Food Prices, Meat Consumption, and Paternalism

I took part it a Triangle Institute for Security Studies event at NC State last week on the theme of “Energy and Security,” where I briefly discussed my work on food prices and social unrest.

At the end of my talk, I mentioned a few policy options that global policy makers could pursue if they want to keep food prices down:

  1. Reduce incentives for farmers to divert food into fuel production.
  2. Discourage export bans and other protectionist measures in times of rising food prices.
  3. Encourage public agricultural research, which has practically ground to a halt since the 1980s.
  4. Let biotech and GM crops into Africa.
  5. Emphasize commodity speculation, which actually serves to smooth out food price spikes.

During the Q&A period, someone in the audience took issue with my first policy suggestion, saying that we should pay more attention to meat consumption instead.

The implicit argument being made was that because meat production diverts crops away from food toward animal feed, meat demand — which has been increasing in recent years thanks to richer consumers in Brazil, China, and India, among others — is worse for food prices than biofuels.

My answer: Maybe so. But there is such a thing as Bennett’s Law, the empirical regularity according to which as incomes increase, the average household tends to substitute away from coarse grains (e.g., barley, and sorghum) toward finer grains (e.g., rice or wheat). At higher levels of development, the average household tends to substitute away from carbohydrates (e.g., grains) toward protein (e.g., meat).

We (by which I mean those of us who were fortunate enough to be born in North America and Europe) have followed that pattern of development. Who are we to tell the billions of people whose incomes have been increasing all over the developing world in recent years that they should do as we say, not as we do?

We can certainly put the information out there that meat demand contributes to rising food prices, but anything else is, in my view, is paternalistic and reeks of double standards.