We so often read that as incomes increase in developing countries, so too does the demand for meat. It seems as people have more disposable income, so do their meat purchases increases.
I sometimes try to wonder why. If one looks at the so-called lifestyle diseases, diseases of affluence, in the developed world, it often has to do with overconsumption of meat (in combination with other factors). Here, organisations promoting health advise people to lower their meat consumption, for example to three meals including red meat, and to stick with lean cuts of meat.
I remember reading, I think it was a Michael Pollan book, about how when we have the opportunity, our bodies tell us to go for sugars, fats – which translates into meat and soft drinks, sweets and candy. In nature (you know, the place where we evolved, you can see depictions of it on the national geographic channel), these foods were rare, so perhaps our bodies are designed to seek and want them. In developed society, of course, the opportunities to consume fats and sugars are far greater than were throughout evolution, and so is the lack of necessity to exercise, and as a result we become obese and unfit and we chide ourselves for it.
Perhaps that is part of the reason behind our increased meat intake, perhaps that combined with a higher status attributed to eating meat, and possibly taste. In any case, we consume more meat than is required for our health and well-being, and industrial livestock agriculture happens to be one of the most environmentally devastating modern activities that was ever dreamt up and implemented. The FAO estimate the sector represents 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and certainly it represents massive wastes of energy and output of pollution. A modest amount of research will prove that this system is also extremely cruel towards our livestock animals, mostly made up of cattle, chicken, sheep and pigs. We consume them in the tens of billions annually, globally.
Policy-makers should consider the impacts of us consuming meat in excess of what is required by humans as a biological species. A transition by the average westerner to a diet more inclusive of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains and sustainably harvested fish, need not feed our haunts of being pale-faced, thin and drained of energy. The myth of meat as king is an old and worn-out one, it needs a spin.
For our health and for our earth and climate, decreasing our consumption of meat would be one of the easiest, cheapest and most obvious step to take. It would not mean societies having less to eat, I believe it would produce MORE food as measured by nutrition and energy content, and in addition it would promote health. Plants and plant products, for the nutrition they provide us, require far less energy to grow because they are a step down on the food chain. A plant-rich diet could leave us slimmer, with more energy and vitality, leading longer and more productive lives.
To decrease consumption of meat in developed countries, meat would have to become more expensive. If we include the externalities as internalities, we certainly need not create fabricated taxes that allow the system to continue as it is and the proceeds to enter general government coffers. Perhaps the first externality that should be priced is that of animal suffering. I believe we should on a timeline (for the benefit of business) mandate new sets of laws granting far more humanity to livestock animals, something animal welfare and animal rights groups have been pushing for decades. Ideally, I would like to see organic standards reached and in some instances exceeded, where animals have access to fresh water and wholesome food, to carry out their natural instincts such as feeding directly from the land and free association with each other, and conversely not to be isolated from each other inside cages in buildings around the clock, to be free from consistent fear, pain and suffering, to not be injected with growth hormones and routine antibiotics, and to be slaughtered in a genuinely humane fashion. This would make meat more expensive, and quite possibly not a lot more expensive (it is amazing how far agribusiness will go in the name of shaving off the cents).
I think the next step would be to implement a carbon tax, which would be good across the board for reducing our astronomical and needless levels of consumption. Because industrial livestock agriculture emits not only carbon, but also a considerable proportion of global anthropological-source methane and nitrous oxide (2 of the 4 significant greenhouse gases), these would ideally be taxed too. Production of other food sources emits significantly less greenhouse gases, so would not be as affected by a greenhouse gas tax. I would like to see the proceeds of this tax not returned to the taxpayer for more consumption, but to create jobs in the green sector by rehabilitating lands degraded by industrial agriculture, to allow for habitat and agroecological regeneration and creation of wildlife corridors, with the goals of increasing biomass/soil carbon retention, halting biodiversity loss, replenishing water tables and regenerating soils. All of these would come under the umbrella of protection of the natural resource base, our natural capital or ecosystem services, all of which underpins our commercial economy.
I wonder the effect a greenhouse gas tax and increased animal welfare standards would have on employment in the agricultural sector. It may mean that it employs more people as some of the machines which replaced people become too expensive to run on fossil fuels. Increased welfare standards may also increase employment.
If the most vulnerable sections of our society are protected in the form of social security and food security, this need not hurt our pockets significantly (in the developed world we are currently paying the lowest share of our incomes on food), and would more than pay off in terms of increased health and vitality – in turn increasing labour productivity – and mitigation of climate change and other environmental problems such as soil erosion and nitrogen pollution.
I would love to see our livestock animals out on the fields, grazing and freely mingling as they would do under natural circumstances (albeit in slightly different physical forms – they are, after all, products of our breeding). If we knew where our meat truly came from – a sow isolated in a sow crate barely bigger than its body, unable to lie down, never seeing sunlight and unable to touch other pigs – I wonder how we would react, or even if some of us would even care.
Neoclassical economics does not take into account the degradation of our natural resource base, the rights of species to exist free from suffering, the rights of future human generations to have a productive natural resource base. Economic efficiency sometimes has at its cost human and animal misery, and persistent ecological degradation. No industry proves this more than the meat industry.