The morality of eating meat has become a hot topic in recent years and has gotten some increased attention in the last few weeks after the backlash against the killing of Cecil the lion. This is a topic I really struggle with. I am a meat-eater who understands that this directly contributes to potential health problems, environmental problems and animal cruelty (I’d link to some videos, but instead of ruining your day I’ll let the curious among you find them yourselves). But I also know meat is a convenient and efficient way to get calories and proteins that would be otherwise difficult to consume in mass quantity.
So here’s my situation – I am your typical middle/upper class white guy living in Southern California trying to live a socially conscious & sustainable lifestyle, but who also engages in questionably insane stuff like training for a full Ironman in my free time (because that’s what weird middle/upper class white guys do). This is in addition to working long hours managing my own business. So, I have a crazy high calorie output and very little time, which means that my lifestyle requires a high calorie and high protein style diet that is easy to access. With a resting metabolic rate of about 2,000 calories¹ and average calories burned of 1,200 per workout I choose to consume a good deal of fish and chicken because it’s just a very simple way to consume the healthy calories I choose to need.²
So, what if everyone like me chose to live the same lifestyle, but without meat? In other words, what if my diet became a totally vegan, plant based or alternative calorie diet? What would the impact be? One angle I haven’t read much about – but is the angle that I approach pretty much everything from – is from an economic perspective. And as I thought it through, it seems like the economic impact could be pretty devastating. Not for me so much. But for the poor. I think it’s possible that promoting an anti-meat based diet would directly contribute to wealth inequality, which, I have a feeling, would be a contradiction for many of the people who promote a vegan lifestyle.
The issue is more complex than this, but think of it this way:
- Eating meat is actually a luxury. It’s something that poor people only do when they start earning about $2.60 per day.³ The low income families of the world overwhelmingly rely on wheat, rice and cereals.
- According to the FAO, If we eliminated the livestock production industry we would destroy about 1.5 billion jobs, of which 70% are considered “poor” jobs.
- If we divert all of that demand for meat towards plant based consumption then the price of all other foods is almost certain to rise because it’s highly unlikely that we’d automatically produce twice as much supply of all these various types of foods. Keep in mind, these are the foods that the poor eat in a disproportionate quantity. So what happens then – does the whole world become a version of Whole Foods where even a head of iceberg lettuce makes you feel like you’re going bankrupt?
And that’s the most interesting aspect about the meat vs vegan diet debate. The vegans want to ridicule the meat eaters for being immoral (gross generalization, I know, I know), but there’s a very logical moral economic argument for eating meat – it helps keep the cost of cheap food lower by diverting demand elsewhere. If former meat eaters drive up the prices of other foods, the poor would be forced to spend more on food, and their standard of living declines as they must choose to either eat less (in quantity or quality) or give up other expenses. So here’s the kicker – could being in favor of a plant based diet be the indirect equivalent of being in favor of wealth inequality? I don’t know the answer, but increasing the cost of food that the poor disproportionally consume just doesn’t make a whole of moral or monetary sense to me.
* Don’t get me wrong. I am totally in favor of higher standards of living for livestock and a meat-in-moderation type diet. I am also looking forward to the days when meat production comes largely from lab production as opposed to slaughterhouses. But for now, as the saying goes, there is no free lunch.
¹ – Calculate your RMR here. It’s super helpful for putting your daily calorie consumption in the right perspective.
2 – Calculate your body fat percentage here. It’s super helpful for making you feel bad about yourself.
3 – This VOX article has some great/balanced perspective on this debate. I particularly enjoyed the portion about chickens and how silly it is to hear people discuss the cruelty of chicken cages and enclosed pens. As a chicken owner the people arguing against cages probably have no idea how evil chickens are. I have saved several of my chickens from certain death by segregating them in cages due to pecking order fights and what often turns into death matches in a free range or even a large coup environment.