Including Animals In Health And Environmental Advocacy: What We Need Right Now
In this blog, I share three steps advocates can take to include animals in global health and environmental advocacy. These include promoting research and advocacy for animals, reducing support for industries that exploit and exterminate animals, and increasing support for humane, healthful, sustainable alternatives to these industries. Not only will these actions help many human and nonhuman animals in the short term, but they will also help us build the knowledge, power, and political will that we need to help them even more effectively in the future.
This blog post is loosely adapted from part of Chapter 5 in my new book Saving Animals, Saving Ourselves: Why animals matter for pandemics, climate change, and other catastrophes. The book shows how our treatment of animals contributes to pandemics and climate change, and it also shows how pandemics and climate change contribute to animal suffering and death. It then makes the case for reducing our use of animals as part of our pandemic and climate change mitigation efforts and increasing our support for them as part of our adaptation efforts.
Taking these steps will benefit humans and nonhumans alike. Industries like factory farming, deforestation, and the wildlife trade kill trillions of animals per year and contribute to global threats that imperil us all. So replacing these industries with alternatives can help us, too.
Supporting Research And Advocacy
Our ability to improve our treatment of animals is currently limited in three main ways: We lack the knowledge, capacity, and political will that we need to achieve and sustain better forms of co-existence. Thus, while we can and should attempt to reduce human and nonhuman suffering now, we should also take steps to improve our ability to reduce this suffering more effectively in the future. That requires investing in research and advocacy so that we can build knowledge and political will — and then use these resources to build capacity as well.
We need more research in many areas, but we particularly need more research regarding wild animal welfare, aquatic animal welfare, and invertebrate welfare. We currently know very little about what these animals are like, how human activity is impacting them, and how, if at all, we can improve their lives at scale. Which animals are doing well and badly at present? Which ones would do better and worse in a world reshaped by climate change? Which ones would do better and worse as a result of particular mitigation and adaptation efforts?
To make our research effective, we need to think holistically. For instance, when it comes to wild animal welfare, it can be tempting to focus on the natural sciences. But we also need research in the social sciences (e.g., about how animal-inclusive advocacy will affect our policies) and in the humanities (e.g., about how to evaluate our policies in the first place). We also need to expand the types of institutions conducting animal-inclusive research, for instance by building more multidisciplinary academic and non-academic research institutes.
As with research, we need more advocacy around animal welfare. While many humans care about other animals, they tend to think much more about companion animals and “charismatic” wild animals like many mammals. But the vast majority of captive animals who need our support are farmed animals, and the vast majority of wild animals who need our support are “uncharismatic” animals like many insects. Advocacy for these particularly important and neglected kinds of animal will be essential for effective policy changes in the future.
As with research, to make our advocacy effective, we need to think holistically. Again, when it comes to wild animal welfare, it can be tempting to focus on animal advocacy. But we also need to engage in health and environmental advocacy, to show how human, nonhuman, and environmental impacts are linked. And we need to engage in human and animal rights advocacy, to show how systems of rights can promote welfare, and how we can promote human and nonhuman welfare and respect human and nonhuman rights at the same time.
Reducing Support For Harmful Industries
But while we might not yet know how to reduce wild animal suffering at scale, we do know how to reduce farmed animal suffering (and associated health and environmental threats) at scale: by reducing support for harmful industries like factory farming and increasing support for alternatives to these industries. Ideally we can eventually implement a global ban on industries like factory farming. In the meantime, we can take several steps to reduce the harms that these industries are causing, and to build momentum to more transformative future changes.
First, we can use informational and procurement policies to reduce support for harmful industries. For instance, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. have made Meatless Mondays proclamations, and Austin, New York City, and Portland have run public awareness campaigns on topics like food ethics to wild animal welfare. And in 2019, New York City announced it would serve 50% less beef and phase out processed meat at city-controlled facilities, while San Francisco’s hospitals have reduced meat consumption by 28%.
Second, we can use financial policies to reduce support for harmful industries. For instance, if the state reduces subsidies for the meat industry and requires meat companies to pay for the public health and environmental harms that they cause, the cost of meat would increase substantially. The meat industry would both lose billions per year in subsidies and face billions per year in increased costs, since it would have to pay for the impacts of antimicrobial resistance, land use, water use, waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Third, we can use regulations to reduce support for harmful industries. Meat is currently artificially cheap not only because of subsidies and externalities, but also because of deregulation that permits the meat industry to save money by harming and exploiting workers and animals. If the state requires meat companies to meet higher standards for treatment of workers and animals, then the cost of meat would once again increase substantially, thereby motivating both producers and consumers to transition to plant-based alternatives.
Finally, we can use targeted bans to reduce support for harmful industries. While a global ban on factory farming might not be tractable at present, regional bans on particular kinds of factory farming, such as foie gras production, are tractable at present. Pursuing these bans not only reduces particular kinds of local harm, but it also normalizes the idea of banning food production methods on animal, public health, and environmental grounds. Together with these other changes, these bans can build momentum towards other, more global bans over time.
Increasing Support For Alternatives
In addition to reducing support for harmful industries so that we can increase the cost of their products, we also need to increase support for alternatives so that we can reduce the cost of their products. In the case of food, we can do that by supporting not only plant agriculture but also plant-based meat (that is, meat made from plants) and cultivated meat (that is, meat made from cell-cultures). Together, these food systems can replicate the products of factory farming without causing nearly as much harm to humans, animals, and the environment.
The benefits of alternative food systems are worth emphasizing. Plant agriculture and plant-based meat consume much less land and water and produce much less waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions (while also killing fewer animals) than conventional meat. And while cultivated meat is still in development, research indicates that it has the potential to be similarly beneficial. One study predicts that cultivated meat will require 1% as much land and 4%-18% as much water as animal meat while emitting only 4%-22% as many greenhouse gasses.
However, there are substantial obstacles that advocates must address. Socially, we need to persuade people that these products are consistent with their personal, cultural, and religious identities. We also need to undercut arguments against them. For example, when people call plant-based and cultivated meat “unnatural,” we can point out that these products are more natural than we might think, that conventional meat is less natural than we might think, and that, in any case, eating “natural” is less important than eating foods that minimize harm.
Politically, we need to promote plant-based and cultivated meat in the business and policy communities. This includes persuading business leaders and policymakers to see these products as opportunities rather than competition. It also includes pushing back against attempts to undermine these products. For example, when meat companies argue that plant-based “meat” labels are misleading, we can argue that these labels accurately describe these products, unlike animal-based meat labels that claim to be “humane” or “sustainable.”
Finally, technologically, we need to further increase funding for research to make plant-based and cultivated meat more ethical and effective. Regarding cultivated meat, we need to replace animal-based growth mediums with plant-based growth mediums, and we also need to reduce the cost of production to make these products more competitive (of course, increasing taxes and regulations for conventional meat will help, too). Finally, we can reduce the energy costs of production so cultivated meat can be an even more sustainable alternative than it currently is.
Even if all we did is take the steps discussed here, that would be transformative. We would substantially phase down industries that cause massive and unnecessary harm for humans and nonhumans alike, and replace them with much better alternative forms of co-existence.
But as I discuss in the book, these steps are only the start of what we should do. In addition to reducing support for harmful industries and increasing support for alternatives, we should also increase our support for other animals in general, since other animals are vulnerable to a wide range of natural and human-caused harms. Thus, we should include animals in impact assessments and policy decisions regarding education, employment, social services, infrastructure, and many other areas where we currently exclude animals.
More fundamentally, we should also work to extend basic moral, legal, and political status to animals. We currently treat them primarily as objects, which is part of why we harm, kill, and neglect them as much as we do. The more we can learn to treat them as subjects, the more we can build the kinds of multispecies communities where humans and nonhumans alike can flourish. We might be a long way from achieving that goal, but the more we reduce our use of animals and increase our support for them, the more we can build momentum toward it.