By Nick Cooney and Ben Davidow
Imagine you’re standing in a dining room before a massive table set with 100 plates. Spread among the plates is all the beef, chicken, and pork an average American consumes in one year. Since Americans eat so much meat, the plates are piled high with animal flesh.
If you tally up the plates, you'll find that 44 plates contain chicken, 30 contain beef, and 26 contain pork, since Americans eat slightly more chicken than beef or pork.[i] Given this table, it makes sense that our movement places roughly equal focus on cows, pigs, and chickens. Right?
Wrong. That table represents the weight of the meat Americans eat, but it doesn’t reflect the number of animals they eat.
In place of the table, picture all the actual, live animals who were farmed and slaughtered to produce the meat you visualized on the plates. Looking upon this crowd of animals, you notice something strange: there’s a sea of chickens and . . . that’s it.
Where are all the pigs? Where are all the cows?
Because chickens are so much smaller than cows and pigs, many more of them must be slaughtered to get an equivalent amount of meat. To produce the same amount of meat that can be obtained from a single cow (or four pigs), over 200 chickens must be killed.[ii]
That’s why, despite the fact that people eat almost as much pork and beef as they do chicken, they eat many more chickens than they do cows or pigs. Each year, the average American eats 28 chickens but only one half of a pig and one eighth of a cow.[iii] This explains the absence of cows and pigs in the thought experiment above: all the pork and beef a typical American eats in a year doesn’t add up to a single cow or pig.
For farm animal activists, what truly matters is not the amount of meat that people consume but the number of animals that are harmed and the amount of suffering that is caused. Our movement's outreach efforts, however, are based largely on the illusory dining table: we tend to direct our resources based on how often animals are consumed, not how many are consumed.
A Question of Focus
Farm animal advocates sometimes point out how problematic it is that the majority of resources devoted to helping animals go toward cats and dogs. Farm animals, we argue, deserve the focus, since they make up nearly 99% of the animals exploited and mistreated by humans.
Yet we farm animal advocates seem to have a similarly problematic bias. We tend to give no more focus to chickens than we do to cows and pigs, despite the fact that cows make up less than one third of 1% and pigs make up just over 1% of the land animals farmed for food. Chickens make up a whopping 95%.[iv]
And it’s not just that a higher number of chickens are farmed and slaughtered. The same trend holds true when we look at the number of days of animal suffering caused by an average meat-eater. We get this amount by multiplying the number of animals consumed by how long each one lives and suffers on a factory farm.
Chickens (both meat and egg-laying) endure roughly 86% of the total number of days of suffering that all farm animals endure (we’re excluding farmed fish here; please see the postscript for an explanation why). Pigs represent just 5% of the number of days of suffering, and cows (dairy and beef combined) represent only 3%.[v] And to top it all off, veterinary evidence suggests that factory farmed meat and egg-laying chickens suffer at least as acutely as — and probably much more so than — beef cows, dairy cows, and pigs.[vi]
When we carry out farm animal outreach without considering the relative suffering caused by different animal foods, we are bowling with blindfolds: we can’t know where to aim, and our success will be limited.[vii] It’s time to remove the blindfolds and knock down as much animal cruelty as we can.
If we see farm animals as individuals, and we want as many individuals as possible to be protected from cruelty, then our focus needs to be on getting the public to give up chicken (and eggs). Having that focus will enable us to save more lives and prevent more suffering.
Consider, for example, that getting someone to give up red meat helps less than one animal per year. On the other hand, getting someone to simply cut their chicken consumption in half — even if they continue to eat all other types of meat — spares 14 animals per year a lifetime of misery. If someone were to give up chicken and replace all the chicken they used to eat with beef and pork, they would still be sparing a net of about 27 animals per year from a lifetime of misery. That is almost the same number of animals who would have been spared had the person become vegetarian.
At the very least, our outreach efforts should place greater focus on chicken and eggs. We should tell people that the first and most important thing they can do to help farm animals is to cut out or cut back on chicken.
An Intriguing Possibility
But there’s a much larger implication for animal advocates: we may be able to spare more animals by encouraging the public to ‘avoid chicken’ (or possibly ‘avoid chicken and eggs’) than by doing what we do now, which is encouraging them to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets. Why might this be the case?
Try this scenario on for size. Imagine it’s 10 years in the future. Climate change is still a major issue, and the time has come for you to buy a new car. An environmentalist friend of yours encourages you to just stop driving entirely. Another friend encourages you to buy a solar-powered car, which generates 90% lower greenhouse gas emissions and is equally convenient and almost as cheap as conventional cars. What would you do?
While a few people may quit driving, chances are you’d go for the solar car, right? And in making the switch, you’d be doing 90% as much good for the environment as if you had stopped driving entirely.
The same situation holds true when it comes to what meat Americans eat. Simply by leaving chicken off the plate — even if they replace it with beef and pork — Americans can reduce the number of animals they harm by about 90%. And, in all likelihood, the public would be much more willing to give up one type of meat (chicken) than they would be to give up all meat. In fact, polls show that there are far more chicken-avoiders than vegetarians. One national poll found that while only 2.3% of Americans were vegetarian, 6.3% never ate chicken.[viii]
So, what impact could focusing on chicken have for farm animal advocates? Let’s say that 4% of Americans would be willing to give up eating chicken alone if you encouraged them to do so, but only 3% would be willing to give up all meat. At least in the short term, encouraging people to just give up chicken would help many more animals. If you encouraged 100 Americans to ditch meat, you’d spare 90 animals per year. If you encouraged 100 other Americans to just ditch chicken, you’d spare 112 farm animals per year. And if, say, 8% of the public were willing to give up chicken alone, the number of farm animals spared would skyrocket to 224 per year.
Focusing on chicken could prove more beneficial in the long run as well. People who eliminate one food become more open to other changes down the line, and they’ve already taken the most important step by ditching chicken. To the extent they spread this dietary change to friends and family members, they’ll be spreading the change that spares the most animals.
Only research will tell us whether a broad message like “go veg” or a focused message like “cut out chicken” helps the most animals. In the meantime, though, you might try focusing your personal outreach efforts on chicken and see how it goes. There’s a good chance that by doing so you will spare the lives of many more individuals – individuals like Wendy who are suffering right now on factory farms.
Wendy is a resident of Farm Sanctuary’s animal refuge in Orland, California
But What About…
Before we wrap up, let’s take a minute to look at some possible concerns about this approach.
1. Current Outreach is Effective
Absolutely. Many outreach efforts get strong results. We are simply encouraging the exploration of an alternative approach that may get even better — perhaps far better — results.
2. People Empathize More with Pigs and Cows
It’s true that mammals like pigs and cows generate more empathy than chickens. Studies suggest, though, that the empathy gap between pigs, cows, and chickens is not as big as we may expect. So it’s quite possible that, even though people do care about chickens less, the difference is not large enough to offset the benefits of focused outreach. And there are ways to generate more affinity for chickens: for example, showing cute, baby chicks or displaying chickens interacting with cats and dogs.
Also, empathy does not function in a vacuum. People tend to shut down their empathy when asked to make difficult lifestyle changes. Since giving up chicken is easier than going vegetarian, people asked to do so are more able to put their empathy into action.
3. We Won’t Be Able to Use Health and Environmental Arguments
Health and environmental arguments can still be used. Farm Sanctuary’s “Something Better” leaflet, for instance, focuses specifically on chicken and fish when discussing health, mentioning that chicken and fish contain high levels of carcinogenic chemicals like arsenic and mercury, and that chicken is a major source of saturated fat intake.[ix]
4. Focused Outreach Would Result in Fewer Vegans and Vegetarians
What matters for animals is not the number of vegans and vegetarians. What matters is how many animals are being raised and killed for food. Focusing on chicken may lead to fewer animals being raised and killed than focusing on vegetarianism.
That said, focusing on chicken wouldn’t necessarily result in fewer vegetarians and vegans in the long run; it might actually result in more. The well-documented psychological phenomenon called foot-in-the-door shows that people who make a small change become even more likely to make a similar, larger change down the line if later encouraged to do so.[x] And research suggests that people who make a gradual transition to vegetarianism are more likely to stick with it.[xi]
5. Veg Diets Are More Contagious
It’s possible that, because being vegetarian or vegan shapes one’s self-identity, vegetarians will be more motivated to convert others than those who simply cut out chicken. That is certainly possible, though the reverse could also be true. It may be the case that giving up chicken spreads faster because it’s an easier change to make.
Just as the moon and the sun may appear to be the same size from our vantage point, from a distance, chicken, beef, and pork seem to be equally large and relevant targets. But when we take a closer look, this illusion falls apart. Chicken consumption and egg consumption are responsible for the vast majority of farm animal suffering. Focusing on chicken and eggs could mean the difference between helping hundreds of animals and helping tens of thousands of animals in our individual lifetimes.
Farmed fish consumption accounts for fewer animals harmed but even more hours of suffering than chicken consumption. We focus on land animals though, since fish draw significantly less empathy[xii] to an extent that we suspect a dietary change message including fish would be less effective than a message focused purely on chicken and eggs. We do think it's a good idea to test a message that includes fish, but we think the priority should be testing a message focused on chicken and possibly eggs as well since it has the most promise. In Appendix B, we discuss how to formally test the efficacy of a focused message.
The two following charts visualize the disparity of suffering caused by the consumption of different animal foods.
Starting just short of 12 o’clock and moving clockwise, beef, duck, and dairy are barely perceptible slivers of the pie. “Harmed” is defined here as animals that are killed for food production or die from unnatural conditions on farms (e.g., animals who don’t make it to slaughter due to fatal complications from unnatural breeding). This chart includes male chicks in the egg industry who are killed upon hatching as part of the egg category and veal calves as part of the dairy category, since consuming dairy may support veal production. (If you’re reading this on a black and white device, chicken is the largest piece of the pie and then clockwise from around 10:30, follow eggs, turkey, pork, beef, duck, and finally dairy).
The above chart looks at the number of hours of suffering caused by different animal foods rather than the number of animals harmed. Unlike the first chart, this one does not account for male chicks in the egg industry and veal calves.
[i] Based on 2012 U.S. per capita meat consumption rates, as reported on the USDA website. [ii] Marcus, Erik. Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money. Boston, MA, USA: Brio Press, 2005. [iii] Calculations based on: Sethu, Harish. "How Many Animals Does a Vegetarian Save?" Counting Animals. N.p., 6 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2013. [iv] Cattle and pig statistics from USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Livestock Slaughter 2010 Summary” and chicken statistics from USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Poultry Slaughter 2010 Summary.” [v] These calculations were made on the basis of figures on the lifespan and retail weight of farm animals collected by Brian Tomasik here, 2010 per capita beef, pork, and chicken consumption figures from Ibid.3, and 2010 per capita egg and dairy consumption figures deduced with the same method as used in Ibid. 3 based on data from:
1) USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Livestock Slaughter 2010 Summary” 2) USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Poultry Slaughter 2010 Summary” 3) The United Egg Producers Website 4) USDA Foreign Agriculture Service import and export data These calculations account for the consumption of chicken, pork, beef, dairy, eggs, and turkey, but not other foods from land animals like duck. [vi] Unfortunately at the moment there isn’t any scientifically valid way to know the relative mental and physical suffering of each type of farm animal. For what it’s worth, agricultural economist and Compassion, By The Pound co-author F. Bailey Norwood perceives the welfare of each animal as follows, with -10 being the worst and 10 being the best: beef cows, 6; dairy cows, 4; broiler chickens, 3; pigs, -2; egg laying hens (in battery cages). See: Norwood, F. Bailey, and Jayson L. Lusk. "Compassion, by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare." OUP Catalogue (2011). [vii] This is not to suggest that blind people can’t bowl successfully, but simply that sighted people will have a difficult time doing so with blindfolds. [viii] Stahler, Charles. "How many adults are vegetarian? The Vegetarian Resource Group asked in a 2006 national poll." Vegetarian Journal 25.4 (2006): 42-4. [ix] See the booklet here. [x] Burger, Jerry M. "The foot-in-the-door compliance procedure: A multiple-process analysis and review." Personality and Social Psychology Review 3.4 (1999): 303-325.
[xi] Haverstock, Katie, and Deborah Kirby Forgays. "To eat or not to eat. A comparison of current and former animal product limiters." Appetite 58.3 (2012): 1030-1036.
[xii] See 1) Harrison, Marissa A., and A. E. Hall. "Anthropomorphism, empathy, and perceived communicative ability vary with phylogenetic relatedness to humans."Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology 4.1 (2010). 2) Rae Westbury, H., and David L. Neumann. "Empathy-related responses to moving film stimuli depicting human and non-human animal targets in negative circumstances." Biological psychology 78.1 (2008): 66-74.