Note: This profile hasn’t been updated in a long time. Our most comprehensive and up-to-date coverage of this problem is now on our podcast, especially:
Each year, 50 billion animals are raised and slaughtered in factory farms globally. Over a billion animals live in factory farms at any point of time in the United States. Most experience serious levels of suffering. The problem is neglected relative to its scale — less than $20 million per year is spent trying to solve it.
There are promising paths to improving the conditions of factory farmed animals and for changing attitudes towards farm animals.
Options for working on this problem include: supporting the organizations recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators by taking a high earning job and donating to them or by working at them directly; working at companies developing plant-based alternatives to meat; and advocating for action on the problem as an academic, journalist or politician.
Our overall view
This is a pressing problem to work on, but you may be able to have an even bigger impact by working on something else.
We think work to reduce the suffering of present and future nonhuman animals has the potential for a large positive impact. We estimate that ending factory farming would increase the expected value of the future by between 0.01% and 0.1%.
This issue is moderately neglected. Current spending is between $10 million and $100 million per year.
Making progress on reducing the suffering of present and future nonhuman animals seems moderately tractable. There are some plausible ways to make progress, though these likely require technological and expert support.
These scores are for attempts to make people in the United States care enough about animals to become vegetarian or vegan.
What is the problem?
50 billion animals are raised and slaughtered in factory farms around the world each year, around 10 billion of these in the USA. Most experience extreme levels of suffering over the course of their lives due to their poor treatment. Relatively small improvements to their treatment could substantially improve their welfare.
Why is this problem pressing?
What is our recommendation based on?
We think this problem is pressing because it is a focus area of Open Philanthropy. Read their report on the treatment of animals in factory farms and animal product alternatives.
We interviewed their Program Officer for farm animal welfare at length. That interview covers everything below and a lot more about how to end factory farming rapidly. We also spoke with the founders of Animal Equality about their interventions.
Why is it pressing?
- 50 billion animals are raised and killed in factory farms every year. 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 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- This problem gets relatively little attention, even from major animal welfare groups. Less than $20 million is spent by non-profits on improving conditions of factory farmed animals or reducing meat consumption.
- There appear to be effective ways to persuade people to reduce their meat consumption or become vegetarian or vegan. Some research has suggested individual outreach on campuses has an effect, though it hasn’t yet allowed precise measurements. Developing better meat substitutes could also drive down meat consumption considerably. In the EU there has been some success changing regulations to improve conditions in factory farms, such as allowing each animal more space.
What are the major arguments against it being pressing?
- You might think that the well-being of each animal matters much less than the suffering of each human (less than 1% as much), and so think the scale isn’t as large as other problems.
- You might think that the long-run benefits of improving animal welfare are significantly smaller than the long-run benefits of improving the welfare of humans. This is because increasing the well-being of humans lets them contribute more to the economic development of their society, but there is no obvious mechanism by which increasing animal welfare leads to comparable long-run benefits. Read more on this argument.
Key judgement calls made to prioritise this problem
- Animals in factory farms experience real and intense suffering.
- If faced with a situation where you can prevent cruelty to a large number of non-human animals, or the suffering of a much smaller number of humans, you should help the animals. There are two possible justifications for this view: i) in the short run you’re preventing more suffering, and you don’t care so much about the long-run effects, or ii) you think there are long-run positive effects to campaigning against cruelty to animals, for example via increasing human empathy and improving society’s values.
What can you do about this problem?
What’s most needed to contribute to this problem?
- Social advocacy to reduce meat consumption. This can be done by distributing leaflets, TV and online ads, campaigning large institutions (such as school districts or hospitals) to adopt “Meatless Mondays” to reduce meat consumption, and investigations that expose and publicise cruelty to animals in factory farms.
- Political advocacy and lobbying for legislation for better conditions in factory farms.
- Developing plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods.
- Research to determine the most effective social and political advocacy methods for persuading people to reduce their meat consumption and passing legislation to improve conditions in factory farms.
What skill sets and resources are most needed?
- People with strong leadership and fundraising skills to work in animal advocacy non-profits.
- People with high earning potential who can donate to animal advocacy work. Jon Bockman of Animal Charity Evaluators, told us that animal advocacy non-profits 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 would make the problem unusually funding-constrained.
- Entrepreneurs and researchers working on developing and marketing meat substitutes.
Who is working on this problem?
What can you concretely do to help?
You might also want to check out this blog post with advice on how to apply different backrounds and skills to help end factory farming.
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