Happier livestock through genetic bundling

Carl Shulman posted on OvercomingBias about an easier way to produce animals that suffer less: selective breeding.  In contrast to a lot of the pie-in-the-sky talk about genetically engineering animals to feel less pain, selective breeding is a proven and relatively cheap method that can produce animals with traits that increase a complicated weighted sum of many parameters.  As Shulman points out, the improvements are impressive, and breeding methods are likely to work just as well for reducing suffering as increasing milk output (although these goals may conflict in the same animal).

So suppose an animal-welfare organization is able to raise the resources necessary to run such a breeding program.  They immediately run up against the problem of how to induce large-scale farming operations to use their new breed of less-suffering chickens.  Indeed, in the comments to Shulman’s post, Gaverick Matheny pointed out that an example of a welfare-enhanced breed exists but is rarely used because it is less productive.

It’s true that there should be some low-hanging welfare fruit that has negligible effect on farm profits.  But even these are unlikely to be adopted due to economic frictions.  (Why would most farmers risk changing to an untested breed produced by an organization generally antagonistic toward them?)  So how can an animal-welfare organization induce adoption of their preferred breed?  My proposal is to bundle their welfare-enhancing modifications with productivity-enhancing modifications that are not already exploited because of inefficiencies in the market for livestock breeds.

The incentives which exist for businesses to invest in selective breeding almost certainly do not lead to the maximum total value.  Breeder businesses are only able to capture some of the value that accrues from their animal improvements.  In the US and Europe, there appears to be no ability to patent animals that are the result of traditional selective breeding.  (Animals produced using sufficiently inventive techniques enjoy protection.  Inserting novel genes appears to qualify, while sorting sperm by future gender is disputed.)

Market inefficiencies would persist even if all breeds were granted protection, and this is not something special about farm technology. An altruistic non-profit company will create more net value for society by inventing a new technology at some cost and releasing it immediately into the public domain than a for-profit company who invents it at the same cost and maximizes its profits by exploiting the monopoly granted by the patent.  (This assumes, perhaps dubiously, that both companies are just as efficient at inventing.)  Such inefficiencies are the price of human selfishness.

So there are likely many potential productivity-enhancing modifications which could be obtained through selective breeding but which are not because the incentives are too weak.  However, a sufficiently well-funded non-profit could produce breeds that have both productivity-enhancing and welfare-enhancing modifications.  Farmers would have incentive to choose these new breeds, displacing old breeds which suffer more and are less productive.

The special “altruistic” property of the non-profit (in the sense that it forgoes profit to accomplish a goal) is essential for this mechanism.  Furthermore, the animal farming industry is particularly ripe for this because for various reasons intellectual property protections are weaker than other industries.

It’s also likely that these modifications will stay bundled, at least for a while.  Separating them (as might be done indifferently by purely profit-driven breeder trying to further improve the breed) would require similarly substantial resources and would only work on those welfare-enhancing modifications which compete with productivity.

[This post was prompted by discussion with Ben Hoskin and others.]


I solicited feedback from Robin Hanson, who argued that this could apply to any kind of product, e.g. if you want to improve public health, just invent a food that is tasty and healthy (which doesn’t seem plausible). I believe this objection fails for these reasons:

1. Animal breeding has (1) unusually weak intellectual property rights and (2) unusually strong bundling.

2. People already have a personal incentive to find healthier food. Low hanging fruit is much less likely.

3. Organizations are attracting funding to research bundling for food products. For example, Bill Gates is investing in Hampton Creek Food, which is developing egg substitutes that bundle longer shelf life with various environmental objectives. They are selling some products direct to manufacturers where they cannot rely on consumer psychology/politics/ethics.

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