This post originally appeared in the monthly farm animal welfare newsletter written by Lewis Bollard, our program officer for farm animal welfare. Sign up here to receive an email each month with Lewis’ research and insights into farm animal advocacy. Note that the newsletter is not thoroughly vetted by other staff and does not necessarily represent consensus views of Open Philanthropy as a whole.
Factory farming exists for one reason: the world wants cheap meat. Since 1960, the world’s consumption of animal products has quintupled, even as the human population has only doubled. Factory farm has not only met this demand but enabled it, by keeping animal product price rises well below rises in hourly wages.
The Food and Agriculture Organization expects the world’s meat consumption to rise another 50% or so by 2050. Worse, it expects poultry and farmed fish consumption to roughly double: that could balloon farm animal numbers, since it takes more than 200 chickens or 360 carp to produce as much usable meat as one cow. So how can we reduce the world’s rising demand for meat?
Global meat and egg consumption has outpaced human population growth since 1960, driven by major increases in fish and poultry consumption. Source: my chart based on FAO Stats.
The most obvious answer is to ask people to stop eating animals. Since the 1980s, US advocates have handed out more than 20M leaflets, secured tens of millions of online ad clicks, and gotten billions of online video views with this aim. Their outreach has recruited scores of talented activists to the farm animal movement, and may have helped to mainstream veganism in America (see, for instance, the mostly vegan diets of power couples Beyoncé and Jay Z, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady, and even Bill Clinton and Al Gore).
But these advocates haven’t achieved the widespread dietary changes they’ve sought — and that boosters sometimes claim they have. Despite the claims, 6% of Americans aren’t vegan and vegetarianism hasn’t risen fivefold lately: Gallup polls show a constant 5-6% of Americans have identified as vegetarians since 1999 (Gallup found 2% identified as vegans the only time it asked, in 2012). The one credible poll showing vegetarianism doubling in recent years still found only 5-7% of Americans identifying as vegetarian in 2017 — consistent with the stable Gallup numbers.
The data on veganism elsewhere is little better. The much touted claim that China has 50M vegans appears to all stem from one reporter’s guess that 4-5% of Chinese might be vegetarian. And the equally hyped claim that Israel is becoming a “vegan country” — for which some activists have already credited the hard-hitting activism of Gary Yourofsky — turns out to be based on one poll finding 5% of Israelis identify as vegan, despite a more recent Israeli Bureau of Statistics survey finding just 1.7% of Israelis do. The chart below shows self-reported rates of vegetarianism in the few large countries with credible data sources.
Self-reported rates of vegetarianism are below 10% in all countries with available data, except India. Note that the polls may reflect differences in the interpretation of vegetarianism as much as in diets. Sources: Brazil Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (2012), Germany Mintel (2015), India Census Bureau (2014), Israel Bureau of Statistics (2016), UK Ipsos MORI (2016), US Gallup (2012), Russia Fomnibus (2014).
This doesn’t, though, mean that vegetarian messaging has failed. While the number of self-identified vegetarians hasn’t budged much in the US, the number of actual vegetarians may have. In the mid 1990s, just 1% of Americans reported never eating meat or fish, and a US government survey found that two thirds of self-identified vegetarians had recently eaten meat. By the mid 2000s, 1-3% of Americans reported never eating meat or fish, and by the 2010s, it was 3-5% — close to the number of self-identified vegetarians. In other words, polls may be missing an increase in actual vegetarians because fewer omnivores are claiming to be herbivores.
And an increase from 1% to 3-5% in two decades isn’t bad given the money involved. Fast food chains spend over $4B each year on advertising, much of it to simply persuade consumers to eat their burger. By contrast, animal advocates spend less than $20M each year — and in the 1980s and 90s much less — to persuade consumers to ditch the burger entirely. Public health advocates have spent billions on the easier goal of persuading people to quit smoking, and recently claimed victory when a campaign persuaded 0.03% of Americans to quit — at a cost of $480 per smoker.
China, Europe, and the Americas eat most of the world’s meat. Note this shows total meat consumption, not per capita, and excludes fish. Source: ProVeg, based on FAO Stats.
Some advocates are now trying a milder tack: asking people to eat less meat. At first glance this seems promising: 30-40% of Americans consistently tell pollsters that they’re eating less meat than they used to, and just 5-10% say they’re eating more. But they’re actually eating as much meat as ever — about 220 lbs per capita/year. The discrepancy could stem from what Americans consider meat: they are eating less red meat — the problem is that they’re eating more than three times as much chicken as they did in 1960.
This has led some advocates to worry that the “less meat” message has just led people to replace red meat with chicken or fish. It’s true that some health and environmental groups have voiced this counterproductive message. But Americans don’t seem to be listening: Gallup polls since 2002 have found no increase in the roughly 20% of Americans trying to avoid red meat in their diet, or in the roughly 75% and 85% trying to include fish and chicken respectively.
One simpler explanation for the shift from red to white meat is price: chicken has become cheaper relative to red meat since 1970 (perhaps because factory farming developed earlier in the chicken industry than in the beef and pork industries). This also explains the much heralded decrease in US meat consumption from 2007-2014 — and the much decried increase in meat consumption since. As the chart below shows, chicken prices started rising in early 2007, and then started falling in 2014 — and meat consumption did the inverse.
US meat prices rose sharply from 2007 to 2014, likely contributing to the decrease in meat consumption. Source: Jayson Lusk (2016), based on USDA data.
So in the light of this mixed evidence, what can we do to reduce demand for meat?
First, I’m not sure we should write off individual advocacy just yet. Not only does it recruit new advocates to the movement — it could still be effective at sparing animals. The trouble is that we don’t know which approaches work: measuring long-term dietary change is tough and most past studies on veg advocacy have been poorly designed (a notable exception is this study by Bobbie Macdonald, Krystal Caldwell, and Greg Boese). So we need more good studies on what works, of the sort that Animal Charity Evaluators’ Animal Advocacy Research Fund is seeking to fund.
Second, we can reduce institutional demand for animal products. That’s the aim of advocacy groups’ partnerships with Aramark and Compass Group, Unilever, Panera, Sodexo and others, and even German meat producers. These partnerships are mostly new, and focused on increasing plant-based options, so we don’t yet know if they’ll necessarily reduce the companies’ use of animal products. But these companies’ scale gives them a head start over individual efforts in their potential impact — Aramark alone serves millions of meals daily.
Third, we can help the market to develop better alternatives to animal products. That’s the rationale behind the Open Philanthropy Project’s major investment in Impossible Foods — recommended by our science team — and our grant to the Good Food Institute. Other plant-based meat companies are also making strides: Beyond Meat recently got its burger into the coveted meat aisles of Kroger and Safeway. And while we think clean meat is further away, Memphis Meat’s recent Series A funding round attracted big names, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and meat giant Cargill.
Finally, we can flip the question to ask how we can reduce the supply of artificially cheap meat that fuels demand. We’ll answer that question next month, when I explore supply-side approaches to reducing the number of animals factory farmed.
Ps. Think you’d be good at this kind of research and analysis — or know someone who would be? We’re hiring for a Farm Animal Welfare Program Associate! If you’re interested, please send a resume and cover letter to [email protected].