Published on Development Impact

Is it time for development economists to start considering the welfare of non-human animals?

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In my last post, we proposed a welfare index that has desirable axiomatic properties but is also easy to understand and communicate. But that welfare index has a major shortcoming. You’re probably saying, yes, of course, that welfare index is income (or consumption) based and we all know that poverty (or wellbeing) is multidimensional in ways that cannot be captured by a money-metric index. And you would be right. But that’s not the major shortcoming I am thinking about…

That social welfare function, even if it were multi-dimensional, would be concerned only with the wellbeing of humans. But, we’re not alone in the world to experience wellbeing and suffering, or to have conscious experiences and preferences – see, for example, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. If the goal is a better future with reduced suffering and for everyone to reach their potential and live good lives, shouldn’t we also include the wellbeing of non-human animals (animals from hereon for brevity) when we consider development policy?

It is increasingly discordant for policies to consider animals as commodities in the pursuit of development for humans. A non-negligible share of development policy is about animal husbandry, farmed fish, and so on – with these things increasingly moving, as countries grow and develop, in the undesirable direction of causing more animal suffering. People increasingly believe that an animal’s existence in an industrial farm setting is likely worse than non-existence.

Currently, if we include animals implicitly in our social welfare functions (or evaluations of policies) at all, it is in the context of their externalities for us humans: climate externality of beef (which may incidentally increase suffering among millions more chickens and fish); health externalities of red meat; zoonotic disease outbreaks (including pandemics). Or simply that people care about some animals (like pets or cute wildlife or national symbols – such as the kiwi here in New Zealand), so our evaluations take animals into account sometimes. But this is indirect inclusion: animals are included in our welfare evaluations through our preferences about their fate – not because they matter but to the extent that we feel they matter.

We can include animals in social welfare functions (SWF) directly, where their utility would enter the social welfare function directly. There are lots of things to figure out when thinking about the theory and application of direct inclusion of animal wellbeing in multi-species social welfare functions: interspecies comparisons, weights to use, conceptualization and measurement of welfare for different species, to name just a few. If you’re skeptical of direct inclusion as a utilitarian who doesn’t mind using the Pareto principle occasionally, think of the lives of a species being much better off due to some policy change ceteris paribus: most people would say that this is an improvement in global wellbeing but the planner would be indifferent if that species’ welfare is not included in the SWF.

An increasing number of economists and philosophers are working on these issues, as evidenced by recent conferences on the economics of animal welfare – see here, here, and here for three examples. If you are a young researcher working on social welfare, poverty, inequality, social welfare theory, etc., this is an exciting and nascent field to do research that has the potential to make a big difference. After all, given the current inequalities and suffering (80 billion animals are slaughtered each year for meat), small changes in the welfare of billions of animals can make a large impact on the global scale – depending on the welfare function that with which we evaluate progress. You can be a part of the community that defines those measures, improves measurement, and enacts policy change around the world.

What would that look like for a development economist? One of the things that I observed is that farm animals’ lives are much better in LICs compared with their counterparts in the US or Europe, mainly because they are not living in factory farm conditions: they may not have the best food or care, but they’re not spending their short lives in confinement and pain. So, perhaps these issues are not so pressing in LICs as they might be in HICs. But this equilibrium can change as countries grow, with conditions for animals in LICs starting to look more like those in developed countries. We can start by thinking about policies under which countries can grow without causing massive increases in suffering among farmed (and wild) animals. Animal welfare standards can take their deserved place among a bevy of other standards that we have for World Bank projects and policies. As with other technologies, such as mobile data, perhaps many LICs can leapfrog the stage of industrial animal farming, towards something more sensible. For example, it looks like it will soon be possible to do sex identification prior to hatching, which would spare billions of male chicks from being killed. [If the same technology can extend to cows soon, bobby calves would be spared the same fate]

Aside from starting to think about the very basic protections and considerations for animal welfare, we can also conduct research on not only the conceptual issues discussed above but also on addressing the barriers to improving animal welfare. A lot of this is about taxes and subsidies, behavioral science, culture, norms, and so on – all of which are topics in which many of us run experiments or conduct other evaluative research. We can direct some of our attention to this nascent field...

In the meantime, here are a few references on incorporating animal welfare into social welfare functions to get started: Blackorby, Charles and David Donaldson (1992), Espinosa (2022), Espinosa and Treich (2021); Fleurbaey and Van der Linden (2021), Zuber, Spears, and Budolfson (2022), among many others. Please email me if you’re interested in working on this topic or would like more suggestions for papers to read.

[Needless to say, the opinions stated above are entirely mine. They are meant to get more people thinking about these issues in development economics and encourage discussion, debate, analytical thinking, and serious research. They do not necessarily represent the views of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank and its affiliated organizations, or those of the Executive Directors of the World Bank or the governments they represent.]


Berk Özler

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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