All of avacyn's Comments + Replies

Career Guide for Ending Factory Farming

In particular, there is a talent bottleneck for science and engineering roles.

As someone with experience hiring in the alternative protein sector, I have a few thoughts about this:

  • The current talent bottlenecks in the industry may not be a great guide for a young professional's career, at least in the alternative protein sector. Things in these industries change extremely quickly. Given that it could take 5+ years to get educated in one of these technical fields, the landscape by the time you finish your degree may look pretty different. Product improvemen
... (read more)
Some Scattered Thoughts on Operations


Another possible difference between the startup world and the EA world is that startups have access to much stronger direct feedback loops than non-profits, i.e. trying to sell to customers and seeing what happens. This means that startups don't have to think through everything super carefully before executing.

Some Scattered Thoughts on Operations

I remember being surprised by the differing mindsets about operations when I transitioned to being more involved in the tech startup world after already being involved in EA. In the startup world you often hear things like "Ideas are cheap; execution is everything" which likely leads to operations feeling less low status. This is a major contrast to the EA world where many are highly intellectual, and place a high value on ideas. Given that startups tend to have more skin in the game than non-profits, perhaps EA non-profits could benefit from shifting more towards this mindset.

6Max_Daniel9moYes, FWIW my guess is that at the current margin this would be good in many places (but of course there is considerable within-EA variance, so it won't be the right marginal change everywhere and in every situation).
The Conflicted Omnivore

[Separating from my other comment, since it's a separate idea]

There's a fifth idea that  activists might consider when taking conflicted omnivores seriously, although it's a bit ickier. Activists may be able to take whatever feeling is underlying the answers to these polls, and combine it with peoples' general lack of education around factory farming, and garner broad support for something that seems much less radical than it is. For example, imagine a ballot initiative that aimed to "ban artificial insemination" in the dairy industry. Given polls like these, people may be inclined to support it, despite being unaware that it could cripple the dairy industry.

The Conflicted Omnivore

Thank you for bringing attention to this phenomenon!  I've seen a number of polls like this now, which makes me confident that this isn't a fluke, and actually points to something extremely important for the movement. Another cool study from Psychology Today shows animal rights was the least controversial of six causes considered, including sustainability. 

It's a shame that in my experience, many activist are convinced that broader society doesn't care about animals at all.  I think this is a major sort of disillusionment and burnout in the ... (read more)

What foundational science would help produce clean meat?
Answer by avacynNov 13, 202012

In the abstract, the highest impact scientific research you can do outside industry should focus on things that are important to long-term success, but are not necessary in the short term. 

Companies already have a strong incentive to find alternatives to the largest cost-drivers so that they can begin to produce regularly at smaller scales without going bankrupt. For example, companies are likely already working on alternatives to using the most expensive growth factors, since at current costs, they can make even small scale production cost-prohibitiv... (read more)

avacyn's Shortform

Wayne Hsiung, the co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) is running for mayor of Berkeley:

He's running on a left-leaning platform that doesn't explicitly discuss animals, but he will likely focus on animal-friendly policies. For example, he wants to create a "solar powered, pedestrian-only, and plant-based Green District."

DxE has been fairly controversial in the animal advocacy world, but setting aside questions of their particular tactics, having someone so animal friendly in government could be ve... (read more)

3Dale1yFor anyone who hasn't been following closely, this is quite the understatement! Wayne once threatened to "start a big fight" at EAG in order to generate media attention.
8ClaireZabel1ySome people are making predictions about this topic here [] . On that link, someone comments:
Animal Advocacy Careers advice

I'm a big fan of what you're trying to do! It could be very impactful.

However, I notice that your advice seems to be greatly skewed towards non-profits. For example, in your M&L overview, you don't spend much time on food tech as a potential application of M&L skills. You also don't give any information on the skill gaps currently facing plant-based / cultivated meat. I think this is a missed opportunity, as the gaps in those industry are important, and could be well suited for people who aren't a good fit for management, fundraising, or advocacy.

Is this a purposeful decision? Are you planning to augment this later?

Thanks for all of your work :)

5Jamie_Harris1yThanks very much! Yes, we have a draft profile on "Technical research for animal-free food tech skills profile" and another on "Government, policy, and lobbying skills profile," so hopefully the apparent nonprofit skew is temporary. One factor influencing the decision about which skills profiles to produce first was the evidence we had that they were a bottleneck. We'd started with a quick survey of nonprofits [] and a nonprofit "spot-check [] " and I hope to do similar (perhaps better) versions of both of those things for plant-based / cultivated meat companies too. So at that point, we might have more reason to explore particular skillsets out of that. M&L is an example of this -- "leadership" came up a lot in the survey, but when I've not really come across the idea of leadership being a major bottleneck for these companies (unless you count "entrepreneurship" which is overlapping but partly separate). In that sector, I much more frequently hear that companies are struggling to get scientists on board. But once we do that research, its possible we'll decide that for-profit companies should figure more prominently in a revised version of the M&L profile, for instance. (This also just relates to a tradeoff we faced of just doing more / better research before we start putting out advice vs trying to get some content out and update / improve as we go along. It was unclear where the balance should be struck there.)
How Much Do Wild Animals Suffer? A Foundational Result on the Question is Wrong.

I'm thankful for this discussion. Previously, I was under the impression that most people who looked deeply into WAS concluded that there was definitely net suffering. However, now it's clear to me this isn't the case.

Brian - I'm wondering if you've explained elsewhere exactly what you mean by "extreme, unbearable suffering can't be outweighed by other organism-moments experiencing pleasure." Is this an expression of negative utilitarianism, or just the empirical claim that current organisms have greater suffering ca... (read more)

4Brian_Tomasik2yYou're right that communication on this topic hasn't always been the most clear. :) This section [] of my reply to Michael Plant helps explain my view on those questions. I think assessments of the intensities of pain and pleasure necessarily involve significant normative judgment calls, unless you define pain and pleasure in a sufficiently concrete way that it becomes a factual matter. (But that begs the question of what concrete definition is the right one to choose.) I guess most people who aim to quantify pleasure and pain don't choose numbers such that unbearable suffering outweighs any amount of pleasure, so the statement you quoted could be said to be mainly about my negative-utilitarian values (though I would say that a view that pleasure can outweigh unbearable suffering is ultimately a statement about someone's non-negative-utilitarian values).
4MichaelStJules2yI think this [] is a good place to start, although not written by Brian:
Answer by avacynJun 04, 201910

Since most of the responders here are defending x-risk reduction, I wanted to chime in and say that I think your argument is far from ludicrous and is in-fact why I don't prioritize x-risk reduction, even as a total utilitarian.

The main reason it's difficult for me to be on board with pro-x-risk-reduction arguments is that much of it seems to rely on projections about what might happen in the future, which seems very prone to miss important considerations. For example, saying that WAS will be trivially easy to solve once we have an aligned AI, or... (read more)

1jackmalde2yThanks :)
Is this a valid argument against clean meat?

I overall agree that the argument isn't enough to move the needle.

I'll just say that I think 90% is too high for people who don't care about about how much meat they consume. I think people's views on the issue are more complicated. I think there's a large group of people who have a general notion that eating meat is unfortunate, but don't reduce their consumption because it's not a thing for their ingroup, and also they bristle at the notion about someone else telling them what to do. Kind of similar to how lots of peopl... (read more)

What is the Impact of Beyond Meat?

According to their S-1, in 2018 they sold a total of 11.8M pounds of their "fresh" products. A large majority of this was the Beyond Burger.

Given that 93% of retail consumers that purchased the Beyond Burger also purchased animal meat, I think we can assume a pretty high rate of counterfactual replacement of beef - let's say 75%.

That's a total of 8.9M pounds of beef displaced. Assuming a cow yields 490 pounds of beef, that's around 18 thousand cows spared in 2018. This is impressive!

However, I agree with zdgroff in that the majority of the impact of Beyond Meat is the expected future impact when they focus more on chicken, and in legitimizing the plant-based meat industry.

Reasons to eat meat

I think that only makes sense if you're negative leaning, which I'm not. If you think that adding pleasurable lives is good, then you'd be taking a risk of *not* creating the net-positive cattle lives when you decided to eat tofu over beef.

To be clear, I'm not necessarily arguing that we should eat beef (I'm vegan), I just thought it would be useful to describe the arguments that I thought this post was going to make before I read it :).

1WilliamKiely2yI'm very skeptical of negative utilitarianism. There are other ways it makes sense if other non-utilitarian considerations matter, as I was saying above. To try to point you in the direction I was thinking, I'll quote Michael Huemer below and clarify that I lean toward Huemer's view that the appropriate thing to do is "draw a line somewhere in the middle" rather than take the extreme view of strict consequentialism: "“How large must the benefits be to justify a rights violation?” (For instance, for what number n is it permissible to kill one innocent person to save n innocent lives?) One extreme answer is “Rights violations are never justified,” but for various reasons, I think this answer [is] indefensible. Another extreme answer is consequentialism, “Rights violations are justified whenever the benefits exceed the harms” – which is really equivalent to saying there are no such things as rights. This is not indefensible, but it is very counter-intuitive. So we’re left with a seemingly arbitrary line somewhere in the middle." When drawing the line somewhere in the middle murdering one person to save two may not be permissible (even though under utilitarianismit is), but murdering one to save 1000 may be, say. Similarly, under one of these "line somewhere in the middle" views killing a sentient cattle for beef may be permissible if one could be certain that the cattle definitely had a net positive life, however killing the cattle may be impermissible given a certain amount of doubt (say 10%) about whether the cattle's life is net positive (even if one still thinks the cattle's life is net positive in expectation).
2utilitarian012yDonating is much more effective than the increase in demand though, especially when you consider the elasticity factor. So in that case you should just buy whatever food is cheaper and donate the excess, tofu is about 3x cheaper ($2 per pound) vs grass-fed beef ($6 per pound). I guess if you truly hate tofu you could have an excuse but there's always soy sauce to make it tastier.
Reasons to eat meat

On a less satirical note, I think one strong argument in favor of eating meat is that beef cattle (esp. grass-fed) might have net positive lives. If this is true, then the utilitarian line is to 1) eat more beef to increase demand, 2) continue advocating for welfare reforms that will make cows' lives even more positive.

Beef cattle are different than e.g. factory farmed chicken in that they live a long time (around 3 years on average vs 6-7 weeks for broilers), and spend much of their lives grazing on stockers where they might have natural-ish lives.

A... (read more)

9Jamie_Harris2yI haven't looked into this myself in any detail, but I just wanted to note that others have concluded that factory farmed cows have net negative lives, e.g. see this post [] by charity entrepreneurship. On the other hand, here are excerpts from a couple of relevant posts, written by Brian Tomasik: 1) [] "Rainforest-beef production probably reduces wild-insect suffering. In fact, purchasing one kg of Brazilian beef prevents 2.6 * 105 insect-years of suffering as a median estimate and 5.9 * 106 insect-years in expectation. The sign of this conclusion could flip around if you substantially change certain input parameters—particularly if you think death by burning is many times more painful than predation and other non-burning deaths." 2) [] "If someone insists on eating meat, I would recommend eating rainforest-raised or grass-fed beef. Rainforest-grown beef plausibly reduces net animal populations because rainforests have such high productivity. Grass-fed beef plausibly also reduces net animal populations, because cattle can eat lots of grass that would otherwise feed smaller animals, and given that less of the feed for these cattle is farmed grain than in the case of non-grass-fed cattle, the uncertain net impacts of crop cultivation loom relatively less large over the calculation."
6kbog2ySee [] and the sources/welfare estimates therein. Basically, yes their lives seem positive, but between small increases in demand for other kinds of meat (cross price elasticity) and long-run economic costs of climate change I consider it bad.
3WilliamKiely2yIt seems to me that the fact that grass-fed beef cattle might not have net positive lives is a strong argument in favor of not eating grass-fed beef. My values are roughly utilitarian but I have a fair amount of moral uncertainty and it seems to me that avoiding eating meat seems like the cautious thing to do given this uncertainty.
Bounty: Guide To Switching From Farmed Fish To Wild-Caught Fish

It's not very clear how the WASR article you linked to in "whether eating more wild-caught fish is good or bad for fish" shows what you say it shows.

Can you briefly over the basic case for switching to wild caught fish? Is it just that wild caught fish tend to be predators?

Will companies meet their animal welfare commitments?

I'm not sure if you're claiming that shaming based approaches haven't been used in the past for corporate welfare campaigns, but if you are, I don't thing this is accurate.

My impression is that advocacy groups pursue both "carrot" and "stick" strategies to pressure companies into adopting better welfare policies. I think CIWF falls more on the carrot side, but then if that doesn't work THL comes in with the stick. For example, THL's current campaign against McDonald's seems mostly shame based - imnotlo... (read more)

8Peter Wildeford3yYeah, I'm quite confident that corporate campaigns use a lot of shaming, for example see the "I'm Not Loving It" campaign against McDonalds [] that is currently running.
Fish used as live bait by recreational fishermen

I would upvote this twice if I could! I follow EAA stuff pretty closely and I haven't heard this discussed before. However, it seems like a highly important, neglected, and tractable cause area. The most exciting part in my mind is that progress has already started in some countries and states, meaning that it could be very tractable.

I'd love to see a more detailed analysis of the counterfactuals. For example, what percentage of bait fish will be replaced by artificial baits vs animals? If you used worms or other animals as bait, would you have to use more... (read more)

2saulius3yThanks. I encountered the 6 billion figure by accident when doing research about fish farmed for food for ACE. I wonder if there are other areas like this where a huge number of animals are hurt that animal activists are unaware of. I don’t have good answers to your questions, but I'm going to do a bit of a brain dump here and answer them to the best of my knowledge, in case someone would find it valuable. Artificial baits seem to already be more popular. E.g. see [] (“live bait” here means live baitfish, worms leeches, frogs, etc.). Although one text I read said that internet is biased towards artificials baits because they are used by people who take fishing more seriously (and therefore talk about it on internet more). So the survey might have a selection bias as well. I have a hunch that people who use baitfish would be more likely to switch to other types of life bait, rather than artificial bait. Also, if farming of live bait was banned, some would catch live batfish for themselves. That is probably better than farming though. Before I read Peter Singer, I used to fish with my father. From experience, I can tell that if they switched to worms, many more worms and maggots would be used than baitfish. E.g. see the amounts in []. We would keep maggots in the fridge, sometimes would hook several of them and would buy more than needed just to be safe. I might write a separate article about worms and maggots as bait some time later. I do think that they suffer less (both, because they live shorter lives before being used, and they are less sentient). But it could be that they are very stressed in those containers. So yes, it’s possible that counterfactual is even worse. By the way, maybe some questions like this can be answered by just going to
Why not to rush to translate effective altruism into other languages

I found this article useful and convincing. Thanks for writing, Ben!

However, I was surprised to see that this has become one of the most upvoted posts of all time on the EA forum. I would expect an insightful and convincing post like this to get between 20 and 30 upvotes. I'm worried that I'm missing a more important takeaway. Can someone explain why this has been so positively received?

2Alex_Barry3yWe may just be seeing upvote inflation if the EA forum now has more readers than before
Why I prioritize moral circle expansion over artificial intelligence alignment

This post is extremely valuable - thank you! You have caused me to reexamine my views about the expected value of the far future.

What do you think are the best levers for expanding the moral circle, besides donating to SI? Is there anything else outside of conventional EAA?

4Jacy_Reese4yThanks! That's very kind of you. I'm pretty uncertain about the best levers, and I think research can help a lot with that. Tentatively, I do think that MCE ends up aligning fairly well with conventional EAA (perhaps it should be unsurprising that the most important levers to push on for near-term values are also most important for long-term values, though it depends on how narrowly you're drawing the lines). A few exceptions to that: * Digital sentience probably matters the most in the long run. There are good reasons to be skeptical we should be advocating for this now (e.g. it's quite outside of the mainstream so it might be hard to actually get attention and change minds; it'd probably be hard to get funding for this sort of advocacy (indeed that's one big reason SI started with farmed animal advocacy)), but I'm pretty compelled by the general claim, "If you think X value is what matters most in the long-term, your default approach should be working on X directly." Advocating for digital sentience is of course neglected territory, but Sentience Institute, the Nonhuman Rights Project, and Animal Ethics have all worked on it. People for the Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners has been the only dedicated organization AFAIK, and I'm not sure what their status is or if they've ever paid full-time or part-time staff. * I think views on value lock-in matter a lot because of how they affect food tech (e.g. supporting The Good Food Institute). I place significant weight on this and a few other things (see this section [] of an SI page) that make me think GFI is actually a pretty good bet, despite my concern that technology progresses monotonically. * Because what might matter most is society's general concern for weird/small minds, we should be more sympathetic to indirect antispeciesism wor
What is Animal Farming in Rural Zambia Like? A Site Visit

Really interesting and worthwhile project!

People sometimes discuss whether poverty alleviation interventions are bad for animals because richer people eat more meat. Do you think your findings affect this discussion?

5Peter Wildeford4yMore on that soon!
Would it be a good idea to create a 'GiveWell' for U.S. charities?

Nice! I think it could be really valuable to create “GiveWell-style” charity evaluators for other areas. ACE started this off with animal charities, but I think some of the areas you listed could be good fits, as well as others e.g. biorisk/AI charities.

You mention this in the 5th benefit, but a major upside in my mind is incentivizing the space to place greater value in effectiveness and transparency. These effects could be far reaching and hard to quantify. You might see if ACE thinks this happened with animal advocacy because of their work.

There are po... (read more)

The almighty Hive will

Nice! I really like the idea of EAs getting ahead by coordinating in unconventional ways.

The ideas in "Building and EA social safety net" could be indirectly encouraged by just making EA a tighter community with more close friendships. I'm pretty happy giving an EA friend a 0-interest loan, but I'd be hesitant to do that for a random EA. By e.g. organizing social events where close friendships could form, more stuff like that would happen naturally. Letting these things happen naturally also makes them harder to exploit.

1Evan_Gaensbauer4yOne issue with this sort of thinking is in practice setting up lots of events sometimes doesn't lead to people becoming this close. Some local communities for effective altruism have community members being roommates together, working at the same organizations, and doing all the social stuff. That waxes and wanes with how well organized it all is. Lots of EA community organizers will move from where they're from to another city, e.g., Berkeley, and basically on both ends switching the person who takes the role of de facto event organizer means organization will stagnate as someone else gets used to doing it all. That this apparently happens often means sustaining a space in which close friendships are likely to occur is hard. Doing it consistently over multiple years in hindsight appears hard. I don't know how good evidence there is for optimal methods in doing this.
Four Organizations EAs Should Fully Fund for 2018

I think it’s valuable to research how we can improve the well-being of humans who suffer – perhaps even to the point of having net negative lives, but not necessarily

I agree with this. Just to expand a bit - wild elephants might generally have net positive lives, but there still might be worthwhile interventions, e.g. to ensures some number that would have been killed by predators instead die in their sleep. The most relevant question is not whether wild animals have net positive lives, but how much their welfare could be improved per dollar.

1Peter Wildeford4yThat's a great way of putting it. Thanks for the clarity!