January 27, 2008

Report: Meat is Economic Murder

IN TODAY'S EDITIONS of The New York Times, food writer Mark Bittman -- who is a genius at cookery -- takes a look at the economics of meat. It may seem an odd subject to tackle, but Mr Bittman argues that Americans could soon change their views on the idea of eating meat for myriad reasons:

A sea change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store — something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil.

It’s meat.

The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally — like oil — meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

I can't do justice to Mr Bittman's article through excerpts, so I would encourage you all to read it in full. That said, the summary points of Mr Bittman's essay are as follows -- the world's annual meat supply now stands at 284 million tons, and world meat consumption is expected to double again through 2050. However, raising animals for meet is energy inefficient, particularly when it comes to grain-fed cattle. More meat production will mean a higher demand for corn and soya feed, thus potentially impacting production of food crops:

Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.

This will be inconvenient for citizens of wealthier nations, but it could have tragic consequences for those of poorer ones, especially if higher prices for feed divert production away from food crops. The demand for ethanol is already pushing up prices, and explains, in part, the 40 percent rise last year in the food price index calculated by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization.

But these problems could be avoided, Mr Bittman writes, if people were to realize the supposed horrible effects of industrial farming. As he put it, "If price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals."

That, of course, would rely on people seeing meat production as a problem. One doubts that most Americans will ever see that as the case. As prima facie evidence of this, I point to the impassioned lament of Mr Randy Taylor, a resident of the southern United States. Mr Taylor, as readers may recall, was quite aggrieved at news the makers of his favorite breakfast sausage had reduced their product sizes; so much so, that he called the company and left a profanity-filled complaint.

Given that, I don't even want to think how regular Americans would react if the nation's beef supply suddenly contracted and sent prices spiraling, and God help us if anything happened to the nation's critical supply of bacon. One can imagine folks would be pretty upset. But that doesn't mean they would change their habits. This is because most Americans see meat as a vital part of their diet, and the availability of it is more important than ancillary factors such as how the meat was raised, or whether growth hormones were used, and so on. Along those lines, if prices went up, people would still buy meat -- maybe of lower quality, maybe not as much -- but they'd still buy a lot of it.

For concerns about supposed animal cruelty and similar issues are chiefly the province of the upper and upper-middle classes, who can afford to feel guilty about their consumption. As such, they will pay extra to avoid feeling guilty about eating Wilbur the pig, who was cruelly slaughtered after a nasty, brutal and short life in some wretched, godforsaken industrial hog farm in South Carolina. But most Americans would not spare a second thought for the poor beast; they would rather dig in to the succulent, life-sustaining barbecue created from it.

Now let's look at the developing world, which Mr Bittman argues will be most at risk from increasing meat production, due to increases in the prices of corn and soybeans, which are used in feed.

I have my doubts that poorer countries would experience the "tragic results" Mr Bittman implies could result from ever-greater meat production. Yes, food prices are going up. Yes, many folks in the developing world are upset about this. That doesn't translate to famine and mass starvation.

It could, of course, if there was a price shock for all food staples. But what will most likely happen is that people will lower their consumption of certain high-priced foods (i.e., corn) accordingly and/or switch to lower-cost staples. We've already seen this in Mexico, where the poor are having a rough go of it due to high corn prices. For many poor Mexicans, the corn-based tortilla is their staple food, and corn now stands at $5 per bushel. I don't know what tortillas go for now in Mexico, but they had been going for between $1.36 and $1.81 per kilo last year. That was very expensive compared to historical standards, and that was when corn prices were not as high as they are now.

But is meat production behind this price rise? I haven't seen any indication it has had anything to do with the price shock in corn -- rather, ethanol production seems to be the real culprit. On the consumer end, the high price of oil also undoubtedly has helped push prices higher -- it takes oil to ship the stuff.

Quite frankly, when you take the combined effects of these two factors, would more meat production really have much of an impact in comparison? Not enough to make me think twice about ordering a steak.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at January 27, 2008 10:11 AM | TrackBack
Post a comment

Remember personal info?