Why is meat so cheap? McDonald’s sells a McDouble burger for less than $2. A rotisserie chicken costs $4.99 at Costco.
Government policy comes into play. Farmers get low-cost water. Cows, pigs and chickens eat federally-subsidized corn. The USDA and the Small Business Administration guarantee loans to farmers, including owners of CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). Animal agriculture benefits from federal commodity checkoff programs that fund marketing (“Beef, it’s what’s for dinner”). They take advantage of taxpayer-funded research at state universities. Prison inmates raise cattle in Kentucky, and they process ground meat and poultry in Florida.
What are the costs of all these policies, and what, if any, are the benefits? A new nonprofit organization called The Greenfield Project aims to find out. Launched last spring by Liz Hallinan and Ashley Allen Carr, with a $500,000 grant from the Open Philanthropy Project, The Greenfield Project will conduct research, do regulatory and legal analysis and education, and connect farmers to consumers, all with the goal of cultivating “a more joyful and resilient food system.” It hopes to support small and mid-sized farms that treat their animals and the environment well.
“We’re going to push for rules and policies that we think will help animals—and consumers, their health and the environment,” Hallinan told me when we met last week in a D.C. coffee shop. Carr, who is based in Austin, Texas, said by phone: “We feel strongly that improvements in animal welfare are tied to improvements in sustainable farming. We want to take a more cohesive and comprehensive approach.”
It’s not clear that the animal-welfare movements needs another nonprofit. The Humane Society of the U.S. has a big Washington operation that deals with Congress, and the low-profile Animal Welfare Institute works on federal and state legislation and produces research on farm animals.
But Lewis Bollard, the program officer for farm animal welfare at the Open Philanthropy Project, says that “a lot more could be done for farm animal welfare at the federal level.” Other animal-welfare nonprofits expose conditions at factory farms, exhort consumers to become vegans, lobby corporations to change their animal-welfare policies and run state ballot campaigns. But few have dug deeply into the bowels of federal regulatory agencies.
Hallinan and Carr say they intend to take a more holistic approach to animal welfare issues, in D.C. and elsewhere, by linking animal welfare with environmental issues, worker and labor rights, rural revitalization and corporate consolidation. (The worker issues are not trivial, as this horrifying Washington Post story about deaths on dairy farms makes clear.) The Greenfield Project will look closely at federal executive-branch agencies that, unlike Congress, operate in relative obscurity but have a big impact on the food system.
In its first research paper, which is due out early next year, The Greenfield Project says it will identify reforms that would “either (1) decrease the government’s financial support of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or (2) increase the government’s financial support for higher welfare animal agricultural production.”
“We’re trying to understand, broadly, how government promotes CAFOs over more regenerative, sustainable humane farming,” Hallinan says.
The Greenfield Project will also set itself apart by taking a pragmatic, positive approach to animal welfare issues, the founders say. Unlike many in the animal-welfare movement, neither Hallinan nor Carr is a strict vegan; they’re vegetarians who consume eggs and dairy products only from humane sources.
Instead of shaming consumers into avoiding animal products, Hallinan and Carr say they would like to find ways to connect consumers and farmers who share a commitment to animal welfare, worker well-being and the environment, even if those farmers produce meat or dairy products.
“We’re deeply practical,” Hallinan says. “We would never describe our ultimate goal as a vegan world.”
Hallinan, who is 36, and Carr, who is 31, are giving up what could have been lucrative legal careers to devote themselves to improving the lives of farm animals. Hallinan has an undergraduate degree in biology from Harvard and a law degree from NYU; previously, she was a fellow at the Animal Legal Defense Fund and director of policy at Compassion Over Killing. Carr studied philosophy at Rice (where she read Peter Singer and other ethicists), earned a law degree from Harvard and spent five years as an associate at Baker Botts, a global law firm where she did pro bono work on animal welfare issues.
“We try not to be as stuffy as most lawyers,” Carr jokes. “We’re big on joy.”
The Open Philanthropy Project grant to The Greenfield Project is part of a farm animal welfare program that has given away about $25m in the last 12 months. Recent grants have supported advocacy on behalf of farm animals in India and China, as well as a research study to test the effectiveness of messages designed to reduce people’s consumption of meat. Open Philanthropy, one of the most interesting foundations around, structured as an LLC, closely tied to GiveWell and funded primarily by Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana.