Economics of Meatless Monday

I ran across this article published last week by Katey Troutman entitled the Economics of Meatless Monday, which cited some research by Bailey Norwood and me on vegetarianism.  

The article makes a number of good points, but also some that are a bit off base.  After discussing per-capita beef consumption in US, the author writes:

New trends in consumption, however, suggest that things might (slowly) be changing; per capita consumption of meat in the U.S. has fallen in recent years, though we still consume more meat than either our parents or grandparents did, according to The Huffington Post.

Americans are choosing to eat less meat, or in some cases, turning to an entirely vegetarian diet, for a number of reasons. Animal welfare activists champion vegetarianism as a way of boycotting factory farming and animal cruelty, while environmentalists point out the environmental benefits of forgoing meat. Still other Americans belong to religious traditions which either forbid or look favorably upon vegetarianism, particularly those which originated in ancient India, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Yet worldwide many people are vegetarian for an entirely different, often overlooked reason: economics.

The author, however, never discusses the the biggest economic reason why per-capita consumption of meat is down.  Is he supply-side not the demand-side.  As I've previously discussed, cattle inventories are at the lowest levels they've at been in decades, largely because of drought and prior high feed prices, resulting in substantially higher beef price.  To put it plainly: consumers are eating less beef because there is less beef being produced.  The fact that prices have risen dramatically means many consumers still want the now scarcer beef and are bidding up the price for available supplies.

I don't see much evidence of a rapid rise in vegetarianism.  For over a year and a half, we've conducted a monthly survey of US consumers as a part of the Food Demand Survey (FooDS).  Self-declared vegetarians have been at about 4-5% of the sample since it began (and this is probably an overstatement given other research suggesting people "over-declare" vegetarian status) with no evidence of a trend.  Unlike the claim in the article that vegetarianism in general and meatless Monday in particular will save you money, my analysis of the FooDS data shows that self-declared vegetarians spend the same amount of money on food at home and on food away from home as do meat-eaters.  

The author also writes:

Jayson Lusk and Bailey Norwood, perhaps the first researchers to study the economics of vegetarianism, concur with advocates of eating less meat. In their 2009 study they found that “it is significantly more expensive to produce a pound of meat (or milk) than a pound of commodity crops.”

I suppose it's nice to be pointed out for being one of the first to tackle a subject (the published paper is here; there were some mistakes in the published paper that are corrected in this document).  The key word in the above quote, however, is "commodity crops."  As I've noted in the past, people generally don't like to eat the commodity crops directly, and if you look at the cost of non-commodity crops (for example, see this USDA study), they can be more expensive on a per-calorie or per-gram-of-protein basis (think about the cost of lettuce on a $/kcal basis).  Finally as we argue in our published paper, economics is about more than just cost, it also involves value, and most Americans are willing to pay quite a bit to have meat in their diet.