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The constraint right now on factory farming is how far can you push the biology of these animals? But AI could remove that constraint. It could say, “Actually, we can push them further in these ways and these ways, and they still stay alive. And we’ve modelled out every possibility and we’ve found that it works.”

I think another possibility, which I don’t understand as well, is that AI could lock in current moral values. And I think in particular there’s a risk that if AI is learning from what we do as humans today, the lesson it’s going to learn is that it’s OK to tolerate mass cruelty, so long as it occurs behind closed doors. I think there’s a risk that if it learns that, then it perpetuates that value, and perhaps slows human moral progress on this issue.

Lewis Bollard

In today’s episode, host Luisa Rodriguez speaks to Lewis Bollard — director of the Farm Animal Welfare programme at Open Philanthropy — about the promising progress and future interventions to end the worst factory farming practices still around today.

They cover:

  • The staggering scale of animal suffering in factory farms, and how it will only get worse without intervention.
  • Work to improve farmed animal welfare that Open Philanthropy is excited about funding.
  • The amazing recent progress made in farm animal welfare — including regulatory attention in the EU and a big win at the US Supreme Court — and the work that still needs to be done.
  • The occasional tension between ending factory farming and curbing climate change.
  • How AI could transform factory farming for better or worse — and Lewis’s fears that the technology will just help us maximise cruelty in the name of profit.
  • How Lewis has updated his opinions or grantmaking as a result of new research on the “moral weights” of different species.
  • Lewis’s personal journey working on farm animal welfare, and how he copes with the emotional toll of confronting the scale of animal suffering.
  • How listeners can get involved in the growing movement to end factory farming — from career and volunteer opportunities to impactful donations.
  • And much more.

Producer and editor: Keiran Harris
Audio engineering lead: Ben Cordell
Technical editing: Simon Monsour, Milo McGuire, and Dominic Armstrong
Additional content editing: Katy Moore and Luisa Rodriguez
Transcriptions: Katy Moore


Factory farming is philosophically indefensible

Lewis Bollard: Honestly, I hear surprisingly few philosophical objections. I remember when I first learned about factory farming, and I was considering whether this was an issue to work on, I went out to try and find the best objections I could — because I was like, it can’t possibly just be as straightforward as this; it can’t possibly just be the case that we’re torturing animals just to save a few cents.

And the only book I was able to find at the time that was opposed to animal welfare and animal rights was a book by the late British philosopher Roger Scruton. He wrote a book called Animal Rights and Wrongs. And I was really excited. I was like, “Cool, we’re going to get this great philosophical defence of factory farming here.” In the preface, the first thing he says is, “Obviously, I’m not going to defend factory farming. That’s totally indefensible. I’m going to defend why you should still eat meat from high-welfare animals.”

I found this continually. It was the same thing when I was on the debating circuit. You can’t propose as a debating topic ending factory farming. It’s considered what’s called a “tight topic” — meaning it’s so obviously right that it’s an unfair thing to propose as a debating topic.

Luisa Rodriguez: No kidding?

Lewis Bollard: So I think we have this recognition that it’s wrong, and so much of why it continues to exist is just inertia. It’s the status quo; it’s the political power. But it’s not because there’s some kind of reasoned defence of factory farming out there.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I do still feel like I can access this feeling of chickens and fish do just seem really different to pigs and cows and dogs and obviously humans. And I think they make up the bulk of factory farmed animals. Maybe it’s possible that they’re not feeling intense suffering or intense joy, and so maybe that makes this whole thing less of a pressing problem?

Lewis Bollard: Yeah, I certainly relate to the feeling that it’s hard to empathise with a chicken or a fish. I mean, they look so different to us. They’ve got feathers, they’ve got scales, they have these weird ways of acting, but I don’t think that’s a reason to not give them moral consideration.

And I think in particular, if you think about the evolutionary basis of pain and suffering, it’s something that’s pretty conserved across species because it performs this very important function. If you’re an animal that can learn, then pain is going to be a strong reinforcer, and there’s no reason to think that that pain is going to be worse if you’re a smarter animal. I mean, there are some reasons to think it might be less bad. As a smarter animal, you can rationalise and you can take the signal from a small pain and extrapolate from that. And if you’re a less smart animal, you can’t — so maybe you need a bigger pain to have the same effect. Maybe it feels worse because you can’t imagine it ending. So I think it’s about those kinds of suffering.

Incremental reform vs revolutionary change

Luisa Rodriguez: I guess my sense is that at least some animal advocates think corporate campaigns to marginally improve the lives of factory farmed animals are not necessarily worth doing because they don’t push the sector towards actually ending factory farming altogether, and could even move us backwards by making the sector as a whole less obviously evil and therefore weakening the arguments for ending it altogether.

I think some people even believe that these kinds of welfare improvements might even increase the consumption of factory farmed animals, because people hear terms like “cage-free” and they think that the lives of the hens that laid those eggs are basically fine or good — and in fact they might still involve pain and suffering because it is still dark; they still don’t have that much room. I think my sense is that they also still tend to have problems establishing social hierarchies, and chickens continue to be cruel to each other when they’re in that kind of confined environment. How do you think about this?

Lewis Bollard: I think this has been a common objection within social movements throughout history. There have always been people, I think particularly coming from a Marxist perspective, who will oppose incremental reform because it stands in the way of revolution. And I fall very firmly on the incremental reform side.

I think that if you look at the history of social movements, very rarely have the people who are trying to end the whole system at once and opposing reforms, has that worked out well. Much more often, the progress we’ve seen has come from incremental gains. And all of those incremental gains run the risk of making people think the issue is less salient. I mean, it’s true that when the civil rights movement achieved civil rights progress, that could have made people think, “This is less important than it was previously. Things aren’t so bad.” In reality, I don’t think it did. And I think that’s true on our issue too. I think that when people see hens going from caged to cage-free, if they actually look into the issue, it doesn’t look that great. It’s still not where they want it to be. If anything, it highlights there’s a problem.

Now, I think the bigger problem is that no one’s actually paying attention. The public’s not actually sitting around feeling guilty about the fact that they’re eating factory farmed eggs and waiting for someone to salve their consciences by giving them cage-free eggs. It’s just not happening. I think if they were, there will still be plenty of horrors in factory farms. I mean, if we get rid of some of these, sadly, there will still be battery cages in some parts of the world. There will be all kinds of other awful things going on. So if that’s people’s concern — that there still need to be awful things going on — sadly, there will be no lack of them.

The other thing I’d say on that is people see the label “cage-free.” There are so many fake labels out there already that convey stronger things. We know from surveys that consumers think labels like “naturally raised” or “all natural” are equally good to “cage-free.” They think it means that the animals are outside. Most factory farmed chicken in the US now has an “all natural” label on it. So it’s not the case that this relatively small portion of the market that is cage-free or being labelled legitimately as higher welfare are the labels you need to watch out for. I think the labels you need to watch out for are the labels that are all over factory farmed meat.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I’m actually really interested in the “how do social movements succeed?” bit. Was this something that you considered part of your remit to understand? Is the way we should expect progress to happen going to be incremental over time? And if so, did you feel like the evidence was just pretty clear on that?

Lewis Bollard: Yeah, I shouldn’t overstate it, because in college I studied social movement history, and it’s been kind of a hobby since then. But one of the things you notice when you read about social movements is everyone has a different take on them. And normally their take fits their preexisting ideological bias. Marxists want to portray every social movement as fitting within the progression of exactly what Marx said, turned out the way he said it; incrementalists like me want to say everything was incremental progress. So I don’t want to claim that history tells us one thing or the other. I think often history tells us what we want it to tell us. But my personal belief is that, at least on this one point of incremental reform versus abolition, there is more evidence for incremental reform working out over time.

Luisa Rodriguez: OK, cool. And then on just how successful these campaigns have been, I understand that over 3,000 companies globally have now committed to go 100% cage-free in their supply chains, which is really incredible. And I think this includes almost all of the largest American and European retailers, fast food chains, and food service companies, and also a bunch of Asia-Pacific food companies, too. So that’s just amazing to me. I actually didn’t realise how successful these had been already.

But do you have a sense of how that cashes out? Like, how many hens have lived better lives because of these campaigns?

Lewis Bollard: Yeah. So our best count is that there are already about 200 million hens cage-free, thanks to these campaigns, and there’s roughly another 250 million who stand to benefit once these pledges are fully implemented. So there are still a lot of corporate pledges that aren’t fully implemented yet. And once those are implemented, we think we’ll get up to about 450 million. And I should say, too, that’s the number alive at any point in time. So that’s not just a one-off thing: that’s every year going on from now on, because you’re changing the system. So if you wanted to count the number over 10 years or 20 years, you’re looking at billions of animals.

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s incredible. Does that feel like a win to you? Do you kind of viscerally have that sense of, like, “I played a part in this, and this is a massive deal”? This is millions and millions of beings who were suffering enormously and they’re now suffering less.

Lewis Bollard: Yes. I’m very proud of the advocates who achieved this. I think that all around the world there are advocates who have worked incredibly hard, tirelessly campaigned. And it’s always hard as an advocate, because there’s so much more to do, there’s so much more suffering out there. We still are only at the start of this journey, but I do think that they should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished.

Fish welfare concerns

Lewis Bollard: The wild-caught setup is more straightforward. Basically, there are two primary welfare issues there.

First, the capture: these fish, a lot of them are being caught in giant nets, and those nets are basically just trawled along for days on end. So often a fish will be stuck in a giant net with a tonne of other fish trying to swim their way out of that net, but they can’t, and getting slowly exhausted.

The second thing is slaughter. For those fish who aren’t already dead when they’re brought on board — and a significant portion have already been crushed before they’re brought on board — they basically asphyxiate: they very slowly suffocate, because fish very slowly suffocate out of water. They’re only slaughtered after that.

Luisa Rodriguez: How fast?

Lewis Bollard: There’s huge variation in this, so it can be between minutes and hours, but there are certainly some species for which it can take hours. For farmed fish, it varies a lot by the production system. For the most commonly farmed species, they tend to be pretty crowded, and that tends to also affect the water quality a lot. They often end up in very dirty water with low levels of oxygen, and this can have various effects on abnormalities in their body. It can also lead to very high mortality rates. In some forms of aquaculture, you see mortality rates upwards of 50% — so the majority of the fish are dying. The other thing is, relative to other species, it’s a very long production cycle. So most fish are farmed for a year and a half or more — compared to, for a chicken, like 42 days. So when the conditions are bad, that’s a very long time to be spending in those bad conditions.

Luisa Rodriguez: Wow. I imagine this is true of lots of people, and it’s not necessarily something I endorse, but I do intuitively find it harder to empathise with fish. And I’ve heard arguments for why we should think that asphyxiation and being crushed and living in low-oxygen environments is probably a thing that is terrible for fish, in at least ways related to ways it would be terrible for a chicken or human. But I’m curious how it feels to you to think about fish welfare. Have you gotten to the point where you believe very viscerally, yes, fish can suffer, and it is terrible that they are experiencing the things they’re experiencing?

Lewis Bollard: I think I still find it harder to empathise with a fish than with a pig or another animal. I mean, they have beady little eyes, they have scales, they swim around —

Luisa Rodriguez: They’re not remotely cute.

Lewis Bollard: No, they’re really not. They’re really not. And yeah, I think it’s been a major problem. I also think the science is still relatively young on understanding what it’s like to be a fish. I do feel relatively confident that fish can feel pain. There have been these studies done in which they’ve shown that fish will make tradeoffs, where part of their tank will be painful and part of it will have food, and also the part that’s painful will also have the food. And depending on how much food there is, and depending on how painful it is, the fish will make different tradeoffs about whether to go into that part of the tank. So it’s not just an instinctive thing. They’re actually thinking… They’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, I guess.

The other thing, which I find kind of wild, is that increasingly, zebrafish, which are very small fish, are being used as a model for depression in human depression research for both anxiety and depression, actually. And not only are they being used as a model for understanding the disease, but antidepressants work on them. So antidepressants, the things that would be called depression-like behaviours, are stamped out when you give them antidepressants.

Farmed animal advocacy in Asia

Luisa Rodriguez: Do factory farms in Asia have similar welfare issues to the ones in the US and Europe?

Lewis Bollard: Sadly, they’re almost identical welfare issues, because the farms are almost identical. I visited a set of factory farms in India and they looked so similar to what you would see in the United States or Europe: you’ve got the same battery cages, made by the same manufacturers; you’ve got the same broiler chicken genetics, because it’s the same global duopoly that provides the chicken genetics to almost every country in the world. And so you really have this globalised system. I mean, it was very much invented in the US, but it has been exported globally, and across Asia that is now the default system.

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s really sad. What is the farmed animal advocacy space like in Asia? Is it similar or different to the American or European ones?

Lewis Bollard: It’s a lot earlier in its development. It’s a young movement, and I think there’s the challenge that there are fewer advocates than there are in America and Europe, and they’re also more isolated. You know, in Indonesia, we can locate two or three advocates, and then there’s another two or three in Malaysia, and another two or three in Thailand, and so on. So it’s a little harder for people to coordinate and be connected.

But I think the exciting thing is we’re seeing a lot of these advocates go straight into effective advocacy, rather than going through what I perceive as this period we had in the US and European movements, where we really had decades wasted in ideological battles. There was just a huge amount of internal fighting about what was the exact right ideology, and it really sometimes felt like the primary form of activism for some people was campaigning against other activists. Instead, we’re seeing a lot of these advocates in Asia just want to do what works, and they’re moving straight into that. And I think as a result, we’re seeing some immediate progress there.

Luisa Rodriguez: Amazing. So what is the lowest-hanging fruit in Asia with respect to either improving the lives of factory farm animals or toward getting rid of the practice?

Lewis Bollard: I think probably the first thing is establishing more humane slaughter, pre-slaughter stunning for all species. We’ve already started to see that happen for mammals and birds across Asia. So even with very minimal advocacy, that is something that a number of major Asian governments, including the Chinese government, have set regulations around. So we’ve actually seen a lot of progress on slaughter and transport, where governments really have set standards around that.

I think the next thing is establishing some of the most basic welfare reforms. One example would be something that advocates managed to get rid of in the US and European egg industries decades ago: the practice of forced moulting, where they basically starve the birds to increase their egg output. That, unfortunately, is still done in Asian egg factory farms, but I think it’s that kind of thing that’s ripe for a reform, because it’s so clearly out of line with global practices. And I hope down the line that we’ll see much bigger reforms. I mean, there’s no reason why Asian countries can’t lead the world in farmed animal welfare.

Luisa Rodriguez: Cool. Have there been any big wins in Asia so far?

Lewis Bollard: Yeah, I think there’s been some really exciting stuff. One I would point to is in China. Their five-year plans around the bioeconomy and agriculture both reference alternative proteins, and actually President Xi made a brief reference to alternative proteins being part of China’s food security strategy. So I think that’s pretty exciting to see.

Effects of AI

Lewis Bollard: The constraint right now on factory farming is how far can you push the biology of these animals? But AI could remove that constraint. It could say, “Actually, we can push them further in these ways and these ways, and they still stay alive. And we’ve modelled out every possibility and we’ve found that it works.”

I think another possibility, which I don’t understand as well, is that AI could lock in current moral values. And I think in particular there’s a risk that if AI is learning from what we do as humans today, the lesson it’s going to learn is that it’s OK to tolerate mass cruelty, so long as it occurs behind closed doors. I think there’s a risk that if it learns that, then it perpetuates that value, and perhaps slows human moral progress on this issue.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, interesting. On the first bit, I’m imagining something like suppliers of broiler chickens use AI to do crazy calculations, to be like, “We can make them this much fatter with only a slight increase in their leg strength, and that’ll cause heart disease once they’re 30 days old — but it’s fine, because we can kill them at 28 days old.” Is that the kind of optimising that could actually make their lives much worse that you have in mind?

Lewis Bollard: That’s exactly it. And I think we already see AI applications that are designed to increase the crowding of animals. So Microsoft actually did this, had an application for a shrimp farm where they said they managed to increase the yield from the same amount of space by 50%. Well, how did you do that? Obviously, you put more shrimp closer together, and I think you probably worked out what were the constraints on that. You probably worked out where to put in the feed and how to change the water quality and so on. But these are real risks. And I think that’s where the incentive is for factory farms to use AI.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. That’s really terrible. Have we seen AI used elsewhere in this context, for good or bad?

Lewis Bollard: I think there are positive examples of AI being used. We have seen things, for instance, that are trying to automate recording of the distress signals of birds and then intervene based on that. So there are certain things that are bad for birds that are also bad for farmers. For instance, when birds get frightened and all pile up on top of one another, that’s something that everyone wants to avoid, because that just kills birds. And that’s something that you can’t avoid when you’ve got a factory farming setup with a human, because that human is almost never in the barn, they’re never paying attention. But if you had an AI system that was paying constant attention, it’s totally possible that you could get rid of problems like that.

The first Supreme Court win for farmed animals

Lewis Bollard: So last year, farm animals got their first Supreme Court win in the United States. This was as a result of, in 2018, advocates had passed this really important ballot measure in California, Proposition 12, that banned not just the use of cages and crates within California, but also the sale of eggs and pork from caged and crated animals. So factory farmers and actually a number of factory farming states, like Iowa, went to court and tried to sue California, and had a number of lawsuits over the years.

And we were really worried that they might win at the Supreme Court. They assembled a pretty formidable coalition. They had a lot of industry groups on their side. Unfortunately, they even had the Biden administration on their side, which was pretty bizarre. I mean, it really just shows the lobbying power of this industry.

Yet, in spite of that, we won a Supreme Court win with a mix of liberal and conservative justices. And I think that not only upholds this law, but establishes this principle that a state has the right to ban the sale of cruelly produced goods within their own borders. And I think that’s a really important principle.

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s amazing. Yeah, that sounds like a big deal. Is it, in fact, a big deal? It sounds like basically this precedent thing could mean that it’s not just like, “Yay, a law was upheld,” but it makes it much easier for states to do this in the future. Is that right?

Lewis Bollard: That’s right. There were already about seven other states who had passed similar laws, at least banning the sale of caged eggs. And so, had the Supreme Court ruled against us, probably all of those laws would have been struck down at the same time, I think. In contrast, this now upholds all of those laws, and it also allows for future similar laws. So I think it really does create the basis for more progressive state farm animal welfare legislation.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Lewis’s work:

Promising work in this space:

Potential positive and negative effects of AI:

How to get involved:

Other 80,000 Hours podcast episodes:

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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