Vegetarianism – A Social or an Economic Issue?

People are always surprised when I tell them that I’m a vegetarian. I guess they’re used to people publicly sharing their eating preferences, even when unprompted. They usually follow up with asking how long I’ve been one and my reasoning behind my choice. While I can give a definitive answer to the first question (9 years), I have a harder time answering the second one. It seems as though an increasing number of people have eating restrictions and stories behind them, either moral stances they are taking, or physical barriers to them eating that food. Here I take a brief look at vegetarianism as both a social and economic issue.

Even though it may seem as though vegetarianism is growing in the US, statistics have found that only around three percent of population actually is vegetarian. However, these numbers may be distorted by a phenomenon known as the social desirability bias. This occurs when people lie when asked about their eating habits to appear in a manner that they think will be viewed more favorably by others. In an extreme and telling example, three percent of 13,313 respondents on a survey answered yes to the question, “Do you consider yourself to be a vegetarian?”, but when those people were contacted a week later, 66% of the “vegetarians” had eaten meat in the last 24 hours. Many people see vegetarianism as a moral ideal, but can’t avoid the allure of eating meat.

However, when weighed in from an economic perspective, being a vegetarian isn’t far fetched at all. Purchasing protein through meat is almost twice as expensive than receiving it from a vegetarian alternative such as lentils or legumes. A vegetarian can argue using simple opportunity cost analysis that a meatless diet gives them all of the vitamins and nutrients they need, costs significantly less, and carries fewer health risks as well. Such externalities arise when looking at the hidden costs or different diets. Positive externalities are present when looked at from an environmental point of view, as “it takes approximately sixteen calories worth of grains and soybeans to produce one calorie of protein from beef”.

Economically speaking, eating junk food that is high in calories and sugar and low in nutritional value is the most effective route to go. But the dilemma with eating such a diet is health problems, which is a serious negative externality. Unfortunately, many low-income families need to eat a diet that is generally unhealthy, but for people looking for a healthier option while still being economically smart, a vegetarian option is available. While protein from meat might be more expensive, there is a delicate balance as vegetables require high quality land and meat doesn’t. Animals can be bred in massive warehouses and only need to eat grass and food that would be otherwise inedible to humans. More land is required to produce vegetables, leading to a decreased efficiency of natural resources.

So it is seemingly beneficial for a percentage of the population to continue consuming meat. Eating is such a big part of everyday life, and there would have to be a distinct advantage either way to force people to change their gustatory habits.


3 thoughts on “Vegetarianism – A Social or an Economic Issue?

  1. I wonder how this conclusion would change if the scientific community could calculate the economic challenges that environment and climate change are and will continue to produce (which can be viewed as externalities). It is well known that cows produce carbon emissions. But beyond that, the meat industry also relies heavily upon constantly transporting meats to refrigerated cites, then to restaurants and stores, transporting food to the animals. Thus, the carbon emissions of this industry are even higher. Climate change will be very expensive for governments and tax payers. Taking this into account, I wonder if in the long run it would be economically feasible to lessen our country’s heavy reliance on meat.


  2. What is especially interesting about this post is the concept of what’s economical for the environment (in the large sense) and what’s economical for an individual. We observe the difference between the two as an externality, but in this case that externality is so widespread it has become accepted as a necessary part of life on Earth. The problem, as I understand it, is that people are not motivated to be vegetarians for personal economic reasons but moral reasons. However, as we have discussed in class, economic though and morality are not mutually exclusive! Perhaps the ‘moral logic’ behind being a vegetarian, put into economic terms, is an attempt to correct the negative externalities of eating meat.


  3. Not only is meat bad for the environment due to the negative externality of methane production, but it also takes more land to not only produce the meat, but also grow the food that the livestock consumes as well. Furthermore, the land where the livestock is kept is also destroyed, and unusable for crops for a couple of years. It would be interesting to compare the environmental benefit vs. the social benefit of decreasing meat production, and with that data potentially implement a different food production system.


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