Support For Animal Welfare As A Policy Priority
Plant-based lifestyles are on the rise among U.S. adults—a promising trend for both the past and future of animal welfare advocacy. There are myriad reasons why people are adopting plant-based living, most prominently personal health, concern for the conditions of non-human animals, and climate change. Two widespread practices that touch on all three of these issues are factory farming and the prolific use of non-therapeutic antibiotics, both of which have profoundly negative consequences for the health and well-being of non-human animals in the U.S., have downstream effects on people who consume these animals, and drive and exacerbate the worst effects of climate change. In a recent study, Rethink Priorities—a think tank focused on “improving the welfare and lives of nonhuman animals”—looked at how different kinds of messaging affected people’s attitudes towards animal welfare policy and advocacy. Specifically, they wanted to know how varying arguments emphasizing risks from pandemics (particularly referring to COVID-19), antibiotic resistance, food safety, and meat plant worker safety influenced what the general public thought about three policy efforts:
- Bans on non-therapeutic antibiotics and on growth promoting antibiotics,
- Support for Senator Cory Booker’s plan to place a moratorium on new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and to phase out existing ones by 2040, and
- The Safe Line Speeds Act.
A team of researchers sent out a survey asking about respondents’ feeling towards the above-mentioned policy issues, plus several other related points. The survey was advertised as, “A Survey about Attitudes,” with the description, “In this survey you will be asked a number of questions regarding your attitudes to social issues and policy proposals. You will also be asked some basic demographic information.” To limit additional selection bias in who takes the poll (above and beyond the bias assumed in using an online platform), the researchers offered no additional details. As the specific issues presented were U.S.-focused, only U.S. respondents were allowed. In total, the study included about 2,000 people.
Prior to filling out the survey, respondents were randomly assigned a message laying out the case for reducing or eliminating meat consumption. The focus of this message was centered around either pandemic risk, antibiotic resistance, food safety, or worker safety. Questions then asked for respondents’ ratings on a scale of “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree” on statements such as, “The factory farming of animals should be banned.” Next, respondents were offered a simple Support/Oppose assessment of Senator Booker’s 2019 CAFO moratorium proposal. Finally, respondents were asked to rank five reasons for what would be the most compelling case to reduce or eliminate meat consumption, including the treatment of farm animals, personal health, climate change and the environment, worker safety issues in slaughterhouses, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The researchers offer several takeaways from the survey results, as well as some interesting secondary findings:
- The standard animal messaging was found to be more persuasive than messaging about COVID-19, antibiotic resistance, and worker safety, in getting support for banning factory farming or non-therapeutic antibiotic use on farms. Interestingly, a majority of respondents supported banning non-therapeutic antibiotics and growth-promoting antibiotics, regardless of which messaging they read.
- A substantial number (but not the majority—about 45%) of U.S. adults supported Senator Booker’s proposal to ban new CAFOs and phase out existing ones by 2040.
- Similarly, somewhere between 44-52% of U.S. adults supported the Safe Line Speeds Act, which aims to slow the rate at which non-human animals are killed in slaughterhouses.
- Fully a third of respondents intended to eat more plant-based, meat-free meals this year (2021) than last, and a majority of them intended to do so multiple days each week.
- Likewise, a majority would like to see restaurants, grocery stores, and other food outlets offer more meat-free, plant-based options.
- An overwhelming majority (more than 80%) of U.S. adults feel strongly that food companies should commit to not keeping animals in extreme physical confinement (such as cages) and to uphold humane standards of living.
- Finally, the researchers found that the treatment of farmed animals and personal health were the top two reasons people found most persuasive for switching to a plant-based lifestyle.
All told, the report is a bright light for animal advocates. First, the standard animal messaging (which advocates are largely familiar with and already practice) is the most effective across the board. Thus, U.S. adults are persuadable through common strategies to extend respect and rights to non-human animals. Next, more people than before are in the majority in supporting changes to our health policy and food system that would dramatically improve the well-being of farmed animals everywhere. Finally, a plant-based lifestyle is increasingly popular and even though 35% of U.S. adults interested in a flexitarian diet isn’t yet a majority, it is substantial progress for humans and non-human animals alike. The implications of this study for policy and advocacy are clear: people are persuadable, and animals may soon broadly enjoy at least some of the rights and better treatment that advocates have long pushed for.