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Many people are concerned about factory farming and animal cruelty. However, many people are not capable of becoming vegetarian or vegan right now: perhaps it would be unhealthy for them because their diet is otherwise limited; perhaps they don’t have access to vegan or vegetarian food; perhaps they’re in a stressful life situation where becoming vegetarian would add so much difficulty to eating that they can’t eat at all. Fortunately, many people who can’t eliminate meat entirely can reduce their meat consumption.

In my experience, many people who want to reduce their meat consumption start by cutting out beef and other red meat, while continuing to eat chicken, fish, and eggs. However, effective altruists generally recommend that you start by cutting out farmed fish, followed by battery-cage eggs, followed by chicken. Why are these perspectives so different?

[Please do the opposite of this.]

(In this post, I’m going to talk about diet from a perspective of animal welfare, not from a perspective of health or the environment. Reducing your meat consumption so that you consume less meat than the average American is one of the best things you can do for animal welfare and for the environment. According to most nutritionists, eating less meat than the average American does is good for your health. However, it would be really weird if the diet that’s best for animal welfare were also simultaneously the diet that’s best for your health and for the environment. I’m only going to talk about animal welfare right now, because otherwise this post would be very very long; if your primary reason for reducing your meat consumption is concern about the environment or your health, you may prioritize which meat you reduce differently.)

Most people cut out meat from mammals because they think mammals are smarter than birds, perhaps because mammals are more closely related to humans. (For those interested, here is a review of the cognitive capacities of chickens and here is a review of the cognitive capacities of cows.) However, when we think about which animals we eat, it’s important not just to think about the animal’s cognitive capacities but also to think about their size.

Chickens are very small: a single chicken can only produce meat for a few meals. However, cows are very large. A single cow can produce enough meat for hundreds of meals. This means that the average American eats less than a tenth of a cow per year. Conversely, Americans eat thirteen chickens every year! (While I only have statistics for the one country, chickens and cows are approximately the same sizes around the globe.) That means that if you avoid beef for a decade, you could save one cow from being factory farmed– but if you avoid chicken for a decade, you could save 130 chickens from being factory farmed.

Chickens are also generally raised in much worse conditions than cows. I try to avoid including descriptions of animal cruelty on this blog, but the interested reader may look at the Humane Society’s white papers on the subject. I’d estimate that a day in the life of a broiler chicken is about three times worse than a day in the life of a cow.

Of course, it is possible to have a set of values such that it is better to avoid beef than to avoid chicken. Brian Tomasik has a very interesting calculator which you can use. In general, if you prefer forty chickens to suffer a certain amount over a single cow suffering the same amount, you should cut out beef; otherwise, you should cut out chicken.

Similar arguments apply to farmed fish and to eggs, with some differences. A day in the life of a farmed fish is generally less bad than a day in the life of a chicken; however, farmed fish are also generally quite small. You can’t do a straightforward “how many animals?” calculation for egg-laying chickens, because egg-laying chickens live much much longer than chickens killed for meat; the more complicated calculations are laid out in this post by Peter Hurford.

I’d like to make it clear that when I say “farmed fish,” I am excluding wild-caught fish. The effects of fishing on animal welfare are extremely confusing, and wild-animal advocates have only begun to study them; I do not think avoiding wild-caught fish makes sense at this time. (Nearly seventy percent of fish labeled as ‘wild-caught’ in restaurants is actually farmed. I would recommend buying wild-caught fish from large chain grocery stores, as that is the most likely to be correctly labeled.)

Peter Hurford’s calculations suggest that one can get 85% of the animal-welfare benefit of going vegan simply by avoiding chicken, eggs, and farmed fish. You do not have to go vegan, or even vegetarian, to take big steps towards improving the welfare of animals.