Cellular agriculture – The need for it and its progress

A few weeks ago, I had an article about the promise and science of cellular agriculture published in the Independent Australia. Check it out!

Here are some key quotes:

“One need look no further than the impacts of the animal agriculture industry to understand why so many people are working on the development of cellular agriculture and are excited about the benefits it may bring to our food system.”

“Finally, some 520 to 620 million farmed animals each year in Australia alone would benefit from being spared a life of farming. Australian law does not adequately protect animals seen as profitable.”

“If you can’t wait for clean meat, there are plant-based products already available in Australian supermarkets which have been hailed by vegans and meat eaters alike to be as good as the real thing. The Impossible Burger even “bleeds”, getting its juicy texture from heme extracted from plants, which is present in real meat.”

Thoughts about Yew-Kwang Ng

I really enjoyed this 80,000 Hours podcast interview with Yew-Kwang Ng. His views around utilitarianism and moral realism are very similar to mine. That is – suffering and wellbeing are the only two things that can intrinsically matter, everything else is instrumentally valuable as a means to achieving wellbeing or less suffering. He also is concerned about wild-animal suffering, which is how I first heard about him several years ago.

I did disagree with his views on how we can most effectively reduce farmed animal suffering. He believes that improving welfare standards would be better in the long run than reducing the number of animals farmed by various means. The best steelman for this would be that if we could get animals in farms net positive lives, then farming more animals would be good (utilitarianly speaking).

I find this view strange in the face of Kwang’s strong concern (strong even within the space of pro-climate policy, but in line with other existential risk researchers) of the risk of human extinction due to climate change. His view is that, even if extinction risk is very small, we must act far more than we are to reduce that risk. Given that the animal agriculture industry is such a major contributor to climate change (~15-50% depending on whether you arbitrarily use a 100 or 20 year timescale), why doesn’t he advocate for solving the farmed animal suffering problem and the climate change problem with the one solution? Surely this would be more efficient than improving farmed animal welfare and then working on energy policy separately? A strange oversight (in my opinion) in an otherwise enjoyable interview.

Why going vegan in 2019 will be good for your health, the environment and animals

On the 29th of December, Elizabeth Farrelly wrote that going vegan is “likely a lot less healthy – for you and the planet – than is commonly believed”. I believe the evidence strongly suggests that the opposite is true – most people don’t realise how beneficial being vegan is for your health, the environment, and the animals.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines and most major international dietary organisations, including The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, clearly state that a well-planned vegan diet is nutritionally adequate for adults, children and babies. As long as you take a B12 supplement (many people don’t realise B12 in animal products are typically from supplements given to animals, as it is derived from bacteria), you can obtain a sufficient amount of all necessary nutrients for human health from a plant-based diet.

In fact, in addition to being nutritionally adequate, you can thrive on a vegan diet. Vegans have higher blood protein than non-vegans, and have lower blood pressure and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. The World Health Organisation have classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer – same category as cigarettes) and red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen (probably causes cancer).

Farrelly is right in suggesting that ‘the food-footprint issue has become emotive and politicised’ (on both sides), but that’s because Australians care. As well as being concerned for the environment, we care about animals. In his book Animal Welfare in Australia, Peter Chen draws on a survey of 1,000 Australians by Essential Media and found that 30% of Australians believe that animals deserve the same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation. A larger number of Australians (61%) believe they deserve some protection.

However, what we do to animals for the sake of taste does not match this belief. Each year, Australians kill some 520-620 million animals to eat them. The vast majority of these are chickens, either raised for meat or for their eggs. Most chickens, even those in ‘free range’ labelled farms, live unimaginably painful lives.

The labels which consumers hold dear, like ‘free range’ or ‘cage-free’ simply don’t mean what people think they do. A series of undercover investigations of Australian farms, consolidated by documentaries Lucent and Dominion, reveal that free range farms are usually as bad or worse than non-free range farms. For example, the high stocking densities and lack of caging in free range farms often results in cannibalism and the spread of disease. One study showed that cannibalism increased by as much as 3,000% in cage-free farms.

Farrelly believes that “killing, however, is not essentially cruel”. Even if the animals we farm in Australia lived decent lives, that doesn’t make taking their lives ethical. There is no humane way to kill someone who doesn’t want to die. If we don’t think it’s ethical to kill a dog or a human for pleasure, we need a very good reason to say why it would be for a farmed animal.

Farrelly asks, if killing animals for food is wrong, why isn’t killing plants? Plants aren’t conscious. They might respond to some external stimuli and be surprisingly complex, but they don’t have a central nervous system or a brain, and aren’t sentient. I seriously question this foray into pseudoscience.

Animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions globally, and in Australia direct livestock emissions account for 11% of national emissions. This doesn’t include the indirect emissions of animal agriculture, such as the growth of crops to feed the animals and the transport of the animals and feedstock.

Animal agriculture is also incredibly inefficient as a source of food. Most animals raised for food globally, and even in Australia, are not grazing, but rather are raised in intensive indoor operations known as factory farms. Animals in factory farms are usually fed grain grown for them and transported to the farm. For cows, it takes 12 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of meat. Typically, this is human-grade grain that could be fed directly to people, but even in the cases where it is not, the same farmland could be used to grow crops that people can eat. It also takes almost 9,500 litres of water and almost 4 litres of fuel to produce 1 kg of meat from cows. Other farmed animals have similar conversion rates.

Grazing isn’t much better when you consider the amount of land required. 26 percent of the land surface on Earth is used for animal grazing. Land is being cleared in Australia and across the world for grazing and feed crops for animals. 82% of agricultural land is being used for grazing, and this is growing by around 9% each year. This land clearance is also putting native wildlife under threat, with three quarters of the 1,640 threatened plants and animals having habitat loss as one of their main threats.

Less demand for animal products in Australia would mean less land cleared for grazing and for growing crops to feed animals. Cutting out animal products can reduce your individual carbon footprint from food by up to 73 percent, and can reduce the amount of farmland required by up to 75 percent. Farrelly appeals to potential for grazing farm animals to be a net carbon sink, however such claims are based on unrealistic scenarios and won’t do much to offset its emissions.

Animals are only farmed because there is demand. As fewer animal products are consumed, suppliers will transition to healthier, more sustainable and less cruel foods. Using figures from the US that account for the effects of less demand on supply (and therefore breeding of animals), moving from an omnivorous lifestyle to a vegan one will result in 7.8 fewer land animals being killed and 35-144 fewer marine animals being killed each year. Given the similarity of Australia and the US in per capita meat consumption, it seems like that the result in Australia would be similar.

Each year, more Australians, and indeed people around the world, are realising that taste alone is not sufficient justification for harming animals, the environment, and one’s health. I invite you to join the growing number of people aligning their actions with their values by trying veganism as part of Veganuary. It’s easier than you might think, and the benefits are enormous.

Is helping non-humans the best way to help humans?


To my knowledge, the benefit to humans of having less animal product consumption globally has never been quantified, despite there being a number of proposed mechanisms for how this could be the case (e.g. public health, climate change, antibiotic resistance, etc.). This scoping study, the first of its kind, estimates that a donation of $1,999 to The Humane League (the animal charity suggested by Animal Charity Evaluators to be the most effective at reducing animal suffering/animals farmed) today is estimated to result in 0.23 human lives saved in the short term, and 0.0039 human lives saved from 2030 to 2050. By way of comparison, $1,999 is the amount estimated by GiveWell to save a human life if donated to the top rated human charity, the Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention.

The level of uncertainty in this analysis is large, and many assumptions were made. I expect and hope for a lot of criticism, and intend to amend the analysis in an ongoing manner. This page represents the latest version (02/11/2018), while a history of amendments can be seen here.


Many forms of animal advocacy that focus on reducing the consumption of animal products have the obvious primary benefit of reducing farmed animal suffering. They also have numerous possible secondary benefits that may help reduce human suffering, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, slower global antibiotic resistance, potentially reduced public health burden, and possibly improved food security and equality.

Given these secondary benefits, I’ve often therefore wondered how much supporting the most effective non-human focused charities (e.g. those that aim to reduce non-human animal product consumption) is at reducing human suffering compared to the most effective human focused charities. If it turned out to be the case that they were more effective at reducing human suffering, it could be a game changer. If this were the case, rationally motivated people should start supporting the best non-human charities rather than the best human charities, even if they didn’t care at all about non-humans. For those of us who care about all sentient minds, this would be a win-win.

Despite the potential for this, I haven’t really seen any attempts to quantify the flow-on benefits. The closest I’ve seen was this ACE post by Ben West in 2012, though it only covers climate change.

One must of course be cautious of motivated reasoning while making this analysis – I might be biased during my assessment towards making the human benefits of supporting non-human charities stronger, or the benefits of supporting human charities weaker. I will do my best to show all of my assumptions, estimates, calculations and rationale in full. I encourage people to recreate my conclusion, either from scratch or using my assumptions, and to let me know what they came up with.

This analysis is intended as a scoping study, and should be read as such. It is not intended to be a final, conclusive report. There are of course many improvements that could be made, and I may address them at a later date. At this time, I aim only to create interest in a comparison which I think is important but seriously neglected.

Base impact of top human and non-human charities

First, we need to look at what the best non-human and human charities are, and what they do. For this, I will use the top recommended (as of 17/09/2018) non-human and human charities from Animal Charity Evaluators and GiveWell respectively.

One may reasonably wonder why I picked these charities rather than those focused on reducing suffering or saving lives in the future or far future (i.e. hundreds to billions of years from now), given that they may be orders of magnitude more effective at achieving our goals if we care equally about future lives. I accept this argument, but stick to short term charities mainly because comparing the best far future charity to help non-humans and the best far future charity to help humans would be extremely difficult and highly (even more so) uncertain.

Non-human charities

ACE’s top rated charities are currently Animal Equality (AE), The Humane League (THL) and the Good Food Institute (GFI). While I am a strong supporter of what GFI does, a full cost-effectiveness analysis has not been performed (e.g. an estimate of how many less animals eaten per dollar donated). The reviews and models of THL and AE suggest that $1* donated to them would spare 15.833 and 0.095 animals from life in industrial agriculture respectively. As THL appears to have a significantly higher average impact for reducing the number of animals farmed, we will use them for the comparison.

The models were made on Guesstimate, which uses Monte Carlo simulations to arrive at the average impact values. I ran the simulations for each of THL and AE 30 times and took the mean. ACE has written up an explanation of their cost-effectiveness estimates here.

The methodology for determining the impact of reducing animal product consumption on each of the cause areas (e.g. public health, climate change) is non-obvious and will be done on a case by case basis. Even allowing for assumptions, there may be room for substantial improvement, and so encourage critiques of these areas specifically.

For simplicity, I will generally be focusing on the consumption and reduction in consumption of land animals. Multiple conflicting estimates of the number of land animals farmed per year exist, and I have chosen the somewhat mid-range estimate of 80 billion land animals farmed per year (70 billion in 2013 and rose from 60 billion in 2008, so I assumed the same trend from 2013 to 2018).

It should be noted here that these reductions in animals farmed are not instantaneous. The reductions are spread across the average time that someone remains vegan (for example). Throughout the analysis, I assume that the reductions are instant and apply to the current year. This is not accurate, but I don’t foresee it significantly affecting the estimates.

Human charities

GiveWell present a list of 9 top rated charities. From these, three are recommended primarily due to their effectiveness at reducing mortality (the others are recommended for their potential to increase income and consumption). These three charities are the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF – $3,753 per life saved, using 2018 figures), Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention (SMC – $1,999 per life saved), and Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program (VAS – $2,692 per life saved). Malaria Consortium’s SMC programs (MC from here for short), appears to be the most effective, and so this value will form the baseline that THL must beat in order to be more effective at reducing human suffering than the best human charity.

In other words, we investigate the effect of donating $1,999 to THL on reducing human deaths ($1,999 to THL = 31,650 less land animals farmed – 0.0000395625% of total land animals farmed).

Public health

Evidence suggests that populations with a high proportion of plant-based food in their diet have lower blood pressure, a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, a lower risk of death resulting from cardiovascular disease, and a lower risk of cancer. Diets containing a high amount of red and processed meats are estimated to have contributed to around 584,000 human deaths globally in 2015. This refers to deaths at all ages, while GiveWell’s analysis refers to the ‘cost per outcome as good as averting the death of an individual under 5’.

It could be argued that averting the death of an individual under 5 would be better than averting the death of someone who is, say, 70, who would be more likely to die sooner anyway. To rectify this in a simple manner, I propose the following. If what we value is the life years increased rather than reducing deaths per se, a person under 5 would have about twice the number of remaining life years as the average person dying due to the causes outlined in the above report (assuming an equal distribution of deaths at given ages, which of course is unlikely). In this case, we would halve the 584,000 to 292,000 for a roughly transferrable statistic.

I take the above value as a lower bound, as it does not include deaths due to diets low in vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and fruit. I would expect to see these deaths reduced somewhat with less widespread animal product consumption. I didn’t include them as the link was much less clear. However, determining how many fewer deaths might result from less animal product consumption due to these factors should be a high priority, since the total number of deaths caused by them globally is 10.191 million (5.096 million after age of death normalisation).

I didn’t include deaths caused by diets high in sodium, which may or may not be reduced with less animal product consumption. I didn’t include deaths caused by diets low in seafood, since the nutrients, omega-3 in this case, can be sourced elsewhere. I also didn’t include deaths caused by diets low in calcium, as this can be sourced from non-animal products as well as animal products. It is plausible that there will be an increase in deaths due to diets low in omega-3 or calcium as animal product consumption is reduced, but there may also be a decrease as information about the existence of plant-based alternatives is disseminated along with the work of animal charities like THL. Having said that, it is possible that in developing countries, fish and dairy products are just more accessible and cheap than plant-based alternatives such as brussel sprouts or bok choy.

We can now use this to estimate how many fewer human deaths will result per $1,999 donated to THL, or per 31,650 fewer animals farmed (0.0000395625% of total land animals farmed). For public health, we will assume that if we went from 80 billion to zero animals farmed for a given year, it would result in deaths due to diets high in red and processed meat consumption going from 584,000 to zero for that year. 0.0000395625% of 584,000 is 0.12, thus, a donation of $1,999 donated to THL would result in 0.12 human lives saved in a once off. To think of this in another way, donating $1,999 each year would result in another 0.12 human lives saved each year. Note that this could see a up to a potential 20-fold increase if we were to include deaths due to diets low in vegetables etc. that would be mitigated if less animal products were consumed.

Climate change

Climate change is projected to cause 250,000 deaths per year from 2030 to 2050. From the source, I can’t tell whether this refers simply to deaths at all ages, but I assume this is the case. As above, we should alter this value to be in line with the GiveWell metric of ‘cost per outcome as good as averting the death of an individual under 5’. Using the rationale and methodology discussed above, this gives us 125,000 deaths per year from 2030 to 2050.

Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of anthropogenic climate change, contributing 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (determined in 2006), while a more recent study suggests animal agriculture has contributed 23% of the total warming as of 2010. To determine the number of human deaths averted as a result of reducing the number of animals farmed, we need to determine how a reduction of emissions this year by 23% would affect the number of human deaths from 2030-2050. Ideally, accounting for this would require the following.

  • The proportion of each greenhouse emitted by the livestock industry (e.g. carbon dioxide, methane)
  • The climate forcing effect of each of these greenhouse gases
  • The lifetime of each of these greenhouse gases
  • Using climate models to determine how the climate would differ in 2030-2050 given this once off reduction in emissions
  • Revisiting existing studies which determine the number of human deaths from 2030-2050 given status quo climate change, and revising them using the new climate models

This is significantly beyond the scope of this study. A second best option would be to find an existing study which says something like “A reduction of X emissions this year would result in X fewer deaths from 2030-2050”, and then use it to see what a reduction of 23% of emissions this year would mean for deaths from 2030-2050. I don’t believe such a study exists, but if it does this will make this part of the analysis somewhat more robust, and I would ask that you point me to it. In lieu of any such study, I will make some assumptions to come up with a number.

This is harder to quantify than public health, as some of the emissions which will impact future effects of climate change (from 2030 to 2050) have already been emitted, while some are yet to be emitted. Reducing animal product consumption from 80 billion animals to zero for a given year will result in a reduction of emissions of 23% for that year, but the effect of this on the deaths from 2030-2050 are unclear. If we can assume that the emissions over the 30 years will roughly plateau, perhaps we can assume that half the emissions that will affect deaths from 2030-2050 have already been emitted. Thus reducing animal product consumption to zero for this time period might be expected to reduce the relevant emissions by half of 23% (11.5%).

We might then be able to say that reducing animal product consumption to zero for a given year would reduce the relevant emissions by 1/30th of 11.5% (0.38%). We could then suggest that this would reduce the number of deaths over the period of 2030-2050 by 0.38%. I don’t expect this to be a simple relationship, let alone a linear one, but in lieu of any idea what a better model would look like, I will take the simplest one.

Therefore, I simplistically assume for this calculation that reducing animal product consumption to zero for a given year would reduce the number of deaths from 2030-2050 due to climate change per year by 0.38% of 125,000 (475). We can now use this to predict how many fewer human deaths will result per $1,999 donated to THL, or per 31,650 less animals farmed (0.0000395625% of total land animals farmed). 0.0000395625% of 475 gives 0.00019 lives saved per year, or a total of 0.0039 from 2030 to 2050. This is significantly lower than I expected, but it’s a benefit we might expect to become stronger as we allow for more future time frames (e.g. from 2030 to 2060).

This assessment does not include other environmental impacts of animal agriculture, such as desertification and local impacts, e.g. the spraying of animal waste matter in to the air which is breathed in by local residents. It also doesn’t include deaths due to particulate matter from coal power plants and fossil fuel powered vehicles, which is breathed in by local residents. One study suggests that reducing emissions by 50% by 2050 could prevent 100 million early deaths via this mechanism alone. Given that animal agriculture has a non-trivial use of energy (much of which is coal) and transport, we could expect reducing animal agriculture to play a role in this.

Antibiotic resistance

Currently, 700,000 people die per year due to antimicrobial-resistant diseases. If trends continue without any major difference, this figure could reach 9.5 million dead per year by 2050. As above with public health and climate change, we should alter this value to be in line with the GiveWell metric of ‘cost per outcome as good as averting the death of an individual under 5’. Using the rationale and methodology discussed above, this adjusts the figures to 350,000 per year and 4.75 million per year by 2050.

It is currently hard to say how much of these figures are due to the use of antibiotics in the global livestock industry, however growing evidence does point to factory farming being a major contributor.

In a population of bacteria, there will be some proportion (~< 1 in a million) with a natural resistance to a given antibiotic. Antibiotic use imposes a selection pressure on bacteria. The antibiotic will kill the bacteria, leaving the naturally resistant bacteria, allowing it to selectively reproduce. Increased use increases likelihood of the bacteria exposed becoming resistant to antibiotics, however the relationship between antibiotic use and resistance is not clear and likely not linear. Other studies go further to say that, despite the possibility, it is unclear whether antibiotic use in farming results in any increase in antibiotic resistance, due simply to a lack of data and analysis.

Given this, it seems fair to conclude that it is not yet known whether a reduction in animal farming (and therefore antibiotics use in farming) would result in any meaningful reduction in human deaths due to antibiotic resistance. This is not to say that the evidence points to this, but rather that there is not yet much evidence either way. Despite this limitation, I would like to estimate an upper bound for the benefit, if it were discovered that there was indeed a link. Thus all following calculations in this section should be interpreted as a possible upper bound if a link were confirmed.

In addition, the following is an argument that favours the possibility of a link between the intensification of animal agriculture generally and human deaths (C. Nelson, pers. comms.). Zoonoses (emerging human pathogens with non-human animal origins) comprise 60% of currently known infectious agents. The intensification of animal agriculture has increased the risk of zoonotic diseases, examples of which include SARS, avian influenza and hepatitis E. By providing an ideal environment for pathogens (including a large number of hosts and animal-human contact), they can jump more easily to the human population.

To estimate the impact of fewer animals farmed on preventing these deaths, we first need to determine what proportion of antibiotic use is in animal farming. Around 80% of antibiotic use in the US is on farm animals, and 75% for the EU and US combined. THL appears to operate primarily in the US, and so I will use the 80% figure. In other words, we stand to reduce antibiotics usage and (I am assuming) antibiotic resistance-related deaths by up to 80% (therefore 280,000 per year and up to 3.8 million per year by 2050).

There are some questions I don’t know the answers to. Would a reduction of antibiotic use of 50% today result in half the people currently dying per year due to antimicrobial-resistant diseases, or does the impact of past antibiotic use carry over to this year? The answer is almost certainly somewhere in the middle, and most likely leaning towards the past antibiotic use being the leading contributor. Would a temporary drop of 50% this year alone result in any meaningful difference in the number of deaths in 2050? Again, it would probably make some difference, but not a linearly proportional difference.

For simplicity, I will propose that a reduction of antibiotic use of 50% today will result in 50% less deaths the following year due to antimicrobial-resistant diseases. This doesn’t quite seem right, since one can suppose that if in 2049 antibiotic use is dropped by 50%, it probably wouldn’t reduce the number of deaths the following year by 50%, since many of the diseases will have already become resistant. Unless given strong rationale to propose otherwise, I will use this direct, short-term only relationship as a proxy.

We can now use this to predict how many fewer human deaths will result per $1,999 donated to THL, or per 31,650 less animals farmed (0.0000395625% of total land animals farmed). As with climate change, the effect here is harder to quantify than public health.

Therefore, 0.0000395625% of 280,000 gives 0.11 deaths averted per year for $1,999 donated to THL.

This pathway should be tempered with the knowledge that, in some regions at least, agricultural antibiotic use has fallen (12% from 2011 to 2014 in 24 EU countries) due to increased awareness of the negative implications of antimicrobial resistance. Alternatives to antibiotic use have been successful so far, for example vaccine use and better farming practices. However, total antibiotic use in animal farming is still projected to grow by just under 70% from 2010 to 2030. In particular, the use of antibiotics in BRICS countries is expected to grow by 99% by 2030. Relevant to this, it is not clear whether animal advocacy would be more or less effective in BRICS or developing nations.

Injuries and effects on employees

Using the US as an example, there are over 500,000 slaughterhouse and meat-processing workers. From 2004 to 2013, an average of 15 ‘meat and poultry workers’ died from injuries at work per year. As of 2016, the proportion of workers sustaining a notable injury is “in the 10 percent and below [range]” (higher than that of manufacturing), though there are reasons why the rate of injuries is likely to be greatly under reported. Another study shows that in 2001 14.7 percent of full-time workers sustained an injury, which was the highest rate of any industry in the US. More information about the treatment of slaughterhouse workers in the US can be found here.

Given that slaughterhouse workers would transition from this industry to another, which would have its own injury and death rate (almost certainly lower than slaughterhouse workers), it seems difficult to measure the impact of donations to non-human charities on human deaths via this pathway. It is almost certainly positive, but small (relative to the above pathways).

We can simplistically visualise the impact by assuming that all of the workers would transition to a similar industry, e.g. manufacturing, and examine the difference in injury rate. The US Department of Labor estimates that, in 2016, the nonfatal occupational injury rate of private industry was 2.9 total recordable cases per 100 full-time equivalent workers. Total recordable cases includes minor injuries, and is therefore an upper bound for the above measure of ‘workers sustaining a notable injury’. This would be a substantial reduction in human injuries, and presumably deaths.

There is also a compelling argument that the environment of working in a slaughterhouse or factory farm has ongoing adverse mental health effects on employees. These may include violent tendencies, which would affect their own lives and that of others, possibly resulting in death. Again, the link here is sufficiently unexplored that I will not include it in the numerical assessment.

Global food distribution

A large amount of plant food globally is fed to farmed animals. Producing one kg of beef protein requires seven kg of plant protein as feed stock, not to mention the vastly increased water and energy costs (Australian beef is one notable exception to this, given they are mostly pasture raised, but chickens and pigs in Australia are not exceptions). Given this, there is a compelling argument that if less of this plant food was fed to animals, there would be more to feed to humans, potentially alleviating some of the issues associated with food scarcity, particularly in developing nations.

This pathway to fewer human deaths is significantly more complicated than the others, and so I intend to put it aside. If at a future time I can better analyse this (please send me evidence for or against this pathway being a positive factor), I will revisit the analysis and include it. The below quote is interesting, but seems like exaggeration at best, even for a utilitarian like myself who is happy to admit that my spending money on leisure activities is basically killing others due to opportunity cost.

Every day 40,000 children die in the world for lack of food. We who overeat in the West, who are feeding grains to animals to make meat, are eating the flesh of these children.” Thich Nhat Hanh (2003)

A concern about land use change can be addressed here. Some worry that there are arid regions where livestock are raised that would not be suitable for growing plant food. It should be pointed out here that 90% of animals globally are factory farmed and fed plants, resulting in inefficient resource use. One should expect there to be less farmland required, not more, if there were a global shift to veganism, and there are some plant foods that can be grown in arid regions, such as hemp and almonds. The land could also be used for other purposes, such as cotton farming or carbon sequestration.  A report on further analysis on land use change (focused on Australia) can be found here.

Economic impacts

Animal agriculture is a major economy in most parts of the world. Transitioning away, even slowly, might be expected to have some economic impacts. In particular, some animal farmers and slaughterhouse workers may lose their job as a result of reduced demand for animal products. Given that industries have come in and out of existence all the time when replacements arrive (e.g. horse-and-cart replaced with cars and whale oil replaced with kerosene), I don’t foresee this having any long term negative impacts. I also don’t foresee the short term impacts of lost jobs outweighing the human lives saved (let alone non-humans), but it is important to consider this.

At the very least, work should be done by governments, non-profits and industry bodies to assist farmers in transitioning to other jobs, either plant farming or something else. Also, as stated above, other work can be done with the land used to farm animals. A report on further analysis on economic factors as the result of a shift to veganism (focused on Australia) can be found here.

Total human benefit of top non-human charity

It costs $1,999 to save a human life by donating to Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention. Summarising the effects on human lives saved from the public health, climate change and antibiotic resistance pathways, we get the following benefit for $1,999 donated to The Humane League:

  • 0.12 human lives saved in the short term due to improved public health
  • 0.0039 human lives saved from 2030 to 2050 due to reduced climate change effects
  • 0.11 human lives saved in the short term due to reduced antibiotic resistance (an upper bound if a link between antibiotic use in farming and human deaths is indeed discovered)

Or in other words:

  • 0.23 human lives saved in the short term
  • 0.0039 human lives saved from 2030 to 2050

This means that even if you only care about humans, a donation to The Humane League is about one quarter as effective at preventing human deaths than the best GiveWell rated charity, Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention. However, the evidence for the former is of course significantly less robust. If you also consider the 31,650 non-humans spared a life of suffering in a factory farm, I believe it becomes increasingly harder to justify supporting the best human-centric charities over the best non-human-centric charities.

Future work

I’ve assumed a lot of things throughout this analysis, some due to necessity (relevant numbers are simply not available) and some due to a lack of time and expertise (more accurate assumptions could potentially be made). Given the startling outcome of this research, I believe improving the accuracy and efficacy of this research to be of utmost priority. In particular, there is the potential for the actual number of lives saved via the public health pathway to be significantly higher, and the number of lives saved via the antibiotic resistance pathway to be lower.

I would also like to see other mechanisms examined in this analysis, such as the reduction of deaths due to more fruit and vegetable consumption and less particulate emissions as the result of fewer animals farmed.

This analysis only examined lives saved, not quality adjusted life years (QALY’s) to also account for improvements in the quality of life of individuals. It is hard to say whether this would make supporting non-human charities more or less attractive from a purely human-centric view. Future research should seek to examine the effect on QALY’s for a more complete and ethically relevant (from a utilitarian perspective) analysis.

I am aware of concepts such as the optimisers curse and the risk of sequence thinking vs cluster thinking, and am further aware that they are likely relevant here, but I have not taken them in to account. Future work should critically examine all possible sources of biases and statistical failures.

I have made little to no attempt to estimate the uncertainty, which would be large, instead only using mean values and carrying them through the analysis. This could be done in Guesstimate, and is something I intend to do in a future version of this work. It would also be valuable to generate upper and lower bounds (say at the commonly used but completely arbitrary 95% confidence intervals) for the final estimates. Using the mean effectiveness of ACE recommended charities and the mean effectiveness of GiveWell recommended charities may be another way to make the analysis more robust.

Despite the potentially high number of human deaths resulting from antibiotic use in animal farming, it seems surprising that there has been so little research in to the existence of a relationship. I am not a pathogen researcher and consider biology to be my weakest science, so I don’t intend on ever researching this further myself, however I would consider this to be of utmost importance. If you are a researcher in this field or are considering entering it, this would be a highly important research question.

Given that governments claim to at least care about their own human population, it is surprising to me that no governments to my knowledge have bothered to examine these pathways, let alone quantify them. I have written previously about the possibility for a government public health campaign around reducing animal product consumption to save money via the public health burden alone. Governments should seriously consider the possibility that reducing the animal product consumption of their citizens is a neglected and impactful way of reducing human deaths and suffering, as well as saving money.


A donation of $1,999 to The Humane League today is estimated to result in 0.23 human lives saved in the short term, and 0.0039 human lives saved from 2030 to 2050. By way of comparison, $1,999 is the amount estimated by GiveWell to save a human life if donated to the top rated human charity, the Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention.

This outcome surprised me, and I expect it will surprise you too. Unless they can find fault with my argument or calculations, I strongly encourage the reader to, if they currently support human-centric charities, to consider switching some or all of their charitable giving to non-human-centric charities.

I expect to edit this post significantly in the coming days. I will do this as transparently as possible. It is a certainty that I have missed critical information and/or arguments, some of which may substantially alter the numbers and conclusions. I believe it would be far better to edit the post to reflect these updates rather than leave it an potentially redo the analysis at a later date.

Again, I urge you to engage with this in every way. If you support human charities and cannot find fault with my analysis, you should start supporting the most effective non-human charities.

I believe this shouldn’t just be an area of interest to individual donors, but also to funds, advocacy organisations, and governments.

For the purposes of this argument, I have ignored the ‘rich meat eater problem’ (people tend to eat more animal products as they get wealthier), although it is quite important to be aware of for anyone deciding whether to support a human or non-human centric charity via donations or otherwise. I will explain what this is and why it is important in Appendix A.

Also, in Appendix B I examine the impact of reducing human deaths by being vegan personally.

Appendix A – The rich meat eater problem

The rich meat eater problem is the idea that as populations or individuals move out of poverty and become more affluent, they will on average consume more animal products. This is because animal products are often relatively expensive and resource intensive. There are two key factors operating here in seemingly opposite directions. As a population becomes more affluent and their public health conditions improve (e.g. reduced childhood mortality), they consume more animal products (bad), but the population growth also goes down, leaving less people to consume animal products in the long run (good).

As an example, in 1982, the average Chinese citizen ate 13 kg of meat per year, while in 2016 they ate 63 kg of meat per year, a figure predicted to increase to 93 kg per year if the trend continues uninterrupted. For the good effect to outweigh the bad effect, development in China would have had to result in the population being around 5 times smaller than it otherwise would have been without development. This is simply unrealistic, which is why I conclude that the negative effects (for non-humans) of the rich meat eater problem vastly outweigh the positive.

The rich meat eat problem has been part of my transition from focusing on near term human causes to long term non-human causes. In addition to the (in my opinion) vastly greater scale of suffering of non-humans, the greater neglectedness and the high degree of solvability, I worry that helping humans might harm non-humans.

Appendix B – Impact of not being vegan on increasing human deaths

This wasn’t directly related to the initial question so I put it in an appendix, but obviously if donating to an animal charity designed to reduce animal product consumption can save human lives, it follows that consuming animal products increases human deaths. I wanted to consider this additional question while I had the relevant figures available.

Using elasticity estimates, ACE estimates that one person consuming 30 fewer land animals (the average number of animals killed for their flesh consumed by a US meat eater in a year) results in 1.8-21 fewer animals farmed. This was calculated using Guesstimate, and so using the same methodology above (taking the mean of 30 simulation runs), I get 7.8 fewer animals farmed per year per person not consuming land animals.

This is 0.00000000975% of the total 80 billion land animals farmed per year. We can now multiply this by the number of humans expected to die via each of the above pathways. If we are ignoring the increased risk of your own death, that leaves us with climate change and antibiotic resistance.

As above, given that we expect to be able to reduce deaths due to climate change per year from 2030 to 2050 by 475 per year (by eliminating all animal farming in a given year), multiplying it by the above percentage gives us 0.000000046 humans saved for a single year from 2030-2050, or 0.00000097 in total from 2030-2050 per year you are vegan.

As above, given 280,000 deaths per year that we expect to be able to reduce today due to antimicrobial resistant diseases, multiplying it by the above percentage gives us 0.0000273 humans saved per year you are vegan.

This gives a total of 0.0000283 humans killed per year one isn’t vegan. To put this another way, there is around a 1 in 35,000 chance per year that one not being vegan will result in the death of another human.

For comparison, driving a car for 400 km in Australia increases one’s risk of death by 1 in 1 million. The average Australian drives 15,530 km per year, resulting in an increase in one’s risk of death by ~39 in 1 million, or 1 in 25,757. This makes the risk of dying in a car crash per year a little higher than the risk of killing someone by not being vegan pear year. I don’t know whether knowing this would make someone more or less likely to be vegan (or drive), but it might be useful for your decision making.

Note that this particular figure is almost entirely dependent on the antibiotic resistance pathway being the case, which while theorised, hasn’t yet been proven. If animal agriculture didn’t contribute meaningfully to antibiotic resistance, the benefit to humans of one person being vegan would only be around 1 in 1 million.

* For simplicity, all monetary values will be in US dollars.

Why people are still unlikely to act after IPCC warnings on climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said last week that we have 12 years to limit climate change. I’m not a fan of such language (what does that even mean – if we cease emissions in 11 years we’ll be fine but if we do it in 13 years we all suffer?), but it’s certainly gotten a lot of attention. It has undoubtedly renewed the sense of urgency among those already concerned about climate change. Yet people don’t really seem to be doing anything different, besides getting angry at governments and companies on social media.

Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions

If you’re paying attention to the space, you likely will have seen something like this quote. I think it’s the worst thing to come out of this entire media cycle and may have actually increased emissions in expectation. Here is why:

For a short few days after the IPCC announcement, mainstream media was starting to talk about something that some of us have known for some time (ahem, the UN said it in 2006 but few cared) – one of the most impactful things you can do as an individual to limit greenhouse gas emissions is to not eat animal products (or eat less, as they worded it). Finally, this weirdly neglected topic was being taken seriously by the media and public (and who knows, maybe even governments at some point).

Then, the above quote began to circulate. This lead many people who don’t understand expected value and marginal individual impact to shift the blame entirely to these large companies, or to governments, or to capitalism. I predict this stopped a lot of people from actually taking effective action (e.g. avoiding animal products) and made them feel comfortable with just blaming others. I take serious issue with the use of the word ‘responsible’ in the quote. A more accurate word might be ‘take part in’.

Marginal impact is an important concept. It is all well and good to argue that companies and governments and the system should change, and that may well be true. However, we are individual actors, and when considering what we can do to maximise or even just increase our impact, we have to think about it in individual terms. What can I do that would have the biggest impact? One might argue that we could maximise our impact by working together, but we can just capture that under the above definition. For example: As an individual, by working with others I can maximise my impact. And the reality is – as an individual, probably the most impactful thing we can do to mitigate climate change is to just not buy animal products.

Let me pose a hypothetical. Suppose you discover that there is a product you buy which turns out to contribute to a lot of suffering. In fact, over the course of your life it turns out that purchasing this product will cause several thousand lives to suffer and be ended. Strictly speaking, the company providing these goods is ‘responsible’ (to use the above and incorrect definition of the word), but you have the choice to just buy an alternative product. In this scenario, you are equally responsible (maybe more so, since the company wouldn’t create the product without your demand). By not changing your purchasing habits, you are causing these deaths.

If you agreed with this hypothetical, then I’m afraid that in order to be logically consistent you should stop eating animal products. Thousands of animals suffer and die to feed an average person in a developed nation who eats animal products, but even if you discriminate against farmed non-humans due to their species, the environmental damage of animal agriculture remains – and I haven’t even touched on its role in global antibiotic resistance.

This is not to say that I don’t think governments and companies have a role to play as well, there are many things I’d love to see them do including government targets to reduce animal product consumption. But we can’t shirk the enormous opportunity and obligation we have to reduce suffering and environmental damage just because some other entity has a role to play.

As an additional note, if you are thinking to yourself right now I don’t eat many animal products anyway, here is something to consider. I’ve copied these tweets below because they are bloody brilliant and you need to see them (I hope Christopher will forgive me), but here is the link to the originals.

Would Australians starve if we stopped farming animals?

An objection to not farming non-human animals that is common in Australia is that most Australian farm animals are raised in pasture land or arid land that would otherwise not be suitable for growing crops. Therefore, if everyone in Australia was vegan, we would starve. Or something like that.

When people think of Australian farmed animals, they usually think of cattle, sheep and goats, which are more likely to be pasture raised (but not always). People rarely think about the chickens and pigs, which are much more commonly kept in factory farms and fed a diet of grain and other farmed plant food. Using the average from 1994-2016 from FAO, in Australia there are 27.4 million beef cattle, 95.3 million sheep, and 2.7 million goats. For animals mostly raised in factory farms and fed grain, there were 2.5 million pigs, 1.1 million turkeys, and 87 million chickens (although note 551 million chickens were slaughtered in 2012 – this dichotomy is due to their short lifespans). Once we examine the statistics, Australia doesn’t quite seem like the land of pasture farming anymore.

One might reasonably suppose that it is no mistake that the type of farmed animal Australians are most familiar with are cows and sheep. If Australians knew what happened in chicken/pig farms (even free range, which are usually as bad), and all slaughterhouses, they might not eat animals. The pasture raised animals are the ones we see in advertisements of struggling farmers, not the chickens stepping over the decaying bodies of their fellow species in ‘free range’ farms.

It takes many kg of plants to make 1 kg of animal flesh (often at a 7 to 1 or greater ratio). We should be able to assume that these plants could be consumed by humans as well, but even if that is not the case, if we didn’t grow whatever plant it was, we could grow crops for humans in their place. If we assume that most of the plants fed to non-humans in factory farms in Australia are sourced in Australia (I think this is reasonable), we should still have enough food to feed Australians even if we eliminated all animal farming in Australia. We wouldn’t even need to repurpose arid land to grow crops that are suited to those climates (e.g. almonds and hemp), although we may want to do this anyway.

To put this another way, we would have so much spare land for growing crops for people if we stopped farming chickens, pigs and turkeys that it would almost certainly make up for the lost ‘food’ from farming cows, sheep and goats, and then some.

Asteroids and comets as space weapons

A video version of this is available here.


Approximately 66 million years ago, a 10 km sized body struck Earth, and was likely one of the main contributors to the extinction of many species at the time. Bodies the size of 5 km or larger impact Earth on average every 20 million years (one might say we are overdue for one, but then one wouldn’t understand statistics). Asteroids 1 km or larger impact Earth every 500,000 years on average. Smaller bodies which can still do considerable local damage occur much more frequently (10 m wide bodies impact Earth on average every 10 years). It seems reasonable to say that only the first category (>~5 km) pose an existential threat, however many others pose major catastrophic threats*.

Given the likelihood of an asteroid impact (I use the word asteroid instead of asteroid and/or comet from here for sake of brevity), some argue that further improving detection and deflection technology are critical. Matheny (2007) estimates that, even if asteroid extinction events are improbable, due to the loss of future human generations if one were to occur, asteroid detection/deflection research and development could save a human life-year for $2.50 (US). Asteroid impact mitigation is not thought to be the most pressing existential threat (e.g. artificial intelligence or global pandemics), and yet it already seems to have better return on investment than the best now-centric human charities (though not non-human charities – I am largely ignoring non-humans here for simplicity and sake of argument).

The purpose of this article is to explore a depressing cautionary note in the field of asteroid impact mitigation. As we improve our ability to detect and (especially) deflect asteroids with an Earth-intersecting orbit away from Earth, we also improve our ability to deflect asteroids without an Earth-intersecting orbit in to Earth. This idea was first explored by Steven Ostro and Carl Sagan, and I will summarise their argument below.

Asteroid deflection as a DURC

A dual use research of concern (DURC) refers to research in the life sciences that, while intended for public benefit, could also be repurposed to cause public harm. One prominent example is that of disease and contagion research (can improve disease control, but can also be used to spread disease more effectively, either accidentally or maliciously). I will argue here that DURC can and should be applicable to any technology that has a potential dual use such as this.

Ostro and Sagan (1998) proposed that asteroid impacts could act as a double edged explanation for the Fermi paradox (why don’t we see any evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations?). The argument goes as follows: Those species that don’t develop asteroid deflection technology eventually go extinct due to some large impact, while those that do eventually go extinct because they accidentally or maliciously deflect a large asteroid into their planet. This has since been termed the ‘deflection dilemma‘.

The question arises: does the likelihood of a large impact increase as asteroid deflection technology is developed, rather than decrease? The most pressing existential and catastrophic threats today seem to be those that were created by technology (artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons, global health pandemics, anthropogenic global warming) rather than natural events (asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes, gamma ray bursts). Humanity has survived for millions of years (depending on how you define humanity), yet in the last 70 years have seen the advent of nuclear weapons and other technology that could meaningfully cause a catastrophic at any time. It seems possible therefore that the bigger risk will be that caused by technology, not the natural risk.

Ostro and Sagan (1994) argue that development of asteroid deflection technology is at the time of writing (and presumably today) premature, given the track record of global politics.

Who would maliciously deflect an asteroid?

Ignoring accidental deflection, which might occur when an asteroid is moved to an Earth or Lunar orbit for research or mining purposes (see this now scrapped proposal to bring a small asteroid in to Lunar orbit), there are two categories of actors that might maliciously deflect such a body; state actors and terrorist groups.

A state actor might be incentivised to authorise an asteroid strike on an enemy or potential enemy in situations where they wouldn’t necessarily authorise a nuclear strike or conventional invasion. For example, let us consider an asteroid of around 20 m in diameter. Near Earth orbit asteroids of around this size are often only detected several hours or days before passing between Earth and the Moon. If a state actor is able to identify an asteroid that will pass near Earth in secret before the global community has, they can feasibly send a mission to alter its orbit to intersect with Earth in a way such that it would not be detected until it is much too late. Assuming the state actor did its job well enough, it would be impossible for anyone to lay blame on them, let alone even guess that it might have been caused by malicious intent.

An asteroid of this size would be expected to have enough energy to cause an explosion 30 times the strength of the nuclear bomb dropped over Hiroshima in WWII.

We can temper the likelihood of this scenario by speculating that it is unlikely for some state actor to covertly discover a new asteroid and track its orbit without any other actor discovering it, considering there are transparent organisations working on tracking them. However, is it possible that a government organisation (e.g. NASA) could be ordered to not share information about a new asteroid?

What to do about this problem

Even if we don’t directly develop asteroid deflection technology, as other technologies progress (e.g. launching payloads becomes cheaper, propulsion systems become more efficient), it will become easier over time anyway. Other space weapons, such as anti-satellite weapons (direct ascent kinetic kill projectiles or directed energy weapons), space stored nuclear weapons, and kinetic bombardment (rods from god) will all become easier with general improvements in relevant technology.

The question arises – even if a small group of people were to decide that developing asteroid deflection technology causes more harm than good, what can they meaningfully do about it? The idea that developing asteroid deflection technology is good is so entrenched in popular opinion that it seems like arguing for less or no spending in the area might be a bad idea. This seems like a similar situation to where AI safety researchers find themselves. Advocating for less funding and development of AI seems relatively intractable, so they instead work on solutions to make AI safer. Another similar example is that of pandemics research – it has obvious benefits in building resilience to natural pandemics, but may also enable a malicious or accidental outbreak of an engineered pathogen.

Final thoughts

I have not considered the possibility of altering the orbit of an extinction class body (~10 km diameter or greater) in to an Earth intersecting orbit. While the damage of this would obviously be much greater, even ignoring considerations about future generations that would be lost, it would be significantly harder to alter the orbit of such a body. Also, we believe we have discovered all of the bodies of this size in a near Earth orbit (Huebner et al 2009), and so it would be much harder to do this covertly and without risking retaliation (e.g. mutually assured destruction via nuclear weapons). The possibility of altering the orbit of such bodies should still be considered, as it poses an existential/catastrophic risk while smaller bodies do not.

I have also chosen to largely not focus on other types of space weapons (see this book for an overview of space weapons generally) for similar reasons – the potential for dual-use is less clear, thus in theory making it harder to set up such technologies in space. It would also be more difficult to make the utilisation of such weapons look like an accident.

Future work

A cost benefit analysis that examines the pros and cons of developing asteroid deflection technology in a rigorous and numerical way should be a high priority. Such an analysis would consider the expected value of damage of natural asteroid impacts in comparison with the increased risk from developing technology (and possibly examine the opportunity cost of what could otherwise be done with the R&D funding). An example of such an analysis exists in the space of global health pandemics research, which would be a good starting point. I believe it is unclear at this time whether the benefits outweigh the risks, or vice versa (though at this time I lean towards the risks outweighing the benefits – an unfortunate conclusion for a PhD candidate researching asteroid exploration and deflection to come to).

Research regarding the technical feasibility of deflecting an asteroid into a specific target (e.g. a city) should be examined, however this analysis comes with drawbacks (see section on information hazards).

We should also consider policy and international cooperation solutions that can be set in place today to reduce the likelihood of accidental and malicious asteroid deflection occurring.

Information hazard disclaimer

An information hazard is “a risk that arises from the dissemination or the potential dissemination of (true) information that may cause harm or enable some agent to cause harm.” Much of the research in to the risk side of DURCs could be considered an information hazard. For example, a paper that demonstrates how easy it might be to engineer and release an advanced pathogen with the intent of raising concern could make it easier for someone to do just that. It even seems plausible that publishing such a paper could cause more harm than good. Similar research into asteroids as a DURC would have the same issue (indeed, this post itself could be an information hazard).

* An ‘existential threat’ typically refers to an event that could kill either all human life, or all life in general. A ‘catastrophic threat’ refers to an event that would cause substantial damage and suffering, but wouldn’t be expected to kill all human life, which would eventually rebuild.

Two impactful things you can do this World Environment Day

Happy World Environment Day! Last year I wrote a post about what you can do for the environment. This year I’m doing something similar, but going for a lighter format. Enjoy!


Days like these are great opportunities to reflect and make sure we are doing all we practically can to protect the environment. Today, I’d like to focus on two small things that we as individuals can do which are highly effective but not very often talked about.

Cool Earth

Within a particular cause area, some charities can be as much as 1000’s of times more effective than others. So if you’re going to donate to an environmental charity, it’s crucial to make sure your $$ are having the most impact they can. One stand out environmental charity is Cool Earth.

Cool Earth works to stop deforestation, and are so effective that $1.34 US donated to them reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 1 tonne of CO2-equivalent. As of 2016, this was one of the best charities for reducing GHG emissions.

The average American uses about 20 tonnes of CO2 per year as of 2006, so you could offset a years worth of emissions for just $26.8.

Livestock industry

Over the past few decades, the impact of the livestock industry on the environment has become increasingly clear. Below I’ve outlined a few key statistics to show just big the impact is (stats are relative to the average US meat eating diet).

Image from https://91news.com.au/2015/10/02/india-to-reduce-carbon-emissions-intensity-by-35-by-2030/. Stat from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/.

Image from http://www.ball-law.com/lawyer-land-use-purdue/. Stat from https://www.amazon.com/Diet-New-America-John-Robbins/dp/0915811812.

Image from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/oil-prices-head-lower-as-global-tensions-continue-unabated-2017-08-11. Stat from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/.

Adopting a plant-based diet is more effective for reducing your CO2 emissions than forgoing showers, having solar panels, and using bikes instead of cars.

So what can you do about this? Well for starters, you should definitely consider not having any animal products today (I might be too late for that), but also you should consider having less or no animal products in the future. It’s becoming easier every day with increasing access to cheap, delicious plant-based food.

I initially stopped eating meat because I became convinced that it was one of the most effective things I could do to help the environment, and it was way easier than I expected. I’d like to encourage everyone to try it. Just start with one vegan day a week and work from there.

Great tasting food doesn’t have to contain animal products. If you live in Sydney check out Soul Burger for some plant based deliciousness, like this ‘chicken’ and ‘bacon’ burger (my weekly guilty pleasure)!

If you need some help or inspiration, check out this guide.

For a more detailed look at the research behind the environmental impacts of the livestock industry, start with these: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987 http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM

Morality is Hard podcast episode 6 – Elie Hassenfeld of GiveWell

After a short hiatus, the Morality is Hard podcast is back with a new interview featuring Elie Hassenfeld, one of the co-founders of GiveWell. Find the interview on iTunes, below or here!


Elie Hassenfeld and I spoke about the charity he co-founded with Holden Karnofsky, GiveWell, and how it analyses charities to determine how effective they are at alleviating suffering.

We also spoke about Open Philanthropy Project, a sister organisation of GiveWell, which started with the question of “How can we accomplish as much good as possible with our giving?”

Unfortunately due to venue and time constraints, we had the record the interview in the back room of a restaurant, and you can heard some of the chatter in the background. I hope that doesn’t take away from the content too much!

If you’re interested in finding out how to make sure your charitable donations are having as much impact as possible, this is the interview for you.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook to stay up to date with the podcast and to join the discussion.

2017 Per Capita Young Writers’ Prize 1st place: Effects of Livestock Industry on Climate Change and the Environment

I’m pretty chuffed to have won equal first prize for the 2017 Per Capita Young Writers’ Prize. I was hesitant to apply at first, as I didn’t think an article about the livestock industry would be seen as relevant enough to do well, but I’m glad I tried. Below is the essay in full.

The question was: “If you were a Federal Cabinet Minister in a leading portfolio (Environment, Health, Education, Housing, Transport, Industry, Science, Treasury) what would be your principal policy priorities, taking account of the long-term national interest? Explain the reasons for your priorities and outline your strategies for implementation.”

As the Minister for the Environment and Energy of Australia, I have decided to focus my policy priorities on animal agriculture. This is based on extensive research and understanding of national priorities and risks, which will be outlined below. I have also presented a list of policy actions which I will seek to undertake over my term as Minister.

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, both in Australia and internationally, rarely acknowledges the role that animal agriculture plays. There is a disparate focus on the energy and transport sectors.

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. In Australia, there is a substantial level of protest around the expansion of fossil fuel extraction, especially the practice of hydraulic fracturing and its impact on water. Given the high water use of industrial animal agriculture, it seems likely that protest and attention will also turn to this industry.

Effect of the livestock industry on human health and animal welfare

Not only does this industry affect wild animals and environment, it also creates an immense amount of suffering for the animals used as food. Undercover investigations have revealed excessive cruelty and suffering as standard practice, particularly in industrial Australian pig and chicken farming. Many Australians are already against animal abuse. While we mitigate the environmental issue, we can also align government policy with the ethical preferences of Australians. The proportion of people who completely eschew animal products, vegans, is also a growing population, and will become a considerable voting force in its own right.

The health impacts of a diet high in animal products are non-trivial. Notably, the World Health Organisation announced in 2015 that they have listed processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans), and red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen (probably carcinogenic to humans). While processed meat does not pose as much of a risk to cancer as tobacco, studies have suggested that a diet high in plant-based food leads to lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and a reduced risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease. As the Australian Government, we have a duty to protect the health of Australian citizens.

Case study – 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.

Policy recommendations

A multi-level policy is proposed to achieve long-term national interests. We should gradually replace the livestock industry with plant-based farming. This is a trend we expect to occur globally regardless of our involvement, and it is in Australia’s best interest to start laying the groundwork for this transformative shift early. 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.

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.

We should promote a plant-based, whole foods diet through national public health campaigns. 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. Our current national health guidelines do not reflect the latest body of evidence on the impacts of animal products, and the healthfulness of a diet high in unprocessed plant foods, and should be urgently reviewed. Other countries, including China, are already beginning to alter their dietary guidelines to reflect the latest evidence on health and environmental impact, and Australia is, once again, lagging behind.

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.

Respected individuals, including Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, and Tom Hayes, CEO of Tyson Foods, are making public statements that they believe plant-based foods are the future, and they have good reason to think so. 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.