Issue 01
Words by

Practical veganism

28th August 2020
12 Mins

Polls show that the majority of Americans want to reduce their consumption of meat, but many struggle to do so.

People really hate vegans and vegetarians. In one study, participants reported disliking vegans and vegetarians more than immigrants and atheists; only drug addicts were more disliked than vegans. And yet, in a survey published by Sentience Institute, in the same year and with a similar sample, 54% of US adults said they were trying to consume fewer animal products and 33% supported a ban on animal farming, which would kind of make everyone vegetarian. Our attitudes and behavior regarding animals are irrational and complex. As psychologist Hal Herzog has said, “The only consistency in the way we think about animals is inconsistency”. But, when you dig deeper into how people perceive animals, what behaviors are private and selfish and what behaviors are meant to be advertised, our attitudes towards animals can start to make sense.

The sheer volume of animals raised for consumption is hard to fathom. There are currently 23 billion chickens being farmed (15 billion for meat and 8 billion for eggs), 6 billion mammals (such as cows, pigs, and rabbits), and over 100 billion farmed fish, according to an interview with expert Lewis Bollard. In the USA, 99% of these animals live on factory farms.

If you believe animals are sentient and that their confinement and slaughter cause them to suffer and assign even a tiny fraction of moral importance to animal suffering compared to human suffering, the moral scale of the problem is enormous. But people very rarely think about suffering in a sufficiently analytical way. The line drawn between vegetarians and omnivores — or so-called “carnists” — is not a reliable indicator of how much suffering is caused by consumer choices, especially given how often people deviate from their professed diets.

In a forthcoming book chapter, I pick apart how evolutionary psychology can help us understand human attitudes towards nonhuman animals and some ways we might use these insights to reduce animal suffering. I’ll focus on two aspects here: how individuals can reduce their “suffering footprint” beyond traditional veganism and why trying to change individual consumer behavior, as the animal movement has done for decades, is probably less effective than alternatives that better appeal to self-interest.

What is a “suffering footprint”? It’s a quantification of how much suffering an individual causes by consuming animal products (similar to the carbon footprint). All foods cause some degree of suffering – even vegetables and fruit – because many small wild animals, from insects to birds, are killed during planting and harvesting. As Norwood and Lusk glibly comment, ‘Even veganism is murder’. However, some choices cause much less suffering than others. Estimates suggest someone eating the standard American diet for one year cause around 5 ½ years of suffering for animals.

In principle, boycotting animal products could significantly reduce this number. A true vegan would cause the least suffering with their food consumption. But in reality, true veganism and even vegetarianism are pretty rare. The majority of self-described vegetarians eat meat and the most popular ways that vegetarians and semi-vegetarians reduce their consumption of animal products, eating eggs, chicken and fish, actually cause a larger suffering footprint than some meat eating diets.

How might consumption of fish, eggs, and chicken, to the exclusion of beef and pork, cause a greater suffering footprint? A suffering footprint is calculated both by animal size and quality of life. Chickens and farmed fish are smaller animals, which means that for each animal bred, caged, and slaughtered, we get far fewer meals. This observation was the basis of a tongue-in-cheek campaign from PETA called Eat the whales’. In a 100-ton blue whale, there are 70,000 chickens’ worth of meat.

Not only are chickens smaller and thus provide fewer calories, there is some consensus that both egg-laying hens and meat chickens as well as farmed fish have much worse lives than beef cattle produced conventionally. These beef cattle spend much of their lives in pasture and the last 100–200 days of their lives in a feedlot – they can eat, stretch and roam around socially.

By contrast, broiler chickens live in cramped conditions and often have crippling leg problems. The majority of egg-laying hens are kept in cages and have their beaks removed so they don’t badly injure one another, but this can cause them chronic pain or render them unable to feed. Conventional pork production is widely considered to be terrible for pigs, which are smart social animals, as they are left confined and bored like a dog kept in a kennel cage for months on end. For those concerned with humane animal treatment, a reasonable goal is that animals raised for food should only have one bad day, the day they are slaughtered. But 99% of animal products sold do not meet this standard.

How does all this add up? Consider this calculation of how many days of suffering per kilogram are caused by the demand from buying various animal foods. In the table below, I have modeled this much more simply by assuming equal animal sentience and equal suffering of slaughter, but you can input your own values here. Here, animal lifespan refers to how many days the animal lives before slaughter, on average; kg of food per animal lifespan is how much edible food weight is produced by the animal; suffering per day of life is how bad the animal’s life is based on best estimates from animal-welfare researchers (note that beef cattle have the best lives and battery hens have the worst lives). The column on the right indicates for each kg of the animal product consumed how many days of suffering there are adjusted for the badness of each day of life.

Animal ProductAnimal Lifespan (Days)Kg of Food per Animal LifespanSuffering per Day of Life (beef cows =1)Adjusted Days of Suffering Caused per kg Demanded
Farmed Catfish8200.391.53,200
Farmed Salmon6392.01.5480
Battery Cage Eggs501164130

More than 98% of egg laying hens live in cages, and even pasture and free-range hens have problems stemming from artificial selection for egg size and laying frequency. Their bones often become brittle and they can experience uterine prolapse which causes them to die of shock without veterinary care. Moreover, male chicks, who cannot lay eggs, are killed at a few days old with methods ranging from gassing to being ground up alive. This makes eating caged eggs, one of the most suffering intensive foods, which is ironic given that they are considered more moral than a diet of meat. But consider that a vegetarian who eats three eggs at a meal is causing 19.5 days of chicken suffering, compared to a meat eater who eats a 1.3 kg steak that causes around 2.4 days of cow suffering.

The average genuine vegetarian almost certainly causes less suffering than the over five years of suffering created through the average American diet. However, the average self-described vegetarian isn’t necessarily causing fewer days of suffering. Two aspects of a vegetarian identity appeal to moral sensibilities: they eat less meat from mammals like pigs and cows who we identify with more strongly, and they eat less meat that we find disgusting, like red meat that retains more cues of its animal origins.

What if you want to do better at reducing your suffering footprint? You could be a bivalvegan, a vegan who eats bivalves like clams and oysters because they are unlikely to be able to suffer, or a regular vegan who eats no animal products including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, causes the least amount of suffering with their consumption. But if you want to reduce your suffering footprint and don’t want to become a vegan, you could stop buying fish, eggs, and chicken. That would reduce animal suffering almost 90% as much as becoming a vegan who eats no animal products at all (calculation from Veganomics). Unfortunately, there is no name for this avoiding fish, eggs, and chicken ethical stance, and thus it is not possible for people to signal their moral qualities as easily as saying “I’m vegetarian”.

Signaling may be our greatest obstacle to figuring out how we decrease our society’s suffering footprint. Virtue signaling, in particular, is a way that we, as social animals, advertise our valuable moral qualities and thereby improve the social benefits we can get from others. The term is often used as a pejorative, referring to a specific version of virtue signaling that is mere cheap talk, with no real action or sacrifice to substantiate it. When definitions of moral behavior shift in social groups, culture can change moral behavior if that behaviour can be signalled. But much consumer behaviour, such as eating at home, isn’t readily available for signaling.

From a historical perspective, no movement has ever made significant gains from endorsing individual boycotts of large-scale industries. An analysis of the abolitionist movement against human slavery showed that boycotting slave-produced goods was not effective, nor was it that widespread, even among abolitionists. And even now, when the vast majority of people in Western societies would state that they are morally repulsed by slavery, a report which showed that one-third of shrimp produced in Thailand involved slave labor did not change the demand for shrimp, and there is still slavery in the supply chain now.

Evidence indicates it’s unlikely that individual consumer choices are going to reduce the demand for animal products significantly. Many polls show Americans are very concerned about animal welfare, but their concern doesn’t translate into their choices as consumers. One example is an experiment on the ‘vote/buy gap’ – the tendency for consumers to vote for higher welfare standards but not to buy in accordance with these ideals. It showed that 80% of consumers who chose to buy cookies made with battery cage eggs said that battery cage eggs should be illegal. Add on to this that vegans and vegetarians are described as “weird”, “preachy,” and “sadistic”, and you can see some more of the problems faced by people who promote individual boycotts.

In recent years, animal advocates have had much more success with implementing industry change than individual changes, e.g. by pushing fast-food chains to stop selling eggs from caged hens and, in Europe, the Albert Schweitzer foundation changing animal legislation. People are willing to virtue signal by signing petitions or publicly advocating for corporate improvements to welfare, but are unwilling to engage in individual boycotts, which are more costly and less visible. Corporate forms and legislation are possibly a good start but it’s unclear how well they can be enforced.

Ultimately, animal farming will be abolished by appealing to self-interest. Plant based substitutes are becoming tastier, but will have to also become much cheaper before they get a real hold on the mainstream consumer. Beyond Beef and other plant-based meats have a good share of the market in restaurants, consistent with the theory that behaviour is driven by signaling.

The biggest market disruptor is likely to be clean meat (the widely accepted newer term for what was called cultured meat or in vitro meat) and other animal products like eggs that can be produced without animals. Clean meat promises to grow animal tissues without growing and killing animals and thereby replacing slaughter based meat production. Recently a few major obstacles seem to have been overcome and clean meat is now being taste-tested for the public by companies like Memphis Meats. Once clean meat overcomes government regulations and is released onto the market, it can appeal to consumers by being cheaper, tastier, healthier and better for signaling morality than its animal based counterparts.

There are also some potential psychological obstacles. For example, food preferences crystallize at an early age and people feel disgust about foods that are unfamiliar to them, especially meat. But, more recently, attitudes towards clean meat are looking more promising. Hopefully the realization that animal agriculture is often the cradle of pandemics will mean that clean meat will come to market sooner, rather than later.

Three quarters of consumers report that they are eating animal products that are raised humanely. Our beliefs about what we do are shaped by who we want to project ourselves to be. Human morality towards animals becomes much simpler when we look at public moral behavior apart from private consumer behavior. All of us are more concerned with projecting our moral identity than analyzing what harm we might be causing when no one is looking, a fact that the pro animal movement and people in general have ignored for too long, because it smacks of cynicism. Our effectiveness depends on meeting human psychology where it is, rather than where we hope it should be. I for one am looking forward to  telling stories about how we used to kill animals for food to my incredulously wide eyed grandchildren while they tuck into a clean meat venison salmon steak. I’ll be happy that they have the moral luck to heedlessly topple the statues of people who ate slaughtered animals.

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