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Question

Do you think decreasing the consumption of animals is good/bad? For which groups of farmed animals?

Context

I stopped eating animals 4 years ago mostly to decrease the suffering of farmed animals[1]. I am glad I did that based on the information I had at the time, and published in online journals of my former university a series of 3 articles whose title reads "Why we should decrease the consumption of animals?". However, I am no longer confident that decreasing the consumption of animals is good/bad. It has many effects:

  • Decreasing the number of factory-farmed animals.
    • I believe this would be good for chickens, since I expect them to have negative lives. I estimated the lives of broilers in conventional and reformed scenarios are, per unit time, 2.58 and 0.574 times as bad as human lives are good (see 2nd table). However, these numbers are not resilient:
      • On the one hand, if I consider disabling pain is 10 (instead of 100) times as bad as hurtful pain, the lives of broilers in conventional and reformed scenarios would be, per unit time, 2.73 % and 26.2 % as good as human lives. Nevertheless, disabling pain being only 10 times as bad as hurtful pain seems quite implausible if one thinks being alive is as good as hurtful pain is bad.
      • On the other hand, I may be overestimating broilers’ pleasurable experiences.
    • I guess the same applies to other species, but I honestly do not know. Figuring out whether farmed shrimps and prawns have good/bad lives seems especially important, since they are arguably the driver for the welfare of farmed animals[2].
  • Decreasing the production of animal feed, and therefore reducing crop area, which tends to:
    • Increase the population of wild animals, which I do not know whether it is good or bad. I think the welfare of terrestrial wild animals is driven by that of terrestrial arthropods, but I am very uncertain about whether they have good or bad lives. I recommend checking this preprint from Heather Browning and Walter Weit for an overview of the welfare status of wild animals.
    • Decrease the resilience against food shocks[3]. As I wrote here:
      • The smaller the population of (farmed) animals, the less animal feed could be directed to humans to mitigate the food shocks caused by the lower temperature, light and humidity during abrupt sunlight reduction scenarios (ASRS), which can be a nuclear winter, volcanic winter, or impact winter[4].
      • Because producing calories from animals is much less efficient than from plants, decreasing the number of animals results in a smaller area of crops.
      • So the agricultural system would be less oversized (i.e. it would have a smaller safety margin), and scaling up food production to counter the lower yields during an ASRS would be harder.
      • To maximise calorie supply, farmed animals should stop being fed and quickly be culled after the onset of an ASRS. This would decrease the starvation of humans and farmed animals, but these would tend to experience more severe pain for a faster slaughtering rate.
      • As a side note, increasing food waste would also increase resilience against food shocks, as long as it can be promptly cut down. One can even argue humanity should increase (easily reducible) food waste instead of the population of farmed animals. However, I suspect the latter is more tractable.
    • Increase biodiversity, which arguably increases existential risk due to ecosystem collapse (see Kareiva 2018).
  • Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore decreasing global warming.
    • I have little idea whether this is good or bad.
    • Firstly, it is quite unclear whether climate change is good or bad for wild animals.
    • Secondly, although more global warming makes climate change worse for humans, I believe it mitigates the food shocks caused by ASRSs[5]. Accounting for both of these effects, I estimated the optimal median global warming in 2100 relative to 1880 can range from 0.1 to 4.3 ºC. I think the plausible range of the optimal global warming is even wider, because I have neglected many sources of uncertainty in my estimate above (like the impact of ASRSs on the energy system, which depends on the fraction of energy coming from fossil fuels).
  • Improving human health[6], and therefore increasing productivity / economic growth.
    • Better health is good because it leads to greater wellbeing, but economic growth has questionable longterm effects.
    • In the last few hundred years, economic growth has been associated with better living conditions (good), but also with higher existential risk (bad).
    • I think the focus should be on differential progress, but I do not know whether better health, and greater economic growth contribute positively or negatively to that.
  • Decreasing the risk from pandemics linked to zoonotic diseases.
  • Mitigating antimicrobial resistance:
    • From Carrique-Mas 2020, "the greatest quantities of antimicrobials (in decreasing order) were used in pigs (41.7% of total use), humans (28.3%), aquaculture (21.9%) and chickens (4.8%). Combined AMU in other species accounted for < 1.5%".
    • Boeckel 2015 projects that "antimicrobial consumption [in livestock production] will rise by 67% by 2030 [relative to 2010]".
  • Expanding the moral circle to farmed animals, as changes in behaviour (eating less animals) can cascade into changes in values (caring about animals).
    • This is good for farmed animals, but might be bad for wild animals if they have negative lives, and consuming less animals spreads memes of non-interference and environmentalism.
    • On the other hand, the reduction in the consumption of animals could be good for wild animals if achieved through increasing the concern for all forms of suffering, regardless of whether or not it is caused by humans.
    • Changes in values can potentially be locked (for example, via advanced artificial intelligence), and therefore have beneficial/harmful longterm effects.
  • Decreasing the number of potential working animals like cows, which could be useful in scenarios where there is a major widespread loss of industry or electricity.

There is also uncertainty regarding how much a decrease in consumption translates to a reduction in production, but I think this mainly affects the magnitude of the overall effect, not its sign. It looks like Peter Singer's Animal Liberation Now does not adequately address my concerns.

For further context, feel free to check Brian Tomasik’s essays on reducing suffering, which introduced me to the indirect effects of changing the consumption of animals. I believe this post is a good place to start. Bear in mind Brian subscribes to negative utilitarianism.

My answer

Having the previous factors in mind, I do not know whether it is good/bad to decrease the consumption of animals at scale. Brian tends to agree:

If I could press a button to reduce overall meat consumption or to increase concern for animals, I probably would. In other words, I think the expected value of these things is perhaps slightly above zero. But my expected value for them is sufficiently close to zero that I don't feel great about my donations being used for them.

I also feel like decreasing the consumption of animals is positive, but suppose I am biassed towards overweighting the identifiable decrease in severe pain caused to factory-farmed animals. I guess welfarist approaches (e.g. corporate campaigns for chicken welfare) are more robustly beneficial than abolitionist ones (e.g. promotion of veganism), but both arguably decrease the consumption of animals, which can be either beneficial or harmful.

In any case, I plan to continue following a whole-food plant-based diet[7], because:

  • I would say it makes me healthier and happier, and therefore more productive.
    • It makes me happier not only due to improved health, but also because causing severe pain to factory-farmed animals would feel pretty bad.
    • Based on these data from the Welfare Footprint Project, supposing each broiler provides 2 kg of edible meat, and that the elasticity of production with respect to consumption is 0.5[8], eating 100 g of chicken causes 75.4 min (= 50.27*60/2*0.1*0.5) of disabling pain if it is produced in a conventional scenario, and 25.9 min (= 17.26*60/2*0.1*0.5) if in a reformed one[9].
  • I guess (hope?) I am overall contributing to a better world, in which case increased productivity is good.

These arguably do not apply to the general population. I believe it is quite hard to tell whether a random person is overall making a positive/negative contribution to the world, essentially for the same reasons I prefer differential progress to economic growth.

Nevertheless, I suspect most people would claim they are overall contributing to a better world. Consequently, according to the reasoning above, they would decide on eating animals based on impacts on productivity, i.e. adopt the “anything goes” approach described by Rob Bensinger. Overall, boycott-itarianism, only eating animals which have sufficiently high welfare, seems better.

Finally, it is worth noting the impact of a random person on farmed animals can apparently be neutralised at a very low cost. I guess it is of the order of magnitude of 0.154 $/year (= 4.64/30.1), as I estimated:

  • The cost-effectiveness of corporate campaigns for broiler welfare is equivalent to creating 30.1 human-years per dollar.
  • The lives of all farmed animals combined are 4.64 times as bad as the lives of all humans combined are good.

Even if the real cost is 100 times higher, most people would more easily donate 39.9 $/year (= 0.399*100) to, for example, Animal Charity Evaluators' top charities than follow a plant-based diet?

Acknowledgements

Thanks to David Denkenberger, Stijn Bruers, Julian Jamison, and Ariel Simnegar for feedback on a draft[10].

  1. ^

     In addition, improving health, and mitigating global warming played a minor role. Fun fact, Lewis Bollard’s 1st appearance on The 80,000 Hours Podcast was an important part of my investigation of the conditions of farmed animals.

  2. ^

     Note I also care about the welfare of large animals like pigs and cows/bulls.

  3. ^

     I first heard about this from Michael Hinge’s appearance on Hear This Idea.

  4. ^

     Additionally, a smaller population of animals would result in a smaller stock of animals and edible animal feed, and larger stock of plant-based foods to be eaten during the ASRS. Nonetheless, these effects would be smaller than the reduction in the production of edible animal feed.

  5. ^

     This occurred to me during a meeting with people from Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED).

  6. ^

     The EAT-Lancet diet only has 12.2 % (= (153 + 30 + 62 + 19 + 40)/2500; see Table 1) of calories coming from animals, and, according to the results of 3 approaches, would decrease adult deaths by 21.7 % (= (0.19 + 0.224 + 0.236)/3; see Table 2). This suggests decreasing the consumption of animals improves health at the margin, even if it is unclear whether the optimal consumption of animal products is zero.

  7. ^

     Fruits, vegetables, cereals, legumes, berries, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, water, and supplements.

  8. ^

     The elasticity will be something between 0 and 1, so I used 0.5. However, it looks like there is significant uncertainty.

  9. ^

     The Welfare Footprint Project defines disabling pain as follows:

    Pain at this level takes priority over most bids for behavioral execution and prevents all forms of enjoyment or positive welfare. Pain is continuously distressing. Individuals affected by harms in this category often change their activity levels drastically (the degree of disruption in the ability of an organism to function optimally should not be confused with the overt expression of pain behaviors, which is less likely in prey species). Inattention and unresponsiveness to milder forms of pain or other ongoing stimuli and surroundings is likely to be observed. Relief often requires higher drug dosages or more powerful drugs. The term Disabling refers to the disability caused by ‘pain’, not to any structural disability.

  10. ^

     Names ordered by descending relevance of contributions.

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4 Answers sorted by

I'm probably being overly simplistic here, but I think that opposing excessive coercion and gratuitous suffering (rights violations in other words) is very important from a prudent utilitarian perspective. Some may argue that this approach doesn't apply as much to animals, but perhaps it should as the world becomes less speciesist.

Thanks for commenting, Joe!

I think that is definitely an important point, and it makes me believe the conditions of factory-farmed animals should be improved such that their rights are less violated. However, I do not know whether it outweights other factors like the increased human starvation in abrupt sunlight reduction scenarios, and potentially preventing wild animals from having good lives. Copy-pasting from my reply further down:

A hallmark of naive utilitarianism is strongly optimising for a single metric (e.g. number of factory-farmed animals) witho

... (read more)
4
Joe91
I agree that it would be possible for the harms of factory farming to be outweighed by the factors you have mentioned. However, I would be hesitant to strongly believe this without extensive justification. Back of the envelope calculations could be flawed due to bias, incomplete information, setting a bad precedent, flow-on effects, reputational damage, etc.  Another point is that reduced opposition to factory farming could prolong a situation which is both bad for farm animals and probably a suboptimal solution to the problems you have raised (ASRS, wild animal welfare). For example, factory farming might slow the development of more advanced/resilient foods. It could be best to pursue optimal solutions to each problem.
3
Vasco Grilo
I agree, reality is hard! On the other hand, I would say such points should push us towards being less certain about what is right/wrong. A hallmark of naive utilitarianism is strongly optimising for a single metric (e.g. number of factory-farmed animals) without adequately accounting for other potential important effects (e.g. on wild animals and longterm future). I think you are alluding to a really important heuristic, which is thinking about what the optimal world would look like, and then figure out what would move us towards it. My ideal world does not include factory-farming (even if factory-farmed animals had positive lives, there likely are more efficient ways of producing wellbeing), which suggests opposition to factory-farming is good. Nonetheless, opposition to factory-farming may also lead to effects which push against arriving to an optimal world. For example, my optimal world does not include lots of wild animal suffering, and abolitionist approaches to farmed animal welfare may decrease the likelihood of humans deciding to improve the lives of wild animals. So I am more sympathetic to welfare reforms than simply decreasing the consumption of animals. In terms of ASRSs, I agree preparedness and response plans as well as R&D of resilient foods is more cost-effective at the margin than increasing the consumption of factory-farmed animals. However, directing edible animal feed to humans is probably one of the best approaches to increase food supply during ASRSs.

Some may argue that this approach doesn't apply as much to animals, but perhaps it should as the world becomes less speciesist.

I'm Not a Speciesist; I'm Just a Utilitarian. Great piece from Brian Tomasik illustrating key differences between animals and humans:

When we examine the above list of points, we see that most of the utilitarian arguments for deontological / virtue-ethical behavior only apply regarding our interactions with other humans.a For example:

  1. Game-theoretic considerations only apply to other agents smart enough to interact in a game-theoreti
... (read more)

Thanks for writing this. I’m pretty skeptical of your points related to food shocks and abrupt sunlight reduction scenarios, especially given the academic controversy surrounding nuclear winter scenarios (which I don’t believe you’ve adequately updated on despite this controversy being pointed out to you beneath one of your other posts). A nuclear exchange that’s of the magnitude required to potentially cause nuclear winter is also exceedingly unlikely before AGI arrives.

Also, note that in any such scenario, the human population will be far lower than it is today, so the quantity of animal feed is almost certainly not going to be the thing that determines whether humanity recovers from collapse (especially if we’re assuming that such a scenario occurs in the next few decades before AGI, when animal product consumption is expected to be pretty high).

Robin Hanson has also questioned whether farmland used to grow crops for animal feed would be ‘re-wilded’ - at least some of it will be used for development, which will actually reduce wild animal numbers. In any case, whether or not wild animals have net-negative lives is incredibly uncertain.

So, the direct effects on factory farmed animals of reducing consumption, plus lower greenhouse gas emissions (which, given my skepticism about your food shock points, and the fact that climate change probably increases the risk of an existential catastrophe by reducing global stability and increasing the likelihood of extreme/tail-risk climate scenarios), seem to make reducing consumption net-positive.

Nice points!

I’m pretty skeptical of your points related to food shocks and abrupt sunlight reduction scenarios, especially given the academic controversy surrounding nuclear winter scenarios (which I don’t believe you’ve adequately updated on despite this controversy being pointed out to you beneath one of your other posts).

I did not update my analysis on why more global warming might be good to mitigate the food shocks caused by abrupt sunlight reduction scenarios following the comments because I was already aware of the controversy. I decided to defer to... (read more)

5
JBentham
I agree that animal feed may influence the chance of collapse, but I again think this will be negligible given high expected animal product consumption pre-AGI and the much smaller human population. I certainly agree that we should not act as if we are sure, but I also think that saying we are completely “clueless” or “don’t know” is also inaccurate. We should of course take these considerations seriously, and think about them carefully and try to get more information about them (and to be clear, I also discount the climate-related worries for the possibility of AGI arriving before then).

I expect that answering this question overall (for all animals) is hard, but there exist specific animals for which it's (probably) easy. A chicken farmed in the most egregious factory farmed conditions likely has a materially negative quality of life (as you noted), but also has minimal impact on climate change. I'm not sure how to size the effects of chicken farming on cropland for feed or the oversized-ness of the food system, so it's possible this example could be rendered more complex by that consideration. Avian flu can be nasty (avian flu has been associated with mortality of c.50% in the past), so chickens seem likely to be a risk factor for pandemics.

Hi Sanjay,

I agree the case for reducing consumption is stronger for factory-farmed chickens (or other animals living super bad lives which have a small impact on global warming).

Hey Vasco - I love how your posts often bring together points about different cause areas, making connections between topics that those focused on particular causes are perhaps either unaware of or choose to ignore because they are complicated and inconvenient!

Do you have an estimate of how likely an abrupt sunlight reduction scenario (ASRS) is to occur over the next (e.g.) 100 years? My intuition is that for the cases of volcanic and impact winters it's extremely low, perhaps less than 0.1%. In which case it probably comes down to the likelihood and consequences of nuclear war. 

I also wonder to what extent food shocks could be mitigated by the development of plant (or fungi) crops that are much more able to tolerate ASRS conditions. I can imagine these sorts of crops might be developed for the purposes of space exploration, e.g. if humans attempt to establish permanent bases on the Moon and Mars over the coming decades.

Thanks, Matt!

I love how your posts often bring together points about different cause areas, making connections between topics that those focused on particular causes are perhaps either unaware of or choose to ignore because they are complicated and inconvenient!

Nice that you like them!

Do you have an estimate of how likely an abrupt sunlight reduction scenario (ASRS) is to occur over the next (e.g.) 100 years? My intuition is that for the cases of volcanic and impact winters it's extremely low, perhaps less than 0.1%. In which case it probably comes down to

... (read more)
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Not sure if I missed it, but another factor might be AMR. (Anti-microbial resistance is a mechanism for factory farming leading to pandemics, which you mention. But AMR causes other harms too)

Thanks! I have now added:

  • Mitigating antimicrobial resistance:
    • From Carrique-Mas 2020, "the greatest quantities of antimicrobials (in decreasing order) were used in pigs (41.7% of total use), humans (28.3%), aquaculture (21.9%) and chickens (4.8%). Combined AMU in other species accounted for < 1.5%".
    • Boeckel 2015 projects that "antimicrobial consumption [in livestock production] will rise by 67% by 2030 [relative to 2010]".

I wonder how the magnitude of these various effects would scale between 1 additional percent of the population going vegan vs. 10 percent vs. 100 percent.

Specifically, at least in the medium run, it seems that many of the inputs of producing crops are sunk costs, and that a reduction in the demand for farmed animal feed would cause agricultural producers to keep growing many crops but try to sell them as biofuel material. At least here in the US, Big Corn is powerful and could probably get Congress to mandate / subsidize more biofuel use to a certain point. Or they could probably get some other method to maintain a crop market and keep the farmers / ag lobby content, again to a certain point.

So I am not confident a small-to-medium refuction in animal feed demand would ultimately impact crop acreage that much. I don't know about other markets though!

The same crops are already used for bioethanol before being sold and fed to farmed animals, as distillers grains. Decreasing animal product consumption could therefore reduce bioethanol revenues from selling the byproducts for feed, but it could also reduce input grain costs.

Great point, Jason!

So I am not confident a small-to-medium refuction in animal feed demand would ultimately impact crop acreage that much.

I agree confidence is not warranted.

I don't know about other markets though!

It looks like there is significant variation across countries (the relevant metric is per capita production, but I did not immediately find it):

Decreasing the production of animal feed, and therefore reducing crop area, which tends to: Increase the population of wild animals

 

Could you share the source for this? I've wondered about the empirics here. Farms do support wild animals (mice, birds, insects, etc), and there is precedent for farms being paved over when they shut down, which prevents the land from being rewilded. 

Thanks for asking!

70 % to 80 % of deforestation is driven by conversion of primary forest to agriculture or tree plantations:

Since more agriculture tends to result in more deforestation, I guess less agriculture leads to less/more deforestation/forestation. In any case, I do not know whether terrestrial arthropods have good or bad lives, so regardless of whether their population would increase or decrease due to greater consumption of animals, I would not be able to tell whether the effect was good or bad.

Thanks for this! I would still be interested to see estimates of eg mice per acre in forests vs farms and I'm not sure yet whether this deforestation effect is reversible. I'll follow up if I come across anything like that.

I agree that the quality of life question is thornier.

You are welcome!

I would still be interested to see estimates of eg mice per acre in forests vs farms

Brian Tomasik has some estimates. For rainforest, the density of wild terrestrial arthropods as a fraction of the global mean is 1.02 to 5 (95 % confidence interval). For Cerrado, which is a proxy for farmland, it is 0.70 to 3.00. I fitted lognormal distributions to these values, and got that the expected value for the density of wild terrestrial arthropods in rainforests is 72.4 % (= 1.55/0.899 - 1) higher than that for Cerrado. Overall, it looks like there are more wild terrestrial arthropods in forests, but it is not super clear, judging from the overlap between the 95 % confidence intervals.

I'm not sure yet whether this deforestation effect is reversible.

Yes, I do not know either. From the point of view of resilience against ASRSs, it would be good if abandoned farmland remained deforested such that it could quickly start being used if needed.

Thanks! It's worth noting that the rainforest and Cerrado numbers in that piece are very rough guesses based on limited and noisy data. As one friend of mine would say, I basically pulled those numbers out of my posterior (...distribution). :) Also, even if that comparison is accurate, it's just for one region of the world; it may not apply to the difference between, e.g., temperate forests and grasslands. All of that said, my impression is that crop fields do tend to have fewer mammals and birds than wild grassland or forest. For birds, see the screenshot of a table in this section.

Fantastic, thanks for sharing!

Would you be against breeding (forcibly impregnating) humans, giving them good lives then murdering and eating them? That would be "net positive" according to your logic.

Thanks for the thought experiment!

I am very strongly against forcibly impregnating or murdering humans under almost all circumstances, including the one you describe. Humans are not only moral patients, but also moral agents, and these being forcibly impregnated or murdered is highly anti-cooperative. I follow expectational total hedonistic utilitarianism, but this only justifies creating net positive lives all else equal. In a society where humans are forcibly impregnated and murdered for food, I think it is fair to say that all else would not be equal! One should take into account the actions involved in the creation of lives, and forced impregnation and murder are actions with pretty bad consequences. For example, they would tend to normalise violence and inequality, which correlate with lower wellbeing longterm.

These concerns apply to animals too. Forcibly impregnating or murdering animals is still uncooperative, and my ideal world does not involve those. However, by decreasing the consumption of animals, one may accidently increase the suffering of wild animals, and the existential risk from ASRSs. So, as a precautionary measure, I think it would be better to increase resilience to ASRSs before/while driving down the number of factory-farmed animals. I think welfare reforms are more robustly good because they significantly decrease the suffering of factory-farmed animals while not decreasing much the resilience against ASRSs, at least in the nearterm (in the longer term, continued welfare reforms will increase prices, and therefore decrease the consumption of animals).

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