Podcast episode 3 – The Reducetarian Solution book review (01/05/2017)

Today I expanded on the book review that I wrote on The Reducetarian Solution, a series of essays on eating less animal products edited by Brian Kateman. It’s not an entirely vegan book, which may bother some people, but I think people interested in animal advocacy should know what it says to know whether to promote, support or recommend it.

The psychology and behaviour of chickens

The Our Hen House podcast recently had a great interview with Lori Marino which I’ve been meaning to summarise. She talks about her recent review paper on the psychology and behaviour of chickens. I found it particularly fascinating because I’ve never really known a lot about the actual characteristics of animals used for food, despite caring a lot about their welfare. As an anecdote, a few years ago I found myself sitting in a field with half a dozen cows, feeling somewhat scared, but found them to be incredibly gentle and curious.

One of the most interesting points to me was that chicken’s beaks are highly innervated. Their beaks are their main way of exploring the world. It’s used to touch and sense their surroundings, to find food, to preen themselves, and to move things. I’ve always known that chickens are debeaked in factory farms to stop them from attacking other chickens in the tight living conditions, so this just drives home how painful that must be. Lori says that many people assume debeaking is like clipping a fingernail, but it’s actually more like taking a finger.

Chickens are able to perform basic arithmetic, even at two days old, which is a function many, myself included, don’t expect chickens to be able to do. For example, you can present a two sets of balls to them with a different amount, which are then put behind a screen. The chickens have to remember how many were behind each screen, presumably to get some reward.

The history of chickens is also interesting. Originally, they are a type of red jungle fowl from India and South East Asia. Subsequent breeding has been primarily focused on getting them to grow faster or produce more eggs, with very little impact on their cognitive capacity. This means that food chickens are not adapted for living in a factory farm. Interestingly, if given access, they will often prefer to climb trees over living in a barn.

Many of the papers reviewed in this paper were, of course, the result of animal testing. To Marino’s credit, she used all of the available research, including that which involved animal testing. She argued that leaving out that research would result in not capturing useful data. She also argues that such an action wouldn’t result in the end of that research taking place. Marino is careful to make the point that reporting on some data doesn’t mean you condone the way in which it was collected.

I want to drill down on this a little. In a sense, it might actually have some non-trivial effect on the production of studies that use animal testing. In academia, there is a saying that goes ‘publish or perish’. Basically, progression and prestige in academia is largely based on the number of citations you get on your papers (when another study references yours), and the prestige of the journals you publish in. This guides promotions, grant funding, awards, and so on.

So in a way, giving such studies citations might actually have some small effect on the likelihood of future animal testing taking place. Having said that, the effect really is probably quite small, and I don’t think it would outweigh the positive effects of this research being available. But I did just want to call into question this claim. I’m curious about this, and will be reaching out to Marino for further comment, and will update this blog post if she responds.

I found this interview fascinating and interesting, and just wanted to share a taste of it and encourage you to check it out, which you can do so here.

The Reducetarian Solution – book review

Edit – you can now also enjoy this review in podcast form with some added discussion.

I initially felt apprehensive about writing a book review for The Reducetarian Solution. There are certain issues where, no matter what you say or what position you take, and sometimes even if you take no position, at least some proportion of the community will be unhappy with you. This feels like it will be no exception. Nevertheless, I will try to be as neutral as possible.

I also feel like I’m trying to write a book review for two very different audiences – the effective altruism/animal advocacy communities who want to know how effective this book is at improving the world and whether they should read and recommend it, and people who are interested in reading it, and possibly in changing their behaviour as a result of some compelling arguments. In that sense, it’s a pretty unusual book review. We’ll see how that goes.

In this case (as is often the case), much of the division is around choice of ethical framework. If you take an abolitionist approach, the notion of promoting anything less than total veganism might be unthinkable. If you take a consequentialist approach, you can potentially come up with arguments in favour of a softer pitch, if it looks like it will reduce suffering more than a hardline message. This might be the case if it is a more palatable message that is easier to achieve. After all, 10 people halving their animal product consumption has more (short term at least) impact as one person becoming vegan.

There are two reasons why I, a consequentialist, remained sceptical about this argument. I was unsure how much more palatable a soft approach really could be, and I was unsure whether there were longer term benefits to having more vegans that we were missing. It might be safe to say that vegans value an end to exploitation of animals, while reducetarians wouldn’t, or at least would value it less, which might have flow-on effects. However, as I’ve said before, more vegans might actually be bad (Disclaimer, I find this somewhat unlikely, but I have to say it because too many people assume stuff is 100% certain. All else being equal, I would rather more vegans in the world than less.).

Anyway, on to the book review.

The Reducetarian Solution is a collection of essays (from a pretty all-star cast of authors) around three themes; mind, body and planet. The book is concluded with a number of recipes, some vegan, some vegetarian, some neither.

Because the book is written by so many different people, I have tried to separate my review out into two parts – one addressing specific essays (which can be found at the end of this post), and addressing the themes of the book as a whole. There being 72 essays, I haven’t commented on all of them. I’ve just made some notes on essays which I thought were interesting or where I had something to say. I make a few critiques, though I hope these are taken for what they are – me pointing out some individual claims I disagree with, not an attack on the essay in question or the book as a whole.

The essays primarily (though not always) use arguments other than animal welfare or animal rights to make the case for eating fewer animal products. In particular, they focus on benefits to you as an individual, and benefits to the environment and humanity overall.

In general, the essays seem to make veganism sound like a fairly hard thing to achieve, whether indirectly by advocating for a small or major reduction in meat (mostly) or animal product consumption generally, or directly by saying that veganism is quite hard, and so you should try reducetarianism if you want to have a positive impact. In my experience, there were some difficulties with becoming vegan, but I wouldn’t want to overplay that. I have a modest level of willpower, but I don’t think it’s amazing. However, I was able to commit to being vegan once I knew the relevant facts with relatively few issues. I still have reservations on a line of messaging that seems to make full veganism seem hard, which I’ll discuss more below.

In addition, as I have discussed before, I also have reservations about focussing on just meat. The environmental and health arguments for eating fewer animal products might be effective for those cases, but it would be naïve to assume that there is a 100% overlap between achieving less animal suffering and achieving better human health and better environmental outcomes. Take health, for example. If one were convinced by the health arguments for not eating meat, they might note that red and processed meats are the worst offenders.

Thus, they might cut out these meats, and eat chicken or fish instead. However, we know that chickens and fish produce much less edible flesh per life than cows and pigs do. Therefore, if one cuts out red meat and even just slightly increases their consumption of chicken and/or fish to account for that, they might be increasing their total effect on suffering.

The same applies for environmental factors – out of typical food animals, cows are the worst offenders for land use and greenhouse gas emissions. If one were focussing on their environmental footprint, they might do the same thing. If one were interested in reducing their impact on animal suffering in a reducetarian context, the best thing they could do would be the opposite – eat fewer chickens and fish, and the same or more cows and pigs. These goals are in conflict with each other, and because The Reducetarian Solution focuses mostly on the health and environmental aspects, I worry that the suffering aspect could get left behind. See this post of mine for a much more detailed discussion of this issue.

I also wonder if events like Meatless Monday have any effect, positive or negative, on egg consumption. After a pretty brief web search, I couldn’t find anything on this. Because egg consumption results in a pretty high amount of suffering compared to milk, if reducetarian messages increased egg consumption, that would also be bad, maybe even net bad relative to doing nothing. This is just a concern, and is not backed by any data whatsoever, so take it with a fist full of salt. I do think it’s plausible that with a careful approach, concerns about increasing chicken, fish and egg consumption could be allayed, but I’m not entirely sure what this would look like.

The target audience is undoubtedly non-veg*ns (certainly not a surprise, and not a bad thing). There are some interesting insights, so it is still worth picking up for a dedicated, long-term vegan, but less so than someone interested in reducing their consumption, unless they wanted to get better at advocating for reducetarianism. But that’s fine – the book is designed with the target audience of omnivores in mind. The goal, if I might speculate, is to reduce the consumption of animal products in omnivores.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read, and I finished it over about 5 days. I can’t speak personally to how compelling the arguments were, since I’m already sold by most of them. I’m considering asking my parents to read it, and can report back on their take, and whether it inspired any change in their attitudes and actions.

I feel like I’m on the fence relative to most other animal advocates. I’m a consequentialist, so will advocate for whatever approach I think is most effective at reducing suffering. But I do worry that a lot of consequentialists are not considering the possible negative effects of focusing on animal welfare reform (possibly increasing consumption by making animals seem better treated) or a ‘reduce’ message (possibly reducing the rise of veganism or having other negative long term effects).

The Reducetarian Foundation commissioned a study to examine the effect of ‘reduce’ (eat less meat) and ‘eliminate’ (eat no meat) messages, which was released in 2016. Full data was collected from 2,237 participants, who were shown an article with either a reduce appeal, an eliminate appeal, or an unrelated article about walking as a form of exercise (which acted as the control group – the articles used can be found in the appendix here). They found that the reduce and eliminate lines of messaging lead to a 7.1% and 5.8% reduction respectively in self-reported meat consumption over the 30 days following. Both also led to a shift in participant’s opinions on factory farming and meat eating in the US. Interestingly, the report was careful to say that they found “no evidence that a reduce is any more effective than an eliminate appeal”.

Compared to the control group, after 30 days the reduce and eliminate groups were more likely to think that animal agriculture contributes to suffering and environmental degradation, that people are healthier with less meat, and that Americans are reducing their meat consumption, and less likely to think that animals have a good standard of living. In these categories, the difference between the reduce and eliminate groups seems small and mixed. There seemed to be very little effect of the articles on perceptions of people towards vegetarians, intention to change meat consumption in the future, and perception of animal intelligence.

I’m not intending to fully break down the methodology and statistical significance of the study here. I do think it’s fair to say that, while the reduce message seemed slightly more effective at reducing meat consumption, there is no evidence that either framing was more effective than the other at changing attitudes around meat. The study acknowledges they do not know whether the effects on diet of either message are more likely than the other to persist for a longer period of time. There also does not seem to be any examination of whether there are other long term effects of each message that might have negative outcomes relative to doing nothing, e.g. if it is the case that widespread promotion of a reduce message makes people less likely to be vegan in the long run.

While I still have reservations about the long term effects of a reduce message over an eliminate message, I can’t definitely say that they are negative, and I do believe that it is a positive thing this book exists. From the limited evidence we have at our disposal, it seems apparent that something like this will reduce animal product consumption, at least in the short term. Significantly more non-vegans (the audience we’d want to reach with outreach) would pick up this book than a book advocating for veganism, and if the lines of messaging really are similar in effectiveness, we could argue that this therefore has an even greater short term effect on diet.

If you’re considering eating less animal products or are unsure whether you’d want to, I would recommend this book. If you have thought about being vegetarian or vegan, or think that you might like to, I’d encourage you to keep that in mind as you read, and to keep that as your end goal.

With respect veganism being a long term goal, I do just want to say this. Gary Francione argues that if you want to become a vegan but don’t feel able to immediately, the best way to get there is to go vegan for one meal a day, or one day a week. Most people would tend to just eat fewer animal products. Unlike this approach, setting aside time to specifically be vegan actually allows you to practice being vegan. For example, if you pick lunch as your vegan meal, you need to think about vegan options at restaurants, you need to think about what you can and can’t eat at catered events, and you need to know what to cook. This isn’t the sort of practice you’d get by just reducing your consumption. I don’t agree with most things Francione says, but this is something that I think is a valid point (#I have no data to back this up).

Please now enjoy some notes I made on some of the essays. There was some pretty interesting stuff and I think you’ll get something out of it no matter where you’re at.

The bizarre forces that drive people to eat too much meat – David Robinson Simon

The first essay nicely summarises the concept of external cost, and argues that animal product prices should be brought up to their true cost by removing subsidies and/or adding a tax. Interestingly, price is one of the biggest drivers for meat consumption. On average, as prices drop by 10%, consumption rises by around 6.5%.

The element of surprise – Tania Luna

Luna discusses some ways for people to disrupt their eating habits if they are interested in eating less animal products. The essay also discusses willpower depletion, however this particular psychological theory seems to have been debunked. The science of willpower depletion suggests that one’s willpower is a limited resource, and you can use it up by doing certain actions (e.g. resisting that delicious Oreo), or replenish it by doing others (e.g. demolishing that packet of Oreos – maybe this is why I seem to have reasonable willpower).

“They told some of the students to hang out for a while unattended, eating only from the bowl of radishes, while another group ate only cookies. Afterward, each volunteer tried to solve a puzzle, one that was designed to be impossible to complete.”

“They found that the ones who’d eaten chocolate chip cookies kept working on the puzzle for 19 minutes, on average—about as long as people in a control condition who hadn’t snacked at all. The group of kids who noshed on radishes flubbed the puzzle test. They lasted just eight minutes before they quit in frustration.”

While it may still be early days for detractors of this theory, I would caution against using it in decision making.

Cannibalism is natural too – Richard Wrangham

Wrangham takes aim at the notion that eating meat is ok because it’s natural and humans (and other animals) have done it for a long time, which is a common rebuttal I come up against in my own advocacy. He points out that cannibalism and other unspeakable acts are also natural for humans and other animals, but that doesn’t make it an ethically reasonable thing to do.

Tricked! – Seth Godin

Godin argues that consumers are being tricked in a number of ways to buying more meat. Part of this is the dietary food pyramid, which was a deliberate marketing effort to “put meat at the base of the healthy diet”. It’s marketed as a food for the rich, which makes me wonder if this is related to the rise of meat consumption in developing nations as they come out of poverty. If meat is a symbol of wealth, people might want to show it off. This is my favourite passage from the essay:

“The thing about cultural preference is that it is invisible… We don’t say that we don’t like to eat crickets because we didn’t grow up with them, we say it’s because they’re “gross”… some people reading this will say they order meat because it tastes better or because the human metabolism is designed to eat it… No, it’s culture that drives us to do this, and culture that drives our preferences.”

The original food pyramid from the United States Department of Agriculture. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USDA_Food_Pyramid.gif

Less meat; more dough – Paul Shapiro

Shapiro discusses the ways in which eating less meat can save you money. A common argument against veganism is that it costs a lot of money, or that it’s a privileged thing to be able to do. This is simply not the case. It might be true if you buy a lot of expensive plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, but if you have a standard diet of fruit, vegetables, grains and beans, you’ll save yourself money.

Sure, I’ve personally been to non-vegan restaurants where the vegan options are expensive, small, and leave a lot to be desired. But in general, rice and beans is cheaper than a steak.

A nudge in the right direction – Per Espen Stoknes, Bradley Swain

Stoknes and Swain discuss the power of psychological ‘nudges’ in behavioural change. This can be incredibly powerful and simple, and is widely credited as the reason that Austria and Sweden have around 98% of their eligible population being organ donors. Unlike other countries, when given the choice, Austrians and Swedes must ‘opt-out’ of being an organ donor, instead of having to ‘opt-in’. Because people are biased towards the status quo (making no change), they typically won’t check the box.

These sorts of techniques are the kinds of things you hope animal advocates get really good at, and the animal agriculture industry doesn’t. Unfortunately, mainstream media is already very good at making you do what they want you to, so we have some catching up to do.

“…a restaurant in Oslo that looked at the effect of simply renaming the “vegetarian options.” The restaurant rebranded vegetable-based menu items with fancier names like “Mexican-style taco” and made vegetarian options the special dish of the day. As a result of these tweaks, customers at the restaurant ended up eating meat less frequently. The change was seen particularly among customers who did not have a strong connection to nature.”

This quote is interesting. Skeptical me wonders if calling things something other than “vegan” or “vegetarian” might result in a weaker long term effect. For example, seeing these options available or ordering one and seeing that it’s delicious might cause an omnivore to react positively towards veg*nism. If they order a “Mexican-style taco”, that it had no meat might not cross their mind. It seems like a possible trade-off between short and long term effects. I’d love to see a longer term study on this and how the two labels affect future animal product consumption.

Why we crave meat in the first place – Marta Zaraska

Zaraska says “We should stop flogging vegetarians who sometimes secretly eat meat. After all, compared to the Western average, they likely did manage to change their diets substantially. If you are an ethical vegetarian, think about it: What would save more lives – if one person stopped eating meat altogether, or if millions cut out just on meat-based meal a month?”

I feel like this slightly misses the point that abolitionists make. Abolitionists seem to accept that this would result in less immediate animal suffering. However, they generally don’t value wellbeing, but instead value bringing about a world with less exploitation. Also, an abolitionist would argue that the act of advocating for anything less than complete veganism would have negative implications, as it would make it seem ethically fine to reduce instead of eliminate, and this might make it harder to end animal exploitation in the long run. Some abolitionists would simply reject this approach because they see it as intrinsically unethical to advocate for anything less than full veganism regardless of the consequences, which of course I find difficult to swallow.

From MRES to McRibs: Military influence on American meat eating – Anastacia Marx de Salcedo

Marx de Salcedo provided an interesting historical account of the influences the US military has had on food production. For example, during WWI, in an effort to improving packing processes for rations and to reduce costs, army food scientists developed a technology to flake unfavourable parts of meat and ‘glue’ them together into a more traditional looking cut. This technique is still popular today in a lot of fast food joints.

Effective reducetarianism – William MacAskill

MacAskill discusses how you can maximise your impact on reducing suffering within a reducetarian context. For example, as I discussed early, cutting chickens out of your diet would have a greater impact on reducing animal suffering than cutting out cows. As I also discussed earlier, focussing on optimising for environmental and health aspects, if you don’t intend to fully go vegan or vegetarian, might actually increase suffering. While The Reducetarian Solution did have some messaging around reducing chicken and fish consumption preferentially, I wish it had more.

The power of film to expose the meat industry and change lives – Mark Devries

Devries discusses exactly what his title suggests he will. I thought this was a neat overview, and I learnt a few things. One in particular totally blew me away. I never realised that an actual practice of factory farms in the US is to spray sewage into the air, where it becomes a mist and settles on to nearby houses. Check out the footage.

The antibiotic resistance at the meat counter – Lance B. Price

This essay is a good introduction to the issue of global antibiotic resistance, and the role the animal agriculture industry plays in it. To put a complicated and serious issue very simply, as more antibiotics are used, the prevalence of antibiotic resistant superbugs increases. If usage continues to increase, we could have some serious global health issues on our hands.

When people think about reducing global use of antibiotics, they often think of human use. But in the US, 32.6 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use in animal agriculture in 2013, compared to just 7.7 million pounds for human use in 2011.

When a global catastrophe strikes – David Denkenberger

Denkenberger makes several arguments about global catastrophic risk in such rapid succession and so candidly that it took me three reads to convince myself I understood what he meant. But – he makes some good points. Denkenberger suggests that a possible reason some people might have for not reducing meat consumption, is that it would reduce the amount of grain stored in the world (since less is needed for animal feedstock), which might harm our ability to survive in a food crisis (say after a global thermonuclear war, which some experts believe is quite plausible in the next 100 years – or if not that, some other catastrophic event).

However don’t fear, he says. Food storage as a solution would be extremely expensive compared to alternative food technology, such as food developed from ‘natural gas loving bacteria’. Developing these technologies would be much cheaper. So while reducing global meat consumption might slightly increase food storage issues in the event of a global catastrophe, we can get around that by investing a small amount of money in food technology experimentation.

If you haven’t read much existential or catastrophic risk literature, this might have just made no sense (or it might just sound totally crazy). If that’s the case, as someone who cares about life and the world, I suggest you look into it.

Through alien eyes – Nigel Henbest & Heather Couper

Henbest and Couper ask us to imagine humanity discovers a new planet with two lifeforms on it, which we call the Gips and the Namuhs. The Gips are peaceful, but the Namuhs are cruel, and kill each other as well as the Gips. They imprison the Gips, and eat them after executing them.

The Gips are pigs, and the Namuhs are humans.

The authors also discuss the phenomenon of humans wanting to send messages with information about humanity to other stars. If this sounds farfetched, consider that Frank Drake, American astronomer, used the world’s largest radio telescope to send a message into space which “described human biology and anatomy and included a map showing how to locate planet Earth”. This, they argue, is a pretty bad idea.

They’re not alone in thinking this. Associate Professor Geoffrey Miller, University of New Mexico, gave a talk at the University of New South Wales in 2016, which I attended. He argued that sending a message to aliens with information about us is something with very low upside, and potentially catastrophic downside. It might sound cool and fun to do, but the benefits simply don’t outweigh the risks.

Insects. They’re what’s for dinner. – Daniella Martin

Martin talks about the merits of eating insects. While this might produce some environmental benefits, there is increasing evidence that insects have some capacity for sentience. Even if you weight one insect less than one chicken, as I do, it takes many insects to produce the same amount of nutrients as one chicken. Thus, promoting the idea of eating insects for food is, in my opinion, quite bad, possibly even net harmful compared to doing nothing.

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.

Morality is Hard podcast launched today

I’m pretty excited to announce that the pilot episode of a podcast I’ve been working on over the last few weeks is finally available. I had a chat with Rob Farquharson about some tricky topics, including no-platforming, artificial intelligence and wild-animal suffering.

Ever since I became interested in philosophy about 4 years ago, and especially moral philosophy, I’ve noticed that determining the most ethical course of action in specific, real world situations is actually quite hard. This doesn’t seem to reflect in the actions of most people, who seem to assume that it is easy. I’m not really sure why this is, maybe they like to believe that it’s easy to be a good person. In any case, morality is not as simple as you want it to be.

This podcast seeks to shed light on some of the most difficult ethical questions today.

As the pilot episode, I’m really looking for feedback on everything from the production to the content. I want to know if this is something that people would be interested in listening to before I continue spending time working on it and interviewing more people. Also, if you have any suggestions for future topics to discuss or people to interview, I want to know that too. Anything relating to ethics is fair game.

If you enjoyed this, please share it with your friends and like us on Facebook.

You can see the episode here, or listen via Youtube.

If you think I’m wrong about anything I said in the podcast, please let me know. I am very willing to change my mind on any issue, even my ethical framework.

Misconceptions about clean meat

I’ve seen a lot of misinformation about clean meat (also known as cellular agriculture or ‘lab meat’) and want to try and clear some of this up. I first just want to highlight this podcast interview of Our Hen House with Christie Lagally, scientist at the Good Food Institute, which covers much of the basic science and implications of clean meat. In particular, it covers many common misconceptions, and I’ll refer back to it.

First, a definition – According to New Harvest, cellular agriculture isthe production of agricultural products from cell cultures“. It is currently produced primarily by using fetal bovine serum (from my understanding, purchased from farmers when a pregnant female cow has been slaughtered), but can in theory be produced entirely from plants, without any animal intervention whatsoever. As Christie Lagally says in the Our Hen House podcast, if clean meat is ever to replace a large percentage of traditional agriculture (animal farming), this has to be the case. It is simply not feasible to mass produce clean meat using fetal bovine serum.

Yes, it is not ideal that we are currently using fetal bovine serum, and this is the crux of why many animal advocates oppose clean meat. But I would argue they are missing the bigger picture. For arguably a very small involvement in animal agriculture, we have the opportunity to reduce a vast amount of animal suffering. If clean meat replaces even just 1% of meat demand globally, it will have been worth it.

It is intriguing that most vegans are (admittedly sometimes without realising) ok with some participation in animal exploitation if it leads to better outcomes. For example, most car tyres are not vegan. Yet I still utilise vehicular transport. I, and many others, argue that the small amount of animal products used in this way is outweighed by the good that we do elsewhere because we are able to get around easily. You probably wouldn’t be a very good animal advocate if you had to walk everywhere. I would argue that clean meat is just another form of this argument, except with near limitless upside (it could revolutionise the food system), and it’s temporary. It’s because of this upside that I donated $60,000 AUD to the Good Food Institute last year (So perhaps you could say I’m biased? I would argue the opposite, I thought carefully about the arguments for and against and decided to donate as a result.).

This isn’t to say that I don’t think there are some potential downsides to clean meat. I do wonder if the looming possibility of commercially available clean meat might cause some near-veg*ns to not make the transition, because they figure they can hold out for clean meat. I’ve never seen an analysis of this, but it certainly seems plausible.

This brings me to an engagement I had via email with Trisha Roberts, host of the Vegan Trove podcast. In an online discussion about the pros and cons of clean meat, someone directed me to her podcast on the topic. If you don’t want to be biased by my summary, I suggest you listen first.

In short, I was pretty blown away. Not only was much of the material misleading, some of it was just blatantly incorrect. I sent Trisha an email addressing my concerns, so I’ll just copy that below.

Hi Vegantrove,

I just heard your two part podcast from 2016 titled ‘Clean meat’: http://www.vegantrove.com/2016/07/05/vegan-trove-0035pt1/

I thought it raised some good points, but I’d just like to point out some misleading comments.

You spoke about how GFI is a business which is publicly listed and can be bought and controlled by the likes of Monsanto. I’m unsure where you got this impression from, as GFI is a non-profit and can’t be bought.

You also made it sound like the way clean meat is produced today is the way it always will be produced. This is likely misleading, because clean meat companies recognise that the only way to get scale with this is to be able to develop the culture entirely from plants, with no animal involvement whatsoever. This is not only theoretically possible, but similar work has already been achieved.

You criticise Bruce Freidrich et al for putting money into clean meat instead of vegan advocacy, but I think this misses the point. Bruce did that because he thinks it’s a more effective way of reducing suffering than vegan advocacy. E.g. there are many people in the world who wouldn’t be convinced by veganism, but many of them might switch to clean meat. I think this issue comes down to a difference in ethical framework rather than any factual disagreement. I understand that you approach animal ethics from a deontologist/abolitionist perspective, while Freidrich and many others approach it from a consequentialist perspective. If you hold different ethical views, you will of course come up with different answers for what we ought to do.

I hope this shed some light on the material you discussed in the podcast. I also hope you will consider issuing a correction. The comments that GFI is a business are particularly damaging, and entirely false.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to discuss this at all.



I was particularly distressed by how she claimed GFI was a business, and went on about this at length. I have no idea where she could possibly have gotten this idea from. She also spoke at length about a possible future world where we all had a local chicken or pig or cow that we could harvest cells from and grow them in a culture whenever we wanted food. As I said above, this is unrealistic and not feasible. If people think this world really is the future of clean meat, I can see why people would reject it.

Trisha responded with a rather detailed email of her own. I’ve asked her for permission to share part or all of it here, as I think it highlights her views succinctly, but she declined, so I will briefly cover them here.

First, she didn’t address my concern about her claims that GFI is a business that could be bought out by Monsanto and used for evil. That point was either missed or ignored.

She raises a good point that even clean meat would likely be unhealthy, so why should we promote something unhealthy? This is a fair point, but human health seems to be a distraction here. By sheer scale, the primary issue at hand is the 70 odd billion land animals (plus many more marine animals) farmed for food each year. Further, why should this be any different from promoting vegan junk food to help get people across the line?

She goes on to reiterate many of her points, but does manage to find the time to criticise the work that Santos does, an energy company in Australia that is involved in hydraulic fracturing. I used to work for Santos. At first I was confused because I never mentioned Santos or fracking. I’m guessing she looked me up, saw that I used to work for Santos, and used the opportunity to criticise me for that. This is somewhat of a distraction, but I do find it amusing that she first said she had little time to respond, but had time to look me up and use my previous line of work as a talking point.

I think a very large part of the debate here is not about scientific facts, but about disagreement on the correct moral framework. It seems the case that those who reject clean meat do so because it involves animal exploitation, however small an amount, in the short term, and no amount of potential impact in the future could justify that. As a utilitarian, I think this is a fairly poor way to make ethical choices in this world, but that’s a discussion for another time.

At the very least, I would like to encourage people to keep differing ethical frameworks in mind when they discuss this issue. It rarely seems acknowledged, but if someone has a different ethical framework to you, they will almost certainly come up with a different answer to you on what we ought to do.

Frack Free Future is misleading and incorrect on fracking

Recently, Frack Free Future put out a video about the effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Western Australia. The video was presented by former politician Carmen Lawrence. You can watch the video here, but in short, it was inherently misleading, and quite factually incorrect. I provided some information, and asked Frack Free Future to issue a correction/apology, however haven’t heard a response.

Frankly, I’m not too surprised. I’ve said this before, but with a name like ‘Frack Free Future’, they have already played their hand. They are not interested in the science of the matter, they have already decided that they want a future without fracking regardless of what the science ever says about its safety and benefits.

I’ve copied my comments below for your reading pleasure. Watch the video first for full effect.

I don’t know the specifics of this operation, but this was so oversimplified as to be totally inaccurate and misrepresentative of gas extraction. This is disappointing by Prof Lawrence and Frack Free Future. I hope both consider apologising to the public. Here are some things to keep in mind:

* Minor – You don’t ‘mine’ for gas, saying that highlights misunderstanding. But we can let that slight mistake go.

* “This is how companies are intending to mine for gas” – Mining execs are not actively planning to release gas in to the water table.

* Quick geology lesson – Sedimentary rocks are made up of many layers. Some of these layers are permeable, meaning they have spaces that liquid and gas can flow through. Some of these layers are impermeable, meaning that fluid and gas can’t flow through.
The coal layers are permeable. They are covered by a layer of impermeable rock in between it and the watertable, which is another layer of permeable rock with water. It is because of this impermeable rock that we *don’t already have* gas flowing into the water table. So what you’re claiming is that something is going to happen to break meters of impermeable rock. I will now say why that is baseless.

* In about 10% of coal seam gas wells (not 100% like people love to claim) the coal undergoes hydraulic fracturing, which is the pumping of water and some other chemicals (recall that water is a chemical before you get upset about chemicals for the sake of chemicals) in to the ground to induce fractures in the coal to increase gas flow in to the well.
Modelling is performed to ensure with a high degree of certainty that these fractures won’t propagate through the impermeable rock. In fact, fracture propagation doesn’t work like most people think it does, and it certainly doesn’t work like this model suggests.

* When a hole is drilled, especially in Australia where we have better regulation than USA, there are many measures that take place to ensure absolute minimal contamination of ground water. There are too many to cover here, but look up a simple video of how a gas drill hole is made.

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.”


““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.

How to influence stuff

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s actually pretty easy to influence stuff. It seems like people don’t try because they assume it will be too hard to change anything, and this is self-reinforcing. I’m talking about things like emailing your local politicians, getting articles and opinion pieces published, and getting a company or website to change their public position. From the age of about 20, I kind of just made a decision to be gutsy, and so far it has paid off.

I want to share some of my successes and tips, and encourage you to try being more engaged and active in issues that matter. I’ll also cover my failures and try to analyse what could have gone better, but I must say the failure rate is far, far lower than people assume it is.

This ended up being a very long article, so I’m going to publish my failures and learnings separately. Make sure to subscribe to get notified when that comes out.

What has worked


My first realisation of how little people try to do stuff they think is hard came in 2013 when I was about to start the final year of my undergraduate degree. I was unsure about applying for scholarships because my results had been lackluster until my penultimate year when I started caring. However, two of my professors encouraged me to try anyway, and one of them mentioned that not many people actually apply. I ended up receiving 4 scholarships with a total value of just under $10,000 AUD, including the prestigious Playford Memorial Trust scholarship, which comes with political networking opportunities (more on this below), and a $2,000 scholarship to which I was the only applicant despite advertising attempts by the organisation.

The takeaway here – if a scholarship looks hard to get, that deters people, and may actually increase your chances. And – you’re may well be more capable than you think you are.

Political lobbying

This next one was a smaller financial reward, but really broke down a lot of mental barriers to trying other stuff in the future. In 2014, I signed up for and was accepted to Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project training in Melbourne, a three day course where we learned about climate science, policy and communication skills.

As I mentioned, the Playford Memorial Trust offers networking opportunities with politicians, and I spoke with the opposition leader of South Australia for a few minutes. Amusingly, he approached me because he was impressed by my bio. As an aside, he was in the audience falling asleep when they read it out, and I got the pleasure of seeing him get startled to wakefulness.

I later emailed his office to ask whether they would be interested in sponsoring and funding my trip to the training in Melbourne, citing the reasoning that I would be able to better communicate the risks of climate change to his constituents. His office declined, and I asked whether he would make an introduction to my local state representative to try again. He did, and my local MP’s office got in touch to say they would pay for $100 of the trip as long as I said that they sponsored me.

Let’s take a close look at what happened here. This was clearly a valuable spend of money for them. They spend a paltry $100 and get to demonstrate that they care about climate change. It was very much a mutually beneficial situation. This is the second takeaway I’d like to leave you with. So you want to change something or get something. Half the battle is pitching it in a way that makes it desirable to them as well. Of course, I was very happy to get to say that I was sponsored by my state government to attend climate advocacy training with Al Gore.

You might say that I had some help here thanks to an introduction, and you might be right, but I don’t think it’s that unlikely that I wouldn’t have been able to land this anyway.

Contacting famous people

I often hear people complain about the stance of some famous (or otherwise) individual, but never do anything about it except type angry Facebook posts. I hear the opposite too – where someone is in awe of some individual, but never contacts them. I’ve had a lot of success with cold emails (your unintroduced email to them is the first contact between you), and want to share a few.

In early 2015 I emailed Peter Singer (I got his email from his website), one of the co-founders of the effective altruism movement, after seeing his hugely successful TED Talk on the movement. The talk really resonated with me, and I desperately wanted to know how to get involved. Amazingly, he responded within 30 minutes, and suggested that I start a chapter in Adelaide, then put me on to some people to help. As an aside, his email actually went to my spam. I never checked my spam email, but did this time, and was stunned to see his email there. Now I always check my spam. The lesson, always check your spam.

I once saw a talk by famous British geologist Iain Stewart at a geology conference in Australia. He was well-known for science communication and had been in a number of documentaries. I later emailed him for advice on getting better at science communication, and was pleasantly surprised to hear back from him.

Gary Yourofsky is an well-known animal activist who has given hundreds if not thousands of talks around the world about animal exploitation. I emailed him with some questions about how to have an impact in the space, and he replied with a long, detailed email. To be fair, he said he spends around 6 hours a day replying to cold emails, but I think this just highlights the point that famous people do respond to stuff.

There are many more examples, but I’m sure you get the point by now. I once toyed with the idea of emailing Bill Gates but didn’t, but in all honesty I think the chances of getting a personal response are higher than we all think. In terms of what to say in an email, it depends on what you want to achieve. If you just want to ask advice, just be honest and polite, and giving some context doesn’t seem to hurt (e.g. I saw your speech and it resonated with me. Would you mind if I asked you some questions? The questions are…). If you want to influence them on something, you might want to start with a more innocuous question to build rapport, and increase the likelihood of them responding. I’ve covered this a little more below.


At the end of 2015, I had a very interesting radio experience. I had already been on radio a few times by this point to talk about solar thermal energy through a committee role I had, but the interviewers were all on board and receptive, since they ran a climate related radio spot. As I found out, there is a very big difference between receptive and hostile on the radio.

It started when I saw Neil Mitchell (an Australian radio host) and two other individuals talking on Channel 9 News about the World Health Organisation announcement that processed meat is carcinogenic, and red meat is likely carcinogenic. They laughed and downplayed the announcement using a number of shoddy arguments, claiming that all things are safe in moderation. My main issue with this was that they were on a segment labelled as ‘news’, and were presenting opinion as fact without being kept in check by the news host.

I decided to take a rather aggressive approach, which turned out to work… sort of. I started a petition on change.org to hold Channel 9 News and Neil Mitchell accountable for their irresponsible health remarks. In fact, I called for them to be sacked. You can see the full petition here including my rationale, but here are some key points from the program that I took issue with, and my responses.

““I really don’t think that bacon is the prime suspect.” It is irresponsible to state an opinion as if it is fact. Processed meats such as bacon are indeed one of the leading causes of cancer and heart disease.

“We’re always being told… don’t eat this…” – “Don’t listen.” This medical advice being provided from a news anchor is simply dangerous. Being told to not listen to health advice is in no way acceptable.

I shared the petition on Facebook, including various Australian vegan Facebook pages. I then followed up with an email to share the petition to key staff at both Channel 9 and 3AW radio where Neil works. Despite only ending up with 147 signatures, the producer of Neil’s program called me the next day to ask if I wanted to speak to Neil that day live on air. I said yes, but if I knew then what I do now about how hostile radio works, I probably wouldn’t have. As I said before, it’s very different to an interview where they are already on board. The first take away lesson here is to judge for yourself whether the interviewer will be at least neutral to your message. If not, it’s probably not worth your time unless you are a pro and have carefully considered the risks.

You can hear the full interview here. I wasn’t as assertive as I should have been, and should have stuck my to my key talking points. Several times he strayed from the topic and it distracted me. He played the audio of part of the news session in question, and I later realised that they had edited it to make Neil sound more reasonable. I should have noticed this at the time and called him out on it, but I was stressed and in the moment. I got some flak from a bunch of random people on social media. But at the end of the day, it was a valuable lesson, and I now know a solid way to get people’s attention.

Since then, I have been on a number of radio interviews about both my PhD research, and my work with Effective Altruism Australia while I was CEO. These opportunities actually mostly fell on my lap (more on the PhD interviews below), so I don’t have too much to say except to put yourself out there, because you never know. With the media, you will often get either no attention, or a lot of attention.

The popular discussion panel Q&A recently launched a radio segment that follows their main TV slot where people can call in to ask questions and talk about what was discussed during the program. After a discussion on climate change that lacked any mention of animal agriculture, I called in to raise this, and was chuffed to get 60 seconds of air time. Unfortunately, the host was pretty dismissive, but it was a good opportunity to share the message to a large number of people.

Pitching articles

I’ve also discovered that it’s surprisingly easy to get an article published somewhere, so long as you’re strategic about it. My PhD research is mostly on developing new techniques to understand the physical properties of asteroids, but I also dabble in asteroid impact risk mitigation, asteroid mining and space ethics. Being concerned about existential risk (the risk of some event that might wipe out either humanity or all life), I pitched an article to The Conversation.

The Conversation publish short articles written by researchers in the relevant field on key issues of the day. Their motto is ‘academic rigour, journalistic flair’. They partner researchers with an editor to make an accurate but enjoyable article. I had previously pitched an article on public health, but was rejected because it wasn’t in my area of expertise. I later pitched an article on my PhD research and got an interested editor. He was more interested in the possibility of an asteroid impact and what we can do about it than anything directly related to my work, but I took the opportunity.

Overall, this was a wildly successful use of my time. The article has now been published in two languages and viewed by almost 100,000 people. I was contacted on the day it was published by ABC to do a 3 minute TV interview on the same day, and was contacted for several radio interviews on the same topic. Sometimes opportunities have great flow on value.

I later pitched an updated version of my public health article to the Australian Vegans Journal, where it was accepted (in a forthcoming issue). This is a pretty simple example of why target selection is important. You need to think about what audience would be receptive to the story, but also what outlet would be receptive to publishing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always align with the audience you’re trying to reach, especially if you want to talk about something like factory farming, but you can take easy opportunities to build up your profile and have a better chance later.

I also pitched an article about effective altruism to Plant Based News on how it can and should be merged with animal advocacy. This was a pretty easy sell; because of course animal advocates want to be effective. Unfortunately I have had push back elsewhere with this pitch, because not everyone in the animal advocacy community agrees with the message, but it never hurts to try.

Getting a website or organisation to change something

I have two standout examples of where I contacted someone to change something, and they did. The first and best involved an online article by the Daily Mail titled ‘If you want grandchildren, make sure you eat protein, study finds’. They’re pretty notorious for low quality reporting, and I usually ignore their articles, but this one caught my eye.

This article originally claimed that a study showed low protein diet in humans lead to low fertility. I read the study they cited, and it actually had no data on humans, it was about bovines and fruit flies. So essentially the article had drawn their own conclusions that weren’t backed up by data. I put in a complaint, and impressively, they amended the article. The complaint and response from the Daily Mail are below.

As a scientist, I’ve first hand experienced poor media reporting of science. The article says that the study reports low levels of protein can negatively affect offspring’s fertility. The news article then says that low meat intake can result in the same, presumably because they assume meat has a lot of protein, even though a plant based diet has already been shown to be more efficient for protein intake. So the author of this article likely made their own assumptions. However, it is impossible to tell because the article didn’t link to the original study, so I can’t fact check it. Overall, this seems like a very poor example of science reporting. I think it is more than appropriate that the article is revisited. If the article is indeed misleading, it should be corrected. I will be following this up with a formal complaint, including to other news outlets, in several weeks if it is not addressed.

Dear Mr Dello-Iacovo,

Thank you for your email, which has been passed on to me for a response. We are sorry for the delay in responding to you and please be assured that we meant no discourtesy.

We are extremely grateful for you to take the time and trouble to address these points and as you may be aware we have amended the copy to reflect these.

If there is anything further we can do to assist you then please do let us know.

I can’t find the study now, but a very high percentage of media reporting (I think over 50%) has at least one minor scientific inaccuracy, and some large percent has at least one major scientific inaccuracy. If you see something that looks erroneous, look into it and try to get it changed! This is also a reminder to not take the news, especially articles, for granted. I have already experienced poor media reporting of my own scientific work first hand, albeit minor (The Conversation allows articles to be republished with credit, so one outlet republished my article on asteroids, but gave it a title that had nothing to do with what I was saying, and made it sound like I claimed something that I didn’t). Make sure to read the original study, especially if you plan on acting based on an article.

The second example was more minor, but involved the Skepticon Australia 2017 conference, run by Australian Skeptics Inc. In case you’re not familiar with the skeptics movement, it essentially involves using a healthy dose of scepticism and rational thinking in your everyday life, being wary of pseudoscientific claims like astrology and homeopathy. Their website included ‘carcinogenic meats’ as a pseudoscientific claim. As I’ve already discussed above, this goes against the WHO announcement. I promptly emailed them to say that their claim was incorrect, and included links to the relevant WHO material. They corrected the website.


My last example of success was my winning of the 2016 Sentience Politics Essay Prize (essay is available here). I had just discovered the field of wild-animal suffering research, and was pretty concerned, so I wanted to write about it and provide my own ideas. I was pretty unsure whether I could win, given that I’m not a philosopher and I sometimes question the quality of my ideas. But whether it’s because not many people entered, or because I am actually a visionary (I think the former is the stronger effect here), I won the $2,000 prize. Competitions probably suffer in a similar way to scholarships, in that people assume they aren’t worthy, so don’t try. You may be more capable or creative than you think.


I don’t see my success in this space ending any time soon, and I only expect to get better as I learn more, so I’ll be looking to update this post with new information from time to time, or to write a new post. I hope I’ve inspired you to try to influence stuff, because it’s honestly easier than you probably think (just please influence stuff in a positive direction!). Please share any future or past successes and tips in the comments to help me and other readers.

My fear: spreading insect suffering to Mars

One thing I’m personally worried about is the spreading of wild-animal suffering to other planets. In the short term, I’m most worried about spreading insects to Mars. I think (and have argued here) that this might happen sooner than we think. The use of insects on Mars for either food or to help terraform seems supported (or at least warranting further thought) by a good deal of the Mars community.

Currently, a potato is in development that looks like it might be able to grow in Mars atmospheric (open) conditions. Biology is a weak point of mine so maybe I’m more worried than I should be. But I fear that if potatoes are solved, insects potentially aren’t that much harder to get to survive on Mars, especially given there are already extremophile insects.

So basically I’d like to loosely propose that shifting public opinion about the use of insects for Mars and anything else is potentially neglected, given the scale here (accidentally or purposefully putting insects on Mars which spread uncontrollably). I don’t know how confident I am about this argument, but wanted to drop it here for discussion.