The Stubborn Economics of Density

» August 23rd, 2014

First: take any product on earth and imagine producing a better—but inherently more expensive—version of it. Now imagine marketing it. You don’t have to be a whiz in economics to conclude that your target market will be a relative minority who values that product enough to pay more for a higher quality version. As a savvy producer, you will never lose sight of the fact that the core value of your product derives as much from the higher costs of production as the virtuous connotations your loyal followers confer on the commodity. As a sober producer, you will also never lose sight of the fact that your market will always be a small one compared to the millions upon millions of consumers who will remain perfectly happy with the cheaper mainstream version of the same commodity.

Second: take animal products made from animals raised on pasture and think about their place in the global meat market. These goods are inherently more expensive to produce: nothing you do as a producer to reduce costs will compete with the mainstream version. This fact is due to an inescapable reality: consolidating animals into CAFOs—even when the externalities are considered—is cost effective. The product is cheaper. The reasons confinement is more efficient are numerous: you need less land, you are less reliant on independent variables such as weather, the animals reach slaughter weight faster, you can  benefit from mechanization, you can capitalize on scale economies, and so on. Given the costs of production, the price of grass-fed anything will, on balance, always be higher. Whether we’re talking about houses or cows, density pays.

Finally: ask yourself how the second option will ever compete in a mass market with the first. I’m not saying millions and millions of consumers won’t vote with their forks and, recognizing the many benefits (in addition to the product’s quality) of the pastured version, choose to buy it. Good for them. But what I am saying is that the benefit will only be to their consciences, and nothing beyond. After all, with billions of consumers in the meat market, it would defy not only basic economics, but the history of basic human behavior for a majority of those consumers to choose the inherently more expensive version of the same product. That would be the definition of irrational.

Conclusion: those who want to reform the horrors of industrial animal agriculture by substituting the more expensive pastured version of meat and dairy with the cheaper and more efficient industrial version are irrational. There’s no other way to say it. The foodie media that writes glowing articles about pastured this or that under the assumption that this version of beef or pork or cheese is the wave of the future (in addition to animal welfare organizations that promote “humane” animal agriculture as a step in the “right direction”) need to wake up and realize that their fantasy—given what industrial agriculture is doing to animals and the environment—is one we really cannot afford.

Does this mean the end of eating animals? Not necessarily (more on this later). But, for now, we can only conclude that it would make so much more sense to promote the real benefits of saying no to all animals raised for the purposes of selling and eating them, rather than trying to clear an impossible hurdle.


32 Responses to The Stubborn Economics of Density

  1. Karen Harris says:

    Last paragraph threw me. Only “for now” saying no to all animals raised for meat?? Not the end of eating animals? Hmm … wonder what you are getting at – aside from possibly road kill or animals that die naturally???? Look forward to the follow-up posts expanding on your thinking.

  2. Rhys Southan says:

    One solution might be to treat this as the collective action problem that it (arguably) is and ban all the practices that cause industrially raised animals acute suffering, and to ban imports of meat raised in a way that caused animals acute suffering.

    The “rational” option of buying the cheaper, more harmful industrial meat then would cease to be an option. Not that this is likely to happen anytime soon, but is at least theoretically a way to get around the problem of basic economics.

  3. Rhys Southan says:

    You could say that vegan ethics has this same collective action problem, and similarly would need legislation to resolve it. Why can we expect ethics to trump the irrationality of people giving up all animal products when they enjoy eating animal products, but we can’t expect ethics to trump the irrationality of paying for high-welfare animal products when people like inexpensive meat?

    You’re assuming that vegans are forced to give up all animal products because their ethics require them to do this. No legislation needed, perhaps. But why couldn’t meat eaters have an ethic that forces them to give up all industrially raised meat, no legislation needed?

    Are you saying that vegan ethics are powerful and consistent enough to feasibly demand behavioral change whereas anti-factory-farming meat eater ethics are too vague and riddled with contradictions to feasibly demand consistent behavioral change on meat eaters’ part?

    • Daniel Sweeney says:

      From personal experience, I would say – yes – vegan ethics are more powerful and consistent when it comes to what is on their plate. Every meat eater I know claims to be against factory farming, but none would ever think to ask a restaurant or market about the source of the meat or dairy they serve. By no means are vegans perfect (or even perfectly vegan, regarding fertilizer, etc). But when it comes to what is served for dinner, there is no comparison between the average vegan and the average “ethical” meat eater.

      • Daniel Sweeney says:

        - and in regard to eliciting behavioral change, a person giving up all meat seems much more likely to happen than that person deciding to seek the meat source day in, day out. It’s just not practical.

        • Rhys Southan says:

          It’s often the case that people who care about ethically sourcing their meat are inconsistent or lazy about it, but I don’t see why that has to be the case if they have a clear and developed framework about it. Someone who eats meat only rarely because they only eat meat that fits their ethical standards is still giving up less than vegans are.

          Though I do think there’s a purity element to veganism that may make it easier to be consistent with veganism. For a lot of vegans, animal products start to seem repulsive, which helps to eradicate any temptation to eat them. For the high-welfare meat eater, industrial meat might still look appetizing and thus be tempting even though it doesn’t fit their ethics.

          But again, it’s still possible to eat meat within a certain ethical framework and only eat meat that fits within that framework. Just yesterday I talked to a philosopher who is a vegetarian except that she eats meat that is going to be thrown out. (Freeganism.) I don’t know her personally, but she seemed determined to stick to that rule and I would be surprised if she cheated by sometimes purchasing meat.

          • unethical_vegan says:

            A friend eats a strict vegan diet except for road kill and culled venison. It always amuses me to hear him ask for vegan options at a restaurant. (He would be asked to leave if some of these establishments were aware that he hunts.) It would not surprise me at all if there there were more strict “compassionatarian” omnivores than vegans.

            I also admit that I find my unwillingness to eat road kill to be mildly disturbing because I do believe that road kill is a more ethical choice than most “vegan” food.

    • James says:

      I didn’t frame this post in an ethical framework for the very reason you bring up. I’m really thinking about all these sustainable ag types who tout pastured beef as the end of industrial ag, the Savorys and such, and the emergence of paradise. As far as giving up meat goes, I note explicitly at the end that this may not be necessary (to achieve the environmental goals so many seek) but the sources cannot be from animals raised for slaughter. As for any ethics forcing any change, I’m deeply dubious, but I believe in the power of culture and convention (even if only supported by a scrim of ethics) having a powerful impact.

      • Rhys Southan says:

        Good point. I agree that the environmental argument is not a slam dunk for a purely vegan society. In fact the environmental argument for veganism would seem to prohibit animal sanctuaries and encourage hunting. If one reason that animal farming is bad from an eco perspective is that farmed animals release methane, then we should eat all currently existing animals rather than let them live out their lives on sanctuaries, and we should also hunt wild animals who release methane.

        You might also want to read Meat: A Benign Extravagance if you haven’t. Simon Fairlie makes another point, which is that the use of animals for farm labor could reduce fossil fuel use — assuming the animals are fed on feed grown without fossil fuels — because they can replace oil-burning equipment like tractors.

        • James says:

          I know the book and have read it closely, although I cannot recall off the top of my head what he says about how long to keep the animals alive. Do they get to die a natural death or are they part of an economic ecosystem as well?

          • Rhys Southan says:

            He is okay with slaughtering animals. If the animals have had babies and there are younger animals, then those younger animals could take over the farm labor that the older animals did. That obviously doesn’t fit with vegan ethics, but as far as I can see, that doesn’t seem to change his argument that using farm animals for labor could make it easier for farmers to avoid using gas-powered motorized farm equipment. He’s also in favor of farmers doing more manual labor themselves to cut down on fossil fuel use, like using a scythe to cut grass.

            Do you think that slaughtering animals makes his argument less plausible?

          • James says:

            I’m not sure if the slaughtering of animals makes his argument less plausible so much as raise the bar of moral justification. Is that the same thing? Maybe it is, but as a moral issue I find it much less ethically fraught to use animals as manure machines and allow their bodies to decompose into the landscape than to intervene and cut short the animals’ lives when doing so is unnecessary.

        • Daniel Sweeney says:

          Wow – I think going after the relatively minuscule number of animals on sanctuaries because of methane is a bit morally ridiculous, considering we constructed this hell. Maybe I’m missing something in this argument. Wouldn’t the freed animals in this hypothetical, unrealistic scenario die of old age within a couple of decades anyway?

          • James says:

            I have no idea what you’re talking about.

          • Daniel Sweeney says:

            I was referring to theory above suggesting that we “prohibit animal sanctuaries and encourage hunting. . . we should eat all currently existing animals rather than let them live out their lives on sanctuaries”

          • Rhys Southan says:

            I just mean that if we’re trying to do the environmentally *optimal* thing, that’s not veganism. Nor would it be a system of human rights! It would be better for the environment to hunt methane releasing wild animals and to slaughter all currently existing farm animals now rather than build sanctuaries for them all. Freeing them would of course be much worse because even if there weren’t very many of them, they could breed and create more methane releasing animals. Vegans sometimes imply that veganism is the environmentally optimal thing to do. My point is that it’s not.

            I don’t mean to say that because it’s not environmentally optimal to liberate animals or have sanctuaries that we shouldn’t do that. We do plenty of things that aren’t environmentally optimal. But when vegans say that we have to give up eating animal products because animal farming is not the best thing we can do for the environment, they’re relying on two questionable premises: that vegan ethics is the best for the environment (it isn’t), and that environmentalists only do whatever is most optimal for the environment (they don’t).

          • Daniel Sweeney says:

            “Vegans sometimes imply that veganism is the environmentally optimal thing to do. My point is that it’s not.”

            If allowing rescued farm animals to live out their lives is not “environmentally optimal,” I say who cares – do it anyway.
            That probably puts me into the irrational vegan category – but it seems there are so many other factors out there that are less than optimal for the environment – human existence, mainly – so it strikes me as unfair to target these animals.
            But – I agree – the blanket statement that veganism is an environmental panacea is a stretch. An improvement tho – surely.

        • unethical_vegan says:

          The use of fossil fuels is not a necessity — it is a tragedy of the commons.

          Moreover, a major contributor to agricultural GHG emissions is the production and use of manure as fertilizer. There is little question that this impact could be hugely mitigated via the use of synthetic fertilizer and no-till/injection farming.

  4. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    This is a society with a driving force that has ingrained into it’s fabric that enough is never Enough; in order to be considered successful, your income must be excessive – and grossly so.
    It’s created an ‘immune system’ where whatever is needed to continue generating that wealth can be bought – including legislation or exception to law and morality.
    It’s what keeps production of factory animals a filthy secret that even when revealed, the loss in economic terms to ‘fines’ is so ridiculously small it’s no deterrent at all.
    (I read an article recently that stated 7 Million piglets had died over the course of the past year from dysentery acquired from their mothers; barely a blip in terms of financial loss…)
    It’s what Ag-Gag is meant to protect (because Ag-Gag certainly doesn’t protect the consumer, does it?).
    All most of us can do is conduct ourselves in such a manner where we simply don’t contribute to that wealth, where we likewise insulate ourselves from the effects of factory farming or other animal-product industries. And while being vegetarian/vegan may never make us wealthy, for my family at least there has been a remarkable difference in our grocery bill, and my waistline.
    If we can’t appeal on ethical or moral grounds, perhaps the appeal should be on a more personal level – that of the family budget and body image.

    • Mountain says:

      Ag Gag laws are a rearguard action of a dying industrial system.

      As for wealth, I intend to become a wealthy man by taking down industrial agriculture. The people behind Beyond Eggs and other replacements for animal products intend to become wealthy by taking down industrial animal agriculture.

      • Lisa LeBlanc says:

        And I wish you well. But I hope when the time comes, you’re cognizant of when enough is plenty. Because it does little good – and I mean ‘good’ in the altruistic, human sense of the word – if one bestial industry already shoved down the throat of the consumer is replaced by another.

  5. Mountain says:

    First, claim that raising animals without confinement (“on pasture,” as you say) is inherently more expensive. Second, do nothing to substantiate this claim. Third, allude to the housing market, where consumers have spent the past century choosing lower-density suburbs over higher-density city centers, in spite of a public policy preference for higher-density housing. Finally, re-state your now-refuted claim.

    Conclusion, the consumer demand that animals be raised without (or with less) confinement has been growing, despite massive subsidies for confinement farming and bureaucratic obstacles to less confinement. If you really think raising animals on pasture will always be a niche market, let’s level the playing field and find out. Decentralization has been the dominant trend for the past 30-40 years. The massive wave of centralization that came with the Industrial Revolution is on the way out.

    If you want to, you can keep claiming that density always wins. I’ll keep demonstrating that it doesn’t.

    • James says:

      Do you think industrial agriculture—and confinement—arose for another reason besides the maximization of profit? If so, the floor is yours.

      • Mountain says:

        The desire to maximize profits existed long before the rise of industrial agriculture, yet industrial agriculture didn’t arise until the height of the Industrial Revolution. Why not? The conditions that contributed to the rise of industrial agriculture no longer hold today– if they did, Detroit would be a boomtown instead of a ghost town. Industrial agriculture hasn’t waned as much as Detroit (or Cleveland, or the steel industry), but it has waned in spite of the tremendous government support propping it up.

      • Mountain says:

        Maximizing profits is beside the point because all sides are trying to maximize profits. It’s a question of competing business models. Taxicabs are a centralized model for providing rides. Ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft are a decentralized model. In every locale that hasn’t banned them or regulated them out of existence, ride-share apps have made rides cheaper, more widely available, and easier to access (and in the process, has put a bigger dent in drunk driving than any public awareness campaign). Likewise, technology is making it easier and more affordable to raise animals without confining them.

      • Mountain says:

        Consider United Poultry Concerns’ animal sanctuary. As a non-profit, UPC is not trying to maximize profits, yet they keep the animals in confinement. It’s an exceptionally nice confinement, but the chickens are not free to wander wherever they choose and they are not free to feed themselves.

        Here, the driving factor behind confinement isn’t profit, but security for the birds. But their model of security is to confine the birds to keep them safe from predators, while our model is to keep them safe through the presence of guardians (currently, dogs and goats, and soon donkeys) and a well-designed landscape (lots of trees, shrubs, and bushes). Neither model is perfect– our approach minimizes attacks but can’t eliminate them, and their approach can have devastating losses on the rare occasion that a predator gets into a coop. But their centralized, higher-density approach leads to costs (chicken feed and additional materials) that ours doesn’t. Our decentralized, lower-density approach lowers our costs while increasing the freedom and self-sufficiency of the animals.

  6. Damodar says:

    Amen, James and readers!
    I recommend Joan Dunayer’s book “Speciesism,”
    and the websites and

    In Love and Gratitude,

  7. Matt says:

    The key take-away, for me, is that “happy meat” will never be more than a boutique product. And as advocates with limited time and resources, we should not focus so much on something that will never be significant. We can do so much more focusing elsewhere.

    • James says:

      This kind of comment misses a very important point: those pursuing the boutique option are articulating a message that resonates far beyond their numbers–namely, that it’s okay to raises and kill animals for food so long as certain welfare preconditions are met. If we do not confront this message head on, all other efforts will be lost.

      • Mountain says:

        Most people think it’s okay to raise and kill animals under any conditions. “Happy meat” people aren’t taking something that is normally wrong and saying “well, but it’s okay under these conditions.” They’re taking something that is normally considered right and saying “but this way of doing it is better” or “factory farm conditions are just too much.”

        Saying that “happy meat” causes people to think eating meat is okay is like saying “wet streets cause rain.”

        • Matt says:

          What Mountain said. Probably between 80 and 90% of people in the US don’t give a darn about what “happy meat” says about the righteousness of eating animals. All “happy meat” could go away tomorrow, and nothing would change with regard to people eating factory farmed animals. Again, we, as advocates, give the “happy meat” people far too much credit and power — they really don’t matter.

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