by Brian Tomasik
First written: 16 July 2009; last update: 8 Nov. 2013
This piece reviews a few sections of Bailey Norwood's book Compassion by the Pound. I wrote these notes before the book was published, back when it had the working title Ham and Eggonomics, and the final contents of the chapters on which I commented may have changed by the time of final publication. Overall, I felt that Norwood's book provided excellent insights into cost-effectiveness of helping farm animals, although I feel his assessments of the average welfare of farm animals are far too optimistic.
Bailey Norwood is a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University. Much of his recent research on food preferences and farm-animal care is of interest to the animal-welfare community. For instance, one of his papers examines economic impacts of switching to vegetarian diets, giving consideration to the supply-and-demand interrelationships of the chicken, pork, beef, and corn markets.
This website is intended to be an information source for consumers about the food they eat, with specific emphasis on the welfare of farm animals. Finding good, useful information is difficult. Scientists are objective but often to timid to make general statements. Food industries have their obvious bias. Even authors who write books about food generally distort and sensationalize the truth to scare consumers.
Ham and Eggonomics states the facts plainly and is not scared to tackle an issue head-on. The website only desires to provide you with the information you require for your food choices, and has no desire to tilt your political leanings or recruit you into a specific cause.
The page features the a book with the same name as the site. The book is in draft form, and "comments are welcome," so I'll make a few remarks on Chapters 1, 6, and 8.
Chapter 1 lays out the slant from which the authors approach animal welfare: Namely, the economics of revealed preferences, rather than philosophical prescription.
Whereas ethicists and philosophers will argue about the morality of treating animals in certain ways, the economic approaches assumes that each person is entitled to their own view of animal welfare. (Ch. 1, p. 11)
The economic approach is to instead treat peoples' views on animal welfare as preferences. That is, instead of arguing with you about what is right or wrong, or trying to persuade you to adopt a particular system of moral beliefs, we simply ask you, and your fellow citizens, what you think is right and wrong and make that the goal of society. For example, if instead of animal welfare we were dealing with the contentious issue of abortion, we would not try to persuade you to be for or against abortion. Instead, we would poll the public, and if a majority of Americans was against abortion, we might would conclude that public policy should outlaw abortion. That is just an example, an example to illustrate that we seek to determine how animals should be raised, based on the moral and ethical beliefs of you and your fellow citizens. (Ch. 1, p. 3)
Needless to say, I don't agree with this approach, because it conflates prescription about what should be done with description of the desires held by an arbitrary subset of morally relevant agents (adult Americans, in rough proportion to their voting / purchasing power). I demur at the suggestion that "animals matter because people care about them" (Ch. 1, p. 5). But my objection here is no different from my disagreement with the standard economic approach in general, and I'm glad the authors make their bias explicit. In addition, I appreciate the authors' aim to make reasoned decisions based on academic research into the costs and benefits of particular actions, without being afraid to upset standard ideological positions. (We merely differ on what to measure when assessing costs and benefits.)
The tone of the book is very "mainstream":
In this book, we offer no grand moral philosophy that makes your food choices straightforward. We do not believe ourselves so smart and knowledgeable that we can dictate to you the choices you can make. We can, however, help you understand the consequences of your choices, and help you better form your views on farm animal welfare. (Ch. 6, p. 20)
This may ultimately prove beneficial, because the message is not off-putting to majority of Americans in the way that much animal-rights literature is.
Focusing on the largest numbers
I largely agree with the authors that "the study of animal welfare is, for all practical purposes, the study of farm animal welfare" (Ch. 1, p. 4) because farm animals vastly outnumber those used in labs or for fur. Indeed, I would go further and say that the study of farm-animal welfare is, for all practical purposes, the study of chicken/fish welfare, because the number of pigs and cows slaughtered is tiny by comparison.
I do wish this point were recognized more by animal-welfare organizations, which -- even when they recognize the importance of farm animals -- often continue to focus resources on, say, welfare standards for veal calves and sows. Even the authors of Ham and Eggonomics fall into this, by giving roughly equal time to welfare questions about the raising of cows, pigs, and chickens. Really, the only animals people should think about when discussing land-based factory farms are broiler chickens and laying hens.
It would also be foolish romanticism to believe that the lives of all domesticated animals are inferior to their ancestors or to modern animals that live in the wild. Domesticated animals live without the fear of predators and have ample supply of food and water; one need only turn their television to the Discovery channel to see that wild animals live in constant fear of being mauled and are no strangers to hunger and starvation. (Ch. 1, p. 9)
Some animal rights groups are even opposed to the owning of animals as pets. They only wish animals to exist in their wild state, which as any avid watcher of nature shows can attest, has its own distinct forms of cruelty. Wild animals, though adapted to their environment, face many obstacles to receiving adequate nutrition, and most face constant pursuit as prey. In our opinion, wild animals do not have a high level of well-being. (Ch. 6, p. 19)
It is possible, and to us likely, that the only manner in which animals can enter this world and for their species as a whole to experience more happiness than suffering is for them to be under the stewardship of humans. Whether they are pigs destined for slaughter or dogs destined for doting, nature's hand has no choice but to be cruel, while humans have the choice to become compassionate stewards. If an animal species is to exist, between [sic.: better] for them to exist under the care of humans, generally speaking. (Ch. 6, p. 19)
This is perhaps unsurprising: Evolution does not optimize an objective function of cumulative happiness minus pain. (Of course, neither do almost all breeders of farmed animals.) Human engineers with the specific goal of reducing suffering and promoting wellbeing ought to be able to do better, unless they are too incompetent to succeed at the task. In practice, incompetence may very well prevail with respect to wild animals at the moment (evolution, for all its "blind, pitiless indifference," may do a better job at currently evolved optima), but this needn't be the case indefinitely, as human technology and intelligence progress.
The authors begin Ch. 8 with a discussion of the fallacy that "my individual purchases don't matter." They give a nice illustration:
Suppose that we take 5,280 [one foot] rulers and placed them in a straight line, end to end. This line of rulers would then be one mile long. It would appear as one long line, and if you could view the entire mile of rulers from above, you would not be able to see one single ruler. If you removed one ruler, the line would grow shorter; there is no doubt as to that. Viewed from above, removing one ruler would not appear to have any effect on the line -- but again, it does.
Of course, the analogy to food purchases isn't quite accurate. In practice, as discussed here, an individual's purchasing choice is extremely unlikely to change the number of animals raised, because food is produced and sold in bulk units. However, in the event that a consumer does have an effect, that effect will be huge. Thus, in ignorance of whether a particular purchase is the one that "breaks the camel's back," the expected values of each purchase do add in the same way as the rulers. (To the extent that this reality may be de-motivating for potential vegetarians, perhaps it's better not to mention it too much?)
Pages 3-4 contain a nice discussion of the relevance of elasticities to the question of how an individual's purchases affect the quantity supplied by the market. The authors argue that the supply curves for beef, and to a lesser extent milk, are likely inelastic, while those for pork, and probably also chicken and eggs, are probably relatively elastic. More elastic supply means a bigger change in production when consumer behavior changes. Thus, for instance, abstaining from eating 1 kilogram of chicken has a bigger expected impact on the kilograms of chicken produced than abstaining from 1 kilogram of beef has on the kilograms of beef produced, other things being equal. As far as demand elasticity, the studies that the authors have done suggest a slightly bigger kilogram-for-kilogram impact of abstaining from chicken, pork, veal, and milk relative to beef or eggs. The total results--combining information about supply elasticities and demand elasticities--are shown in Figure 8.2 (see this document for the Chapter 8 figures), which I've reproduced below in sorted order:
If [someone] gives up Total Consumption of ... the Product Falls By ...
One Pound of Milk 0.56 lbs
One Pound of Beef 0.68 lbs
One Pound of Veal 0.69 lbs
One Pound of Pork 0.74 lbs
One Pound of Chicken 0.76 lbs
One Egg 0.91 egg.
Suffering during life and death
Of course, this is not the end of the story. Other (often more important) factors to consider when deciding on dietary purchases include the quality of the lives of animals of different types, and the number of animals required to produce a given quantity of meat, counting both the animals themselves and their parents. Pages 5-6 explain Bailey's own views on the quality of life of various farm animals on a scale of -10 to 10 (see Figure 8.4).
In particular, Bailey thinks some farm animals have lives worth living. Looking at only the non-breeder animals, these are cows (+6), AWA-certified pork (+4), broiler chickens (+3), and cage-free hens (+2). On broiler chickens, Bailey says they "have a life worth living, but because of their leg problems and confined environment, do not fare as well as beef cattle" (p. 5). I'm more skeptical that broilers on average enjoy their lives, but even if they do, I would still be wary of giving them positive welfare because the painfulness of slaughter has to be considered. I personally wouldn't want to live even a mildly pleasant life for only 45 days if it meant that I would afterwards endure slaughter. This is probably true even if I were given electrical stunning and definitely true if I were one of the birds for which the stunning was not effective.
I assume Bailey has included the painfulness of death in his numbers, but it would be good to make this explicit. Otherwise, many readers will just imagine what a broiler chicken looks like during a typical moment of its life, multiply that by ~42 days of life, and conclude that the total experience is positive. An explicit mention of the relevance of lengths of lives would be helpful as well; indeed, this consideration makes Bailey's numbers seem a little odd. How can a beef cow, which lives for 402 days (see the "Beef" section here) have only twice the total happiness (+6 instead of +3) of a broiler chicken that lives 42 days? If Bailey's calculations do involve multiplication of his welfare numbers by lifespan, I missed that part of the text. In any event, doing straight multiplication in that way would still be misleading because it ignores the painfulness of death at the end of a life, unless stress during transport and slaughter has been implicitly incorporated into the per-day average.
Farming and wild animals
Pages 6-7 discuss the impacts of farming on wild animals. In my view, this is the most important part of the calculation, especially if we give more than vanishingly small probability to insect sentience. Of course, if insects' short lives aren't worth living, then it's not clear that pesticide use in crop production represents a net harm (though whether it is or not, the chemicals could still potentially be made less painful).
As they did in Chapter 6, the book authors comment on the possibility that bigger wild animals also suffer enormously:
Animal rights groups tend to romanticize the life of animals in the wild, but anyone who has watched wildlife documentaries can attest to the cruelty of nature. We ask you, the reader, would you rather be a Wildebeest in Africa who must constantly roam for food, always in pursuit by lions and crocodiles, or would you rather be a cow in the U.S., or a hog in the U.S.? (pp. 6-7)
Suffering per kilogram
The authors continue with a discussion of the consideration, How many animals does it take to produce a given quantity of meat? This is the primary variable of interest in my own calculations of suffering per kilogram of meat, but the book authors do a more thorough job, by including numbers of parent animals that need to be raised, as well as the efficiency of production under various conditions. An example of the latter is that cage-free hens produce fewer eggs per week than caged hens.
In fact, this last point is rather important to the question of whether to purchase cage-free eggs (or, at least, whether to encourage others to do so). As the authors explain (p. 11), if you believe that both caged and cage-free hens suffer and that cage-free hens suffer at least ~2/3 times as much as caged hens, then for efficiency reasons, caged-hen eggs entail less total suffering than cage-free-hen eggs. However, Bailey's personal opinion (see Figure 8.4) is that cage-free hens have net happy lives, in which case cage-free eggs would clearly be preferable.
The chapter continues with interesting discussions of public attitudes toward factory farming as assessed by a nationwide telephone survey, as well as how one could compute willingness-to-pay for animal welfare by different consumers. The Appendix describes the mechanics of how elasticities can be used when assessing changes in the quantity of a good supplied, as well as the detailed calculations of how many animals need to be raised to produce a given amount of meat.
Toward the end of the main chapter, the authors make a disturbing comment, though perhaps not one that comes as a surprise:
There is evidence to believe that many Americans simply do not care very much about the well-being of farm animals. In our conversations with 300 individuals from three cities in the U.S., one-third told us that they would rather not know how farm animals are raised. They simply want to continue consuming their delicious, safe, and inexpensive food without worrying about whether the animals that provide that food suffer. (p. 17)
Thanks to the authors for an excellent book!