There are roughly 31 billion animals currently in factory farms, suffering immensely from practices designed to maximise production at almost any cost to the animals' welfare. They live in highly confined spaces and have been selectively bred to produce as much of their product (that is, meat, milk, or eggs) as possible, causing severe suffering through both acute and chronic health conditions.
In recent years, some animal advocacy organisations have improved the welfare standards on factory farms by:
- Securing commitments from companies to change their farming practices — such as banning the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens. Even if only half of the companies who made these commitments stuck to them, billions of animals' lives would be improved.
- Enshrining improved animal welfare standards in law.
This page focuses on improving the welfare of animals living in farms (including invertebrates and fish). See our page on reducing demand for animal products for an alternative approach to addressing the problem of farmed animal suffering.
We think improving farmed animal welfare is a high-priority cause because its scale is so massive and recent successes indicate that we can make immense progress with further resources. While funding has increased significantly in recent years, this cause is still very neglected relative to its scale.
We can consider the scale of farmed animal suffering using three factors: the number of animals affected, the capacity they have to suffer, and the amount of suffering they endure.
The numbers of farmed animals vary a lot depending on the animals. Farmed fish, chickens, and invertebrates make up the vast majority of farmed animals.
Of all farmed animals, it is estimated that:
- 90% of farmed vertebrates currently living are in factory farms, including 74% of land vertebrates and almost all farmed fish. This varies a lot geographically, with low- and middle-income countries having lower, but increasing rates of factory farming.
- 1–1.2 trillion insects are farmed annually, while the numbers for other invertebrate groups are less clear.
When we think other beings are suffering, we want to help. All sentient beings can suffer — but are farmed animals sentient?
It's widely accepted by experts in neuroscience (and related disciplines) that mammals and birds are sentient, and thus have the capacity to suffer. Fish sentience has been studied less, but evidence suggests they are comparably sentient, as they show many similarities in neurology and behaviour.
The situation for invertebrates is more complicated. The category of invertebrate includes a vast range of animals with large differences in the complexity of their brains and nervous systems. Given the lack of available evidence, and the difficulty of understanding the subjective experience of others, it's difficult to draw conclusions. That said, the number of animals affected is so large that it may make sense to use the precautionary principle, and assume that those animals have some level of sentience until proven otherwise. This is especially true as new evidence continues to emerge for sentient-like behaviours in some invertebrates.
Undercover investigations into factory farms have revealed the horrific suffering that animals endure when raised in intensive systems. Chickens raised for meat have been bred to grow very quickly, which increases the risk of bone fractures, as they cannot support their weight. They are kept in overcrowded conditions that are rarely kept clean, and the resulting ammonia buildup can cause lesions and respiratory issues.
The situation is similar for egg-laying hens. They have been bred to produce large numbers of eggs, which depletes their calcium levels and can lead to brittle bones. Their beaks are trimmed to prevent them from pecking other birds. If they are confined in battery cages, they have space smaller than a sheet of A4 printer paper — not even enough to spread their wings.
Fish welfare is poorly understood, and there is less available welfare science. Fish are also a very broad category of animals, and their welfare needs vary substantially depending on the species. That said, there are some common issues in aquaculture farms including overcrowding, poor dissolved oxygen levels, and suppression of natural behaviours such as migration.
These are only some examples to illustrate the types of suffering experienced in factory farms.
Compared to other animal cause areas (such as shelters), funding for farmed animals (including both welfare reform and reducing animal product consumption) is much lower — especially when we consider this funding relative to the astonishing number of farmed animals.
Based on estimates using U.S data from 2015, 99.6% of domesticated land animals used by humans are farmed animals, yet organisations working specifically on farmed animals receive 0.8% of funding going to animal cause areas. However, this may have changed in recent years, given that improving welfare for farmed animals has been a rapidly expanding cause — recent estimates have found around $170 million USD is spent globally each year.
In particular, regions outside of the US and Western Europe receive disproportionately little funding compared to the number of animals farmed there.
When compared with other cause areas, such as global health and development, funding for farmed animals is at least 130 times less — in 2019, state funding alone for global health was $22.4 billion USD.
Making improvements to farmed animal welfare appears to be tractable for some animal groups, through efforts targeting companies and legal reform. However, there is some doubt about how many companies will follow through on their commitments to improve animal welfare.
Little work has been done on invertebrate farmed animal welfare so far, and so the tractability of those efforts is much less certain.
To date, there have been two main approaches to improving farmed animal welfare — securing commitments from companies to improve their welfare practices, and improving the legal standards of welfare protection. For approaches aimed at reducing demand for animal products, see here.
Over the last 10 years, animal advocacy groups have successfully campaigned to secure higher welfare commitments from companies in the food supply chain. Typically, this involves a company committing to changing their business practice by a certain date — for example, they might commit to only sourcing eggs from cage-free farms by 2025.
This approach started with a focus on ending the use of cages for egg-laying hens, followed by breed requirements and environmental improvements for chickens raised for meat. It has been estimated that corporate campaigns so far have affected 9 to 120 years of chicken life per USD spent.
More recently, some initial work has been done on farmed fish.
There are a few examples of legal reform work resulting in improvements to farmed animal welfare. In the U.S., these have happened at the state level, most notably with Proposition 2 and Proposition 12 in California, which legally require that farms provide enough space for caged animals to be able to turn around and stretch their limbs. Most successes have taken place in states that allow ballot initiatives, in which petitions with enough signatures can be put forward for vote by the electorate.
While this approach is more challenging than securing corporate commitments, enshrining welfare standards in law is likely to be more future-proof. This is because farming practices resulting in poor welfare emerged because they maximise profitability, so it's possible that the industry could return to poorer welfare conditions without continued pressure from animal advocacy organisations — legal reform makes this much more difficult.
The vast majority of cage-free commitments made by companies are due to come into effect by 2025. This means that the impact of the campaign work will only be realised if companies follow through on those commitments.
After evidence emerged that some companies were not upholding their commitment, some charities have pivoted to focusing on compliance work to address this. There are some indications that the egg industry does not expect that they will be fully cage-free by 2025. This reinforces the importance of pursuing legal change, as that would likely have a higher level of compliance.
The welfare improvements for egg-laying hens and chickens raised for meat will improve the lives of future animals raised in those systems at a very low cost per animal. But the lives of those animals will still be very undesirable and full of suffering. It's not yet known whether the animal agriculture industry will accept further campaigns to make new improvements, or whether such improvements will affect the demand and supply of animal products.
You may conclude from this that focusing on ending the use of farmed animals rather than improving their welfare is a better long-term goal. For more information on this, see our cause area page on reducing consumption of animal products.
You may have other reasons not to prioritise animal welfare in general, which we briefly discuss in our cause area profile on improving animal welfare.
We recommend supporting the following charities, which are drawn from Animal Charity Evaluators' (ACE) Top Charities:
In addition to these official recommendations, you may want to consider the following charities that ACE recommends as "Standout Charities." These are a good option if you would like to influence a particular region (such as Eastern Europe or Latin America), or support a particular kind of intervention (such as development of animal product alternatives).
- Anima International
- Compassion in World Farming USA
- Dharma Voices for Animals
- Essere Animali
- Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations
- Material Innovation Initiative
- Mercy For Animals
- New Harvest
- Sinergia Animal International
- Sociedade Vegetariana Brasileira
- Vegetarianos Hoy
- xiaobuVEGAN (Vegans of Shanghai)
Charities working on corporate and legal campaigns often utilise their volunteer base to apply pressure or spread awareness of the campaigns on social media. In particular, The Humane League has a volunteer network called the Fast Action Network that we would recommend signing up for. You could also contact any of the charities above working in your area to see how you could support their work.
- Animal Welfare Cause Report (Founders Pledge)
- Lessons Learned in Farm Animal Welfare (Lewis Bollard)
- Why Farmed Animals? (Animal Charity Evaluators)
- Corporate campaigns affect 9 to 120 years of chicken life per dollar spent (Rethink Priorities)
- Opinion: estimating invertebrate sentience (Rethink Priorities)
- Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile (Rethink Priorities)
- Farm Animals (Compassion in World Farming)
- Farmed Fish Welfare Report (Animal Charity Evaluators)
- Welfare Sheet: Broiler Chickens (Compassion in World Farming)
- Welfare Sheet: Laying Hens (Compassion in World Farming)
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As an example, selective breeding for ever faster growth rates and feed conversion efficiency has caused many of the welfare problems broiler chickens suffer from today. Broiler chickens (those raised for meat) have a mortality rate of 1% a week, which is seven times the rate of egg-laying hens of the same age. For more information, see this report on the welfare of broiler chickens in the EU. ↩︎
Invertebrates are cold-blooded animals with no backbone, like inspects, spiders, and worms. Rowe (2020) estimates that between 100 trillion and 10 quadrillion invertebrates are killed or used by humans each year (although the vast majority of this estimate is from those killed by pesticides rather than farmed). ↩︎
Note that the number of animals currently living is not the same as the number of animals slaughtered annually. Different farmed animals are raised for different lengths of time prior to slaughter, and so for animals raised for shorter lengths of time, such as broiler chickens, there are many more slaughtered in a year than are alive at any given time. ↩︎
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness is a declaration signed by experts from a range of disciplines stating that "the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates." Though this may overstate the case, as consciousness is far from being well-understood by any discipline. For example, Open Philanthropy's report on consciousness suggests we are still uncertain about whether animals are conscious, but estimates that at least factory farmed animals (like pigs, cows, and chickens) probably are. ↩︎
As an example of physiology, fish have the nerve fibres needed for transmitting sharp pain and dull aches through their bodies. Behaviourally, they have been shown to avoid painful stimuli, and remember to avoid those stimuli if they encounter them in the future. For an overview of these and other indicators of sentience, see this document. Furthermore, even in the absence of evidence around pain, arguments have been made that their resistance to painful stimuli should also be taken as argument for their moral consideration. ↩︎
We can also think about this in terms of expected value, in which we multiply each of the possible outcomes by their likelihood, and sum up those values. For more of a discussion on how this applies to invertebrate sentience, see this blog post. ↩︎
On one hand, higher welfare farming systems are likely to be more expensive to run, which could mean higher costs for the consumer and reduced demand. On the other hand, some animal advocates are concerned that companies will use these welfare improvements to market their products as being high welfare, which could increase demand. ↩︎