Monica

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AMA: Lewis Bollard, Open Philanthropy

Thank you for doing this AMA! I have three questions:

1) The FDA has approved at least one alternative to pig castration (the brand name is Improvest) that involves two injections behind the ears rather than surgery. Similar technology has been shown to work in cattle but I don't believe that has FDA approval. I've heard that this product works well and is cost-effective for farmers but that it has not been widely adopted because processing plants tend to reject in-tact pigs more or less out of inertia. Do you have thoughts on whether working to address this problem (at least for pigs) is tractable and cost-effective? 

2) What kind economic research do you think that plant-based food companies would find most useful? Do these companies typically have their own data analysts to privately answer common economic questions? If not, would they be likely to read relevant literature or change their strategy based studies in econ journals? Examples of the sort of research I had in mind might include: 

  • Prices: What is the price elasticity of demand for plant-based products? How much do temporary sales induce consumers to switch from animal products to plant-based analogues in the short-term? What is the cross-price elasticity of demand for these products? Do consumers who respond to sales subsequently purchase the analogues?
  • Packaging: Are consumers more likely to try a plant-based product if it is in a smaller, cheaper package? Do smaller packages causally induce a sustained customer shift towards the analogue?.
  • Partnerships: Industry groups representing input commodities (e.g. the National Rice Company) assist large purchasers to anticipate price and supply and to acquire supply contracts. Do similar opportunities exist to assist plant-based companies in their mission?

3) There has been significant recent progress in wild-animal fertility control, some of which is already being implemented (target species are often otherwise killed inhumanely). Do you think that this is an approach worth directly pursuing now or do you feel we need more information or research to see if this is a good idea? If you think we need more information, what kind of research would you like to see? 

A ranked list of all EA-relevant (audio)books I've read

Regarding your first point, I do worry that strong community norms against having book lists include only male authors risks the perception that female authors that do get included are only there to fulfill some imaginary quota rather than on their merits. Not saying that there isn't an important conversation to be had about fostering diversity of viewpoints and representation along gender or other demographic lines, but in my view that is at least a pretty strong downside to this approach.

Has there been much work on figuring out the impact of plant-based foods?

There is a ton of research tracking the environmental impacts of various crop products. See for example our world in data: https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food

Tracking the animal welfare effects of crop products is much more difficult and involves thinking about very complex ecosystems. Brian Tomasik  has some work on this as does the Wild Animal Suffering Initiative ( https://was-research.org ). I personally think that where you come down on the relative rankings of various foods will come down to your opinion about the probability and intensity of insect suffering. In my view that probability is quite low but the number of insects is large enough that it is certainly worth considering.

I would classify the next category of harms as "human conflict harms" which would include things like slavery in the production process or frequent violence over production disputes. These harms are very product specific and I have seen a lot of research and discussion about individual products but not a comprehensive list or ranking of various products. It is also worth noting there is a lot of heterogeneity within particular products. For example, chocolate has a problem with child slavery in the supply lines but some brands have done a great job transparently ensuring that no slavery occurs in their supply chains. I do think this is an area that could use a synthesis of the existing research to explain which foods are most problematic in this areas (and where applicable, what brands/countries avoid issues). One thing to keep in mind about this category though is that they are often not inherent in the production of any particular product. It just happens that certain foods are associated with these harms. If we launched a successful campaign to stop eating chocolate, for example, it is not clear to me that child slavers wouldn't just switch to forcing children to grow coffee. Seems like we need a more general approach like supply-chain certification and regulation for a lack of slavery (fair trade certification does this but also unfortunately has some other problems, so I would like to see a certification that is strictly limited to the lack of slavery). 

The author of the paper you mentioned also discussed some harms that are in my opinion non-issues. For example, the fact that global demand for quinoa has priced local growers out of eating quinoa seems like a net-good for them because now they have higher incomes and can afford more of other types of food.

I happen to think that the harms from animal agriculture are orders of magnitude higher than the harms from  plant-based food products on average, but I certainly agree with you that we should not consider transitioning society to veganism as the end-all fix to our food system (though it would certainly be a good start!).

80,000 Hours: Where's the best place to volunteer?

At least in the US, it is very common for cities/counties/other local governments to have boards and commissions that advise the elected officials (and in some cases have certain direct decision making power). These are typically part time volunteer positions that you have to apply for to get, but are often not that competitive. If you volunteer for your city's charter review commission and advocate for instituting approval voting or volunteer for the environment commission and advocate for policies that promote plant based food (e.g. meatless Mondays in schools) or volunteer for the grants review panel and advocate for directing funds toward relatively more effective organizations, then that might be a good use of your time. Typically volunteering in this capacity means that you are also committing to spend time on projects and policies that you might be less excited about, but that means you might run into other opportunities to learn something new or have an influence that you haven't thought about yet. The specifics will vary by location and your own interests/strengths, but from what I can tell these types of opportunities are pretty common across the U.S.

FAQ: ACE's Animal Advocacy Research Fund

Oh sorry didn't realize that. Thanks!

FAQ: ACE's Animal Advocacy Research Fund

Thanks for posting this. You mention the importance of studies on plant-based food branding, consumer preferences, etc.  I'm curious if you have  spoken to people in the plant-based food industry on how useful such studies (and which kind) would be to them.

Although I am not interested in pursuing an AARF grant, I do work with retail scanner data and am pursuing a few projects that I hope will be helpful for animals. One issue I run into is that while it is fairly straight forward to predict which sorts of questions will be of interest to journals, it is far from obvious which types of research questions would be of interest to plant-based food companies. I assume that many companies are hiring their own data analysts to explore pricing and coupon policies, so I imagine that additional contributions on this front might not be particularly useful. I also assume that they have a pretty good grasp on how demand shifts with their own pricing, and that is likely to drive their decision making (more so than, say, the effects of a reduced price for a plant-based item on its animal-derived analog).  I'm not even sure if many companies are likely to engage with econ journal publications in any capacity. Of course there are other avenues by which such research might be helpful (policy, corporate advocacy, short term third party subsidizing, etc.), but I think of them as primarily for the benefit of industry. 

If you happen to have any insight from the industry on this, I'd be very interested.

Can I have impact if I’m average?

Being judgey toward oneself or others for being only able to contribute an average or below average amount is of course bad.  EA should  be about making the most efficient use of the resources (money, talent, etc.) that you have.  Any other attitude is plainly self-defeating.

I'm not sure how much I agree with the premise that only the top 1% of a field have a major impact though. I think we should all be humble about how much we really know about the influence we have. There are so many unknowns that it is possible that the "biggest impact" interventions will backfire spectacularly. Also, in some fields , the most prestigious positions (professors at R1 universities) are not always the same as the most influential (often in private industry or government).  The most talented people usually go for prestige over influence.  Similarly,  not-particularly talented people might find high degrees of influence in unexpected places. For example, mobilizing your local government to make a positive change can be achievable for many people who don't have any extraordinary skills and can be a catalyst for more widespread change.

[Feedback Request] The compound interest of saving lives

Michael, thanks for these links, I'm really enjoying reading both of them. Super interesting thesis! I am pretty puzzled by the idea of there being a single optimal population size though. Even under a totalist view,well being seems super dependent on who is alive and not just how many. E.g. if you had a world full of 20 billion people with a (learned or genetic) predisposition toward happiness, then that will look very different from a world with 20 billion people with a predisposition toward misery (and might look similar to a world with 10 or 30 billion people with a predisposition toward neutral moods). So it strikes me as strange to imagine a single inverted u function. Hillary Greaves' piece mentions that she is considering the optimal population "under given empirical conditions," but I'm not really sure what that means given that population could grow in any number of ways. I think that it refers to something along the lines of "the optimal population level taking the world completely as is and offering no interventions that change either who is born or how happy anyone is given that they were born" which I guess makes logical sense as an intellectual exercise but then doesn't tell us about the ethics of any particular intervention ( offering free birth control or subsidizing births or having a baby, for example, takes us out of the world of "existing empirical conditions" and changes both who is born and how happy existing people are). I'm sure both of you considered this point though--Would it be correct to say that you believe that these considerations just don't empirically matter that much for our practical decision making?

What are the most common objections to “multiplier” organizations that raise funds for other effective charities?

As I'm reading more,I'm realizing that multiplier organizations are not as much about evaluation as my post makes them out to be, so I will just say that I agree with the point in the post about wanting to give the single most effective charity rather than a mix, and not really understanding the value added of an intermediate organization.

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