Does This Feel Weird to You?
Looking at our diet and farm animals in this way might feel odd. It might appear as if we’re seeing animals as mere numbers instead of individuals. Advocates of vegetarian eating might even believe it betrays those animals who aren’t “important” enough to focus on (specifically cows and pigs, but also ducks, geese, goats, sheep, and rabbits). It’s also difficult for any of us not to focus on pigs and cows since we tend to see them as more intelligent and human-like than chickens and fish.
If all of this feels weird to you, it’s because human beings don’t usually make ethical decisions based on calculations. For example, when people were asked in one study how much they’d pay to improve the welfare of an individual egg-laying hen, they replied that they’d pay about a dollar. When they were asked how much they would pay to improve the welfare of a hundred hens, they responded that they’d pay about $15—or just 15 cents a bird. To improve the lives of the nearly 300 million egg laying hens in the U.S., people indicated they’d be willing to lay out a paltry $340—which comes out to about one ten-thousandth of a cent per animal. (A third of respondents said they wouldn’t pay a penny.) Furthermore, even though pigs and egg-laying hens are intelligent and unique individuals, people in this study were willing to pay about three times more money to improve the lives of pigs than they were to better the lives of hens (Norwood and Lusk).
On the outside looking in, it’s easy to judge the people surveyed as possessing a very muddled ethical sense. Logically, if improving the life of one chicken is worth spending one dollar on, then enhancing the lives of a hundred chickens should be worth spending $100 on. Sure, a few people might not be able to spare $100, but most could. And for those of us who see all animals as having more or less equal value, it’s easy to criticize those who would pay $3 to help a pig but only $1 to help a chicken.
The fact is that using logic in this manner is simply not how the human mind works. Our beliefs and ethics don’t come from a thoughtful computation on how we can do the most good. They should, but they don’t. Unfortunately, our empathy often seems to be split from our calculating, analytical minds. Even thinking with the analytical part of our brains seems to make us less compassionate (Cooney 2011). This isn’t only true when it comes to animals; it’s the case for most social issues.
If our ethical choices were based on logic and we heard that millions of people were starving in Africa we’d give more money to help those millions than if we heard about one, undernourished child. Yet studies show the opposite is true: focusing on how large a problem is causes us to donate less (Cooney 2011).
In the same vein, all of us would agree that saving a child from dying of easily preventable malaria is more important than supporting the performance of a local orchestra. Yet Americans contribute dramatically more to the arts each year than they do to efforts to eradicate malaria (Giving USA 2012).
For most people, the goal of any altruistic act is simply to do something helpful. Very few of us choose where to donate, where to volunteer, and how to live our lives based on the answer to the question, “How can I do the most possible good in the world?” And yet it is that calculating attitude that is crucial to helping as many animals (or people) as possible.
Some nonprofits are starting to catch on. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation focuses on issues where they can save the greatest number of human lives per dollar. This orientation includes very successful efforts to decrease the instances of malaria, to vaccinate more children, and to improve child health in poorer nations. The Foundation constantly gathers data to determine how many lives it is saving, and what it can do to save even more for the same amount of money (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).
Does such an approach mean the Foundation is turning its back on those who suffer in other ways around the globe? Not at all. The Gateses see value in every human life, but they know their resources are limited and try to put them toward programs that will save the most lives. Literally millions of children are only alive today because the Gates Foundation chose to take this analytical approach to improving the world. If the Foundation had spent an equal amount of money on improving the world and had been equally passionate about its work, but had not taken a data-based approach, most of those children would be dead.
Using a similar method in its philanthropy, the website GiveWell.org reviews hundreds of charities and provides recommendations to donors about which organizations will save the most lives per dollar donated. The website EffectiveAnimalActivism.org was launched in 2012 to provide similar advice for donors wanting to support animal protection causes.
Putting It Into Practice
Advocates of vegetarian eating can and should take a page from the strategy of GiveWell, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other charities that are moving toward data-based altruism. By doing so, they can spare many, many more animals from a lifetime of suffering.
One way to accomplish this is to focus on the foods where, as we’ve seen, activists can get the most bang for their buck, as it were: chicken, fish, and eggs. Concentrating on these three products, especially chicken, could mean the difference between helping hundreds of animals and helping thousands.
Many vegetarian advocates are already doing this. In conversations with friends or the public, they make sure to emphasize that nearly all of the farm animals killed for food are chickens. They point out that by simply cutting out or cutting back on eating chicken, each of us can spare dozens of animals a year from a lifetime of misery. When talking with people who are considering changing their diet, they encourage them to cut out chicken as the first step. They may also point out the possible health risks of eating chicken and fish, while intentionally not mentioning the health risks of red meat.
And it’s not just individual advocates who are adopting this new strategy. Surveys conducted by vegetarian advocacy groups such as Farm Animal Rights Movement, The Humane League, and Farm Sanctuary suggest that placing extra and explicit emphasis on chicken in their outreach efforts worked. It led to more animals being spared a wretched existence and death.
The Ideal Message
If vegetarian advocates aim to promote the dietary changes that will spare the greatest number of animals, they need to consider something else. The public may be much more willing to give up certain products than they are to give up animal products entirely.
Leaving aside the issue of chicken for a moment, consider the difference between encouraging someone to go vegetarian and urging that person to go vegan. Vegetarians do almost as much good for farm animals as vegans. They reduce 88 percent as many days of suffering, and spare 94 percent as many lives. And if you’re talking about vegetarians who give up eggs, by both measures they do over 99 percent as much good.
Unfortunately, many vegans forget this fact. They fixate on the negative aspects of vegetarian eating instead of considering the positives. One study suggested that the most common belief vegans held about vegetarians was not that the latter were helping animals or eating more healthily, but that they were hypocrites (Povey et al. 2001). Talk about missing the forest for the trees!
Although vegans do only slightly more good for farm animals than vegetarians, meat-eaters perceive a vegan diet as much more unrealistic. A 2001 study from the U.K. found that although meat-eaters had mixed feelings about vegetarianism, a number of them perceived the diet as healthier, along with other benefits. On the other hand, meat-eaters saw veganism as unhealthful, extreme, and restrictive; not one had anything positive to say about being a vegan. Even many pescatarians and vegetarians have the perception that veganism is difficult and potentially not healthy (Povey et al. 2001).
Meat-eaters probably have a better impression of veganism today than they did more than a decade ago. But in all likelihood, they continue to think of vegetarian eating as a healthier and more viable lifestyle than veganism. They also continue to like vegetarians more than they do vegans (Americans Pick Ronald McDonald). As a result, nearly everyone who wants a more animal-friendly diet starts off by going vegetarian, pescatarian, or semi-vegetarian. Even the vast majority of vegans spent several years as vegetarians before taking the next step (Hirschler 2011).
Communication researchers have found that to get people to alter their behavior most significantly, advocates should promote a change that is substantial but that individuals can picture themselves accomplishing (Cooney 2011). Clearly, most meat-eaters cannot and would not want to picture themselves as vegans. As we’ve seen, they think that veganism is unhealthful, restrictive, and extreme. But a number of meat-eaters could picture themselves as vegetarians. One study suggested that a full 7 percent of American meat-eaters could be willing to give up meat entirely (Humane Research Council, Advocating Meat Reduction).
When you add to this the fact that vegans spare only slightly more animals than vegetarians, the implication becomes clear. By encouraging people to go vegetarian, you should lead to more animals being spared than encouraging them to go vegan. A “go vegetarian” message should also lead to the most vegans in the long term, since once a person becomes a vegetarian they’re more likely to go vegan than if they’re encouraged to move from omnivorism to veganism (Stahler, Retention Survey).
This observation hasn’t been proven yet. It’s an assumption based on general research about communication, persuasion, and perceptions of vegetarianism and veganism. We might hope that research will be done soon to confirm this is the case.
The logic applied above also brings us back to chickens. Animal advocates may be able to spare more animals by encouraging the public to avoid eating chicken—or by encouraging them to avoid eating chicken, fish, and eggs—than by urging them to go vegetarian. Why might this be the case?
Try this scenario: Imagine it’s ten years in the future. Climate change remains a major issue and the time has come for you to buy a new car. An environmentalist friend encourages you to just stop driving entirely. Another friend presses you to buy a solar-powered car, which generates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gases, is equally convenient, and is almost as cheap as a conventional car. What would you do?
While a few people may quit driving entirely, many more would be willing to buy the solar car. And in making the switch, they’d be doing 90 percent as much good for the environment as if they had stopped driving entirely. It is the second message—the one encouraging people to buy a solar-powered car—that would be a more effective one for protecting the Earth. Persuading five people to buy the solar car would do more to lower greenhouse-gas emissions than getting four people to stop driving entirely.
The same situation holds true when it comes to the meat Americans eat. Simply by ditching chicken—even if they replace it with beef and pork—Americans can reduce the number of farm animals they are killing by about 90 percent. True, if they replaced all of that chicken with farm-raised fish and eggs, the switch would be of little to no benefit for animals. But it seems unlikely that many people would do that. In all likelihood, the public would be more willing to give up one type of meat than to give up all meat. Indeed, polls show that there are far more chicken-avoiders than vegetarians. One national poll found that while only two percent of Americans were vegetarian at that time, 6 percent said they did not eat chicken. (It’s also worth noting that 9 percent said they did not eat eggs, and 15 percent stated they did not eat fish.) (Stahler, How Many Adults)
Focusing on chicken could prove more beneficial in the long run as well. People who eliminate one food become more open to other changes later on, and they’ve already taken the most important step by no longer eating chicken. To the extent they spread this behavioral change to friends and family members, they’re leading to an alteration in their diet that spares 90 percent of farm animals and is much easier to adopt than vegetarianism.
Only research will be able to tell us for sure whether encouraging people to “go vegan,” “go vegetarian,” “cut back on meat,” or “ditch chicken” helps the most animals. Vegetarian advocates may find, though, that encouraging people to simply cut out or cut back on chicken (or chicken, eggs, and fish) spares more animals in both the short and long term.
But Wait, Do Vegetarians Really Spare All Those Animals?
This is all very interesting, you may say, but have we really answered the question that kicked off this chapter? How do we know that going vegetarian actually spares real, live animals from a life of suffering? And is there anything we’re missing in calculating how many animals a vegetarian spares?
In a general sense, it’s clear that when a portion of the public goes vegetarian or eats less meat the number of animals killed for food drops. Like every other product, meat is subject to the laws of supply and demand. As demand for a product goes down, producers start making less of it. Americans were eating about 10 percent less meat per person in 2012 than they were in 2006. As a result in 2012 there were hundreds of millions of animals who were not bred, raised in cruel factory-farm conditions, and killed at a slaughterhouse.
But there’s another rule of supply and demand that we’ve been ignoring. When demand for a product goes down, the unwanted product ends up sitting on the shelf. Producers and retailers want to sell it, but there aren’t enough customers willing to buy it. So what do retailers do? They lower the price. So when demand goes down, the price falls as well. And the lower prices in turn drive demand slightly back up.
What does this mean for vegetarians? If you decide to leave 50 pounds of chicken off your plate this year, that doesn’t mean that 50 fewer pounds will be produced next year. The amount of chicken that won’t be produced is something less than 50 pounds. Norwood and Lusk have calculated what the actual impact is when someone—such as a vegetarian—decides to leave animal products off their plate. Their model predicts the following:
· If you give up one pound of beef, total beef production eventually falls by .68 pounds
· If you give up one pound of chicken, total chicken production eventually falls by .76 pounds
· If you give up one pound of pork, total pork production eventually falls by .74 pounds
· If you give up one pound of milk, total milk production eventually falls by .56 pounds
· If you give up one pound of eggs, total egg production eventually falls by .91 pounds
(Norwood and Lusk)
In other words, leaving animal products off of our plates doesn’t do quite as much good as we thought. While it’s true that the average American omnivore kills 33 farm animals each year, going vegan will only spare about 25 animals per year. Going vegetarian will spare 23 animals.
This seems like bad news. However, there’s a big upside. The same rates hold true when people add more meat to their diet, or when new meat-eaters are born. If your neighbor decides to eat a hundred extra pounds of chicken this year, total chicken production will only increase by 76 pounds.
Of course, at the individual level this is all a bit silly. Norwood and Lusk have calculated down to the per-pound level what is really a large-scale phenomenon. If Americans eat ten thousand fewer pounds of chicken this year, farmers will take notice. Next year, they’ll produce about 7,600 fewer pounds of chicken meat. If only one person eats less chicken, the industry is not going to notice.
In that sense, eating is like donating to charity. Let’s say that one particular non-profit spends in all about $20 for each child they vaccinate against a deadly disease. Does that mean that if you donate $20 you can be sure that one additional child will be vaccinated? No. The charity is not going to cash your check, smile, and then go find one more kid to vaccinate with your $20. So should you still donate? Of course! Because the principle works, except on a larger scale. If a thousand people each donate $20, then most likely a thousand additional children will be vaccinated. That $20,000, when pooled together, would be enough to open another clinic in a new village.
The same holds true for avoiding animal products. If you decide to stop eating meat, will the chicken farmer near you actually raise and kill 28 (or rather 22, once you factor in supply-and-demand fluctuations) fewer chickens next year? No. But as soon as some modest number of people have decided to go vegetarian, their collective impact will be noticed. The farmer will cut back on production, at a rate of about 22 chickens per new vegetarian.
As researcher Jason Gaverick Matheny has pointed out, each person who gives up meat has a chance of being the one who tips the scales. Each new vegetarian could be the person who brings the total quantity of meat being boycotted to a large enough level that farmers take notice and reduce the number of animals they raise (Matheny 2002).
For example, let’s say chicken farmers only notice and adjust production levels once a thousand people have ditched chicken. At that point, farmers would decrease production by 22,000 birds. Chances are small that your decision not to eat meat would be the one that brought the total amount of chicken being boycotted to that threshold. In fact, your chances would be only one in a thousand. But if you were that lucky person, your decision would spare 22,000 chickens! In other words, by giving up chicken, you’d have a one-in-a-thousand chance of sparing 22,000 animals.
Clearly, the ethical thing to do is to stop eating chickens. This is true even if you can’t be sure that your individual choice will be the one that tips the scales. But when you average it out among all of the vegetarians across the country, each of you would have spared 22 chickens from a lifetime of misery.
So congratulations vegetarians, vegans, and meat reducers—you really are making a difference!