I suspect today’s guest, Lewis Bollard, might be the single best person in the world to interview to get an overview of all the methods that might be effective for putting an end to factory farming and what broader lessons we can learn from the experiences of people working to end cruelty in animal agriculture.

That’s why I interviewed him back in 2017, and it’s why I’ve come back for an updated second dose four years later.

That conversation became a touchstone resource for anyone wanting to understand why people might decide to focus their altruism on farmed animal welfare, what those people are up to, and why.

Lewis leads Open Philanthropy’s strategy for farm animal welfare, and since he joined in 2015 they’ve disbursed about $130 million in grants to nonprofits as part of this program.

This episode certainly isn’t only for vegetarians or people whose primary focus is animal welfare. The farmed animal welfare movement has had a lot of big wins over the last five years, and many of the lessons animal activists and plant-based meat entrepreneurs have learned are of much broader interest.

Some of those include:

  • Between 2019 and 2020, Beyond Meat’s cost of goods sold fell from about $4.50 a pound to $3.50 a pound. Will plant-based meat or clean meat displace animal meat, and if so when? How quickly can it reach price parity?
  • One study reported that philosophy students reduced their meat consumption by 13% after going through a course on the ethics of factory farming. But do studies like this replicate? And what happens several months later?
  • One survey showed that 33% of people supported a ban on animal farming. Should we take such findings seriously? Or is it as informative as the study which showed that 38% of Americans believe that Ted Cruz might be the Zodiac killer?
  • Costco, the second largest retailer in the U.S., is now over 95% cage-free. Why have they done that years before they had to? And can ethical individuals within these companies make a real difference?

We also cover:

  • Switzerland’s ballot measure on eliminating factory farming
  • What a Biden administration could mean for reducing animal suffering
  • How chicken is cheaper than peanuts
  • The biggest recent wins for farmed animals
  • Things that haven’t gone to plan in animal advocacy
  • Political opportunities for farmed animal advocates in Europe
  • How the US is behind Brazil and Israel on animal welfare standards
  • The value of increasing media coverage of factory farming
  • The state of the animal welfare movement
  • And much more

If you’d like an introduction to the nature of the problem and why Lewis is working on it, in addition to our 2017 interview with Lewis, you could check out this 2013 cause report from Open Philanthropy.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel


Biggest recent wins for farmed animals

I think we’ve had a lot of really exciting progress over the last few years. There are three areas that stand out. The first would be on plant-based meat. I think we’ve seen a huge amount of progress in this space. In the last few years, the world’s largest meat companies like Tyson, JBS, Hormel, CB Foods, have all gotten involved in the space. The largest food companies, like Nestlé and Unilever, have been making major plays. It was only two years ago that Burger King launched the Impossible Whopper in the U.S., and since then they’ve rolled out plant-based burgers almost globally.

A second area where we’ve seen a lot of progress is on corporate farmed animal welfare reforms. Groups have secured over 1,200 new policies since you and I last spoke, especially eliminating battery cages.

And then the third area I would call out is European farmed animal welfare reforms, both making progress on broiler chickens, but also seeing the European Union committing to issuing new farmed animal welfare directives in years ahead.

Why is plant-based meat more expensive?

The most recent price data I have is from about a year ago. In the U.S. market, the retail average of plant-based meat being sold in the meat aisle — ‘fresh’ plant-based meat — was around $10 a pound, and for frozen plant-based meats, around $7 a pound. That compares to beef at about $5 a pound, and chicken at about $2.30 a pound. So, we’re still 2–4 times the price of the relevant meat comparisons.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. So, one is that plant-based meat products are a lot more complicated than, say, lentils. So, you’re using plant protein isolates, or concentrates, which are substantially more expensive than the underlying plants. You’re sometimes using plants that are more expensive — so crops like peas, or chickpeas, are more expensive than soy, or wheat. And then the next thing is you have this need to process, to distribute, and it’s still relatively small-scale. Factory farming has had a 70 year head start in building out crazy scale and just constantly reducing costs by reducing every last little bit of the cost process.

As a result, it’s crazy cheap. I think one thing people lose sight of is that chicken is insanely cheap. And so it’s a really hard target for a new product, for a product that still is relatively small-scale, that still has a number of complicated steps to make. But I do think we’re seeing progress on that.

Strategy for farmed animal documentaries

You have a lot of documentaries that cost $100,000 or less. And then you have a lot of documentaries that cost several million dollars. And the documentaries that cost several million, on average do better than the documentaries that cost $100,000. But on average, they don’t do 20–40 times better, which is what you would need to think to justify that cost difference. So, that’s the key piece. Now obviously that doesn’t take into account the time of people going into this. So, if a documentary only costs $100,000, it’s probably partly because the documentary filmmakers are not valuing their time very highly. So, that’s another factor to consider.

It’s a hits-based business. It’s very much the case that every year there are over 15 new documentaries on factory farming. And you don’t hear about the vast majority of them. And although there are some things you can predict ahead of time on whether something is going to succeed or not, there are definitely plenty of really good documentaries out there that no one ever sees. And because a number of these factors are hard to predict, that’s where I think it’s really valuable to have more plays, rather than just kind of put all your focus on having that one critical play.

Do we know how to get people to reduce their meat consumption?

Josh Tasoff and colleagues did a study where they had a setup of a leafleting table and half the people got leaflets that had nothing to do with factory farming, and the other half got leaflets that were factory farming related, and they were able to track the subsequent meat purchases of those people. Impressively, they were able to track it over the course of two years. So they now have two years of data.

The unfortunate headline result was that there was no statistically significant reduction in meat consumption over time. There were two interesting sub-results, which they did pre-register that they were going to look at, so they’re definitely worth considering. One was that they did see a short-term reduction in overall consumption of meat by men.

Then the other, very unexpected, result — and again, this is just one result within the study — was that for women, they saw a substitution. So they didn’t see an overall reduction. They saw a substitution from beef toward chicken. This is particularly troubling, given that these leaflets were about the animal harms on factory farms; this was not climate messaging, this was not health messaging.

So if these two effects can be taken as real, the net effect of the intervention would be marginal, possibly slightly negative. Now, of course, this is just preliminary evidence. Both of those are sub-results within the broader group. But I think the broader finding is that any effect that does exist is pretty small.

Are companies following through on their commitments?

On the negative side, we have seen a number of major companies — particularly major retailers in the U.S. — not making much progress toward implementing their pledges. For the most part, those pledges would go 100% cage-free by 2025 or 2026, but the thing is that there haven’t been any milestones. So from the companies’ perspective, they’re not violating their pledges. They say things like, “We’re going to go 100%. It’s only 2021, don’t worry.” But right now they’re somewhere between 10% and 20% of the way there, and it does not seem like they are on track. So that’s going to be a major challenge.

On the positive side, 28% of the U.S. flock is now cage-free, up from 6% in 2015. That’s over 70 million hens newly out of cages over the last few years. And that has been driven by some companies that have made really impressive progress. So Costco, which is the second largest retailer in the U.S., is now over 95% cage-free. We have Nestlé and a number of other major brands that have already implemented their cage-free pledges. And we have the majority of companies that are being asked by Compassion in World Farming to report in their Egg Track report now reporting. So for instance, Walmart, Kroger, and these big companies are reporting. The percentages are too low, but they are publicly reporting where they’re at. And we have other companies that are publicly reporting and are on track. So McDonald’s, for instance, is on track to meet its commitment on time. So very mixed signs, and definitely recognition by the groups that they need to focus more attention on this.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show




  • Game Changers (Documentary film about the optimal diet for human performance)
  • Forks Over Knives (Documentary film about the connection between a plant-based diet and human health)
  • Blackfish (Documentary film about the cruel treatment of orcas in captivity, specifically following an orca named Tilikum who lived at SeaWorld)


Other links

Related episodes

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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