Going vegetarian?

A friend of mine who is passionately vegetarian pointed me to this report as a good economic reason to eschew meat:

…two World Bank environmental advisers claim that instead of 18 per cent of global emissions being caused by meat, the true figure is 51 per cent.

So am I thinking about becoming vegetarian since meat is known to be more costly than I previously thought? Of course not. As tempting as it is to see these things in black and white, it’s very unlikely that the cost of meat will ever get high enough that we cease to eat it. Rather people will substitute away from eating as much meat as the price rises.

At present we don’t have to pay the social cost of meat so we overconsume it. From a moral perspective I may then choose to eat less meat than I otherwise would. It’s even possible that, because I don’t know the true cost but presume it to be extremely high, that I’d employ the heuristic of becoming vegetarian. However, I wouldn’t feel bad about eating a steak at Christmas if I did turn (mostly) vegetarian.

Studies like this really reinforce what we talk about constantly on the blog here: it’s very difficult to accurately guess what the morally right thing to do is. Without price mechanisms to guide us we fall back on rules of thumb that probably do a pretty poor job in many situations.

NB: I see Eric Crampton goes on about much the same thing in a few posts. If there’s one thing economists all agree on it’s the importance of prices!

  • I prefer conscious awareness AND price signals. Price alone can remain low until the resource in question is almost completely exhausted. Fish stocks crashing is a good example: Losta fish, lotsa fish, lotsa fish…..no fish. By which time it takes years to recover….and the waste and dislocation was completely avoidable.

    I eat meat. Like you, I don’t plan to stop. But I do eat less and what I do eat tends more and more often to not be red meat. Anyone with even a tiny patch of ground could raise a couple of chooks / month for the dinner table. Buying fertilised eggs and letting them hatch is all that is required. Not as efficient as factory poultry, but that product is being adulterated with all manner of injections to the point where I don’t want to buy it at any price.

    I don’t have to.

    I won’t be raising sheep or pigs or cattle in town, but a half-dozen hens for eggs and the odd roast is certainly do-able.

    In the years ahead, I suspect more people will, once they get over killing to eat. Even a n00b can take the head off a chicken and have it cleaned and dressed in well under an hour.

    Maybe I should start a consultancy.

  • steve

    isn’t this about climate change and how meat production causes emissions? in particular more emissions than a vege only diet.

    I don’t see how raising chickens yourself, instead of purchasing them helps. In fact it is worse for climate change because it probably takes longer to produce the same ammount of food as purchasing chickens from a chicken farmer/supermarket.

  • Moz


    Steve, it’s about what the chickens eat and how they’re processed. If you’re raising your own they’re likely to eat a lot of your food scraps as well as bought food, and the marginal transport cost will probably go down. It’s hard to tell, because right now urban chicken keepers tend to be greenie type who already have low footprints (and often the food scraps come from the vege garden where the manure goes, making for a very short transport loop). Someone driving out of Auckland to a rural supplier to buy organic chicken food is right at the other end of the spectrum and even analysing the result is tricky, let alone predicting it.

    There’s also hassles with allocating emissions – a simple example is us dumpster diving for compost. Do we say that that is a zero-emission acquisition because it’s a waste product for the shop, we use bikes to get it and it would otherwise be trucked away to landfill; or do we count our compost pro-rata into the total emissions of the shop? The same thing applies to chickens fed on food scraps – are those scraps zero-valued, positive or negative?

  • Very interesting post, one day we will all have to pay for the social costs that we currently ignore. We do pay these costs though in the form of things such as the public lands use law from the 1890’s.

  • Maybe it is different in NZ but in the states, if we liken the rise in the cost of meat to the rise in the cost of gas, here is how it will go… People will not eat less meat. They will just complain more about the price! Well, this is what the really hard core meat and potato eaters will do. People who are a little more conscious will begin to seek out alternatives like hybrid burgers which would be like a half meat, half veggie patty.

    Seriously, on the moral issue, yes, the debate could go in several different directions. Here in California we have so much agriculture and there is a big “buy local” movement. But then there is the fact that we also have a major water shortage, so the debate here has begun as to whether it is better to actually buy the avocados that come from NZ. Good avocados, by the way! It is worse if you look at it through the lens of environmental affects of food transportation. But through the lens of a water shortage, maybe California shouldn’t be producing quite so much at this time. It would be great if there was an iPhone app that could be used at the grocery store to calculate these factors and definitively state the best option. I’m sure this is in the works!