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The Coming Meat Wars

By now, I suspect many of you have seen the report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, which was released on January 16th.

Among other things, the report recommends a dramatic reduction in consumption of meat and animal products. Here is their recommended plate.

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Much has been made on Twitter and other places about the size of the small meat and animal product proportions suggested (e.g., 1/4 egg per day), and the fact that more added sugar is suggested than most meat products.

Rather, than going line-by-line through the report, I think it’s useful to take a step back and see this report as another front in what seems to be an escalating war on meat and animal food products (recall the debate surrounding the scientific advisory report on dietary guidelines back in 2015? Here were my thoughts then). What I thought I’d do in response is to provide some broader thoughts about some of the debates that have arisen about meat consumption. My purpose isn’t to defend meat and livestock industries, but to help explain the consumption patterns we see, add some important context and nuance to these discussions, and help ensure consumer welfare isn’t unduly harmed. (Full disclosure: over the years, I’ve done various consulting projects for meat and livestock groups such as the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, the Pork Board, and the North American Meat Institute. All of this work was on specific projects or data analysis related to labels or demand projections, and none of these groups support writing such as this, but I mention it here for sake of transparency).

Here are my thoughts.

  • These debates can be contentious because meat, dairy, and egg production is big business and critically important to the economic health of the agricultural sector. For example, these USDA data show in 2017 in the U.S. the value of cattle/calves was about $67 billion, poultry and eggs about $43 billion, diary about $38 billion, and hogs about $21 billion, for a total of $176 billion at the farm gate. Contrast this with the value of corn ($46.6 billion), vegetables and melons ($19.7 billion), fruits and nuts ($31 billion), or wheat ($8.7 billion). In many ways, livestock/poultry can be see as “value added” production because these animal products rely on corn, soy, hay, and grass

  • Given the farm-level statistics, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that consumers spend a lot on meat, dairy, and eggs. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Survey suggest that in 2017 consumers spend about $181 billion on animal products eaten at home. This doesn’t count food away from home, which is 43.5% of food spending according to these data (spending on food away from home isn’t segregated into food types as is food at home). Of total spending on food at home, 32% goes toward meat, dairy, and eggs.

  • If anything, data suggest demand for meat (i.e., the amount consumers are willing to pay for a given quantity of meat) has been steady or rising over the past decade. For example, see these demand indices created by Glynn Tonsor. His data also shows there has been a steady increase in demand for poultry for the past several decades. At the same time, my FooDS data suggests a slight increase in the share of people who report being vegetarian or vegan over the past five years - going from around 4% in 2013 to around 6% in 2018. So, aggregate demand for animal products is up, although there seems to be increasing polarization on both ends of spectrum. We also find that meat consumption is increasingly related to political ideology, with conservatives having higher beef demand than liberals.

  • There are important demographic differences in meat consumption, but the results highly depend on which meat cuts we are talking about. For example lower income households have higher demand for ground beef and lower demand for steak than higher income households. Broadly speaking, meat consumption is a “normal good”, which means that consumption increase as incomes rise. This is particularly true in developing countries. One of the first things people in developing countries add to their diet when they get a little more money in their pockets is animal protein.

  • Given the high levels of aggregate meat consumption indicated above, the evidence suggests strong consumer preferences for meat and animal-based products. Taxes on such products will harm consumer welfare, and will be costly if, for no other reason, because of the size of the industry. Stated differently, consumers highly valuing having animal protein in their diets. This study shows the average U.S. consumer places a higher value on having meat in his or her diet than having any other food group.

  • Calls for taxes are often predicated on the notion that there are externalities from meat, egg, and dairy production that need to be internalized (otherwise, this would amount to little more than “nannying” or paternalism). The externalities on the health care front presumably come from the fact that we have Medicare and Medicaid, which socialize health care costs. As I’ve written about on many occasions (e.g., see this paper), these “externalities” do NOT create economic inefficiencies because they simply represent transfers from healthy to the sick. Any inefficiencies that arise occur because of moral hazard (i.e., people eating unhealthy because they think the government/taxpayers will foot the bill), and the solution to this insurance problem is typically to require deductibles or risk-adjusted insurance pricing, which nobody seems to be proposing as a solution. As for environmental externalities, the key is to ensure prices for inputs such as water or energy, or outputs such as carbon or methane, reflect external costs. In this sense it isn’t the cow or chicken that is the “sin” but the under-priced water or carbon. Here the goal is to adopt broad policies that apply to all sectors (ag and non-ag) and that encourage and allow for innovation to reduce impacts.

  • On climate impacts of animal agriculture, it is important not to confuse global figures of climate impacts with U.S. figures, which tend to be much lower (e.g., see my piece in the WSJ a few years ago on this topic). Why would climate impacts be lower in the U.S.? Because we tend to be more intensified and productive than elsewhere in the world. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but more intensive livestock operations (because of the massive productivity gains) can significantly reduce environmental impacts when measured on a per unit of output (e.g., pound of meat or egg) basis.

  • As for carbon impacts, the big culprit here is beef and to a lesser extent (due to the smaller cattle numbers), dairy. Why? Because cattle are ruminants. The great benefit of ruminants is that they can take foodstuffs inedible to humans (e.g., grass, hay, cottonseed) and convert them into products we like to eat (e.g., cheese, steak) (see further discussion on this here). The downside is that ruminants create methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). The good news is that the GHG emissions from beef production have significantly fallen over time because of dramatic productivity gains (see this paper), but they’re not zero. It’s also important to note that not all greenhouse gasses are created equal, and while methane is a potent greenhouse gas, my understanding is that the impacts from livestock are less persistent in the atmosphere than are other types of greenhouse has emissions. While we can cut GHG emissions by eating less beef, at least in the U.S., the impacts are fairly small (the EPA puts contributions from livestock at around 3-4% of the total), we can also make strides by continuing to increase livestock productivity.

  • While cattle are more problematic on the GHG front, it is important to note that there are likely tradeoffs (real or perceived) on the animal welfare front in comparison with other species. Most beef cattle live most of their lives outdoors on a diet of grass or hay. Cattle often make use of marginal lands that would be environmentally degrading to bring into row crop production. By contrast, most pork and poultry live the vast majority of their lives indoors on a diet of corn and soy. See my book with Bailey Norwood on the topic of animal welfare.

  • There are some interesting innovations happening on the “lab grown meat” and “plant-based protein” space, which aim to replace protein from animal based sources. I haven’t seen these innovators make many claims about relative health benefits, but they often suggest significant benefits in terms of environmental impacts. I hope they’re ultimately right, but they’ve got a long way to go. Lab-grown meat isn’t a free lunch, and all those cells have to eat something. As I’ve also noted elsewhere, it is curious that these products (plant- or cell- based) are still more expensive than conventional meat products. If these alternative proteins are really saving resources, they should ultimately be much less expensive. Time will tell.

  • Despite the excitement around the alternative protein sources, I don’t think we’ll see an end to cattle production anytime in the near future. Why? Well, there is the aforementioned marginal land issue; many agricultural lands aren’t very productive for use in other activities other than feeding cattle or housing other livestock or poultry. Another issue is that cattle and other livestock are food waste preventing machines. A big example here is distillers grains. What happens to all the “spent” grain that runs through ethanol plants or beer breweries? Its feed to livestock. The same is true of “ugly fruit”, non-confirming bakery items, and more. Also, without animal agriculture, where will organic agriculture get all it’s fertilizer, which currently comes from the manure of conventionally raised farm animals?

  • Back to the EAT-Lancet commission, one of the big arguments for reducing meat consumption is health. While there are many studies associating meat consumption with various health problems, the strength of evidence is fairly weak. One big problem is that it’s really tough to do dietary-impact studies well and a lot of the evidence comes from fairly dubious dietary recall studies, but the other issue is that there is generally little attempt to separate correlation from causation. As I’ve written in other contexts, “Its high time for a credibility revolution in nutrition and epidemiology.”

  • The EAT-Lancet report focuses both on health and sustainability issues. However, as I noted with regard to the 2015 dietary guidelines, which initially aimed to do the same, this conflates science and values. As I wrote then, “Tell us which foods are more nutritious. Tell us which foods are more environmentally friendly. But, don't presume to know how much one values taste vs. nutrition, or environment vs. nutrition, or price vs. environment. And, recognize that we can't have it all. Life is full of trade-offs.”

  • Finally, I’ve heard it suggested that we need new policies and regulations to offset bad farm policies, which have led to overproduction of grains and livestock. This view is widely believed and also widely discredited. For example, see this piece by Tamar Haspel in the Washington Post. In the U.S., beef, pork, broilers, and eggs receive no direct production subsidies. Yes, there are various subsidies for feedstocks like corn and soy, but there are also other policies that push the prices of these commodities up rather than down (why would farmers want policies that would dampen the prices of their outputs?). Large scale CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) must comply with a host of rules and regulations that raise costs (it should be noted that the government provides some funding, through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program, to incentivize certain practices by CAFOs thought to improve environmental outcomes). If U.S. farm bill was completely eliminated, there would not doubt be some change, but it wouldn’t do much to change the volume of meat, dairy, and egg produced.

That’s more than enough to chew on for now.

Trends in Farm Land Acreage

I hear a lot of talk about the impacts of federal farm policy on our food system. It is sometimes suggested that farm policy is to blame for “cheap food” and thus obesity (see this nice twitter response by Tamar Haspel) or that many of our purported modern day farm and food ills can be traced back to Earl Butz, who as Secretary of Agriculture in the early 1970’s encouraged producers to plant “fence row to fence row.”

One way to evaluate these sorts of claims is to look at how much (or little) crop acreage in the U.S. has changed over time. Here is data according from the USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service on the amount of land planted to nine major commodity crops over time (note: vegetable acreage, which comprises only about 1% of all acreage is not included; nor is fruit or nut acreage, which is also a very small share of the total).

The figure below shows the cumulative acreage in the U.S. planted to nine major commodity crops over 93 year time period from 1926 to 2018. Over the entire time period, there was an average of 246 million acres planted to these nine crops each year. Seven out of the 10 highest planting years were prior to 1937 with the remaining three being in 1980, 1981, and 1982.

The coefficient of variation (the standard deviation divided by the mean) is only about 7.5%, implying relatively low variation over time (usually a figure less than 100% would be considered low variation). Since 1990, there have been relatively small year-to-year changes. Over the most recent 28 year time period, about 225.7 million acres are planted each year to these nine commodity crops, with a coefficient of variation of only 1.8%. This lower variation in recent years is interesting because farm policy has been much more market-oriented since 1996, and this is precisely the period over which there has been more stability in planted acreage.

Total land devoted to farming (or crop acreage) today is about 12% lower than the highs of the 1930’s and the early 1980’s. This is amazing in many ways given that the U.S. population is now 130% higher than it was in the 1930’s. Stated differently, twice as many people are now being fed on fewer crop acres.

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Moving away from total acreage, it is instructive to look at the mix of acreage (see the two following figures). Here, we can see some significant changes in which crops are planted in the U.S. over time. For example, in 1926, there were only 1.9 million soybean acres but in 2018, for the first year in history, more acreage (89 million acres) was planted to soybeans than any other crop. Prior to that corn had been king every year except 1981-1983, when more acres were devoted to wheat than corn.

Another big change was a reduction in the number of acres planted to oats. Prior to the 1960’s, more than 40 million acres of oats were routinely planted each year. In 2018, only 2.7 million acres were in oats. Why the change? One big reason is that there aren’t as many mules and horses that need to be fed. Cotton also experienced a precipitous reduction in acreage from the late 1920’s to the early 1960s, stabilizing a bit thereafter.

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The following figure shows the same data, but with acreage dedicated to each crop expressed as a percentage of total acreage in a given year.

Taken together, these three figures suggests the big change hasn’t been the total farmland planted but rather the change in which crops are planted to the acres. Moreover, this crop mix issue (the rise of soy and the decline of oats) probably had little to do with farm policy.

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Given all the concerns expressed these days about mono-cropping, it might be interesting to look at the variation in planted acreage (in terms of the mix of crops planted) today than in the past. To see this, I calculated the coefficient of variation across the number of acreages planted to each of the nine crops in each year. This gives a feel for how much crop variation there in a given year. Here are the results plotted over time.

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The coefficient of variation ranges from about 87% to 138%. Comparing this to the coefficient of variation for total acreage planted (which was 7.5%), implies there is more variation in which crops are planted to which acreages in a given year than there is variation in the total planted acreage over time.

The figure above shows that the crop-mix variation (at least among these nine crops) has been increasing since the 1960s, and the variation is higher in the past decade than at any point in the preceding 80 years.

The Cost and Market Impacts of Slow Growth Broilers

I just finished up a new working paper (available here) with my Purdue ag econ colleague Nathan Thompson and Shawna Weimer, a soon-to-be assistant professor of poultry science at the University of Maryland.

Readers may recall my post from a couple months ago on consumer demand for slow-growth chickens. This new paper focuses on producer costs of switching to slow-growth broiler chicken. Here’s the motivation from the paper (references removed for readability):

While modern broilers only live about six weeks, there are concerns that the bird’s legs are unable to adequately support the larger bodyweights, leading to pain and an inability to exhibit natural behaviors. As a result of such findings, animal advocacy organizations have begun to pressure food retailers to use slower growing breeds, European regulators have encouraged slow growth broilers, national media attention has begun to focus on the issue, and some animal welfare standards and labels have begun to require slower growing broiler breeds. There has been some consumer research on demand for this attribute, but little is known about the added production costs associated with slow growth chickens.

We obtained data from commercial breeding companies on two slow growth broiler breeds (called Ranger Classic and Ranger Gold) and data on two modern fast growing breeds (called Ross 308 and Cobb 500). Here are the growth curves for the four broiler breeds:

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The two slow growth breeds are, well, slower growing. The slower-growing breeds take 54 and 59 days, respectively to reach 6 lbs, whereas the faster growing breeds both hit this target weight in about 41 days.

These growth data are combined with data on feed intake, prices, assumptions about stocking density, and more, and we calculate costs and returns under a number of different scenarios. Here are the main results for the most likely scenario where producers choose the number of days to feed broilers so as to maximize net returns and where slow growth broilers have a more generous stocking density than fast growth broilers, as dictated in many animal welfare guidelines.

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About 17.45 lbs/ft2/year (or 73%) more chicken on a dressed weight basis is provided by the two fast vs. two slow growth productions systems, on average. Thus, substantially more barn space, or square footage, would be required to produce the same volume of chicken from slow as compared to fast growth breeds. Costs of production average $0.54/lb for the two slow growth breeds and average $0.47/lb for the two fast growth breeds, implying costs are 14% higher per pound for the slower growth breeds. Fast growth breeds are substantially more profitable - generating returns about twice as high per square foot than the slower growth breeds. We calculate that the slower growth broilers would need to obtain wholesale price premiums of $0.285/lb and $0.363/lb to achieve the same profitability as the best performing fast growth breed.

We also use these estimates to calculate potential market impacts that would occur if the entire industry transitioned from fast to slow growth broiler breeds. Under the most likely scenario, we calculate that converting to slow growth breeds would increase retail chicken prices by 1.17% and reduce the amount of retail chicken sold by 0.91%, resulting in losses in producer profits of $3.5 billion/year. We also calculate that consumers would be worse off by $630 million/year, assuming their demand for chicken doesn’t change in response to the switch from slow to fast growth. Increases in consumer willingness-to-pay of 8.5% would be needed to offset the adverse effect on producer profits.

It’s Election Season – For Food Too. California Prop 12 Edition

At this point, you’ve probably seen enough campaign ads that you don’t need me to tell you that elections are around the corner. 

Among several food and agricultural issues up for vote this year across the country is Proposition 12 in California.  The official California voter guide has the following information on the initiative:

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If this feels like deja vu, you’re right. California votes passed a similar law in 2008 (Prop 2).  The new bill (Prop 12) goes further by explicitly specifying a minimum amount of space per farm animal and by requiring cage free production systems for egg laying hens by 2022.

Allison Van Eenennaam, animal scientist at UC Davis, has weighed in with her (critical) thoughts on Prop 12, and she pointed out the irony that the main donor against Prop 12 is an animal advocacy organization that would like the conversion to cage free to happen sooner than is required in this proposition.

I’ve received a few calls from reporters asking my thoughts on potential market impacts of Prop 12. I’ll share them here.

  • I’ve co-authored two papers on market impacts of the previous Prop 2 and the associated state legislation that went into effect in 2015 (see this paper with Conner Mallally and this one with Trey Malone). The paper with Conner showed a roughly 30% price impact of Prop 2 immediately after it went into place, an effect which fell to about 10% about a year and a half later.

  • There are reasons to expect Prop 12 to have smaller or larger effects than what we measured for Prop 2.

    • Why smaller? An increasing share of egg production, nationwide, is coming from cage free production systems (see data here), and if pledges by food retailers to go cage free are upheld, more than three quarters of the industry will be cage free by 2025. Moreover, a number of other states have passed laws to go cage free. Given these apparent trends toward increasing cage free, the effects of Prop 12 per se may be small. That’s not to say that egg prices won’t rise (they will), but that Prop 12 may not be the ultimate proximate cause.

    • Why larger? Well, retailer pledges may not be upheld and industry conversion to cage free has slowed. Cage free and organic combined are only around 17% of the total laying flock at present. Moreover, our previously estimated price impacts of Prop 2 occurred in a situation where producers did not have to undertake large capital investments. Producers could comply with the space requirements that resulted from Prop 2 by removing a hen or two from a cage. By contrast, Prop 12 will require entirely new housing systems, resulting in significantly higher conversion costs than did Prop 2.

  • If I was forced to make a guess about the effect size coming from a future study of the impacts of Prop 12 (a future study like the ones I conducted with Conner or Trey), I’d guess something around a 15-25% price increase in retail shell egg prices by mid-2022 relative to the counterfactual of no Prop 12.

  • There are other impacts of Prop 12 that are getting less attention but could have big impacts. In particular, Prop 12 would prohibit sales of pork from gestation crate systems. Because California relies on the rest of the U.S. for virtually all it’s pork, I could imagine situations in the short run where retailers have difficulty sourcing enough supplies that comply with the new regulation. If this seems far fetched, remember when Chipotle had to stop selling carnitas, and then, for at time, sold the pork dish with supplies that did not meet it’s guidelines? Another potential consequence, noted by Van Eenennaam is that Prop 12 would prevent “scientific and agricultural” research from studying animal behavior in conditions that don’t comply with Prop 12. It’s hard to quantify the impact of the inability to learn about certain research questions, but the impact isn’t zero.

Happy voting!

Trends in National School Lunch Program

Back in 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Act, championed by Michelle Obama, provided funding for free and reduced price school lunches and breakfasts, introduced a variety of new nutritional guidelines, and provided incentives for schools to offer healthier options.

The law went into effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 academic year. There was a fair amount of initial push back. A video from these Kansas students protesting the calorie restrictions has been viewed more than a million times, and other students took to social media with photos of the new lunches using the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama. This CNN article from 2017 provides some background and also reports on the efforts of a large school food service industry association to roll back some of the guidelines.

The new guidelines may well have generated some positive health benefits for students who ate school lunches. But, how have these policies potentially affected participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)? Students are not required to eat the school-provided NSLP lunches. Students can bring food from home, go off campus, or find other substitutes at school.

I downloaded some data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). These data show that in 2017, 4.89 billion lunches were served under the NSLP, with 73.6% being free or reduced price and the remaining 26.4% of students paying full price. How have these statistics changed over time?

As the figure below shows, there was a nearly linear increase in the number of lunches served each year in the NSLP right up until 2010, after which there was a slowdown and then a slow decline.

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The effects can be seen even more dramatically by converting the data in the above figure to annual percentage changes in the number of NSLP meals served. From 1990 to 2008, the school lunch program grew every year. Since 2011, the program has gotten smaller every year except in 2016. In the six years prior to the law’s enactment in 2010, there was an average annual increase of 1.4% in the number of NSLP meals served, but in the six years since the law’s enactment (from 2012 to 2017), there was an annual average decrease of -1.2% in the number of NSLP meals served.

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The data also suggest another interesting dynamic at play. Below is the percent of NSLP meals that are free or reduced priced. Throughout most of the 2000’s just under 60% of NSLP meals were free or reduced price. Since then, there has been a fairly steady increase in the share of meals that are subsidized. Given that the increase started prior to the enactment of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, it is likely that other factors (such as the Great Recession) were playing a role. However, there has continued to be an increase in the share of NSLP meals that are free or reduced price well after the recession ended.

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These data show there are fewer meals being served that fall under the National School Lunch Program umbrella and that students who pay full price have increasingly chose to eat meals not governed by the program.

The figures presented above do not causality prove that the 2010 Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act led to the decline in the meals served under the USDA National School Lunch Program, but they are interesting trends about which I was previously unaware.