Vegetarians, vegans, and the varieties of reform

Via Critical Animal, here’s an article looking at whether animal welfare reforms (e.g., banning battery cages or veal crates) reduce meat consumption. Some animal-rights activists, notably those associated with or sympathetic to Gary Francione’s “abolitionist” approach, have argued that such reforms only encourage people to eat more meat, because they make people feel better about consuming animal products. But according to this article, the data point in the other direction.

As scu notes, however, this doesn’t refute all of the abolitionist’s arguments. One that they make is that people who reduce or give up eating meat will compensate by eating more dairy or eggs, resulting in little or no net reduction in animal suffering. In the abolitionist view, mere vegetarianism is not even a step in the right direction, much less an acceptable alternative to full-blown veganism.

I obviously have no data to back this up, but the argument that people who give up meat for ethical reasons will compensate by substituting eggs and dairy strikes me as implausible on its face. As an ovo-lacto vegetarian myself, I have some experience to draw on here, and I can confidently say that, far from increasing my intake of eggs and dairy, I’ve significantly reduced it–to the point where probably about two-thirds of my meals are vegan. And this makes sense when you think about it: dairy and eggs are not, in general, substitutes for meat. It’s not like instead of eating a steak you’re going to eat a big slab of cheese or even an omelet in most cases. When I gave up meat, the alternatives I generally substituted were veggies, legumes, nuts, and in some cases prepared meat substitutes like veggie burgers.

This doesn’t show, of course, that the abolitionists are wrong in upholding veganism as the non-negotiable moral baseline (they may or may not be) or that their approach is less effective than an incrementalist reform approach. But I’d like to see more evidence for the specific claim that giving up meat increases consumption of other animal products.

9 thoughts on “Vegetarians, vegans, and the varieties of reform

  1. I’m in agreement here. I have often had these discussions with friends and associates, and I have always maintained that this isn’t a question of ideology, but a pragmatic question that requires data. Ideological questions, or perhaps more neutrally philosophical questions, are discussions about if we want an abolitionist world. If we agree we do, then we have a set of pragmatic questions about what to do next. The problem I have sometimes had with Francione, and indeed with many other animal abolitionists, is that the questions of appropriate actions is raised to the same ideological level as the goals.
    I continue to believe, however, that is a data driven debate, and I’d like to see more data.

  2. I’m an ovo-lacto vegetarian too. Over the years, I’ve reduced my use of eggs – I do’t buy them anymore – and I probably consume about the same amount or less of dailry.

  3. Pingback: Happier meals? « TheMoralMindfield

  4. I can see the premise, but I think it falls apart in practice. While some vegetarians will probably turn more to cheese and eggs for the richness/fatty flavor that only saturated animal fat will provide, many vegetarians turn vegetarian because of health and/or moral issues, and moving toward veganism is the logical next step. Even as an omnivore, I probably eat at least 1/2 vegan and vegan raw, possibly more, for health reasons.

  5. With respect to the blog post you cite, “Science Weighs in At Last: Campaigns for Welfarist Reforms Cause People to Buy Significantly Less Meat,” which reports on an article in the Journal of Agricultural Economics entitled “Impacts of Animal Well-Being and Welfare Media on Meat Demand”:

    I am presently working with others trained in economics and statistics/study design to present a full reply to this study, which I think suffers from multiple methodological problems and is poorly designed. But I would suggest that even a casual review of the article indicates that the claims by welfarists are, to say the least, hyperbolic.

    First off, meat consumption is increasing and not decreasing. This study does not say that welfare campaigns have resulted in any actual decrease in consumption. Rather, it says that demand, measured over an approximately ten-year period, did not increase as much as the authors would have thought if media attention on welfare issues had not increased. The authors acknowledge that this reduction in demand increase is “small, but statistically significant.”

    There are many, many problems with the study. For example, the authors were not able to find the same “small” result in the case of cows. Moreover, the authors claim that “this lost demand is found to exit the meat complex rather than spillover and enhance demand of competing meats.” But they define the “meat complex” as involving cows, pigs, and poultry. The lower rate of demand increase, small as the authors acknowledge it is, may have shifted to many of the other animal products that are not part of the “meat complex” as defined. Moreover, during the same period of time, there was public discourse that was critical of welfare reform and advocated veganism. Even the authors make clear that there are problems linking the results they found to animal welfare concerns.

    In short: animal consumption is increasing but it did not increase as much with respect to pigs and chickens and that might have been due to animal welfare concerns but it might not have had anything to do with animal welfare concerns, and any failure of demand increase may very well reflect a shift to fish, eggs, dairy products, and prepared meat foods.

    I fail to understand why anyone thinks that this study indicates that animal welfare reform campaigns are effective.

    In the past ten years, welfare organizations have spent billions of dollars in promoting welfare campaigns. Putting aside the methodological problems with this study, if this is the best that welfarists can show, then I would agree that science has, indeed, weighed in: animal welfare reform is useless and completely cost-ineffective.

    I will post further information on my website ( about a more formal reply as things shape up.

    Gary L. Francione
    Professor, Rutgers University

  6. Dear Prof. Francione,
    Thanks for weighing in. I have no particular axe to grind one way or the other on this argument. I’m looking forward to seeing more debate on this and will do my best to disseminate the info as it becomes available.

  7. Pingback: What is the goal of animal-welfare reforms? | A Thinking Reed

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