The Cost of Eating Well

“Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe,” said Daniel W. Basse of the AgResource Company, a Chicago consultancy. “But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.”
      – A Global Need for Grain That Farms Can’t Fill


What does it cost to eat meat?

We all know that commodity prices have been rising rapidly and it is starting to bite (sorry) at the checkout counter.

Here in Asia, this is causing a bit of a rice shortage as consumers stockpile and horde in anticipation of further increases to come.

Surprisingly, the BBC reports that the rising cost of grain and transportation does not yet appear to have fed through (sorry – I did it again) to meat prices:

Food Prices

But there are other costs of eating meat.

One of the dilemmas I have as an omnivore is that there is no denying the environmental cost of eating meat is huge compared to that of eating grains. There is more land use, more water consumption and, at present population levels, the intensive farming used to meet rising demand comes with massive problems of deforestation and waste.

We are increasingly told that to share the earth’s resources in a fair and sustainable fashion, we all need to become vegetarians. And it’s not just the greens that are calling for elimination of meat. Even governments are starting to voice this message.

Certainly if I felt my health would not be adversely affected, I would happily follow this advice. But this is not just about taking some extra time to separate out my recyclable waste. I believe this threatens the well being of myself and those around me.

Although there is evidence that some meat in the diet actually optimizes land use, this vague proposal would limit meat consumption to 2 ounces a day which falls well short of needs for optimal nutrition.

The Future is Here

Our collective vision of the Malthusian future, in which the planet is burdened by overpopulation, is painted in images of starving children with bloated bellies, listless as the flies of death descend upon them.

But the fact that we have reached a point where the earth can no longer provide all humans with the diet they are most suited to means that over population is not some point down the road. It has arrived and we are suffering now. We just can’t see it for what it is.

I don’t doubt that there is a tradgedy of the commons that is taking place on a global scale. So perhaps the “right” thing to do is to make the individual sacrifice and be as green as possible.

However personal sacrifices by a fringe minority do not solve global issues. Global issues need systematic and global solutions. Without a mass movement – something almost impossible without legislation – such efforts are sentimental and ineffective.

We’re backed into this corner because economists can value quantity but not quality and we still haven’t escaped from this mind set.

We may have some room to go to maximize the quantity of human lives, but clearly we can see the quality of those lives has been, in many ways, on a long term decline.

There is no getting around the fact that eating meating has its costs.

But the burdens of accomodating a bloated planet growing ever more bloated on a grain based diet are arguably costlier in the long run.


Tangential Reading


Will the humble butcher survive?


4 thoughts on “The Cost of Eating Well

  1. Here’s a thought – what if we persuaded the world to take birth control seriously? I’m not talking about a Draconian Chinese model. But how about if we, y’know, got some of the most influential institutions on the planet to at least stop discouraging people from using condoms?

    I for one will not be having more than one child unless Dame Fortune hands me twins.

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