Switzerland fails to ban factory farming – lessons for the pursuit of EA-inspired policies?
Today, the Swiss electorate could have voted for the abolition of factory farming (25 years from now ). But, in aggregate, we did not. By a depressingly large margin. The participation (as share of the electorate) was 52.3%, of which 37.1% voted in favour of the initiative. Securing, on top of the voter majority, the cantonal majority, which would have also been required, was even further out of reach: “Canton Basel City was the only of the 26 regions to approve the idea.” The initiative was launched by Sentience Politics. More info about the initiative and the results in this swissinfo.ch article (in English): Voters reject ethical overhaul of animal farming rules
In my impression, the most influential argument of the camp against the initiative was that factory farming just doesn’t exist in Switzerland. Even if it was only one of but not the most influential argument, I think this speaks volumes about both the (current) debate culture and the limits of how hopeful we should be that relevantly similar EA-inspired policies will soon see widespread implementation .
A key question is: What does relevantly similar mean here? A key argument, from a purely egoistic perspective, against abolishing factory farming is that, to some extent probably hard to precisely estimate in advance with much confidence, animal products will become more expensive. 1) Maybe many future EA-inspired policies would not have such costs, 2) arguably many future EA-inspired policies won’t even (need to) be voted on by the electorate (in some cases it might even be sufficient to get a handful of key individual actors on board), and 3) probably there are other reasons why I have more reason to be hopeful about EA-inspired policies than I feel right now.
But still… Rarely in the history of Switzerland has there ever been an initiative that, from an EA perspective, has been of higher moral significance and simultaneously, from an EA perspective, of lower controversiality. The fact that the electorate of Switzerland (notably roughly the richest country in the world) failed to vote to abolish factory farming 1) is a testament to just how far we, as world optimisers, still have to go and, slightly more controversially 2) serves as a reminder that we can philosophise as much as we want: to the extent that bridging the gap from global priorities research and longtermist macrostrategy to the “real world” turns out to present even more of a challenge than we previously thought, we would better rethink our allocation of resources along what I’d roughly conceptualise as a theoretical/fundamental/”ivory tower” – practical/applied/”real world” dimension.
1) Where do/might you (dis)agree with me? Am I missing an important consideration?
2) What’s your reaction to the initiative and results?
3) What (tentative) lessons from this can we draw for the future pursuit of EA-inspired policies (within and beyond non-human animal welfare)?
While I admit the term factory farming is open to interpretation and that the extent to which fundamental interests of farm animals are systematically violated is lower in Switzerland than in most other countries, I encourage people who are skeptical as to the existence of factory farming in Switzerland to search for facts and videos on this topic. It may be less horrible than in most countries, but it is still horrible to be your average farm animal in Switzerland.
Which I find ironic given that research on the value of global priorities research compared to other endeavours is a key question within, well, global priorities research.
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I was one of the people who helped draft the constitutional amendment and launch the initiative. My quick takes:
My forecast had been a 3% chance of the initiative passing*, with a best guess of ~44% of voters in favor. So I was mildly disappointed by the results.
37% is pretty good; many ambitious initiatives (with real rather than symbolic effects) that aren’t right-wing-populist have had much worse failures.
In Swiss politics, initiatives that fail with 30-50% of voters in favor generally aren’t regarded as total failures. They are generally perceived to lend symbolic support in favor of the issue.
I find it fairly encouraging that 37% of a mostly meat-eating population are voting in favor of fairly costly measures that would negatively affect them personally on a daily basis. Initial polls even suggested that 55% were in favor (but as voters got more informed, and as the countercampaign (with ~5x more funding) played out, it got lower).
(* An initiative passing doesn’t just require a majority of the voters, but also a majority of the voters in a majority of cantons (states), which is a target that’s much harder to hit for non-conservative initiatives. Even if >50% of the voters were in favor, this would’ve been unlikely to happen.)
Separately, I think the effective animal activism community should be much clearer on a long-term strategy to inform their prioritization. By when do we expect to get meat alternatives that are competitive on taste and price? At that point, how many people do we expect to go vegetarian? Is there a date by which we expect >50% of the developed-world population to go vegetarian? To what degree are policies shaped by precedents from other countries? I think this sort of thinking has happened to a substantial degree for AI alignment/deployment, but not much for animal activism. Instead, everyone is running cost-effectiveness analyses with relatively short time horizons and a direct focus on animal lives improved. (This might be reasonable if you’re very pessimistic about large-scale shifts away from meat consumption anytime soon.)
These sorts of macrostrategic considerations could then inform whether to let an initiative like this one fail, or to make a concerted effort to actually win it, e.g., deploying a campaign budget of $5m, an experienced campaign team, plus a data science team.
Given that a majority of (the voter majority of) cantons needs to be in favor (“Ständemehr”), a ~16 percentage point increase in yes voters would have allowed for the initiative to pass. That’s a pretty large difference.
Things that could have been done to make it more likely that the initiative passes:
Release shocking results of an undercover investigation ~2 weeks before the vote. Maybe this could have led to a 2-10% increase?
Have a much larger campaign budget ($5m or so). Maybe another 2-7%?
So with some extra resources and luck, this may have been possible to win, perhaps.
My understanding is, that they did try to do this with an undercover investigation report on poultry farming. But it was only in the news for a very short time and I’m guessing didn’t have a large effect.
A further thing might have helped:
Show clearly how the initiative would have improved animal welfare.
The whole campaign was a bit of a mess in this regard. In the “voter information booklet” the only clearly understandable improvement was about maximum livestocks – which only affected laying hens. This lead to this underwhelming infographic in favour of the initiative [left column: current standards, righ column: standards if initiative passes].
The initiative committee does claim on their website, that the initiative will lead to more living space for farmed animals. But it never advertised how much. I struggled to find the space requirement information with a quick google search, before a national newspaper reported on it.
Excellent points, thank you!
This project seems hard and important. Your work seems impactful, as you mentioned, it seems noticeable and impressive to 37% support of banning a harmful industry.
As Mo Putera also suggested, would it make sense to further write up what you and others did on this project?
Maybe a write up would add depth, communicate the challenges faced, publicize the project, as well as give some sense of how to get started on similar object level work?
For example, I have no idea how to get a “constitutional initiative” started, or “how connected” someone would need to be (which could be easier because of EA networks/EA aligned people).
Useful work on animal welfare policy seems like it would apply to other initiatives.
(I understand you are busy. Maybe it make sense to hire an assistant or use some other service to help write this up?)
The short version is that it’s pretty easy for anyone to launch one if you have $500k in funding, it’s really hard to get the wording of the constitutional amendment right, and the base rate of initiatives passing is just ~10% so it’s hard to actually be successful. I already published a similar write-up here, which explains some of the background, and there is a general overview of ballot measures.
I’m not planning to produce a longer write-up because I don’t expect me producing a write-up will directly enable useful work. I don’t expect more Swiss ballot initiatives to be especially promising (though there might be cool ideas around), and ballot initiatives work quite differently elsewhere. The basics of how Swiss ballot initiatives work are easy to google and well-documented in the media (including English ones). I also wasn’t involved with the campaigning, so I can’t really comment on that.
These thoughts seem both really important and quite deep and thoughtful.
I don’t know the answer at all, but I have a few questions that might be useful (they might advance discussion/ intent). Please feel free to answer if it makes sense.
Is this related to what people call a “theory of victory” or vision?
If so, I have questions about the use of “theory of victory”. I’m uncertain, in the sense I want to learn more, about the value of a “theory of victory” in farm animal welfare.
If we reduced animal suffering by 50-90% in a fairly short time, that seems really good and productive. What does a theory of victory contribute in addition to that?
Maybe it provide a “focal” or “tipping point”, or is useful for morale, rhetoric, getting further allies or resources?
Maybe it has coordination value. For example, if we knew at “year Y” that meat alternatives would be at “cost parity”, coordinating many other campaigns and activities at the same time would be useful
Are you imagining this “long-term strategy” to come from the EA community (maybe in the sense of EA farm animal leaders agreeing, or people brainstorming more generally, or Rethink Priorities spinning up a project), or do you think it would come from a more external source?
I’m not certain, but I’m probably not very optimistic about large-scale shifts from meat consumption in a short time frame. I’m interested in facts or even just a formidable narrative that could change this non-optimistic view. Do you or anyone else know any thoughts about this?
The people I have met in the past, who advance the idea of a major, upcoming, shift, seem to rely on narratives focused on personal dietary change. Upon examination, their views seem really inconsistent with data that the % of the population that is vegan/vegetarian seems to be flat over decades.
To me, some groups or initiatives seem to be communicating mainly with subcultures that are historically receptive to animal welfare. It seems the related /consequent information environment could unduly influence their judgement.
I share your general pessimism, but I’m curious if bigger shifts are possible on a 10-30y timescale. I think progress in alternative protein might help with that, and I’d like to have better forecasts on how that will develop, and what the implications are.
A “theory of victory” might be premised on assuming success, which would be a bad assumption to make, but insofar as we’re not doing that, that’s what I have in mind.
I expect this long-term strategy to come from EA; don’t really think anyone else would do a good job (though of course happy to be surprised).
It was a bet worth taking and we likely learned a lot. We will keep fighting the good fights. I feel grateful to all the people who worked hard on this.
I think 37% is pretty encouraging. Perhaps if it’s run again in 5 years it could pass? There are signs we could be close to a tipping point, such as 100% vegan Burger Kings.
I’d be interested to read a postmortem—why it failed, lessons learned, etc.
And a rating of which campaign tactics worked and did not.
Maybe banning factory farming would be more successful if we were to take an approach similar to The Paris Agreement. So we would basically need countries to a) agree this is a serious issue that needs resolution b) take individual approaches to slowly reducing their contributions to factory farming (regardless of whether or not factory farming “occurs” within their country). I know there are some EAs with their hands in the UN now, so one can only hope they make this a priority.
I admire your ability to persevere and use this to ask important questions and learn lessons—personally my sadness in response currently overwhelms most of this ability.
The only thought I have is that maybe we need to invest in EA becoming not just an intellectual and practical project, but also a mass movement with appeal to the public.
I work in US politics and I’m more knowledgeable about the United States, but a few points come to mind:
Incremental ballot initiatives are more likely to pass than sweeping ones (at least in the USA)
The meat and agribusiness lobbies are incredibly powerful
Positively framed initiatives are generally more likely to pass than ones that take something away or focus on something negative. But arguments opposing changes are generally more likely to win over ones supporting changes. Most initiatives fail.
As for what this would look like with positive framing, it would probably take some careful thought but maybe end up with ballot text something like “Healthy/Natural Farms Initiative—ensure all farm animals live in healthy, safe, and humane conditions”
If we combine that with something more incremental, it might look like “Open stables initiative” “Ensure farm animals live free from disease causing overcrowding and confinement” or “have __ time outside cages.” A more specific narrow initiative may have helped against arguments that “factory farms don’t exist” which is perhaps harder to pin down what it means to people.
A series of narrow initiatives could potentially be more effective at eroding cruel conditions over time than a binary yes or no abolish ballot initiative that takes effect in 25 years since there are more chances for change to accumulate and less change on the ballot all at once.
*I don’t really know much about specific policy interventions or mechanisms of change that would be narrow and impactful in the factory farming space, so someone else could probably improve these.
Great points—especailly the positive framing. On the surface it seems valid, although I’d want to see evidence to support the positive framing perspective. Also, I really like how you give examples to back up your points.
I think that 37% is a decent result when you consider the difference in budget between our camp (I recently started working for Sentience Politics) and the opposition, who also represented the status quo. For them, it was a sitter. But I’d be sitting less comfortably now.
More than 1 in 3 voters decided that they were prepared to pay a little extra to phase out the most egregious of animal husbandry practices over a period of 25 years.
Over the next 25 years, my crystal ball tells me we will see a mahoosive proliferation of alternative proteins, such that an initiative like this may well not be required anymore. So I think EAs should focus on speeding that process up prontissimo.
It won’t be ethics that causes most people to change their diet, nor environmental concerns (overblown as they may sometimes be by animal advocates). It’ll be the all-else-being-equal availability of a convenient alternative. Most likely grown in a lab.
As for the animals suffering in the here and now, and where to go in the aftermath of the initiative, I think it would make sense to look at which of the demands garnered the most support, and how to re-package them in such a way to maximise the likelihood of individual success. At the moment, it looks like consumers took the biggest issue with the small spaces that animals are forced to live in. That’s a straightforward matter without much room for convolution.
Dario, I’m not sure that your number 2 is controversial, or that it ought to be, but I am sure that I think it’s spot on. Having the kind of resources that the opposition had would likely have made a difference. Perhaps all the difference. This wasn’t an exercise in navel-gazing but a huge opportunity to make a, as you say, ‘real world’ difference under the EA banner. On a side but related note, reading most of the posts on this forum gives me a headache. I’m too thick, along with most of society. We’ve got to make EA ideas digestible and practicable for the common Jim.
Incredible news. I see two big benefits of the results:
If 37% of the voters supported the initiative, approximately 30% of the meat eating voter pool signed off on ending factory farming (assume ~5-7% are vegetarian/vegans. That is noteworthy.
Sometimes an initiative takes multiple attempts before it passes.
The main rebuttal I see to the “if it doesnt happen in Switzerland then it’ll happen elsewhere” argument is that it has to start somewhere. One country can be the catalyst for others.
Couldn’t agree more with
In a similar direction, there’s more that struck me as rather discouraging in terms of intelligent public debate:
In addition to this lie you pointed to apparently being popular*, from my experience in discussions about the initiative, the population also showed a basic inability to follow most basic logical principles:
Even many of the kindest people who would not want to harm animals, believed, as a sort of fundamental principle, it’d be bad to prescribe what animals people can and cannot eat, thinking that, therefore, it is fundamentally not okay to impose (such) animal welfare protection measures.
All while no single person (there will be the odd exception; but it really is an exception) would have claimed that the existing animal welfare laws would be unwarranted/should be abolished/relaxed.
Is there any empirical research on the motivation of voters (and non-voters) in this referendum? The swissinfo article you mention does not directly use this argument, it just cites something somewhat similar:
TL;DR: This initiative would have led to bad consequences and the EA movement needs to be more evidence-based when it comes to animal agriculture. I leave a few suggestions to improve animal welfare more effectively below.
In my opinion, this topic is the one where the Effective Altruism movement is the most in its ivory tower still. Everything I’ve read on this topic by the EA community, like Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation or the chapter dedicated to it in What We Owe The Future showcases a total separation from reality. I think we’re all on board with the idea that we should reduce harm in our farming as much as possible, but claims like 99% of meat being factory farmed are just intuitively false to anyone that has spent any significant amount of time in the countryside and farms outside of the USA. Most countries don’t even have industrial farming. It’s either wrong out of genuine ignorance, or purposeful scope creep to advance an agenda (for lack of a better term) - neither of which lends it credibility or help the cause reduce harm.
Another issue I would raise is that utilitarians seems to remove their consequentialist ethos when discussing economics of agriculture. The well-intentioned arguments aimed at reducing harm often lead to more harm in practice. The Green agenda is politically ideological and pseudoscientific at its core, and the arguments commonly put forward, not least by this initiative, are derivatives of this framework.
Take a few of the claims on the initiative’s website:
Most of this is just not true. It stems from a conflation between biogenic greenhouse gas emissions and anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions. The former is part of the natural carbon cycle, with animals playing a crucial role in maintaining healthy ecosystems which acts as a carbon sink. Needless to say, the latter is the cause of climate change, and the shift to artificial fertiliser would only exacerbate fossil fuel emissions, as well as deterioration of soils and abandonment of the vast, vast, majority of agricultural land—pasture.
Extensive, or organic agriculture shows absolutely no health benefits whatsoever, is extremely harmful for the environment as it requires far more land, and uses outdated techniques and chemicals which pose a much larger risk to our health and the environment. In fact, capping organic agriculture might do a lot for the environment and food security in Switzerland.
This claim is true, but besides not being entirely related to intensive vs extensive agriculture other than at a question of scale, routine administration of antibiotics has been forbidden for about 20 years in Switzerland, and will be forbidden from this year across the entire EU. The principal cause of antibiotic resistance is its use in feed, which has been banned in Switzerland since the turn of the century.
This claim may be true in many countries, but this isn’t a subject directly related to this initiative and I would wager that the expected value of investing on improving working conditions in Switzerland might be limited.
Reducing the consumption of animal products can therefore directly improve the security of supply for Swiss agriculture.
Another argument that showcases a lack of understanding of the agricultural sector. Switzerland can never be self-sufficient on plant agriculture, its geography allows for animal husbandry and little else. Switzerland exports cheese, not pears. The choice is between producing livestock and producing nothing, you can’t grow soy beans extensively in alpine valleys. In the future, we may be able to create vast warehouses with vertical plant farming, but that is not the current reality.
This brings me nicely to another important topic that one grapples with in the subject of agriculture. The quote above is a full admission that this proposal would increase food prices. In the middle of a supply-side inflationary shock, the best initiative the EA community could come up with would have led to an even larger increase in food prices. This alone would be reason enough to be rejected, however the point I want to make here is that this is an extremely regressive end result. This would substantially hurt the poorest in society, even in a relatively wealthy country like Switzerland, and that touches on people’s perception of fairness. Fairness is one of the most important moral axes in human psychology according to Haidt’s moral foundations theory.
What would a good initiative propose to reduce harm in agriculture?
Framing—Focus on specifics
The largest critique of this initiative was the idea that “there is no factory farming in Switzerland”. In fact, even the supporters of the legislation agree:
It is understandable that when the framing implies there is something in society which is widespread and horrible, people’s first instinct is to reject the claim on the grounds that this just isn’t the case. On the other hand, if you asked Swiss people if they’re in favour of keeping animals in good conditions, not housing thousands of birds together in disgusting conditions, etc. I’m sure they would agree.
Why not a series of initiatives to improve husbandry practices?
Perhaps a focus on silvopasture?
How about an initiative to promote the use of food waste in agriculture even more? China is currently processing food waste with cockroaches and using them to feed pigs.
2. Scientific legitimacy, not politically compromised
Lots of the arguments used in this initiative are copied over from the George Monbiot, far left/Green playbook. This means it’ll naturally alienate the vast majority of the population, not least those with the most skin in the game—farmers. Lets base initiatives on the best available evidence. Cows can be an even larger carbon sink than they are now when fed the right additives and with sustainable grazing practices . Let’s leave the vitriol to politicians and work on scientifically sound solutions.
3. Fair outcomes
The expected value from these policies needs to be more obviously positive. We can’t demand a trade-off between abundant food for the poorest in society, and animal welfare as the latter will always lose out, especially in this context of already existing relatively high-welfare standards and high food prices. One example of a policy with fair outcomes here would be to propose cage-free egg production. It’s entirely possible to produce cheap eggs intensively with uncaged, and even free range chickens.
I don’t think this is the claim typically being made. Rather, X% of farmed animals, as individuals, not by weight, are factory farmed. The vast majority of farmed land vertebrates are chickens, and the vast majority of them are factory farmed. The vast majority of farmed vertebrates (land or aquatic) are farmed fish, and the vast majority of them are factory farmed. Factory farms produce disproportionate numbers of animals relative to the number of farms, and countryside farms are badly unrepresentative of the average animal’s life. To be fair, this is a subtle issue, and we shouldn’t expect people to have a good sense of such numbers just through experience.
For example, from Sentience Institute:
“Most of this is just not true. It stems from a conflation between biogenic greenhouse gas emissions and anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions. The former is part of the natural carbon cycle, with animals playing a crucial role in maintaining healthy ecosystems which acts as a carbon sink.”
I do think this issue is subtle, and people on both sides often get it wrong or go too far. FAO even put out a piece aiming to correct bad simplifications (https://news.trust.org/item/20180918083629-d2wf0). Being part of a natural carbon cycle (even with no consistent new net emissions) doesn’t mean there’s no warming impact. Methane levels in the atmosphere will be higher than with less ruminant farming since that carbon would spend less of its time in plants or in the soil and be released relatively more as methane than CO2, and methane is more potent than CO2 per amount of carbon. Furthermore, ruminant farming is increasing, so methane levels are increasing. Your source  acknowledges some of these considerations.
I’d recommend this, which also disputes the potential of ruminants to help lands act as carbon sinks: https://tabledebates.org/node/12335
Yeah, this is an instance of the natural fallacy, where if a claim is shown with a natural label, it immediately means that it’s good/healthy/climate change reducing/etc.
As an animal advocate myself, I agree that animal advocates often exaggerate the environmental impact of animal agriculture, intentionally or not.
I haven’t checked the specifics for this campaign, and I don’t know much about the situation in Switzerland, so won’t comment on that unless I look further into it.
I’m skeptical/confused by this comment.
So, I’m not that familiar with this legislation, but I think the (key) purpose behind the banning of factory farms, would be a major political, legislative win that has a strategic value.
But the comment’s main arguments are:
Factory farming is minimal in Switzerland, so this legislation doesn’t do much
There are big negative consequences to this legislation banning of farms (price increases, food security).
Don’t these two points conflict with each other? Also, neither undermines the main purpose of the legislation mentioned above.
I’m confused what “ivory tower” and “consequentialism” add here—I’m sure EA has a big consequentialist streak, but I’m not sure how relevant that is to reducing torture on factory farms, or reduce huge mortality from diseases like malaria.
Similarly, whether I agree or don’t agree with unfairness or not, I’m unsure what “moral axes in human psychology according to Haidt’s moral foundations theory” adds.
RE: Regressiveness, I think it’s possible to model price increases due to policy changes, and I would expect to see numbers if this was significant.
Dealing with regressiveness, pigovian taxes, and progressive taxes have been a thing for a long time, and seem to be tools we can use.
“claims like 99% of meat being factory farmed”, but I can’t find this claim on this post or on the website. Where did you get this and what was the context it was used in?
I think your comment is full of mistakes and misinterpretations, and at least one of them is:
As far as I understand, the initiative would’ve adopted the welfare standards of organic agriculture, without any of the other characteristics of organic food that cause the things you mentioned.
Even setting aside the organic argument, an insistence on extensive agricultural alone is also negative for the environment due to the lower output per hectare. Lots of literature has been written on this.
Yeah, the comment seems to overstate the problems of the law (except maybe the food prices one.) And that’s despite disagreeing with environmentalism or it’s goals.