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Eat Less Meat

The British government wants to “eradicate undernutrition globally”. It has a department for it. This can not be good. There is also a committee of MPs who have released a report.

There is an argument in the report that since the population is expected, by Benny Dembitzer as far as I can tell, to increase to 9.3 billion people by 2050, and since consumption of meat is increasing, that there is going to be a general food shortage. Meat is singled out for being an inefficient use of resources. From the report:

Simply urging the Western world to stop consuming meat is neither feasible nor desirable. Moreover, nor is it necessary: meat production based on pasture-fed systems (e.g. pasture-fed cattle), as opposed to the mass production of grain-fed livestock, is markedly less problematic.(69) The Food Ethics Council therefore suggests a ‘less but better’ approach, with meat promoted as a occasional product rather than an everyday staple.(70)

Note that the Food Ethics Council is funded mostly by the Joseph Rowntree and Esmee Fairbairn charitable trusts. Even private organisations can be wrong.

So why is pasture livestock “less problematic” than grain-fed? Note 69 points to question 62, part of a series of testimonials which seem to make up most of the evidence used to make the report. I’ll highlight the most fun bits.

Q62 Fiona O’Donnell [committee member]: Finally, as carnivores, can we keep consuming meat in the way that we are? It is probably a rhetorical question.

Tim Lang [Professor of Food Policy, City University, London]: Is the “we” here? Do you mean us?

Fiona O’Donnell: Yes.

Tim Lang: The rich world, no. Let me be very hard, and I will speak now as a public health man. The case or reducing meat consumption in the West from our astronomic levels is overwhelming; it is a public health gain if you reduce it. The report that I led and that Oxford University and others fed into, on food security and sustainability and on sustainable diets, showed that there is a win-win for the environment and for public health if you reduce our meat consumption. It is not meat qua meat; it is processed meat. The evidence there is getting stronger and stronger.

Camilla Toulmin [Director, International Institute for Environment and Development]: It is also intensive livestock production.

Tim Lang: Exactly. You will get agreement from us. In our world, the three of us and the previous panel, we are worried about this assumption that 50% of grain or 40% of grain to the world must be diverted down the throats of animals to then give us meat. There are cases when that can be useful, depending on the climate. To factor in a meat engine, which is like a juggernaut driving our definition of what a good food system is, is crazy. It is a crazy use of resources, it is crazy economics and it is crazy public health.

Andrew Dorward [Professor of Development Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies]: Can I just add two things to that? Firstly, I would broaden it to livestock production. For example, butter is not very good for us either and eating too much cheese makes for the same sorts of problems. In terms of livestock production, it is basically the consumption of grains in intensive systems that is bad. Where you have more extensive systems, where you have pastoral systems and where you have more extensive upland systems in the UK, it is a different argument. For the intensive grain systems, the health and the environment, the food security and the water demand arguments are really overwhelming.

It is mostly incoherent ranting. Are they arguing for less intensive farming of animals to solve the problem of too much meat consumption, or something else? I’ll see how far I can get by assuming that this is about using resources in the most efficient way.

It seems to me that if people are hungry they will start to bid up the price of grain and stop buying meat anyway and that the problem will solve itself. I am not sure why pasture livestock is preferable. I suspect it is even less efficient than grain livestock, assuming all land is equal. It may be that grain for humans is always more efficient than grain for animals, however since there is land that is not suitable for grain that might as well, in that case, be used for livestock. There is also a hint here that grain production needs more water. But all this is a non-problem in a free market. In a free market the land is always used in the most efficient way and whatever shortages of grain or water come about will move the prices and hence the demand automatically.

This seems to be a big problem with the concept of “sustainability”. If you think that current levels of meat production are unsustainable, then if you are right they will not be sustained. If you are right, it doesn’t matter what anyone does. Coming up with innovative policies to reduce the consumption of meat seems to be a bit pointless unless what you really want is to reduce the consumption of meat even if you are wrong about its sustainability, or you are concerned about being blamed by the voters for its un-sustainability. I rather think that it is sustainable and we will end up eating less meat anyway to please these sustainability “experts”.

If some fundamental resource shortage does increase the price of food, an interesting question is at what point does food become so expensive that it takes more than one person’s labour to produce enough food for one person? I expect with 9 billion people (some of them rather more clever than the assembled committee members and witnesses at making food production more efficient) we are still a way off mass malnutrition caused by resource shortages. At some point hydroponics and 3D farming become cost effective.

Still, the rest of the conversation is a fascinating insight into the minds of the elite:

Q63 Fiona O’Donnell: Do you think the market price will choke off demand for meat? There is only so much horse meat you can put into a burger.

Tim Lang: You are back to a mass psychological problem. Meat has, historically, been associated with progress and feast days. The problem is that feast days are every day. Wearing different hats, let us just move to horse-burger land. Look at what is exposed there. You have got a culture that is now centred around plentiful meat and meat as the centre of the plate. These are deeply rooted—in different ways in different countries—cultural goals.

Camilla Toulmin: You are right that meat is too cheap. Meat production does not, in fact, cover the full costs of production. Until it does that, we are going to see too much of it around.

Q64 Fiona O’Donnell: We would almost be heading towards a vegan diet then for a lot of people, especially poorer people, in order to be healthier. Are we doing enough work to look at how we then should have a nutritious balance and how we produce it?

Tim Lang: The short answer is: no. I referred very early on to this issue of sustainable diets. There is a bubbling debate. I could spend my whole week, like Camilla, in the air going to meetings—they are cropping up everywhere. Last week I was in a one-day meeting, though I was only there for half a day, where experts from all over the country were brought in. I will quote, without naming, a leading nutritionist, who said, “Look, veganism can deliver a sustainable diet and can deliver a healthier diet, but the issue is culture and choice.” Without a shadow of a doubt, the ubiquity and cheapness of meat and meat products, as a goal for progress for Western agriculture, let alone developing world agriculture, is one we have to seriously question now for reasons of climate change, emissions, ecosystems and local reasons. Many of us in this debate referred to the Steinfeld et al./FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report. This month, the new version of that report is going to come out, so I strongly recommend the committee has a look at that. I am not allowed to say what is in it.

Do these people listen to themselves? Meat is cheap and ubiquitous therefore we need to eat less of it. Climate change!

Andrew Dorward: This is something we all personally need to take very seriously, because it starts with us, not with telling policymakers what to do.

Fiona O’Donnell: I will take that away, if nothing else, from today.

Camilla Toulmin: In 20 years’ time we will look back at it in the same way as we now look back at smoking as it was 20 years ago.

Do not underestimate the power of these people. They may seem like idiots and professors talking nonsense among themselves but look what they have done with smoking. In 1999 I had to change seats on an aeroplane because there was too much smoke. Now people are cast out of society for lighting up at the far end of the empty railway platform. And it started like this.

Lots of conversations like that, then the report, now the news articles. Say the headlines: “Families should only eat meat as an occasional treat because the surge in global demand is unsustainable, according to a committee of MPs.” They are making the idea seem normal.

The committee also urged the Government to redouble its efforts to slash the amount of discarded produce – estimated to be around 30% globally… The committee wants ministers to set producers and retailers targets for food waste reduction, with sanctions imposed when they are not met.

The thing about food waste is that there is no such thing. There is a rational economic decision to choose excess food production to optimise for something else instead. In my house I sometimes buy or cook more food than I need because the computing resources needed to calculate exactly the correct amount are more expensive than the food that is thrown away. Everyone else is making similar choices. If the government invents innovative new policies to reduce “waste” X they necessarily make Y more expensive and thereby allocate resources less efficiently than before.

If existing policies are found to cause market distortions that cause food to be thrown away that would not be absent the policy, then these should of course be abandoned. But this should be applied generally to all policies that distort markets.

And it called on the UK to look at whether nations should stockpile food to protect themselves from price spikes.

Don’t we have market solutions to this already? Speculators?

They also warned that some biofuels are driving up prices and making them more volatile and, in some cases, could be even more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels.

Good thinking. Don’t stop there. Let me help you along. What do biofuel targets have in common with food waste targets and meat production targets?

The above is a lesson in how the ideas of certain classes of people – academics; politicians; journalists; social scientists – become law. These are the early stages, but something is afoot.

30 comments to Eat Less Meat

  • I truly despair. Rob, I tend to think that it may be counterproductive to try and argue about these things on these people’s terms, because we can never win that argument anyway, because the “science” of it will never be truly settled, because it is basically unsettable, because…have I mentioned despair? Anyway, what I was going to say was that the best answer to these…people is a loud and firm ‘Mind Your Own Damn Business’. Many times over. Rinse and repeat.

  • The Pedant-General

    “In my house I sometimes buy or cook more food than I need because the computing resources needed to calculate exactly the correct amount are more expensive than the food that is thrown away. ”

    Come along Rob – it’s got nothing to do with the computing resources. It is do with uncertainty – something that is often not amenable to computation – and avoiding the downside risk of not having something later in the week when you’ve got back from work and the children are hungry etc etc.

    But yes, that over purchase is very definitely a rational decision.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Agreed PG. I was thinking more about my mental effort than an artifical computer, but you put it better.

  • Steven

    I’m a very happy carnivore. God/Gaia/The Force/Evolution/Whatever gave me canines and incisors for a reason. That said, I have been experimenting with meat-free and vegan dishes simply because some of them are downright yummy. Of course some taste like a diaper full of week old Indian food smells, but you don’t know till you try.

    For what it’s worth, every vegan key lime pie I have tried sucks. I guess it just needs the egg yolks.

  • Richard Thomas

    Step 1: Eliminate government subsidies that grossly distort the market and cause overproduction of things that then get shoehorned into the food market. Then we can talk.

  • Rob

    These people are practically a different species from me and all of the people I know. The sad, hatchet-faced aliens are in control, people.

  • John

    There are several good reasons why pasture raised meat is preferable to grain fed, but the big one is that since it usually *is* more efficient, and since land *isn’t* all the same, it is cheaper to produce… when subsidies and other market distorting statist solutions are absent.

    Resources and effort aren’t a proxy for money, it is the other way around. Money/price is the label on the box, not the contents. For some people it might make more sense to them if they take the money out of the question and imagine doing the farming themselves.

    Simplistic version:
    option 1: let grass grow, let sheep/cows eat grass, eat sheep/cows. (Yes, depending on climate make some hay.)

    option 2: Plow fields, Fertilize fields, plant corn, weed corn, fertilize corn, harvest corn, dry corn, store corn, mill corn, feed corn to animals, haul away manure, eat animal.

    Which course would you pursue?

    OTOH, option 3: Government pays you to undertake the corn growing parts of option 2, then pays your neighbor to do the animal feeding parts, then you buy the animal from your neighbor for less than it cost to produce the corn, let alone the meat, unless you count in your tax bill and loss of liberty in supporting a massive state.

    Of course there are all kinds of exceptions and corner cases in micro climates, soil types, weather, resource availability, etc. That’s why you want a lot of people on the ground making their own decisions and blending solutions to fit current (and local) conditions rather than handing down orders from a central authority. It might even work in other areas than agriculture… 😉

  • Sigivald

    What John said; while I suspect your analysis of their underlying motives and assumptions overall is correct, well… land is not all the same, and you can pasture livestock in places you can’t profitably raise grain.

    With rolling hills and less water (see the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, or parts of eastern Washintgon or Oregon for example), it’s not flat enough for really efficient grain farming, and a bit dry … but cattle can graze there with great efficiency.

    Some land produces a greater marginal product with grazing than with farming.

  • It is essential NOT to debate such people on their own terms. Indeed attacks on them for their arrogance, motives and presumption are frankly more productive. Ad hominem? Sure, why not?

  • Alex

    So, meat consumption may be growing faster than supply. This may increase prices.
    If only there was a mechanism which would react by causing supply to increase and demand to fall off. Price would be a good mechanism for this. We could even analyse this with 2 things called the ‘supply curve’ and the ‘demand curve’. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a field of knowledge that looked at this sort of thing and could explain to the MP’s why they don’t need to panic. We could call it Economics. Would that help?

  • Mr Ed

    In the UK, eating badgers would be a neo-Swiftian response.

  • My aim is to explain to others why these people are wrong. That’s not the same as debating them on their own terms.

  • Mr Ed

    Professor of Food Policy? What is that? There is no such discipline as ‘Food Policy’. This man is not a scientist in my book. He is a Hackademic, an academic with a political edge to his job.

    This article may set a World record for economic fallacies and false premises.

  • Colonol Shotover

    “It is essential NOT to debate such people on their own terms. Indeed attacks on them for their arrogance, motives and presumption are frankly more productive.”
    Like this you mean?

  • QuinT

    This is right on the mark; precisely. I would only add two things: (1) in the economy of government policy, demand creates supply just as in all other economies; policymakers are not people who just woke up one morning and found themselves responsible for policy, they are people with bent for telling others what to do and how to live and they actively sought those positions; once there, they require raw materials out of which to fashion policy, and the world of academics, journalists, people who work at “institutes” dutifully supply those raw materials, and here we are given a look at the production process; (2) Soylent Green is people.

  • Paul Marks

    There used to be satirical attacks on collectivism saying that the collectivists even wanted to control what people ate – “meatless weekends” and so on.

    Now the collectivists (including “Conservative” Members of Parliament) have come out into real life.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Mr Ed, wow!! That’s a good word! Hackademic. Must fit it into conversations from now onwards.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Simplistic version:
    option 1: let grass grow, let sheep/cows eat grass, eat sheep/cows. (Yes, depending on climate make some hay.)

    option 2: Plow fields, Fertilize fields, plant corn, weed corn, fertilize corn, harvest corn, dry corn, store corn, mill corn, feed corn to animals, haul away manure, eat animal.

    I would speculate the reason this somewhat crazy looking situation exists is because animals “are what they eat”, and natural non-maintained pasture does not provide the nutrients needed for a productive animal (in terms of meat/milk yield etc), at least not when compared to a grain fed one. Therefore you need to supplement the pasture and/or animal feed, so why not control the whole feed chain from the start.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Also, is option 2 as labour intensive as it sounds? With mechanisation one person can produce a *lot* of grain. How many pasture animals can one person look after? Does feeding grain to animals make them easier to look after (maybe you don’t need to do as much moving them around from field to field)?

  • Andrew Duffin

    Perry is right, do not engage these people on their own terms.

    Simply state that it’s none of their business what anyone else eats; this is principle, and is the only thing worth fighting on.

    Win that one (not that we will) and they go away; lose on that one and you lose everything.

    As for the actual “problem” – my solution would be “leave it to Tesco’s.”

  • Charlotte Jackson

    I believe that these people, deep down, are convinced that we all should be vegans (or at least us the riff raff), and that many of their other arguments are just a way of trying to force us there by appearing ‘scientific’ and profound. I agree with Alisa that they should just be told to mind their own business.

  • John

    Rob, and Runcie Balspune:

    The questions you ask/points you raise are reasonable ones.

    I’m just one farmer on one small farm in one small town, and the point is that it varies.

    It is a complex topic and I’m finding the constraints of brevity somewhat onerous.

    Again, simplistically and briefly: In my limited and local experience, when you strip away the distortions from subsidies etc. and just look at the investment, labor, etc. the feedlot model fails in nearly every case, at least where ruminants are concerned. Again the tradeoffs, the exceptions, the local situation, etc.

    Ruminants can and do grow and thrive on decent pasture in conditions unsuitable to row cropping. Milk is a little different, but not that much.

    In regard to option 2 etc…. Technology helps certainly, but technology applies to both options. As I have said, price is a poor proxy because of distortions but to take one example, the Iowa State Extension (yes, I see the irony…) says that corn costs about 5 times as much as pasture per acre. They also show about twice as many line items. Then of course you get into the feeding side of the equation. Notice also how they emphasize variability… and this is from an organization I believe to be more inclined to promote centralized top down approaches than otherwise.

    Every step of the way is a business decision and there is no single right answer which can be mandated from central authority. Sometimes nobody knows the “right” answer, sometimes the right answer suddenly changes.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Thanks John. If you’re right — and yours is the most qualified opinion I have so far heard — then trying to point out why the anti-grain-feeders are wrong about grain feeding will lead nowhere. They might actually be right for the wrong reasons. I suspect they want to pile on more distortions rather than remove the ones that lead to grain feeding.

    In which case we just point out that any problems are a result of the distortions and that the only changes needed are to remove them.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Ruminants can and do grow and thrive on decent pasture in conditions unsuitable to row cropping.

    I know the argument here is using land for growing animal feed rather than human feed, but I was rather questioning whether an animal raised on non-maintained pasture (unsuitable for grain production) will be as productive as one raised on feed grown elsewhere, or do you have to supplement the pasture, possibly to the same extent (by whatever measure) as producing the feed grown elsewhere?

  • Steven

    Perry is right, do not engage these people on their own terms.

    No, he isn’t right. In the court of public opinion (the only place these arguments really matter) that is the same thing as sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling, “I can’t hear you!” If every time someone advances an idea the libertarian wing just says “no” without articulating why in the public forum, then the libertarians become little more than someone going through the terrible twos.

    It’s one thing to be in a proven position and ignore the crackpots (astronomers don’t debate geocentrists) but right now the small/no government types are the minority and they are not going to be taken seriously by refusing to even enter into a conversation with the statists, even on their terms, out of some misguided sense of principle or something.

  • NathanMuir

    Simon Fairlie’s book, “Meat: a benign extravagance” includes a useful discussion of the economics of feedlot and grass-reared beef, as well as something of a hymn to the virtues of the pig as convertor into good food of a lot of calories we humans are never going to be eating.

    And to pique the interest of libertarians, pigs are small-scale and local, and beef is large-scale and corporate and has captured governments.

    There’s much more too.


  • John


    In which case we just point out that any problems are a result of the distortions and that the only changes needed are to remove them.

    Very much so. Another way of looking at it is to not accept a false dichotomy between forbidding grain feeding or requiring it. Much of what we are offered in terms of public debate on such matters assumes a false dichotomy of that kind from the outset. “Choose between this legal requirement or that one.” It reminds me of “That which is not compulsory is forbidden.” Which may be from elsewhere but I first saw in White’s The Once and Future King.

    Runcie Balspune: I suspect the answer is something unsatisfying like “it depends” but I’ll play around with it and see what I can figure out.

    Steven: I’m not sure how you interpret Perry’s remark, but I also don’t think you can make any progress by accepting false premises from the outset.

  • stef

    Strangely, folks in NYC (and similar) are always trying to argue over how beef is grown even though they don’t own cattle or land or know any bit of anything about it the use of either one. And they are perfectly comfortable in asserting that whatever goes on here (grazing on land suitable for grazing, not farming as if the 60% of Texas that is rangeland is imaginary) and grain only for finishing (the “feedlot” or “factory-farmed beef”) is just some very tiny local tradition.

    The same people tend to be obsessed with being “green” even though their lifestyles are about as far removed from that as possible.

  • Pat

    Things no academic can say:-
    “I don’t know”
    “everybody knows”
    “I was wrong”
    They have to come up with a statement that is counter-intuitive, or they cannot justify their “superiority”. And they dare not back down