photo_camera Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Cows In A Sale Yard
3 Big Changes We Need in the Farmed Animal Movement
Jacy Reese Anthis
June 25, 2018

Sentience Institute was founded around a year ago, and we’re happy to say we’ve seen a very positive response from the animal advocacy community. We also saw this in a recent survey of effective animal advocacy leaders asking what they thought of our existing research and what research we should do in the future.[1]

While this positivity is great, we worry the lack of criticism and resistance suggests we’re not framing our conclusions strongly enough. There are some big changes we’d like to see in the movement, and if we were drawing enough attention to these big changes, we think we’d either see groups making those changes, or encounter more resistance and criticism.

So we’re using this post to be more provocative than we have been. To be clear, we think the farmed animal movement is already doing fantastic, highly-effective work overall. The critical nature of this post shouldn’t be taken to mean otherwise. We do, however, see substantial room for the movement to be even more effective.

Specifically, we want to highlight three big changes the movement needs to make that seem important (taking them seriously could enable advocates to do far more good), nonobvious (they have resulted from extensive research rather than just common sense and readily-available evidence[2]), long-term (mattering not just in the next few years but over the next decades and beyond), and under-discussed in the farmed animal movement:

  1. Shift from an individual focus to an institutional focus. We need to shift over 50% of the resources and messaging we currently use to promote individual change (i.e. changing individual diets one-by-one, such as converting them to veganism or reducetarianism) to change institutions instead (i.e. changing governments, businesses, nonprofits, and social norms). We believe the heavy focus on individual consumption that we currently see in the movement fails to fully capitalize on public sentiment about animal issues and provokes defensiveness and opposition from the public, whereas a stronger focus on institutions would probably lead to faster, widely-supported, superlinear progress.
  2. Stop using gimmicks such as sexualized images of women and cute, cartoonish animal costumes. While these garner substantial attention, we expect them to do more harm than good for the movement by trivializing animal issues, reinforcing the notion of animal advocacy as unserious and a lesser social issue, and burning bridges with or otherwise antagonizing other social movements.
  3. Maintain a moral focus when promoting animal-free food technology. This is important in the medium term to ensure that the public sees these foods as necessary for the betterment of society instead of just increased profits for big business, and in the long term to help expand humanity’s circle, reducing the likelihood that other beings will experience vast suffering in the future.

Each of these is also discussed on our Foundational Questions Summaries page, which aggregates the existing evidence on a variety of important questions in effective animal advocacy.

1. Shift from an individual focus to an institutional focus.


There are two categories of changes that we’d like to see happen here: First, most advocacy messaging (e.g. the words in a leaflet, a YouTube video, or a social media post) that currently advocates for individual diet change (e.g. “Go vegan,” “Leave animals off your plate”) should instead advocate for institutional change (e.g. “End animal farming,” “Make slaughterhouses obsolete,” “Help us reduce US meat consumption by 50% by 2050”). This doesn’t mean individual diet change should never be advised. On the final page of a leaflet, for example, it may be best to offer several concrete calls to action, one of which can be individual diet change. Others can be, “Join our protest calling for Walmart to improve their treatment of chickens,” “Sign this petition asking McDonald’s to replace their chicken nuggets with plant-based alternatives,” “Vote for this ballot initiative to ban factory farming,” or “Visit this URL to find an animal rights organization in your city that hosts local meet-ups.”

Second, we’d like to see substantially less focus on advocacy tactics that work by convincing individuals one-by-one to change their consumption. The main examples here are online ads and diet-focused leaflets, though a notable exception is that leafleting is often used successfully to empower grassroots communities, such as by getting vegans involved in activism for the first time. Of course, those leaflets could still emphasize more institution-focused messages like calls to support a current political or corporate campaign.

We’d like to see most of the resources currently going into these tactics instead go to tactics that focus on changing institutions: governments, companies, nonprofits, and society as a whole. For example, these resources could be spent on campaigning for companies to produce more plant-based options, on campaigning for laws to improve and enforce farmed animal welfare standards or to ban factory farming, or on media such as documentaries, books, articles, and nonfiction that seeks to spark conversation in society about the issues of animal farming. Media outreach likely has some effect on individuals’ diets, but we’re prioritizing them based on their ability to facilitate discussions and create “common knowledge” that is useful for future advocacy. For example, undercover investigations have become common knowledge in the sense that a vegan can explain their diet choice by saying, “I saw a lot of those investigation videos of meat production,” and in the US, most people will understand what they’re referencing.


2. Stop using gimmicks such as sexualized images of women and cute, cartoonish animal costumes.


There are a variety of tactics that are frequently employed by farmed animal advocates because they get lots of attention, but that appear to generate so much negative attention or to present the issue in such a trivializing way that they are overall harmful to the farmed animal movement. We’d like to see the movement stop using these tactics entirely. Concrete examples include:


3. Maintain a moral focus when promoting animal-free food technology.


Many farmed animal advocates these days see food technology, especially clean meat, as a silver bullet for the issues of animal farming. One common argument is that price, taste, and convenience are what really matter to consumers, so if we can just beat conventional animal products in those dimensions, we’ll succeed in ending animal farming. We think that this goes too far when advocates (which includes not just nonprofit staff, but also journalists, businesspeople, and everyone else supporting animal-free foods) focus heavily on price, taste, and convenience. Advocates should continue to emphasize the moral benefits, particularly animal welfare, of animal-free food technology.

More specifically, we think ethics should be the primary message in most contexts, ahead of price, taste, and convenience. For example, in an op-ed or letter to the editor that advocates for clean meat, the ethical benefits should usually be most prominent, ahead of personal and commercial benefits. (There is an exception here for industry publications, such as an article in Feedstuffs that’s aimed exclusively at people in animal agriculture and related industries.)

Note that most of the farmed animal movement is already focused on moral messaging, so this change isn’t as big as the first two. It would mainly apply to animal-free food companies and corporate-focused nonprofits who currently focus less than non-corporate-focused nonprofits on the moral argument. We’re still including this suggested change because maintaining a moral focus in the development of animal-free foods seems very important for ensuring the long-term success of the farmed animal movement.


[1] You can see a brief summary of the results here, though note that (i) we had fewer respondents than we expected, and (ii) most respondents didn’t want us to publish their responses, even anonymously. We hope to write a blog post at a later date with more detailed thoughts on community feedback based on this survey and other materials.

[2] I think a particular fault of the effective animal advocacy community to date has been focusing too much on obvious strategic suggestions with virtually no disagreement, such as the need for advocates to maintain work-life balance or the need to use metrics.

[3] The data for this is a bit tricky, but consider the graph in this article showing around 20 million US cage-free hens, and the total flock size from this page of 305 million egg-laying hens.

[4] This probably shouldn’t be taken as substantial evidence that people show more support in polls than in ballot measures because there are numerous other variables, such as question wording and timing (e.g. first ballot measure was all the way back in 2002).

[5] See, for example:

[6] This concern about the historical precedent of sexualization and gimmicks is related to a concern about the historical precedent for a consumer focus. It seems rare for successful movements to present themselves as a consumer trend in the way farmed animal advocates have.

[7] “This implies that, in addition to doing everything possible to reduce the possibility of safety incidents with clean meat, it is sound strategy to avoid dwelling on safety risks with clean meat, even in an effort to rebut them, and to focus instead on positive aspects of clean meat rather than preexisting fears and to be especially wary of risking incidents that would confirm preexisting concerns.” - J. Mohorcich, What can nuclear power teach us about the institutional adoption of clean meat?

[8] “Focusing on the positive aspects of a technology has been more successful for encouraging its adoption than focusing on responding to negative perceptions.” - J. Mohorcich, What can the adoption of GM foods teach us about the adoption of other food technologies?

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