Do non-human animals benefit from economic growth?
October 5 2022
Jerico Fiestas Flores
Different economists have theorized how economic growth affects human wellbeing. Academics usually analyze, for instance, whether an increase in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is related to higher education levels or lower poverty rates. Although this debate is not new, few have analyzed whether non-human animals can benefit from a blossoming economy.
In the case of human animals, Kuznets (1955)  was the first to suggest a relationship between GDP per capita and inequality. He made the case that these two indicators have an inverse U shape relationship, implying that inequality in a country will increase until a tipping point where industrialization would help redistribute the income. This relationship was later named the Kuznets Curve, and despite the criticisms it has received, economists have used this approach to study how economic growth affects other problems, such as environmental degradation  and biodiversity conservation .
In the case of non-human animals (NHA), Frank (2008)  has argued that the Kuznets relationship also applies to animal welfare. He claims that the harm suffered by NHA will first increase due to economic growth, as more of them are demanded for meat or entertainment, but will eventually decrease after a tipping point, due to better treatment through the adoption of animal welfare legislation and thanks to public concern. He has called this relationship the Animal Welfare Kuznets Curve (AWKC), and since the publication of his article, various authors have tested its existence using different methods. So far, the findings are mixed; while some argue that the AWKC exists by analyzing simple correlations, others using more rigorous methods argue that the AWKC is present only in certain sectors (i.e., leisure, experimentation) or regions. 
The existence of the AWKC could prove particularly important for chickens, pigs and cows as they represent the biggest population of farmed land animals (88% in 2018).  Their global population has increased by 79% in average between 1990 and 2018, about twice the rate of human population over the same period (43%). If the AWKC exists, these three species could experience higher levels of welfare after the economy reaches a certain point. Analyzing the AWKC could also help to provide suggestions regarding all NHA used in the food sector.
The main difficulty now to test the AWKC hypothesis for NHA used in the food sector seems to be the lack of standard measurements for animal welfare around the world. For this reason, most studies use the global number of NHA slaughtered annually to determine if the AWKC exists.  Additionally, there is no study to date considering the suffering of NHA used in milk or egg production, although dairy cows and laying hens are exploited for longer periods of time than cows and chickens used for meat production. Cows are slaughtered for meat production when they are 2.5 to 3.5 years old, while dairy cows are used for an average of 5 years to “produce” milk before being slaughtered. In the case of chickens, those transformed into meat are slaughtered at 5 to 7 weeks, while laying hens are exploited for 2 to 3 years.
Considering these limitations, I have tested the existence of the AWKC using data from the FAO and the World Bank about GDP per capita, slaughtered animals (chickens, cows and pigs), dairy cows, laying hens and meat consumption, in 24 countries for a period of 48 years (1970 to 2018). Preliminary results show that there is no evidence of the AWKC regarding any of the used indicators (i.e. number of slaughtered animals, number of exploited animals, meat production, per capita consumption), meaning that economic growth might not benefit NHA used and slaughtered for food production.
My analysis shows that between 1970 and 2018, the number of slaughtered animals increased by 220%, while meat production (in tonnes) grew by 357%. This indicates that meat production became more efficient because more meat was produced per animal slaughtered. The exact same happened in the case of each exploited species of NHA regarding production (i.e. dairy cows, laying hens). Chickens used to “produce meat” show the highest growth over time (427%), followed by laying hens (230%). Furthermore, I did not find a reduction in the per capita consumption of pork, poultry, milk and eggs, which all presented positive growth rates. The only “product” which consumption decreased over time is cow meat (-8%). However, as the number of slaughtered cows has not decreased, this result implies that, in the analyzed countries, cow meat exports have increased while internal consumption has decreased.
These preliminary results show that economic growth does not necessarily result in improving animal welfare, at least when using slaughtered animals and per capita meat consumption as the main indicators for analysis. This calls for a transition to alternative protein systems to reduce the need for animal products and to avoid the negative environmental effects associated with industrial farming. Current food systems depend heavily on crops to feed animals, which cause deforestation and land degradation in the Amazon. Additionally, high concentrations of animals in factory farms increase the risk of zoonotic transmission and pandemics, and are great source of environmental pollution.
To stop our dependence on animal protein and animal suffering in the food production sector globally, new production systems have to be developed. The plant-based protein industry is less demanding in natural resources (i.e. land, water) and does not cause direct harm to animals, as they are not part of the production chain. The alternative is the production of animal protein in laboratories by using stem cells and novel procedures. Called “cultured” or “in-vitro meat”, the only part of the process directly involving living animals is when the stem cells are extracted. Although this procedure is quite recent, it could be the best alternative for humans who are not willing to adopt a plant-based diet. Both systems could complement each other to put an end to the harmful use and killing of animals for food and its multiple negative externalities for humans, fellow animals and the planet.
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