Big Wins for Farm Animals This Decade

This post originally appeared in the monthly farm animal welfare newsletter written by Lewis Bollard, program officer for farm animal welfare. Sign up here to receive an email each month with Lewis’ research and insights into farm animal advocacy. Note that the newsletter is not thoroughly vetted by other staff and does not necessarily represent consensus views of Open Philanthropy as a whole.

Progress for farm animals has been far too slow. In 1822, Britain passed the first national law protecting farm animals. Two centuries later, most countries — including China and the United States — still lack such a law. In 1975, Peter Singer published Animal Liberation. Half a century later, about ten times more animals are factory farmed every year.

But in the last decade, advocates have achieved unprecedented progress for farm animals. For the holidays, I want to step back and reflect on everything you’ve achieved — and much of it was achieved by readers of this newsletter — to start to turn the tide for farm animals.

Corporate Change

A decade ago, most of the world’s largest food corporations lacked even a basic farm animal welfare policy. Today, they almost all have one. That’s thanks to advocates, who won about 3,000 new corporate policies in the last ten years.

Take the battery cage. About seven billion birds, or roughly one for every human on the planet, are crammed into these microwave-sized containers. A decade ago, Europe had just moved to slightly larger enriched cages, and US advocates were pushing for a similar reform. Abolishing cages altogether seemed impossible.

That changed in 2015-18, as advocates secured cage-free pledges from almost all of the largest American and European retailers, fast food chains, and foodservice companies. Advocates then extended this work globally, securing major pledges from Brazil to Thailand. Most recently, advocates won the first global cage-free pledges from 150 multinationals, including the world’s largest hotel chains and food manufacturers.

A major question was whether these companies would follow through on their pledges. So far, almost 1,000 companies have — that’s 88% of the companies that promised to go cage-free by the end of last year. Another 75% of the world’s largest food companies are now publicly reporting on their progress in going cage-free.

Of course, some companies will still shirk their pledges. But 165M more hens are already cage-free in Europe and the US today than were a decade ago, and advocates are on track to help over 300M more just by getting companies to follow through on their existing policies.

One measure of corporate progress: in 2012, the Business Benchmark for Farm Animal Welfare could find only nine companies to meet its then quite lenient standards for the top three tiers. Today, 47 companies meet its now stricter standards. (The dip in numbers from 2020-21 reflects strengthening of the standards.) Source: BBFAW.

Alternative Protein Acceleration

In 2012, alternative proteins were decidedly “alternative.” No major meat company was making plant-based meat, no major US fast food chain was serving it, cultured meat hadn’t yet been cultured, Beyond Meat hadn’t gotten beyond Whole Foods, and Impossible burgers weren’t yet possible.

Today, the world’s largest meat companies — from Brazil’s JBS to America’s Tyson Foods — mostly have their own plant-based meat brands. Germany’s biggest meat producer said this year that half of its future product range will be meatless. One of the world’s largest seafood companies, Thai Union, even launched plant-based seafood.

The world’s largest fast food chains now mostly have a plant-based option — with one noticeable McException. Yum Brands, owner of KFC and Pizza Hut, calls plant-based foods “part of a global movement influencing menus at all of our restaurants.” Burger King is selling plant-based whoppers at most of its global locations; in Belgium, they now account for one in three whoppers sold.

Even after a bad year, plant-based meat sales are more than twice what they were five years ago. Alternative protein startups have raised a “mere” $2.2B so far this year, down from a colossal $5B last year, but still about $2.2B more than they raised in 2012. Globally, over 1,000 such companies are now racing to bring new products to market, including over 200 in Asia.

Americans can soon join Singaporeans in sampling cultured meat, thanks to a recent FDA approval. And governments are finally investing the long-term patient capital needed to solve the major technical barriers to scalability that remain. Most recently, the Netherlands allocated a record €60M to the space.

Indeed, alternative proteins seem to be growing on even the world’s largest governments. China’s President Xi spoke of them this year, as did China’s new Bioeconomy five year plan. The US White House made its first supportive statements. And the EU member states’ new Common Agricultural Policy strategic plans made frequent mention of them.

Money sometimes grows on trees (or at least plants): investment in alternative proteins rose about 50X over the last decade. Source: Good Food Institute.