Summary

There are likely well over 100 billion animals living in factory farms at present. Most experience serious levels of suffering. The problem is neglected relative to its scale — less than $200 million per year is spent via nonprofits trying to solve it.

There are promising paths to improving the conditions of factory farmed animals and supporting progress towards the abolition of factory farming.

Options for working on this problem include:

  • Supporting the organisations recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators by taking a high-earning job and donating to them.
  • Working at effective animal advocacy nonprofits directly.
  • Working at companies developing animal product alternatives.
  • Advocating for action on the problem as an academic, journalist, or politician.

Our overall view

Sometimes recommended

We’d love to see more people working on this issue, but — given our general worldview — all else equal we’d be even more excited for someone to work on one of our top priority problem areas.

Scale  

We think work to reduce the suffering of present and future nonhumans has the potential for a large positive impact, given the large numbers that could be affected.

Neglectedness  

This issue is moderately neglected. Current spending is likely between $100 million and $10 billion per year, depending on how you count commercial investments in animal product alternatives.

Solvability  

Making progress on reducing the suffering of present and future nonhumans seems moderately tractable. There are some plausible ways to make progress, though some efforts have had disappointing results to date.

Profile depth

Exploratory 

This profile was most recently edited by Jamie Harris, cofounder and researcher at Animal Advocacy Careers.

The profile is based on a number of sources, including reports by and interviews with Open Philanthropy.

This is one of many profiles we've written to help people find the most pressing problems they can solve with their careers. Learn more about how we compare different problems, see how we try to score them numerically, and see how this problem compares to the others we've considered so far.

Why work on this problem?

There are likely well over 100 billion animals living in factory farms at present.1 Most experience extreme levels of suffering over the course of their lives due to intense confinement and the removal of body parts. The meat industry is also one of the largest contributors to climate change, with about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

This problem gets relatively little attention, even from major animal welfare groups. Lewis Bollard of Open Philanthropy has estimated that $165 million is spent per year on farmed animal advocacy internationally, though for-profit investment in alternative proteins (which might also reduce the problem of factory farming) is much larger.

Recent big wins for animals suggest that progress is tractable. Plant-based foods are rapidly gaining market share, while newer animal product alternatives (such as cultivated meat) are being developed. Animal advocates have also successfully prompted farmed animal welfare reforms, through both corporate and legislative commitments. As well as benefiting the animals directly affected, these welfare reforms likely encourage momentum for further progress.

Note that despite decades of advocacy, the percentage of vegetarians and vegans in the United States has not increased much (if at all), suggesting that individual dietary change is hard and is likely less useful than more institutional tactics.

Animal advocacy might be able to help improve the quality of the long-term future by encouraging faster or more complete moral circle expansion. By increasing moral consideration of nonhuman animals (e.g. by introducing regulatory protections), we might indirectly encourage consideration of other sentient beings, which could reduce future suffering risks.

What are the major arguments against working on this issue?

  • You might think that the wellbeing of each animal matters much less than the suffering of each human (less than .01%-1% 2 as much), and so think the scale isn’t as large as problems that affect current generations of humans. (Note we are not claiming that this is the moral weight that animals should receive, but rather that if you assigned them this weight that would justify focusing on present-day human suffering instead.)
  • The scale of the problem of factory farming itself (ignoring potential long-run benefits of animal advocacy) is small compared to the scale of issues affecting future generations. This is especially true if you think that factory farming is likely to end within a few decades or centuries.
  • You might expect any long-run benefits of improving animal advocacy to be significantly smaller than long-run benefits of improving the welfare of humans, because increasing the wellbeing of humans lets them contribute more to the economic development of their society. Read more on this argument.
  • The argument that challenging factory farming will lead to long-run beneficial moral circle expansion at all is speculative and depends on a number of psychological and social assumptions (e.g. that people will be more likely to assign moral weight to nonhuman animals if factory farming doesn’t exist), and is subject to many objections. For example, many wild animals aren’t currently in factory farms, and yet most people don’t assign their suffering much moral significance.

What can you do about this problem?

What kinds of solutions might contribute to solving this problem?

  • Social advocacy to reduce meat consumption, create better conditions in factory farms, or support the development and marketing of animal product alternatives. This can be done through a variety of tactics, including corporate campaigns, lobbying, litigation, and investigations that expose and publicise cruelty to animals in factory farms.
  • Developing plant-based, fermented, or cultivated alternatives to animal-based foods.
  • Capacity-building, such as recruitment, training, or research to determine the most effective advocacy methods.

What skills and resources are most needed?

  • Effective animal advocacy nonprofits report that most struggle to hire high-quality candidates for leadership, fundraising, and lobbying roles. Other research confirms the need for more strong candidates for leadership and fundraising roles and suggests that a number of other roles can also be difficult to fill, such as IT roles. If you’re an especially good fit, other roles could also be promising, such as in marketing or research.
  • People with high earning potential can donate to animal advocacy work. Effective animal advocacy nonprofits report that a lack of funding is their most important bottleneck. For example, Jon Bockman of Animal Charity Evaluators told us that animal advocacy nonprofits have lots of enthusiastic volunteers, but not enough funds to hire them — meaning that funding is the greater bottleneck in this problem area (unless you have the potential to be a leader and innovator in the movement). This means the problem is unusually funding-constrained.
  • Entrepreneurs, engineers, and researchers are needed to work on developing and marketing meat substitutes.3

Who is working on this problem?

What can you concretely do to help?

  • Work at effective animal advocacy nonprofits or the capacity-building nonprofits that support their work (such as Animal Charity Evaluators).
  • Take a high-earning job, and donate to the charities recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators or to EA Funds’ Animal Welfare Fund.
  • Work at companies developing plant-based, fermented, or cultivated alternatives to animal-based foods. Possible role types include marketing, operations, engineering, business development, technical product-focused research, and software development.
  • Pursue a career in politics or policy to encourage change from the inside, or build career capital that you can later apply to lobbying roles.
  • Conduct academic research relevant to animal product alternatives or animal advocacy strategy.
  • If you have a public platform (e.g. as an academic, journalist, or politician), promote and advocate for reduced meat consumption and improved conditions of factory farms.
  • Volunteer for organisations working on the problem.
  • Become vegetarian or vegan, and promote animal advocacy, veganism, or reducing meat consumption to your friends and colleagues.
  • See many more suggestions in our interview with Lewis Bollard, as well as in this blog post (which is organised by different backgrounds and skills).

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Notes and references

  1. This number would be higher if we included invertebrates (many of which may be sentient), or counted the number of animals killed or slaughtered in a year, rather than alive at any one point.

  2. What this figure needs to be to by itself justify prioritising present-day human suffering depends on how bad you think suffering is on factory farms vs in extreme poverty or other bad conditions in which humans live. There are around eight billion humans, about 10% of which live in extreme poverty (below $1.90 per day, adjusted for purchasing power), and ~100 billion or more nonhuman animals on factory farms.

  3. Animal Advocacy Careers’ technical research for animal product alternatives skills profile argues that this work is a good fit for “people with academic backgrounds in any of a wide variety of sciences, including disciplines relating to biology, chemistry, food science, and engineering. There are opportunities in both academia and industry… Within technical research on cultivated meat, several interviewees highlighted engineering skills as being especially needed at the moment. There was also evidence in our spot-check that cultivated meat companies struggle to hire or retain people in these roles. We don’t have evidence to believe this is also the case for plant-based food companies though.”

  4. See, for example, The Good Food Institute’s databases for research labs, research funding opportunities, accelerators and incubators, and investors.