I only read it for the pictures, honestly

The Economist gets some well-deserved derision these days, but it still delivers lots of interesting data, illustrated by graphs that are usually well designed and informative. Via Kenny Easwaran I found this table (published by EconomistDailyChart, but I haven’t yet located the chart) of annual meat consumption per person by country. The data set has plenty of anomalous features, but looks accurate enough for my purposes.

I’ve previously argued that we can feed the world if we make the right choices. . More precisely, our current food system produces more per person than is needed for adequate nutrition, and can continue do so in future if the right policy choices are made. The key problem is distribution, not production.

But the meat consumption data leads me to a more surprising conclusion.  Using current technology and with no additional diversion of food grain, the world could produce enough meet to give everyone an intake comparable to that of the average person in the Netherlands[fn1].

Here are the numbers we need to start with from the data table. Current average annual world meat consumption is 9.5 kg beef, 15kg pork and 12.5kg chicken for a total of 37kg per person per year. Netherlands average is 70 kg.

Each kg of grain-fed beef requires about 8kg of grain, compared to 2kg for chicken, and the trade-off similar when cattle are pastured on land that could be used for grain. So, 5kg of beef could be replaced by 20 kg of chicken.

The other main user of grain (apart from human consumption) is ethanol production which now takes something like 140 million tonnes a year. Fed to chickens that would produce around 70 million tonnes or 10kg per person per year. 

That would give an average of 62kg per person per year, not far below the Dutch average. To fill the remaining gap, I’ll call on the usual suspects, reductions in inefficiency and waste.

The reduction in methane emissions from cattle would almost certainly outweigh any adverse impact from reduced ethanol production (numbers on both of these effects vary so wildly that I’m not going to attempt a calculation for now).

How feasible is all this? The use of food grain for biofuels is discredited as a policy, and even the US Congress has withdrawn some support. The shift towards chicken makes economic sense, and would be accelerated if carbon pricing were applied to agriculture, which might well happen in the next couple of decades. So, world meat production could increase steadily over the next few decades, well ahead of population growth.

That still leaves the crucial problem of distribution. People in some rich countries, notably the US and Australia consume much more than the Netherlands, and that the  billion or so poorest people in the world can’t afford enough grain to eat, let alone meat. Until this changes, increasing average meat production isn’t going to solve the problem. [2]

There’s no real answer to this within the current world order, except to wait for poor people to become richer, as they have done in much of South-East Asia and are now doing, in large numbers, in China and India.

But a large part of my reason for doing exercises like this one is to consider the feasibility of a better world, even if it might be considered utopian at present. The ability of the world to feed itself, and to do so with a diet that should satisfy any reasonable person, is an important precondition. Until recently it has not been met – the total food output of the world has been barely adequate in normal times, and quite inadequate in famine years. But now, as I’ve argued it’s entirely possible.


fn1. I’ve picked the Dutch because they are supposed to be the tallest people in the world, which implies an adequate diet.

fn2. Even in a world where everyone had enough, substantial differences would persist. For example according to the data in the table, meat consumption (I’m not sure if they have a good handle on fish) in Japan is very low by developed country standards, and obviously this reflects preferences and national policies, rather than poverty.





Posted via email from John’s posterous

81 thoughts on “I only read it for the pictures, honestly

  1. @TerjeP

    I’m not convinced that having no tax will maximise liberty.

    That’s inconsistent with your other position:

    My point is that it is stupid to pretend that taxation entails no infringement of liberty.

    Which is it, for you?

    Then suabstantive problem for you is that yours is a fundamentalist position. “Liberty” is a fairly nebulous concept and it embraces more than the discretion of all us individual sovereigns to act. It’s also a measure of the constraints on others arising from discretion exercised by some. Some taxes or levies may well have a net negative impact on all categories of liberty — and some may have no upside at all. Your hypothetic “tax on homs#xu@l acts might be such a thing. Yet some wil have a net positive impact on liberty, by relieving others of impositions that would arise but for the tax. One can’t work out which of these is the better evaluation merely by deciding wether something is failry called a tax or levy.

    It may well be that a levy imposed in part on products containing more than trace NaCl negatively affects the liberty of people wanting to consume products with lots of it in it. The question is whether the levy leads to less illness, more productive lives and so forth and whether the boon to the person paying more for salt-based products in practice or people in general exceeds this loss.

  2. Good pick up, Fran. It’s welcome respite when these discussions actually hit a simple point of logic. 🙂

    It may stupid to pretend that taxation entails no infringement of liberty but it is (at least) equally stupid to pretend that taxation cannot enhance liberty.

    The problem for libertarians is that their focus on restricting government imposition on the impeccant individual means they only consider a tiny domain for liberty – a open analysis of a tax on salt content would include the profound loss of liberty that comes with conditions like heart disease.

  3. The important thing that I think most commentators here (including myself) believe in, is finding the best balance in freedom

    Tom – that is an honest and sensible outlook. Even though I may have different conclusions regarding what is “best” I share the outlook.

    In contrast Ikonoclast simply says there is no balancing to be done because taxation has no impact on liberty. This is intellectually lazy and dishonest.

  4. Fran – there is no contradiction between my two statements. Just to spell it out for you:-

    1. Taxation infringes on liberty.
    2. It is utopian to believe in a society where there is no infringement on society.
    3. Deliberately violating liberty may on the margin be necessary if the goal is to maximise liberty.

    The last point is somewhat analogous to saying that if we hate forest fires and want to minimise forest fires then it may sometimes be necessary to light forest fires. It’s called back burning.

  5. @TerjeP


    It seems to me your notion of ‘liberty’ short-changes the intelligence of people, including their understanding of what is known in game theory as ‘a binding constraint’. To illustrate, consider a society where each and every member ‘in principle’ agrees with your value of ‘liberty’ (voluntary actions) but in this society, people are not constrained to have only one value. For example each and every member in this society also values (desirable) intellectual honesty and social justice and they all know effort and dilligence are not the only determining factor for people to make a ‘decent living’. All of them agree on the notion of ‘decent living’. All of them are so intelligent as to know that any one of them at one point in time could have ‘bad luck’ regarding making a ‘decent living’ (they know ‘life is risky’). Each of the members knows that a social security system is in principle desirable to insure against ‘bad luck’. How much would an individual be prepared to pay, given that he or she cannot be sure that others will contribute a comparable amount? This is the problem of absence of a binding constraint on each and every member to adher to decisions which are individually optimal if and only if everybody else adhers to their individuallly optimal decision, given the decision of all others. Clearly, having a taxing agent in the society would provide a binding constraint (setting aside the tax cheats). Sometimes people who reason like this are said to have ‘enlightened self-interest’.

  6. LOL on the “Pigovian Tax”, an entirely new concept for me to get my head around.

    “Pigovian taxes were theorized to correct negative externalities by imposing an additional marginal cost on a producer. By penalizing an unfavorable behavior, economic policymakers believe that the tax system would discourage or limit the activity which causes the negative externality. ” Source.. http://astriddare.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/pigovian-taxes/

    So that would be something like our Price on Carbon, (no it is not a tax).

  7. @Xevram

    Although, it would be possible to have a pigovian tax approach to reducing the impact of carbon emissions. For a range of reasons, I don’t think this would be optimal in practice, but certainly, one could design a system that operated in this way.

  8. TerjeP’s notions of “liberty” are very restrictive, individualist and peculiar in my opinion. One of my views on liberty is that human liberty is really a social and socially relative construct as well as an individual construct. As soon as liberty becomes entirely an atomistic individualist construct it becomes solipsistic. I want the real, socially-connected liberty of living in a publicly and socially concerned society where I can be confident that atomistic selfishness and competiveness are not the only operative forces.

    As a side issue, for TerjeP to believe that democratically determined taxes are more on infrigement on liberty than privately and corporately determined profit margins, cartel behaviour and so on is quite untenable. And to believe that profiteering, monopolistic and/or cartel style behaviour wouldn’t occur on a large scale in a minarchist state is to be extraordinarily naive.

  9. @Ernestine Gross

    BTW Ernestine, I totally agree with your reasoning there. It’s logica and very well expressed. It’s good to be able to agree somtimes (as you and I don’t see eye to eye on some of the micro/macro debates of economics).

  10. @Ikonoclast

    Words get in the way – this is how I see it. I am not into economic schools of thought and socio-economic-political category labels. To illustrate how these words can get in the way, most if not all of your writings makes sense to me but for the word ‘dirigism’. My interests are in what some people call analytical economics. So, in a sense, I don’t fit into many discussions but JQ tolerates me and I very much appreciate his blog.

  11. @Ernestine Gross

    No doubt you are referring to my anglicised spelling.

    “Dirigisme is from the French. In English it is also “dirigism”, although both spellings are used by the OED.” – Wikipedia.

    “Dirigisme is an economy in which the government exerts strong directive influence. It designates a mainly capitalist economy with strong directive, as opposed to merely regulatory, economic participation by the state.

    Most modern economies can be characterized as dirigiste to some degree – for instance, state economic action may be exercised through subsidizing research and developing new technologies, or through government procurement, especially military (i.e. a form of mixed economy).”- Wikipedia.

    One of the best modern examples of effective dirigisme, IMO, comes from the heyday (1950s and 1960s) of MITI (Ministry of International trade and Industry) in Japan.


  12. Ernestine – you seem to be referring to the free rider problem and the virtue of a welfare state in dealing with that problem through compulsory contribution. Ironically the welfare state creates it’s own set of free rider problems. In any case there are ways to deal with these sort of collective concerns without the state taking over. Exclusion being one means. Friendly societies did a good job providing welfare, based purely on voluntary action and contribution, well before the state nationalised what they were doing.

  13. TerjeP, with a bit of luck, almost everything works on some occasions. For example, exclusion works if there is already a, lets call it, a coalition. Successive exclusion results in individuals in isolation. Friendly societies may or may not do a good job in some sense but , if I understand correctly, they deal with the consequences – after the event – of ‘bad luck’ while the idea of achieving binding commitments is ex-ante. The term ‘welfare state’ is a bit loaded by now – no? The choice of an institutional framework involving a taxing agent is also voluntary (as described). This is not to say that any arbitrary taxing agent would be consistent with the idea (hence ongoing debates about the appropriate taxation system in a democracy with enlightened self-interested people). Anyway, I said what I felt I could contribute.

  14. @TerjeP

    Ironically the welfare state creates it’s own set of free rider problems.

    What is the evidence? Something you’ve read on Bolt’s Blog? T-party rant?

    In Australia access to the welfare state is highly regulated and any free-riders here pale in significance to the problems caused by greedy capitalists.

    Why do we always get such attacks on people forced to live on welfare?

    Europe now needs welfare for its workers and in the USA 14% of the population lives on ‘food stamps’.

  15. What is the evidence? Something you’ve read on Bolt’s Blog? T-party rant?

    How about my own eyes and my own life experience. Maybe you live in a palace high on a hill or some distant cave. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

  16. TerjeP read some of the evidence that shows that what you ‘see’ and your ‘life experience’ are limited by the inability of your brain to process this evidence without prejudice, particularly since you are such a strong ‘believer’ in your ideology.

    My eyes and life experience of being on welfare most of my life, tell me something very different about the worth and necessity of state provided welfare.

    The friendly societies you talk about were not so friendly to those they judged to be undeserving poor and ‘welfare’ provided by charity is, for some people, a fate worse than death – so much pride some of us have we’d rather starve than accept charity provided by the rich and powerful who stole the earths’ resources from the meek and gentle, and then structured society so that those who are not greedy and selfish will always ‘fail’.

  17. Your eyes deceive you, Terje. The cost of tax evasion to the system dwarfs the cost of welfare cheats by some ten to one. But you’ll never hear anyone calling for a ‘dob in a tax evader’ scheme, or see Today Tonight knocking on the door of well to do business owners who squirrel several thousand dollars a year away.

  18. Can we expect people who ‘believe’ that tax is theft, to be able to follow the argument that tax evasion is as much a crime as welfare fraud?

  19. We’ll see, Julie. I tried to explain it to an in-law yesterday and didn’t have much luck. Or, rather, it wasn’t that he couldn’t accept it was just as much a crime – it was that it didn’t matter! It was like asking someone with a lifetime of anger directed at one group of people to suddenly shift that anger onto another group of people. No matter, I’ve got years to grind away at him. He’ll wish his daughter never met me. Actually, that’s not true…I think he’s rapt he has someone to argue with! (I’m not displeased either)

    Katz, there’s only one thing you need to remember about NZers…they’ll steal your couch if you give them half a chance. While I was looking forward to calling up a few friends and asking them what they eat…is it possible you misread that table a bit 😉

  20. Nick I am frequently delusional and somewhat obsessive but it seems to me that there are some very interesting new ideas from evolutionary biology/psychology about the way the human brain works and soon this evidence will provide a rational story that explains to all intelligent people why humans are they way we are.

    I haven’t read it yet but several reviews of the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s new book indicate that it is worth reading. I also note that there is new group of libertarians who seem to understand that people aren’t blank slates and the market isn’t an even playing field; they are called bleeding heart libertarians.

    But we must not derail the thread although it is much fun to speculate on the flaws of the ‘other’.

  21. Thanks, Julie. The first three chapters are on google books if you’re interested…happy to discuss one day.

  22. @TerjeP

    See what ??????????

    You were asked for evidence ?

    Just saying ‘things I see with my eye’ without specifying what this is, does not help.

    You are just running on dogma.

  23. For those who are worried about boredom I will mention that chicken is not the only organism with a low feed conversion ratio. Fish can have a much lower ratio and insects can apparently have a ratio half that of chicken. If someone wants a kilo of beef, they can just forgo four kilos of chicken to get it. Or replace five kilos of chicken with five kilos of aquacultured salmon and a kilo of beef. Or replace four kilos of chicken with a kilo of beef and four kilos of crickets. But the details don’t really matter, as John’s post is just a very interesting thought experiment to show what is possible and we probably shouldn’t get too hung up on the details.

  24. Oops. I misread your latest comment. My apology. Ignore my comment above.

  25. @Nick
    Nick, I have seen figures as high as 50-1. Am not sure how reliable they are, but either way tax evasion is a much bigger scam than welfare fraud.

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