You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘animal welfare’ tag.

Humans have successfully developed laws and social institutions that allow us to gradually improve our welfare over time. These include wealth redistribution among families, close friends and countries coupled with self-ownership and free exchange among billions of humans through markets. Other apparent keys are the incentive to innovate and the ability to accumulate new knowledge in journals and communities of experts.

Unfortunately animals don’t fit into this system. Animals are not able to use property, language, technology, trade and so on to achieve high states of wellbeing on their own. This is not going to change. The lot of animals is therefore up to humans; they will never be able to save themselves from poverty as we are doing for ourselves.

Currently, with a few exceptions, humans do not treat animals as worthy of concern. Farm animals through most of the world have few or no protections and are often treated very badly in order to minimise the resources humans need to sacrifice to raise them. Even the minority of people who care about the welfare of farm animals are generally unconcerned with the suffering of wild animals, no matter how bad life may be for them. Animals we have personal relationships with, like pets, get the best deal, but they are only a small share of all the animals that exist.

What might we hope that humans will do for animals?

One option would be increased regulation of the treatment animals in the same way that we now regulate the upbringing of children. While parents have a great deal of freedom in how they treat their children, they do not have free reign. They don’t ‘own’ children in the way that people currently own animals – rather they are considered to be ‘stewards’ of children. Greater wealth and education in the future might lead people to be willing to make the sacrifices to treat animals this way, just as increased wealth has made many parts of the world willing to dedicate a lot of resources to ensuring children are not mistreated.

A second approach, obvious only to an economist, would be for the government or another group to set financial incentives for treating animals well. People and businesses would be allowed to treat animals badly but they would have to pay a price if they wanted to do so, just as your employer would have to pay you to make you tolerate things you didn’t enjoy. Animal owners could also be rewarded for treating animals well. This would leave it up to the market to determine how animals should be treated once the appropriate incentives had been provided – incentives reflecting the importance society placed on the welfare of animals. One way of looking at this would be as the animal welfare equivalent of a ‘carbon tax’, where the suffering of animals was a social ill like pollution. An alternative perspective would be that the regulator was standing in as a negotiator on behalf of the animals who were themselves unable to negotiate ‘work’ contracts with their owners. These pseudo-contracts would replace the current system of slavery.

A third approach would be to take animals out of the picture altogether. If humans are able to continuously improve their lot in life with technology while non-human animals are not, then eventually human welfare will far exceed animal welfare. At that point it may just be best for humans to replace animals altogether. There are already plans to make farm animals obsolete by growing artificial meat in labs rather than on farms. Humans are also progressively displacing animals from the wilderness by clearing land for human settlement and farming. Humans might find that eventually the only animals they want to keep around are pets, which they enjoy treating well. This scenario would require humans or their descendants to continue to flourish and expand, which is possible but far from certain.

In the short run a greater appetite for direct regulation of animal welfare is the the most I really see happening. In the long term though I am hopeful that humans will end up living much better lives than they currently do, and find that they have nothing to gain by having suffering animals living on Earth.

John Quiggin suggests that we could feed everyone a high-meat diet and reduce climate change to boot by shifting from livestock to chickens:

I’ve previously argued that we can feed the world if we make the right choices. More precisely, our current food system produces more per person than is needed for adequate nutrition, and can continue do so in future if the right policy choices are made. The key problem is distribution, not production.

But the meat consumption data leads me to a more surprising conclusion.  Using current technology and with no additional diversion of food grain, the world could produce enough meet to give everyone an intake comparable to that of the average person in the Netherlands [fn1].

Each kg of grain-fed beef requires about 8kg of grain, compared to 2kg for chicken, and the trade-off similar when cattle are pastured on land that could be used for grain. So, 5kg of beef could be replaced by 20 kg of chicken.

The other main user of grain (apart from human consumption) is ethanol production which now takes something like 140 million tonnes a year. Fed to chickens that would produce around 70 million tonnes or 10kg per person per year.

That would give an average of 62kg [meat consumption] per person per year, not far below the Dutch average. To fill the remaining gap, I’ll call on the usual suspects, reductions in inefficiency and waste.

But a large part of my reason for doing exercises like this one is to consider the feasibility of a better world, even if it might be considered utopian at present.

This may all be correct, but far from being an unachievable utopian vision it sends a shiver down my spine. Brian Tomasik has crunched some numbers and estimated that the direct animal suffering caused by each kg of chicken meat produced is probably an order of magnitude greater than the suffering per kg of beef produced. This is because chickens are much smaller than cows and because their lives on factory farms are worse, being confined to tiny cages as they are.

If we were looking to paint utopian food scenarios, I could do better than envisage an explosion in the number of broiler chickens. We could see a shift towards vegetarianism, which the article implicitly observes requires fewer resources than meat-based diets. We could learn to grow meat or other meat substitutes the same way we grow plants, removing the need for all the suffering and inefficiency of incarcerating actual animals. Or at least we could develop the conscience not to torture chickens in this way in order to save small amounts of money.

An academic has backed up my guess from a few months back that meat eating must result in more rodent deaths from plant agriculture than eating plants directly. His article makes such similar points I wonder if he read them here first!

The current and potential future suffering of ‘wild’ animals is one of the most serious problems a utilitarian must confront. In spite of that it is basically ignored, even by most smart and compassionate people. Fortunately the number of people concerned with the matter is growing, though from a low base.

There are three new resources available for those who would like to spread the word. The Felicifia wiki offers a nice compendium describing the issue and what might be done about it.

Utilitarian Essays now hosts a detailed pamphlet called Life in the Wild, which aims to persuade people who are already concerned with captive animal welfare to offer the same empathy to wild animals.

It isn’t new, but Tyler Cowen’s paper Policing Nature offers responses to some common arguments against giving ethical consideration to wild animals, both from utilitarian and other perspectives.

Finally, Oscar Horta is looking for “a graphic designer and a web designer for a project aimed at spreading the word about animal suffering in the wild and animal ethics.”

Hopefully the stock of research and publications on the issue will continue to grow.


This article from The Conversation, which quickly went viral around the world, argues that those concerned with animal welfare would do better to eat grass-fed beef than bread, because by doing so they would avoid the crushing and poisoning of vast numbers of mice and other small animals in the production of wheat (and presumably other grains or pulses). It is a thought-provoking claim and it might even be right, but the argument seems to have serious holes that I have not seen addressed in any of the comments. (Warning: I have no particular knowledge of farming, so I’m just applying common sense as an alternative.)

The author points out that a lot of land, particularly in Australia, is not fertile enough to be used for any agricultural purpose other than light grazing by livestock or wild animals like kangaroos. In that sense the resulting meat represents a free lunch; if the land were not used for grazing it would not produce any food for humans. Crucially, when the animals are grazed they do not need to eat grain produced on farms that crush and poison mice. But grazing on grass is not all that cows raised for meat generally eat, and I expect it is mostly not what any additional cows we produce will eat. Wikipedia informs us:

Prior to entering a feedlot, cattle spend most of their life grazing on rangeland or on immature fields of grain such as green wheat pasture. Once cattle obtain an entry-level weight, about 650 pounds (300 kg), they are transferred to a feedlot to be fed a specialized diet which consists of corn by-products (derived from ethanol production), barley, and other grains as well as alfalfa. Feeds sometimes contain animal byproducts[3] or cottonseed meal, and minerals. …

In a typical feedlot, a cow’s diet is roughly 95% grain. 

The animal may gain an additional 400 pounds (180 kg) during its 3–4 months in the feedlot.[citation needed] Once cattle are fattened up to their finished weight, the fed cattle are transported to a slaughterhouse.

So there’s one big problem with the argument – not all, but a large share of the meat you eat in beef is just repackaged intensively farmed grains. The rule of thumb in biology is that about 90 per cent of the energy or biomass content is lost as you move up each so called ‘trophic level’ from plants to herbivores to carnivores. If that were the case here then you would need to feed a cow 10kj of grain to get 1kj of meat. Given that the livestock in feedlots are being rapidly stuffed full of calories the efficiency is probably much higher, as they won’t live for long enough to use up much of the energy on their own metabolism. If we guess that in fact the conversion has a 50 per cent efficiency, and that the cow was two thirds edible meat on entering the feedlot, then to get 100kj of meat at the end we needed approximately 100kj of farmed grains. Any benefit then would then only come from the higher protein and fat content of the meat relative to the carbohydrate packed grains that went in.

I think our doubts should go further though. Grazing cattle on land that is not suitable for other agriculture is the low hanging fruit for beef production – if the land does not have other productive uses we don’t give up anything to stick cattle there. For that reason we should expect such land to be used as much as possible for that purpose already. Eventually, as the stock of livestock grows, we should expect to exhaust the flow of foliage growing on this kind of land. Then where are they to go? We could stick them on land that doesn’t supply much grass for them to eat (or grassland where the foliage is already being fully grazed by cows). [1] But in that case what are the additional cows to eat? The likely answer is the cheapest form of calories we know how to produce: intensively farmed grains like wheat and barley.

Has humanity reached the point where otherwise wasted grassland is fully occupied? Supporting evidence for this is the common claim that higher demand for livestock among a growing Asian middle class is driving up grain prices. If additional cows were largely fed by grass, that wouldn’t be an issue. It is quite possible that if you as an individual switch from bread to beef both more cows will be slaughtered and more mice poisoned as a result of the extra grain needed to support the cows. If the cows were largely grain-fed then it would be many times worse for the mice.

The article has another notable weakness in that it only denominates the number of deaths by protein production. Protein is an important macronutrient but not the only thing we care about getting from our food. Indeed protein deficiency is exceeding rare amongst those wealthy enough to contemplate eating beef. If you denominated the number of lives lost by energy content, then wheat, being mostly carbohydrate, would come out looking a lot better than the 25 mice poisonings to each cow slaughter quoted in the article. The article  is also basically irrelevant when judging the treatment of poultry or pigs.

Further, the piece ignores the starvation and predation of small wild animals on land in the absence of intensive agriculture. Probably that isn’t such a large concern as there would be far fewer such animals than there would be mice during plagues, but it deserves consideration. Finally, the quality of life of grazing cows or indeed field mice isn’t mentioned, only their deaths. I am not sure whether such creatures have good or bad lives, but it seems to be a crucial issue for those sincerely concerned about their welfare.

It isn’t possible to say with any certainty that grains are better than beef from an animal welfare point of view, but the effects of our actions here are more complex and need deeper analysis than a short op-ed can provide. The huge popularity of the piece is more likely because it allows those who don’t care or think about animals at all to superficially stick it to vegetarians and claim they were right all along (by pure luck presumably), rather than because its claim really stands up to scrutiny.

UPDATE: This piece attempts to quantify the deaths from different sources of food and produces the opposite conclusion, though the figures for mice killed in harvesting are rubbery and may not apply to the ‘marginal field’.

[1] We could also graze or place them on highly fertile land that was previously used for crops, but that would be inefficient and unprofitable if you could raise more cows just by having intensively farmed crops and feeding cows the resulting grains elsewhere.

Near the end of the affecting documentary The Cove, the activists campaigning to stop the slaughter of dolphins and whales by the Japanese suggest that it is impossible to explain the ongoing slaughter on the basis of economics, science or gastronomy. Rather they put it down to nationalist and imperialist fervor. Put more simply, it looks like the Japanese in a typical display of human tribal pride, don’t want to be bossed around by obnoxious Westerners. If this is correct, the Western activists trying to shame the Japanese into abandoning their admittedly horribly cruel dolphin massacre may actually just be causing the Japanese to dig in their heals and continue something they otherwise wouldn’t care much about either way.

Whether this is really the case or not, I’m not sure. What is interesting is that this possibility goes totally unexamined by the campaigners and the rest of the film.

If the balance of evidence did suggest that this was the situation animal welfare campaigners faced, does anyone think that they (or we) would decide to ignore the issue in the hope that doing so would make the Japanese more likely to abandon the slaughter? Unlikely. Sometimes we want to (be seen to) fight something we dislike more than we actually want it to stop.

Can anyone think of similar examples?

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

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