Animal Welfare Reforms Are Looking Significantly Better for Animals (and Worse for Gary Francione)

Supporters of welfare reform campaigns by animal advocacy organizations got a nice piece of evidence last month that deserves more attention than it's gotten in effective animal advocacy circles.  To cast things in sloppy strokes, a longstanding feud between "welfarists" and "abolitionists" has been over whether welfare reforms help or hurt animal agriculture. Abolitionists argue that reforms actually help the industry–if not, why would the industry adopt them? We'll probably never have a definite answer to this question, but economic analyses of one of the biggest animal welfare laws in U.S. history–California's Proposition 2–give reason for animal advocates to move toward the welfarist view.

From the paper, "The Impact of Farm Animal Housing Restrictions on Egg Prices, Consumer Welfare, and Production in California":

Twenty months after implementation of the [animal welfare] laws, the number of egg-laying hens and total egg production in California had each fallen by about 35% because of the policy. We find no discernible impact on yield. Trade data suggest that imports from other states were able to compensate for the drop in California production until the date of implementation of the AW laws, at which point total quantity in the California market fell relative to what would have been observed had the pre-implementation trend persisted.

Around 10 million fewer birds are in production in California in a typical month because of the law according to the paper, though some of this was likely compensated for by other states. It's also worth noting that the results are actually more modest than another recent analysis, though both analyses involved a common co-author.

We should be cautious about these figures. The number of hens not being raised because of Proposition 2 is definitely lower than 10 million, and the decrease in eggs produced worldwide because of Proposition 2 is definitely less than 35% of California's pre-Proposition 2 egg supply. These figures neglect imports from out of state, and part of these reductions is likely to be a temporary reduction caused by the transition to new systems rather than the new systems themselves. There was also an avian flu outbreak around the time of Proposition 2.

Still, caution should not go so far as to write this off. The paper does look at imports and find that they did not increase much. It would also be pretty surprising if the entire reduction represented a transition cost. Finally, the avian flu outbreak hit other states harder than California, so if anything, avian flu suggests that the effects may be larger.

I'm still skeptical of the actual welfare impact of reforms (although a recent Open Philanthropy Project analysis made more more optimistic). The picture on the right, as a reminder, is what cage-free looks like. This study, though, makes a solid case for reforms' being an effective way of preventing animals from being raised entirely.

We can see how surprising these results are if we look at forecasts of Proposition 2's impact, which should have taken into account transition costs. The paper finds production has fallen far below analysts' forecasts of Proposition 2's impact. That's evidence that Proposition 2 has stopped large numbers of hens of living torture-fill lives and suffering agonizing deaths.


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