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The Economics of Vegetarianism

Over the past several years the costs associated with eating meat have become increasingly known to the world, as numerous studies have demonstrated its toll not just on individual health but on our environment. As both a recent convert to the mere 3% of Americans who consider themselves vegetarian in some form and a soon-to-be graduate student in economics, I felt an economic evaluation of the ramifications of vegetarian (and/or vegan) diets for both the individual and society as a whole would be a fruitful discussion to be had. This article is intended to be as objective and fact-based as possible, seeking to explore the costs and benefits faced by people or nations considering reducing their consumption of animals.

Let’s begin at the individual level and build up. Anyone who has ever done their own grocery shopping knows that one of the priciest items on their list will be the meat they choose to center their meal around. In fact, research by Bailey Norwood and Jayson Lusk found that “obtaining a gram of protein from the cheapest meat product is 3.26 times more costly than obtaining a gram of protein from the most expensive plant-based product…These cost differences are remarkable when you consider that suggested daily protein intake is about 100 grams”. Thus feeding your family on a budget can actually be more financially sustainable if your diet focuses on plant-based protein sources opposed to animal alternatives. Furthermore, research conducted by Johns Hopkins University has found strong correlations between excessive consumption of processed and red meats and “heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers”. Thus reduced meat consumption may also lower health care costs for individuals. Both of these arguments seem to suggest a vegetarian diet is more economical for households looking to reduce spending on food and health costs.

Moving beyond the household level, plant-based diets have been found to be more productively efficient than their animal-based counterparts in producing the necessary nutrients at not only a lower price but with fewer resources. The meat industry is notorious for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, and a report by the World Preservation Foundation predicted that a global vegan diet would reduce dietary emissions by 87%, this is compared to 8% from switching to “sustainable meat and dairy” alternatives. Thus on a larger scale vegetarianism would seem to be more efficient in feeding a growing global population with finite resources. In fact, if the entire planet consumed 25% of their caloric intake from animal products, it is predicted only 3.2 billion people could be adequately fed. Several reports have also argued the inefficiencies of meat-intensive diets as it can take as much as “7kg of grain to make 1kg of beef”, however, it is worth noting that outside of the U.S. such grain-intensive beef production is a rarity. The argument for efficient land use is stronger, as according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture using an acre of land could yield 20 pounds of usable protein if cattle are raised on it for beef production, or 356 pounds if soybeans were grown there instead.

Lastly, in Norwood & Lusk’s research they also looked at the relationship between plant and animal production. As corn, wheat, and soybeans are all extensively used in animal feed in the U.S., a sudden fall in meat consumption would likely reduce demand for these crops (as the associated increase in human consumption is likely to be insufficient to cover the now forgone demand from animal agriculture) and subsequently reduce prices of said crops for consumers. The fall in corn, soybean, and wheat demand may also have knock-on effects on the use of fertilizers and pesticides that can be harmful to the environment as well as local flora and fauna.

So it would seem that vegetarianism (or veganism) would be more affordable for individual households, and would feed more people more protein more efficiently, all the while reducing the speed of climate change and reducing individuals’ chances of disease. This all sounds like a glowing recommendation for the global population to change its lifestyle, particularly in richer nations where meat consumption is highest; however, there are also a number of costs associated with a wide-scale switch away from meat consumption. Firstly, as a student of economics, the possibility must be considered that consumers know these potential costs or benefits, but choose to consume meat regardless. To rationalize this, consumers may derive so much utility from consuming meat and other animal products that any associated costs are worth bearing. This could very well be the case, as many meat eaters who have been exposed to documentaries about environmentalism, factory farms, or diet still choose to eat meat at their regular levels. On a global scale, as the developing world becomes richer, dietary data has demonstrated that with increasing wealth these nations are only more likely to adapt a taste for Western meat-heavy diets.

In the earlier cited research by Norwood & Lusk, they reference some of the potential efficiency gains derived from the consumption of meat. Firstly, though grain-fed meat agriculture is largely inefficient and many more people could be fed by direct consumption of these grains, animals such as cows or pigs have the unique ability to turn inedible materials such as grass into protein that humans can consume. Furthermore, animals do not require the same high-quality productive land which plants do, so utilizing marginal acres for animal agriculture may actually boost the total efficiency of land use. In addition, there have been many who have voiced environmental concerns with certain vegetarian diets. As an article by The Guardian points out, vegetarians who eat lots of imported vegetables that are shipped from all over the world may be less green than “selective omnivores” who eat predominantly locally sourced foods.

There are certainly both costs and benefits of converting to a vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, or vegan diet, but through my brief research into the matter it seems that plant-rich diets are often better for your wallet and for the planet. Plant-based protein sources will use productive land more efficiently than animal agriculture and take less of a toll on the environment. However, using lower-quality land for animal grazing and focusing on locally sourced food sources can also increase the efficiency of land use and reduce carbon emissions. So it would seem that the best diet, economically speaking, is one with less animal products than today’s standard Western diet, but not a strictly vegan one, with emphasis on increased education about the source of our food and its associated costs.

Image License: Some rights reserved by Penn State

About Michael Swistara

Michael graduated from McGill University in 2015 with a double major in political science and economics, and currently attends Columbia University where he is pursuing a master's degree. As former Editor-in-Chief of the Political Bouillon, Michael continues to occasionally contribute articles on his favorite topics, including American politics, economic policy, and foreign affairs.

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