Earlier, I published a Vegan Outreach Cost-Effectiveness Calculator. The concept involves advertising animal-welfare based reasons to go vegan, such as handing out Vegan Outreach’s “Compassionate Choices” pamphlet [PDF], Farm Sanctuary’s “Something Better” pamphlet [PDF], or by buying Facebook ads that point to WhosAgainstAnimalCruelty.Org as The Humane League does.
By looking at survey results about how many people stop or reducing eating meat because of this outreach, and combining this with data on how long people tend to stay vegetarian and how much this reduces the demand for meat, etc., a simple version of the calculator estimates that one can prevent a year of animal suffering with $0.07 to $76.04. A more complex version of the calculator taking into account more variables guesses $0.02 to $12.26 per year.
This data was rather weak and uncertain because it was primarially based on only one survey, the “Fall 2011 HiddenFaceOfFood.com Facebook Ads Survey” [PDF], which I analyze here and on the calculator page.
However, now I’m proud to announce that with the writing of “The Powerful Impact of College Leafleting (Part 1)” and The Powerful Impact of College Leafleting: Additional Findings and Details (Part 2), Nick Cooney has released new survey data on vegetarian outreach.
The Survey: Method and Results
Unlike the previous survey, which was of Facebook users watching videos linked by Facebok ads, this study was of pamphlets. As Cooney writes:
Early in the fall semester, staffers from The Humane League visited the main campuses of two large state schools on the East Coast, the University of Delaware and the University of Maryland. They distributed thousands of leaflets outside the dining halls of each school. The leaflets distributed were an equal mixture of Farm Sanctuary’s Something Better leaflet and Vegan Outreach’s popular Compassionate Choices leaflet.
About two months later, they returned to campus with surveys to see how much students’ diets had changed. They stood outside the dining halls and asked students passing by if they would take a survey. Students did not know what the survey was about prior to stopping and agreeing to take the survey. After agreeing, only those who actually received a leaflet earlier that semester were allowed to take the survey. Nearly 500 surveys were completed.
And the results were pretty good:
Quite simply, the results were phenomenal. About 1 out of every 50 students who received a leaflet indicated they became vegetarian or pescatarian as a result. Just as importantly, 7% of students (1 in 14) said they now eat “a lot less” chicken, a lot fewer eggs, and a lot less dairy as a result of getting the leaflet. 6% eat a lot less fish, and 12% eat a lot less red meat.
Furthermore, about 1 in 5 students said they shared the leaflet with someone else who then began to eat less meat.
And the key take away:
What does all this mean for animals? After accounting for social desirability bias (people over reporting changes in their diet), the results suggest that for every 100 leaflets you distribute on a college campus, you’ll spare, by a conservative calculation, a minimum of 50 animals a year a lifetime of misery. That’s one animal spared for every two leaflets you distribute!
Where Are We Now?
My immediate thought was that I had to plug in this new data to the Calculator and see where the range fell. When I plugged in the new consumption data and noted the response bias as 0%, and tweaked a few other things to match Nick Cooney’s projections*, the estimates now point to $0.01 to $16.48 to prevent a year of suffering, or 0.08 to 29.6 animals saved per pamphlet to use Cooney’s preferred metric.
You’ll note that the optimistic end of that range is significantly better than Cooney’s conservative guess of one per two leaflets, or 0.5 animals saved per pamphlet. But this is because, I think, his estimate doesn’t include people maintaining vegetarianism for more than one year, influencing others (ripple effect), and fish.
So where does this put our data now? With a second source we’re more robust — we now have data from both Facebook ads and pamphlets, and this data converges well toward each other, as we would expect it would if the data is accurate. We’re also in a a significantly better position with regard to response bias now. Most generally, we’re better off for having a replication.
Some of the fine grain details, while important, are still basically guesses. The most staggering example is that we still don’t really know what it means for someone to reduce their meat intake “significantly” — is this a 40% decrease or a 10% decrease? What about just by “a little bit”? Could this be nothing in the face of desirability bias?
I’d still take the case of guarded optimism here. But it’s worth noting that even if you assume the worst however with the lower bounds and furthermore throw out all but those who say they eliminated entirely, it’s still only $54.06 to prevent a year of suffering, which is on par with GiveWell’s Against Malaria Foundation (assuming you value animal suffering in the same ballpark as human suffering, which I do).
In conclusion, we need more studies and replications. We need more data on some of the other factors. We also need more people to review my calculator, to make sure I didn’t make a mistake in my theory or programming. …But we’re getting the methodologies down. Things are tightening up. And the more we look, the more it seems to be that Vegan Outreach is meeting all of our expectations and more, becoming more and more clearly the best bang for our buck that we can currently quantify.
*I had previously had the value for increased at most pessimistic would be 25%, but switched it to 30% to match with Nick Cooney. Likewise, I had previously guessed that a significant decrease would be at most optimistic 25%, but switched it to be 40% to match.
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