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Why the future of animal welfare lies beyond the West

Factory farming is spreading around the world. Animal welfare groups are trying to keep up.

A woman holds a sign that reads in Spanish “Ecocide” as animal rights activists march against a proposed deal with China to build large pork farms in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on August 31, 2020.
Natacha Pisarenko/AP

The fight to end factory farming has long been vexed by a disconnect: While experts estimate that 6 percent of the world’s farm animals are located in the US and Europe, advocacy groups in those regions collect the lion’s share of funding.

Last year, about $200 million went into the farmed animal advocacy movement, according to a survey of several hundred nonprofits conducted by Farmed Animal Funders. Only about one-fifth of that reached activists in countries outside the US and EU, where the vast majority of animals are farmed.

This misallocation of resources comes against a backdrop of worrisome trends. Meat consumption is rising in the developing world, particularly in Asia. Intensive farming practices are becoming the norm in Latin America and Asia, and they are getting a foothold in Africa as well. According to one estimate, nine out of 10 animals raised for food globally are confined in factory farms.

The animal rights movement is responding — and not a moment too soon. From São Paulo to Shanghai, local organizations focused on animal protection are growing fast. Meanwhile, nonprofits that once worked only in the US, including Mercy For Animals and the Humane League, now have staff in Brazil, Mexico, India, and Japan.

Institutional funders are supporting advocacy and public awareness campaigns across Latin America and Asia. “We’ve shifted funding to the Global South,” says Amanda Hungerford, a program officer at Open Philanthropy, the world’s biggest funder of farm animal advocacy. She expects that trend to continue. Kieran Greig, a manager of the EA Animal Welfare Fund, says by email: “Our grantmaking to the global south has increased significantly in these past five or so years. I am optimistic that the percentage of giving to the global south will continue to increase steadily.”

These early efforts have led to some gains. For instance, the Open Wing Alliance, a global but decentralized network that was incubated by the Humane League, has brought together 79 organizations from 63 countries, most in the Global South, to campaign against battery cages for egg-laying hens, considered one of the cruelest factory farming practices. It reported earlier this year that more than 2,000 companies around the world have adopted cage-free egg policies, and that 85 percent of companies that pledged to use cage-free eggs by 2020 or earlier have done so.

“We can put pressure on the company at the global headquarters and rally our partners to pressure regional branches and outlets,” says Alexandria Beck, the alliance’s director.

Carolina Galvani founded Sinergia Animal in 2017 to focus on farm animal welfare issues in Brazil, after spending a decade working for US- and UK-based advocacy groups. “Parts of the Global South were being ignored,” she explains.

At first, she was its only paid employee. Today, Sinergia Animal has more than 30 full-time staff members, an annual budget of $850,000, and operations in six South American countries, as well as in Thailand and Indonesia. “If we want to see a truly global movement, we need to have strong organizations originating and working in the south,” Galvani says.

Animal activists organized by Sinergia Animal protest the use of cages for chickens in the egg production industry in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in July 2019.
Carol Smiljan/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But the scale of the challenge facing animal welfare advocates is daunting, and the movement faces new obstacles as it expands around the world. It’s difficult to identify startup organizations or leaders to fund, donors say. Meat consumption remains a marker of economic well-being in many places. Western donors and activists can’t assume that tactics that worked in the West — investigations of factory farms, say, or street-level protests — can simply be exported everywhere else, and have to be mindful to defer to locals on strategy, so as not to violate cultural norms and laws.

By far the steepest challenges are in China. China farms more animals than any other country. Altogether, China consumes almost one-third of the world’s meat, although its per capita consumption is still less than half that of the US. Yet the animal advocacy community there is small, and groups in China play by strict rules set by the government.

Second to China in terms of its farmed animal population is India. There, strong laws prohibiting animal cruelty are rarely enforced. Despite the country being home to more vegetarians than any other country, meat and dairy consumption are on the rise.

The question now is whether the animal advocacy movement can build on its progress in rich countries, even as it seeks to expand to the Global South. It has won meaningful victories, including an EU ban on battery cages for egg-laying hens and a slew of corporate animal welfare commitments in the US, and it has helped power the growth of plant-based alternatives to milk and meat.

Even so, huge problems remain in the West, notably the misery suffered by the billions of chickens raised for meat every year. Funding is not just limited but meager: The estimated $200 million a year spent on farm animal welfare is a fraction of the amount devoted to more popular causes, like climate change. Donors and activists will have to decide where to allocate their money, their time, and especially their creativity. New thinking will be required to build a robust animal welfare movement in countries where hundreds of millions of people live without electricity or suffer from malnutrition.

How the animal protection movement went global

In January 2021, Mercy For Animals launched the Farmed Animal Opportunity Index (FAOI), a tool designed to guide the organization’s international expansion. US- and EU-based nonprofits have been expanding their operations in the Global South in recent years, but they had sometimes done so in an ad hoc manner.

The FAOI brings rigor to the process. Using publicly available data, Mercy For Animals’ index ranks what it has identified as the 60 countries that are most important to farm animal welfare. (China tops the list, with the US close behind. Latvia is No. 60.)

Christina Animashaun/Vox

Like many nonprofits and donors that work on behalf of farm animals, the FAOI is shaped by the principles of effective altruism, a philosophy and social movement that uses reason and evidence to do the most possible good. To allocate resources to solve problems, many effective altruists rely on a framework that looks at a problem’s scale, tractability, and neglectedness.

The FAOI ranks countries based on scale (how many farmed land animals and fish are raised there) and tractability (the likelihood of success). It leaves out neglectedness, the third pillar, because it is too hard to quantify. Instead, the index seeks to measure global influence, meaning the degree to which one country affects others.

“Global influence plays an important role,” says Lucas Alvarenga, Mercy For Animals’ senior vice president for strategy, which is why the dollars do not simply match up with the number of animals in each country. The US, Germany, and the Netherlands top the rankings of influencers because progress in those countries has consequences beyond their borders, through trade agreements, corporate animal welfare commitments, and global media. (In case you’re wondering, the Netherlands is by some metrics the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products.) Alvarenga is careful to say that the index, which has been shared widely in the movement, is designed as a starting point for analysis and not as a decision-making tool.

Europe, by most accounts, has been a pioneer in animal welfare reforms. The EU’s directive to eliminate conventional battery cages, for example, which was enacted in 1999, laid the groundwork for the global movement to free egg-laying hens from cages. California voters enacted a ballot measure to phase out battery cages in 2008, after which dozens of big food companies made commitments to source cage-free eggs. David Coman-Hidy, president of the Humane League, says, “What happened on cage-free in the US probably would not have happened had the EU not acted years earlier.”

Looking to take the cage-free momentum everywhere, the Humane League started the Open Wing Alliance in 2016, around the same time other organizations and funders began to take a more global approach.

Open Wing’s focus is cage-free campaigns, both because of the number of animals affected and because the demand to liberate hens from cages is easy to explain, even in countries where animal protection issues are new.

“You can get people to empathize,” the alliance’s Alexandria Beck says. “They wouldn’t want to be fenced into a small space. They don’t want chickens confined in a small cage either.”

This fall, Yum Brands, the world’s largest fast food company, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, pledged to eliminate battery cages in its entire global supply chain after Open Wing members staged street protests in Eastern Europe, Russia, Indonesia, and Nigeria (along with the usual petitions and social media campaigns).

One country that has drawn a lot of attention from US- and EU-based animal rights advocates — and where some notable progress has been made — is Brazil, one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of livestock.

Animal Equality, the Good Food Institute, Humane Society International, Mercy For Animals, and World Animal Protection all have operations in Brazil, engaging in a broad range of activities — public awareness work, vegan advocacy, celebrity engagement, undercover investigations, corporate campaigns, and support for developing plant-based and cell-based meat.

Brazil’s food industry has responded. São Paulo-based JBS, which is by far the world’s largest meat company, pledged in 2017 to source exclusively cage-free eggs by 2020; it missed that target date but has made meaningful progress, activists say. Meanwhile, BRF, Brazil’s largest producer and exporter of chickens, has fulfilled a pledge to source cage-free eggs for its processed foods.

Members of Mercy For Animals in Brazil protest deforestation for cattle grazing in the Amazon rainforest.
Courtesy of Mercy For Animals

Humane Society International (HSI) works with school districts in Brazil to shift from meat to plant-based food in 20 percent of their meals. “I was surprised at the number of schools that were interested,” says Julie Janovsky, vice president for farm animal welfare at HSI.

Sinergia Animal has moved beyond cage-free campaigns to push BRF to improve its welfare practices for pigs and Nestlé to improve the treatment of dairy cows in its supply chain. Other groups working on farm animals include Alianima and Forum Animal, which were started in Brazil and get funding from Western donors.

The challenges ahead

But the corporate pressure campaigns that have proven effective in the US, EU, and Brazil don’t work everywhere. Different tactics are required in cultures that frown on confrontation, particularly in Asia, activists say, so local groups typically approach industry in a spirit of cooperation.

The Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan, for example, works with retailers and egg producers to create a cage-free supply chain. The group recently made progress on the issue when the Taiwanese government announced it will mandate that eggs from caged hens be labeled as such.

In Singapore, where there’s little local agriculture but an eagerness to innovate, activists focus on developing plant- and cell-based alternatives to meat. Last year, Singapore became the first country in the world to approve the sale of cell-based meat when regulators approved a chicken product made by Eat Just.

In Africa, where the vast majority of land animals are still raised and slaughtered by small-scale farmers, the animal rights movement is just getting started. The EA Animal Welfare Fund and Open Wing Alliance have made grants to the Africa Network for Animal Welfare, a group based in Kenya, to research the prevalence of battery cages in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania. Other groups are engaging with regulators who are setting fish welfare standards in South Africa and cage-free campaigns in Nigeria.

But the biggest opportunities outside of the US and EU to curb global animal suffering, per FAOI, are in China and India.

Unlike the meat industry in Brazil, where markets are dominated by some of the world’s biggest food companies and large-scale farmers, India’s vast meat and dairy industry is decentralized, consisting of millions of rural, small-scale operations.

Reliable data is hard to come by, but it’s estimated there are some 75 million dairy farms in India. India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of milk, with about half coming from cows and half from buffalo.

A worker cleans up cow dung in a cattle shed at a dairy farm in the village of Zurkheda, Maharashtra, India, in October 2017.
Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The industry structure is a barrier to animal advocacy, explains Vasanthi Vadi, a founder of several Indian animal rights groups. “You will find small dairies in every village,” she says, and livestock can be well treated, relatively speaking. “If a farmer has six buffaloes, they all have names.”

Another obstacle is poverty, which remains widespread. Government policy, for example, seeks to increase the production of eggs, a cheap source of protein, to reduce malnutrition and lift the income of farmers. The government goes so far as to supply chicks to poor farmers. People are unlikely to jump from being food-insecure to being vegan.

Despite all that, there are reasons to be optimistic about India’s growing animal protection movement. India has more vegetarians than any other country — as high as 37 percent of the populace, according to government surveys, although some estimates put the number at more like 20 percent.

Importantly, India’s 1960 constitution makes it the “duty of every citizen ... to have compassion for all living creatures,” and a strong animal welfare law prohibits “causing unnecessary pain to any animal” and “keeping any animal in a cage where it doesn’t have reasonable opportunity of movement.” The Dalai Lama welcomed the Humane Society International to India when it opened an office in Hyderabad in 2012.

Given this legal precedent, animal advocates focus on enforcing or strengthening current laws rather than lobbying for new ones. People for Animals, which calls itself India’s largest animal welfare group, provides training to police on the effective enforcement of welfare laws. FIAPO, a federation of animal welfare groups, has pushed for state-by-state guidelines on the treatment of dairy animals.

The national government has issued directives to ban battery cages, as have the courts, but with little effect on farming practices. “Implementation is always a challenge,” says Shreya Paropkari, a senior campaign manager at Humane Society International in India.

Though efforts to improve animal welfare on farms are gaining steam, India’s animal protection movement is largely devoted to companion animals, as the US movement was during its early years. “Most NGOs focus on rescue and rehab,” Vadi says. “Advocacy work is a little more challenging.”

Meanwhile, China poses a unique challenge for animal welfare — and an opportunity. A recent analysis by the nonprofit Faunalytics concluded: “Supporting the animal protection community in China should be a key goal of globally oriented animal advocates.”

But what, exactly, can advocates do when the government won’t tolerate dissent? Chinese authorities promote factory farms because of their productivity and efficiency.

“The expansion of China’s animal agriculture is not an accident,” says Peter J. Li, an adviser to Humane Society International and author of the book Animal Welfare in China. “It is deliberate government policy. The government is obsessed with food security.”

What’s more, much of the population is neither aware of nor interested in animal welfare issues, according to Li. Older people remember what’s been called the Great Chinese Famine, a period of mass starvation between 1959 and 1961. They don’t want to be told to eat less meat.

“I’ve given up on older people. They’re hopeless,” Li says.

The situation, fortunately, is far from hopeless. Young people in China’s cities who aspire to middle-class lives do not want to see animals treated cruelly, activists say. (There’s no polling data to support that claim, but pet ownership — which can lead to awareness of animal welfare issues — is rising rapidly.) Young people are showing interest in vegetarian diets, in part because of worries about climate change and food safety; an African swine fever epidemic in 2018 and 2019 is thought to have killed more than half of China’s hogs.

Animal welfare groups are free to raise awareness about the benefits of consuming less meat, so long as they don’t criticize the government. Considering tofu originated in China 2,000 years ago and meatless meats are commonplace in grocery stores and on restaurant menus, vegetarianism could be an easier sell there than in some countries.

Workers dry tofu before making fermented bean curd in May 2018 in Qinhuangdao, China.
Visual China Group via Getty Images

Paradoxically, China’s authoritarian system could become a boon to animal welfare should the state choose to get behind plant-based alternatives to meat. In 2016, China’s health ministry issued new dietary guidelines urging citizens to reduce their meat consumption by half out of concern for public health; it’s unclear whether that has made a difference, but there’s no doubt the state has the ability to drive the growth of plant-based meats by offering low-cost capital or state contracts. Government records recently reviewed by the Good Food Institute indicate that significant funds are being allocated to help the plant-based sector scale up.

Other activists say corporate animal welfare pledges and global trade create opportunities to influence welfare practices in China. After leading Humane Society International’s work in India, Jayasimha Nuggehalli moved to Singapore to start Global Food Partners, a consulting firm that helps businesses throughout Asia source higher-welfare eggs and meat.

Global firms including Accor Hotels, Hilton, Marriott, Nestlé, Unilever, and Yum Brands have all made global pledges to go cage-free, but they need help developing supply chains in China, Nuggehalli says. Global Food Partners helped one of the largest egg producers in China develop a pilot cage-free farm with about 60,000 birds.

“What really has led to change in Asia are corporate commitments,” he says. Building awareness of animal welfare issues and influencing government policy in China could take decades.

Mercy For Animals’ Leah Garcés worked in China earlier in her career, seeking to persuade the government to pursue more humane slaughter practices for pigs in order to comply with EU rules regulating imports.

“I think we have to keep throwing spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks,” Garcés says. “We have not cracked the code. Nobody has.”

Marc Gunther is a veteran reporter who writes about the animal welfare movement, among other issues.

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