After a long reflection of five years within effective altruism, I finally came up with my personal three top charities. The choice of these charities is based on my personal moral beliefs and estimates of the situation, by considering the importance (scope), the neglectedness and the tractability (solvability) of the problems that the charities try to resolve. For the next few years, I will mostly donate to those charities and hope a few more other people will do so as well.
The Good Food Institute
The bigger a problem is, the more effective it is to solve that problem, all else equal. Animal farming (livestock and aquaculture) is a very big problem. More than 100 billion vertebrate animals are born in captivity and killed per year. This excludes invertebrate animals (e.g. for insect meal) and wild caught vertebrate animals (e.g. fishing). The lives of such livestock and fish farm animals is probably far worse than the lives of most humans, involving more suffering. This yearly killing rate can be multiplied by the average human lifespan of 80 years, resulting in more than 8000 billion sentient beings suffering per human being. Hence, in terms of number of individuals harmed and killed, animal farming is probably more than 1000 times worse than all human rights violations and premature deaths combined.
Another estimate of the scope of the problem, looks at the number and duration of negative experiences. For each human alive today, there are probably more than 10 vertebrate animals kept in animal farms (3 livestock animals plus many fish). A random moment of a random animal in captivity is probably far worse than a random moment of a random human alive today. Hence, in terms of moments of negative experiences, animal farming is probably more than 10 times worse than all human suffering combined.
Three extra considerations indicate that the scope of the problem could be even larger. First, there is moral uncertainty about ethical systems, implying that a rights based ethic has a non-zero validity. An in my opinion strong case can be made for an extension of narrow utilitarian ethics, by including a basic right: the right that someone’s body should not be used against his or her will as a means to someone else’s ends. According to some rights based ethics, this basic right is stronger than other rights and trumps to a large degree considerations of welfare. Hence, the production of animal products is most likely the largest kind of injustice or discrimination (speciesism).
Second, there is moral uncertainty about population ethics. Consequentialist ethical systems with a procreation asymmetry or suffering focus have some non-zero validity. According to those asymmetric views, adding an extra life with a net-negative welfare (i.e. overall more negative than positive experiences) is always bad, but adding an extra life with a net-positive welfare is not always good. This means a priority should be given to avoiding lives not worth living (i.e. lives full of suffering, with net-negative welfare) above creating extra lives worth living or improving lives that were already worth living. It is likely that most farm animals have lives not worth living, whereas most humans have lives with net-positive welfare. This means the suffering of a farm animal trumps the happiness of a human. Hence, animal farming becomes an even bigger problem.
Third, next to animal suffering and rights violations, the production and consumption of animal products generates many negative side-effects: environmental problems such as climate change and pollution, human health risks from antibiotic resistant pathogens and zoonotic viruses, human economic welfare loss due to chronic diseases from meat consumption, and a moral distortion due to cognitive dissonance. Meat consumption distorts our moral behavior: we do something that violates our deepest moral values, without realizing it. The resulting cognitive dissonance or ‘meat paradox’, i.e. the conflict between our harmful behavior and our value of not harming others, creates irrationalities or cognitive biases, such as inconsistent judgments about mental capacities of different animals. This cognitive bias prevents us from improving the lives of many animals, including wild animals (see next two charities below).
As a consequence, avoiding animal production has many cobenefits. Promoting veganism is a very effective method of carbon offsetting. It improves human health and welfare by reducing the burden of disease and it facilitates moral circle expansion by reducing moral disengagement and cognitive dissonance. This moral circle expansion is relevant for animal welfare in the long run: after abolishing animal farming and eliminating human-caused animal suffering, there remains the probably even bigger problem of wild animal suffering.
The more tractable or solvable a problem is, the more effective it becomes to solve that problem, all else equal. Traditional vegan meat alternatives are not sufficiently appealing to most meat-eaters. However, some reports of independent consulting firms and technology, finance and market sector experts (RethinkX, ATKearney) argue that new plant-based meat and cell-based meat products have the potential to get a better quality-price ratio than animal meat in the near future. It is expected that those animal-free meat products can outcompete animal meat products. Other animal products (milk, eggs) can be replaced by cheaper alternatives using new precision fermentation technologies.
If these developments in meat alternatives increase, and the alternatives become price-competitive and better in quality than animal meat, we can expect the end of animal farming somewhere this century. The market consulting firms expect peak meat somewhere this decade. Peak meat means a peak of global production of animal meat. As meat production involves so much suffering, peak meat is likely to be also the peak in anthropogenic (human caused) suffering through human history.
So we have reasons for optimism: the development of new plant-based and cell-based meat means the problem of animal farming can be solved.
The more neglected a problem area or strategy to solve the problem is, the more valuable or effective an extra contribution to the solution is, all else equal. The strategy to decrease animal farming through the development of new plant-based and cell-based meat is rather neglected. For example, animal-free meat received only 1 billion dollar of funding in 2018. As a comparison, this is much smaller than global investment in renewable energy (worth 300 billion dollar).
The solid line in the figure below shows the future expected evolution of global meat production in a baseline reference scenario where animal-free meat development does not receive extra support from us. As the problem area of animal farming is expected to become less and less neglected in the baseline scenario, animal farming is expected to decrease even without our extra support. This could mean that support for the Good Food Institute is redundant and hence ineffective. However, the eventual decrease of meat production can be accelerated by extra funding of animal-free meat research and development. The effectiveness of supporting the Good Food Institute depends on the timing. If support occurs in the short run (i.e. before peak meat), when the problem area is still relatively neglected, future meat production will start to decrease sooner and peak meat production will be lower. The dashed line in the figure below represents expected future meat production when animal-free meat developments receive our extra support before peak meat. The impact of near-future support of a charity like the Good Food Institute is given by the difference between the solid and dashed lines. This difference can be very large. But if we wait too long and we are way beyond peak meat, the field will be much more crowded (less neglected), which means our extra contribution will have a smaller impact. Furthermore, the reference scenario meat production will already be low by that time, which means that there is less potential for a further drastic reduction. The effect of a late support to the Good Food Institute is given by the dotted line in the figure. The area between the solid and dotted lines is much smaller than the area between the solid and dashed lines, which means late support is much less effective.
These considerations imply that in the medium and long run (i.e. after peak meat, e.g. by 2030), my recommendation for the Good Food Institute will likely be replaced by other charities that focus on other big, tractable and neglected problems. As existential risks from new technologies such as artificial intelligence increases, existential risk reduction (avoiding human extinction) is likely to become one of my new focus areas. Prime examples in this area are artificial intelligence safety and biosecurity against engineered pathogens. By the time that animal-free meat development becomes less effective, we will have better knowledge of what general artificial superintelligence might look like and in what ways it can be dangerous, which means that advancing AI-safety becomes more tractable. Other charities that I can recommend in the near future, after peak meat, are charities that focus on longtermism and effective altruism community building.
Animal Ethics is an animal advocacy outreach and research organization, focusing on the morality of antispeciesism and the science of animal sentience. Its two problem areas are animal exploitation by humans and wild animal suffering caused by nature. I chose Animal Ethics as a top charity because it targets wild animal suffering and promotes moral circle expansion.
In a previous article, I argued why in the long run, with a suffering focused (asymmetric) population ethic, wild animal suffering is likely to be the most important problem (after eliminating animal farming). There are many more wild animals than farm animals, many more future wild animal generations than farm animal generations (if animal farming is shut down somewhere this century), and most wild animals have very short lives, with premature deaths and negative experiences of disease, hunger, cold, injuries,…
The problem area of wild animal suffering is probably the most neglected of all the very big problem areas. For example far future insect suffering almost gets no attention, not even among animal rights activists.
The tractability or solvability of wild animal suffering is not yet known, but Animal Ethics advances the scientific research field of welfare biology, in order to make the problem area of wild animal suffering more tractable. The goal of this new academic discipline is to look for tractable (safe and effective) means that help nature with improving wild animal welfare. As we know from other academic fields, doing research itself is very tractable.
To deal with wild animal suffering in the far future, including invertebrate suffering, we also need further moral circle expansion. This can be done by informing people about mental capacities of animals. This outreach activity is also performed by Animal Ethics, and is often neglected by other animal advocacy organizations.
Wild Animal Initiative
Wild Animal Initiative is a charity with a mission to understand and improve the lives of wild animals. Even though Animal Ethics also works on wild animal welfare, I recommend Wild Animal Initiative as the third top charity, because this organization specializes in wild animal welfare, and it is good to diversify support for charities that work in highly neglected problem areas. The problem area of wild animal suffering is extremely big, not only in the sense of affecting many individuals in serious ways, but also in the sense of being diversified, i.e. having many different subproblems. There are many different causes of suffering (e.g. viral infection, starvation, predation,…), of many different animal populations (e.g. birds, bees, bears,…). The problem area can be made more tractable by scientific research, but as the area is so neglected and there are so many subproblems, a lot of different research still needs to be done and many different research questions still need to be solved. Therefore, supporting both Animal Ethics and Wild Animal Initiative can be considered as a kind of diversification to advance the research field of welfare biology. When a problem area is highly diverse and neglected, and information of which approach is most effective is lacking, supporting a diversified portfolio of charities can decrease the risk of having a low impact.
The table below summarizes the levels of importance, tractability and neglectedness of the above three recommended charities.
Not selected charities
I considered many more charities, so here I will briefly explain why I did not select other animal welfare, human welfare and environmental organizations.
Animal welfare organizations
Some animal welfare organizations focus on improving the situations of farm animals. However, keeping moral uncertainty into account, there is a possibility that a rights based ethic is valid. Merely improving the life of a farm animal still involves a violation of its basic right, because the body of the animal is still used as a means against its will. Furthermore, when the goal is to decrease animal suffering, improving the situation of a farm animal is also less tractable than developing animal-free alternatives of animal products. Farm animal welfare faces many trade-offs. For example, allowing outdoor free range of farm animals decreases mental problems but can increase disease risks, because many farm animals are not well adapted for outdoor environments (e.g. contact with pathogens from overflying bird excrements). Using animals with lower growth rates decreases health risks of those animals but increases their time spend in captivity. Keeping animals in crowded large barns instead of cage systems can increase violence between animals.
Other animal advocacy organizations focus on individual behavior change with consumerist vegan outreach campaigns. However, I expect these traditional vegan outreach campaigns to be less effective than the development of new plant-based and cell-based meat. The past decades did not show a large increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans, despite all the outreach campaigns. Vegan cooking workshops, vegan meal recipes, traditional vegan products, undercover investigations of factory farming and vegan outreach information about animal suffering, human health costs and environmental problems of animal products were not sufficient to convince the public. Only in the past few years we see a relevant increase in the number of vegans, most likely in large part due to the increasing availability of novel vegan alternatives of animal products.
Traditional animal advocacy and vegan outreach campaigns are less tractable or effective, because animal farming is probably the biggest lock-in situation that creates suffering. A lock-in situation has high switching costs, due to strong economic, psychological and cultural barriers. The huge investments by the meat industry creates economic barriers, the habits and cognitive dissonance of consumers create psychological barriers, and the cultural norm of meat consumption creates cultural barriers that make a switch to animal-free agriculture and consumption difficult. It is unlikely that a demand side strategy such as individual consumer behavior change can overcome those barriers and let us step out of the animal farming system. A supply side strategy, in particular the development of new plant-based and cell-based vegan food, is more likely to overcome the switching costs. Due to the increasing returns to scale and the increasing efficiency of the production processes, the production of plant-based and cell-based meat will become more cost-effective than animal meat. This means the economic barriers will be overcome due to market competition. Also the psychological and cultural barriers disappear, because consumers do not have to change behavior: the plant-based and cell-based meats will become cheaper and healthier (less food scandals, risks of bacterial contamination and foodborne illnesses) than animal meat, but they will be just as tasty and can be prepared in the same way as traditional animal meat.
Other animal rights organizations focus on campaigns against e.g. animal testing, fur, animals in entertainment and pet breeding, but these problems are much smaller in scope than animal farming. Animal fur and leather can also become replaced by cell-based alternatives, just like meat.
Human welfare organizations
Some moral arguments could be given for preferring human lives. However, human welfare charities have lower levels of importance, neglectedness and tractability compared to the above three top charities.
With respect to tractability, a major concern of human welfare charities that promote economic wealth and human health, is the likely risk of a negative side effect of increasing animal exploitation. First, there is a strong positive correlation between economic development of poor people (i.e. poverty reduction) and meat consumption. Second, improving human health means more human life years (e.g. saving lives and extending human lifespans). As long as most people consume animal products, having more human life years results in more consumption of animal products. As a typical rich human consumes many animals in a year, the human welfare benefits of promoting human wealth and increasing human life years will be strongly diminished or even fully negated by the increased animal welfare loss and animal rights violations.
Human welfare is less neglected than animal welfare, because human welfare charities receive much more funding than animal welfare organizations. And compared to farm animal and wild animal suffering, human suffering is smaller in scope. There are fewer humans, and most humans have higher welfare levels than most farm and wild animals.
Furthermore, global human poverty, rights violations (e.g. violence) and diseases are decreasing (healthy human life years are increasing). In other words, we are beyond peak poverty and peak disease. As could be seen in the above figure, when we are beyond the peak of a problem that is less neglected, efforts to further reduce that problem have a lower overall impact than efforts to reduce another, more neglected problem in an earlier stage.
I did not select environmental organizations, because of a smaller scope and lower tractability of environmental problems. It is unlikely that environmental problems (not even climate change) pose a higher existential risk than unsafe/unaligned artificial superintelligence and engineered pandemic pathogens. When it comes to climate change and biodiversity loss, a focus on animal farming is very effective, because animal farming is most likely the biggest contributor to species extinction (through land use and pollution), and a switch to animal-free products can strongly mitigate climate change.
Environmental organizations do not focus on wild animal welfare, and sentience is not their primary concern. For example, wildlife conservation organizations do not study the impact of their interventions on wild animal welfare. Instead, they favor potentially counterproductive, animal-suffering increasing interventions such as the reintroduction of predators in nature reserves. Those organizations have non-altruistic valuations: they value something that is not valued by the target. Environmentalists and conservationists value naturalness, ecosystem integrity or species biodiversity, but the target, the ecosystem itself, does not value those things. Sometimes biodiversity can have instrumental value, when it increases welfare, but an ecosystem does not care about biodiversity. In contrast, when animal advocates value animal welfare, the target group of animals also values their welfare. Hence, valuing welfare is an altruistic valuation in the sense that it is fully compatible with altruism. Altruism means doing something that someone else wants. In moral terms, welfare is a two-sided value, valued by both agents (activists) and patients (target individuals), whereas naturalness or biodiversity are one-sided values, valued only by the agents.
As ecosystems are not aligned to optimize welfare and as the value of naturalness is orthogonal to the value of well-being, the choice for one’s own values of naturalness or ecosystem integrity and biodiversity can be harmful in the sense that it can decrease well-being. Furthermore, environmental organizations often run counterproductive or ineffective campaigns, e.g. against glyphosate, GMOs, nuclear power, nonorganic agriculture and synthetic products. This decreases the overall effectiveness of the environmental movement.