This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.
In a nutshell
What is the problem?
Industrial agriculture in the United States involves billions of animals each year. The information we’ve seen suggests that these animals are often treated in ways that may cause extreme suffering over the course of their lives.
What are possible interventions?
Efforts to address the harms of industrial agriculture on animals typically focus on advocacy to individuals (to reduce their meat consumption), corporations (to reduce consumption or improve animal welfare conditions), or governments (to ban particular practices deemed especially harmful), though there are a number of other potential activities as well.
Who else is working on it?
Although the overall field of animal welfare receives a large amount of support from donors, relatively little funding appears to go to addressing the significant impacts of industrial agriculture on animal welfare.
1. What is the problem?
There are over a billion animals in the United States being raised for food.1 Animal advocates report that the vast majority of them are raised on factory farms where they are treated in ways that may cause them extreme suffering.2 For example, of the 291 million egg-laying hens in the U.S., roughly 95% are raised in battery cages, which restrict motion and prevent hens from engaging in natural behaviors.3
We have not yet vetted animal advocates’ claims about the extent to which industrial agriculture practices inflict harm upon chickens and other farm animals and how much they suffer as a result. Vetting these claims would be one of our top priorities were we to investigate this area further.
2. What are possible interventions?
Most work to advance farm animal welfare falls under the general rubric of advocacy, whether targeting individuals, corporations, or governments. Farm animal advocacy interventions we have heard about include:
- Legislative advocacy, lobbying, or ballot initiative campaigns to encourage state governments to ban particularly harmful practices.4
- Advertising to individuals to encourage them to reduce their meat consumption (e.g. by becoming vegetarian or vegan).5
- Maintaining farm animal sanctuaries that are open to the public, to enable people to interact with farm animals with the intention of increasing empathy for them.6
- Outreach to large institutions, such as school districts and hospitals to encourage the adoption of “Meatless Mondays” (to reduce overall meat consumption).7
- Pressuring large food sellers (e.g. fast food or grocery chains) and corporate animal producers to improve animal welfare practices in their supply chains.8
- Investigative reporting that exposes and raises the profile of abuses of animals in industrial agriculture.9
- Litigation against corporations (to compel compliance with laws) or government agencies (to compel them to enforce laws).10
Outside the realm of advocacy, a funder may be able to support groups that evaluate the treatment of farm animals by different producers to enable consumers to make more informed choices with regards to animal welfare.
We do not have a strong sense of the likely costs or returns to any of these strategies.
3. Who else is working on this?
For this investigation we focused on organizations based in the United States.
The Humane Society of the United States, which has a budget of roughly $140 million/year, is the largest national animal welfare advocacy organization by a wide margin. However, its Farm Animal Protection team has only 11 staff members and an annual budget of around $1 million/year (though resources from other parts of the organization that are directed to improving farm animal welfare may raise the total allocation to 5-10% of the annual budget).11
A number of other large animal protection organizations do some work on farm animal welfare:
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)12
- Animal Legal Defense Fund13
However, none of these groups are primarily focused on farm animals, and we are unable to say with precision what portion of their budgets are directed towards efforts on farm animals.14
We also heard about six considerably smaller advocacy organizations, with annual budgets in the approximate range from $500 thousand/year to $2 million/year, and Farm Sanctuary, which has a budget of ~$9 million/year but is not exclusively focused on advocacy.15
The relatively small field of factory farming groups we heard about from advocates contrasted with our initial impression that animal issues tend to receive significant attention from a large number of advocacy groups.16 Our current understanding is that issues affecting stereotypically “cute” animals, such as cats and dogs, tend to receive disproportionate attention from most animal welfare advocates and donors, but that the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture may be relatively neglected.17
4. Questions for further investigation
Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.
Amongst other topics, our further research on this cause might address:
- What does the existing scientific literature indicate about the magnitude of harm imposed upon animals by industrial agriculture, and about the extent to which chickens and other farm animals are capable of suffering?
- How effective and cost-effective are the various advocacy strategies outlined above? How much funding is currently allocated to each of them?
- Animal welfare improvements may generate less significant flow-through benefits than efforts in other causes because animals, unlike humans, are unable to use their improved welfare to further empower others. How important is this consideration?
5. Our process
We initially decided to investigate this issue because of our perception that animals involved in industrial agriculture in the U.S. are subject to significant harm.
The investigation that went into this report has been quite limited, consisting primarily of conversations with three individuals:
- Jon Bockman, Executive Director, Effective Animal Activism (notes)
- Paul Shapiro, Vice President, Farm Animal Protection, The Humane Society of the United States (notes)
- Adam Sheingate, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University (notes)
|American Egg Board, “Egg Industry Fact Sheet”||Source (archive)|
|ASPCA, “About the ASPCA”||Source (archive)|
|ASPCA, “Farm Animal Cruelty”||Source (archive)|
|GuideStar, “Animal Legal Defense Fund”||Source (archive)|
|GuideStar, “ASPCA”||Source (archive)|
|Humane Society of the United States, “An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Chicken Industry”||Source (archive)|
|Humane Society of the United States, “An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Meat, Egg, and Dairy Industries”||Source (archive)|
|Humane Society of the United States, “Crammed into Gestation Crates”||Source (archive)|
|Humane Society of the United States, “Farm Animal Statistics: Slaughter Totals”||Source (archive)|
|Notes from a conversation with Adam Sheingate, 8/2/2013||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with Frank Baumgartner, 5/13/2013||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with Jon Bockman, 7/12/2013||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with Paul Shapiro, 7/15/2013||Source|
|Shields and Duncan, “An HSUS Report: A Comparison of the Welfare of Hens in Battery Cages and Alternative Systems”||Source (archive)|