Beef bans likely reduce animal welfare

[Note: Beef bans probably significantly diminish human welfare, because, in some contexts, beef is a cheaper meat than many alternatives, because beef is a key export, and because beef bans are often targeted at particular minority communities, increasing resentment and legitimizing actions such as lynchings. This post, however, is not about human welfare—it looks at the very specific issue of how beef bans impact animal welfare.]

[Update below.]

Many Indian states and cities have implemented bans on the production and sale of beef (but not of other forms of meat), on predominantly religious (and majoritarian) grounds. Poorva Joshipura of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals argues in favor of these beef bans in India on the grounds that they advance the welfare of animals.

I disagree. I think beef bans, on net, diminish the welfare of farmed animals.

Why? Because beef is a substitute in consumption for other goods—including pork, goat, and chicken.

Much of Joshipura’s op-ed assumes that, in the presence of a beef ban, people will replace beef with vegan food. On an intuitive level, that seems unlikely. All else being equal, people who lose access to one good try to replace it with a good that’s a close substitute. Other meats are a closer substitute for beef than vegetarian and vegan food. When a beef ban reduces the quantity of beef supplied (assuming no black market formation, it reduces it to zero), the demand for other meats, which are often more common (e.g., chicken), increases, raising the equilibrium quantity.

There is empirical evidence for this as well. Reuters reports that many firms, anticipating bans on beef in Maharashtra, were considering increasing production by 5–8 percent back in 2015. By 2017, that change was far more substantial. According to The Hindu, the equilibrium quantity of chicken rose by 35–40 percent nationally in light of beef bans throughout the country.

On average, this reduces the welfare of animals. (Note that since the policy proposal here is a beef ban, we don’t have to take into account supply elasticities.) Two reasons. First, on a pound-for-pound basis, equal amounts of beef and chicken have vast disparities in terms of the number of animals that suffer and die. This is fairly intuitive. Cattle are larger than chickens. A single beef cow, on average, produces 212 kilograms in edible meat (out of a total weight of 544 kilograms), according to data from the 2017 version of this report. On the other hand, a single chicken raised for meat, on average, produces 1.35 kilograms of edible meat (out of a total weight of 2.5 kilograms). This needs to be adjusted for lifespan, however. Chickens farmed for meat, on average, live 42 days, whereas beef cattle live 395 days. Thus, per kilogram of meat, the number of days of life lost for a chicken is 42 * 0.74 = 31.08 days, whereas for a cow, it’s 395 * 0.0047 = 1.86 days. Since -31.08 < -1.86, ceteris paribus, eating beef is worse (unadjusted for (a) moral weight and (b) quality of life, both of which I’ll get into soon).

Second, the quality of life of smaller animals such as pigs and chickens are worse than that of cattle raised for beef. Joshipura’s article describes quite vividly the suffering beef cattle go through. It doesn’t match the suffering chickens go through. This paper makes some comparison. Brian Tomasik estimates that a chicken goes through 1.8 times more suffering than a beef cow, on average, even after adjusting for lifespan.  

There are two common objections to this. The first is that cattle have more moral relevance than chickens. This may well be the case, but it doesn’t seem intuitively true that one cow’s life is morally more relevant than 212/1.35 = 157 chickens. The differences in the extent to which these animals can experience suffering aren’t nearly as high. Brian Tomasik is more charitable—and more rigorous—than me, and says that only if you think a cow can experience more than forty times as much suffering as a chicken would the moral weight you assign to a cow relative to a chicken make a difference as far as maximizing animal welfare (measured in utilitarian terms) is concerned.

The second common objection is that beef farming is more environmentally harmful and that environmental harms increase animal suffering. Scott Alexander responds to this:

Some quick calculations: average American eats about 100 kg of meat per year. If that’s entirely beef, then that produces greenhouse gases equal to 8000 lbs CO2 (note unit conversion), which can be offset for $0.40 at carbon offset sites.

If it’s entirely chicken, then that adds up to about 100 chickens per year.

So if one chicken worth of animal suffering seems more than 40 cents worth of bad to you, you should go with beef.

I think it’s at least a bit weird to measure the extent of negative effects of pollution by the amount of money it takes to prevent it rather than the monetary loss it creates, since most people who eat beef aren’t spending money on carbon offset sites—but it does indicate that the environmental harm of beef doesn’t really stack up to the suffering this policy would induce on chickens, especially since chicken farming hurts the environment too.  

Some caveats:

(1) This does not take into account wild animal suffering at all, since the effects of meat consumption on wild animal suffering are deeply unclear.

(2) This analysis needs more rigor because it needs to take into account cross elasticities across beef and chicken—in other words, it needs more evidence on how much chicken production increases due to beef bans, and needs to factor that into the (implicit) animal welfare function I’m using.

(3) This analysis needs to consider non-chicken substitutes, such as pork and goat, but also buffalo meat.

(4) There is insufficient evidence on the extent of suffering the average chicken goes through in comparison to the average beef cow, especially since cattle have to live longer lives, on average.

(5) Further research into how much suffering the environmental impacts of beef would create when compared to the environmental impacts of other meats is necessary.

(6) This also doesn’t take into account negative effects on the cattle themselves. As Lewis Bollard briefly points out in his interview with Rob Wiblin, “[W]hat happens when these slaughter bans get passed at the same time as the Indian dairy industry is rapidly growing is huge numbers of surplus cows that can’t be legally slaughtered [are] either smuggled long distances to be slaughtered or they’re dumped in these sanctuaries where they will slowly die or won’t receive medical treatment.” I’m unclear about whether this outweighs the long-term impact of reduced beef consumption on the welfare of cattle.

(7) Lastly, most beef bans serve as bans on all cattle slaughter. This article doesn’t look at cattle slaughter and suffering in the leather industry, where there is no such substitution effect; but overall bans on cattle slaughter do have a substitution effect, so this doesn’t significantly adversely effect my argument.

However, on the margin, I think the evidence is fairly consistent with the notion that beef bans reduce animal welfare, measured in utilitarian terms, other things being equal.

Note that this should also affect your personal choices, in contexts where beef isn’t banned. Consuming chicken, pork, lamb, goat, farmed fish, or even eggs is likely worse—on a moral level—than consuming beef or wild-caught fish. While the ideal option may be to go vegan or lacto-vegetarian—I’m vegan myself—it would be prudent for people who consume meat to change their eating habits to make it more ethical.

Update (May 30, 2019):

I just discovered some further responses to the argument that beef production is worse for the environment. First, methane—the main source of environmental pollution unique to ruminant livestock such as cattle—is a short-lived greenhouse gas. This means that, in the long run, the effects of beef production on the environment significantly reduce. Second, Julian Baggini of The Guardian writes an article criticizing a proposed tax on red meat. There, they explain, “Most industrially produced meat is raised on imported feed made from crops such as soya, heavily dependent on commercial fertilisers and irrigation, often grown on woodland and forest cleared for cultivation. In contrast, properly pasture-reared animals feed on grasslands unsuitable for arable farming, watered by the clouds. These animals don’t depend on fertilisers further down the food chain, they actually provide manure for crops. If we were to tax red meat, many people would switch to more poultry, which is almost always reared on feed, adding to our burden on the planet.” This would apply to a ban on red meat such as beef as well.