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 meat, milk, or eggs as possible — 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 advocating for farmed animals for an alternative approach to reducing animal suffering on factory farms.
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.
We can consider the scale of farmed animal suffering using three factors:
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.1
Of all farmed animals, it is estimated that:
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.3 Fish sentience has been studied less, but evidence suggests they are comparably sentient, as they show many similarities in neurology and behaviour.4
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.5 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 own 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 US 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.
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 the 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.
Several interventions can decrease the consumption of animal products, including:
(For approaches aimed at improving farmed animal welfare, see here.)
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).
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:
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,6 funding research into plant protein sources, and providing strategic support to alternative protein startups.
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.
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 it will have the same long-term effects as reducing consumption — there is a tradeoff 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. For more information on this, see our page on improving farmed animal welfare.
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.
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 all 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 page on helping wild animals.
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.
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