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What Does Effective Altruism Lead Us to Believe About Factory Farming?

April 21, 2022
Time to read: 4 minutes

Factory farming generates a significant measure of suffering through environmental destruction and social injustice. But of all the suffering resulting from animal agriculture, the billions of animals affected are suffering most of all. At over 70 billion land animals per year, the number of nonhuman individuals suffering as a result of factory farms far outweighs the number of humans in existence. The objective of the effective altruism movement is to maximize positive impact with available resources, particularly time and money. Using this framework, we can conclude factory farming, specifically animal suffering caused by factory farming, is one of the most concerning global issues from an effective altruist perspective.

Together we can end factory farming.

When analyzing animal exploitation and suffering, how do we decide which issue to target with our limited resources? Effective altruism (EA) uses a framework of reason and evidence to determine which issues to prioritize. Effective animal advocacy (EAA) is the branch of effective altruism that deals specifically with making decisions for animal activism. Effective animal advocates attempt to make difficult choices for the sake of the greater good. 

Using this framework, we must first consider what actions will be most effective to end the most serious and largest scale of suffering. The scale of an issue refers to the number of individuals being affected and to what extent. When we examine animals suffering in different industries, factory-farmed animals are suffering on a much larger scale. While animals in industries such as fur, entertainment, or companionship (i.e. in animal shelters and puppy mills) suffer too, the scale at which factory farmed animals suffer and die is magnitudes greater than all of the animals in those industries combined. “Of domesticated land animals used and killed by humans in the United States, over 99.6% are farmed land animals, about 0.2% are animals used in laboratories, 0.07% are used for clothing, and 0.03% are killed in companion animal shelters. For every one dog or cat euthanized in a shelter, about 3,400 farmed land animals are confined and slaughtered.” Think of it this way: if we can end the suffering of two animals versus one, we should end the suffering for the two, right? And if we can end suffering for billions of animals in factory farms versus the combined hundreds of millions in other industries, we should focus on factory farms. 

The neglectedness of an issue is another criterion to determine which issues need more attention. Neglectedness is determined by how many people or resources are being directed towards solving a problem. Expressed in terms of watering a plant, adding a drop of water to a plant that has not been watered in a week will go farther than adding a drop of water to a plant that is being rained on. If we consider global scale issues, such as climate change or mass immunizations, we can see there are sizable funds and efforts already being devoted toward addressing them. In contrast, factory farming is an issue that does not have many resources or people working to solve it. This is important to note because when an issue has abundant resources dedicated to it already, additional efforts and dollars produce a decreasing marginal impact; this phenomenon is known as the law of diminishing returns.

Furthermore, if there's no foreseeable solution to a problem, or very little that we can do, focusing our efforts on such an issue would be a greater waste of resources compared to something that can be more easily fixed. The solvability of an issue raises the question: if we doubled the resources currently dedicated to solving this problem, what fraction of the problem would we expect to solve? In other words, how many more resources need to be allocated to solving it. This is perhaps the most difficult of the factors to determine because it requires anticipating future outcomes, rather than simply examining current measurable aspects. However, we can make promising approximations based on evidence from rigorous trial data and speculative arguments. Funding for organizations fighting factory farming equates to around $20-50 million. This is very little even compared to donations for other animal industries; Americans spend 2.5 billion dollars each year just on local animal shelters. In total Americans donated $471.44 billion to charities in 2020. If efforts to end factory farming were doubled, we would likely see dramatic progress. In sum, the more neglected and solvable an issue is, the further your efforts will go.  

Through the EAA lens, if we want to consider which issues to address first within factory farming that will initially produce the greatest reduction of suffering, we must consider the number of animals in each species category and consider who is suffering most. The number of individuals of each species in factory farming correlates with the number of deaths and the total amount of suffering per species. As of 2020, at any given time, there are approximately 1.6 billion animals within the 25,000 factory farms across the United States and over a hundred billion animals globally. Within a medium to large size factory farm in the U.S., there are roughly 1,000 beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs, 55,000 turkeys, 30,000 egg-laying hens, or 125,000 broiler chickens. This indicates birds and pigs are among the most farmed species in U.S. factory farming. 

When we factor in the processes each different species endures in a factory farm, we can decipher which specific industries perpetuate the most suffering. Understanding industry practices, especially for confinement and slaughter, are critical components for determining this. For example, every animal on factory farms must remain in especially compact and crowded confinement—some living spaces, such as battery cages and gestation crates, being slightly more torturous than others. Following these assessments, advocates can help animals the most if we direct our efforts to broiler chickens, caged hens, and pigs. These birds and pigs have both the greatest number of individuals within factory farms and likely the most miserable circumstances. Perhaps this is where we should begin on our mission to help the most animals.

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