It is now fashionable in many circles to advocate vegetarianism, and many activist groups are vocal in their aim to convert the human race to vegetarians. What would be the economic costs and benefits of a shift away from meat consumption? In this article we provide some partial answers to this question. In three separate analyses we show (i) that it is much more costly to produce energy and protein from animal-based sources than from some plant-based sources, (ii) that sizable demand shifts away from meat consumption would result in significantly lower corn prices and production, and (iii) that the average U.S. consumer places a higher value on having meat in his or her diet than having any other food group. This information should help move forward our understanding of the economics of vegetarianism and provide an objective stance from which to evaluate the claims being made by advocates of vegetarianism.
Key Words: cost of nutrients, crop production, dietary costs, livestock production, value of meat, vegan, vegetarian
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In her bestselling book Food in History, Reay Tannahill begins, "For 12,000 years there has been a steady undercurrent of antagonism between vegetarians and meat-eaters" (Tannahill 1988, p. 1). In the Old Testament-a sacred text shared by Judaism, Christianity, and to some extent Islam- humans began in the Garden of Eden, where "to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb" (Genesis 1:30). The interpretation of this text to some scholars is clear: "this should be interpreted to mean: every green herb and nothing else" (Soler 1996, p. 52).
Yet humans left the Garden of Eden, and along with it, their herbivore diet. The natural history of humans, including archaeological evidence, suggests that Homo sapiens have always eaten both plants and animals (Tannahill 1988). For the vast majority of their existence, obtaining nutritional needs was a daily challenge for humans, and famine was a recurring threat. Given the scarcity of nutritional resources, it would seem odd for humans to restrict their diet for religious or cultural reasons, but that is exactly what they did. For example, as early as the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras and his followers led a vegetarian life (Spencer 2000). Because of religious beliefs, many cultures have restricted their consumption of animal products in different ways.
Reverence for the Old Testament caused some Jews to view vegetarianism as closer to the ideal life that God planned in the Garden of Eden. For this reason, Jews prefer to eat meat only from animals that are vegetarians, and thus ban the eating of pigs, which are omnivores. During the Middle Ages, meat was seen as a sign of earthly strength and power. Nobles who behaved poorly and were thus deemed unworthy of their power were punished by prohibiting the eating of meat, sometimes for life. The Catholic Church urged its congregation to seek spirituality and shun the pursuit of earthly power. To abstain from meat was to announce a preference for the spiritual world over the earthly world. Hence, the Catholic Church banned the eating of meat on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and all the days of Lent. Depending on how the ban was enforced, these days of meat-fasting could comprise half the days of the year (Montanari 1996, Tannahill 1988).
Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism maintain a belief in reincarnation, and a specific belief that humans can be reincarnated as livestock and vice versa. For these adherents, eating an animal can mean eating an an cestor, so it is not surprising that vegetarianism is more popular in the regions where these religions took hold. Ancient India became heavily reliant on dairy products from female cows and the labor from male cows, and urged against the killing of cows because the animals were generally worth more alive than dead. …