Proposals to improve animal welfare can backfire

by on March 31, 2005 at 6:48 am in Economics | Permalink

Here is yet another (and final) excerpt from my paper on animal welfare, now available on-line:

A boycott of meat products alone, however, may simply induce animals to be shifted into the [less salutary] sector. Ideally the boycotters would like to boycott meat and the product of the sectors that are even worse for animals, but such a broader boycott may not be possible. The boycotters may not be able to “reach” the animals used in the worst sectors. Not all such animals, for instance, are used to produce consumer goods sold in stores. Some laboratory animals are used to produce goods sold only to corporations, or are used for university research. The danger is that a boycott of meat will simply shift animals into very bad and harder-to-reach sectors. Instead, a subsidy to the better sector will have more predictable effects, by pulling animals out of the other, less favorable sectors, and thus should be preferred.  [Addendum: You don’t need to switch individual animals, just reinvest resources in animal breeding and care.]

…This point bears on the debate between vegans and vegetarians (a vegan eats neither meat nor dairy products, while a vegetarian eschews meat alone.) Let us call the worst sector for animals the dairy sector, and let us call the less worse sector the meat sector. On factory farms, dairy cows typically have inferior lives to cows raised just for meat. The dairy cow is locked up for its early years and then killed at a young age, often before reaching the age of four. Usually meat cows are allowed to graze freely for more years, before being killed. If there is a boycott of meat, but not dairy, the farmer may simply shift animals into the dairy sector, to the detriment of their welfare. A vegan may do the world the most good of all, but a meat eater may benefit animals more than does a non-vegan vegetarian. Meat eaters help keep the dairy sector from absorbing more cows. In essence, meat eaters bid up the price of cows, which will keep them out of other uses, some of which might be quite painful for the cows.

There is also a case for selective vegetarianism.  Although factory farms are prevalent in the United States, family farms (which typically treat animals better), are more common in Western Europe.  An optimal group norm might then involve eating meat when in Europe but not in the United States.  Similarly, we might eat meat only in very fine restaurants, where the animals typically are raised under free-range or otherwise superior conditions.

And now comes "defending the undefendable," namely European agricultural subsidies (no hate mail please!):

Agricultural subsidies, especially as implemented in Europe, may benefit animals and animal lovers. Many of these subsidies prevent small family farms from being absorbed by large agribusiness and factory farming. Given that family farms tend to treat animals better than do factory farms, such policies will improve animal welfare. Economists usually consider European agricultural policy to favor special interests at the expense of the general welfare. Nonetheless these subsidies have at least one potential rationale, once we take animals into account.

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