Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Meat Consumption and Food Supply

Thanksgiving is upon us, and hundreds of millions of Americans will be feasting on turkey or other animals. At the same time, millions of Americans will volunteer at food kitchens and shelters to help feed the needy during the holidays. (It’s the busiest time of the year for volunteering, often resulting in too many volunteers.) And, people frequently express concern about the food being wasted while millions around the world go hungry.

So, this is a good time to have a slight diversion from my ongoing discussion of national policy formation to talk about meat consumption and the politics of food supply. What’s the connection between meat consumption and hunger/malnutrition? More generally, what the some of the implications of meat consumption?

In 2008, approximately 9 billion chickens are slaughtered and eaten in the United States. This is a 30 percent increase over the 6 billion chickens consumed in 1990. In addition, the average size of chickens slaughtered has increased continuously since 1975, when the average weight was 3.79 pounds. In 2008, the average weight was 5.58 pounds, which represents a 32 percent increase.

(Just in case you’re wondering, approximately 270 million turkeys were killed and eaten in 2008.)

In 2007, per capita meat consumption in the US was about 220 pounds. That is, the average American consumes about 220 pounds of animal flesh each year. (About 87 of those were chicken, and about 17 pounds were turkey.)

This level of meat consumption eats up (pun intended) an amazing amount of corn and soybeans, which are two of the central ingredients for animal feed. The production of feed grains for the billions of animals to consume rests heavily upon chemical fertilizers and machinery that use petroleum. Researchers estimate that a gallon of gas is required to produce one pound of beef, for instance.

On just these two points, we should recognize that meat production consumes immense resources. Redirecting these resources to food grains could make a significant contribution to the potential to reduce hunger.

So, why do we consume so much meat? Part of the answer has to do with the market economy: meat is a high-value commodity. A farmer can get much more profit out of a bushel of soybeans by feeding it to a chicken or cow and then selling that as meat than the farmer can get from selling the soybeans directly to the market. That is, meat is more profitable than the field crops that animals eat.

Another part of the answer has to do with agricultural policy. As I show in my book (here’s my shameless plug for this post…), the combination of price supports and production controls in the 1900s drove up the production of various commodities. One solution to the overproduction of and consequent low prices for feed grains was to increase meat consumption.

Meat consumption is a central part of the politics of food supply. National agricultural policies have supported expanding meat consumption, and rising meat consumption – in the US and elsewhere – have important implications for the supply of food.


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  3. Dear Mr Winders, Good article! And good arguement that farmers convert their plants into meta because the price of meat is higher than that of the feed. But one intrigueing question I have: this can only be because consumers are willing to pay this (high) price for meat. Why are they willing to do this? Huib Rijk, organic farmer in The Netherlands

  4. Hi Huib,
    Thanks for the comment. (My blog's first real comment, by the way!) You ask a very good question, and I'm sorry to take so long in responding.

    Explaining why many farmers focus on meat rather than field crops is the easier question to answer: they operate in a market economy, which puts a premium on profits. Sure, there are other factors, values, and beliefs that come into play, but if it wasn't so profitable, fewer animals would become "meat."

    So, you have asked the more complicated question of why consumers are willing to pay more to eat meat.

    Let me give a brief start to an answer here and then use this as a starting point for another blog post.

    The really simple answer is two-fold: (1) some consumers have enough income to eat meat, which costs more than field crops, and (2) some consumers have a preference/desire to eat meat.

    As for the first point, meat consumption rises and falls with income. Per capita meat consumption is higher in richer countries than poorer countries, for example.

    The second point, however, is much more complex. Preferences are not necessarily "natural," nor do they emerge in a vacuum. As a sociologist, I would stress the influence of how society is organized and its values on consumer preferences. This influence is apparent in all sorts of preferences from religion, diet, and automobiles to different kinds of government policies.

    I'll discuss that more in my forthcoming post, but for now let me give the example of kinds of meat. Different societies consume and refrain from consuming different kinds of animals. It's not necessarily the presence or absence of the animals that determines which get eaten. For example, cows are eaten in the US but not in India. In some countries, people eat dogs, while in other countries people do not.

    These preferences are shaped by history, social norms, laws, and even religion and/or social conflicts. Thus, we have look beneath the preferences to really understand why consumers are willing to pay a higher price for meat.

    I'll try to tackle this more soon.