Open Philanthropy Project Farm Animal Welfare Newsletter
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How Can We Achieve Breakthrough Change
For Farm Animals?

Most of our farm animal welfare grants to date have focused on linear change, for instance by incrementally eliminating battery cages via corporate pledges, and I'm excited about the progress are grantees are achieving. But I’m also conscious that some of America’s greatest social reforms were driven by both linear and breakthrough changes. Abolitionists, suffragettes, and others succeeded by incrementally gaining small wins, and by setting the foundation over several decades for bigger breakthroughs.

Take the marriage equality movement. In 1996, just 27% of Americans thought that same-sex marriages should be legally recognized and no states recognized them; today, 61% of Americans believe that they should be legally recognized and all 50 states recognize them. The marriage equality movement achieved this change via an incremental state-by-state strategy — analogous to the state-by-state confinement bans that farm animal advocates have secured — but also by priming society for bigger changes.

Polls show support for same-sex marriage increasing by 1-2 points per year. Source: Gallup.

Animal advocates face a different challenge: changing behavior, not opinions. For over a decade 95% of Americans have said it’s important to them how farm animals are cared for, but most still buy meat, eggs, dairy, and fish produced in cruel factory farms. Yet the marriage equality movement’s lessons are relevant to the core question: how can a minority convince a majority of the need for major social reform?

In this newsletter I explore this question, suggesting some tentative ideas based on three (of many) explanations for the marriage equality movement’s success. My hope is less to answer the question — the future success of long term strategies is hard to predict, and past social movements offer only limited guidance — and more to spur your thoughts.

First, the marriage equality movement used popular culture. Joe Biden likely spoke for many when he said that Will and Grace influenced his views on marriage equality. This was no chance: GLAAD and others worked for decades to get more favorable Hollywood and news media LGBT coverage.

The farm animal movement has done some similar work, but it could do more. It has secured champions in TV hosts, Hollywood stars, and comedians (see table below), and reached millions online, for example with Animal Equality’s 2015 chicken hatchery video, which has already received almost nine million views. Here are a few ideas for other things that the movement could do more of:

  • Documentaries: a 2013 Humane League Labs survey of ~1,700 vegetarians, vegans, and meat reducers found that documentaries were the most commonly cited “factor or event” in influencing individuals to change their diets. A documentary like Blackfish, credited with halving SeaWorld’s share price, might lead to breakthrough changes for farm animals.

  • Enhanced PR: a 2015 Purdue University study found that most Americans have no information source on farm animal welfare. A PR group focused solely on increasing news coverage of farm animal investigations, or hiring more PR expertise for existing groups, might change that.

  • Getting into movie + TV show scripts: factory farming is rarely discussed in movies or shows (the last major movie to tackle the topic, Chicken Run, is over a decade old). Advocacy in Hollywood might help get factory farming themes into movies and shows.

Second, the marriage equality movement changed elite opinion. The Human Rights Campaign secured endorsements from politicians (Hillary Clinton), celebrities (Lady Gaga), and Fortune 500 companies (Apple, Microsoft, Coca-Cola), while think tanks like UCLA’s Williams Institute advanced LGBT issues within academia.

The farm animal movement starts here at an advantage. The movement already has the support of an enviable roster of public intellectuals, authors, newspaper editorial boards, and conservative columnists (see below). But the movement could do more to foster and institutionalize this elite support, for instance via:

                                     Elite Supporters of Farm Animal Welfare

Public intellectuals

Peter Singer

Martha Nussbaum

Cass Sunstein

Richard Dawkins

Steven Pinker

Yuval Noah Harari


Charles Krauthammer

George Will

Nicholas Kristof

Editorial boards

New York Times

Washington Post

Los Angeles Times


Jonathan Safran-Foer

Michael Pollan

Matthew Scully

TV hosts

Ellen DeGeneres

Martha Stewart



Jon Stewart

Aziz Ansari

Bill Maher

Hollywood stars

Joaquin Phoenix

Alec Baldwin

Ryan Gosling

A partial collection of high profile individuals who have spoken out against the cruel treatment of farm animals. Source: compiled from personal knowledge / research.

Third, the marriage equality movement recrafted its message to appeal to mainstream American values. Foundations funded research and focus groups starting in 2006 that helped shift advocates from talk of rights and benefits to talk of universal values like love and respect.

Farm animal advocates have started a similar process, moving from talk of “animal liberation,” “speciesism,” and “veganism” toward softer terms like “animal welfare,” “compassion,” and “plant-based diets.” But there’s still a need for rigorous research into effective farm animal advocacy messaging. This could answer questions like:

  • How can we best raise awareness of factory farm conditions? A 2015 Gallup poll found that an astonishing 32% of Americans claim to believe that “animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation,” yet only 26% of Americans are “very concerned” about the current treatment of US farm animals. One possible explanation for this paradox was suggested in the 2015 Purdue University study, which found ignorance of standard practices — fully 60% of Americans thought that “the majority of pigs raised for pork in the United States have access to the outdoors at least some portion of each day.”

  • What messages resonate with non-veg*n allies? The marriage equality movement chose messages that resonated beyond the 4% of Americans who self-identify as LGBT. We need to find the messages the best resonate beyond the 5% of Americans who self-identify as vegetarians or vegans ("meat is murder" is probably not one).

  • How can we best spread messages outside the mass media? A 2016 Foodthink survey found that only one in five Americans view mass media news organizations as “very or somewhat trustworthy” sources of information on food production. (The most trusted sources were friends and family, and oddly, the USDA, FDA, and medical community.)

I hope you’ve found this research note helpful in spurring your thoughts on how we can help make breakthrough reforms for farm animals more likely. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Next month I’ll look in more detail at one potential route to achieve breakthrough change: removing the antibiotic, economic, and policy supports of the factory farm system.

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