vegan picnic for reducing consumptions of animal products

Reducing consumption of animal products

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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,[1] causing severe suffering through both acute and chronic health conditions.

Fortunately, there are ways we can reduce this. One way is to focus on the supply and demand of animal products. By educating consumers about the reality of animal agriculture and providing higher-quality, tasty alternatives to animal products, we will reduce demand, and in turn, the number of animals being raised on factory farms.

Historically, farmed animal welfare advocates have focused on targeting individuals to persuade them to change their diets. However, it's difficult to cost effectively create behaviour change in individuals at a large scale. As a result, the focus in more recent years has shifted to the supply side — improving the availability and quality of alternative products like plant-based protein.

This page focuses particularly on decreasing the consumption of animal products. See our page on improving the welfare of farmed animals for an alternative approach to reducing animal suffering on factory farms.

Why is decreasing consumption of animal products important?

We think decreasing consumption of animal products is a high-priority cause because its scale is so significant, and the success of the more institutional approaches taken in recent years 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.

What is the scale of farmed animal suffering?

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.

Numbers of farmed animals

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.[2]

Number of farm animals slaughtered annually
Figure: Estimated number of animals slaughtered annually

Of all farmed animals, it is estimated that:

Farmed animals' capacity for suffering

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.[4] Fish sentience has been studied less, but evidence suggests they are comparably sentient, as they show many similarities in neurology and behaviour.[5]

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.[6] This is especially true as new evidence continues to emerge for sentient-like behaviours in some invertebrates.

Suffering on factory farms

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.

Is improving farmed animal welfare neglected?

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.

Animal welfare neglectedness graph
Animal Charity Evaluators' comparison of the scale versus spending for different groups of animals in the US.

In particular, regions outside of the US and Western Europe receive disproportionately little funding compared to the number of animals farmed there.

Founders Pledge's estimate of the number of current spending on animal advocacy.

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.

Is decreasing the consumption of animal products tractable?

Efforts to decrease the consumption of animal products encompass a large range of approaches, which we detail in the next section. From on-the-ground activism to funding academic research, there are clear, tractable ways to reduce demand for animal products.

An open question is how cost effective these approaches are compared to each other. It’s likely that approaches focused on institutional change, rather than individual change, are more cost effective, but this remains somewhat unclear.

What are the potential solutions to decreasing the consumption of animal products?

Several interventions can decrease the consumption of animal products, including: individual outreach, institutional meat reduction, plant-based products, and cell-cultured products.

For approaches aimed at improving farmed animal welfare, see here.

Individual outreach

It has been estimated that for each person who switches to a plant-based diet, 105 vertebrates a year would be spared. Individual outreach uses a variety of methods to encourage individuals to consume fewer or no animal products.

Common in-person interventions include leafleting, protesting, paying individuals to watch video footage of factory farming, and even using virtual reality technology in recent years. Some groups do online outreach, using website advertising to show people factory farming footage or provide them with guides for going vegetarian or vegan. Other groups run pledge campaigns, in which they encourage people to commit to trying veganism for a week or month, and then provide them with resources to continue.

However, there is some evidence showing these approaches may not be that effective, particularly for leafleting and online ads. Veg pledges and humane education show more promise (although evidence is still limited).

Institutional meat reduction

Often people struggle to reduce their animal product consumption because they don't have access to good alternatives in their day-to-day lives. Institutional meat reduction aims to increase the availability of plant-based food options.

In recent years, advocacy groups have successfully targeted schools, hospitals, university and workplace cafeterias, and other institutions to encourage them to provide animal-free options. A few different approaches have been used, such as:

  • Having one day of the week being completely vegetarian (e.g., Meatless Mondays).
  • Ensuring there is always a plant-based option.
  • Encouraging restaurants to offer more plant-based options.
  • Offering chef training to ensure that the meals being provided are high quality and tasty.

Plant-based products

Other approaches aim to provide more and better plant-based options for consumers to buy in stores. While the products are produced by for-profit businesses, nonprofit organisations have used different avenues to provide support, including veg-labelling schemes,[7] funding research into plant protein sources, and providing strategic support to alternative protein startups.

Cell-cultured animal products

Finally, the most cutting-edge and novel approach to this issue is in the research and development of cell-cultured animal products. This process uses animal cells grown in bioreactors (a process similar to yeast production) to produce animal products that don't require raising a sentient being.

However, the process is substantially more complex than yeast production, and it's uncertain whether it will be feasible to scale to a size that can be cost-competitive with the current animal agriculture industry. Most work by nonprofits at this stage is focused on funding research to overcome these barriers, and working towards legal regulation of products to easily bring them to market.

Why might you not prioritise decreasing consumption of animal products?

You think that improving the welfare of farmed animals is more cost effective

An alternative approach to addressing the issues of factory farming is to improve the conditions in which farmed animals are raised. This is primarily done by persuading companies to adopt better minimum welfare standards — for example, transitioning away from battery cages for raising egg-laying hens. This approach has a proven track record, and appears to be very cost effective in terms of the number of animals positively affected per dollar. However, this approach doesn't directly affect demand for animal products, so it's not clear that this approach will have the same long-term effects as reducing consumption — there is a trade-off between short-term and long-term impact.

You may conclude from this that focusing on improving the welfare of farmed animals will help more animals. Alternatively, you might think that even if it helps more animals in the near-term,  For more information on this, see our cause area page on improving farmed animal welfare.

You don't think cell-cultured meat is viable

The technology behind cell-cultured meat is very new, and it's not certain whether it will be able to scale to the level necessary to compete with the conventional animal agriculture industry. It's likely that the impact for animals won't be realised in the next decade or so, but there is potential for it to have a substantial impact in the long term. This may be off-putting for some donors interested in more immediate solutions.

You think that all animals should be helped, regardless of whether their suffering is caused directly by humans

Factory farming is one of the largest causes of animals suffering directly at the hands of humans. However, it's possible that the total suffering experienced by wild animals (both natural and human-caused) is much larger because wild animals are so numerous.

If you believe that we should help animals, regardless of the cause of their suffering, you may be interested in working to improve the welfare of wild animals. For more information on this, you can read our cause area page on helping wild animals.

What are the best charities, organisations, and funds working to decrease the consumption of animal products?

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).

How else can you help?

Animal Charity Evaluators has a list of volunteer opportunities for the charities that they recommend, including several that work on decreasing consumption of animal products.

Learn more

Our research

This page was written by Jamie Spurgeon. You can read our research notes to learn more about the work that went into this page.

Your feedback

Please help us improve our work — let us know what you thought of this page and suggest improvements using our content feedback form.


Footnotes

  1. 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. ↩︎

  2. 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). ↩︎

  3. 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. ↩︎

  4. 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. ↩︎

  5. 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. ↩︎

  6. 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. ↩︎

  7. See here for more information on product labelling programs. ↩︎