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Open Philanthropy Project Farm Animal Welfare Newsletter
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We’re Going Beyond Coal.
Could We Go Beyond Factory Farming?

In 2010, when the Sierra Club launched its Beyond Coal campaign, the US had 523 coal power plants. Today it has just 261. There are plenty of reasons why, not least the drop in the price of natural gas. But one reason is the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, backed by $100M from Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and other philanthropists. Beyond Coal campaigned for new federal rules on coal plants and subsidies for renewables, and organized communities to oppose new coal plants and shutter old ones.

A map showing the transition that the Beyond Coal campaign is contributing to. Source: Politico.

Could something similar work for factory farming? Last month residents of Tonganoxie, Kansas, forced Tyson to scrap plans for a $320M slaughterhouse that would have killed 1.25M birds/week and supported 300-400 new factory farm barns in the area. Despite the support of the state’s governor, plans for the plant collapsed after residents pushed the county commissioners to withdraw lucrative tax breaks and bonds for the project.

Of course there’s no point shutting down one factory farm or slaughterhouse if another one will just pop up somewhere else. That’s the ill that’s beset decades of factory farm litigation: in the last quarter century, advocacy groups have shut down maybe a dozen large factory farms — and the industry has built about 10,000 more (see chart below). To break out of this game of whack-a-faux-mole, advocates need to find a way to change the economics of factory farming.

That’s where Beyond Coal comes in. The campaign’s directors focused on changing the price differential between coal and renewables: they knew that utilities would only make the right choice when they could afford to. So they tried to make coal power and renewables more accurately reflect their true costs to the environment and public health.

In the last 35 years, the number of large US broiler chicken factory farms (raising >500K chickens/year) and large pig factory farms (confining >5K pigs at any time) has risen 10X, as broiler chicken numbers have skyrocketed and the pig industry has consolidated. The number of large dairy factory farms (confining >500 cows) has tripled, while the number of cows has actually shrunk as the industry has intensified. The number of large beef cattle factory farms (confining >1K cows) and layer hen factory farms (confining >100K layer hens) has remained steady, though a greater portion of US cows and hens are now confined in these large operations. The “large factory farm” designation is based on the largest category of farm that the USDA has tracked since 1982. These roughly correspond to the EPA definitions for “large concentrated animal feeding operations” (Large CAFOs). Sources: USDA Census of Agriculture datasets for 1982, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2002, 2007, and 2012.

As with coal, factory farmed meat’s price tag doesn’t reflect its true costs — to the environment, public health, or animals. In Meatonomics, David Robinson Simon estimates that the US meat industry produces $415B/year in negative externalities. I’m skeptical of that estimate, which is driven mainly by assumptions about meat’s contribution to health care costs, but still think the US meat industry’s social costs could dwarf its $200B in annual sales.

Consider just two. First, the 2B tons of manure that US factory farms produce annually, most of which they dump untreated on fields. If they had to treat this waste, as federal law requires municipalities to before they apply sewage to land, it would cost factory farms about $40-100/”wet ton,” or $80-200B/year across the industry. Second, the cruelty that the industry inflicts on 9.2B land animals annually, which goes completely unpriced because it’s completely unregulated. (Economists’ few attempts to price this cruelty fall short because they rely on consumers’ willingness-to-pay, not what matters: what the animal would “pay” to avoid the cruelty.)

So how can we make the price of factory farmed meat and alternatives better reflect their true costs? We lack some of Beyond Coal’s advantages: renewable energy was already close in price to coal (unlike clean / grown meat or pasture-raised meat) and was a perfect substitute for end consumers (unlike plant-based meat). But I think three lessons from the Beyond Coal campaign apply to fighting factory farming too.

Factory farmed and plant-based chicken prices are close, at least for the value-added products I compared, while pasture-raised and clean meat are much more expensive. Notes: I standardized retail prices to per pound cost, and tried to find the most analogous product in each category, though I couldn’t find pasture-raised chicken available through any online grocer and clean meat isn’t yet on the market. Products and sources: Tyson Grilled & Ready Chicken Breast Strips, 22 oz Bag ($6.98 at Walmart), Gardein Meatless Chick'n Strips 10 oz. Bag ($3.84 at Walmart), White Oaks Pastured Chicken Breasts 1lb Pack ($11.45 at White Oak Pastures), and Memphis Meats’ most recent public cost projection (“[Memphis Meats’] Costs have been lowered from $18,000 per lb. 1½ years ago to $6,000 three months ago and $3,800 most recently,” Meat + Poultry).

First, focus narrowly on clear metrics. Beyond Coal had two: US carbon emissions and the number of US coal plants — all its advocacy focused on reducing those numbers. I think we should have two criteria too: the number of animals in factory farms and the severity of each animal’s suffering (even if the second one is tricky to measure).

Second, focus national efforts on integrating negative and positive externalities into prices. Beyond Coal started 15 years ago with a strategy to enact both tougher rules on coal and larger subsidies for renewables, so that the prices of each would better reflect their social value. Similarly, we can push for animal welfare, environmental, and labor regulation of factory farms, while also pushing for subsidies for more humane alternatives, like plant-based and clean meat.

Third, focus local efforts on bottlenecks for the industry. Beyond Coal identified new coal power plants as the most critical infrastructure to the coal industry and the most vulnerable to challenge, and helped local communities to fight them. Slaughterhouses may play a similar role: meat companies rarely build them (the Tonganoxie plant would have been Tyson’s first in 20 years) and only contract with new factory farms once they’re built. Although 2,500+ plants slaughter animals nationally, just 111 owned by the top 10 chicken producers slaughter about two thirds of all US farm animals. And communities are increasingly opposing them: in just the last month residents of Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Decatur, Arkansas, have mobilized to oppose major new chicken slaughterhouses.

I’m not sure if a Beyond Factory Farming campaign makes sense, or if efforts to shift the economics of factory farming will work. Plant-based chicken still accounts for a tiny fraction of the chicken market, despite surprisingly competitive prices (see chart above). But I’m heartened by the success of groups’ campaigns to reduce the severity of animals’ suffering, which also make companies internalize the cost of mistreating animals. And I'm excited about the potential of advocacy and investment to produce better and cheaper alternatives to factory farmed meat.

Next month I’ll discuss some of the groups doing that exciting work, when I share my 2017 personal giving recommendations.

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