The sustainability of meat

There is an excellent post over at Offsetting Behaviour discussing the reasons why people go vegetarian, and discussing the separation of moral and allocative issues that lead to this choice.  The way I see it, there are three main reasons why a person may go vegetarian – these can be mixed and matched of course, they aren’t mutually independent.

  1. The person has an eating disorder
  2. The person gains disutility from eating a dead animal/causing the death of an animal
  3. The person gains disutility from the view that, given current institutions, the consumption of meat is unsustainable/damaging – specifically that the choice to eat meat lowers the lifetime welfare of future generations.
  4. Update:  Health, I forgot health – some people do it for health reasons.

Now I have recently gone vegetarian myself.  My reasoning was the second one.  This is strange given things I have previously said, I know –  implicitly I do believe that if the animal only lives because it is going to be consumed, and that the life it lives is a good one, then it is morally right to eat the animal.

However, I am viciously time inconsistent.  When it comes to the final stage of the animals life where it must die, I can’t handle the personal disutility I gain from the idea that the animal died to feed me.  As a result of my selfish choice not to eat meat, the animals I would have consumed never get to live those beautiful free-range lives that they deserved.  Not to worry though. See it here first.

Anyway, I haven’t come here to discuss myself, I’ve come here to discuss the sustainability issue.

Is meat consumption sustainable in our finite world?

Lets note something down here.  Prices represent scarcity, as long as the “price is right” the consumption of meat is perfectly sustainable.  As Eric says:

There’s no need for a moral imperative to reduce meat-eating. Get rid of subsidies in the agricultural sector, make sure effluent externalities are properly priced or regulated, then let relative price adjustments take care of the rest. The optimal amount of meat will be eaten, so long as we keep waving our hands about the moral questions.

However, people who do not eat meat on these grounds have exactly the same argument.  They would say:

  • Meat is subsidised.
  • Externalities are not priced, regulation is not appropriate.
  • We discount the future too strongly, relative to what we believe is morally right.

Given these sets of factors people turn around and say “what can I do”.  With the price too low, there is a relative overconsumption of meat, an overutilization of land into the production of meat, an excessive degradation of the environment.  In this context, it is completely consistent of people to say they will go vegetarian to deal with it – however, instead of complaining about the unsustainability of meat in of itself, it might be better that they say that the “price is wrong”. If you want to learn about how meat is stored for being sold and to be transported, get more information from this new blog post.

I would argue that governments should come together and ensure that the worst of these issues are fixed, namely that subsidises on agricultural production are removed.  Then these people can get back to enjoying the consumption of meat, knowing that the higher price they are paying represents truly sustainable practices.

14 replies
    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      Given my inability to measure their subjective satisfaction, or observe whether they truly have free choice, I have to rely on introspection to judge whether their actions make sense.

      In such a situation, I would still infer that death leads to a net cost (even if it is not actually the case), and so would be unable to force myself to allow it.

      And as a result, my time inconsistency and poorly informed beliefs would lead to this animal not getting a happy life or a happy death – I should really feel ashamed, but given that I try to be an economist I also don’t have feelings.

        • Matt Nolan
          Matt Nolan says:

          Must be making up for my lack of children.

          More seriously, I’m not saying that these are the things I want to do – I’m just trying to frame the argument in a way where we can have common ground with vegetarians, so that we can then clearly figure out where the differences of opinion are 😉

  1. Eric Crampton
    Eric Crampton says:

    More seriously: yours is an argument for avoiding meat products where we can be pretty sure the price is wrong. It’s a better argument for shifting from dairy to lamb than for shifting from meat to vegetables.

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      I do not disagree per see – however, I would say that is consistent with revealed actions.

      Many people give up red meat solely, moving towards only eating white meat and vegetables on the back of this very allocative issue.  Furthermore, some people may make the choice without understanding the full magnitude of any misallocation – and so the decision to go vegetarian can be seen as rational given limited information.

      As I say in my post, I didn’t go vegetarian on the basis of sustainability – in fact, I generally don’t agree with sustainability arguments, which is why I wanted to reframe this one to think about where issues where prices could exist, and thereby put them in perspective.

      This is an issue many people feel strongly about, which is fine, I see the arguments we have both made as putting this issue in context rather than disagreeing with them in any sense.

  2. Luis
    Luis says:

    I’d suggest that the amount of subsidies in the NZ situation is fairly minimal (at least when compared to European and North American standards); we just happen to rely on lower input systems and more energy efficient animals. Nevertheless, there could be two issues that are underpriced: water and effluents.

    I suspect that even when pricing them appropriately meat would still be affordable for many people. I’d say bring that medium-rare steak, squeamish boy. 

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      “I’d suggest that the amount of subsidies in the NZ situation is fairly minimal”

      Indeed, but the price of meat is largely set due to global prices, which are influenced by subsidies in Europe and the United States.  As a result, we can still say that they are underpriced in a global sense.

      “I suspect that even when pricing them appropriately meat would still be affordable for many people.”

      Indeed, but I suspect that the quantity of meat consumed would be lower – indicating that there is indeed an issue of allocation here.  As someone who cares deeply about economics this is an essential issue 😉

  3. Seamus Hogan
    Seamus Hogan says:


    As a general rule, I think it foolish for anyone to adjust their behaviour out of some categorical imperative motivation to make their choices based on what would be their personal optimum if prices refelcted all relevant scarcity information, including externalities. The reason for this is the impossibility of the environmentalist calculation; you have just as much chance of moving things in the wrong direction, given the impossibility or calculating just what equilibrium prices would be if all distortions were removed.

    That aside, welcome to the reason #2 club.

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      I agree with you 100% of course, I think that the same respect for inherent uncertainty needs to be taken into consideration when setting government policy as well.

      However, I think if people hold a true belief that the price of something understates its scarcity, it is a justifiable moral position to in turn cut their consumption of that product relative to what they would have consumed without holding that belief.  I see it as akin to a personal preference more than anything else.  My concern is not with the fact that they hold this position – it is with the fact that some people may try to force their moral preference on others.

  4. Gael
    Gael says:

    There is, of course, a fifth reason, which in part arises from your post: Meat is too expensive.

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      I would say that this depends on the definition of vegetarianism you are using.  If the definition is that, at the current price, the person consumes no meat then that fifth reason does hold.

      However, I see explicit vegetarianism as suggesting that a person would not eat meat even if it was provided for them for free – it is not just having zero consumption, but making it an explicit constraint.

  5. Robert
    Robert says:

    Many people feel it’s a moral issue and that they are doing harm to an animal. But we have eaten meat since the dawn of time. That seems to be the most common reason to me.

  6. Przepisy
    Przepisy says:

    All vege-persons I know dont want to eat meat because of ethical reasons. Price is not the factor here. Using economic POV I can suggest one important thing: we can “product” more calories with meat production than plants, so it is cheaper to product valuable food (calories+vitamines).

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