Assume, for a moment, that we want to prevent the suffering of the 9 billion animals raised every year for meat in the US. What should we do? Seek government legislation or regulations to protect farm animals from cruel treatment? Bring pressure on meat companies, brands and retailers to improve animal welfare? Or try to persuade individuals to become vegans or vegetarians, or to consume less meat? If so, what arguments work best to change people’s eating habits? What about promoting alternatives to animal protein?
It’s Lewis Bollard’s job to answer those questions–or at least try to better understand which strategies will do the most good for animals at the least cost. Bollard began work a few weeks ago as a program officer for the Open Philanthropy project, where he leads its work on treatment of animals in industrial agriculture. Bollard, who is 29 and a native of New Zealand, previously was a policy advisor to Wayne Pacelle, the chief executive of The Human Society of the United States (HSUS), a litigation fellow at HSUS and a law student at Yale. where he co-led an animal law reading group. He’s been interested in animal welfare since he visited a live-animal market in Hanoi, Vietnam, as a teenager, and then went to see a slaughterhouse where pigs were killed in New Zealand. “We are all complicit in a great moral crisis,” Bollard says.
Because of our shared interest in factory farming, I met Bollard last week over a (vegetarian) lunch at a Chipotle in Washington, DC. He made clear that he was speaking only for himself because he’s just getting started at the Open Philanthropy project. Open Philanthropy is a collaboration between Good Ventures, the foundation of Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook, and Cari Tuna, who have pledged to give most of their wealth to charity, and GiveWell, a meta-charity that analyzes and identifies outstanding nonprofits. Open Philanthropy poses a broad question–“How can we accomplish as much good as possible?–and, to find answers, is currently researching criminal justice reform, global catastrophic risks and scientific research, as well as the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture.
Bollard had more questions than answers as we spoke. He was certain about just a couple of things –first, that the magnitude of suffering by animals raised for meat is great and second, that their plight deserves more attention. “You have about nine billion land animals being raised and slaughtered in the US, and even more if you count wild fish and farmed fish,” he said. “In a lot of these cases, you don’t even have basic welfare standards governing their treatment.”
In the US, the vast majority of animals raised for meat are chickens, which live for about six wretched weeks, animal welfare advocates say. They are sentient creatures, capable of feeling pain and pleasure. Many never experience sunlight on their backs or grass beneath their feet.
Broiler chickens, as they’re known, are selectively bred to turn feed into meat as rapidly and efficiently as possible. Many have difficulty walking because their legs can’t support their rapidly growing bodies, and their lungs and hearts struggle to keep up. “It’s quite possible that a majority of these 9 billion chickens are spending most of their lives suffering,” Bollard told me.
Only a relative handful of NGOs focus on factory farming. Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), a meta-charity (that I blogged about here), recommends three as its “top charities”: Animal Equality International, Mercy for Animals and The Humane League. All are relatively small; together, they spend less than $10 million a year, according to their latest filings online. They could ramp up their efforts with more money. Animal Charity Evaluators also recommends several “standout charities,” including the farm protection programs of HSUS, which is bigger but focused on a variety of animal protection issues. The Open Philanthropy project has said that it hopes to give about $5 million per year to protect farm animals, and that “we anticipate growing our grantmaking significantly beyond that level if we find great giving opportunities.”
But what might those “great giving opportunities” look like? Because so little research has been done on animal advocacy, it’s hard to know. To its credit, Animal Charity Evaluators has begun to compile a research library on animal welfare issues. (A study using Facebook ads, for example, looked at which farm animal cruelty video was most effective at leading young women to want to change their diet.) But the research is limited, and more about tactics than strategy.
One broad set of strategies focuses on the supply side of factory farming. HSUS and its allies have had great success using state ballot initiatives to curb extreme animal confinement–notably, gestation crates for pigs and battery cages for chickens. (A landmark ballot campaign is expected in 2016 in Massachusetts.) Bringing pressures to bear on brand and retailers has also proved fruitful: McDonald’s, Unilever and General Mills have all committed to phase out the use of eggs from hens kept in cages. Dozens of companies have told their suppliers to stop housing pigs in gestation crates, as I reported in The Guardian back in 2013.
An alternative approach focuses on the demand for meat and eggs, seeking to change consumer habits and preferences. It’s harder to gauge its impact because the data is all over the place. US beef consumption is falling steadily, but Americans are eating more chicken, according to the National Chicken Council. While school cafeterias and food services companies have adopted Meatless Mondays, it’s not clear whether the campaign has had repercussions beyond the lunchroom. Sales of vegan products grew by 6 percent last year, but only about 4 percent of Americans are vegans or vegetarians, a number that lately has been flat despite celebrity vegetarians like Adele and Bill Clinton. Meantime, startup companies offering alternatives to animal protein like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek are growing briskly, but they remain small. And affordable, lab-grown meat is decades away.
Outside the US, global meat consumption is rising rapidly, particularly in China, which raises many more pigs and chickens than any other country in the world.
Bollard, it’s clear, has plenty of work–important work–to do.