Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Meat Credits


According to an interesting book I read recently (Bittman, 2009), the rise of factory farming has made the lives of the animals we eat a "living hell." I'm not going to go into whether or not this is true in this entry; for purposes of this essay I'm going to assume it's true and discuss what to do about it. 

The way I see it there are two ways to combat the problem. 

1. Change laws so that animals are treated ethically.
Wouldn't this be great? Then we'd only have to deal with the other reasons not to eat meat.

2. Reduce demand.
Reducing the demand for meat reduces animal suffering simply because fewer animals are raised. Using the advice in Bittman (2009), I've been trying to be vegan before dinner, and I've reduced my intake of meat considerably. He argues that the demand must be reduced, because the world needs factory farming to supply the current (and rising) demand for meat. That is, even if we wanted to raise the animals ethically, we just don't have enough room and other resources to do it.

Now I'm feeling bad whenever I eat meat, which is a problem, because I adore it.

I had an idea yesterday: buying meat credits. Here's how it works:

There is some cost to eating meat, in terms of animal welfare, the environment, etc. Let's assume that you quantify this cost, given the type of meat you eat, where it comes from, and how much you eat. So, for example, (and I'm just making up these numbers here), a hamburger costs the world 20 points and a chicken wing costs the world 3.

Now, let's assume that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are out there reducing the problems associated with meat, through lobbying, public relations to reduce demand, etc. Let's assume that giving money to these organizations has some effect on the state of the world. Of course, some are more effective than others, and choosing is difficult, but let's hold off on how to choose for another blog post. Let's assume further that we can quantify how effective a given donated dollar is. For example, and I'm making up numbers again, but giving one dollar to NGO x helps the world out 1 point.

If we could somehow get these numbers, then you could potentially purchase meat-eating credits. Suppose the numbers I made up above are accurate. Then, if I wanted to eat a hamburger ethically, I would donate 21 dollars to an appropriate NGO and eat the burger. I understand that this is not the way people typically think about ethics, but the reasoning is sound-- if you are doing this, then every time you eat a burger you are improving animal welfare in the world.  I picture getting a piggy bank and putting money into it every time I eat meat, according to some table of how much each costs the world, and every once in a while I empty it, count it up, and write a check.

So even though you're hurting the world by eating the meat, you're having a net benefit through the donation. It's important that this donation is above and beyond your normal donation rate. See my previous blog post on this topic.

I anticipate a harsh reaction from vegetarians, who will probably say that you should donate and don't eat meat. Fine, yes, that would be better. But for those of us who are not ready to give up meat for whatever reason, this is better than doing nothing at all. And the more meat they eat under this system, the better the world gets. Not only that, paying extra to eat the meat (it's in addition to the monetary cost of the meat, of course) might prove to be a disincentive to eat meat, encouraging people to eat less of it, reducing demand.

And every rational person should agree to this for some set of numbers. For example, if Bill Gates vowed to give a million dollars to animal welfare NGOs every time he went to McDonald's, I should think the vegetarians would prefer him to go to McDonald's than be vegetarian.

I want these numbers. How do we get them?

It's a perfect job for economists, who are expert at quantification and making a common metric for the comparison of apples and oranges. If anyone knows of an analysis like this, I would love to know about it.

In the meantime, maybe I should just make up numbers, because now I'm donating nothing.

Pictured: pigs at a factory farm. Factory farms are cramped and stressful for animals, but have benefits of reducing fighting between them. See the wikipedia for the controversy. 

References

Bittman, M. (2009). Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. Simon Schuster Paperbacks.New York.
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6 comments:

booksNyarn said...

Reducing demand is definitely a step in the right direction. I am not a vegetarian either, but have been able to find local suppliers for most of the meat I eat during the month. This ensures an actual trail of not only where the animal came from and its treatment, but many times what it ate. Being able to support local agriculture, to me, is as viable as investing in "green credits".

Jim Davies said...

As long as you don't live near a factory farm, I think you're right! You still might want a pay credit system for restaurants.

Also, note that local farmers are not necessarily green. Economies of scale might mean that a cow raised in a factory and shipped in could be better for the environment than a locally-raised one.

Jeanette Bicknell said...

I've also been buying our meat, chicken and eggs from local producers with a commitment to animal welfare. And eating less of it. When eating in restaurants I try to go veg or eat sustainable fish. (We won't get into the ethical and environmental complexities of eating fish...) I like your idea of a pay credit system.

mherzog said...

Here is a good video on meat: http://meat.org

Anya Savikhin said...

Sounds like you are trying to justify eating meat because you love it!

From a purely econ 101 standpoint, you're right, meat eating is a negative externality to the world, so at the current time marginal private cost of meat equals marginal private benefit of meat at a higher quantity than marginal total cost (including social cost) and marginal total benefit - pushing the burden of total cost onto the consumer (by requiring the donation) reduces quantity since marginal private cost is now higher and thus intersects with marginal private benefit at a lower quantity!

But if you make the donation voluntary, what you may not have thought of is that you are also messing with private benefit from eating meat.

Intuitively, wouldn't that just increase demand from those who care about the environment so they can assuage their guilt from eating meat, whereas before they may feel too guilty to eat it.

From an econ standpoint, it may actually increase demand, because now private benefit (i feel better from donating) also increases to match the increase in private cost. This would be true assuming lots of people now feel too guilty to eat meat but would eat it if they could compensate by donating.

People who don't benefit (from decreased guilt), aren't going to donate anyway and so their consumption would not be reduced. And people who do benefit from decreased guilt, you're right, may also donate voluntarily as is, but donating to the credit would replace current donating with something else.

On the other hand, you may be able to "guilt" non-caring people into paying the credit if it becomes standard (especially at restaurants), and there's a huge literature on tipping and suggested tips, where tipping is now the social norm, right, so credit system could become the social norm. If it becomes social norm, this is may be as close to making it required as you need for the system to work (now, you only increase private cost but not private benefit, thereby decreasing quantity).

If you made it MANDATORY, now, that would have the desired effect, because you are directly influencing the marginal cost, but not marginal benefit. Assuming you have complete power and can do anything you want, mandatory would be the way to go! :)

From a personal standpoint, if the credits do reduce meat-eating, that would create more vegetarian options at restaurants for us vegetarians, as more people switch to the cheaper option! :)

- Anya

Anonymous said...

Hehe - he said "piggy bank!"