15. Why animal welfare legislation is so hard to pass (& two ways forward)

with Lewis Bollard of Open Philanthropy

Welcome back to Giving to Strangers, a newsletter about how social change and how it happens, written by me, Anya Marchenko. You can follow me on my Twitter.

This is the last interview in GTS’s cluster about animal welfare and factory farming. It’s hard to overstate how important, yet underfunded animal welfare is, so we’re not done covering it. But I hope this 4-part series has given you an insight into the major efforts to change the food system for the better.

If you’re new, you can read the first post here, with activist extraordinaire Wayne Hsiung, the second, asking whether veganism is bad for animal rights, and the third, about cage free eggs, but really about the shocking success of activist-led corporate campaigns. Enjoy the fourth!

Lewis Bollard, animal welfare generalist & expert

This week I spoke with Lewis Bollard, a Program Officer for farmed animal welfare at Open Philanthropy. Open Philanthropy is a grant-making organization broadly associated with the Effective Altruism movement, and as far as I can tell exists because Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna are very smart people who got very rich and wanted to intelligently give the riches away.

I’ve long respected Open Philanthropy and how careful and transparent they are, as well as their focus on issues sometimes overlooked in giving circles — global catastrophic risk (including pandemic preparedness), supporting science infrastructure, farmed animal welfare, to name a few.

Lewis Bollard’s job is to find and make grants to the organizations and causes that are the most tractable and effective in animal welfare. He writes an incredible monthly newsletter on the latest in the factory farming world, and given his job description, he’s a true generalist, with broad knowledge of what’s going on in animal welfare.

That means our conversation covers a lot of ground, and there are incredible nuggets and insights strewn about. So here I distilled the facts I learned during our conversation that made me do a double take:

7 bonkers facts I learned from Lewis Bollard

  1. Chickens are not protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. “When Congress passed the Act, they left it open as to which animals it would cover. And the USDA has decided to not apply the act — and the minimal humane slaughter protections that come with it — to the vast majority of land animals killed every year in the US, which are chickens,” says Bollard. “I think it’s really crazy.”

  2. …and because this country kills 9 billion chickens a year, the number one thing that the US government could do right now to improve farmed animal welfare, in Bollard’s opinion, is to include chickens and turkeys under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. 

  3. The majority of state animal cruelty laws specifically exempt farm animals or routine agricultural practices. In other words, the politicians who make these exemptions, and agribusiness who lobbies for them, are acknowledging that what’s done on a factory farm would be felony animal cruelty if done even, like, ten feet away from the farm. So you have a pig you want to kill, but don’t want to go to jail? Sneak onto a farm! The trespassing charge would be only a misdemeanor in comparison.  

  4. Voters tend to pass farm animal welfare bills when their state representatives don’t. When voters get a chance to vote on animal welfare bills directly — without the mediating influence of the media industry or politics in the legislature — voters are overwhelmingly in support of stronger farm animal welfare standards. I am not shocked about this fact, but am still incensed.

  5. A nerdy Econ point about interstate commerce: For most states (maybe not Iowa), the laws around the food you import are perhaps more important than around the food you produce. For example — in 2018, Californians voted to mandate that all eggs imported into California be cage free. California is a relatively small animal agriculture state, so if the bill had just said “alright guys, all you Cali farmers can’t put chickens in cages anymore”, it would be important, but not market-defining for American egg production. But California has 40 million people, most of whom love spinach and feta omelettes and breakfast burritos. This forces farmers in places like Iowa to grow cage free eggs to send to Cali, and also prevents Cali factory farms from moving over the state line into, I dunno, Wild West Nevada, thereby undercutting local competition. Win-win. 

  6. Meat companies globally are using the US industry’s playbook. The US industry has pushed ag gag laws — laws banning filming on factory farms — in some of our largest factory farming states, like Iowa and North Carolina. And globally, Bollard says there’s a similar push for ag gag laws. And to no one’s surprise, the meat industry has thwarted reform efforts more broadly, both here and in the European Union: “Every time a welfare bill comes up, they either kill it, or they exempt or regular agricultural practices from it, so the law only applies to dogs and cats,” says Bollard.

  7. Opportunities for improving animal welfare through legislation are limited. You can’t take people to court over laws that don’t exist. And passing those laws, as you’ll see below, is very hard. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t pursue legislative change — states that have passed better animal welfare protections have made some really exciting progress. And “the US in particular has been able to pivot from legislative strategies toward corporate strategies, [which] really achieved regulation just by a different means,” says Bollard.

So existing laws are rife with loopholes that lead to widespread animal suffering, and new ones are hard to pass. But is the best way forward still through legislation?

Why change for animals is mostly happening through voter-led initiatives and corporate lobbying, not legislation

Americans agree that animals shouldn’t suffer, basically more than they agree on pretty much anything, and yet it’s nearly impossible to pass the requisite legislation to ensure it (in one survey, 94% of Americans agreed that “animals raised for food on farms deserve to be free from abuse and cruelty”). Which explains why sensible animal welfare passes when people get to vote on it directly. But like Bollard pointed out, it dies quickly in state capitols. Why?

Animal welfare is a great example of a perennial tug-of-war in American politics: when a few special interests care a lot about continuing to do something bad, they usually win, because the general public (who probably believes it’s bad) just doesn’t care as much about stopping them.

I asked Bollard about to explain how special interests are able to win in state legislatures, and whether recent animal rights ballot initiatives could be an alternative way forward.

GTS: I want to pick up on something that you mentioned, which is that it’s easier to pass [animal rights] legislation if it’s through a ballot measure, versus through the normal legislative process. When I hear that, the alarm bells around lobbying and corporate interests start going off in my head. [Why] do we need to do this kind of bypass, where the people kind of force the state legislature to listen to them on this issue?

Bollard: I think it’s a great illustration of the political lock that agribusiness has on politicians, in a way that that clearly frustrates democratic work. For instance, Massachusetts passed a similar measure to California a few years previously. And that measure — even in a progressive state of Massachusetts, which doesn’t have a large factory farming industry — that measure repeatedly failed in the legislature. They couldn’t get the measure taken up, they couldn’t get it voted on. And then they took it to the voters and it passed with over 70% of the vote.

What it really reflects is two different forces. One is the way that things are structured within the legislature. So typically anything regulating farmed animal welfare has to start within the agriculture committee, whether that’s at the federal level, the House and Senate agriculture committee, or a state legislature’s agriculture committee. Those agriculture committees tend to be very dominated by people from rural areas. And as a result, they tend to reject animal welfare regulations before they can even make it to the full legislature. [Those committees] tend to be the place where that legislation goes to die.

The second thing, I think, is the question of political salience. This is an issue on which a very small number of people are opposed to farm animal welfare reforms, particularly factory farming corporations. But they care a lot about that opposition, and they’re willing to put a lot of resources into opposing these things. Whereas in contrast, you have a very large number of people who are supportive of animal welfare laws. But unfortunately, this traditionally has not been as high on political agendas or seen as salient enough.

A lot of politicians currently, they see [animal welfare] as something that, yeah, maybe voters want, but they’re not going to get voted out of office if they don’t vote for this. Whereas in turn, they may lose substantial campaign contributions if they do support a measure. So I think it’s really important for advocates to try and raise the salience of the issue, raise the stakes so that politicians don’t see this as something that they can just kind of get a free pass on.

GTS: Say that I’m governor of another state, or I’m a state legislature, or even an animal advocacy group that would like to pass something similar to Proposition 12.1 What are the lessons that I can take from California, and are there any efforts in other states right now that you see that are kind of on their way to doing that?

Bollard: Actually, Josh Balk has played a primary role in securing legislative reforms that enact some of the key provisions of Proposition 12 in Oregon, in Washington, in Michigan, and most recently in Colorado. 

I think that for advocates in other states, a first key question is whether their state allows ballot measures or not.  So only about half the states in the US do, sometimes they have particular constraints within that, some make it harder to file ballot measures. So if the state doesn’t allow ballot measures, then obviously  [advocates are] constrained to direct legislative process — that’s harder. But still I think worth doing. In New York state, which does not allow ballot measures, there has been a lot of concerted lobbying to try and enact something. 

[Another lesson] is just that: when you are able to isolate the question of farm animal welfare in a precise ballot question in front of voters, it almost always passes. And there’ve now been, I think, six or seven ballot measures on farm animals, and all the ones in the last two decades have won. So it’s a good starting position. 

Takeaway

Bollard’s point about political salience reminds me of the concept of the “silent majority” — a large group of people who do not express their opinions on an issue, so their opinions don’t get heard. Applied to animal welfare, this means that the default policy will become (roughly speaking) whatever the group who shows up wants it to be. So without vocal opposition from the public, the decisions being made in state legislatures, national legislatures, and city councils are going to be primarily reflect the status quo and the interests of ag corporations.

Fortunately, showing up and making your views salient to politicians can look like a lot of things. For example, you can support people who do the hard legwork on behalf of the movement. Below are some organizations that’ve made a lot of progress for animals that I’ve highlighted before on GTS. Given their track record, I have high confidence they will continue to effectively lobby corporations and governments to pass stricter animal welfare standards.

Which strangers should you give to? 

Check out the Humane Society, which has been behind a lot of the progress towards cage free eggs and supported the passage of Proposition 12:

Donate to Humane Society

Animal Charity Evaluators help donors find amazing animal welfare charities. I have a monthly recurring donation set up through their website to their top charities (organizations like the Albert Schweitzer Foundation for corporate outreach, and The Good Food Institute for the development of alternative proteins).

Donate to ACE top charities

You can’t donate to Open Philanthropy and ask them to direct your giving, as their philanthropic model works a little differently. But Open Philanthropy does a lot of high-quality research into which aspects of animal welfare are the most tractable, yet also the most under-funded.

Bollard believes that we need more active animal welfare groups globally, especially in countries like Brazil and China, as well as nonprofits focusing on the welfare of fish. Open Philanthropy has made a number of interesting investments in these areas.

You can browse Open Philanthropy’s list of recent grants they’ve made to get ideas for your own giving, here.

Donate to OP's grantees

This week’s quotes

I’m a bit of a quodophile, and have been collecting quotes since I was in middle school. I thought it’d be fun to share something unrelated to the post, so here are some quotes I’ve written down over the last two weeks. Let me know if you like this new section by commenting below, or replying to this email. 

Self pity is as offensive as self aggrandizement.

— Dax Shepard on Brene Brown’s podcast

This notion of time as an “economic resource” is exactly what vibing aims to break away from. It is not a coincidence that the last year has brought both the collapse of capitalism and an upending of time. This year of stillness and retreat has made it plain that time is not an empty thing we have to fill but a living thing that we must shape. Time changes. Because the world changes, and we change with it. To vibe is to shape time into pleasure, to mold it into something that feels soft and tastes sweet. It is to take a pause that bleeds into another. “Until finally,” writes Githere, “the space between the dream and the memory collapses into being your reality—now.”

on vibing - close but not quite

It’s very hard to get people to listen to your counter-arguments if they feel like you’re not listening to their arguments.

— Ezra Klein on interview w/ Vivek Murthy (Biden’s Surgeon General pick)

Edens and Utopias both arise from our propensity to take names. We habitually catalog the discomfort and inequities of our every day lives, its blemishes and irregularities, its ugly shoes and “daring” pant suits. Confronted with these perceived defects, utopians first strive to “communicate” as loudly as they can, then they demonstrate in public, then they plot revolutions for the good of all humankind while denying themselves even the aroma of payback.

We Edenic dreamers shop. We poke around for what we want, or we make it ourselves out of stuff we bought at Home Depot or Pearl Paint. We don’t want to recruit you, although we have occasionally teased young people out of the closet because the answers we seek or physical and undeniable. Our Edens reside in a world that we can touch, that sings in our ears and shines before our eyes - the only world that we can have it while living in our bodies with all her senses intact. So when Edenic dreamers complain, they complain about the shopping - about the shortage of interesting people or of local opportunities to accessorize their private dreams. Inundated as we are by German metaphysics, it’s east to forget that we can make ourselves from the outside in, that we strive, as best we can, to be worthy of our wonderful shoes.

— Dave Hickey, Wonderful Shoes, Perfect Wave

The reward for good work is more work.

— Tom Sachs, from Kevin Kelly’s list of favourite quotes

1

Proposition 12 is an animal welfare ballot initiative that California voters passed in 2018, sometimes considered the strongest law for animals in the world. It prevents not just the production, but also the import, of animals and animal products that were extremely confined.