You have 80,000 meals in your life*. How do you best use them to make a difference? Find out with our free coaching service at 80,000 Meals to pick a diet that suits your personal fit and chosen cause! Will prioritising fruit over bread help reduce or increase insect suffering? Find out here!
Most other guides on meals focus on one cause, like animal suffering, climate change or health. This guide combines all causes to determine a diet that will most reduce suffering in the universe.
This is, of course, a play on 80,000 Hours, a careers advice organisation named after the fact that the average human will work for 80,000 hours in their career. It was amusing to me that the average number of meals of a human born today is roughly the same.
While the above is entirely tongue in cheek, I think there is an important point to note here. We rarely think a lot about what we eat beyond taste, or if we do, we only consider a few factors. Even people interested in improving the world as much as possible might only consider cost, healthfulness, and farmed animal suffering, which might lead someone to adopt a vegan diet, for example.
However, even within a vegan diet, there is much room for optimisation. Not all vegan foods are equally cheap, healthy, and environmentally friendly. If we are concerned about the suffering of wild animals and insects, some vegan foods can still be far better than others. For example, wheat (and therefore bread) and rice are estimated to be worse than lentils.
Even for selfless reasons, taste can be a factor. A diet without much variety might be cheap and healthy, but it may lead one to burn out, both in terms of their diet and their other altruistic endeavours.
Health is probably more important than people think. Diet isn’t the only thing that affects health, but it does play a substantial role. If your health suffers, your motivation and possibly even your life span might be reduced, thus decreasing your earning potential (and therefore how much good you can do through donations) and your direct impact through your career or projects.
Over my life, I might reasonably expect to spare 5293-24,382 animals from a life of suffering** by adopting a vegan lifestyle (at least through my direct impact), but if that reduces my earnings potential by just 1%, thus meaning I can only donate $6,400 less***, resulting in 22,400 fewer animals spared***.
If I wanted to maximise the amount of good I could do in my life, combining the various factors would mostly be guesswork. I can be vegan and try to eat healthily, cheaply, indulge in tasty food sometimes to not burn out, and avoid foods I think are particularly damaging to wild animals and insects, but I have no idea how to combine these to truly maximise my impact on suffering in the universe. Some diets might be more effective than others at an individual level, but weirder and harder to get other people to adopt.
I believe there is a real gap for some research like this. Maybe not enough to found 80,000 Meals, but enough for a rudimentary analysis. Maybe someone could read this and instantly say that there is no way this would be worth the time, but I think someone should at least estimate the value of a resource like this existing.
Brian Tomasik has done a commendable first pass at looking at the impacts of crop cultivation on wild animals here, but he has only covered some foods, and has not covered a lot of the parameters I’ve listed here such as cost and impacts on motivation.
There are a lot of meta-factors at play here. Would many people even listen to or use such a guide? Is the world so complex and changing that any recommendations would be too uncertain to be meaningful? These are all questions I hope a rudimentary analysis could examine.
As an end note, I’m not saying that you should avoid being vegan because of burnout or anything here. Maybe a vegan diet actually increases your motivation on average. I think being vegan while paying some attention to health and food cost is a pretty easy baseline for doing good with your meals. But it’s more complicated than that, and I don’t know how to truly optimise this part of my life or if it’s worth trying.
* This estimate assumes 365 days in a year, 3 meals in a day, and an average lifespan of 73 years.
** Using the figures in Section 3 of this review – switching from an average American omnivore diet to a vegan one might lead you to expect to require 32 fewer land animals and 468-502 fewer marine animals each year. Due to supply and demand elasticities (explained in more detail here), ACE estimates that consuming 30 fewer land animals will result in 1.8-21 fewer animals being farmed, and consuming 232 fewer marine animals results in 35-144 fewer being killed. Therefore, switching diet is estimated to result in 1.9-22.4 fewer land animals and 70.6-311.6 fewer marine animals, for a total of 72.5-334 fewer animals each year. Over a 73 year life, this results in 5,293-24,382 fewer animals being killed or farmed.
*** 80,000 hours times $40 per hour is 3.2 million. 99% of this is 3.168 million, a difference of $32,000. ACE estimates that a donation of $1,000 to Mercy for Animals can spare -10,000 to 80,000 animals from a life of suffering. I take this to mean an average of 3,500 animals for sake of argument (3.5 animals per dollar). Say I donate 20% of my income over my life, I would be donating $6,400 less, resulting in 22,400 fewer animals spared. I intend on donating more than 20% of my income over my life, and I believe $40 per hour (inflation adjusted) is also a lower bound, making this a very conservative estimate.
Edited April 25, 2017 due to incorrect maths.