Updated October 2020: improved calculations.
In previous articles, I argued that supporting research and development of cell-based meat technologies could be perhaps the most important strategy to protect animal rights and improve animal welfare (with a possible exception of research in welfare biology to improve wild animal welfare). Here I want to do a very rough back-of-the-envelope Fermi-estimate calculation of the cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat R&D, and compare it with traditional animal rights and vegan advocacy campaigns. I only estimate the orders of magnitude, in powers of ten. The results are presented in the table below. The three measures are:
- The number of vertebrate animal saved per euro, which includes all fish, birds and mammals that are no longer killed by humans for food (i.e. excluding invertebrates and animals not directly killed by humans).
- The number of vertebrate land animals spared per euro, which includes all farm animals that are no longer bred in captivity.
- Ton CO2e emissions avoided, which includes all anthropogenic greenhouse gases that are no longer emitted, measured in CO2-equivalents.
Cell-based meat R&D calculations
There are 1011 vertebrate land animals used (i.e. bred and killed) per year by humans. Assume that this number is constant until cell-based meat enters the market. The number of vertebrate animals directly killed by humans for food is an order of magnitude higher: 1012. The human population counts 1010 humans, also assumed to be constant, which means an average human uses 10 vertebrate land animals per year and kills 100 vertebrate animals per year. Hence, eating vegan for one year spares 10 animals and also saves 100=1 ton CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.
Assume in the business-as-usual scenario (where you do not contribute) the current amount of money is funded (by other people) every year until cell-based meat becomes cost-competitive with animal-based meat on the market. Global funding for cell-based meat is 108 euro per year. This corresponds with 102 cell-based meat companies and research units at universities, employing on average 10 employees per organization and 105 euro per employee per year.
This global funding estimate indicates that if 108 euro were not invested in cell-based meat this year, the arrival of cell-based meat on the market would be delayed by one year. And the reverse: if an extra 1 euro were invested this year, the arrival on the market could be advanced with 10-8 year (or 0,3 seconds). However, this might be an overestimation, due to three considerations. First, in the business-as-usual scenario (without your extra funding), it is possible that new inventions or scientific breakthroughs are discovered that would make the current research efforts obsolete by accelerating research. Perhaps over ten years other people will have invented new computing technologies that allow to do all the previous ten year research in cell-based meat within only one year. Hence, with some non-zero probability, a delay of one year of extra funding could be caught up in the future anyway. Second, with a small probability, it is also possible that there is no room for more funding for research: one extra euro of funding could simply be wasted (e.g. by inventing the same thing twice) or one extra researcher could be bored and become superfluous. Third, it is possible that extra funding results in a partial crowding-out of funding and investments by others. If private investors see that others are strongly increasing funding for cell-based meat, they might decide to invest in other things instead.
Let us assume that the above three considerations combined decrease the overall effectiveness or tractability of research funding with a factor 10. In other words, the probability of research funding being effective to create commercializable cell-based meat is estimated to be 10%. This probability is probably an underestimate (in reality, research funding might be more effective and tractable). It implies that an extra 1 euro investment results in the arrival of cell-based meat on the market 10-9 years (0,03 seconds) sooner instead of 10-8 years. This acceleration by 10-9 years is likely an underestimate.
We do not only have to take into consideration the effectiveness of research to create cell-based meat, but also the effectiveness of cell-based meat to eliminate animal farming. Once cell-based meat enters the market, how likely is it to decrease or eliminate animal farming? I assume that the probability that cell-based meat will eliminate animal-based meat and animal farming, is 1/10 (or cell-based meat is guaranteed to take 10% of the meat market in the future). This is likely an underestimate as well.
The above estimates measure the scale (1011 animals used per year), the solvability (1/10 probability of eliminating animal farming) and neglectedness (10-9 years faster elimination per extra euro funding). Now the number of animals spared per extra euro donated to cell-based meat R&D can be calculated as the product of scale, solvability and neglectedness: 1011x10-1x10-9=10. This means one euro extra funding spares 10 vertebrate land animals. Including captured and aquaculture fish (also fish used for fish meal for farm animals), the number becomes an order 10 higher: 100 vertebrate animals saved (i.e. not being killed) per euro. This, again, is based on very conservative (lowest) estimates.
As sparing 1 farm animal corresponds with reducing 0,1 ton CO2e, this one euro funding also means a reduction of 1 ton CO2e, one order of magnitude (a factor 10) lower than the emission by an average human in one year. Used as carbon offsetting, cell-based meat R&D has a price of 1 euro per ton CO2e averted. This is much lower than most other carbon offsetting mechanisms. And it is likely an overestimation (given the above conservative estimates): the real price of carbon offsetting by cell-based meat R&D could be even cheaper.
Note: the basic (in my opinion realistic) assumption in the above calculation is that other people invest in cell-based meat R&D anyway, and that in the business-as-usual scenario (where you do not fund anything) no other strategy (technology, intervention, vegan outreach campaign,…) will be able (even with more funding) to abolish animal farming before cell-based meat enters the market at competitive prices. Suppose cell-based meat arrives within a few decades and eliminates animal farming in say 50 years, whereas another, next best strategy would eliminate animal farming in 100 years. Suppose that this other strategy was less costly, for example requiring only 10 million euro funding per year over a period of 100 years to abolish animal farming, whereas cell-based meat would require 100 million euro funding over 50 years. And suppose that other strategy was more neglected, for example receiving only 10 million euro funding per year, compared to 100 million for cell-based meat. Even then, extra funding for that other strategy would not be effective when it is impossible to speed it up such that it will eliminate animal farming within 50 years. When that other strategy takes more than 50 years anyway, it will become obsolete anyway in the business-as-usual scenario where cell-based meat arrives earlier and eliminates animal farming earlier. A global coordination such that all cell-based meat funding goes to that other, less costly strategy, is not effective (not so feasible). Hence, the most effective thing to do for us, is to accelerate that cell-based meat research, such that it enters the market one year earlier. That saves an extra year of animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions. If other strategies received more funding, there is a likelihood that they make cell-based meat obsolete, and this consideration is included in the estimated 10% probability of cell-based meat eliminating animal farming.
The above is a conservative, low estimate of the impact of cell-based meat R&D. A higher estimate can be obtained as follows. Suppose it takes 102 years of research at 108 euro of funding per year before cell-based meat becomes competitive with animal-based meat. Suppose 90% of the funding are investments that will eventually be payed back by consumers who buy cell-based meat. The remaining 10% has no return on investment and hence counts as real costs. Hence, the amount of funding costs is 107 euro per year. Suppose without cell-based meat, humans will use farm animals for another 10.000 years at 1011 animals per year. The probability that increased research funding is effective to create cell-based meat (i.e. funding research has negligible crowding-out of investments or negligible risks of becoming superfluous) is again 10-1, and the probability that cell-based meat, once it enters the market, will eliminate animal farming is also 10-1, so the total probability of extra funding being effective is 10-2. In this scenario, contributing 1 euro of funding has an impact of 104 years times 1011 animals per year times 10-2 probability divided by 102 years times 107 euro per year, which equals 104 vertebrate land animals spared per euro. This sparing of farm animals is again accompanied by avoided greenhouse gas emissions, but most of those avoided emissions would have happened in the far future. Considering only the short term emission reduction for a time period of 10 years, this again comes down to a carbon offsetting price of around 1 euro per ton CO2e averted. However, this calculation of the high estimate also allows us to take into account the carbon opportunity costs of animal farming. Eliminating animal farming will free up land for spontaneous reforestation. As forests are a carbon sink, this results in a one time sequestration of huge amounts of carbon out of the athmosphere. This carbon sequestration potential of animal-free agriculture is roughly an order 10 times higher than the greenhouse gas emissions reduction potential of animal-free agriculture. This results in roughly 10 ton CO2e carbon offsetting per 1 euro funding (i.e. a very low carbon offsetting price of around 0,1 euro per ton CO2e averted).
Note that the neglectedness is important. Consider for example investments in plant-based meat, which is an order of magnitude larger than investments in cell-based meat, i.e. 10 times less neglected. Suppose plant-based meat also has a probability of 10% of eliminating the animal-meat market (or reducing animal farming by 10%). Then the effectiveness of investments in plant-based meat is an order of magnitude lower than the investments in cell-based meat. Of course, both plant-based and cell-based meat can mutually reinforce each other (i.e. they can be complementary instead substitutable strategies), and from a risk perspective, it is useful to invest in a diverse portfolio of strategies.
Vegan advocacy campaigns calculations
The above impact estimates of cell-based meat R&D can be compared to other measures to reduce animal farming.
Animal Charity Evaluators estimates a cost-effectiveness of around 10 farm animals spared per euro donated to its top recommended charities. This is the same order of magnitude as the lowest estimate of cell-based meat R&D.
An online vegan challenge campaign (where people pledge to eat more vegan for three weeks), has a cost-effectiveness of roughly 100 portions of meat spared per euro invested. At 10 portions per farm animal, this comes down to 10 spared animals per euro.
Vegan outreach leafletting has an estimated impact of 1 animal spared per euro. I did a personal leafletting study (at the Belgian animal rights organization Bite Back) whereby the leaflets included a survey that asks questions about the reduced consumption of animal products due to the leaflet. Based only on the responses of non-vegans who answered that they reduced their animal product consumption, it requires roughly 1000 leaflets for one equivalent conversion to veganism. This was measured in vegan-equivalents, i.e. in terms of the equivalent reduction of the number of animals used. For example, two meat-eaters who reduce their consumption by 50% count as one vegan. Assume that a respondent remains vegan or sticks to his reduced animal product consumption for 10 years. One vegan-equivalent spares around 10 farm animals per year and one leaflet costs 0,1 euro. That means a cost-effectiveness of 1 spared animal per euro (i.e 10 animals per vegan year times 10 years divided by 1000 leaflets times 0,1 euro per leaflet). This is in the same order of magnitude of other cost-effectiveness estimates of leafletting.
Vegan education (giving presentations about veganism) also has a cost-effectiveness of 1 spared farm animal per euro: 10 participants of a lecture times 1% probability of a participant becoming vegan (based on a small personal study that surveys high school students who participated my vegan education lectures) times 10 years of remaining vegan times 10 animals spared per vegan year divided by 10 euro costs per lecture (if I were to be paid an hourly wage of 10 euro).
We can also estimate the overall cost-effectiveness of animal advocacy campaigns. The US population has an order of magnitude 108 people. Suppose meat consumption is decreased by 10% due to people becoming reducetarians, vegetarians or vegans. Suppose 10% of this reduction is due to animal advocacy campaigning. Then the number of US vegan-equivalents for animal welfare reasons is 106. The two largest animal advocacy organizations (HSUS and Peta) have a yearly budget of 108 euro. If their campaigns caused the reduction in meat consumption, we get a cost-effectiveness of 0,1 farm animals spared per euro donated to those animal charities (106 vegans times 10 animals spared per vegan per year divided by 108 euro funding per year). This means that according to the most conservative (lowest) estimate, cell-based meat R&D is about 100 times more effective than average animal advocacy.
As I do not expect that the traditional vegan outreach campaigns are more likely to eliminate animal farming sooner than cell-based meat in a business-as-usual scenario, a high estimate calculation similar to the cell-based meat high estimate is not possible.
I also estimated the required costs of direct payments to meat eaters to become vegan. Assuming linear demand curves of animal products for an average non-vegan in a high-income country, I calculated the consumer surplus of consuming animal products. The order of magnitude is 1000 euros per year, so on average, a person is willing to go vegan when being payd 1000 euro. Using direct consumer payments as a vegan advocacy measure, only 0,01 farm animals would be spared per euro costs.
The case for cell-based, clean meat R&D can be compared to the case for clean energy R&D, as argued here. Clean energy R&D funding is estimated to be more effective than e.g. regulatory climate measures, cutting fossil fuel subsidies and environmental behavioral change campaigns. The latter are analogous to animal farming regulations, cutting animal farming subsidies and vegan consumption campaigns.
A question of timing
The above cost-effectiveness estimate of cell-based meat R&D crucially depends on the timing of the funding. In the past, research was not tractable. Suppose one would have funded cell-based meat research 100 years ago. At that premature level of scientific knowledge and computing power, not much progress would have been made. Later scientific breakthroughs in other areas than cell-based meat, such as computer sciences, engineering and medicine, make it possible to speed up the R&D of cell-based meat. With these new inventions, the decades of early research in cell-based meat could have been done in only a few years. Those decades of early research are basically obsolete: with or without that premature research 100 years ago, our current level of cell-based meat technology and knowledge would be equally high. In contrast with 100 years ago, cell-based meat research is currently very tractable: it becomes unlikely that the current years of research are completely obsolete.
We can also expect that in the future, cell-based meat becomes less neglected. That means, if we wait another 100 years, all of the important investments and research will have already been done, which means extra funding becomes futile.
The next few decades offer a window of opportunity for cell-based meat R&D: it is no longer intractable and not yet unneglected.
Cell-based meat research and development is at least 10 times more cost-effective than the most effective traditional vegan outreach campaigns and at least 100 times more cost-effective than average animal advocacy and vegan campaigning. One euro funding for cell-based meat R&D could spare the lives of more than 10 farm animals, save the lives of more than 100 vertebrate animals and avoid more than 1 ton CO2-equivalent emissions. That makes cell-based meat R&D probably the most effective measure to reduce anthropogenic animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions.
You can support cell-based meat R&D by donating to New Harvest.
For a further discussion, including another estimate of the cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat (with a roughly same result but a different method), see the comments section here.