are difficult to give moral justifications for.
There are also genetic modifications that could be made to livestock short of the complete knockout of pain genes. These include modifying cows so that they are born without horns and therefore do not need to go through the painful process of dehorning and modifying chickens so that they are born with softer beaks that therefore are less damaging to other chickens during feather pecking. Some of these may come with welfare costs, for example if they prevent the animals from engaging in actions that they find naturally rewarding, though in the cases described above, given that horns and large portions of beaks are already regularly removed, the effect of the modification would largely just be to remove the great pain associated with these procedures. Having said this, one could reasonably argue that it is beneficial for the industry to solve these welfare issues in better ways that treat the underlying issues such as crowding, rather than modifying animals to fit terrible conditions in ways that reduce their welfare. These modifications would not reduce suffering as dramatically as knocking out pain genes, but they might still have a role to play (Shriver and McConnachie 2018). They could perhaps serve as stepping stones for the implementation of the knocking out of the pain genes, though it is unclear if they would be dramatically harder to implement than the knocking out of the pain genes.
Our most significant remaining worry with the knockout animals pathway is that a knockout of this gene might not remove the negative valence of psychological states that they are likely to experience in factory farm conditions such as fear, distress, and boredom. If this could not be done then this would not represent an appealing ideal or endgame, because this could still represent a huge amount of suffering. Moreover, the lack of ability to experience physical suffering might give farmers the moral licence to treat them much worse, increasing the amount of psychological suffering (Wilkinson 2009). Though this cannot be ruled out, it appears as though the underlying circuitry is shared between mental and physical suffering, suggesting that knockout animals would not experience mental suffering. Though this is still not certain and some circuits, such as depression, may use different pathways (interview proceedings). One experimental data point that knockout animals would not feel psychological pain is shown in this passage: “Interestingly, studies have shown that that ablation of the anterior cingulate causes mother mammals to stop responding to the cries of their young, leading some researchers to suggest that the “neural alarm” system that underlies parental response was built off of the machinery for pain” (Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams 2003; Shriver 2009).
A survey of 211 members of the general public found that more people opposed the use of knockout animals in experiments than supported it (Gardner and Goldberg 2007). The sample was largely composed of research scientists and vegetarians and/or members of the animal advocacy community (vegan was not included as an option). The first question that they were asked was "[t]he technology now exists to create mice that are genetically engineered to feel no pain. Should these animals be created for the purposes of biological research?" Overall, 31.6% strongly disagreed that they should be created, 16.5% disagreed, 14.9% strongly agreed, and 25.5% agreed, with the rest being undecided. From the animal advocacy community this level of disagreement was even higher, with 58.7% strongly disagreeing or 72% for animal advocates who were also vegetarian. This level of disagreement may mean that the prospect is a non-starter, since even the would be advocates of this idea are opposed.
Though to our knowledge the gene editing technology has not yet been applied to farmed animals, Wei et al. (2002) successfully developed the technology in mice. We are not aware of any special challenges involved in adopting the techniques for farmed animals, and so this technology is probably more readily accessible than cultured meat. Having said this, because of the strong criticism and disfavour from even allies of animals, we think this path to victory is unlikely. There is also uncertainty about whether this really makes the kind of physical pain these animals experience essentially morally unproblematic and significant uncertainty about if it would remove all mental suffering. This probably mixes pathways to risky until these questions are answered. It may still be an improvement of the status quo, but we cannot now be sure that it represents victory.
Other alternative protein technologies
Thinking more broadly than just growing animal cells in a medium outside of the body of an animal, there are also other alternative protein technologies that could potentially be developed and could take market share from meat.
For example, the organisation ALLFED (Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters) works on developing plans to use alternate food technologies to feed everyone on earth in the case of disasters that disrupt other forms of agriculture. Many of these technologies do not involve the use of animals and they argue that they could be used to feed everyone, although many would not be palatable enough to compete with meat in non-disasters scenarios (Denkenberger and Pearce 2014; ALLFED n.d.). As with plant-based meats, alternate protein technologies that do not produce cellular meat, with the cultural and psychological associations with that product.
One of these is the Finnish startup, Solar Foods, which is working on producing a high protein content food made from microbes. The microbes are grown using hydrogen from solar energy, water, carbon dioxide, and minerals (“VTT: Hiili ei olekaan pelkkää saastetta – hiilidioksidin uusiokäytöllä valmistetuilla tuotteilla ilmastonmuutoksen kannalta suotuisia vaikutuksia” 2019; Grichnik, Müller, and Schreiber 2021). Some formulation of this product could potentially play a role in taking market share from conventional meat if it were possible to make this cheaper than conventional meat, though considerably more work would have to be done in order to make this taste competitive.
However, if they have advantages over conventional meat production, they may still be able to take market share from conventional meat if they are particularly successful. Therefore, though it is difficult to anticipate in advance, the animal advocacy movement could get substantial help from this movement in the future. However, this remains speculative and none of the current alternative protein technologies seem promising in this respect.
Finally, we should consider the possibility that victory is never achieved. There are a number of somewhat distinct though related scenarios this could encompass:
- Business as usual: No meaningful progress is ever made
- Some significant progress is made before stalling and plateauing at some inadequate level
- Some new development makes the situation for animals worse, potentially far worse than it was previously
The scenario that Francione imagines is 1). It is difficult to maintain this without either a moral view that does not acknowledge distinctions between different levels of welfare or without some strong empirical claims that Francione argues for.
Another potential lesson from abolitionism to be wary of is to be wary of getting stuck at a local optimum that nevertheless falls well short of victory for the animal advocacy community as 2) suggests. An example of how this could happen is if the pace of welfare reforms continues until it reaches a point where most people, without further moral advocacy, view the conditions as acceptable even when they are made conscious of them. This scenario could happen if welfare reforms inspired momentum in the short term, but this did not translate into long term momentum.
For 3), consider that the switch to factory farming began in earnest after the second world war, despite a rising concern for animals (Danielle 2005). This rising concern for animals is suggested from its increasing appearance and legislation in countries such as the UK and from the increasing attention to it in at least academic moral discourse (Broom 2011). It can also be seen from the book Animal Machines (Harrison 2013), first published in 1964, which described the huge ethical issue of factory farming as it was unfolding. This concern therefore does not seem to have protected animals from the horrors of factory farming, and perhaps the higher level of concern for animals seen in modern times would not protect us from some new horror in our treatment of animals if it became economically profitable to do so.
One potential candidate for this worsening of conditions is the farming of insects. Insect farming has been heralded as an environmentally friendly form of protein, with animal welfare issues infrequently discussed, however, because insects have such small body sizes, huge numbers of them need to be raised and killed to produce the same amount of meat. It is unclear if they are sentient because of the difficulty of assessing this in animals with minds much different from our own, but there are some surprisingly strong indications of sentience in them, which cannot be dismissed (Schukraft 2019).
Some argue that insects would not mind the conditions because they have small and simpler minds, and so are easy to satisfy. However, they are likely to be raised in extremely intensive conditions, with extremely little research on their welfare in different conditions. Additionally, there is already extreme neglect of the welfare of farmed animals, and in the case of insects this will probably be total neglect of their welfare. There are no animal welfare laws concerning the treatment of them (Rowe 2020; Carpendale 2019). But most concerningly, the massive numbers of insects suggest that the rise of farming them could represent a new era of factory farming, despite concern for animals being at perhaps an all-time high.
CRUCIAL CONSIDERATION 1: ABOLITIONISM VERSUS PROTECTIONISM
An important and central debate in advocacy is between abolitionism and another perspective that has been called “welfarism”, “new welfarism”, or “animal protectionism”. In our research for this report, we found this debate particularly relevant as a crucial consideration. In particular, we thought that if abolitionism were true, it would have large implications for this report. Though, like most staff at animal advocacy organisations, we came in with greater sympathy for animal protectionism, we have attempted to keep an open mind in our consideration of the arguments and evidence.
The terms welfarism or new welfarism are the terms generally used by abolitionists such as Francione, but defenders of that position, such as Garner prefer a more neutral term that does not suggest that they are aligned with animal welfare science – which they see as too close to the industry – or imply a focus of welfare rather than rights (Francione and Garner 2010). We will use the term “animal protectionism” in this post, so as not to beg the question against their position by assuming those things through our terminology.
The abolitionist approach is characterised by rejection of what it regards as piecemeal welfare campaigns and single-issue campaigns, in favour of a clearer, hard-line rejection of the use of all sentient animals. Abolitionists argue that these single-issue campaigns are misguided and are perhaps actively harmful because they reinforce the message that other forms of animal exploitation not touched by them are morally acceptable. Some abolitionists would also argue that a campaign against the wearing of fur is also misguided because it does not mention leather or other forms of animal exploitation and therefore suggests that fur is problematic, but these other products are not (Francione and Garner 2010).
Animal protectionism is normally defined in contrast with abolitionism. So-called animal protectionists may or may not agree with abolitionist goals of ending animal farming and all other use of animals, but they at least agree that incremental improvements in the conditions of animals are both morally valuable in themselves and strategically valuable. They view their position as more pragmatic in accepting an incremental approach, rather than accepting nothing short of full veganism and animal liberation.
A strong abolitionist approach unfortunately leaves few animal advocacy approaches which are permissible. Francione suggests that we should be doing direct, no frills vegan outreach as individuals or as grassroots organisations, which does not allow the movement to experiment with a diversity of tactics and to push forward on multiple fronts. Unfortunately, the evidence base behind individual outreach so far suggests that is not an effective approach or at least not an approach that should be pursued to the exclusion of other approaches (Sentience Institute 2020; ACE 2013; Reese 2016).
Francione suggests that the debate ultimately comes down to differing moral values, though some animal protectionists disagree that this is a significant factor as they also aim to end all animal exploitation (Vegan Debate Archive 2018; Francione and Garner 2010). Instead, these animal protectionists claim that the difference is only one of strategy, with their position being the more pragmatic and ultimately the more achievable position.
In favour of this, they point to the many welfare reforms that have been passed by animal advocacy organisations that generally share their philosophy. Abolitionists of course reject that these amount to meaningful improvements and argue that they may be at best distractions, and at worst roadblocks on the pathway to victory.
Do welfare reforms constitute meaningful reductions in suffering?
In response, protectionists argue that the reforms are, at the very least, significant for the amount of suffering they constitute in the short term. This represents the first major disagreement on whether welfare reforms really do constitute meaningful reductions in the amount of suffering.
To begin with, it is difficult to discuss welfare reforms in general in this way, since each welfare reform is different. In our work helping organisations prioritise amongst possible interventions for the next campaigns, we examine the expected welfare effects of different reforms using systematic research methods. As a result of this research, we are certainly sceptical of some reforms in certain contexts, and we believe some to have a neutral or negative impact on animals. We always encourage organisations to think more carefully and critically about which issues to campaign on and which welfare reforms to support.
However, many appear to have quite a large positive impact for animals, and Francione’s sweeping claim that none or essentially none of these reforms would constitute a meaningful reduction in suffering seems very implausible. In assessing his claims, we look through the chapter dedicated to this: The Empirical and Structural Defects of Animal Welfare Theory in Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (G. Francione 2010). We were unable to find adequate empirical sources cited in that chapter to back up these claims.
Turning to other sources, we took a case for which we judged should be an easy case for Francione’s position if it were true and also a particularly important case given the large amount of investment in it. This is the case of cage free (aviary) systems for laying hens instead of cage systems. The Open Philanthropy Project was criticised by DxE who claim that cage free (aviary) systems for housing hens may actually be worse for hen welfare (as tracked chiefly by mortality rate). To make this claim, they just wrote this memo that reviews the literature on the subject. In response, the Open Philanthropy Project wrote a report (“How Will Hen Welfare Be Impacted by the Transition to Cage-Free Housing?” 2017) arguing that they were no longer as confident in the previous claims, but they still believe that cage free systems were necessary to transition to even higher welfare systems and that an analysis of the strongest studies in the literature suggested that cage systems were higher welfare.
Our assessment agrees with Open Philanthropy in this case, though we remain unsure. Another recent attempt to calculate the difference between the two systems by Welfare Footprint Project (Schuck-Paim and Alonso 2021) concluded that cage free is clearly superior, with most of the welfare difference coming from the deprivation of natural behaviours in caged systems. Given that this should have been an easy case of a marginal improvement for the abolitionist position, we take this as significant evidence against their thesis.
Other cases are less ambiguous. For example, in many countries, farmed animals – especially fish in aquaculture – are not always stunned before slaughter. Though stunning is often inadequate with respect to its reliability in causing unconsciousness, it is difficult to argue that it is not beneficial for the animals compared to slaughter without stunning (Gregory 2005; AE UK n.d.; Jung-Schroers et al. 2020). Additionally, if it were thought that stunning was particularly unreliable, and therefore does not represent a meaningful welfare improvement, organisations could instead campaign to increase the reliability of the stunning process.
Francione thinks that veal is not worse than dairy because each is just the use of animals (Vegan Debate Archive 2018). Full analyses of the question have found that beef involves much more suffering (and veal plausibly results in much more suffering than other forms of beef) (Ladak 2020; Tomasik 2007). The differences between these two cases seem like extremely relevant details for moral theory to pay attention to.
Additionally, some single-issue campaigns, such as banning fur, do not involve welfare reforms as such, they involve removing animals, or whole groups of animals, from the production system entirely. This criticism therefore does not apply to those campaigns.
Will substitution to lower welfare meat occur, negating benefits of reforms?
The second major disagreement is on whether people will just substitute for lower welfare animal products. This, again, is always a concern that organisations should pay attention to when picking campaigns. This is particularly a concern when there is a risk for consumers to substitute for even lower welfare products, such as substituting for small animals. Our report ‘Meat Tax: Why Chickens Pay The Price’ represents a case where the risk of this appears to be high and so we recommend against intervention.
Having said this, it is again a strong claim to say that substitution for lower welfare products will almost always happen. While meat is generally a somewhat inelastic product (Andreyeva, Long, and Brownell 2010), cross price elasticities differ based on products compared and geographical area, and this must be approached in a case-by-case way⁷. Note as well that even when some goods are substituted for each other, it is rare for products to be near perfect substitutes for each other. This means that while some substitution will take place, they will switch to the substitute product at significantly less than a one-to-one rate.
Akaichi and Revoredo-Giha (2016) studied cross price elasticities between meats labelled as higher welfare, meats labelled as organic, and regular products in Scotland. They found that organic pork was a substitute for higher welfare meat and they found some amount of substitution between higher welfare meat and regular meat when the price of the former was raised. This is in the direction of Francione’s claim, but there was far from perfect substitution in each case, conflicting with Francione’s claim.
Francione’s argument also does not appear to apply to legislative changes. For example, if all EU egg production becomes cage free, it is very unlikely that almost all consumption of eggs in the EU would shift to imported eggs from countries where this was still allowed. If import restrictions are also included in the welfare legislation, it becomes impossible for this to happen (at least within the law).
Do welfare reforms reduce costs, thereby helping the meat industry?
The third major disagreement is on whether welfare reforms simply reduce the cost for meat producers. Similar to Francione’s other arguments, we think there is some legitimate concern here, but that this argument is largely unfounded.
Factory farming took over from conventional animal farming because its industrialised system allowed it to produce animal products much more cheaply. This of course resulted in significantly more animal suffering as the animals were treated like cogs in a machine (Harrison 2013). In many cases, welfare reforms resemble a gradual return to conventional animal agriculture. For example, keeping animals with access to the outside, using animals that do not have genes that cause them to grow very quickly at the expense of their welfare, and not separating a mother dairy cow from their calves. Though there will be some increased profitability that comes from these reforms based on the increased health and well-being of the animals, this must be balanced against the much larger costs associated with moving away from the industrialised model.
Fearing and Matheny (Fearing and Matheny 2007) assess the evidence about costs from welfare reforms, and while they generally find increases in costs (summarised in table 1 displayed below) summarise this evidence as:
“Production costs associated with many farm animal welfare improvements are modest and can be offset by marginally increased prices to consumers. As long as the playing field is leveled by regulation or adoption by producer or retailer associations, the effect on producers can be minimal.”
Similarly, they add that:
“Demand for meat, eggs, and dairy products is said to be “price inelastic,” meaning consumers are relatively unresponsive to price changes. Producers as a group can pass increased costs on to consumers without a loss in profits, as the decrease in demand is more than compensated for by the increase in unit price (Huang and Lin 2000). It is ultimately consumers who bear the costs of improved animal welfare.”
Source: (Fearing and Matheny 2007)
Though these represent significant price increases, the analysis by Fearing and Matheny that farmers may increase the price to compensate overall losses supports the abolitionist argument on this point. Though also note that Fearing and Matheny also argue that thinking that it is in the economic interest of farmers to increase welfare is a fallacy because while morbidity and mortality are costly to farmers, decreased production costs of higher welfare animals may be even more costly (Fearing and Matheny 2007).
Other studies we looked at confirm this, with data from the EU after the banning of battery cages in some countries showed a decrease in consumption in those countries, in contrast to an increase in consumption in EU countries that did not implement the ban (MFA 2016). Similarly, data from California shows a steady decrease in consumption of eggs after California banned battery cages, a pattern not seen in other states in the US which did not ban battery cages (Lusk 2017).
If the abolitionist position here were correct, the natural question would be why would animal agriculture resist welfare reforms in numerous ways if these reforms ultimately just reduced costs for them? Francione anticipates this response and argues that the industry would resist reforms like this out of a general principle to make it more difficult to interest groups like animal advocacy organisations to be able to influence them. The principle is that even if these programs are beneficial, future reforms may not be and so it is worthwhile to impose costs on interest groups trying to control their behaviour. However, Francione maintains that all or virtually all welfare reforms reduce costs or can be easily compensated by shifting prices to consumers, so if this were true, animal advocacy organisations would pose no threat to the meat industry, now or in the future. If most animal advocacy organisations just function as consultants to the meat industry (as Francione claims in Francione and Garner ), why would the meat industry have to fear further cost-saving suggestions? The industry also appears to spend a lot of time and energy resisting the campaigns of animal advocacy organisations and go to great lengths to belittle them publicly, it is implausible that they would do this just to preserve the principle that they should not be pushed around. Organisations do not usually strenuously resist the suggestion of their consultants.
In their communication with the meat industry, animal advocacy organisations will naturally stress potential cost savings to the industry⁸. Some welfare reforms may indeed represent cost savings, and when this is true, the organisations will naturally stress that in order to be most convincing. This may suggest to outside observers who are looking for this evidence, such as Francione, that this is all that is happening, but this does not mean that all welfare reforms will save the industry money.
Francione also argues that because animal agriculture organisations are corporations, they will only adopt welfare reforms if it is profit maximising for them to do so, which he suggests indicates that he must be right (Francione and Garner 2010). This neglects that this interpretation of corporations needing to act in profit maximising ways is simplistic and not entirely correct (Stout 2015). It also neglects that the pressure from animal advocacy organisations during corporate campaigns can threaten to inflict larger costs on these organisations through reputational damage or disruption, so the welfare reform may indeed be much more costly than baseline, even if it becomes the least costly option for them given the pressure from the corporate campaign.
Do welfare reforms inspire momentum or complacency?
The second major disagreement between the two positions is whether reforms inspire momentum or complacency. Momentum refers to the idea that welfare reforms and other single-issue campaigns wet people’s appetites for further reforms, therefore being beneficial to the long-term goal of victory. Complacency refers to the idea that welfare reforms lead to people thinking that current conditions are sufficient, and thereby slow down progress towards victory.
There have been limited attempts to directly test this question. Lusk (Lusk 2010) examined the effect of exposure to information about Proposition 2 in California, which banned the use of cages to keep egg laying chickens. They found that in the months leading up to Proposition 2 (during which there was an associated public awareness campaign), demand for cage free and organic eggs increased whilst demand for other types of eggs fell.
Tonsor and Olynk (2011) found that exposure to information about animal welfare slightly reduced consumption of pork and chicken, but consumption of beef remained unchanged. They also found that people largely substituted for non-meat products rather than other meats. Note that this studied the effect of animal welfare information in general, rather than specifically animal welfare reforms.
A study by Mercy for Animals (Caldwell 2016) found that information about both corporate and legislative welfare reforms caused people both to report that they would decrease their animal product consumption and to rate the living conditions of farmed animals as lower welfare. Note that self-reports of the intention to reduce animal product consumption are subject to social desirability bias and have been shown to be unreliable as a predictor of actual consumption.
Finally, Mathur et al. (2021) reviewed studies on the effect of information provision on meat consumption, concluding that this information about welfare reforms reduced self-reported intention to consume meat.
A later study by researchers at the organisation (Harris, Ladak, and Mathur 2021) found no significant effect on animal farming opposition from exposure to neutrally presented information on cage free reforms in a randomised experiment. The authors were surprised to find no effect given previous research on the subject. Their study did find a significant increase in opposition to factory farming from exposure to neutrally presented information on current farming practices.
Our interpretation of the historical evidence favours protectionism. For example, the UK is one of the best in the world at protecting animals, including some outright bans that Francione would support such as a ban on fur farming (World Animal Protection 2021). Yet this appears to come from centuries of steady progress with welfare reforms, as the UK was one of the first countries to pass animal welfare legislation, such as the 1822 Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle (Inglis 2012; Clifton 2016).
There was an early example of an abolitionist approach in the UK which was the radical anti-vivisectionists, who called for an end to all animal experimentation, but they were not successful in achieving their goals and it is unclear if they had a strong lasting influence (Clifton 2016). In general, the pattern appears to be that countries with the strongest animal welfare laws also tend to be the countries with the highest rates of vegetarians or vegans, a pattern at odds with the abolitionist view that there is a conflict between these things (MFA 2016).
In their summary of evidence for foundational questions (Sentience Institute 2020), Sentience Institute concludes that there is sufficient evidence to conclude in favour of momentum rather than complacency. This is only one of three debates in which they considered the evidence to weigh significantly in favour of one position.
Overall, so far the limited evidence appears to us to support momentum over complacency. Having said this, it is possible that certain campaigns could still cause complacency, and organisations should take some care to avoid this through for example appropriate messaging.
Pragmatic versus uncompromising
An underlying theme in the debate between welfarism and abolitionism is whether we should be pragmatic in our advocacy or if we should be uncompromising. The pragmatic approach has the promise of meeting people where they are, rather than where we wish they would be. It allows us to suggest targeted next steps for people, rather than repeating largely the same demands in each case. For example, it allows us to praise people in their steps to reduce animal consumption, even if they continue to fall short of full veganism. In this way it allows a stepwise approach to the solution of problems that may make them more achievable. Rather than asking people to make a leap to full abolitionism, we just ask them to keep taking the next step forward, which may be much more psychologically realistic.
The pragmatic approach also allows for more easy cooperation with the animal agriculture industry, with politicians, and with other stakeholders in the debate. Again, it allows us to meet them where they are and encourage steps in the right direction.
On the other hand, an uncompromising approach represents a stronger statement of these ideals. If someone is doing something widely regarded as greatly morally wrong, we would not normally reinforce them or praise them for doing something only very slightly less morally wrong. Many animal welfare reforms are analogous to this, and so if we do celebrate the reforms that are made, we risk suggesting that animal agriculture was never greatly morally wrong to begin with.
An uncompromising approach may also allow us a clearer statement of these ideals. Instead of only focusing on what the next steps will be, which in many cases may only represent marginal improvements, we can clearly and frequently state our ideals. There is some experimental support for this claim. Mathur et al. (2021) reviewed studies on the effect of messages to reduce meat consumption and found that interventions that suggested going vegan had a 31% larger effect than no recommendation and appeared to have larger effects than reducetarian or vegetarian messaging.
Possible framework for thinking about the trade-off between these views is the “foot-in-the-door technique” and the contrasting “door-in-the-face technique”. The foot-in-the-door technique involves making a small, achievable ask in order to make it more likely the person will later agree to larger asks to remain consistent with their original decision. In contrast, the door-in-the-face technique involves making an initial large ask that is sure to be turned down to make future asks seem reasonable in comparison. These contrasting approaches have been studied in social psychology with Burger et al. (Burger 1999) finding no difference between their efficacy, though Dillard et al. (1984) found the effects of the techniques to be modest.
At first glance, the efficacy of the door-in-face technique appears to support an abolitionist approach; however, in the case of Francione style abolitionism, the ask is always veganism, rather than a smaller ask afterwards. This evidence therefore does not support Francione style abolitionism, but it does support the use of some abolitionist asks amongst other tactics, as long as they are not presented as the only possible option.
A possible synthesis or compromise between the two positions is to accept and to some extent encourage steps forward by individuals and industry whilst at the same time making it clear that these are only marginal steps forward and that much more remains to be done (Reese 2018). Speculatively, the door-in-the-face technique in particular suggests that a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic, with different organisations in the movement playing these respective roles, may be effective.
Conclusion regarding abolitionism and protectionism
Ultimately, some synthesis of the ideas of protectionism and abolitionism may be possible. It is possible to learn from the abolitionist message that we should frame welfare reforms more as only marginal improvements and express our more ambitious goals of ending animal exploitation while not opposing reforms or believing that they are necessarily distractions. We can also favour campaigns that send a stronger abolitionist message and frame them as such. This approach may still be closer to the protectionist position and may leave an abolitionist unsatisfied.
CRUCIAL CONSIDERATION 2: THE SHAPE OF MORAL PROGRESS
The second main crucial consideration that we considered in our research for this report is whether views of moral progress as steady and even are accurate or if it is substantially regressive at times and irregular.
The metaphor of an expanding moral circle was popularised by Peter Singer and widely used in the effective altruism community to refer to the idea that our moral consideration for other beings can be represented as a circle and that this circle can be expected to extend further, steadily and evenly (Singer 1981). This metaphor of a circle suggests any effort to expand the moral circle to a new group of beings will also help to extend it to another group of beings further out in terms of potential moral consideration. The thought behind this consistent and perhaps steady progress is that essentially the same moral principles apply in each case.
To what extent this more optimistic view is correct is a crucial consideration because it suggests how inevitable we can expect moral progress to be. If it is wrong, we could expect to see significant regressions or irregular progress. If it is correct, it also suggests that fundamental rights approaches may be more promising. This is because the more principles-based picture in moral psychology is that it assumes people will be more receptive to the arguments for fundamental rights and, further, that it will be easier to argue to extend those rights to other beings.
However, this picture assumes a certain consistency and reliance on principles that are perhaps not as common amongst most people. Based on this, an opposing hypothesis is that progress will be inconsistent and so progress to extend the moral circle in one case will not necessarily apply to another case. Rather than a moral circle we might have a moral polygon or a much less symmetrical and even shape. Concern for animals may then be a fragile meme, not an inevitable one.
Jesse Clifton (2016) suggests that the history of human concern and protection for animals has been uneven and unprincipled. One example of this is that in 675, the Buddhist Emperor of Japan, Tenmu, banned the consumption of all domestic animals from April 1 to September 30 each year (Watanabe 1854; Bunko, n.d.), yet this was quickly abandoned in the Meiji restoration and today the animal welfare standards of Japan lag behind similarly wealthy countries in the West. If concern for animals was the result of a consistent and steady march forward, we might expect that Japan would be far ahead of other countries by this point in virtually all animal-rights issues, and perhaps a significant exporter of various animal advocacy ideas.
Another case Clifton discusses is that of India which has long had high rates of vegetarianism and some significant concern for animals, as seen in its religious traditions. Nevertheless, rates of meat consumption in India are increasing rapidly, full veganism is still rare, and animal protection in India is still dominated by protection of cows rooted in Hinduism, with other forms of animal advocacy not seeing as much uptake as might have been expected (Devi et al. 2014).
A counterargument to these conclusions is that religious prohibitions may work differently from arguments based on the interests of the animals themselves. Religious arguments may be followed without significant agreement with any moral principles that a secular animal ethics might present. This is especially in the case of the Japanese Emperor since the restrictions that were imposed arbitrarily excluded wild animals and allowed meat consumption in part of the year, in addition to being handed down from above. These cases may therefore not represent strong evidence. Still, since a change in attitude can follow from a change in action (Bastian et al. 2012), we might still expect significant change from a prohibition that started this early. For example, it appears to be the case that many people who become vegan for health reasons later go on to consider veganism to be important for animal welfare reasons (Leenaert 2017).
There are also many arbitrary exceptions in the West suggesting a less than perfect moral circle. For example, chickens are not covered by animal protection laws in the United States. Similarly, farmed fish in the UK are not protected by any of the more detailed legislation that applies to other farmed animals and wild caught fish are not protected by even the basic protections of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (DEFRA 2006; Collinson 2018).
There are also the obvious cases that should be familiar to any animal advocate. Animals who are commonly kept as pets, such as cats and dogs, are treated as far more morally significant than other animals. Though some might argue that our special relationships with these animals justify our greater moral concern for them, it is difficult to justify the vast difference in our treatment of these animals compared with our treatment of other animals. This then seems like a clear case of an uneven moral expansion.
Of course, even if moral expansion is far from even and inevitable, the general pattern where moral expansion towards one group of beings generally results in moral expansion towards other groups may still hold. This is the view that we find most plausible, though we are highly uncertain.
AFTER ANIMAL FARMING
As discussed, in addition to the end of animal agriculture, many voices call for more ambitious goals. Though the contribution of our current actions towards these goals is more speculative, it is worth considering their potential influence.
One more ambitious goal to help animals more robustly is presented in Zoopolis (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011). In this book, Donaldson and Kymlicka argue for the inclusion of animals into our political system. This would include giving domestic animals the rights of citizens, wilderness (wild) animals the rights of nationals of their own states, and liminal animals (urban animals or others that live around us but independently) rights that lie somewhere between wild and domestic animals. Note that they claim that citizenship does not entail all of the same rights in every case, so domestic animals would not be given the right to vote, for example. They argue that the system better represents the neglected importance obligations stemming from the various kinds of relationships between humans and animals, as well as having practical benefits that other moral positions could appreciate.
There are other proposals for the political inclusion of animals. Janneke Vink argues in The Open Society and its Animals (Vink 2020) that animals should be included in liberal democracies, and that a failure to include them represents a threat to the democratic credentials, and possibly inclines them toward sliding into authoritarianism. Vink argues that this inclusion should at a minimum include the right to life, the right not to be tortured, and the right to bodily integrity. This book represents a statement of how society would ideally be structured with respect to animals, but it does not offer a roadmap of how to get there.
David Pearce (2015) imagines a welfare state for wild elephants which could serve as a template for a larger programme of helping animals in the wild. He imagines that the elephants could live in the wild, but with access to some assistance such as healthcare, emergency food relief, protection from poachers, orthodontics to extend their lifespan, and help during natural disasters and crises.
This style of intervention would be extremely expensive to implement on a wide scale, but if human wealth increases dramatically, interventions like this could be done and expanded to many other animals. Significant research is also required to help ensure more of the flow through effects of our actions are understood and accounted for. It is plausible that current actions to help farmed animals would also increase people’s willingness to help animals in the wild, therefore increasing the likelihood that this would be done. The scale of animals who could be helped in the wild also dwarfs the scale of animals killed for human consumption. This is in addition to the many wild animals we could abstain from harming if we took their interests into account (Animal Ethics n.d.).
Looking still further into the future, some call for the inclusion of digital minds into our moral community (Gunkel 2018; Harris 2021). They argue that it is reasonably likely that such minds will be created and that when they are created, they are likely to be conscious. Moreover, they argue that our actions to extend the moral circle to animals could extend to moral consideration for these digital minds in the future.
These scenarios represent more ways in which we can reduce the suffering of other animals or beings beyond ending factory farming. Though this would be a monumental step, there is more work to be done. The relationship between these scenarios and our current efforts to help farmed animals is less clear, but it is worth considering in order to maximise the flow-through effects of our actions.
There are some ways that current advocacy efforts can more strongly contribute to better outcomes in these scenarios. One is that we can share that our moral ideals extend well past ending factory farming and personal consumption. One way of doing this is with anti-speciesist messaging, rather than vegan messaging,
Anti-speciesist messaging involved stressing the moral equality of humans and nonhuman animals, rather than a predominant focus on a particular (important) aspect of this, such as dietary choice in the case of veganism. Anti-speciesism implies not only refraining from harming animals, but also actively helping them, as we would humans in similar situations. It therefore makes intuitive sense that if we were able to spread it effectively, it would contribute more strongly to these after animal farming scenarios. Though this is only one of a variety of trade-offs between those two approaches that must be considered.
CONCLUSION AND REMAINING UNCERTAINTIES
This report covers a wide range of subjects in a fairly shallow manner. A report on the subject could have gone into much greater depth, as well as covering subjects that we do not touch. In addition, it is difficult to make predictions and extract general principles for animal advocates based on the evidence we have reviewed. As such, these conclusions should be treated as tentative and preliminary. We can imagine others looking at the same evidence and drawing substantially different conclusions.
Though the strongest versions of abolitionism, such as the version argued for by Francione, are not well supported, there are some kernels of truth behind them that are useful for advocates to learn.
Constructive criticism by abolitionists of the rest of the movement is helpful, but denigrations of the rest of the movement, such as accusations that they are now only a wing of the animal agriculture industry, are unhelpful. Opposing welfare reforms is also unmotivated and counterproductive.
Specific abolitionist campaigns likely have a role to play in victory. These campaigns do have the advantage that they send a stronger and clearer moral message and their more ambitious, moonshot, nature can be appropriate in some cases, especially once concern for animals and the Overton window of the moral treatment of our issue of them has been shifted considerably in their favour.
When possible, other campaigns can also be framed in more abolitionist ways. The key way that this can be done is by presenting incremental progress as only one step along the pathway to victory, rather than now representing a morally acceptable situation.
Having said this, there is also room for other organisations that work more closely with the industry, and do not include abolitionist messaging such as this. This should just not be taken too far into a defence of current industry practices against improvements. Though we understand that may also be difficult for organisations to sculpt an ideal message when people cannot be counted on to read full posts or articles by the organisation and when news coverage of their work may drop nuance.
Turning to victory scenarios, no single pathway seems to have a much greater likelihood of resulting in victory than any other. We therefore do not recommend a majority focus on any single pathway. Instead, we see strength in pursuing a diversity of approaches. This is particularly true when these approaches are pursued with an experimental spirit, with thorough use of appropriate measurement and evaluation.
This does not mean that we should be investing equally in all approaches. Some such as corporate campaigns certainly deserve more investment than other approaches, but we should be wary that too much of the movement’s resources do not go into this approach at the neglect of other approaches. Though some approaches, such as leafleting, that have evidence that they are not effective in contributing towards victory or having substantial direct effects should continue to be neglected by the movement. Having said this, the overall evidence base and the movement is not strong and some more research on these approaches would still be valuable; charities with a strong focus on measurement and evaluation could still usefully try these approaches as experiments.
This also does not mean that individual organisations should pursue a variety of different programs. This may already be too common in the animal advocacy community considering that there are gains to be made through specialisation.
Cultured meat was widely regarded by the movement as the most likely pathway to victory, but recent evaluation from outside the industry has been far less sanguine. Still, if those technological barriers can be overcome, cultured meat offers a more straightforward pathway to victory than many of the other approaches. Another form of alternative or plant-based protein could also take the place of cultured meat.
With a subject this speculative and with such breadth, we naturally have many remaining uncertainties. The subject touches on and depends on most questions within animal advocacy. There is much more that we could have examined in more depth included in the report that could have changed the conclusions substantially. There were many crucial considerations that we encountered that we did not fully examine and discuss⁹. One particularly important thing that we could have done would have been to analyse cultured meat in a more technical way, such as by analysing Humbird (2020) more rigorously.
We understand that more general conclusions such as these are less action guiding than more specific and confident conclusions. There is also a risk that animal advocacy organisations rationalise their current actions as meeting these standards, when in fact more reflection and self-scepticism is needed. We therefore hope that this is treated appropriately as part of a broader conversation on the topic that organisations should continue to reflect on.
1. We will use the term cultured meat to refer to all cultured animal products and plant-based meats to refer to all plant-based animal products.
2. Consequentialist approaches can also be pluralistic, though it is more common for them to mostly or entirely be concerned with well-being.
3. In the case, Somerset, a slave who had been bought in Boston and brought to England, successfully filed for habeas corpus when Stewart, the man who bought him, tried to send him to Jamaica. The judge ruled in favour of Somerset, implying that he was a person before the law. Despite this ruling and these local effects, it took many more years before slavery was outlawed in the UK (Wise 2005; Anthis and Anthis 2017).
4. In comparing some elements of a slavery case we do not mean to suggest that the cases are identical or to suggest slavery is less of a moral evil; we are just noting some relevant parallels that we can learn from.
5. Though some studies by people involved with animal advocacy organisations have suggested more promising results from online advertising. See for example (Bryant et al. 2021).
6. Note that some people have reported a difficulty in actually buying these nuggets. See the comments in (Dullaghan 2021b).
7. Inelastic products are products for which consumer buying decisions are not strongly influenced by price and so increase in price does cause correspondingly large decrease in demand (Kenton 2021). Cross price elasticity refers to the effect that a change in the price of one product has on demand for a second product. If demand for the second product increases when the price of the first product increases, they are known as substitute goods. If the converse happens and demand for the second product decreases when the price of the first product increases, they are known as complementary goods (Hayes 2022).
8. Though other lines are possible depending on context and the price increase or saving of the welfare reform. In other cases, organisations may argue that a product should not be that cheap, implying moral hazardous corners are being cut in order to have a product be that cheap.
9. Some of the important crucial considerations for this can be found in Sentience Institute’s Summary of Evidence for Additional Questions (Sentience Institute 2020).
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