The Economics of Vegetarianism

Meat-eaters vs everyone else

Humans are omnivores. This is an indisputable fact, that is largely a constant across time and space. Equally constant is the antagonism between the meat eaters and vegetarians. In the Judeo-Christian tradition spawning from the Old Testament the line: “to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb” (Genesis 1:30) has been interpreted either as “every green herb and nothing else” or “among other things”. Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, which all postulate some form of reincarnation, frown on consuming potential ancestors. On the other hand, meat was seen as a symbol of plenty and status. Thence, now, being cheaply available it can be consumed on almost every occasion.

The aim of this article would be to examine potential benefits and costs of vegetarianism and reduction in the consumption of meat, not from the biological, or even ethical standpoint but pure economic cost efficiency.

Cheap eats

It has been found that it is much less costly to produce nutrients (i.e., calories and protein) from some plant-based sources compared to animal-based sources. For every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of animal protein produced, animals consume an average of almost 6 kilogram of plant protein from grains and forage. However, not all plants are cheap to produce, particularly fruits and vegetables. The production of such foods requires high-quality, productive land. One benefit of livestock production is that cattle, hogs, and chickens can be produced on relatively unproductive land. There are certain types of land that can support only livestock production, with cattle having the ability to produce meat and milk from materials like grasses and forages that would be otherwise inedible to humans. Also, many crops go through a significant transformation before being consumed. If such processing is also associated with greater pollution the environmental benefits of some types of plant-based food consumption are less than if we take into account the food processing.

An important consideration has to be made though, interlinking with ethical standpoint. It is much easier and indeed more humanitarian to experiment and develop more productive plants, than it is animals. A recent crop of Silicon Valley-funded startups are trying to change the way people eat. The idea of making animal-protein-plants is attracting entrepreneurs and venture-capital firms who think that the traditional food industry is ripe for disruption because it is inefficient, inhumane and in need of an overhaul. Examples include a vegetarian hamburger patty that bleeds, meatless chicken strips with the same fleshy and fibrous texture as cooked poultry, mayonnaise made without eggs that is creamy and smooth.

However, a reduction in prices and production of crops and livestock implies reduced revenues to the farm sector. Meat production is a value added enterprise; it takes plants like corn, soybeans, and grass, and converts them into a more valuable item like ground beef and pork chops. A reduction in this activity would imply loss of employment. Conversely such a shift would negatively impact corn producers, as large-scale adoption of vegetarianism will result in a decrease in the value for their product, especially corn and soybeans. These economic impacts can be significant in the short run, and devastating for some families. Adding to this is the fact, that the public cares more about the financial well-being of farmers than farm animal welfare, so policies promoting vegetarianism may confront additional political obstacles when the public begins to associate vegetarianism with financial hardships in the farm sector.

The biggest issue in this debate is that meat is seen as the most valuable food. For much of our history, meat was scarce, a luxury and a symbol of affluence. Now, that it is readily available, why should we abandon it? This proves a difficulty to advocates of promoting mass vegetarianism. However, customer preferences would change once people became accustomed to the vegetarian lifestyle. For example, the producers of the iconic breakfast classic- cereal, are experiencing a loss of revenue, as more and more people become aware of potential downsides of high carbohydrate diet. Sales of Frosted Flakes, Kellog’s No. 1 brand, fell 4.5 percent. Frosted Mini-Wheats declined by 5 percent. Children raised in a culture free of meat or animal product consumption may acquire different tastes as well.

Balanced diet

Ultimately it seems, that a healthy balance needs to be found. We do not realize what purely plant-based agriculture would look like. Would it be dominated by genetically modified food, full of pesticides or much more natural and organic? However, there is a strong case to be made for the adoption of vegetarianism. Not only can we be healthier (largely agreed on medical truism), but we could potentially gain a cost advantage and a less polluted planet. All that if we simply consider going veggie.

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