When we decide on our recommendations and standout charities, we spend most of our time investigating the specifics of each charity using our seven organization evaluation criteria. We also tackle difficult foundational questions that apply to multiple animal charities rather than a specific organization.
These foundational questions are especially tough, and we still lack satisfying answers for most of them. It’s more difficult to write about them than other research topics because our reasoning is so speculative. In this post and subsequent posts over the next few months, we plan to share our thoughts on some of the most important foundational questions that came up in our 2015 evaluation process. These thoughts are far from conclusive, and we hope they serve as tentative conclusions and springboards for future discussion and research.
We invite readers to provide feedback on all of our work. That’s especially true here. We provide a list of questions below, although we will not necessarily publish our thoughts on them in order or be able to fully address each one. These questions represent only a small portion of the important foundational questions for effective animal advocacy, but they are the ones that seemed particularly important and underexplored during this year’s research process.
- What is the room for more funding in animal-friendly food technologies (plant-based or cell-based) like cultured meat?
- How should we account for the potential long-term impact of organizations? What should we think of the cost-effectiveness estimates for these impacts, which tend to be much higher than our estimates of near-term, direct impact?
- How should we compare implementations of the same interventions in different countries?
- What is the difference in impact between spreading different animal advocacy ideas, e.g. the cruelty of animal agriculture, dietary change, antispeciesism, and wild animal suffering?
- What is the value of more research into effective animal advocacy, especially research that is unlikely to provide strong evidence like low-powered randomized controlled trials?
- What are the best metrics for evaluating social media impact, e.g. shares, 30 second video views? And how can those outcomes be best compared to other outreach like leafleting or online ads?
- What is the likelihood that nonhuman animals will get proper moral consideration in society without legal personhood?
- If public sentiment becomes more friendly towards animals (e.g. it becomes generally accepted that we should get rid of animal agriculture), will legal and policy change inevitably follow?
In this post, we’ll share some thoughts on the first question listed, largely because it has come up frequently in recent discussions in the effective animal advocacy community so we think it is of particular interest to our audience.
What is the room for more funding in animal-friendly food technologies (plant-based or cell-based) like cultured meat?
We think new food technologies, such as cultured meat, could play a major role in the success of farmed animal advocacy. Of course, there are concerns about the potential of cellular agriculture to be cost-competitive with animal products, such as the need to use sterile equipment, special costly solutions, and skilled staff in its production; the willingness of consumers to make the switch, such as potential counter-claims that cultured meat is “unnatural” or “gross”; and the subsidies that currently reduce the cost of animal products. We think that cellular agriculture is still one of the most promising alternatives, mainly because of its physical similarity to animal products that could reduce consumer hesitation, making it a “no excuse” product that could sit next to animal-based products on grocery store shelves.
One of the primary considerations in whether animal-friendly food technologies are one of the best funding opportunities right now is room for more funding. This applies on several levels, including the presence of other funders in the field currently, whether there are funding-constrained projects available to donors, and whether, in the long run, funding cellular agriculture development speeds up its creation or increases the likelihood it will ever be developed. Overall, we think these considerations suggest that, while funding the development of animal-friendly food technologies (cellular or plant-based) is likely among the most cost-effective ways to help animals, it might not be as promising as other funding opportunities available right now like charities that directly increase concern for animals through outreach and activism. We think this comes from a combination of several weak considerations rather than a single strong stream of evidence, and we think there are other considerations that suggest funding food technology is more promising.
The current funding situation for cellular agriculture
Cellular agriculture seeks to recreate animal products at the cellular level. We think it’s especially promising among food technologies because the products could be essentially physically identical to what people eat now, making it a “no excuse” alternative to the harm done by animal agriculture. We think the reasoning and evidence below applies similarly to plant-based alternatives.
We think donors and investors share our enthusiasm so we are generally optimistic about the ability of cellular agriculture projects to find willing funders. Parties outside the animal advocacy community also have compelling reasons to fund these projects including the potential for profit and the hype of the field right now. Anecdotal evidence confirms this theory. This suggests that funding these projects might be less promising for impact-focused donors because additional donations are less likely to make a substantial difference in project outcomes.
It might be that this enthusiasm will dissipate. Some in the field believe cultured eggs and dairy are still 5-15 years away, assuming sufficient funding, and that cultured meat will arrive even later. This seems like a large time horizon for investors and many donors, and if funding becomes more limited due to decreased interest, we think the case for increased marginal funding for cellular agriculture could become substantially stronger.
We also worry about whether outside donors and investors would be willing to fund projects that are far removed from specific commercial products, such as basic research or marketing for the field as a whole. We think the room for more funding is more promising in those areas, even though we are still generally optimistic about their ability to find funding.
Additionally, it’s possible that traditional animal advocacy, working to inspire people to reduce their consumption of animal products and generally increase opposition to animal agriculture, is a promising way to affect the success of cellular agriculture. But it might not be particularly helpful in reaching this goal because the current animal advocacy ideology and community is connected in the public conscious to “whole” and “natural” foods. Promoting these ideas, even indirectly through animal advocacy, might lead to opposition of cellular agriculture in favor of plant-based vegan options that aren’t as appealing to the general public.
Fortunately, it seems the animal advocacy movement is mostly supportive of these new technologies. For example, PETA offered a prize for cultured meat research and Mercy For Animals is setting up The Good Food Institute to support, among other products, foods made using cellular agriculture.
Affecting the speed vs. direction of future change
Most forms of animal advocacy involve social change, such as inspiring people to consume fewer animal products or helping companies adopt better animal welfare policies. It seems advocacy could make a crucial difference in whether they will occur, so a major portion of the expected impact of funding programs that achieve these outcomes comes from the possibility that the change would never happen otherwise. For example, it seems unclear whether society will replace animal agriculture with cultured meat, given the technology develops, and that additional funding could substantially increase the likelihood this replacement occurs. In this way, social change affects the direction of the future.
Technological change that is physically possible, on the other hand, seems likely to eventually occur even without our intervention. It seems that humans in modern society work towards technological progress for a variety of reasons like helping others, personal curiosity, and commercial profit. This, combined with the fact that backwards technological progress seems quite uncommon, unlike backwards social progress, suggests that when we fund technological progress, the primary mechanism of impact is speeding up new technologies rather than causing them to exist when they otherwise never would. In this way, technological change affects the speed of the future.
Given humanity may continue to exist for a very long time, it seems that affecting the direction of the change may be much more important than affecting the speed at which change arrives.
Of course, this theory is quite speculative, so we could do more to understand it empirically. For example, we’d like to better understand when, if ever, some technologies fail to develop for very long periods of time. If there’s a chance this could happen to a technology like cultured meat and we can prevent that, then it seems like a potentially very important task.
Also, the rate of technological change could interact with the rate of social change in important ways. For example, if society is approaching a crucial social decision between continuing with animal agriculture or switching to a more ethical food system, one that will have its result embedded in society for a very long time, then making sure we are equipped at that time with the most appetizing and accessible vegan foods possible seems quite important. Of course, this consideration applies to social change as well, such as making sure that if cultured meat is developed, society accepts it quickly because adoption after its development could be unlikely.
Things that could change our mind and areas of future research
If we heard of more projects that seemed promising but were having serious difficulty in raising sufficient funding in this field, we would update our views in favor of giving to this area. We would also update based on instances of increased funding being offered, such as an open call for grant proposals, seeming to facilitate the creation of new projects.
We are especially excited about projects seeking to maximize the chances that society adopts these technologies assuming the technology itself is developed, such as marketing and branding work.
We could also update our views based on historical research into the adoption of new technologies, especially those that some might object to ethically like cloning or GMOs or those that threatened an industry with significant political power and support.
Although we think the moral case for cellular agriculture is very strong, we’re unsure whether there will be a strong opposition, or at least lack of support, that curbs technological progress or the adoption of new technologies. We’d like to know more about in which cases, if any, new technologies fail to develop, and how we might ensure animal-friendly food technologies are developed and adopted successfully.