Less chicken, more beans in every pot

Noor writes*

In 1928, the Republican slogan “A chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot.” was born. The aim was to raise prosperity by making privilege available to the wider public by raising the living standard at an affordable cost. Meat is seen as the food for the wealthy, and meat producers are more than happy to play in to that image. Meat has been scarce, thus a treat, for the better part of human history, rendering it to be desired by those who couldn’t have it. We feel that meat will make us strong, it is macho, and makes us feel prosperous, whilst in fact heavy consumption of meats weakens health and the environment.

The association of meat with prosperity has led to widespread government subsidies for the agricultural industry, even though many developed countries now advertise reduced meat consumption because of its environmental and health repercussions. Though these subsidies the retail price of meat is kept low, but consumers pay it indirectly through tax money, environmental degradation, and health risks.

Animal products are the third-largest sources of global Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, stemming from the fuels needed to grow the feed, transportation, and their methane gas emission. Furthermore, animal products are high in water consumption and animal agriculture occupies one-third of the earths’ landmass for grazing or growing feed, making it the main driver of deforestation.

The demand for meat is expected to reach 570 million tons in 2050, double the consumption of 2008. If western consumption patterns remain unchanged, this would mean insufficient food to feed the 10 billion people population, as almost half of the world’s harvest is fed to animals. The global meat consumption rises due to growing population and increasing wealth bringing about higher demand for meat, as can be seen in the figure. China for example, is now the world’s largest meat producer and Asia produces more meat than any other region in the world.

Though there is a growing trend of plant-based living in developed countries, this will not be enough to counter the rise expected from developing countries. The solution to the issue at hand seems simple: less meat must be consumed to avoid running out of food, water, or a planet. However, for many the consumption of meat holds an aspirational or cultural value, rather than a nutritious one. Even if this was possible, is it fair for developed nations, who have enjoyed meat, to deny developing countries the same privilege? For many the answer is no, yet decreasing our own consumption is more difficult than anticipated: how do you willingly degrow?

Greenpeace lays out a plan [pdf] to half the meat and dairy consumption by 2050 to reduce GHG emissions, fight climate change, fight deforestation, preserve water quality, remain within the planetary boundaries, and battle global obesity. People will however need to be motivated to make this change at an individual level. The subsidies for meat need to be cut, bringing its price closer to the actual costs instead of supporting an unsustainable industry. More importantly, the narrative around meat needs to be changed: meat will need to become a privilege again, not just be framed as one. Perhaps most effectively, taking into account that prices and not intrinsic motivation are the best driver of behavioral change, the price will need to reflect the externalities of meat production, as well as the urgency of the climate crisis.

Bottom Line: Increasing population and income levels will lead to a significant rise in meat consumption that the planet cannot sustain. Meat consumption poses threat to the climate through its contribution to GHG emissions, heavy use of water, land use, and inefficiency. Thus, changes in consumption patterns are needed sooner rather than later, and the most effective solution seems to be price incentives.

* Please help my Economic Growth & Development students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Less chicken, more beans in every pot”

  1. Thank you for this article! Your argument is really well outlined and I agree with you in that price incentives are indeed a crucial component in fighting for behavioural change. Your mentioning of government subsidies for the agricultural industry is especially interesting since government our entire food system has pushed farmers towards mass production and more factory farming for economic gains. There’s little or no consideration for health or the environment. Even farmers who would like to take a more sustainable approach are pushed into unsustainable farming methods just to compete. I see the removal of subsidies being a good way to move away from this.

    However, I wonder how shifts in prices that focus on the average consumer would impact our meat intake. Price is certainly an influential factor in consumers’ choices, but so are countries of origin and fat content. There are so many different types of consumers, those that are price conscious, those that are healthy eaters, taste driven, organic, and vegetarian. Of course many of these segments overlap, but policies targeted towards reducing meat consumption could be more effective if targeted towards specific consumer segments. The substitution of meat relies on educational and food labelling regulations as well in order to more holistically target all types of consumers. Highlighting the health and nutrition benefits of meat substitutes would be more effective than price incentives for our healthy consumers who refuse to jeopardise their health for financial savings. Whereas labelling the carbon footprint would be influential for our green consumers. Highlighting the methods of production would then be beneficial for our organic consumers, and so on. I am certain that financial incentives are highly effective, yet I think their effectiveness would be enhanced if implemented along with labelling regulations and educational campaigns targeted at all the different types of consumers.

    1. Thank you for your insightful comment! I especially agree that the framing and societal pressure of meat is a huge factor in the overconsumption. There is such a history behind producing and eating meat, that just taxing it wouldn’t be enough. Meat is not economical to eat, it has a lot of benefits but it isn’t the most price-effective way to get your nutrients; so the consumption must be fuelled elsewhere. Thank you so much for emphasising the need to distinguish consumers, I hadn’t looked at it that way and had mainly focussed on the societal pressures. However it’s super interesting to note the different ways we can shape behaviour, especially in richer countries where price might not be the primary factor in dividing budgets. Thank you again for raising this point and I’ll look into it for my recommendations!

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