Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ham and Eggonomics, Part 1

Bailey Norwood is a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University. Much of his recent research on food preferences and farm-animal care is of interest to the animal-welfare community. For instance, one of his papers examines economic impacts of switching to vegetarian diets, giving consideration to the supply-and-demand interrelationships of the chicken, pork, beef, and corn markets.

One of Norwood's recent projects is a website called Ham and Eggonomics, which includes an associated blog. In the page's own words:
This website is intended to be an information source for consumers about the food they eat, with specific emphasis on the welfare of farm animals. Finding good, useful information is difficult. Scientists are objective but often to timid to make general statements. Food industries have their obvious bias. Even authors who write books about food generally distort and sensationalize the truth to scare consumers.

Ham and Eggonomics states the facts plainly and is not scared to tackle an issue head-on. The website only desires to provide you with the information you require for your food choices, and has no desire to tilt your political leanings or recruit you into a specific cause.

The page features the a book with the same name as the site. The book is in draft form, and "comments are welcome," so I'll make a few remarks on Chapters 1 and 6 below. In Part 2, I comment on Chapter 8.

Chapter 1 lays out the slant from which the authors approach animal welfare: Namely, the economics of revealed preferences, rather than philosophical prescription.
Whereas ethicists and philosophers will argue about the morality of treating animals in certain ways, the economic approaches assumes that each person is entitled to their own view of animal welfare. (Ch. 1, p. 11)

The economic approach is to instead treat peoples’ views on animal welfare as preferences. That is, instead of arguing with you about what is right or wrong, or trying to persuade you to adopt a particular system of moral beliefs, we simply ask you, and your fellow citizens, what you think is right and wrong and make that the goal of society. For example, if instead of animal welfare we were dealing with the contentious issue of abortion, we would not try to persuade you to be for or against abortion. Instead, we would poll the public, and if a majority of Americans was against abortion, we might would conclude that public policy should outlaw abortion. That is just an example, an example to illustrate that we seek to determine how animals should be raised, based on the moral and ethical beliefs of you and your fellow citizens. (Ch. 1, p. 3)

Needless to say, I don't agree with this approach, because it conflates prescription about what should be done with description of the desires held by an arbitrary group of agents (adult Americans, in rough proportion to their voting / purchasing power). I demur at the suggestion that "animals matter because people care about them" (Ch. 1, p. 5). But my objection here is no different from my disagreement with the standard economic approach in general, and I'm glad the authors make their bias explicit. In addition, I appreciate the authors' aim to make reasoned decisions based on academic research into the costs and benefits of particular actions, without being afraid to upset standard ideological positions. (We merely differ on what to measure when assessing costs and benefits.)

The tone of the book is very "mainstream":
In this book, we offer no grand moral philosophy that makes your food choices straightforward. We do not believe ourselves so smart and knowledgeable that we can dictate to you the choices you can make. We can, however, help you understand the consequences of your choices, and help you better form your views on farm animal welfare. (Ch. 6, p. 20)

This may ultimately prove beneficial, because the message is not off-putting to majority of Americans in the way that much animal-rights literature is.

I largely agree with the authors that "the study of animal welfare is, for all practical purposes, the study of farm animal welfare" (Ch. 1, p. 4) because farm animals vastly outnumber those used in labs or for fur. Indeed, I would go further and say that the study of animal welfare is, for all practical purposes, the study of chicken welfare, because the number of pigs and cows slaughtered is tiny by comparison.

I do wish this point were recognized more by animal-welfare organizations, which -- even when they recognize the importance of farm animals -- often continue to focus resources on, say, welfare standards for veal calves and sows. Even the authors of Ham and Eggonomics fall into this, by giving roughly equal time to welfare questions about the raising of cows, pigs, and chickens. Really, the only animals people should think about when discussing land-based factory farms are broiler chickens and laying hens.

The above statement ignores fish and crustaceans, which may also suffer in huge numbers. And of course, it ignores wild animals. The book authors are not silent on this point, however:
It would also be foolish romanticism to believe that the lives of all domesticated animals are inferior to their ancestors or to modern animals that live in the wild. Domesticated animals live without the fear of predators and have ample supply of food and water; one need only turn their television to the Discovery channel to see that wild animals live in constant fear of being mauled and are no strangers to hunger and starvation. (Ch. 1, p. 9)

Some animal rights groups are even opposed to the owning of animals as pets. They only wish animals to exist in their wild state, which as any avid watcher of nature shows can attest, has its own distinct forms of cruelty. Wild animals, though adapted to their environment, face many obstacles to receiving adequate nutrition, and most face constant pursuit as prey. In our opinion, wild animals do not have a high level of well-being. (Ch. 6, p. 19)

The authors go on to cite my piece on wild-animal suffering on p. 19. (The blog mentions it as well.) They suggest an interesting conclusion, one that I probably agree with:
It is possible, and to us likely, that the only manner in which animals can enter this world and for their species as a whole to experience more happiness than suffering is for them to be under the stewardship of humans. Whether they are pigs destined for slaughter or dogs destined for doting, nature’s hand has no choice but to be cruel, while humans have the choice to become compassionate stewards. If an animal species is to exist, between [sic.: better] for them to exist under the care of humans, generally speaking. (Ch. 6, p. 19)

This is perhaps unsurprising: Evolution does not optimize an objective function of cumulative happiness minus pain. (Of course, neither do almost all breeders of farmed animals.) Human engineers with the specific goal of reducing suffering and promoting wellbeing ought to be able to do better, unless they are too incompetent to succeed at the task. In practice, incompetence may very well prevail with respect to wild animals at the moment (evolution, for all its "blind, pitiless indifference," may do a better job at currently evolved optima), but this needn't be the case indefinitely, as human technology and intelligence progress.

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