We are excited to see GiveWell’s recent brief analysis of the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture. We admire and respect the work they’ve done on evaluating human charities and encouraging thoughtful giving practices, and this is their first major step towards considering the cost-effectiveness of interventions to prevent animal suffering on factory farms. In fact, it is almost the first thing they have written about animal causes since a blog post almost three years ago that explained why they hadn’t yet given serious consideration to animal charities.
The analysis, which uses a conversation with our Executive Director, Jon Bockman, as a major source, is one in a series of “shallow overviews” of topics. These shallow overviews are part of the work of GiveWell Labs, the high-priority section of GiveWell devoted to causes they consider experimental, including “funding political advocacy, scientific research, startup organizations with no track record, projects with no precedent, and projects with extremely long time horizons.” As such, causes considered by GiveWell Labs typically have the potential for very high returns in order to be considered, something we certainly agree is true of programs that aim to reduce animal suffering in industrial agriculture. The shallow overviews focus on the aspects of each topic that GiveWell considers most likely to affect their opinion in a short period of time, and vary widely by subject. Some of the overviews review a single rigorous study and others conduct a more general exploration of the problem and the groups already involved in addressing (or causing) it.
The overview of the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture is very brief, even among these shallow overviews, and focuses mainly on listing potential interventions and understanding the organizations already most prominent in addressing factory farming. There isn’t a lot of new information available here for people who have already been working against factory farming, although the synthesis might provide a helpful view of the big picture from a very different perspective. GiveWell, although a small organization by the scales of international foreign aid, moved over 9.5 million dollars last year, far more than the budgets of most of the organizations they identified as working on factory farming causes. It is both an outsider and an organization that could reasonably expect to propel large scale changes compared to the current size of the movement against factory farming.
This shallow overview doesn’t shed a lot of new light on the situation for committed animal activists, but it is still encouraging that GiveWell appears to be taking factory farming seriously as a cause. Their interest could direct more attention toward the problems of industrial agriculture from both philanthropic and research angles, which is desperately needed. We especially look forward to seeing the results of the “medium-depth” investigation that is now in progress according to the most recent GiveWell Labs update. But we aren’t holding our breath; instead, we’re continuing to evaluate the existing evidence to support different strategies and organizations and create new evidence through our own studies.