Reforming Animal Agriculture Subsidies: A Guide for Advocates
The global meat and seafood market is an empire worth $867 billion USD worldwide in 2021. This market is dominated by megacorporations like Tyson and JBS which receive billions of dollars in direct subsidies–cash grants, loans, purchases, or other types of financial aid–from their governments. Worldwide, governments provide approximately $540 billion USD annually in direct subsidies to agriculture, with most of these payments going to “Big Ag” (i.e., industrial animal agriculture controlled by a few large corporations, akin to “Big Oil”). The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (2021, p. vii) found that “over two-thirds of this support is considered price-distorting and largely harmful to the environment.”
There’s another reason why Big Ag dominates the global animal agriculture sector: These companies offload costs or ‘externalities’ onto human and nonhuman animals by using intensive confinement of animals and exploitative human labor. Such externalities are also referred to as indirect subsidies and they also include other consequences of Big Ag like environmental pollution and public health problems. To put it into perspective, if these costs were actually accounted for in retail prices, consumers would end up paying $1.70 USD more for each dollar of animal product purchased–for example, a gallon of milk would go from $4 to almost $11 in grocery stores (Simon, 2013). But in reality, consumers and society end up paying for these costs indirectly through healthcare costs, environmental pollution, and other problems caused by Big Ag.
Animal agriculture subsidies, therefore, create an uneven playing field for advocates and plant-based food producers compared to animal-based producers. Given that governments regularly give money and assistance to Big Ag, advocates may question whether vegan outreach or other types of campaigns are sufficient to reform the food system. And how can plant-based food producers compete with animal agriculture when less than 25% of global farm subsidies go to growing fruits and vegetables (Springmann & Freund, 2022)?
The purpose of this study was to understand organizations’ successes and challenges in their efforts to shift, reduce, or eliminate animal agriculture subsidies. We interviewed 13 organizations from Brazil, Canada, U.K., and the U.S. to better understand their approaches to reforming animal agriculture subsidies. In doing so, we hope to facilitate knowledge sharing among advocates, and we provide recommendations and lessons learned from a wide range of approaches.
Below in Figure 1, we summarize the two types of subsidies–direct and indirect–and advocates’ goals to reform them. Please see Specific Goals and The Ingredients Of Political Change for details on each goal and how advocates tackle them.
Figure 1. Reforming Animal Agriculture Subsidies
- Subsidization of animal agriculture is complicated, and the average person’s understanding of subsidies doesn’t reflect the reality of how advocates have to approach them. Tackling subsidies directly is made complicated by Big Ag’s immense political influence. For these reasons, advocates have found more success by working to reform farm subsidies, such as by shifting them towards plant-based agriculture, rather than trying to reduce or eliminate government programs that give money to Big Ag. For other approaches, please see Specific Goals.
- Indirect subsidies are particularly important because they’re less obvious: Big Ag saves money by harming people, the environment, and farmed animals. Some organizations have sued the government and Big Ag companies for failing to comply with environmental and antitrust laws, which is one approach to combating these indirect subsidies. Some advocates also work against them by campaigning for cage-free transitions or other welfare improvements, which requires the industry to invest more money into these changes and thus increases the cost of animal products.
- Litigation is an important yet less recognized tool for evening the playing field. Organizations that have filed a lawsuit against Big Ag companies reported that doing so increased their ability to obtain meetings with politicians, media coverage of the harms of Big Ag, and legislative changes that minimize these harms. Importantly, all this became more feasible after filing a notice of suit, before or without having to enter the courtroom.
- Reforming Big Ag subsidies needs to be a collaborative effort between animal advocates, environmental advocates, and farmed animal producers. Subsidizing Big Ag affects everyone—from non-human animals to small-scale farmers—so many organizations have had the most success in reforming farm subsidies by setting aside their differences and working with stakeholders outside the animal protection movement.
There are many ways to target subsidies as they can be direct (i.e., financial aid given to Big Ag by the government) and indirect (i.e., costs of Big Ag that are pushed onto consumers, farmed animals, and the environment). The Specific Goals section describes options like expanding subsidy programs to incorporate plant-based agriculture, establishing more plant-based procurement policies, getting tax exemptions for alternative proteins, and suing Big Ag for environmental pollution. However, some advocates we spoke to noted the importance of choosing a single focal goal to avoid spreading your resources too thin.
As described above, advocacy organizations can tackle a range of distinct goals to reform Big Ag subsidies and use a variety of methods to achieve them, from lobbying to litigation. While not all goals will be equally impactful, groups need to ensure that they don’t prioritize maximizing their unique impact over the coordination of goals with other groups. Intergroup communication is the most effective way to allocate resources and work alongside one another to avoid conflict or redundancy.
Learn about perspectives outside the animal protection movement to communicate with different stakeholders.
Different groups care about reforming Big Ag subsidies for distinct reasons—from environmental to economic. Persuasive data exists for many different arguments so you should pick the information your stakeholder will relate to and that you’re comfortable speaking on.
In the context of lobbying, train constituent lobbyists to raise awareness of particular issues if possible, while relying on professional lobbyists to amend or write new pieces of subsidy legislation.
Our interviews revealed that constituent lobbyists tend to be more successful than professional lobbyists in getting politicians to understand the harms of Big Ag and obtaining their support. In contrast, professional lobbyists are better trained to expand subsidy legislation or write new legislation that benefits plant-based agriculture. However, professional lobbyists may try to include animal agriculture producers when writing or amending legislation, so advocates need to provide clear objectives to their lobbyists.
In the context of alternative proteins, support open-access research of cultivated meat and encourage governments to continue funding plant-based meat innovation.
While both the plant-based and cultivated meat industries would benefit from additional funding, advocates noted that it is particularly important to support open-access work on cultivated meat. The current system of ownership over cultivated cells encourages companies to keep their innovation private. In addition to hindering development, this secrecy allows misinformation about cultivated meat to thrive.
The purpose of this project is to understand how the animal protection movement is working to change subsidies to animal agriculture and how the industry perceives those tactics. This is the first of two reports that will come out of this project.
This first report is a qualitative study where we interviewed different organizations to learn about advocates’ strategies to reform farm subsidies. Our second report is a qualitative study where we analyzed animal agriculture industry articles to understand how the industry perceives advocates’ strategies to change subsidies to animal agriculture.
Applying These Findings
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Behind The Project
The report authors are Andrea Polanco and Jo Anderson of Faunalytics. Interview support was provided by Coni Arévalo and Zach Wulderk.
This study would not have been possible without the 13 organizations that gave us their time for interviews: Agriculture Fairness Alliance, Earthjustice, Environmental Working Group, Farm Action, Fórum Animal, Friends Of The Earth, The Good Food Institute Brazil, Nation Rising, Public Justice Food Project, Reimagine Agriculture, Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, Stray Dog Institute, and The Vegan Society. We’d also like to thank Cleo Verkuijl (Stockholm Environment Institute) and Ren Springlea (Animal Ask) for their feedback, and an anonymous funder for their generous support of this research.
At Faunalytics, we strive to make research accessible to everyone. We avoid jargon and technical terminology as much as possible in our reports. If you do encounter an unfamiliar term or phrase, check out the Faunalytics Glossary for user-friendly definitions and examples.
Research Ethics Statement
As with all of Faunalytics’ original research, this study was conducted according to the standards outlined in our Research Ethics and Data Handling Policy.