Thank you for doing this AMA! I have three questions:
1) The FDA has approved at least one alternative to pig castration (the brand name is Improvest) that involves two injections behind the ears rather than surgery. Similar technology has been shown to work in cattle but I don’t believe that has FDA approval. I’ve heard that this product works well and is cost-effective for farmers but that it has not been widely adopted because processing plants tend to reject in-tact pigs more or less out of inertia. Do you have thoughts on whether working to address this problem (at least for pigs) is tractable and cost-effective?
2) What kind economic research do you think that plant-based food companies would find most useful? Do these companies typically have their own data analysts to privately answer common economic questions? If not, would they be likely to read relevant literature or change their strategy based studies in econ journals? Examples of the sort of research I had in mind might include:
Prices: What is the price elasticity of demand for plant-based products? How much do temporary sales induce consumers to switch from animal products to plant-based analogues in the short-term? What is the cross-price elasticity of demand for these products? Do consumers who respond to sales subsequently purchase the analogues?
Packaging: Are consumers more likely to try a plant-based product if it is in a smaller, cheaper package? Do smaller packages causally induce a sustained customer shift towards the analogue?.
Partnerships: Industry groups representing input commodities (e.g. the National Rice Company) assist large purchasers to anticipate price and supply and to acquire supply contracts. Do similar opportunities exist to assist plant-based companies in their mission?
3) There has been significant recent progress in wild-animal fertility control, some of which is already being implemented (target species are often otherwise killed inhumanely). Do you think that this is an approach worth directly pursuing now or do you feel we need more information or research to see if this is a good idea? If you think we need more information, what kind of research would you like to see?
Regarding your first point, I do worry that strong community norms against having book lists include only male authors risks the perception that female authors that do get included are only there to fulfill some imaginary quota rather than on their merits. Not saying that there isn’t an important conversation to be had about fostering diversity of viewpoints and representation along gender or other demographic lines, but in my view that is at least a pretty strong downside to this approach.
There is a ton of research tracking the environmental impacts of various crop products. See for example our world in data: https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food
Tracking the animal welfare effects of crop products is much more difficult and involves thinking about very complex ecosystems. Brian Tomasik has some work on this as does the Wild Animal Suffering Initiative ( https://was-research.org ). I personally think that where you come down on the relative rankings of various foods will come down to your opinion about the probability and intensity of insect suffering. In my view that probability is quite low but the number of insects is large enough that it is certainly worth considering.
I would classify the next category of harms as “human conflict harms” which would include things like slavery in the production process or frequent violence over production disputes. These harms are very product specific and I have seen a lot of research and discussion about individual products but not a comprehensive list or ranking of various products. It is also worth noting there is a lot of heterogeneity within particular products. For example, chocolate has a problem with child slavery in the supply lines but some brands have done a great job transparently ensuring that no slavery occurs in their supply chains. I do think this is an area that could use a synthesis of the existing research to explain which foods are most problematic in this areas (and where applicable, what brands/countries avoid issues). One thing to keep in mind about this category though is that they are often not inherent in the production of any particular product. It just happens that certain foods are associated with these harms. If we launched a successful campaign to stop eating chocolate, for example, it is not clear to me that child slavers wouldn’t just switch to forcing children to grow coffee. Seems like we need a more general approach like supply-chain certification and regulation for a lack of slavery (fair trade certification does this but also unfortunately has some other problems, so I would like to see a certification that is strictly limited to the lack of slavery).
The author of the paper you mentioned also discussed some harms that are in my opinion non-issues. For example, the fact that global demand for quinoa has priced local growers out of eating quinoa seems like a net-good for them because now they have higher incomes and can afford more of other types of food.
I happen to think that the harms from animal agriculture are orders of magnitude higher than the harms from plant-based food products on average, but I certainly agree with you that we should not consider transitioning society to veganism as the end-all fix to our food system (though it would certainly be a good start!).
At least in the US, it is very common for cities/counties/other local governments to have boards and commissions that advise the elected officials (and in some cases have certain direct decision making power).
These are typically part time volunteer positions that you have to apply for to get, but are often not that competitive. If you volunteer for your city’s charter review commission and advocate for instituting approval voting or volunteer for the environment commission and advocate for policies that promote plant based food (e.g. meatless Mondays in schools) or volunteer for the grants review panel and advocate for directing funds toward relatively more effective organizations, then that might be a good use of your time. Typically volunteering in this capacity means that you are also committing to spend time on projects and policies that you might be less excited about, but that means you might run into other opportunities to learn something new or have an influence that you haven’t thought about yet. The specifics will vary by location and your own interests/strengths, but from what I can tell these types of opportunities are pretty common across the U.S.
Oh sorry didn’t realize that. Thanks!
Thanks for posting this. You mention the importance of studies on plant-based food branding, consumer preferences, etc. I’m curious if you have spoken to people in the plant-based food industry on how useful such studies (and which kind) would be to them.
Although I am not interested in pursuing an AARF grant, I do work with retail scanner data and am pursuing a few projects that I hope will be helpful for animals. One issue I run into is that while it is fairly straight forward to predict which sorts of questions will be of interest to journals, it is far from obvious which types of research questions would be of interest to plant-based food companies. I assume that many companies are hiring their own data analysts to explore pricing and coupon policies, so I imagine that additional contributions on this front might not be particularly useful. I also assume that they have a pretty good grasp on how demand shifts with their own pricing, and that is likely to drive their decision making (more so than, say, the effects of a reduced price for a plant-based item on its animal-derived analog). I’m not even sure if many companies are likely to engage with econ journal publications in any capacity. Of course there are other avenues by which such research might be helpful (policy, corporate advocacy, short term third party subsidizing, etc.), but I think of them as primarily for the benefit of industry.
If you happen to have any insight from the industry on this, I’d be very interested.
Being judgey toward oneself or others for being only able to contribute an average or below average amount is of course bad. EA should be about making the most efficient use of the resources (money, talent, etc.) that you have. Any other attitude is plainly self-defeating.
I’m not sure how much I agree with the premise that only the top 1% of a field have a major impact though. I think we should all be humble about how much we really know about the influence we have. There are so many unknowns that it is possible that the “biggest impact” interventions will backfire spectacularly. Also, in some fields , the most prestigious positions (professors at R1 universities) are not always the same as the most influential (often in private industry or government). The most talented people usually go for prestige over influence. Similarly, not-particularly talented people might find high degrees of influence in unexpected places. For example, mobilizing your local government to make a positive change can be achievable for many people who don’t have any extraordinary skills and can be a catalyst for more widespread change.
That makes sense, thanks Michael!
Michael, thanks for these links, I’m really enjoying reading both of them. Super interesting thesis! I am pretty puzzled by the idea of there being a single optimal population size though. Even under a totalist view,well being seems super dependent on who is alive and not just how many. E.g. if you had a world full of 20 billion people with a (learned or genetic) predisposition toward happiness, then that will look very different from a world with 20 billion people with a predisposition toward misery (and might look similar to a world with 10 or 30 billion people with a predisposition toward neutral moods). So it strikes me as strange to imagine a single inverted u function. Hillary Greaves’ piece mentions that she is considering the optimal population “under given empirical conditions,” but I’m not really sure what that means given that population could grow in any number of ways. I think that it refers to something along the lines of “the optimal population level taking the world completely as is and offering no interventions that change either who is born or how happy anyone is given that they were born” which I guess makes logical sense as an intellectual exercise but then doesn’t tell us about the ethics of any particular intervention ( offering free birth control or subsidizing births or having a baby, for example, takes us out of the world of “existing empirical conditions” and changes both who is born and how happy existing people are). I’m sure both of you considered this point though—Would it be correct to say that you believe that these considerations just don’t empirically matter that much for our practical decision making?
As I’m reading more,I’m realizing that multiplier organizations are not as much about evaluation as my post makes them out to be, so I will just say that I agree with the point in the post about wanting to give the single most effective charity rather than a mix, and not really understanding the value added of an intermediate organization.
I have very strong opinions on which organization in the cause area I care about is doing the most effective work, and I don’t think that the relevant evaluating organization is any better equipped to opine on it than I am. I sometimes compare evaluating charities to doing a fermi estimation. If there are a sufficient number of steps to estimating a fermi problem or if you are sufficiently off on your intermediate steps, and you have a some idea about the general magnitude of the target that your are estimating, it becomes better to just directly take a guess on the end-estimate rather than attempting intermediate guesses to guide you. It seems to me that even though evaluators are often very thorough and transparent, they end up making a ton of assumptions on top of high-error estimates (because one has to in order to make any progress, not because they don’t do a great job given what they are working with). I am not at all suggesting I could do a better job of rigorously estimating which organization is better, but I don’t think that is the right approach given the complexity of some of these problems. In other words, I’m far more convinced by the arguments and track record of the direct work charity that they are doing the most efficient work than I am by the evaluator charity that they should be trusted to make that evaluation.
I don’t think this is fair or good, but I do think there is extraordinary degree bias in academia to the point that it is almost impossible to get a position without a PhD, let alone a bachelors degree. There are some who have managed (Derek Parfit, I believe, had a bachelor’s degree but not PhD), but they are the rare exception. If you don’t want to go to school for a long time, I recommend finding an alternative outlet to academia. Maybe you could get a day job that supports you while continuing to publish independently and working to grow an independent readership? Or work as a research assistant? Or apply to non-academic organizations like non-profits or think tanks that might be more flexible about degrees than academia? Perhaps a specific option would be animal-welfare organizations that are interested in the subjective experience of animals such as sentience politics. Or go into an adjacent field that might also be interesting and high impact? But I think the only people who go into academia sans degrees are the very very top of their field, and even then it’s rare.
With that said, it doesn’t hurt to try to apply again for a masters again now that you have a book published just in case, as long as you are working on a back up plan in the mean time.
I find the ethics of procreation to be incredibly complicated. While I am skeptical of some of the particular arguments of this post, I agree that there are reasons to suspect that procreation is either morally good or morally neutral. Although I have substantial uncertainty about the moral goodness of procreation, I do strongly believe that many talented and altruistic people will be driven away from the EA community if anti-natalism becomes a big part of the cultural attitude. Many if not most people react to anti-natalism extremely negatively. They take it as an affront to their most personal choices, an insult to the people they most care about, and sometimes even a dangerous ideology that they inexorably associate with horrific human rights abuses. If there were real reason to believe with confidence that one of the best ways we can do good is lower the birth rate of people who actively want children, then that would be one thing. However, that seems so so so far from the current reality, that focusing on anti-natalist efforts just makes EA (or whatever other cause/group) look bad.
Sounds good, I’ll email you.
Hi Lauren, This sounds like important work. I was wondering if you have plans to expand your focus beyond explicitly EAA organizations. Mainly I have in mind government and policy roles but this may also include corporate roles involved in expanding plant based food options or organizations that deal with wildlife research and management but don’t have an EEA mission. Thanks for your work on this and good luck!
Thanks, I’m glad to hear there have been some people looking into this. It’s really unfortunate if in-fighting has stalled them.
Thanks for putting this together! It’s really great to see attempts at quantitatively prioritizing animal suffering, and I wish people would do more of it.
I do think you are misusing the word elasticities. The table you cite in compassion by the pound used the price elasticities of supply and demand to come up with their estimates, but these numbers they report are not elasticities, since that term usually refers to the change in demand or supply in response to price or income.
This leaves me particularly confused as to your interpretation of what you call “cross-price elasticities”—a cross-price elasticity of demand refers to the percent increase in demand of commodity x in response to a percent increase in price of commodity y. You are using the term to refer to “the increase in other products which are purchased as substitutes by these other consumers.” The reason this distinction is important is that traditional elasticities of demand account for individual consumers substituting one good for another due to price changes—they do not show the net change in equilibrium quantity of one good in response to a demand change of another good. Since you are basing this on your own assumptions rather than data, all I’m suggesting here is a rephrasing.
If you are truly looking for a cross-price elasticity of demand, these are well studied for most commodities and can be found here.
My final comment is that I am puzzled by your conclusion regarding milk given that the welfare metrics you use are just scales from better to worse and do not have an interpretation for their absolute value. It could be that your metrics are exactly spot on, but milk products still impose enormous suffering on cows per pound. I’m puzzled by your conclusions regarding the relative importance of climate change for the same reason.
Anyways, thanks again for working on this. I hope my comments don’t come across as too critical, as I think that carefully reasoning through these issues is really important.
Thanks! It seems like the big question I missed in my list that is in the article is “a full accounting of the externalities associated with animal agriculture” which I agree may be useful.
The article seems to take for granted that thorough research on the cost of production of welfare increasing practices would be good because the public assumes they are very high whereas in some cases they are actually not. I certainly agree that there are many interventions that are quite low cost, but I wonder if some of this research may backfire if the costs for certain interventions are quite high. I guess the animal ag industry already has a very good sense of this, and there is value in making this information public, but I’d be interested in others’ opinions on this.