For the last few years I’ve been avoiding factory farmed eggs because I think they involve a lot of unnecessary suffering. I’m hesitant to be part of that even if it’s not a big deal on utilitarian grounds. This is a pain since factory-farmed eggs are used all over the place (e.g. in ice cream, pastries, pasta…). I’d prefer just spend a bit of money and not think too much about what I eat.

In this post I’ll describe a possible offsetting strategy that I think is unusually robust and should be satisfying for many moral perspectives. The same proposal would also apply to many other animal products and potentially to the environmental impacts of consumption.

Proposal

I think it’s possible to produce humane eggs where hens have positive lives and nothing horrifying happens to anyone. So my ideal would be to buy and use humane eggs. But this is tough since most of the time I’m eating eggs that someone else used as an ingredient (and even when I’m using them myself acquiring really humane eggs is kind of a pain).

So here’s an alternative that seems easier and just as good:

  • Some people raise humane eggs.
  • They sell these on the wholesale market as if they were totally normal eggs.
  • An inspector verifies that hens are treated extremely well and that they have sold N eggs on the wholesale market.
  • The inspector issues N “humane egg” certificates to the producer.
  • The producer sells these certificates in an online marketplace in order to cover the extra costs of humane eggs.
  • Whenever I eat an egg, I buy a humane egg certificate to go with it.

Analysis

If I buy an egg and a humane egg certificate, what is the net effect on the world?

Buying the egg increased demand for eggs. If I hadn’t also bought a certificate, that would indirectly cause someone to make one more factory-farmed egg.

Buying the positive-welfare certificate means that someone sold a wholesale egg on my behalf and increased the supply of eggs. If I hadn’t also bought an egg, that would indirectly cause someone to make one less factory-farmed egg.

So my net effect on factory farmed eggs is zero. It’s as if I was making my own positive-welfare egg and eating it, with no effect on how many factory-farmed eggs other people make or eat.

(In reality both of these actions will have other effects, e.g. causing other people to eat more or fewer eggs, but I think they still cancel out perfectly.)

This is an unusually pure form of offsetting. I’m ensuring that every hen who comes into existence because of me is living a positive life. Put differently, buying eggs only hurt hens via some indirect market effects, and I’m now offsetting my harm at that level before it turns into any actual harm to a hen. I think this form of offsetting is acceptable on a very broad range of moral perspectives (practically any perspective that is comfortable with humane eggs themselves).

Cost to the consumer

I’d guess that positive welfare eggs cost something like 3x more than typical eggs. For example I think Vital Farms sells eggs for around $6/dozen vs $2/dozen for more typical eggs.

So for each $1 that I would spend on eggs, I’d need to spend $2 to buy an egg-offset certificate. I haven’t looked into it but I could imagine wanting to go even higher to have a margin of error and shoot for even higher welfare standards. Let’s call it $0.50/egg, suggesting a 4-5x markup over typical eggs.

(I’m also not sure about relative egg sizes and didn’t look into prices very precisely, for me personally the numbers are low enough that it doesn’t matter too much even if being conservative.)

How much would that cost in practice? Here are some estimates from quick googling of recipes:

The whole US produces about 100 billion eggs / year. If we wanted to offset all of that at the less-conservative $0.25/egg number, that would be $25B/year or $76 per person per year.

Benefits of decoupling (paying for welfare) from (paying for eggs)

Today animal welfare standards involve (at least) three parties: whoever raises the hen humanely, the grocery store or restaurant or whatever who uses the humane eggs, and the customer who demands humane eggs. Often there are more people still, like a host who prepares a meal for guests. And that’s all on top of the fact that people need to buy eggs at a particular place and time and so on. This means that dealing with humane eggs is always kind of a pain, and we need to standardize on

But humane egg certificates cut out all the middle men and just involve the producer and the consumer. So they make life way easier, and then they can also be specialized based on different welfare expectations. A certificate can say as much as it wants to about the welfare of the hens who produced it. Some customers could just go for anything that sounds “humane,” others could rely on more nuanced evaluations by non-profits who evaluate welfare claims, and the most over-the-top consumers could be matched with the most overt-the-top farms.

Getting started

By the same token, it seems much less daunting to get this kind of system off the ground since it only involves two parties. A single farm could opt to sell wholesale eggs and allow inspections in order to serve a small number of customers, since they don’t have to geographically or temporally matched. I think it could be very fast to reach the point where humane egg certificates had as much flexibility as the current patchwork ecosystem for buying humane eggs.

The market could even get jump started by a tiny number of philanthropists (or even just one) who buy a few million dollars of humane egg certificates, negotiating directly with a few farmers. So this doesn’t necessarily involve any hard coordination problems at all.

Or we could literally have a kickstarter amongst people who are interested in humane egg certificates and have enough agreement about what kind of welfare standard they’d want to use (and then could pick someone to find and negotiate with a farm directly).

I think most philanthropists wouldn’t do this unless they were excited about setting norms or driven by non-utilitarian interests. In some sense this methodology feels like the “GiveDirectly of animal welfare,” extremely scalable and robust but a very expensive way to fix the problem. See the next section.

(In practice I think there are all kinds of issues with this proposal that I don’t know about, so I actually don’t know what the first steps would end up looking like, e.g. it depends on how small farmers think about humane eggs and wholesaling. This post is definitely written in spitballing mode, not as someone who understands the domain.)

Thoughts on cost-effectiveness

I’d estimate that it would cost something like $300B/year to offset all of the global harms of factory farming in this way, which feels at least 1-2 orders of magnitude worse than the kinds of welfare interventions that philanthropists feel excited about. Of course that’s also an argument against the cost-effectiveness of offsetting.

Here are some of the things going on:

  • Most interventions consist in lobbying or advocacy, trying to convince other people to pay a cost (e.g. to eat less meat or to pay for better animal welfare standards). I think that’s ethically problematic as an offsetting strategy relative to paying the cost yourself, and to a lesser extent I think there’s something to be said for philanthropists directly paying these kinds of costs in addition to trying to convince others to pay them.
  • The standards I’m imagining above (at $0.50/egg) are kind of “overkill,” designed to address all of the possible negative effects on a hen rather than targeting the lowest hanging fruit. Individual humane egg certificate purchasers could focus on particular standards (e.g. just ensuring that hens have dust baths and adequate cage space) and get to something closer to the cost-effectiveness of traditional hen welfare interventions, and the same norms and infrastructure could be used for both.

Universalizability

What would happen if many people tried to use this offsetting strategy?

If demand for humane egg certificates was equal to demand for eggs, then all eggs would be humane. Economically, this would be because the price of eggs has fallen below the costs of factory farming, with most of the value being in the humane certificates. I think this is basically the best possible case for an offsetting strategy, and I’d personally consider it better than abolition.

If deployed at large scale, there could be considerable customization of humane egg certificates and people who wanted it would be able to get high welfare standards with high-quality monitoring. In general I think that early adopters should view themselves as overpaying in order to share the burden of setting up the scheme and helping scale up humane agriculture.

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Commenters pointed out two examples of this that are already done in practice:

  • Luis Costigan says that this is done with cage-free credits in Asia, and links to 00:17:19 in this podcast.
  • Florian H says this is how sustainable energy credits work in the EU in this comment.

In retrospect I think I should have called this post "Demand offsetting" to highlight the fact that you are offsetting the demand for eggs that you create (and hence hopefully causing no/minimal harm) rather than causing some harm and then offsetting that harm (the more typical situation, which is not obviously morally acceptable once you are in the kind of non-consequentialist framework that cares a lot about offsetting per se).

I think it is not too late to change the name.

There's a bit of a wrinkle here in that humane eggs aren't completely fungible with non-humane eggs. Healthier and happier chickens tend to produce better quality eggs that are distinguishable from factory-farmed eggs. This approach seems plausible for offsetting demand but leaves the consumer with an inferior product at a higher cost. This isn't a big deal for a croissant but would be for, say, an omelet.

Presumably the welfare premium is reduced if the ethical egg providers can recoup some costs from a quality premium

Sure, but the non-fungibility reintroduces the distribution and packaging complications. Part of the premise was to "sell these on the wholesale market as if they were totally normal eggs." The decoupling only works under fungibility assumptions, i.e., when the quality difference is not distinguishable or not important. Fortunately, this is close enough to true for many parts of the market and a partial solution is still progress.

I really like this idea of moral fungibility.

By cutting out the need for a separate "ethical" packaging, marketing, and distribution system, you vastly lower the costs for new entrants into the market. More, there would be additional benefits since you could cut other costs like the impact of long-range transportation (how do I weigh the environmental costs of shipping ethically sourced eggs from Maine to California vs buying local factory?).

I worry that consumers derive as much value from the act of buying the ethically sourced product as the actual reduction in harm, but maybe there's ways to market around that. Not sure, but it seems worth finding out :).

If we lived in a different world then e.g. restaurants could still repackage them at the last mile, selling humane egg credits along with their omelette. But in practice this probably wouldn't check the same box for most consumers.

Or, imagine if this were a service available to restaurants such that they could have an option on menu items: +$1 for ethically sourced eggs. Now, the service is transparent for them (maybe integrate with a payment provider willing to facilitate the network for free marketing) and they don't have to deal with buying two sets of eggs or taking supply risks.

Hm, starting to think there's a version of this that's viable.

This is a very elegant idea, but I am doubtful about whether it will work.

Suppose humane egg producers switch over to doing this. Initially, I bet few people will buy the certificates, because they'll be new and unfamiliar and most people mostly default to not doing new things. So, to whatever extent raising chickens humanely is more expensive than raising them inhumanely, the humane egg producers will only be able to afford to do what they do if the certificates are really expensive. Which will mean that few people buy the certificates even once everyone knows about them. Which probably means that the system doesn't work.

So, to make it work, there shouldn't be that sort of sudden switchover. Instead, humane egg producers start selling some of their eggs on the generic-egg market and procuring certificates for those. Now the certificates are not only new and little-heard-of, they aren't even the main way the humane egg producers are making money. So not many will get sold, so either again they're super-expensive and demand is low or the humane egg producers continue mostly selling their eggs separately rather than commingling them with everyone else's and getting certificates.

Maybe a bigger problem is that I suspect many many people who currently buy humanely-produced eggs will not be satisfied with offsets. Imagine that (for the same cost) you can buy (1) an egg that was probably produced inhumanely, plus a thing that is somehow supposed to indicate that you've arranged for another egg to be produced humanely instead of inhumanely ... or (2) an egg that you know was produced humanely. If you're an explicitly-calculating utilitarian who trusts Economics 101, then #1 is just as good as #2. Most people aren't. I'm an explicitly-calculating utilitarian who's generally pretty positive about economics, and I would prefer #2, because with #1 there is extra uncertainty about whether the certificate-issuing process is careful enough, whether the economic incentives really work out to have the effects they're alleged to, etc. Even if you're confident that those things work out OK, #2 just feels more as if you're doing good than #1 does, don't you think?, and for a lot of people that will make a big difference.

People who currently buy humanely-produced eggs usually also buy non-humanely-produced eggs because those are ingridients in various other products they buy. 

You're suggesting that even though (as my last paragraph argues) those persons would prefer to buy individually-humanely-produced eggs, there are situations where that isn't a realistic option and they would buy inhumaneness-offset certificates as the best available alternative? Maybe. I still can't see that being terribly popular, though. Would they go out for a meal, get home, make an estimate of how many eggs were used in the production of the meal, and go and transfer $5.50 to Humane Egg Offsets, Inc.? I mean, maybe they would but I'm guessing that would be rare. More likely is that they estimate how many eggs they consume "indirectly" and make a donation once a year, or something like that. But then the direct association between consuming inhumanely-produced eggs and buying offsets isn't there, which means the system is less responsive to changes in how many eggs people consume, which seems like it makes it work less well.

How many people buy carbon offsets when they do polluting things, and make any sort of serious effort to match their offset-buying to their polluting activities? (I don't know how good an analogy this actually is; my guess is that carbon offsets are less demonstrably effective offsets than these inhuman-egg offsets are intended to be. But they are a thing, and my impression is that to an excellent first-order approximation no individuals buy them, and that seems like it's relevant.)

Yes, people would likely do bulk offsets and not buy them day by day. At something like 4$ per dozen eggs few single meals would amount to $5.50.

According to Wikipedia:

For example, carbon offset vendors offer direct purchase of carbon offsets, often also offering other services such as designating a carbon offset project to support or measuring a purchaser's carbon footprint. In 2016, about $191.3 million of carbon offsets were purchased in the voluntary market, representing about 63.4 million metric tons of CO2e. In 2018 and 2019 the voluntary carbon market transacted 98 and 104 million metric tons of CO2e respectively.

Aren't those $191.3M of carbon offsets almost all being purchased by businesses that do directly CO2-emitting things? That's my impression, though I don't have any actual numbers to back it up or anything. The equivalent of the inhumane-egg-production offsets being proposed here would be carbon offsets bought by consumers.

(Also, although 100M tons of CO2-equivalent sounds like a lot, that's about 1/500 of total annual emissions.)

This is very similar to how the electrical energy market promotes sustainable energy in Europe: Certificates for sustainable generation of energy are traded alongside the actual energy (e.g. wind or solar certificates). Utilities / companies and by extension households can then buy the certificates alongside the energy to fulfil individual sustainability demands.

That concept is successful to a large extend, there is high demand for certain kinds of certificates and a sizeable market has formed around it.

As a side note, wouldn't the easiest fix for this be to genetically modify chickens so they don't mind being crowded?  

How would you want to do that? What genes do you want to change? How do you decide that it's working?

Yeah, I didn't write an answer earlier but my first thought was that it's a classical case of confusing easier/simpler with "I can find a one sentence handle". Not that far from "The gods did it" in terms of hiding the simplicity in language.

The thing is once you decide what suffering means to a chicken - meaning you need to either learn their neuroscience or find a way to determine it from body language - the problem is at least solvable. You would do it the way foxes were tamed - selective breeding with some element of speeding it up by modifying genetics. (Measure if your selection is putting pressure on specific alleles and create gmo chickens with full sets of the alleles)

It's solvable. While asking people to act against their own personal interests isn't.

There's such a thing as goodhards law. Even if you can determine chicken happiness from body language currently, if you optimize for changes in the body language there's a good chance that the result won't be what you really want. 

I agree it's difficult. My point is at least it's possible. Expecting people to collectively take actions against their own personal interests and that of their children (not eating eggs except expensive offset ones) is close to impossible.

CO2 offsetting does show that there's generally a market for offsetting. It won't be done by everyone but it still creates good. Expecting some people to engage in the action seems like a good model.

It won't change the behavior of everyone but as more people move to such eggs politically it becomes easier to increase general standards for treating chickens by law. 

Do you have evidence that co2 offsetting moves the needle in a useful way? I mean are we talking 1 year less warning in 2100?

This is voluntary offsetting where individuals have a cheaper alternative. I drive a prius for the reliability

Carl Shulman wrote a related post here.

I'm sure it's way easier to produce whatever animal product you want in a lab than to genetically modify the animal to not suffer.

An important point (somewhat overlooked in the comments) is that it is not necessary to sell the humane eggs at the same price as factory eggs for this to work. You can start issuing certificates straight away, not changing anything in the distribution process!

It is even better, because it will provide incentive for competition between humane eggs producers. And also, having humane eggs still labeled as "humane", it will help them to drive factory eggs out of the market, by allowing them to have a lower profit margin. In a sense, it is similar to tax reliefs for an industry we want to stimulate, just organized in a perfectly libertarian way.

Put differently, buying eggs only hurt hens via some indirect market effects, and I’m now offsetting my harm at that level before it turns into any actual harm to a hen.

I probably misunderstand but isn't this also true about other offsetting schemes like convincing people to go vegetarian? They also lower demand.

At a minimum they also impose harms on the people who you convinced not to eat meat (since you are assuming that eating meat was a benefit to you that you wanted to pay for).  And of course they make further vegetarian outreach harder . And in most cases they also won't be such a precise an offset, e.g. it will apply to different animal products or at different times or with unclear probability.

That said, I agree that I can offset "me eating an egg" by paying Alice enough that she's willing to skip eating an egg, and in some sense that's an even purer offset than the one in this post.

At a minimum they also impose harms on the people who you convinced not to eat meat (since you are assuming that eating meat was a benefit to you that you wanted to pay for).  And of course they make further vegetarian outreach harder .

  • The primary argument for convincing someone to not eat meat is that the long term costs outweigh the short term benefits, so I'm not sure that you can categorically state that convincing someone to stop eating meat is causing them harm. Sure, they don't get to eat a steak, but the odds of their grandchildren not dying from catastrophic climate collapse go up.
  • If we expected increased outreach and prosletyization from vegetarians to uniformly make further outreach harder, would we expect to see the rapid and exponential growth of vegetarianism (as it seems to be)?

If we expected increased outreach and prosletyization from vegetarians to uniformly make further outreach harder, would we expect to see the rapid and exponential growth of vegetarianism (as it seems to be)?

Is this true? e.g. Gallup shows the fraction of US vegetarians at 6% in 2000 and 5% 2020 (link), so if there is exponential growth it seems like either their numbers are wrong or the growth is very slow.

The primary argument for convincing someone to not eat meat is that the long term costs outweigh the short term benefits, so I'm not sure that you can categorically state that convincing someone to stop eating meat is causing them harm. Sure, they don't get to eat a steak, but the odds of their grandchildren not dying from catastrophic climate collapse go up.

It seems implausible to me that the individual benefits from reducing climate change are comparable to the costs or benefits of diet change over the short term. Even if everyone changing their diet decreased extinction risk by 1% (I think that's implausible, but you could try to tell a story about non-extinction environmental impacts being crazy large), being vegetarian would reduce your grandchildren's probability of death by well under < 1/billion which is completely negligible.

Also, I would guess that on this forum the primary argument for convincing people not to engage with factory farming is the suffering it causes to farm animals.

That said, I think you could argue that if someone decides not to eat meat on reflection and that their previous diet was in error, then in some sense you are doing them a favor by helping them reach that conclusion.

Is this true? e.g. Gallup shows the fraction of US vegetarians at 6% in 2000 and 5% 2020 (link), so if there is exponential growth it seems like either their numbers are wrong or the growth is very slow.

Well the nature of exponential growth includes a long tail, but yes, it does appear that over the past few decades there has been substantial growth in many areas, with the UK reporting 150,000 vegans in 2006 compared to 600,000 vegans in 2018. Additionally, the vegan food industry  "$14.2 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $31.4 billion by 2026, registering a CAGR of 10.5% from 2019 to 2026." That's a really high growth rate - I doubt that there is no other sector of the food industry expanding as rapdily as that, though I can't say for sure.

It seems implausible to me that the individual benefits from reducing climate change are comparable to the costs or benefits of diet change over the short term. Even if everyone changing their diet decreased extinction risk by 1% (I think that's implausible, but you could try to tell a story about non-extinction environmental impacts being crazy large), being vegetarian would reduce your grandchildren's probability of death by well under < 1/billion which is completely negligible.

Culture is a thing, and the decisisons that you express shape the social valuations of the people around you. A single person going against a carnivorous tide will indeed change nothing, but a single person choosing to engage in a wider, growing movement can have substantial knock-on effects. I think you may be underestimating the impact of modern animal agriculture here, I would say that the difference between a timelines that drastically reduces its meat intake would be measureably better environmentally - primarily because it would drastically reduce the land requirements of feeding the world, which would in turn mean we could rewild large parts of it for a lot cheaper. No drastic change means that the freefall collapse of the biosphere continues unabated, whereas change could plausibly improve the situation like I describe.

Wow. This brings me hope we can effectively fight factory farming in the near future. It's just such a good strategy.

I think this form of offsetting is acceptable on a very broad range of moral perspectives (practically any perspective that is comfortable with humane eggs themselves).

Within the EA / adjacent crowd. I suspect a lot of normal people will be averse to egg offsets because "you're still participating in the system".

What would happen if many people tried to use this offsetting strategy?

One additional effect: egg offsets would increase the fungibility of humane eggs (within each certification level). I can imagine this switching the business model of some humane chicken farmers from "find a restaurant willing to buy my eggs at the price it costs me to produce them" to "gain some extra money from humane egg certificates, then sell my eggs in the global egg wholesale market".

IIUC, this exposes the high-welfare egg co to more risk. It's hard to sell 1 million eggs for one price, and 1 million for another price. So they probably have to choose to sell at the low welfare price constantly. But this means they build up a negative balance that they're hoping ethical consumers will buy them out of.

It's hard to sell 1 million eggs for one price, and 1 million for another price.

Are you sure this is the case? It's common for B2B transactions to feature highly customised and secret pricing and discounts. And in this case they're not selling the same product from the customer's point of view: one buyer gets a million ethical eggs, while another gets a million ordinary (from their point of view) eggs.

Not sure at all! It still seems like the ordering is tricky. They don't know how many ethical eggs they've sold when selling towards the consumer. There's not a guarantee of future ethical eggs when buying the certificate.

Maybe it works out OK, and they can sell 873,551 eggs at a regular price after that many certificates were bought, and the rest at the higher price. I know very little about how the food supply chain works

I think the largest issue with the general concept of moral fungibility is the following:

  • Moral consequences cannot be reliably predicted - "what if that chicken solved cancer" is an obviously spurious but relevant example.
  • Moral consequences cannot be reversed - one cannot make chickens out of chicken nuggets, and new chickens are not the same as the old ones.
  • Morality does not necessarily sum - "two wrongs do not make a right" - I cannot necessarily justify the torture of billions through the ectasy of other billions.
  • Most people optimize for price, not morality - anyone with the financial capacity and moral freedom to not buy the cheapest or most available eggs is probably already doing so.

The "free-range chicken" scenario does place some nice constraints on this. The slaughter of a single chicken may never be the thing which prevents a medical miracle. Though, at the same time, I very much doubt that the original architects of the poultry market foresaw the long-term consequences of rapid growth, for instance in ecological damage.

But I think the final point is the most significant - you are substantially increasing (doubling!) the number of decisions I need to make when buying an egg. An average person's default response to any new, non-impactful choice is going to be "no". Anyone who has a moral system within which they do buy an offset would probably already be seeking to minimise their ecological impact. The issue is not people being unwilling to minimise their impact - it is that minimizing their impact is not the optimal solution. So, this system would likely just preach to the choir and not really substantially impact the amount of damage we're doing to our world. Anyone who cares enough to alter their decision already is - so if you want to have more people care more, then you need to make those decisions easier, not harder.