April 15, 2008

The (Horrible, Dystopian) Future is Now

OH, GREAT. According to no less a source than The New York Times, the first-ever international conference on the artificial manufacture of meat is taking place in Norway. The symposium will look at the idea of growing various forms of meat -- basically, all the good ones we all enjoy -- in vats. Yes, vats. Apparently, this process is now being tested on the laboratory scale, and so it may not be much longer before we're harvesting hamburger meat out of tanks.

The Times man who wrote the story -- it was actually a blog post -- worries whether the Earth of 2050 can sustain an increasingly-wealthy population of some nine billion people while still enjoying succulent, wonderful meat. This has attracted bunches of comments, which can be generalized as follows, viz.

1. There are too many people. Having too many people is bad.
2. People shouldn't eat meat because it is wasteful and inefficient.
3. But why don't meat eaters turn vegetarian and enjoy life-sustaining meat substitutes?

Generally speaking, these complaints are pretty easy to answer.

Regarding the first point, those who believe the Earth is dangerously overpopulated can themselves easily take concrete and immediate steps to help reduce the population. True, the particular long-term solution of which I speak is contrary to God's law, but it is the most effective step in reducing one's impact on the planet. However, should that prove unpalatable, one could always get a vasectomy.

Regarding the second point, arguing that meat production is wasteful and inefficient is a non sequitur. It is only wasteful and inefficient if one lives in a giant fantasy land where everyone does one's bidding -- you know, kind of like the Soviet Union, but with no famine. Here on planet Earth, however, one could argue that beef is actually a better value for the consumer because he is paying less of a markup compared to say, corn. No, really. Hear me out on this.

Right now, wholesale beef is running about $143 per cwt (that is, 100 lbs). That works out to a wholesale price of about $1.43 per pound. When shipped, delivered and ground up, the end consumer may pay between $3 or $4 for his pound of ground hamburger. Although corn is cheaper -- it costs $6.06 per bushel or so, which works out to 11 cents per pound -- the markup is greater: a 4.4 lb. bag of corn meal will run you $2.34, or 53 cents per pound. Thus, your end markup for beef is about 200 pc or so, whereas the end markup for corn meal is about twice that. Plus, if you buy beef, you get tasty, succulent beef, and not corn, which is good for tortillas and chips but not much else. One thing the eco-economists forget is that Foodstuff A does not automatically equal Foodstuff B.

Regarding the third point, a major reason meat-eaters like myself do not switch to meat substitutes is that the meat substitutes aren't, well, meat. They don't taste like it, they don't feel like it, and they sure as heck don't fill one up like it. I know this because I was occasionally subjected to meatless cafeteria nights in college, and this exercise taught me that animal protein is important for my well-being. True, I could survive on meat substitutes -- at least one of which is actually grown in a tank -- but I'd prefer not to do so.

As for the fourth point ... well, we haven't much reason to worry about Soylent Green anytime soon. Nor, for that matter, do we have to worry about meat production. Although hardly anyone on the Times' message boards figured it out, the solution to all these matters is based in economics -- just as it has been in the past.

You see, we already know what happens when growing populations face limited food resources -- the rich get the choice stuff and the poor do not. The economic historian Fernand Braudel demonstrated this very well when he looked at the grim Iron Century (1550-1650) and compared this to Europe a couple of centuries earlier -- when the population was severely reduced thanks to the Great Pestilence. After the Plague, there was plenty of food for everyone, especially meat and dairy products; by the Iron Century, yon peasants were subsisting on bread and a few turnips.

Thus, we do not need to worry about meat production because we will eventually reach a productivity peak with it, and supply-and-demand will take care of the rest. Already meat production is growing at just 1.7 pc per year (4.7 million metric tons, according to the Times, on production of 270 million tonnes). Although one could expect more meat production to start up as the price rises, eventually it will come to a head as the costs of inputs for growing it rise accordingly. The price will then rise, and people will seek alternate substitutes -- like ground salmon, or chicken, or even meat grown in a frickin' vat -- as a result.

Incidentally, I've found my diet has changed over the past year or so -- I am eating far less meat and a good deal more chicken and fish. In part, this is because my desire for glorious meat has abated, and I'm definitely finding the economic value in fish. Why, I picked up a one-pound bag of farmed-raised smoked salmon trim for like $6 at the store, and when you figure that works out to like $1.50 per meal, there's little reason to go buy ground beef, which is clearly inferior to smoked salmon. Et voila, you can see the invisible hand working already.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at April 15, 2008 09:06 PM | TrackBack
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