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2018’s big wins — and big losses — for animals

A ban on dog and cat meat, improved conditions for caged animals, and other notable developments in animal welfare

Chickens in cages at a poultry farm in China.
Chickens in cages at a poultry farm in China.
VCG/VCG via Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

2018 saw some big advances for animals in the federal legislature, in the midterm elections, and in grocery stores.

California voters approved a law requiring larger cages for pigs and chickens; nearly 400 companies, including Hyatt and Marriott, committed themselves to better conditions for animals; and plant-based meat alternatives exploded in popularity — even among consumers who aren’t vegetarian or vegan.

Not all the news was good, though. The overwhelming majority of animals raised for food are still raised on factory farms, where 50 billion animals lived and died last year. In the US, the rise of plant-based meats has provoked a backlash from agriculture lobbyists, who’ve fought to make it harder to sell soy milk, almond milk, veggie burgers, and similar products.

So 2018 offered reasons for optimism — but the promising developments took place against a dismal backdrop. Here’s a brief rundown of what happened on the animal welfare front in the past year.

The good news

There was some major progress for animals on the legislative front and at the ballot box in 2018.

In the November elections, California passed one of the most sweeping animal welfare reforms anywhere, requiring more space for caged animals. The state had fought before to require larger cages, but the past law had enough loopholes that conditions didn’t really improve. This one mandates specific square footage for each animal, making it much stronger. In Florida, voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 13, which banned greyhound racing in the state. Greyhound racing, already banned in most states, will be phased out in Florida over the next two years.

But state progress like this doesn’t mean anything if the federal government prohibits states from imposing any welfare requirements on animal products sold within their borders. That looked likely for a little while last year. Iowa Rep. Steve King (better known for the white supremacist ties that led the Iowa GOP to denounce him) introduced a measure to push back against such moves at the state level.

The King amendment, which was attached to the twice-a-decade farm bill that funds projects under the purview of the Agriculture Department, would have made it illegal for any state to pass laws setting new standards for animal products — even if such a measure had the overwhelming assent of a state’s citizens. The amendment was defeated last week, which means states will continue to be able to press forward on better conditions for animals.

Meanwhile, the farm bill — the federal omnibus legislation that President Trump signed into law last week — also contained some modest wins for animals and animal rights groups. There are three major provisions for animal welfare in the act. None of them address large-scale factory farming, but they each should modestly reduce animal cruelty in some specific domains. One provision prohibits the import, export, and slaughter of dogs and cats for human consumption; another expands the ban on animal fighting; and another, the Pet and Women Safety Act, provides support and law enforcement resources for victims of domestic violence who expect their abusive partner to abuse or kill their pets in retaliation if they leave.

Animal advocates also saw some major wins in the private sector. Campaigns to hold global corporations to animal welfare standards are a powerful tool to improve conditions on farms. Such campaigns have an astounding track record, sometimes winning concessions within days.

Last year, there were 388 corporate campaign wins around the world, according to the global campaign tracker ChickenWatch, most of them on urging companies to commit to buying only cage-free eggs. The international hotel chain Marriott committed to cage-free eggs worldwide, and Royal Caribbean Cruises committed to better conditions for broiler chickens. Overall, a growing body of evidence suggests that targeting suppliers is a great way to improve conditions on farms.

There were also some successes internationally. In India, the Delhi High Court issued a moratorium on new battery cages in India — small wired cages that are particularly cruel for hens. Larger cages are allowed. In general, industrial farming increases in scale as countries get richer and more people can afford meat, but a commitment to humane conditions from the get-go can prevent some abuses. India may be able to lead the way on that front.

Finally, a permanent end to factory farming is likely going to require superb meat substitute products. For that reason, many animal advocates are working on clean meat — meat products that are cell-for-cell identical to the meat from animals but factory-produced from stem cells rather than from live animals. Last year, they worked closely with the US government to develop a regulatory framework for clean meat, settling on a USDA-FDA joint jurisdiction plan that activists believe will ensure clean meat is safe, regulated, and freely available.

Plant-based meat alternatives are doing great too. Across the plant-based meat industry, sales were up by more than 20 percent last year. The Beyond Meat brand, best known for the Beyond Burger, led that increase in sales with an astounding 70 percent growth rate. Plant-based alternatives are moving beyond burgers, sausages, and nuggets too — which is good news since eggs are another huge source of animal suffering. Just, a major plant-based alternatives company, is making progress toward a commercial launch of Just Scramble, a convincing and delicious egg substitute.

Toni Adleberg, the director of research at Animal Charity Evaluators, told me in an email that 2018 was also a big year for animal advocacy research. We know more than we did a few years ago about what interventions make the biggest difference for animals, but we still have a lot to learn. “More groups and researchers are emphasizing the importance of open science. We are seeing more preregistration plans, more interest in open access,” Adleberg wrote. Better research will mean that 2019’s work for animals can be better targeted and get more done.

The bad news

While there was significant, exciting progress for animals last year, it’d be an overstatement to say that 2018 was a good year for animals. More than 50 billion land animals suffered and died on factory farms. Until we figure out how to change that, it’s hard to call any year good for animals. It was projected at the start of 2018 that Americans would eat more meat during the year than ever.

From one perspective, factory farming of animals is one of the few social problems in the world today that, rather than getting better, gets worse each year, as we continue to breed animals in terrible, even monstrous conditions and as we have more people to feed. Will MacAskill talked about the paradox in a recent interview with Vox’s Sean Illing:

We know that people’s attitudes toward nonhuman animals — in the West, at least — have improved. People appreciate that nonhuman animals deserve our moral consideration too. At the same time, we’re inflicting more and more suffering on nonhuman animals in factory farms every year.

We have the best prospects of turning that trend around through plant- and cell-based meat alternatives. But while we saw progress on that front, 2018 also saw a backlash against such products from industrial agriculture lobbying groups. For instance, with one-third of US households buying products like soy milk and almond milk, the dairy industry has started leaning on regulators to make it illegal to label these products soy “milk” and almond “milk.” (Just last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the label “almond milk” deceives no one.)

The same tactics have been deployed to oppose clean meat, even though it’s not yet in stores, and to throttle the growth of plant-based meat alternatives. Missouri has moved ahead with a ban on “misrepresenting” a product as “meat” unless it comes from a slaughtered animal. The unclear language could potentially apply to Tofurky and veggie burgers, even though consumers know that Tofurky isn’t an animal product, and it’s the first stage in a battle over what to call meat that’s produced without slaughter. Companies including Tofurky and nonprofits (including the American Civil Liberties Union) are suing the state.

What to look for in 2019

Many of the trends we saw in 2018 can be expected to continue. In particular, the momentum for plant-based foods shows no signs of slowing. It might continue to face pressure from the factory farming industry, but it’s worth noting that meat giants like Tyson have invested in meat alternatives, and it’s possible to imagine that as the environmental and consumer choice case for meat alternatives becomes more pronounced, the industry will conclude that combating it is less profitable than investing in it.

Another thing to look out for is the aftermath of corporate cage-free commitments. Companies like Starbucks, Marriott, and General Mills have committed to transitioning their egg supply to cage-free products, but commitments like these haven’t always been honored in the past. Animal advocates will no doubt be on the lookout to see whether these companies live up to their promises.

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