Effective Altruism and the Meat Eater Problem

A few days ago I received an email from Scott Weathers who pointed me to a post he wrote on the Effective Altruism Form.  He brought my attention to a debate in the effective altruist community.  In particular, what are the full consequences of various human development projects on the well-being of people AND animals?  

For background, it might be useful to first define effective altruism, which according to Wikipedia, is: 

a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruists aim to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact

So, effective altruists aren't content to simply engage in activities that make them feel good - they want to look at the actual consequences.

Here's the issue.  Altruists aim to increase the well-being of people in developing countries.  But, development economist have long known that when poor people in developing countries begin to earn a bit more money, they tend to increase consumption of meat and other animal products.  Increasing demand for animal products leads to more animals.  Is it possible that the net effect of increasing the poors' wellbeing on total "happiness" (animals and human) is negative?  Scott put the "meat eater problem" as follows:  

Many GiveWell charity recommendations, particularly the Against Malaria Foundation, could be affected by this consideration – if saving human lives means increasing suffering for a large number of animals killed for meat consumption, should we support human health interventions at all?

Scott makes a number of good counter arguments to this concern in his post.  I too have a hard time getting overly worried about this "meat eater" problem.  Here are some of the first things that come to mind.

  • The impact isn't anywhere close to 1 to 1.  Even in a heavy meat eating country like the US, per-capita consumption of beef and pork are around 55 and 50 lbs/person/year.  One US steer is yields around 500-600 lbs of edible meat; one hog yields about 125 lbs of edible muscle.  So, if a person goes from zero beef and pork consumption to the (high) US average, they're only eating about 55/550=0.10 cows a year and 50/125=0.4 pigs a year. It would take (550/55)=10 years for this person to eat the equivalent of a whole steer and (125/20) = 2.5 years for the person to eat the equivalent of one whole hog.  Stated differently, are you ok helping 10 desperately poor people improve their lot in life (and eat a bit better too) even if it meant the suffering of 1 cow?  
  • Even the 10:1 ratio (or 2.5:1 ratio for hogs) dramatically overstates the problem. This is because consumption in the developing world isn't likely to increase anywhere close to that in the US.  Per-capita consumption of beef in sub-Saharan Africa is only about 6.82 lbs/person/year.   Thus, 1 US cow can feed 550/6.82=80.6 Africans for a year.  One review of the literature suggests that a 1% increase in the income of consumers in low income countries increases quantity demanded for meat and dairy by about 0.8% (i.e., the income elasticity of demand for meat is 0.8).  If per-capita GDP in sub-Saharan African were able to miraculously double (from $1,638/person to $3,276) for a 100% increase, we'd increase meat demand by 80%.  So, per-capita consumption would increase from 6.82lbs/person/year to 6.82*1.8=12.276 lbs/person/year.  Now 1 US cow would only feed 550/12.27=44.8 Africans for a year.  Each African goes from consuming 0.0124  to 0.0222 cows/year.  Pulling it all together, DOUBLING the per-capita income of the 973 million people who live in Sub-Saharan Africa, would require (by these back of the envelope calculations, which you can check for homework) about 9.65 million more cows.  So, what we want to compare is the extra happiness of 973 million Africans who have doubled their income and who are now eating 80% more meat to the welfare of an extra 9.65 million cows (the ratio of cows affected to humans affected is 0.01 to 1).  
  • One might say: well an African cow (or pig or sheep) doesn't provide as much meat as a US cow (or pig or sheep), so the ratios above are way off.  Fair enough.  But, what's the implication?  I say, it means we should invest in research (or donate to research organizations) that increase the productivity of animals in Africa.  Indeed, one counter-intuitive insight is that intensive animal agriculture, because it is so much more efficient, may be more "ethical" because it requires many fewer animals to meet consumer demand.
  • We don't want to compare numbers of people affected to numbers of animals affected, we want to compare units of "happiness" or "suffering".  Economists have long been uncomfortable with making such inter-personal utility comparisons, but presumably an effective altruist has to make such calculations in some form or fashion.  Even if we buy the arguments by philosophers like Peter Singer that all units of suffering should receive equal consideration regardless of the source (cow or human), we have to keep in mind that "suffering" relates not just to the ability to feel pain but the ability to contemplate pain, infer intention and meaning from the pain, anticipate future pain, etc., and thus my assessment is that it would take a lot more to create an equivalent "unit" of suffering from a cow than a human.
  • Why the presumption of suffering?  Are all animals better off dead than alive?  I highly doubt it.  In fact, if increased demand for meat brings more animals into the world that are better off alive than dead, then total happiness increases.  As we've argued elsewhere, there are good reasons to believe most US beef cows lead relatively high quality lives.  See here for my armchair philosophizing on the ethics of eating meat.
  • As I discuss in a chapter of my forthcoming book, Unnaturally Delicious, it is now possible to grow meat in a lab.  Lab grown meat doesn't suffer because it isn't connected to a brain. 
  • If you're concerned that giving to human charity adversely affects animals, then one possible solution is a market (like the one I've proposed) where you can buy "animal well being unit" offsets.