The Animal-Free Food Movement Should Focus Primarily on Animal Protection Arguments

Note: This post is written from the perspective of effective altruism: working to make the greatest positive impact in the world by using evidence and reason. For an introduction to the subject, visit effectivealtruism.org.

As a movement, we should focus primarily on animal protection arguments, utilizing arguments based on the environment, human health, and economics when appropriate, but usually only as supporting arguments. This seems like a much better strategy for helping animals in the long run, including those who might exist after we’ve abolished factory farming, because animal-focused activism probably does more to widen our moral circle, setting precedent for our descendants to care about the welfare of all sentient beings.

Some advocates think animal arguments are less useful for getting us to the end of animal farming as soon as possible, mainly because there seems to be more mainstream support for human health and environmentalism than farmed animal welfare. After a closer look, I think there are similarly strong short-run arguments in favor of focusing on animal messaging, such that we don’t need to care much about the long-run impact in order to favor animal-focused messaging.

Of course, in some situations, like if you’re speaking at an environmentalist conference on why they should work for an animal-free food system, it still makes sense to emphasize a different message.

The importance of the far future

“The mark of a civilized person is the ability to look at a column of numbers and weep.”
 — Unclear origin, probably adapted from Bertrand Russell.

Many vegans have opened their eyes in an incredible way. Most of the world still rationalizes their consumption of animal products with silly arguments like “lions eat meat, why can’t I?” and has yet to take a rational and compassionate look at the over 100 billion animals raised and killed for food each year.

But some animal advocates think even the vegan community has yet to open their eyes to some of the most important victims. Specifically, much of the community has yet to appreciate the potentially vast numbers of animals who could exist after the end of animal farming. Whether they are animals used in experiments, wild animals, or populations we have yet to imagine, there could be astronomical numbers of such beings.

Why could there be so many more? First, consider the growing human population. In 1900, before factory farms were widespread, there were only 1.6 billion humans on earth. In 2100, there could be between 9.3 and 12.6 billion humans, representing a much greater capacity to create mass suffering. Moreover, if we colonize other planets, this number will probably quickly increase. After all, Elon Musk is planning to set up the first Mars colony by 2025. If we consider an even longer time scale, some researchers have hypothesized that there could be 10^38 human lives (or even more animal lives) lived every century if we colonize the Virgo Supercluster, the collection of stars that includes the Milky Way and many nearby galaxies.

While it might seem speculative and unrealistic to consider such a long-term outcome, we should keep in mind that astronomical stakes are involved here, so even a very small chance of affecting these long-term outcomes to a very small degree could be a moral priority if we want to do as much good as possible, and some would argue we actually have a pretty good chance of making a big difference in these outcomes.

This argument might seem crazy, but as vegans and animal advocates, we should reflect on our own experiences with naysayers who declare, “You’re crazy to think about chickens and fish when so many humans are suffering,” or “Your diet doesn’t even make a difference in the scope of the global food system.” Would we be making the same sort of error if we said, “You need to focus on the animals who are suffering now,” or “We can’t hope to make a significant difference in the far future”?

Widening our moral circle is a crucial lever for impacting the far future

It’s difficult to speculate about how we can impact the far future, but it’s important to act on the evidence we have available. I think one particularly promising lever we can push on is the width of humanity’s moral circle. We want our descendants to care not just about their neighbors, not just about humans in other countries, but all sentient beings regardless of race, sex, species, location, or any other factors besides their capacity to have feelings and interests. If people had widened their moral circles earlier and more strongly, we could have avoided centuries of suffering due to slavery, genocide, oppression, and factory farming. We have evidence of the ability of dedicated individuals to steer society’s moral trajectory from historical social movements, marketing, social psychology, and even the existing progress of the animal protection movement.

This is why the way we promote and contextualize animal-free foods is so important. If we tie the rise of animal-free foods with concern for farmed animals, we set major precedent in our society for caring about the large-scale suffering of sentient beings. If we tie it to other reasons like the environment or human health, we set precedent for caring more about those topics, which might not matter as much in the long-term. Indeed, these values could even conflict with concern for all sentient beings.

A stronger prioritization of human health could increase cruel animal experimentation in the long-term if that is found to be most beneficial to human welfare. An environmental focus could cause people to harm wild animals, such as by painfully killing members of invasive species in order to preserve the integrity of local ecosystems. Yes, the integrity of local ecosystems could benefit sentient beings, but we should discuss environmental issues in terms of the impact on sentient beings, not simply on the preservation of nonsentient entities like ecosystems or biodiversity, and we should ensure the social change we create is promoting our own values as much as possible, rather than related values that overlap in some, but not all, contexts.

On a similar note, we should be cautious about the effectiveness-focused advocates switching to environmental and health arguments because if only the non-effectiveness-focused advocates use the animal protection arguments, their reputation could decrease, compounding this sort of damage.

Even in the short-term, focusing on animal arguments might be better for helping factory farmed animals

I think the strongest argument for focusing on animal protection arguments for animal-free foods is the far future impact, but I don’t think it’s even clear that we face a trade-off between far future impact and near future impact in this case. Some might disagree with me because environmental, human health, or other topics have more public interest right now than animal protection, so they think emphasizing these benefits of animal-free foods could lead to more public enthusiasm and quicker public adoption. For example, one might be more likely to get news stories of a new animal-free food company if the press release is written with an environmental focus. People might also self-report health and the environment as more important factors in their consumption. I think this is a solid argument, but I also think there are a couple strong counterarguments once we think more about the topic.

Note: Aren’t consumers going to adopt the technologies when they come out no matter what?

Some advocates are very optimistic about the adoption of plant-based and clean/cultured foods once the technologies develop because these products will be the clear consumer choice for ethical, health, and price reasons. However, polls have yielded mixed results for willingness to switch to these products, and it’s still unclear what the price point for these products will be. Even if we are very optimistic and think there’s a 90% chance of mass consumer adoption, increasing that likelihood to 95% could still be hugely important due to the number of sentient beings involved. Similarly, advocacy could help society transition to an animal-free food system just a few years earlier, which could spare billions or even trillions of animals from life on factory farms.

Moral outrage is a powerful tool for achieving mass social change, and evidence suggests it is achieved more easily with animal protection arguments

To inspire greater consumer adoption, I think there’s a good argument that we need moral outrage in society, as described in this recent blog post. Environmental and animal protection argument can better inspire moral outrage than human health, because they involve harm to outside entities rather than just harm to the consumer making the decision. The health argument could be framed as the animal farming industry harming or infringing upon the rights of consumers, such as through deceptive marketing, but the environmental and animal protection arguments still seem more clearly associated with this sort of external harm in the eyes of the public.

It also seems to be the case that animal arguments have been most compelling in creating highly impactful animal-free food leaders, and creating more of these leaders could be very important for pushing our movement forward. This is possibly due to moral outrage, but could be due to other features of the arguments; of course, it could also be due to reasons other than argument effectiveness, such as social norms in the animal protection community.

Potentially misaligned goals

Health arguments, and maybe even environmental arguments, probably have a weaker and more flimsy evidence base than the animal argument.

There is very little disagreement outside the industry itself about the intense animal suffering involved in modern animal farming. However, there is substantial disagreement about whether a vegan, or even a vegetarian diet, is better for human health. I personally think the evidence does lean towards vegan diets being better, but it’s not nearly as clear. I’ve recently read books like How Not to Die and The Big Fat Surprise to get a better sense of the arguments on both sides. Additionally, new studies or changing features of human health (e.g. a rise in diseases that are more prevalent in plant-based eaters) could change the evidence base and make our favored arguments for an animal-free food system less compelling.

Similarly, while there is much agreement that many modern factory farms are very environmentally damaging, some environmentalists think that farming some animals, such as grass-fed cows, waste-fed pigs, or insects, is actually more environmentally friendly than eating plants. New technologies could also change this landscape if they decrease the environmental harms of animal farming. If we care about the suffering of the sentient beings in these alternative systems, we could see our environmental focus backfire.

Even given the existing evidence base, people swayed by health and environmental arguments could reduce consumption of the less harmful animal products, or even increase consumption of more harmful ones. There has been some debate in the vegan community around whether health and environmental arguments reduce the consumption of cows and pigs but increase the consumption of chickens and fish, which seems to have a significant negative direct impact on animal welfare. I don’t think there’s a clear answer or community agreement on this topic yet, so it remains a significant concern.