Theories of Change for the animal advocacy movement
What are the different ways that the world might turn out for farmed animals, and how likely are they?
Notes: Thanks to Bruce Friedrich for some alternative protein-related comments. You can sign up to receive more content like this here.
Changing the world is complicated, and I think we’re more likely to succeed by taking several different promising approaches rather than only the most cost-effective one or two. I think this will make the animal advocacy movement more robust to various failure modes or different ways the world could turn out.
I don’t think this is happening currently: it doesn’t seem that we have a well-diversified animal advocacy movement in terms of differing theories of change or strategies.
I currently think that we're on a bad trajectory for farmed animals over the next approximately fifty years, with a 55% chance that farmed animal suffering will remain large or get worse.
I think we can do more to learn from other movements to understand which theories of change were the most effective for comparable issues. In other words, more research is needed.
There are some other theories of change that might merit more attention with effective animal advocacy, such as policy advocacy, especially in developing countries, international movement building and culturally delegitimising animal products.
Caveat: This analysis is farmed animal suffering specific (i.e. doesn’t include what might happen to wild animals) and speculative, with lots of value judgements. I’ve also simplified things quite a lot in my graphs, so take them with a pinch of salt. For these scenarios, I’m generally thinking on a 50 year timeline, give or take 10 years.
Based on this previous Forum post, a following comment and related conversations, I’ve tried to map out some ways the animal advocacy movement might turn out over the next 20-50 years. This is highly speculative but I think it’s interesting nonetheless and hope it inspires some discussion on the topic. The key things I would be interested in is:
Are there likely future scenarios that I’ve missed completely?
Which scenarios do people predict being the most likely?
How do we ensure that the best scenarios end up happening?
What portfolio of advocacy strategies maximises our chances of success based on potential future outcomes?
I’ve tried to illustrate my thinking and intuitions in diagrams, which can be seen below. I would outline the five different scenarios I’ve mapped out as:
Technology optimistic scenario: Alternative proteins, primarily cultivated meat, reach cost competitiveness with the cheapest animal products and displace animal products from the food system. Animal suffering drops significantly.
Heavy regulation scenario: Significant welfare reform wins (e.g. all animals cage free, maybe the end of confined animal feeding operations) and high regulation of animal industry which significantly increases production costs of animal protein. Animal suffering drops significantly.
Moral advocacy optimistic: Significant moral advocacy wins e.g. abolishing factory farming but little success with alternative proteins, but animal suffering drops significantly.
Business as usual: Welfare reforms continue with no transformative changes (e.g. factory farming continues and alternative proteins aren't cost competitive). Animal suffering remains considerably large
Worst case: Animal product production continues to rise, especially in countries with low welfare standards, with no other transformative breakthroughs. This means animal suffering grows even larger than what it is currently.
I haven’t mapped out the scenarios for significant welfare wins or moral advocacy success with alternative protein success as I believe alternative protein success will single handedly outperform any benefits provided by the other approaches. In this case I’m defining alternative protein success as alternative proteins are cheaper than the cheapest animal products, similar in taste and widely available.
Below I place some estimates for the likelihood of each case. Later, I outline each scenario with a graph on the cost of animal protein vs alternative proteins, a graph sketching a very rough estimate of total farmed animal suffering in that scenario, as well as reasons for and against it being likely to happen. At the end, I include some discussion on how we can improve our odds of success and progress we're already making.
Likelihood of each scenario
Note that this section is very speculative and mostly formed by my opinions of being quite involved in the (grassroots) animal advocacy movement for the past three years. Further reasoning behind my estimates can be seen in the sections below. It’s also where I think where we are currently heading, rather than the maximum values for some of these scenarios. For example, I believe that with greater spending on moral advocacy, the likelihood of this scenario being true could increase above 5%. However, I could be very wrong about most of this and would encourage people to put their own estimates below.
Technology optimistic scenario
Reasons for this scenario being likely to happen:
The cost of plant-based meats and other alternative proteins are already dropping, with Impossible Burger having cut its price several times.
There is rapidly increasing private and public investment into alternative proteins, to the scale of $7 billion in the last decade, with most of it in the last three years. Seems plausible that more research will make it more likely that we bypass any technological difficulties.
Alternative proteins are becoming popularised as a tool for mitigating climate change, with recognition from government officials from Singapore, the US, the UK, etc. This seems important due to the strong urgency being put on climate solutions currently and the amount of government funding being directed towards mitigation strategies.
This timeline puts cost-competitive plant-based products by 2030 (and cultivated meat by 2050-2070).
A techno-economic analysis conducted by CE Delft and commissioned by GFI thinks cultivated meat will be possible at scale by 2030. See counterpoints and opposing analyses in “reasons against”.
Holden Karnofsky says “I estimate that there is more than a 10% chance we'll see transformative AI within 15 years (by 2036); a ~50% chance we'll see it within 40 years (by 2060); and a ~2/3 chance we'll see it this century (by 2100).” There’s a high chance that super-intelligent AI will speed up the development of low-cost alternative proteins, due to rapid advances in technology and innovation.
Metaculus forecasters believe that a product that is >80% clean meat will be sold for less than $3/100 grams by 2034 (as the median estimate). This implies that clean meat will be close to cost competitiveness with cheap animal proteins in a reasonably short timescale.
Cultivated meat at cost-competitive prices with the cheapest animal products might be technologically infeasible, according to this techno-economic analysis by David Humbird and commissioned by Open Philanthropy. An overview of it and other analyses can be seen here thanks to Rethink Priorities, who state that they think Humbird’s analysis is high-quality with some more obvious errors in the work of CE Delft. This seems like a fairly strong reason why some of the “reasons for” might not matter much.
Cost-competitive plant-based products might not be enough to replace animal protein from the majority of people’s diets, due to shortcomings in taste, texture, etc.
According to Lusk et. al (with the Breakthrough Institute), they find that in the US, for every 10% reduction in price of plant-based beef, this would only amount to a 0.15% reduction in US cattle production, even with a 23% increase in plant-based beef consumption. This implies that the substitution effect is less strong than we expect, and consumers generally add alternative proteins to their diet rather than completely replace beef with it. Some drawbacks with this analysis is that it’s mostly likely to be accurate for small changes from equilibrium (e.g. a 10% price reduction in plant-based meats) and is more likely to be wrong if there are more dramatic reductions in cost for alternative protein.
Heavy regulation of animal industry
Reasons for this scenario being likely to happen:
Cage-free egg production has grown massively e.g. from approximately 5% of the total market in 2014 to over 25% by 2020 in the US. There are similar trends happening in Asia and also globally. Other wins for cage-free can be seen here in a newsletter by Lewis Bollard from Open Philanthropy.
The European Commission said they want to phase out cages in animal farming by 2027.
Other welfare reform wins: Fish Welfare Initiative in India.
The same arguments above as above for alternative proteins, in that it’s likely their costs will fall over coming years due to increased investment and economies of scale.
One example of animal welfare improvements driving production costs higher, which then led to a supplier in Mexico providing more plant-based options, is given in this podcast by Leah Garces from Mercy For Animals, who are proponents of this theory of change.
I’m quite sceptical that we will continue to get large legislative or regulatory victories similar in scale to the European Commitment to end cages. Corporate powers within animal agriculture are very powerful, much more well-resourced and well connected than the animal advocacy movement, so progress might be hindered by vested interests.
Banning cages seems like an easier step than stopping animal farming completely or banning factory farming. Whilst banning cages seems quite politically acceptable, in that meat consumption can continue to exist with reasonably small changes to price and to consumers, I don’t think this is true for banning all confined animal feeding operations (factory farms). That would alter the animal agriculture landscape completely which seems much more politically and socially challenging.
Most significant legislative or welfare wins have been happening in Western countries, whilst most animal suffering occurs in Asia (and predominantly China). I’m unsure how easily some of these reforms will be taken up by Asian countries.
This would also require a lot of moral advocacy to have the public pressure for government and industry to agree to these new regulations. I’m not sure that our society feels strongly enough for animal welfare to have the public support to make this happen. The climate movement has much more support (e.g. 66% of the US population think we should have stronger climate action, 30% of people in the UK think it’s the most important issue) and yet they’re struggling to pass and implement policy that would keep us within our climate targets. I’m not sure how the animal advocacy movement would achieve a similarly large overhaul of businesses, supply chains and personal lifestyle choices with much less public support.
I’m not sure that egg-producing companies going cage-free experienced a substantial enough increase in their production costs that would affect consumer demand. Two studies I found indicate that cage-free systems have 30-40% higher costs relative to caged systems. These numbers seem significant buto one of these studies indicates that even though total costs might increase by 40%, they only anticipate demand to fall by 10% if all US eggs were produced in this system.
Similar to the above point, it seems like the price elasticity estimates for meat is slightly inelastic, in that demand falls by 6-8% for a 10% increase in price. There seems to be some disagreement with these values, as the UK report by DEFRA indicates a long-term 10% price increase for meat might decrease demand by 14%. Ultimately as most meat consumption happens in Asia and will be in the developing world in the future, it’s probably best to understand their estimates for price elasticity rather than ones from the UK or US.
Moral Advocacy Optimistic
Reasons for this likely to become reality:
The European Commission voted to end cages for farmed animals in Europe by 2027.
There is currently a proposed bill in the UK to end cages for farmed animals.
The UK has declared that crustaceans are sentient
France and Germany banned the killing of day-old male chicks, and joined five other nations in calling for an EU-wide ban (see Lewis Bollard’s 2021 round-up newsletter)
Fur farming is now banned in 12 European countries, with calls to ban it on an EU level. (also seen in newsletter linked above)
Germany’s new coalition government pledged mandatory animal welfare labels on meat and subsidies for meat alternatives
The European Commission proposed a series of future scientific opinions on the welfare of commonly farmed fish species; in the past, such opinions have often led to new legislation (according to Lewis Bollard).
80% of vegans in the UK say that one of the reasons they went vegan was due to concerns around animal welfare.
Chinese students have reasonably high perceptions of sentience for animals (e.g. significantly higher than the mean for fish, slightly higher for chickens, but lower for cows and pigs) relative to European countries. This indicates that they may be amenable to moral circle expansion arguments. Whilst not a strong factor, this could be important due to the amount of meat production currently happening and predicted to grow in China.
Reasons against this scenario being likely:
Growing meat demand in regions with significantly less moral progress on animal welfare (e.g. Asia , Africa, South America). As of 2018, only 18% of meat consumption (by tonnage) was in Europe and 34% in Europe and North America combined. Therefore, the impact of significant welfare reforms (e.g. no cages for farmed animals) in Europe might be outweighed by poor welfare in regions with increasing meat production, or partially nullified by Europe importing goods with lower welfare standards.
There is some evidence that suggests that concern for animal welfare is lower in Asian countries, relative to European countries. Specifically, Philips et. al (2020) found that concern for animal welfare was lowest from Chinese students relative to students from 10 other European and Asian countries, which isn’t promising due to the magnitude of animals farmed in China. This paper also concluded that there was a correlation between attitudes towards animal welfare and affluence of students, so increasing wealth in Asian countries might lead to increased animal welfare concerns.
Market forces are a strong incentive: price seems to be much more important than animal welfare concerns when deciding to buy animal products. This seems true for China, Sweden, Italy, UK and probably most countries and consumers. In a world where animal protein remains cheaper than alternative proteins, it seems like most people aren’t concerned about animals enough to pay a premium for similar tasting but animal-free products. A Eurobarometer study (albeit from 2015) found that 35% of EU consumers weren’t willing to pay more for higher animal welfare products, where concern for animals is arguably greater than the rest of the world.
Corporate powers within animal agriculture are very powerful, much more well-resourced and well connected than the animal advocacy movement, so progress might be hindered by vested interests.
As per the previous scenario, I’m not sure that our society feels strongly enough for animal welfare to have the public support to make this happen. The climate movement has much more public support (e.g. 66% of the US population think we should have stronger climate action, 30% of people in the UK think it’s the most important issue) yet they’re struggling to pass essential policy that would keep us within our climate targets. For comparison in the same YouGov poll on what the UK population considers to be the most important issues facing the country, environment comes third and animal welfare isn’t in the top 14. I’m not sure how the animal advocacy movement would achieve a similarly large overhaul of businesses, supply chains and personal lifestyle choices analogous to tackling climate change appropriately, with much less public support.
4. Business as usual
Reasons for this scenario being likely:
The arguments against the previous three scenarios seem reasonably strong
The reasons for one of the previous scenarios seems to be stronger than I thought
There’s other quite likely scenarios on how the future of animal suffering might play out that I haven’t included here and it might end up being one of those.
5. Worst Case
Reasons for this scenario being likely:
Global meat consumption is rising considerably, especially in China and other Asian countries where welfare standards are much lower.
We don’t have a huge track record of animal welfare wins in China, who will be the decider for a significant proportion of future animal suffering, so it’s not clear that we’ll have similar success as we have had in Europe.
As GDP rises, countries tend to eat more meat. If we expect developing economies to keep growing, we can also expect them to eat more meat. This is especially true for African countries where this is currently very low GDP per capita.
The above point, in turn with generally sparse animal advocacy in Africa, means that we can expect low welfare meat to grow dramatically in Africa.
Costs of meat production decrease with economies of scale in developing countries, encouraging people to eat more meat.
As aforementioned, price seems to be much more important than animal welfare concerns (e.g 57% vs 9% relative importance for Chinese pork consumers) when deciding to buy animal products.
There’s approximately 1-1.2 trillion farmed insects every year, with concerns that this number could rise to supplement animal feed (for likely rising meat production). The linked report estimates it could “rise by 1 or more orders of magnitude in the near future”.
Capital investment in insect farming is growing rapidly, going from approx. $20 million in 2015 to over $400 million in 2020.
Shrimp farming is growing at a fast pace, at 8.9% in 2021 with forecasts of 5% for 2022.
There is some evidence that the animals mentioned above, amongst others, are sentient and have the capacity to suffer.
Welfare reforms seem to be successful and we can expect them to continue (see reasons for “heavy regulation of industry”)
There have been some welfare wins in Hong Kong, indicating similar change in mainland China could be a possibility.
Companies selling eggs in China are pledging to go cage free e.g. Burger King announced that it will use only non-caged eggs in the Chinese market by 2030.
In one survey, 75% of consumers said they would be more willing to patronise businesses that use only cage-free eggs, including restaurants, supermarkets and packaged foods brands.
Lower meat consumption in Europe or North America might cause a “demonstration effect” whereby it leads to reduced meat consumption in Asia (this feels quite speculative).
The evidence for invertebrates having the ability to suffer isn’t conclusive, and smaller animals such as crickets, mealworms or shrimp have lower likelihoods of sentience compared to larger cephalopods and arthropods.
So what should we do about all this?
If my assumptions are roughly right, and we have a more than 50% chance likelihood of significant animal suffering over the next 50 years, what can we do to increase our chances of success?
Pursue a variety of theories of change. This is a key way to ensure that our goals are achieved despite failure modes caused by factors not in our control (e.g. turns out cultured meat just isn’t technologically feasible so it’s a good thing we put 30% of our resources into moral advocacy on the chance that this was true). At the risk of making an awful pun, it’s risky and dangerous to put all of our eggs in one basket.
Therefore, we should be investing in a range of strategies and advocacy methods to have a layered deference (see Jaime Yassif’s similar point about reducing bio risks). This point is also covered by Chloe Cockburn (ex-Open Phil program officer) in this write-up about having an “ecology of social change”.
I don’t think we currently have a very pluralistic animal advocacy movement. See this post about the fact that we’re potentially over-investing in corporate welfare reforms and my analysis of EA Animal Welfare funding, which shows that roughly 60% of EA Animal Welfare funding goes towards corporate welfare campaigns. Whilst this number decreases in recent years, I still think we could be more pluralistic.
My analysis above aligns reasonably well with research by Farmed Animal Funders, mapping the state of the animal advocacy movement in 2021 (pictured below). They find that there is a large emphasis on business advocacy (corporate welfare reforms) and government legislation, with much less attention to movement building, monitoring and evaluation, and movement research.
Extract lessons from other movements: Similar to the Sentience Institute case studies, it seems valuable to understand what range of approaches different movements employed, and how we can apply them to the animal advocacy movement.
Support each other rather than compete: We should encourage a pluralistic animal movement that supports one another working on different theories of change, rather than thinking that we’re “competing”. In my experience, people often talk down other organisations who are working towards the same goal but approaching it in a different way. I think this is bad for the movement overall, and that we can maximise our collective impact by collaborating, sharing resources and helping each other out more often.
Encourage forecasting for all of the above scenarios: I would love some community forecasting on some of these theories of change and fleshing out ones I haven’t done.
Reasons why this could be irrelevant:
If we think that reducing huge amounts of suffering now is important enough in of itself then we don’t necessarily need a long-term theory of change until we reduce the huge amounts of harm currently happening. Basically that it’s okay to be doing damage limitation in the short-term rather than trying to solve the problem.
If we think welfare reforms will take us to net positive lives for animals on farms.
I’m doubtful of this as I think this would require banning factory farming, which seems unlikely given the reasons against in my “Heavy Regulation” scenario.
If we have a “Vector theory of change”, which means we strategise in small increments, re-evaluate our environment and capacity before deciding our next steps, we don’t necessarily need a fully fleshed out theory of change now. Instead, we’ll create it iteratively over time, based on how our work is going.
We’re already actually doing this reasonably well and I’m just misinformed. My analysis of EAA funding does show a trend towards a more diversified portfolio of funding in recent years, however, I still believe more could be done.
What would this pluralistic animal movement look like?
More research on different advocacy methods, campaigns ideas or targets
More hits-based grantmaking
Institutional work on meat reduction
For example, securing pledges that mean affect the proportion of total sales e.g. 10% of all protein sales must be plant-based
ProVeg UK’s work on changing school meals from animal-based to plant-based is going reasonably well, now working with 25 catering partners in 2,500 schools and affecting 350,000 children. That’s roughly 5% of all students and 8% of all schools in the UK which seems pretty successful so far from a material meat reduction standpoint. There are probably more difficult to quantify wins here, in that more children are being encouraged to eat plant-based options, which might influence their eating habits in the long-term.
Direct Action Everywhere won a commitment from Berkeley City Council “to shift half of current expenditures from animal-based foods to plant-based sources by 2024 and to commit to a long-term goal of fully phasing out animal products.”
Financial divestment advocacy: This seems to have been very impactful for the environmental movement, mainly as a tool to culturally delegitimise fossil fuels, remove its social licence, change public discourse and mobilise the public rather than for the instrumental purposes of reducing cash flows. That said, Peabody Energy, the world’s large private-sector coal company, filed for bankruptcy in 2016 stating that the fossil fuel divestment movement “could significantly affect demand for our products or our securities.”
However, there are no campaigns, networks or organisations similar to 350.org, UK Divest or Go Fossil Free in terms of scale, reach or funding. This has been a huge focus, especially amongst university groups, in the environmental movement for the past 10-20 years. There could be some promise in exploring this further for animal advocacy.
More movement building, especially internationally where we foresee large amounts of future animal suffering.
Greater policy focus, especially in countries with highest production.
More moral advocacy (unsure what this would actually look like)
Undercover investigations? Essere Animali in Italy does good work here.
Protest & direct action
Having an organisation that “seeds the ecology” and tries to understand where the gaps are and fills them. This could be a nonprofit incubator / accelerator aimed specifically at animal advocacy organisations, akin to Charity Entrepreneurship.
Does this mean anything for other EA cause areas?
Probably the same, that we should be more pluralistic and use a range of promising strategies. However, I haven’t thought about this much, and it is more of an intuitive take.