Policy brief: The role of the Australian food industry in climate change

I’m grateful to have been shortlisted for the 2017 APRU New York Times competition titled ‘The future of the Pacific Ocean’. Unfortunately, as I wasn’t placed in the top 3 my essay won’t be published, so I’m hoping it will get some use here. You can see the winners here.

The essay was pitched as a policy brief to key Australian ministers on the risks of climate change to Australia (specifically relating to the Pacific Ocean) and the role of the food industry as a solution. I focus primarily on a actionable solutions relating to a transition from an animal-based industry to a plant-based industry.

Impacts of climate change on the Pacific Ocean

Global analyses show the upper Pacific Ocean warming. Sea temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef have increased by about 0.4°C over the past 100 years (Lough, 2000). The Great Barrier Reef is an important Australian landmark. It brought US$4.48 billion to Australian businesses in the 2004/2005 financial year, and resulted in the employment of 63,000 individuals (full-time equivalent). It also plays a critical role in biodiversity.

The GBR is most under threat from rising sea temperatures (resulting in more intense and more frequent coral bleaching events), and ocean acidification (reducing the ability of corals and other organisms to calcify). The 2007 IPCC report on climate change outlines the risks to the Great Barrier Reef and likely outcomes in more detail.

Effects of livestock industry on climate change and the environment

The 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations discusses the environmental impact associated with animal agriculture. The livestock industry is responsible for 14.5% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this, there is a disparity in where climate policy focuses. Climate debate and policy rarely acknowledges the role that animal agriculture plays.

Globally, the livestock industry produces around 130 times more waste than the global human population. This waste can contain a host of diseases, and if water ways become contaminated, can be a serious risk for human health. If the waste reaches the ocean, it becomes a source of major environmental degradation. The Australian livestock industry also uses a disproportionate amount of water resources.

Not only does this industry affect wild animals and environment, it also creates an immense amount of suffering for the animals used as food. Many Australians are already against animal abuse. While we tackle the environmental issue, we can also align government policy with the ethical preferences of Australians.

Policy recommendations

A multi-level policy is recommended. We should gradually replace the livestock industry with plant-based farming. This can be done by reducing livestock subsidies and raising a small tax on animal products, creating disincentives for consumers and producers.

We should assist farmers as they shift from livestock to more sustainable produce. The revenue from the animal product tax can be used to facilitate this support, and may come in the form of grants for land use change or subsidies and tax breaks for producing plant-based foods. Arid land in Australia typically used for grazing livestock can be used to grow other foodstuffs such as almonds and dates, or be used for carbon sequestration.

We should support the Australian food tech industry to develop plant-based and cellular agriculture alternatives to animal products. Already we are lagging behind as USA and Europe develops this technology. We should provide the industry with subsidies and research & development credits. We

should host international collaborative events to facilitate technology transfer, particularly with USA and Europe, and also aim to encourage new food tech businesses and partnerships in Australia.

We should promote a plant-based, whole foods diet. Whilst also reducing the public-health burden of Australia, this will have the added effect of reducing the consumption of environmentally damaging animal products. This type of public health campaign has already been demonstrated to work through anti-smoking campaigns, and may result in savings based solely on the public health burden reduction.

Australia can become a respected leader in this space whilst much of the world lags behind in action on animal agriculture. Whilst Australia’s net emissions are relatively small for the region, our greenhouse gas emissions per capita are amongst the highest in the world. One of our greatest tourist attractions, the Great Barrier Reef, is in danger and relies on a healthy Pacific Ocean.

Australia is also well poised to supply Asia with a range of healthy, environmentally friendly and cruelty-free food. As Asia moves out of poverty and demands more luxury foods, we can provide them with high quality meat alternatives. Vegan Australia is developing a series of recommendations for moving to an animal free agricultural system in Australia, which may be beneficial in formulating our own policy.

This is a multi-disciplinary issue, and it requires multi-disciplinary action. A committee of agriculture reform should be formed to facilitate these changes. The policy recommendations outlined here fall under the portfolios of the Minister for the Environment and Energy, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, and the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, and thus each of these ministers’ offices should be directly involved.

Through these policy recommendations, Australia stands to benefit financially both in the short and long term, ensure the long term sustainability of our agriculture and tourism industries, and align government policy with public values.

Evidence-based voting

I enjoyed Michael Plant’s article in The Conversation today, ‘Which party’s manifesto promises would make Britain happiest?‘ Plant attempts an evidence-based approach to choosing which party to vote for by reading their manifestos. Despite it being basic and limited, I’m very glad it exists, and I think there should be more attempts to select an objectively best party to vote for.

Call me a radical, but I think people should vote for the party that will do the most to increase happiness. If a party’s policies won’t reduce misery and help people have more pleasant, fulfilling lives, what are they good for?

You may recall that myself and Hugo Burgin attempted a similar analysis in 2016 for the Australian Federal election. As we said then, “We say ‘attempted’ because such analyses are incredibly complex (which is possibly why none exist), although we believe that some attempt at picking the best party is better than no attempt.

Voting correctly is a lot more important than people often think it is. Again, in 2016 Burgin and I said:

People often say that you’re unlikely to have any impact when voting, or that the impact of your vote is so small that it’s not worth thinking about, but this is only true if you only care about yourself. In Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill simplistically estimates that the expected value of voting for a US citizen, when spread out across all citizens in USA, is around $5,200 USD (~$7,000 AUD at the time of writing). That is to say, on average, $5,200 of the budget will be spent differently as a result of your vote (see the appendix for a more detailed explanation of why this is so). This means it’s very important to vote for the party that will spend the budget in the best way possible.

I do have some concerns around Plant’s analysis. I want to stress first that I’m not necessarily criticising Plant for this. He was (presumably) operating alone, with limited time and resources, and also had a limited number of words on the article to play with. I’m just outlining what I would want in an ideal analysis. Having said that, my concerns are as follows.

Plant doesn’t account for non-human animals (edit – he did mention them briefly, I just missed it), which is a major gap, though he does try to account for non-British citizens. He also doesn’t seem to look at the future or far future. Needless to say, far future effects (e.g. 1,000 years plus) are extremely difficult to predict, so again, this is not a criticism of Plant. He relies on manifestos and promises, which won’t necessarily be kept. An ideal analysis would look at history and likelihood of individual parties meeting their promises.

One reservation around these types of analyses in general is that people might use them to come out with the answer they want, whether consciously or subconsciously, although there are ways around this with sufficient oversight.

My ideal outcome looks something like this: A group of benevolent individuals grants an organisation funding say 1 year prior to an election. This organisation can’t be a non-profit in many countries (e.g. Australia), because they are not legally able to support any one political party. This organisation then produces and releases the report shortly before the election. The majority of the population, being motivated by maximising wellbeing of all sentience over the course of the universe (I wish), votes accordingly.

There is a very real question as to how many people would trust such an analysis. There will probably be some people who will never change the party they support out of sheer mistrust that it didn’t pick their party. The trust may have to be built up slowly over several elections and with strong, impartial oversight. I have no idea how to do this, but I do think it is important and worth dedicating time and money to. People have $5,200 worth of impact every time they vote, and we surely want to see that impact being positive.

Morality is Hard podcast – Episode 4 – Tobias Leenaert, the Vegan Strategist

Tobias Leenaert is one of the founders of Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, or EVA, which is a Belgian organisation that advocates the consumption of plant foods instead of animals.

Tobias founded the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy, CEVA, with Melanie Joy, who you might know as the author of Why we Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows. CEVA aims to increase the impact of vegan advocacy worldwide.

I first heard about Tobias through his work on the Vegan Strategist, a blog where he talks about effect animal advocacy. He is also working on a book on vegan strategy and communication, and gives talks around the world.

Tobias and I chatted about the effectiveness and role for different types of animal advocacy.

Don’t forget to subscribe to this website or our Facebook page to get reminded of new episodes. We’ll be on iTunes soon too!

An open letter on industrial animal farming

I’m proud to join Scott Weathers, Sophie Hermanns, Mark Bittman and 200+ expert signatories (read: very impressive people) to ask the World Health Organization (WHO) to reduce factory farming.

If you care about any of the following issues; animal suffering, climate change, environmental degradation, antibiotic resistance or global health, please add your signature (https://openletteranimalfarming.com/).

Check out Scott, Sophie and Mark’s op-ed in the New York Times here, Scott and Sophie’s note in The Lancet here, and the original letter here.

If the new WHO Director General takes a strong stance on factory farming, that would be a positive for human and non-human animals in so many ways. Congratulations to Scott and Sophie for what I’m sure will be a highly impactful initiative. I’d also just like to take this moment to remind you how easy it can be to influence things, including high profile individuals and organisations (I’ve written about this here). You can and must take action.

LA Times Book Festival & pitching bricks at tech workers

I just wanted to quickly share something that blew me away today.

I was at the LA Book Festival, a large part of which is a massive series of panels discussing anything from politics to activism and fiction books. I was at a panel on activism when one of the speakers, Cleve Jones (a well known LGBTQ activist), said this.

“When I see a bus full of young tech workers on a Google bus going to Silicon Valley, my first instinct is to pitch a brick in the window. It would be unfortunate though if I hit the driver.”

This was met with resounding applause and cheering from the audience. I couldn’t believe it, and to be honest I felt a little afraid. He believes that the gentrification of San Francisco due to the tech industry is displacing families, and that the workers don’t realise they are being exploitative. As far as I can tell, there was little relevant context beyond talking about exploitation rather generally.

I’m 90% confident I haven’t misrepresented his views here. The quote might be slightly paraphrased because I have a poor memory, but I’m confident it’s accurate enough.

Episode 2 of the Morality is Hard Podcast released!

Today I expanded on two blog posts I wrote recently, the first being about the recent United Airlines event where a customer was removed from one of their flights and about a controversial art installation coming to Tasmania, Australia. I try to show why both of these events are more complex than they first seem.

The second is about the recent announcement by the Australian Federal Government that they are considering a shark cull in response to a surfer dying to a shark attack in Western Australia. I try to show why this makes no economic sense, even if you are only concerned with Australian human lives.

Download the full episode here

United Airlines and Dark Mofo

Hey guys it’s Michael, and today I bring you another round of That thing you’re outraged about is probably more complicated than you think. Two things to discuss today; the United Airlines passenger event in USA, and the Dark Mofo art installation, to be displayed at the Mona art museum in Tasmania, Australia.

First, United Airlines. In short, United Airlines needed to bump four paying customers from a flight to accommodate four United staff, who were needed at another location. Passengers were asked to volunteer their seat in exchange for compensation. Finally, still needing seats, United randomly selected some passengers. One passenger didn’t want to leave, citing that he was a doctor and had to see patients the next day. Police were called to remove him, and the passenger ended up being injured. I’m not sure what the extent of his injuries were (certainly not critical), but he was bleeding from his face.

While this event was very unfortunate and bad for the passenger in question (and made for some great memes), there are some important things to keep in mind before you get too upset (though it’s probably too late for that). These points are taken from this podcast, which had a good discussion on the finer details. Some salient points to consider:

  • The physical mistreatment of the customer was by the police, not by United. They were acting in the interests of the remaining customers (supposedly). Yet somehow much of the negative attention has been on United.
  • This isn’t that unusual. The business model of airlines is to book more customers than there are seats, with the assumption that some will not turn up. Occasionally this doesn’t work, so they pay people off. However despite these occurrences, airlines still run this business model because airlines are a super competitive business.
  • The story goes that, due to bad weather and some other extenuating circumstances, the United staff who were taking customer’s seats had to get to their destination or an entire other flight would be cancelled. Would we really say this customer should have kept their seat at the expense of a plane full of seats?

Is there more to this story? Almost definitely. Was United justified in their actions (accounting for the fact that they didn’t control the police aggression)? I’m leaning towards yes right now. The passenger was randomly selected and they refused to leave, wasting everyone else’s time and risking another entire flight. Sure, they paid for their ticket and they were entitled to it, but real life has extenuating circumstances sometimes, and people need to act.

The second story involves a three hour performance with a slaughtered bull, which on the outset appears reminiscent of a ritual. RSPCA has said that the art is disrespectful, but are very careful to say that they don’t object to the slaughter of the animal itself. It seems their issue with it is the treatment of the body. The art installation will be coming to the Mona art museum, a world-famous museum in Tasmania, Australia.

As a prelude, I like to steelman stuff, which means finding the merits of an argument that you don’t necessarily agree with, and maybe even make a stronger case for it than your adversary is making. I think this is a very useful thing to do to mitigate your own biases and ensure that your position truly is the correct one. Having said that, while I am in some ways defending the art installation here, I still don’t really know whether it’s a good thing. I’m just trying to make the point that it’s almost certainly not as easy an answer as you think.

This whole thing has two groups of people very upset – vegan animal advocates, and non-vegan animal advocates. The vegan animal advocates generally object to any use of animals for entertainment, and this falls under that category. The non-vegan animal advocates object to this because it’s… disrespectful or something. To that, I’ll just point out briefly that what is done to the animals whose products you consume might also be considered disrespectful (and induces suffering, if you care about tangible stuff that the animals would actually care about), you just don’t see it.

So I saw an article about this in my Facebook news feed and scrolled right past. I caught the gist, and was mildly against it. But then my mother, an artist, shared this blog post by David Walsh, founder and owner of the Mona art gallery. It was a long, but very enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it. I’ve highlighted some of my favourite paragraphs below, then say a few things.

All that verbiage and I still don’t know whether Nitsch’s performance is justified. I can argue that it does good by creating awareness of moral hypocrisy (highlighting the slaughter of millions of beasts a year for unneeded food) but it is hard to find a way that avoids it being categorised as a direct action, and humans generally think doing good by doing bad is wrong.

Yvette Watt, Tasmanian local and, I later found out, a ‘noted vegan crusader’, expressed her opinion on Facebook that it was not good art. For my purposes, it is good art. I believe that it has already spiked a conversation (thank you, Yvette) about the appropriateness of slaughter and Dark Mofo hasn’t even happened yet. That isn’t what the artist intends, but Mona has a history of repurposing art to serve its own psychological or political purpose.

If you don’t think the side-effect argument has merit consider this. We have a work at Mona by Jannis Kounellis (see this blog post). When whim pervades, we hang chunks of meat from hooks. Nobody cares. The only reason I can think of as to why that is okay, but Nitsch’s meat isn’t, is that Kounellis’ meat is killed for food and repurposed (side-effect), whereas Nitsch’s is killed for performance and later eaten (the side-effect is the only ‘legitimate’ purpose). I hate that Nitsch insists on eating the meat. I want clarity of intent—I want the audience to ponder why meat for food is okay (at least people aren’t protesting at Mona’s barbecue) but meat for ritual or entertainment isn’t.

Basically Walsh is making a utilitarian steelman case for the art installation, and he does a pretty good job. I’m skeptical as to how many animal product consumers would look at this art and be turned off animal exploitation/cruelty in general, and there is an argument to be made that this might desensitize people to violence, but the case seems plausible.

I guess what I might say to vegan animal advocates (a cohort I consider myself to be a part of), is, how much of this protest is symbolic, and how much is practical? If the show is cancelled, we might save one or more bulls. You could do that much good by donating around $1 to The Humane League. It might be a symbolic gesture in support of animals, but I don’t place much value in symbolism unless it has tangible effects on present or future wellbeing and suffering (which maybe it does, I just don’t see that being argued).

Everyone gets upset at stuff without thinking about the finer details. Even I will make a blog post sometimes without doing as much background reading as I should. From time to time, it bites me in the ass. The best one can do is be as careful as possible, and make a point of admitting and correcting your mistakes.

Why spending money on shark culling is a terrible idea

A 17 year old surfer in Western Australia has been killed by a shark. This is, of course, a tragedy, and my thoughts are with the girls friends and family for the loss. However, in response the Australian Federal Government has said that they are open to a shark cull to ‘protect people’, which would be equally tragic, if not much greater. Let’s look at some numbers.

First, I need to acknowledge that I think this is bad because I intrinsically value animal suffering, and feel like this might impact animal suffering in a negative way. But even if we just look at humans (and not only that, specifically humans in Australia!), this idea would be an incredibly inefficient way of reducing suffering and/or death.

Here I’m going to make some simplified assumptions to make the case for culling seem more attractive than it is, then show that it still doesn’t make sense. From 1958 to 2014, 72 people died to shark attacks in Australia (536 attacks total). Let us suppose that for a one-time investment (unrealistic) of $10 million (unrealistically low) we can prevent all shark attacks in Australian waters for the next 56 years (unrealistic). If we suppose 72 more people would have died in this time frame, this would be an estimated cost of $138,888 per life saved*.

Even with these extremely optimistic assumptions, that is an exceedingly poor return on investment. The Against Malaria Foundation can save a human life for approximately $6,000 AUD by preventing cases of malaria. But even if we care much more about people in our own country than in Africa (which, to be fair, governments have to), there are still more effective ways of reducing death.

For example, the median cost per quality adjusted life year (QALY) gained for Australians by interventions for specific diseases such as diabetes is $3,700 AUD.

Do we care about all suffering, or just suffering specifically experienced by humans and caused by sharks? That would be silly, but then, government policy doesn’t always seem to make much sense. The steelman of this might be that they are trying to win publicity points (and aren’t ignorant of cost-benefit analyses). Sharks are a topical issue today, and the government wants people to like them. But let’s not pretend the policy would make any rational sense to someone interested in improving the world, even if you only care about animals of your own species that happen to within an arbitrarily defined political boundary.

I urge the Australian Federal Government to please reconsider any thoughts of a shark cull, and to focus on helping sentient beings in a significantly more efficient manner.

* One might even be able to make an argument that a shark cull would increase human deaths. I have no numbers for this argument and therefore place low confidence on it, but if a shark cull is incomplete (i.e. doesn’t kill all sharks), yet more people end up swimming because they think it’s safer, more people might die.

Addicted to outrage: For the love of the bandwagon

In our society, we are addicted to outrage and jumping on the latest bandwagon. This is a bad way to go about things, and maybe even dangerous. I want to share a particularly great example that occurred through a conversation I had recently on Facebook with some random people on a post made by Adam Bandt, Australian Federal Government Greens member for Melbourne. He was talking about a proposed coal mine in Queensland, Australia, which the Australian resources minister Matt Canavan had said would be a net positive for the environment. Queue outrage.

Bandter with Adam Bandt’s supporters

I decided to simply screenshot the conversation without removing names as it was and is entirely public on Facebook anyway.

What happened here exactly? If you made it through all of the comments, I’m impressed. I read the linked article and another about the issue, and resources minister was making some plausible arguments for how this mine could be a net positive for the environment. Sure, it might have been better to have renewable energy or gas instead, but if what we’re comparing is a world without this mine and a world with this mine, Mr Canavan’s argument might hold. Here is how:

“…using high-quality coal to displace lower-quality coal”

I know nothing about this mine, but if it were true that the coal was higher quality (releasing less emissions per unit energy produced) than the average existing coal, and the production of this coal meant lower quality coal was not produced, the claim might be true. There are several other minor arguments, such as:

““They will do things that will improve the environment here in central Queensland and they’ll protect an additional 31,000 hectares for the black-throated finch,” Canavan said.”

And:

““They will limit the drawdown on the springs in the area and also return water to the Great Artesian basin – around 730 megalitres a year.”

So basically Adam Bandt and his followers seem to be arguing that these claims are baseless. Fair enough, maybe they are. So I asked Adam Bandt if he did indeed have evidence that these claims were baseless.

“This seems plausible, does it not? Adam Bandt are you saying that you have evidence that this statement is false?”

No response from Adam, but his supporters were pretty upset. E.g.

“Have you got shares in the coal industry or are just stupid as Canavan” [sic]

“Michael you really are naive if you think what they said will actually happen. Look at history of Adani and their broken promises…get the facts from many sources before you slavishly believe one source.”

This one was particularly amusing because I’m actually questioning the source (Adam Bandt) unlike them. There was also one nice chap who asked me whether my (PhD) supervisor knew what I was saying here, but he has since deleted his comment.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that we are addicted to being outraged at certain things without much evidence about the specifics. This seems like a pretty bad heuristic. If you have read any of my work relating to effective altruism, you would know that even strange ideas can lead to great outcomes, and great ideas can lead to negative effects. I wouldn’t fall off my chair if something that sounded environmentally damaging on the outset turned out to increase wellbeing.

Best of all, I never said I supported the project, I was just not jumping on the bandwagon. This was taken to be a full, unwavering support of the project. As I said in the post:

“These things are always more complicated than people want them to be. For the record, I think the project shouldn’t go ahead. It is amusing to me that people here have assumed that I am in favour of the project, as I never said anything of the sort.

What kind of sad world we live in where merely thinking through the consequences of actions instead of jumping on the bandwagon is seen as a bad thing.”

Along a slightly different theme, but no less ‘bandwagony’, is this example. This was posted in a closed group called Friendly Vegans in Melbourne, so you might not be able to see it. As a result, I have hidden the identities of the original poster and commenters.

Some friendly vegans

 

I really don’t have much to add here. But once again, refusing to jump on the bandwagon makes people think less of you. Go figure.

I will just say that this should in no way cause you to be against veganism, simply because some friendly vegans celebrate human suffering in specific circumstances.

Why you should NOT leave USA

By all accounts, it looks like a pretty sure bet that Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States of America. This has a lot of people worried. I don’t know what to make of such stories, but there are reports of the Canadian immigration site crashing and the borders of Mexico seeing increased traffic.

This article assumes that Trump being president is an overwhelmingly bad thing, relative to other candidates. This is not the topic of the article, and I won’t spend any time clarifying why this is the case, but a lot of clever people seem to agree. In any case, if you think Trump being president is a good thing, this article isn’t targeted at you.

I write to you – the worried individual and defender of a good world that is wondering if you should leave America or no longer visit.

I urge you – Don’t leave USA.

If you are the type of individual who would consider leaving or not going to USA because of the values held by its new president, then you are exactly the sort of person that America needs more of right now. How will we counter the insanity if all the good people leave? Now is not the time to leave USA full of Trump supporters.

These aren’t idle words written from afar – I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I have no intention of cancelling my extended research trip to California in 2017.

Do you think Trump will care or notice if you leave? What difference will that actually make? Instead, think about the impact you will have by increasing your involvement in civics.

What’s scarier than Trump being president? Trump being president twice. Leaving USA now literally increases the chances of Trump winning a second term. Don’t let that happen.

Edit: A good point was raised to me that I was overlooking concerns people have about their safety. I think this is very valid. I would just ask you to seriously weigh the added safety concerns against the reduced ability to make a difference by leaving.