For today’s blog, I’ve decided to steer clear of economics. I mean I love writing about economics, but that doesn’t necessarily make for an entertaining blog. Unlike ducks.
Well actually, not necessarily just ducks. You see, I love animals. There was a time in fact when I thought I would become a vet.
But I also love meat to the extent that if an animal massacre hasn’t occurred, it’s not a meal. Doesn’t have to be horrific, there just have to be enough animal lives lost to account one small family.
But after attending this session at TEDx Sydney 2013 I started to seriously analyse this incongruence.
Obviously by now you know where I’m going with this. How do I reconcile this love for animals with my love for eating them?
When I was a kid, I think I had a great idea for this. What if we could just take off say a leg or wing of an animal and then just let it grow back?That way we would have an endless supply of meat and not have to kill a thing! I’d cracked the code.
Fortunately, once I was above the age of four (or 16…), this idea lost its appeal. Lucky, otherwise there might be a lot of legless cows limping around.
The uneconomics of meat consumption
On the most part I think the way I rationally reconcile my differences in this regard is through cognitive dissidence. Essentially I ignore that there is anything inconsistent about these two sides of me.
In particular, I tend to place labels on people who don’t eat meat to classify myself as separately to them as possible. By seeing vegans as almost a different species, I can safely exist without having to face the issue.
Unfortunately, recently I’ve been harangued by the economist in me. You see, eating meat to the degree I do is unsustainable.
- To make one calorie of protein from meat takes 11 times as much fossil fuels as a calorie of protein from plants.
- The water used for producing meat is enough for every human on earth to be provided with the equivalent of eight showers of water a day.
- Livestock accounts for more emissions than the world’s transport sector. Seriously, cows idling are more of a concern than your car.
- If all the grain used to feed farm animals in the United States was used to feed people it would feed 800 million. As a point of comparison, that is around 10 per cent of the world’s population and about enough to feed the world’s hungry. Remember this is just the US’s meat production.
Now, no doubt if you’re reading my blog you’re good looking and intelligent to have known a lot of this already. I have an undeniably handsome readership.
But here’s the clincher for me as an economist. If I’m concerned with the right balance of efficiency and equity in the world which is sustainable, as an individual I’m not personally hitting it. In fact I’m way off.
The meat pyramid
In fact, a big problem with a meat-heavy diet is that we seem to be too obsessed with lopping off the animals at the top of the food pyramid. What I mean by this is that humans tend to eat stuff which survives by eating other stuff.
Now the problem with this is that there will be energy lost at each stage of the process. That is, when a little fish is eaten by a bigger fish not all the energy the little fish has consumed during its life will be transferred to the bigger fish.
This is because it has to use energy to do other stuff. It has to live, love and try and escape from the big fish.
The point here is that on average we might expect the level of energy taken to produce an animal (and the energy lost) will increase the further they are up on the food chain.
For instance, based on the scientifically accurate diagram above if we were to farm ahhh eagles we would need to feed it salmon. But to produce salmon we would need to feed it smaller fish, or at any rate something would need to die.
And this is bad. Go down one step of the pyramid with what I eat and the food required to support it (on average) decreases.
Also it’s the quantity
At this point you might be thinking, ‘wait a minute, cows, chickens and pigs are right down the bottom of that pyramid, what’s the problem?’. Well, I eat too many of them.
Take the map below.
The map essentially says, that on average people in Australia eat over their body weight in meat per person each year which is about 2 kilos of meat a week.
And although the appropriateness of this will vary across individuals and the type of meat, this is almost ten times the recommended intake which suggests we are way off the mark for what’s necessary.
It’s not about guilt
But this blog post isn’t about the ethics of eating meat. I eat meat. I’m not preaching to you. There is nothing more satisfying than a massive-arse burger.
Too often when we hear somebody is vegan or vegetarian we start probing as if it’s such a mystifying life choice. But the problem is that tendency to classify people in this way ignores the many choices which lie in between a carnivore and a vegan.
The choice isn’t between smelling like patchouli or eating lots of meat.
And this is what I’d like to suggest at the end of this. I eat meat, eggs and drink milk. Sometimes I even club seals.
I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan.
I also get annoyed when somebody preaches to me about why their lifestyle is superior to mine. My lifestyle is awesome.
Except… I eat too much meat and only recently considered that making an ethical choice in this regard didn’t require me to grow dreadlocks and go vegan.
So this is what I’m doing. I’m phasing meat out of my diet except for two serves a week. Just enough so I can look down my nose at people. I might even occasionally throw red paint at them while yelling ‘meat is murder’.
But I’m not phasing it out completely, after all throwing paint and yelling at people is hard work and there is nothing better than a burger after a long day of insincere social activism.