The following is a summary of a conversation that took place on September 2, 2016 between Nick Cooney and ACE Researcher Jacy Reese.
One of MFA’s main strengths is their utilitarian approach to program decisions. Every program aims to relieve the greatest amount of animal suffering per dollar spent. Their investigations have led to widespread, positive media coverage and policy changes. Additionally, MFA provides some of the best education and social media materials available to individual activists and other organizations. Particularly in the past year, MFA’s corporate outreach work have achieved remarkable success.
MFA works to fill neglected, high-impact “white space” in the animal movement, as exemplified by their creation of The Good Food Institute (GFI). They also innovate in other ways, such as their use of data analysis and their recent international expansion to key countries. They are willing to switch focus whenever it serves their goal to alleviate the most suffering.
MFA knows that reducing the most suffering is an ambitious goal and, like any organization, still struggles with biases and potentially overlooking promising opportunities.
During the past few years, MFA expanded their development department in order to be able to grow programs more rapidly and hopefully help more animals in the long run. This investment is a weakness in the short run, because it means MFA currently has less money to spend on their direct programs.
Shortcomings of the Movement and How MFA Addresses Them
The creation of GFI shows that there are “white spaces” the movement could fill. Currently, there might be an opening in the movement for a new organization with a strong focus on a health perspective focusing on meat reduction and bringing in funding from the health community. Similarly, it would also make sense to have an organization advocating against the consumption of animal products on environmental grounds. MFA is considering these and other opportunities for incubating new organizations, although launch a new charity is a difficult and time intensive task. For GFI, MFA provided funding, administrative support, and other assistance (e.g. designing the organization’s strategy) for approximately a year.
Another potential opportunity is helping inspire and train new high-value activists for the movement. This is important because the most effective animal advocates cause a surprisingly outsized amount of good, so there is a huge value in having more of these people.
There is also probably room in the movement for reducing fish consumption and implementing fish welfare policies. This will probably become one of MFA’s key focus areas in the United States and Canada, where many cage-free commitments are already in place. MFA has already hired an animal welfare specialist who will work on assessing farmed fish welfare and most likely wild-caught fish welfare as well.
While many organizations, including MFA, are currently focusing on international expansion, much more has to be done to build a movement in other parts of the world, especially in China, India, and Latin America.
MFA’s Successes in the Past Year
Corporate Outreach Campaigns
During the past year, more animals have benefited from MFA’s corporate campaigns than in any previous year. This could be considered their single biggest accomplishment in 2016. The program area was expanded from only one staff member in the United States in January 2016 to six currently. Their aim is to have 20 employees worldwide working on corporate outreach in the near future.
Cage-free campaigns have been the main focus in 2016. Corporate campaigns run solely by MFA improved the living conditions of about 40 million egg-laying hens, while campaigns where MFA was one of two or three organizations pressuring a company helped about 85 million. In addition to their cage-free campaigns, MFA convinced Perdue to implement on-farm welfare improvements and less cruel slaughter practices for the 670 million broiler chickens the company raises and kills each year.
MFA has already hired 8 staffers in Mexico, Brazil, China, and India at the time of this conversation. They are planning to have 42 staff total in these countries by early 2017. Most of the staff are working on corporate outreach and/or education campaigns. These countries were chosen based on their lower costs of doing business, the substantial lack of farmed animal activism, rising meat consumption, and a receptiveness to MFA’s message.
Internationally, MFA wants to focus mainly on corporate outreach for animal welfare policies. Other focuses are institutional meat reduction, investigations, movement capacity building, and reducing individual consumption of animal products. As of now they have been most successful in generating diet change and building capacities, because they are just getting started in the other focus areas. They already conducted investigations in Mexico and India, but want to wait until their tax-exempt charity status is recognized in these countries before releasing them. MFA expects to publish the investigations in late 2016.
They have submitted the necessary documents for charity status in each country and are only waiting for the respective governments’ responses. In China, MFA is legally based in Hong Kong, due to the recent implementation of a law restricting the activities of NGOs in mainland China.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is advising MFA on how to implement institutional reduction in other countries. HSUS is the only organization which has been working for institutional reduction at a large scale, although exclusively in the United States. They have had remarkable success, particularly with school districts. While there would be only a small marginal benefit to MFA complementing HSUS in the United States, MFA is optimistic that they can replicate some of HSUS’s accomplishments in other countries. To that end, they are going to hire two employees in Mexico, two in Brazil, and hopefully one in Canada. MFA also plans to replicate some of GFI’s activities in other countries.
Investigations continue to be one of MFA’s focus areas, not only internationally but also in the United States.
This year, MFA published what is probably the most rigorous randomized controlled trial of a farmed animal advocacy intervention. Other studies to inform program decisions are completed or currently in progress. MFA also track over three hundred data points every month for their programs.
By the end of the year they want to convince 1.5 million people to pledge to become vegetarians. They currently have over 1 million pledges since January 1, 2016.
Grant from the Open Philanthropy Project for Corporate Outreach Campaigns
MFA is grateful for the grant, which helped make their recent corporate outreach accomplishments possible by greatly increasing staff and other resources. The grant illustrates the outstanding impact large donations to effective causes can have.
As explained below, MFA still has room for more funding and is able to quickly expand virtually all of their programs, although currently they need to focus on hiring more staff outside of the US and Canada until approximately the end of the first quarter of 2017, but then will be able to use more funding for expansion in those countries.
Goals for 2017 and Use of Additional Funding
The four main priorities for the coming year are:
- expand internationally
- expand the corporate outreach program
- achieve victories for broiler chickens
- grow financially as much as possible
MFA’s international expansion can be considered a two-phase process. The first phase, which has already been partially completed, they will incorporate and establish branches in other countries. In the second phase, they want to expand these branches rapidly, to reach their goal of 15 staff members in Mexico, 15 in Brazil, 6 in India, and 6 in China by early 2017.
They want to finish expanding their corporate outreach team to 20 employees worldwide in the near future.
In the United States, and eventually internationally, MFA wants to convince other companies to implement the same changes for broiler chickens that Perdue has already made. They plan to not only target producers, but also food service companies, restaurant chains, grocery stores, and other food industry companies.
MFA also wants to continue raising as much money as possible and grow as much as they can, continue using data to guide decisions including by hiring a second statistician, expanding their social media presence, and releasing more international investigations, in addition to the ones in Mexico and India that will come out later this year. As mentioned before, MFA will try to achieve institutional meat reduction in Mexico, Brazil, and ideally in Canada as well. As of October 7, 2016, they are now hiring for the Canadian position.
MFA’s income was $5.1 million in 2014. For 2015, they had set both a realistic fundraising goal of $7 million and a more optimistic one of $10 million. While they did meet the former, they fell short of the latter, taking in about $7.5 million. For 2016, they want to raise $10 million and they are cautiously optimistic to meet that goal, although much depends on income in the final quarter of each year.
Decisions to Not Expand or Cut Some Programs in 2016
As in previous years, MFA made the conscious decision to not expand the number of investigations released in the United States and Canada, after perceiving media fatigue.
Also, they significantly cut back the amount of money spent on cruelty-focused online ads, following the results of their randomized controlled trial. While MFA still considers it valuable to spread cruelty videos, they think that it can be done more cost-efficiently than through advertising. Instead, they increased their spending on the production of viral videos, not only of cruelty but also of other types of content that might lead to more compassion with farm animals.
MFA plans to stop printing physical copies of their Vegetarian Starter Guide or find a way to cover the printing costs through advertising. While the guide is helpful to individuals wanting to change their diets and has even been improved this year, the money to print it could probably be used more effectively. In any case, they will continue distributing virtual copies.
This year, they also stopped a large-scale negative campaign against Tyson Foods and Gordon Food Service regarding the treatment of poultry chickens. In this campaign, they tried to mobilize large protest groups in different cities. However, the campaign did not lead to changes in the companies’ welfare policies and MFA decided that they could spend their energy and money on more promising activities. They still want to convince the two companies of welfare policy changes, but will try to do so with different types of campaigns.
Why does MFA often focus on meat reduction and vegetarianism rather than urging people to go vegan?
They explain some of their thoughts on this topic in an article on their website titled “The V Word”. While Cooney and all MFA staff are vegan, the underlying goal of every decision MFA makes is to reduce as much animal suffering as possible. Although a vegan world would be a huge improvement for animals, it does not necessarily follow that asking people to go vegan reduces suffering by the greatest amount. If the “go vegan” message did produce the most dietary changes and thus the most reduction in animal suffering, MFA would use it exclusively.
According to research, however, the opposite seems to be the case. At least for a general audience, encouraging people to cut back on animal products appears to lead to a greater reduction in the amount of animal products being eaten than asking them to go vegan or vegetarian. In one study, the effects of asking people to cut back on meat, become vegetarian and become vegan were compared. There is also a survey on what motivated people to change their diet. The studies discussed in Cooney’s book “Veganomics” are of interest as well. Hopefully, more research will be done in the future, and if asking people to go vegan turns out to be a better strategy after all, MFA will change the language in accordance with the scientific results.
However, the terminology MFA uses depends on the respective audience. For leaflets or videos directed at the general public they use different wording than when addressing passionate activists. They use “vegan” more frequently on social media, since a lot of the people sharing their posts on social media are vegans themselves and it is important to use language that makes them more likely to share and engage with that content. In the future, they might start using the term “vegan” less often due to a shifting audience and shifting public perceptions of the term.
Studies show that people who decided to reduce their meat consumption or become vegetarians are more likely to switch to a vegan diet later on, compared to those who did not make these initial changes. Therefore, asking people to become reducers or vegetarians instead of asking them to become vegans might actually produce more vegans in the long run. However, it is not MFA’s aim to generate the greatest number of vegans, but to reduce animal suffering to the greatest extent possible.
Why does MFA focus on diet change rather than directly changing public attitudes?
Actually, changing people’s attitudes is one of the key goals of MFA’s programs with the exception of corporate outreach. Every other activity works to educate the public about the cruelty done to farm animals (which people are often not aware of) and to change the public’s attitude towards that cruelty. Wherever MFA talks about health and environmental aspects of diet change, it is only in addition to their main message of farmed animal cruelty.
Attitude change is necessary, but behavior change is equally crucial, especially where public attitude is no longer the problem. Most people are already opposed to the worst industry practices like gestation crates or battery cages, but that does not stop them from buying meat or eggs from animals raised under these conditions. This attitude-behavior gap is well-known and can be observed for issues other than animal welfare. Because the actual behavior is what causes suffering, it is necessary to work towards behavior change as well.
People also tend to avoid cognitive dissonance, so once they have changed their behavior they are more likely to change their attitudes towards farm animals. The fact that they do no longer consider themselves as someone causing harm to animals enables them to feel much stronger that animal suffering is something that should not be happening at all. Research shows that many people who originally become vegetarian or vegan for health reasons make animal ethics one of the main reasons or even the key factor for staying vegetarian or vegan.
In the past, it was a significant concern of Cooney’s that motivating people to change their diet for reasons other than animal cruelty might lead to unintended consequences, such as more chicken or egg consumption. However, none of the data he is familiar with seems to indicate that that is the case, so he has updated his view. For example, surveys indicate that individuals who cut out or cut significantly back on red meat do not eat more chicken than average meat eaters. However, part of the overall move toward chicken is motivated by health concerns. For this and other reasons, it probably makes sense to use health and environmental reasons, but pair them with animal reasons and focus on reducing or eliminating the consumption of chicken, fish, and eggs.
Could focusing on extreme confinement practices lead to complacency and make it harder to pass further welfare reforms, or inspire people to go vegan or reduce their consumption of animal products?
The argument against focusing on extreme confinement practices does not make much sense because there’s a lack of better alternatives. Not mentioning suffering at all or leaving out the most cruel conditions animals live in, would be absurd. Instead, it seems to be a better strategy to try to eliminate the worst industry practices first, both from a corporate outreach perspective and to generate most public attention and support. Once these worst conditions are abolished, MFA will still be able to have a similarly strong and emotional impact on the public when showing footage of the remaining, slightly less cruel conditions farm animals live in. In any case, health is the issue most important to the public, so it is less of a risk that eliminating the worst forms of cruelty will cause people to lose interest in veg eating.
Whether the adoption of less cruel practices by the industry would increase consumption of animal products is ultimately an empirical question. More research is needed, but there are indications that the opposite might be the case. For example, in the four or five European countries that banned battery cages before the rest of the EU did, egg consumption actually went down or at least grew more slowly than in the rest of the union. In a small-scale study (unpublished), participants were found to reduce their consumption of animal products after being told about recent welfare policy changes. MFA is currently working on a similar study at a larger scale. A 2008 study on egg consumption confirms these overall results as well. In general, the data does not support the theory that welfare reforms lead to increases in meat, dairy or egg consumption.
Higher prices for animal products are probably the main reason why the consumption of these products decreases after welfare policy changes are implemented. It is known that the demand for animal products has some price elasticity: price reductions in the recent past, for example due to decreased transportation costs, have lead to a significant increase in consumption. Although animal activists would prefer people reduce their meat consumption for the sake of animals, prices usually have a much larger effect on consumption levels. Welfare improvements can lead to increases in production costs between 10 and 25 percent. The resulting price increases alone are reason enough to expect a lower consumption of animal products following welfare improvements.
Even if welfare reforms did not reduce consumption, focusing on extreme confinement practices would probably still be a good strategy for organizations like MFA. The negative effects of increased consumption would have to be weighted against the positive effects of less suffering due to the abolition of the worst practices. If the choice were between 100 chickens living in cages and 101 chickens living in a cage-free environment, Cooney would choose the latter option. Of course, that is a very hypothetical situation.
What does MFA hope to accomplish by organizing protests? Is MFA concerned that engaging in confrontational tactics may negatively affect the public’s attitudes towards the animal rights movement?
It is a valid concern that protesters could be perceived as aggressive, leading to a negative impression on the public mind and therefore a negative impact on animals. Even where they do have a positive impact, protests are usually not the most effective uses of marginal resources.
For these reasons, MFA has only engaged in a small number of protests in 2016, with the primary goal of generating media coverage where they otherwise would not get it. MFA works to hold protests in a way that makes the public sympathetic to their cause and which makes the targeted company look bad, rather than the protesters themselves. In order to make a decent impression on the public mind, participants are asked to look professionally and even wear business attire.
Some would argue that the development of animal-free foods will be the key turning point for ending animal farming, such as what GFI is doing. What is the best case for giving to MFA over their “child organization,” GFI?
MFA has no concrete short-term plans to launch new spin-off entities like GFI because MFA’s current priority is their own expansion and the launch of GFI took so many resources. In general, however, creating a new organization is probably an effective investment of time and money. For that reason, MFA plans to start new entities, both nonprofit and for-profit, in the future, as described earlier in the conversation.
MFA was also one of the initiators of New Crop Capital, a venture capital firm which already helps create new companies that otherwise would not exist. So in a way MFA is currently engaged in the creation of new for-profit organizations.
A compelling reason to give to MFA is so that MFA can create the next GFI: another strategic, effective nonprofit that fills “white space” in the movement. In this way, donations to MFA can have a multiplicative impact for animals.