Ending Factory Farming

On Wednesday 4th of July 2018, the EA Rotterdam group had their fourth reading & discussion group. This is a deeper dive into some of the EA topics.

The topic for this event was Ending Factory Farming.

During the evening we learned about why factory farming is bad (animal suffering, environment, human suffering). We discussed the ways that people are tackling the problem. Both with regard to our consumption, the conditions in the factory farms, and to offering alternatives. One of my biggest takeaways is that we won’t easily (or at all) change people’s behaviour, but that institutional change may be able to nudge a lot of people into making better choices.


We (the organisers of EA Rotterdam) thank Alex from V2 (our venue for the night) for hosting us.

If you want to visit an EA Rotterdam event, visit our Meetup page.


Why is Factory Farming Bad

Effective Altruism (EA) wants to solve the world’s most pressing problem. EA’s want to reduce the most suffering, or increase the amount of happiness. Most of the focus here has been on reducing extreme poverty. EA combines both the heart & head (and wants to eliminate the emotional bias that puts a spotlight on certain topics). Cause areas that EA focusses on are ones that are neglected, scalable, and solvable. Factory farming certainly hits all three criteria.

There are 50 billion farm animals that we raise each year. Most of them live in terrible conditions. These animals are responsible for 27% of methane production. And use around 33% of the total liveable land. This not only leads to bad outcomes for the animals, it also adds to global warming which impacts the worlds’ poor the most.


Why Don’t We Seem to Care

One reason why people don’t seem to care is cognitive dissonance. This stands for having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes. And we people don’t really like to have those.

When asked in the TED Talk, most people indicated seeing a shocking video of how factory farms operate. And of course, they found that to be something that is terrible. When asked how many were vegetarian (remember, TED Talk audience) it was between 5-10%, about what you find in the general public. Even these ‘thinkers’ didn’t act on what they had seen.

We can resolve cognitive dissonance in two ways. And as you may have guessed the easiest way is to just not think about it. (the harder is to change your actions to match your beliefs/thoughts).

Many people also like to do another trick and that is to think they are eating the chickens that have roamed around, the cows that have seen the Swiss Alps (75% think this). There’s a 99% chance that your meat isn’t one of those (1% of meat is of the free-roam happy-life kind).

We, people, have a lot to think about. One other phenomenon that takes place here is the collapse of compassion. This means that someone thinks the problem is so big, it’s not even worth considering to be something to solve.

And, wait. Don’t we need meat? Nope, protein, water, fat, etc can all be readily found in vegetarian sources too. This aspect also has to do with the dominant/default option. And that is just meat in most countries. Even in countries where not all people could eat meat many days per week (China) they are eating more and more meat. One hope we had is that China might be a country where public opinion could be tipped very quickly if the government decides to take a negative stance on eating meat.

But telling others that their morals are messed up is not the way to solve this problem.


What are the Ways We Can Tackle the Problem

One of the insights of the evening is that we can’t (and shouldn’t) tackle the problem head-on. We should instead focus on helping reduce meat consumption in more indirect ways.

One way is to offer more alternatives. When there are more options available, some people may choose meat alternatives. This can take the form of ‘just’ veggies, meat substitutes (e.g. pea burgers), and cultured meat (meat grown without the animal).

  1. More and more places offer non-meat options on the menu and there are more and more restaurants that are vegetarian or vegan first
  2. (almost) All supermarkets in The Netherlands now offer vegan/vegetarian burgers, ‘meat’ balls, minced ‘meat’, etc
  3. And cultured meat is in development (wiki, article)

“In March 2018, JUST, Inc. (in 2011 founded as Hampton Creek in San Francisco) claimed to be able to present a consumer product from cultured meat by the end of 2018. According to CEO Josh Tetrick (a vegan) the technology is already there, and now it is merely a matter of applying it. Just has about 130 employees and a research department of 55 scientists, where lab meat from poultry, pork and beef is being developed. They would have already solved the problem of feeding the stemcells with only plant resources. Just receives sponsoring from Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing, Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang and according to Tetrick also from Heineken International amongst others.”

That being said, the first two (and only available) alternatives haven’t moved the needle. Here in The Netherlands, we’ve been eating the same amount of meat per person for the last few years.

Cultured meat could even cause a backlash if they experience self-driving car moments (i.e. contaminated meat or other health problems).

So, what will be able to move the needle? One thing that we can do is encourage institutional change. One example from one of the participants is an initiative by the Erasmus University to serve vegetarian lunches as the default (with other options still being available).

Another example is that of WeWork (a global provider of work environments) who is only paying for vegetarian meals for their workers. Though their main point is the environmental impact, it’s a great signal that this company is sending.

“New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact — even more than switching to a hybrid car.”


One other aspect that we discussed was: What would have the largest impact, having 100 people eat less meat (say 5 meals fewer per week) or converting 10 people to become vegetarian (21 meals per week)? In terms of maths, the former would, of course, be the better choice, but what about the impact of that person becoming a sneezer too?


We also discussed other indirect ways of changing what we eat. Tax reform may be a very effective way to nudge people to make better food choices. Think sugar tax, for meat.

And soap opera’s have substantial sway in public opinion. We discussed that in Germany they have been used to promote vegetarian eating habits.


What Can You and I Do?

Personally, we can choose to make better food choices. If you’re reading this, try and see what small step you can take. If you’re eating meat, try going without meat one day in the week. Learn a recipe or two without meat (may I suggest recipes with beans). Or if you’re vegetarian, try and see which of your current food choices still has a negative effect on animals (e.g. eggs, milk).

We can provide alternatives to friends and family. Give them an awesome delicious vegetarian recipe when they are coming over. Let them taste, feel, see how great vegetarian/vegan cooking can be. Just don’t focus on identity (i.e. I’m a vegetarian and I’m better than you), just show them what can be done. Make them curious, give them options.

Educate yourself with the resources below or on the website of Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE).

Or use your votes to reduce animal suffering (first video below).


How Does Ending Factory Farming Compare to Other Cause Areas?

Factory Farming is related to other cause areas in various ways. It is a large contributor to global warming (e.g. 27% of methane production). This is something that impacts the worlds’ most poor the most. Economic circumstances (related to raising animals, in a world that wants to pay the least and with global warming) has led to many suicides amongst animal farmers (India, USA).

It’s also related to negative mental health (discussed during a previous evening) outcomes for people working in factory farms.

Another area that is affected is bio-threat. The development (and spread) of superbugs is something that is of real concern on factory farms.

We didn’t do a deeper dive into cost-effectiveness and long-term effects, but comparing different cause areas might be a topic of a future in-depth meeting.



If you want to learn more about Ending Factory Farming, here are some resources:




Also check out Earthling on Youtube



Like the other discussion evenings, we were thrilled to have you all there and I think everyone took away some great lessons. On the one hand, I feel that this cause area (like many other) is a tough cookie to crack. On the other hand, I do feel positive about the change we can make and the change our society will be making in the coming years. Hopefully, in 30 years we will look back at factory farming, the way we look back at slavery.


Want to join us for another evening? Feel free to come over and bring a friend! Please check out our Meetup Page.