Counting Animals Affected By Institutional Food Purchase
With climate change noticeably affecting the world around us, political and educational institutions are finally starting to take action to reduce their carbon footprint. Programs like the Good Food Purchasing Program encourage governments to improve their procurement practices (which we covered in our recent report on local action for animals), while the Real Food Challenge brings educational institutions on board to purchase and sell more climate-friendly foods in their cafeterias.
This is a pivotal moment for animal advocates. We need a seat at the table to ensure that animals have a voice in the conversation. We need to ensure that it’s about reducing carbon emissions and animal suffering, about finding solutions to the climate crisis and overreliance on animal exploitation, presenting these two issues as interrelated.
The stakes are high. We know that an exclusive focus on climate risk and carbon footprint can go hand-in-hand with reduced consumption of meat and milk from cows at the expense of chickens and fishes because, as every graph (accurately) shows, raising chickens and fishes emits much less carbon. Eating them is better for the climate than eating beef, but causes much more suffering because of their small bodies.
So what do we do?
Include Animal Suffering In Institutional Impact Calculations
You may recall that Faunalytics has a set of Animal Product Impact Scales that we updated in late 2022. Now we’ve made them easier to use for institutional purposes as well, with per-kilogram and per-pound estimates of animal suffering and death at the point of wholesale purchase. You can use these new numbers with food service managers and food procurement officers to convey the impact of their purchase decisions on animals.
Read more about the method at the end of this post. But first, here’s the data:
As we can see in the infographic, even the smallest impact numbers (for dairy products) add up when we’re talking about purchases on the scale of a university, government department, or hospital. A single urban hospital, for instance, can purchase hundreds of thousands of pounds of animal products per year. That’s thousands of animal lives they have the potential to save—at a single hospital!
A lot of the work that’s being done with institutions is driven by a desire to reduce the carbon footprint. But we don’t want to focus too hard on the relative climate impact of different animal products because when they’re graphed, it gives the impression that switching from beef to chicken or fish is a huge improvement. That impression leaves animal suffering out of the equation.
For a more inclusive way of thinking about the issue, we have to consider animal impact in the same breath as climate impact.
Use A Two-Pronged Approach To Get The Commitment And The Action
In any institution, it’s common for the people who make big decisions and the people who have to implement those decisions to be two different groups. There are pros and cons to that separation for the workers involved, but when it comes to advocacy, it can provide a challenge and an opportunity.
Consider a university: if we want to encourage them to serve less meat and more plant-based dishes in their cafeterias, who do we approach? We would need to find out which university administrator(s) control the food services budget and plan. In many cases, food management is contracted out to a company like Sodexo or Aramark, so we’re looking for whoever is responsible for their contract.
While that person is responsible for overseeing food services and making decisions that affect everyone beneath them—those actually ordering, managing, and serving the food—they may be minimally involved in how their decisions are implemented. That person may be happy to commit their university to a plan that will reduce their carbon footprint, but they aren’t (necessarily) the person who has to find a way to do it. The same is true for companies that commit to using cage-free eggs or other higher-welfare products. You can be sure that the person making the pledge isn’t going to be the one who has to figure out where those new eggs will come from.
That disconnect between decision-makers and decision implementers can be helpful: It will be easier to obtain a commitment from someone who gets the credit of a forward-thinking pledge without most of the stress and work associated with figuring out how to make it happen. But at the same time, if we don’t foresee that disconnect, it can also derail our efforts. A pledge helps no one without follow-through, so it can be a huge waste of time and money if we don’t set institutions up to succeed with implementing these changes as well.
Why Brings Commitments, How Brings Action
To successfully implement change at scale, advocates can approach an institution—specifically the high-up decision-makers—with the “why” of it all. This is where we get into the many benefits of encouraging a more plant-based diet: how a simple shift to more meals centered around plant-based proteins will reduce our carbon footprint, improve health outcomes, and save animal lives. You can use the Climate + Animal Impact graphic above, and the many other resources that exist to help make your case.
Pointing to the growing trend of institutions adopting these programs is also useful. It demonstrates that there’s a social norm decision-makers should follow, lest they be considered out of touch.
But even with strong buy-in and an understanding of why it’s important to shift from meat to plants, groups working on these issues know that this isn’t the end of the conversation — and note the parallel to individual veg advocacy as well: convincing people that they should go veg only helps if you can also show them how.
Why gets you the commitment from the top, but then it’s time to focus on the people responsible for turning that commitment into action — those who direct food services on how to order, how much to order, where to send it, and how to serve it. This is where we bring in the how of reducing impact on climate and animals, and having concrete numbers is key.
The first graph above, Animal Lives Per Pound (or Per Kilogram if you prefer) provides the data food services will need to see where they can make the biggest impact and track it easily based on the amount they order. Whether they choose to use vegetarian defaults on their menu, make plant-based food descriptions more appetizing, place plant-based options more visibly, or multiple approaches at once, the easiest way to measure impact is by looking at how purchase volumes change and, in turn, how many animals are affected.
Working with the people implementing change is the second piece of the commitment-to-action pipeline, and a crucial one. We need to make it as easy as possible for them by presenting them with tried-and-tested approaches for reducing animal product consumption as well as the climate and animal impact numbers they’ll need to monitor and evaluate their progress. The great news is that these days, all that data is right here at your fingertips.
The graphs above show our estimates of how many animal lives or days of suffering go into each pound of product. For instance, one pound of shrimps is many organisms, while a pound of beef is a small proportion of one cow. To get to a specific number, the rough process is as follows (or you can read about it in full detail in our Methodology document):
- We found an average carcass weight for each species;
- Took out the inedible proportion of the animal’s body to make sure we didn’t undercount animal deaths;
- Added the proportion of animals that die of other causes before slaughter (e.g., of disease or by euthanasia);
- Added “feed” animals’ deaths (e.g., fish are fed to pigs and chickens so those deaths can be counted toward the impact of pig and chicken products); and
- Adjusted the number for loss of product between the farm and point of retail sale. This includes loss of volume during production, such as from milk to cheese, as well as loss due to errors during storage, processing, or transport.
Unlike our previous publications, which focused on impact at the consumer level, this update focuses on the institutional level, so we excluded loss of volume at the consumer level (such as shrinkage during cooking or food waste). We have also split the “seafood” category into crab and shrimp to facilitate accurate calculation—with the data we used for individual servings, this was often impossible due to lack of specificity in what kind of seafood a dish contains.
If you have questions about the methodology of this research or how to use the estimates, consider visiting our Ask A Researcher office hours or get in touch!