Eating meat: choice or constraint?

Edde writes*

A high consumption of meat – and animal-based products in general – is a common practice all over the world [pdf] and over the past decades, global meat production has been rising. Whereas it is generally recommended for a person to eat not more than 70 grams a day, individuals in countries such as for example Argentina and Luxembourg consumed in 2013 on average 293.8 and 270 grams a day, respectively.

Understanding what induces meat consumption is important, as high meat consumption can negatively affect the long-term well-being of our ecosystems (a “market failure”).

Many factors influence meat consumption. These include, but are not limited to, an individual’s living situation, social identity, knowledge and skills, and one’s cultural and political norms and values. Although these factors determine to a certain extent why people consume meat, it is not always clear whether this is really a voluntary choice, or a choice encouraged by economic incentives.

Except for the factors above associated with individual dietary choices, a look at meat consumption from a national level can show how  “market dynamics” can increase meat consumption.

Meat producers respond to meat consumption. Economically speaking, the choice to consume meat can be seen as a vote to produce meat, which can explain record global meat production (see figure below). Higher consumption spurs investment in production (and subsequently sunk costs in capital and machinery) in the meat industry, which makes it easier to increase economies of scale, thereby making meat cheaper and meat alternatives relatively more expensive. Following the law of demand, a lower meat price – ceteris paribus – will lead to a higher quantity demanded. Furthermore, this will also likely reduce demand for substitute goods, such as more-sustainable meat alternatives. Consequently, this can engender a rather path-dependent process in which more meat is consumed and produced, thereby encouraging less-sustainable meat eating.


On the other hand, sustainable eating can also reflect incentives rather than choices. Considering that meat can be too expensive or not accessible, populations may be (financially/economically) incentivized to consume little meat. This may be better for animal welfare and ecosystems, yet it does not guarantee a more prosperous and equitable society. In poor countries, consumption of protein is low, yet it would be better for health and well-being (and thus economic prosperity) if these populations included more protein – such as meat – in their diet.

Therefore, when talking about meat consumption and sustainability through an economic lens, it is important to consider the impact of consumer choices on our environment as well as underlying mechanisms affecting those choices. To improve the long-term well-being of our ecosystems and economies, national and global economic policies need to consider all the factors encouraging (and discouraging) meat consumption.

* Please help my Environmental Economics 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.

3 thoughts on “Eating meat: choice or constraint?”

  1. I do see your argument that demanding less meat should disincentivize producers to produce that much meat, so we should be all good. However, you mentioned the path-dependency and I think this is one of the key arguments here. To my knowledge, the main problem is those sunk costs into meat production. I think this source ( clearly shows just how much land is devoted to livestock, which is nuts! Hence, I feel here the path-dependency of devoting so much land to livestock + the potential influence of free-market to ‘impose’ enormous meat consumption are the key explanatory variables.

  2. Hey Edde,
    Interesting topic! I think the direction you are taking is important but I would also consider three limitations:
    (1) Reducing meat consumption domestically through market mechanisms will not solve the issue that countries like Argentina or Brazil are the largest exporters of meat. It may even perpetuate the problem as less consumption domestically may imply an increase of exports to markets abroad, leading to more CO2 emissions from transportation and conservation of meat. So it would maybe be nice to consider how market incentives affect both the domestic and the world market for meat.
    (2) Path dependence processes can also be related to informal norms regarding meat consumption. There are different societies where the consumption of meat may be embedded with culture or communal habits, especially in developing countries.
    (3) Market mechanisms in advanced economies to reduce meat consumption can lead to inequalities as you mentioned in your post. It could imply that only people with high purchasing power will consume meat.

  3. This is a really interesting topic that you are covering! You briefly described factors which influence meat consumption, including an individual’s living situation, social identity, knowledge and skills, and one’s cultural and political norms and values. For your research, I think it will be important for you to dig deeper into the influencing factors in order to establish a feasible means of reducing consumption. There are many available survey based studies looking into peoples’ perceptions of meat consumption such as this one:

    Lea, Emma, and Anthony Worsley. 2008. “Australian Consumers’ Food-Related Environmental Beliefs and Behaviours.” Appetite. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

    This Australian cross-sectional study uses questionnaires to examine consumer behavior relating to food choices and the environment. The results exhibited that on average reducing meat consumption was viewed as the least likely to reduce the environment. This study is relevant to your research because it indicates that raising awareness of the environmental consequences of certain food choices could be very impactful in reducing meat consumption.

    I will list a few more sources below if you are interested.

    Mäkiniemi, Jaana-Piia, and Annukka Vainio. 2014. “Barriers to Climate-Friendly Food Choices among Young Adults in Finland.” Appetite. U.S. National Library of Medicine. March.

    Malek, Lenka, Wendy Umberger, and Ellen Goddard. 2019. “Is Anti-Consumption Driving Meat Consumption Changes in Australia?” British Food Journal 121 (1): 123-138. doi:

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