“Factory farming hasn’t been around for long, and I think we should be optimistic that it won’t be around much longer.”
Ben Davidow is a 27-year old web developer living in San Francisco. He has been concerned about animal rights since becoming a vegetarian when he was 8 years-old and later reading Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.
Ben is also a member of the Effective Altruism movement which is all about using evidence and reason to figure out how we can have the greatest positive impact in our lives.
New Harvest: Hey Ben! First off, what inspired you to give up meat at 8 years-old? That is a young age to make such a prominent change!
Ben Davidow: I didn’t exactly have a well thought-out philosophy at that point. I made the connection that meat comes from animals, it doesn’t grow on trees. It just didn’t seem right. Later on I read Animal Liberation and found out about factory farming, I became more passionate about it and adopted a more utilitarian approach and thought this is one of the most effective ways to reduce suffering in the world.
NH: How did your family react to your decision to become vegetarian?
B: Great question, my family was really supportive. I think that is actually a barrier that gets in the way of more kids becoming vegetarian. Many kids make the connection, but their parents don’t give them that choice and convince them eating meat is the natural thing to do. My parents were very supportive and if they weren’t, we might not be having this conversation, so I’m very grateful for that.
NH: Did you ever try to convince anyone in your family to give up meat?
B: I went through a phase when I was 9 and was a jerk…if people were eating meat around me I would go silent and cringe at them. I gave that up eventually, because aside from being a jerk, it was also just not effective. The most effective thing to do is be a role model; people will follow if you set a good example. My family has moved a lot towards that direction.
NH: What did you learn from writing your book, Uncaged? Are there one or two pieces of advice to summarize the most effective farm animal advocacy strategies?
B: I would say two things. (1) Don’t preach to people, outreach is more about listening than talking. Find out where people are coming from, you have to empathize with people to influence them, understand their values and the barriers coming between their current lifestyle and more compassionate choices. (2) Don’t be absolutist. Really look at which consumption choices cause the most suffering. If you crunch the numbers it turns out giving up chicken has much more effect than other animal foods. This is mainly because chickens are smaller, 200 chickens produce the amount of meat that 1 cow does. Convince someone to give up chicken, and it has almost as much impact as convincing someone to go vegetarian and way more than persuading someone to give up red meat.
NH: Why do you think people tend to give up red meat first, when transitioning their diet?
B: Three factors; (1) environmental, (2) health reasons, people are told saturated fat leads to heart disease, red meat has saturated fat, etc. (3) it’s easier to empathize with cows and larger mammals than with chickens.
NH: Other than become vegan and promote veganism to those around us, what can we do to help farm animals?
B: If you can, support an effective non-profit like New Harvest, The Humane League, or Mercy For Animals. A large idea in Effective Altruism is what’s called “earning to give” which means trying to earn as much as you can, cutting unnecessary spending in your lifestyle, and then giving as much as you can to the most cost-effective non-profits. Effective Altruists argue that it’s often more effective to Earn to Give than to work directly for a good cause. It’s counter intuitive but there’s lots of evidence to support this strategy.
NH: I just reread your essay, “The Case for Cultured Meat” for the 2nd time, it’s so great! At one point you note for every hour by which we speed up the mass adoption of cultured meat, we will prevent over 70,000 years of farm animal suffering. How did you come up with this estimate?
B: I described the process in the footnotes, it’s a very speculative. But if you take all the meat and animal products consumed globally, and look at how many hours of factory farming that translates into (billions and billions) and then you find that an hour is this fraction of a year… so very rough, but it conveys the scale of what we are talking about.
NH: What would you say to people who claim cultured meat is “unnatural”?
B: Well I would say a few things. First off, I would challenge the idea that everything unnatural is evil, like vaccines for example. People didn’t have vaccines in prehistoric times but they have saved countless lives. Second, you have to look at how “unnatural” cultured meat is compared to what we have now. Factory farming is arguably one of the most unnatural things we have created. Chickens live in cages so small they can’t flap their wings, and they are never allowed to be outside in the sunshine. They are given hormones and antibiotics to cover up the problems created by putting them in such a small space. Cultured meat is a much less harmful and arguably more natural alternative to factory farming. Look at not what is “natural” but what is more compassionate- what creates the least suffering.
NH: Undoubtedly cultured meat will solve an abundance of problems, but can you foresee it causing any of its own?
B: I think that the potential benefits far outweigh any potential downsides. I suppose it could further distance people from how food is created, further industrialize meat production. Isha has mentioned a system of people creating in vitro meat in their homes, like microbreweries, which is a neat idea but that said, there is a risk of further centralizing food production. Not that centralizing is inherently bad, but big decisions in fewer hands that stand to make a lot of money tends to lead to problems. We have those risks already in the food industry though and the bigger thing is that the benefits of cultured meat are so much greater than any associated risks.
NH: Are you optimistic about the future of food? Do you think things are going to get worse before they get better?
B: Things are already starting to get better, it terms of people becoming more aware and making better choices and some of the cruelest practices in factory farming being phased out. I am really optimistic because of technologies like cultured meat and also what’s going on at Hampton Creek Foods. People have this idea that factory farming has been around forever, and it’s this big force we can’t do anything about, but if you really look at the timeframe… if you condense animal agriculture into one year, factory farming wouldn’t show up until late afternoon on December 30th. It’s a very young phenomenon and we are in a great position to move on from it with new technologies.
NH: Thanks Ben! Anything else you would like to share?
B: I would like to encourage getting involved in Effective Altruism. There’s a growing community of Effective Altruists, even a Facebook group specific to Effective Altruism for animal causes. There’s an upcoming convention too, basically it’s a really welcoming community of awesome, thoughtful people. What I encourage if anyone is unfamiliar with the concept- watch Peter Singer’s TEDTalk or read The Life You Can Save, which is about how to end extreme poverty, and is the book which really opened my eyes to Effective Altruism.
If you’d like to find out more about Effective Altruism, get in touch with Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org