Hide table of contents

Epistemic status: Low resilience. Quick writeup from an amateur with no background in welfare research. Publishing this because I can't find a basic writeup of this case anywhere.

TL;DR

  • Acetes japonicus are potentially the most common species of animal killed for food production today, by number of individuals.
  • They are used to create akiami shrimp paste, a product used predominantly as a flavoring base in Southeast Asian and Southern Chinese cuisines.
  • There’s some reason to believe shrimp paste could be easier to create plant based substitutes for, compared to other shrimp products, and that the alternative proteins market might not naturally have the right incentives to create excellent substitutes very quickly.
    • [edit: although see Michael St. Jules's comment on why substitutes might not be welfare-improving on net]
  • I’m unsure if anyone has done targeted welfare research on these animals, to answer basic questions like: Do they suffer? How much?
  • This seems like a huge gap in the effective animal advocacy space: I’d be really excited to see more work done here.
The best picture I could find of A. japonicus — kinda cute!

Important

There are a lot of individuals here:

  • A recent Rethink Priorities survey of shrimp killed in food production, concluded tentatively that:
  • This implies that A. japonicus are currently the most common species killed for food production.[1]

Below I have adapted a figure from the authors to include A. japonicus (although note the error bars on both of the shrimp estimates are very wide).

It seems plausible we should care about these individuals:

I’m not really sure what evidence we have on the welfare capacity of A. japonicus (although note this report on shrimp sentience more generally). But it seems hard to rule out the fact that we care about these shrimp without further research.

I think this argument from another Rethink Priorities post probably applies:

Small invertebrates, like shrimp and insects, have relatively low probabilities of being sentient but are extremely numerous. But because these probabilities aren’t extremely low—closer to 0.1 than to 0.000000001—the number of individuals carries enormous weight. As a result, EV maximization tends to favor actions that benefit numerous animals with relatively low probabilities of sentience over actions that benefit larger animals of more certain sentience.

In general, not spending a ton of time investigating to what extent the animals most killed for food production matter morally seems potentially like a big mistake.

Neglected

You might expect that Shrimp Welfare Project would be working on this problem, but they are explicitly not planning to do this. Here is what they say about A. japonicus:

The majority of wild-caught shrimps are a single species - A. japonicus - and are crushed and used to produce “shrimp paste”, a salty, fermented condiment used in Southeast Asian and Southern Chinese cuisine. We believe the shrimp paste market is very different to the contexts in which we work (i.e. the international import/export market for L. Vannamei / P. Monodon shrimps). It’s often made by fishing families in coastal villages, and production techniques can vary from village to village. We think a new project focused on shrimp paste in particular could potentially be very high impact.

We do have a volunteer who has recently started researching shrimp paste for us, which we plan to write-up and publish when finished. We’re working on this because we believe it could have significant informational value to the movement at relatively low cost to SWP, rather than because we anticipate SWP directly working on shrimp paste in the future

I’m super excited SWP is going to do some preliminary research on the matter, but it seems like there’s still a strong need for people to actually own making tangible action happen here! [2] See also this follow up comment from one of their cofounders.

asked around a bit (click ‘see in context’), and I’m not sure if anyone is trying to e.g. make plant based shrimp paste alternatives happen. It seems totally possible to me that no one has made this a priority — shrimp paste seems to be a relatively commercially unimportant product, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the alternative protein industry hasn’t prioritized work in this area.

Tractable?

My main argument for tractability is, it doesn’t seem like anyone has tried very hard to claim this space, and maybe someone should try, given the above two sections.

Anecdotally, some people seem to believe making shrimp paste is potentially tractable to create a substitute for, and in general, my intuitive sense is that ‘paste’ like products are easier to produce (i.e. it’s easier to create a realistic mock beef patty than it is to create a steak). There are also existing simple vegan substitutes for shrimp paste that some recipe makers recommend (h/t Aaron Boddy for this point).

I'd love to see someone do more basic research here, e.g.:

  • What is the literature like on the welfare capacity and sentience levels of A. Japonicus?
    • If the evidence base is extremely poor, how much would it cost to fund very basic welfare research, targeted at estimating the presence of e.g. basic behavior responses that the Moral Weights Project or the Welfare Footprint Project looks at?
  • Are there viable interventions targeting the welfare of these animals in fisheries?
    • For instance, SWP and some others seem excited about electric stunning for larger farmed shrimp species, could this be viable for A. Japonicus?
  • How big is the akiami shrimp paste market? Has anyone tried to make an actually convincing shrimp paste product? What are the market barriers to adoption for a good product in this space?

I'm really not an expert here, so if you wanted to actually work on this, you could probably get feedback on better research directions by contacting someone more knowledgeable.

Who should work on this? I don't know. I could imagine this being an interesting project for Good Food Institute, Charity Entrepreneurship, Rethink Priorities, or maybe someone else I am not tracking.

If you have ideas or are interested in doing work in this area, I'd be happy to chat!


Thank you very much to Aaron Boddy for giving me some quick feedback on this post.
 

  1. ^

    Although it seems possible this could change / might already be outdated if insect farming takes off. It doesn't seem very important for the overall point that shrimp paste causes literally the most animal deaths of any food product — it's mostly relevant that there are a lot of lives at stake here, and this issue seems really neglected.

  2. ^

    In an email, Aaron from the Shrimp Welfare Project tells me that a few people have started conducting some preliminary research on the welfare of wild caught shrimp and/or shrimp paste specifically. That is great, although I think this space is still very very small and could use a champion to make this a research / advocacy / market priority.

119

0
0
1

Reactions

0
0
1

More posts like this

Comments22
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:35 PM

FWIW, trying to reduce their capture, e.g. by working on substitutes or fishery policy, could be bad, if they have bad lives and it's better to have fewer of them, or their prey, copepods, have good lives and it's better to have fewer paste shrimp to have more copepods.

Also, where+when there's overfishing of paste shrimp, marginal reductions in the share of the population caught can increase their populations and actually increase long-run catch. So, we could end up helping people kill more of them. In general, I expect improvements in fishery management to have this effect, conditional on having much effect at all.

These types of risks of backfire are pretty general for work to reduce fishing, not just for paste shrimp.

I'd be more optimistic about improving welfare during capture.

Thanks for noting that, Michael!

These types of risks of backfire are pretty general for work to reduce fishing, not just for paste shrimp.

Readers may want to check Brian Tomasik's posts on fishing for context.

...could be bad, if they have bad lives and it's better to have fewer of them, or their prey, copepods, have good lives and it's better to have fewer paste shrimp to have more copepods.

I think this line of reasoning (that I've seen on the forum several times, not specific to you) is weird and bad. There's no life bad enough for us to try to actively extinguish it when the subject itself can't express a will for that. And no life good enough for us to try to actively bring about more of it en masse just for the sake of the numbers. And interfering with food chains is its own can of warms.

'There's no life bad enough for us to try to actively extinguish it when the subject itself can't express a will for that'

I agree something seems very bad intuitively about trying to reduce the numbers of wild animals via killing them, but this seems too strong to me. What about a case where a pet dog is d in terrible pain, but will live a few more weeks? Most people seem to regard it as better for the dog to have it painlessly killed at that point. I guess that could be wrong, but I am skeptical. (I agree that human lives specifically can be net positive for their subjects overall despite featuring strongly more pain than pleasure, but I feel like that might depend precisely on the fact that humans can form thoughts like "I am glad to be alive" in such circumstances.) 

I agree with your example, but I think even if my wording was too strong the point stands.

I mean, you'd at least take the dog to a vet first, right? This is a last resort? While with the shrimp we're not thinking about this similarly at all and just deciding remotely.

Yeah, I agree the cases seem very different. 

“There's no life bad enough for us to try to actively extinguish it when the subject itself can't express a will for that” - holding this view while also thinking that it’s good to prevent the existence of factory farmed chickens would need some explaining IMO.

Also, the claim that Michael’s line of reasoning is “weird and bad” seems to imply that it being “weird” should count against it in some way, just as it being “bad” should count against it. But why/how exactly? After all, from most people’s perspective caring about shrimp at all is weird.

“There's no life bad enough for us to try to actively extinguish it when the subject itself can't express a will for that”

Agreed that this seems nonsensical on its face.

I think this is a reasonable position to take (although I think some possible lives must be bad enough to be worth preventing or ending early), but I don't think it makes reducing paste shrimp capture look like a very promising intervention either. You'd decrease mortality rates and increase average life expectancies for the paste shrimp and do the opposite for copepods. That could still look morally ambiguous, depending on your beliefs about their moral weights and sentience and uncertainty about them, and so how you weigh paste shrimp vs copepod interests.

AFAIK, there's no plausible deontological rule you violate by not specifically working to reduce paste shrimp fishing by other people, so it's permissible to focus on something else.

And if you're especially concerned with reducing total exploitation of animals by humans or moral/rational agents specifically for its own sake, this could increase catch and so backfire. (It may look good for reducing the share of animals exploited or maximizing the number of non-exploited animals.)

(Again, this applies pretty generally to fishing, not just for paste shrimp.)

Ah, got it, that makes a lot of sense! Thanks for spelling out the interaction effects for me (which I definitely was not tracking) — and thanks in general for looking into this a little!

I have a unique qualification here: I am Malaysian and I like to cook, so I know what good shrimp paste tastes like and is supposed to do in a recipe, and I'd be willing to both be a taste tester of any new product and (if it's good) champion it to my family and friends.

My intuitions is that it's going to be very, very, very difficult to get people to care about shrimp lives, but it's still worth trying to make a humane shrimp paste substitute because people can and will switch for reasons other than empathy.

Shrimp paste / belacan is in inexpensive flavour enhancer. This is important, because if your humane substitute is cheaper, it'll probably win. Belacan also really stinky and comes in bricks that aren't easy to work with, so if you can make a less messy and smelly product, home cooks may use it just from convenience. (Think: chicken stock cubes, many of which don't contain any chicken. Most of the consumers cooking with vegan chicken stock cubes don't care that much about chicken suffering - they care that the chicken stock cubes are significantly easier than boiling chicken bones. Reducing animal consumption through convenience is probably a good strategy!)

However, it has to taste close enough to the real thing. If you can get as close or closer than beef bullion cubes, that's good. You need taste testing by locals. You need to run your marketing by locals. Trying this strategy, of course, has a risk of turning real belacan into an expensive gourmet thing, but I think it'll be more effective at reducing consumption than trying to propagandise against it (VERY hard. Belacan is a beloved and very distinctive ingredient, contributing to the cultural character of a lot of dishes - which is to say this is as hard or harder than convincing French people to give up cheese).

An interesting quirk of traditional Chinese medicine beliefs (somewhat widespread in the region) which you can exploit is the belief that when healing from a physical injury, you should avoid seafood. (Seafood is generally considered somewhat unhealthy under TCM, so you might be able to market it as a healthier option).

Another winning reason to substitute: ease of export. Southeast Asian diaspora is absolutely massive for the usual brain drain economic reasons, but especially in Australia, and Australia has very stringent biosec laws. It seems likely that a vegan shrimp paste is going to be much easier to import to Australia than the traditional stuff. This applies to other places too like US and Canada.

Considering the technical challenges (develop a product that is very similar to belacan which is cheaper when manufactured at scale), as well as the marketing side of things, I think the easiest way to go about this is to convince a leading maker of cheap shelf stable flavourings such as Maggi to develop and market it. I think there is value there, if someone can pitch it to them (or perhaps a different food giant?).

On the technical side, yeast based products like Marmite/Vegemite could be a good place to begin working on such a substitute, if anyone wants to form a startup about this.

Super interesting, thank you for your thoughts!!

Yeah, googling around, it looks like there are a bunch of regional variations to shrimp paste, and different brands are popular in different countries? E.g. belacan looks very different from Thai kapi (more of a red paste consistency) vs Korean saeu-jeot (shrimp fermented whole, and maybe slightly larger shrimp used? seems very hard to emulate).

It sounds like the right way to start on this might be to pick one particular regional variant (or maybe even start with one very popular dish which traditionally uses shrimp paste?) and try to generate a market competitive alternative.

Although, as Michael says below, interfering with wild animal welfare can often lead to unintended side effects, so I'm not really sure a plant based product right now would be useful. But developing a PB alternative could be useful to have on hand if e.g. in the future these shrimp start to be framed, and maybe those benefits are large enough for someone to start production now?

Thanks so much to Angelina for looking into this. This post illustrates two of my favourite things about EA: a willigness to dive in and do, and an openness to strange ideas being important. I agree that, from what we know, plant-based shrimp paste could be a way to save many lives, and I'd be excited to hear from any animal advocates thinking about this problem.

Rethink Priorites will soon be hosting a webinar on our farmed shrimp welfare research, where we'll discuss the farming practices behind concerningly high pre-slaughter mortality rates. This research isn't directly related to shrimp paste, but I expect it'll still be interesting to anybody who enjoyed this post. The webinar will be held on Monday the 20th of November from 11am to 11-45am (East Coast US time). I've already sent Angelina a link; if anybody else is interesting in coming along, please DM me!

Here's the info & registration link for RP's Shrimp Farming webinar (ty Ben for posting it on the EA Forum!)

I'm currently writing an in-depth report on wild-caught shrimp fisheries. It'll focus more on global distribution (e.g. by species and country) and common industry practices, with a list of options for wild shrimp advocacy. I expect it'll be done within a couple of weeks.

I'd definitely be keen to see people advocating for wild-caught shrimp welfare. I won't be working on shrimp advocacy myself after finishing the report (though I do think it is an extremely impactful opportunity - if it were up to me, I'd put a large proportion of the movement's resources into shrimp welfare).

That's very exciting to hear, Ren! Really looking forward to reading your report.

The review article on wild shrimp fisheries (which I mentioned in a previous discussion in the comments) is now up here :)

Thank you for the post! 

It seems to me that a lot of how important this is also depends on how the shrimps die. Are they already dead, or still alive, when they are "processed" (e.g. sundried)? I heard shrimp paste companies bragging that from "harvest" to "processing", there were less than 3 hours.

Does anyone have information on this?

I'll have detailed information in the report I mentioned - looking into this specific question over the next few days. (Though I'm being careful to take my time with it, as this is quite a horrific topic even compared to the topics I normally research.)

Fai
5mo1
2
0
2

Thank you Ren. I want to say take your time, and please prioritize your own welfare on this.

There’s some reason to believe shrimp paste could be easier to create plant based substitutes for, compared to other shrimp products, and that the alternative proteins market might not naturally have the right incentives to create excellent substitutes very quickly.

This analysis seems right to me (intuitively).

Idea: an EAA funder pre-commits to purchase (subsidize?) the first $UNITs of plant based shrimp based.

(setting aside whether it's good to reduce demand for shrimp)

If someone is setting up this kind of precommitment I think it would be important to tie it to factors that would influence the success in the market. I would guess those are primarily cost and taste. Cost is hard to predict, and many things get far cheaper when scaled up, but taste seems pretty tractable. Perhaps tie the commitment to having a group of shrimp paste consumers ranking the substitute equal or better in a blind comparison (probably in cooked dishes, ideally where the cooks were also blinded to the condition)?

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities