Consumer Choice: The Ethics of Eating Animals

Filed Under (Other Topics) by Dan Karney on Aug 21, 2012

Beef Magazine is the last publication I expected to find an article to write about given that I have previously posted entries about plant-based substitutes for meat (here) and a United Nations report urging vegan diets (here).  However, a recent article published by Beef Magazine, which summaries the results of a survey on the “factors impacting public perceptions of animal welfare and animal rights,” caught my attention.  The article titled “Consumer Perceptions Will Determine Agricultural Practices” reports many findings from the survey, but I will focus on the three most interesting results.

  • 91 percent of people agree that animals need to be treated humanely in order to qualify as “ethical food”.

This finding highlights the fact that food is not just calories and nutrients, but a meaningful and important part of people’s lives.  Food can invoke wonderful childhood memories.  Some people turn to comfort foods when having a bad day.  Food is often the center of social gatherings.  Given the prominent connection between emotions and food, it is comforting that the vast majority of people agree that humane practices are necessary for ethical food.

  • 75 percent of people would vote for a law that would require farmers to treat animals more humanely.

Despite the generally pro-market leanings of Americans, clearly most people do not trust for-profit farmers and corporations to always deliver humane outcomes.  Intuitively, people understand that market forces often result in a race-to-the-bottom due to pricing pressure, and thus laws are necessary to enforce ethical standards.

  • 81 percent of people believe animals and humans have the same ability to feel pain.

In contrast to this statistic, the Vegetarian Research Group’s annual survey found that only 5 percent of Americans are vegetarian and approximately half of those are vegan (source).  I suspect that most people understand that animals feel pain because of interactions with companion animals (i.e. cats and dogs).  Yet killing is inherently violent and killing is required for eating animals.  If animals can feel pain, then why do we as a society choose to kill them for food?

Furthermore, the pain of animal slaughter extends to humans too and is endured by those who work in the slaughterhouses.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the The Atlantic, “The rate of serious injuries in meat-packing (as measured in lost workdays) is…the highest: more than five times the national average in private industry.”  At a more granular level, Timothy Pachirat’s new book Every Twelve Seconds provides a first-hand account of working at an industrial slaughterhouse and explores “how, as a society, we facilitate violent labor and hide away that which is too repugnant to contemplate.”  The title of the book refers to the kill rate at the slaughterhouse, 2500 cattle per 8 hour shift or one animal killed every 12 seconds.

Consumers have the ultimate power of choice.  Through our purchases we can collectively determine how our food is made and demand that it be ethically sourced.  We can choose to live our ethics in the supermarket check-out line.

The Folly of Breed-Specific Legislation

Filed Under (Other Topics) by Dan Karney on Jul 20, 2012

Earlier this month, despite desperate appeals to reverse his execution order, Lennox, a simple family dog from Belfast (UK) was killed (source).  The Belfast City Council (BCC) in Northern Ireland had condemned Lennox to death for the crime of resembling a pit bull.  The BCC’s justification was compliance with the “The Dangerous Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1991”, which defines any dog deemed to have pit bull “characteristics”, as inherently dangerous and bred for fighting.  The law requires the seizure and destruction of such dogs.

The Order is an example of breed-specific legislation (BSL) in effect across many jurisdictions around the world.  Pit bulls often are the target of BSLs, but other breeds are affected too, such as Rottweilers and German Shepherds (source).  Many major cities in America have BSL that outlaw pit bulls, including Denver and Miami (source).  The idea behind BSL is to reduce dog bites and subsequent death in humans from these “dangerous” breeds.

Do these BSLs work?  The answer is no.  A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that reviewed a large sample of human dog bite-related fatalities over a 20-year period found, “Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates.”  In other words, it is a common misperception that pit bulls are inherently more dangerous than other dogs.  Furthermore, analyses of specific BSLs find them to be ineffective, such is the case of the pit bull ban in Prince George’s County, MD (source).

In fact, all BSLs do is punish law-abiding citizens with harmless companion animals, as in the case of Lennox.  Criminals use pit bulls for fighting, but that is neither the fault of those dogs specifically, nor the breed in general.  Instead of BSLs, experts recommend breed-neutral legislation that focus on the deeds instead of breeds, as well as preventative measures such as mandatory spaying/neutering and compulsory leash laws  (source).  Poorly socialized, vicious dogs do exist and need to be taken seriously, but steps should be taken to protect the public in accordance with breed-neutral laws already on the books.

Finally, on a personal note, my partner and I have two beautiful pit bull mixes.  Lucy and Emmy are two wonderful and loving ladies.  Every once in a while, they steal food from the table, but then again what dog doesn’t?!

Animal Testing: An Outdated Model

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Other Topics) by Dan Karney on Jun 29, 2012

In 2010, U.S. researchers conducted experiments on 1,134,693 animals – including 71,317 nonhuman primates – according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data collected in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act (source).  Almost 100,000 of those animals were subjected to experiments in which researchers intentionally inflicted pain and did not administer pain relief.  These data exclude experiments conducted on birds, mice, and rats because they do not fall under the definition of “animal” used in the AWA (source), and thus the real number of animals under experimentation in the U.S. could be in the tens of millions per year.

What, if anything, does society gain from these experiments on animals?  The statistics say not much.

Many argue that animal experimentation is most useful in pharmaceutical research and vital to new drug development.  However, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study found that “92 out of every 100 drugs that successfully pass animal trials and go into human clinical testing fail during the human clinical trial phase (source/source).”   That is a lot of animal suffering for less than a 10% success rate on humans.

Question: What about the drugs that do not pass the animal testing and thus “save” humans from harm?  Answer: With such a dismal record of prediction in one direction (success on animals to success on humans), what makes us confident of our predictive powers in the other direction (failure on animals to failure on humans)?  Of course, we do not have statistics on this counterfactual and thus will never know.  Indeed, it is possible that the miracle cure for cancer in humans failed trials with mice and thus was not tested on humans.

It seems clear that pharmaceutical companies and the FDA are reluctant to drop animal testing for one important reason: liability.  They want to be able to say ‘look, we tried it on animals’ if something goes wrong in the human testing phase.  However, even after all that testing on animal, and then on humans, the FDA still has to recall from market hundreds and sometimes thousands of drugs per year (source).  Stop experimenting on animals now, it only causes suffering for them and humans do not see much benefit – if any at all.


Environmental Policy Update:  Many contributors on this blog have written about climate change policy.  With the Supreme Court’s health care ruling yesterday, I thought this piece of news might fall under the radar.  On Tuesday, a federal appeals court rejected multiple challenges to new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions at large sources, such as power plants and large factories.  Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said the decision was exceeded in importance only by the Supreme Court ruling five years ago that greenhouse gases could be controlled as air pollutants (source).

Perfect Substitutes: New Meat for a New Age

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Other Topics) by Dan Karney on Jun 1, 2012

In a previous post, I examined a United Nations report urging reductions in the consumption of animal-based foods in order to mitigate climate change and avoid world hunger (here).  The report states, “Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts [from agriculture] would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”  Luckily, the concern with finding “alternatives” to eating animals now is no longer a major issue, thanks to a new, plant-based meat alternative developed here in the United States.

Beyond Meat is a Maryland based company that invented a plant-based chicken alternative called Veggie Chicken Strips.  In taste tests, “people either don’t notice the difference [from animal-based chicken], or love it and request it again (source).”  The Strips are relatively healthy with 19 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, 25% of recommended daily iron, and only 1.5 grams of non-saturated fat per 100 calorie serving (about 3 ounces).  The secret for this close-to-perfect substitute is a patented processing technique that combines soy and pea protein into the plant-based chicken.  Plans are in the works for beef and pork alternatives too.

The plant-based meat revolution has already begun in Europe.  The extraordinary growth of a Dutch company called The Vegetarian Butcher lead The Independent to ask “Is this the end of meat?”  Opened in 2010, The Vegetarian Butcher’s products now sell in 180 Netherlands outlets, with 500 more outlets coming this Summer and plans for international distribution soon.  Again, their vast array of plant-based meat fools the traditional animal eater.  In a taste test outside one of the Butcher’s shops, not one person guessed the smoke “mackerel” was not fish.

So the “alternative” to eating animals does exist.  The taste and texture of these plant-based meats are the same as the animal-based meats, but without the animal cruelty or environmental degradation.

Putting aside animal rights and the environment, the development of plant-based meat substitutes can help the average household as well.  Prices in the United States for animal-based meat will likely keep increasing as world-wide demand continues to rise (source), and Americans are already feeling the pinch as per capita animal consumption has fallen for 4 consecutive years, a trend expected to continue in 2012 (source). Meanwhile prices for these new, plant-based meats will fall as production increases and techniques are mastered.  These economic trends will lead to increases in plant-based meat consumption by non-vegetarians, but don’t worry, it’s a perfect substitute!

Ag-Gag Bills: Bad for Animals, Bad for Business

Filed Under (Other Topics) by Dan Karney on Apr 27, 2012

“Sunlight is the best antiseptic.” –Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Over the past few years, animal-rights groups have increasingly used undercover investigations to expose horrific conditions in factory farms and slaughter houses across the United States.  One such investigation in 2008 by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) prompted the largest recall of beef in U.S. history and resulted in new Federal legislation banning the slaughter of downed cattle (source).

In what can accurately be described as backlash, bills have been introduced across the nation in state legislatures to discourage whistle-blowing and undercover investigations on factory farms and in slaughter houses (source).  These “ag-gag” bills criminalize undercover investigations and will have a chilling effect on future investigations into animal abuse (source).  Earlier this Spring, Iowa became the first state to pass ag-gag legislation, but a similar bill in Illinois failed (source).

In addition to protecting bad actors that abuse animals, ag-gag legislation is also bad for the honest farmers that adhere to humane animal husbandry practices.  As State Senator Quirmbach from Iowa accurately observed, “Passing this bill will put a big red question mark stamped on every pork chop, every chicken wing, every steak, every egg produced in [Iowa] because it will raise the question of ‘what have you got to hide?’”  A good question!

The recent fervor over pink-slime in beef shows that the American public demands to know more about where their food comes from and how it is made.  Hiding questionable farming practices behind ag-gag bills is the wrong way to go.  Selling food inherently requires trust between producers and consumers.  When consumers lose trust – as in the pink-slime case – the effects can be disastrous for business.  In the end, the truth always comes to the light of day.

Too Many Pets: a Supply-Side Problem

Filed Under (Other Topics) by Dan Karney on Mar 9, 2012

Bob Barker, former host of the long-running TV game show “The Price is Right”, used to end each daily broadcast with the plea (source): “Help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered.”  Drew Carey, the replacement after Bob Barker’s retirement, continues to end each show with this same admonition.  Indeed, this is a quite curious thing to say at the end of a game show where someone just won thousands of dollars in cash and prizes.  So why did Bob Barker say this? What did Bob Barker mean?

In short, the United States has a pet overpopulation problem resulting in the euthanizing of 3-4 million cats and dogs per year (source).  One animal every 8 seconds!  These animals are euthanized because they do not have homes and stray animals are deemed a public nuisance, so animal control laws often require stray animals to be euthanized if an owner is not quickly found.

In economics jargon, these cats and dogs are euthanized because the supply of companion animal outstrips the demand for companion animals.  There is no doubt that a significant demand for companion animals exists in the United States.  The National Pet Owners Survey estimates the cat and dog population in U.S. households at 78.2 million and 86.4 million, respectively.  Obviously, Americans want companion animals and many spend significant amounts of money to acquire one.

Indeed, pet stores and breeders sell companion animals in a market system, so why the over-supply of pets?

An important reason for the over-supply of dogs and cats come from the fact that many pet owners do not spay or neuter their animals.  Inevitably, when they procreate, litters of kittens and puppies need to find new homes.  That is, when a pet is not spayed or neutered, the pet supply (likely!) increases in a non-market transaction.   When the demand does not keep up with supply and these animals cannot find homes, then they end-up in shelters and are often euthanized.

As an animal lover, Bob Barker wants to minimize the number of animal euthanasia cases.  The platform of a daily TV game show reaching millions of people allowed Bob Barker to raise awareness about the need for pet owner to spay and neuter their animals.  In honor of Bob Barker’s efforts over the many years, I remind all my readers that February 28th was National Spay & Neuter Day. It is not too late to have your pet spayed or neutered!

United Nations Report: World Urged to Vegan Diet

Filed Under (Environmental Policy) by Dan Karney on Jan 27, 2012

In 2010 the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) published a report titled “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production” that tackles the complex issue of sustainable development including fossil fuel consumption and land use (report).  However, one passage of the 100+ page report garnered particular attention from the media: “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products [emphasis added].”

The British newspaper The Guardian took the above passage and published a story that begins “A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger.”  For those unfamiliar with veganism, it is a strict form of vegetarianism that excludes not only the eating of meat, but also any food derived from animals such as milk, cheese, and eggs.  Vegans – people that follow a vegan diet – often decide to follow a vegan diet for ethical reasons as a protest for animal rights and welfare.  Other people are vegan for health reasons or to minimize the environmental impact of their food consumption (the same rationale as the UNEP’s report).  Interestingly, the UNEP report never uses the term “vegan” to describe its conclusions in the actual report.

While The Guardian probably used the term “vegan” for sensationalism the environmental impact of an animal intensive diet is quite severe.  The same article quotes the lead author of the UNEP study, “Animal products cause more damage than [producing] construction minerals such as sand or cement, plastics or metals.”  Indeed, it takes lots of resources to produce meat.  For instance, it can take up to 16 pounds of grain and 4,000-18,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef according the U.S. Geological Survey.  Thus, it is no wonder that the UNEP sees reducing reliance on animal products as a key focus for sustainable development.

It seems clear that the Earth cannot support an American-style, meat-centric diet for the entire global population without creating great stress on the natural resources.  Furthermore, the factory farming of meat and the monoculture of feed grain concentrates these environmental impacts from manure and fertilizer run-off.  Popular author and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals, his non-fiction account of factory farming, states the concerns voiced in the UN report succinctly “Someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.”

Christmas Lights: A Tale of Cheer?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Other Topics) by Dan Karney on Dec 9, 2011

Christmas lights are a funny thing.  Many people hang lights on the outside their homes during the holiday season.  The light displays run the gambit from small affairs around a door to enormous light extravaganzas on every surface, tree, and shrub.  The quality of a display varies greatly depending on the skill and effort exerted by the homeowner.  It is curious though–Since the lights are on the outside of the house where the owner cannot see them, why do they exist?

To begin, I list (some) benefits of Christmas lights.  One, to be fair, the owner does see the lights for a brief moment when she comes home at night, providing an aesthetic joy.  Two, a religious homeowner can be use a holiday light display to advertise her beliefs.  Three, passer-bys and neighbors receive the enjoyment of looking at the display (if it is well done, of course)!  This last benefit is a classic positive externality, where non-displayers receive benefits without incurring the cost directly.

Next, I list (some) costs of Christmas lights.  One, the displayer holiday lighting increases their electricity bill compare to normal electricity usage.  For large displays the electricity cost can be quite high, and I have seen houses that never turn off their Christmas lights from Thanksgiving until Easter!  Two, the extra electricity usage requires more production from power plants that likely burn coal, leading more air pollution and greenhouse gases.  Three, excess lighting creates a phenomenon called “light pollution” that impedes car driver sight-line at night, disturbs nocturnal animals, and blots out the stars.  These last two items are negative externalities.

On net, it is hard to say if Christmas lights are “worth it” for the displayer.  It is even harder to determine if they are a net benefit for society when the externalities are added-up.  Regardless, Christmas lights are an ingrained tradition in America, and will be around for foreseeable and likely distant future.  Hopefully with increasing awareness about the costs of holiday lights, people will consider lower impact decorations such as low-wattage bulbs, or putting existing lights on timers so that they turn off over night.   Happy holidays and joyous New Year!

How “Free” is Free-Trade Coffee?

Filed Under (Other Topics) by Dan Karney on Nov 11, 2011

I drank a cup of coffee this morning.  Chances are you probably did too.  It seems a coffee shop is located on every corner.  In fact, coffee is the second most traded commodity by market value, behind only petroleum.  Last week, when I was in the grocery store buying whole bean coffee, I became intrigued by what exactly the “Free-Trade” label means and what economics can tell us about the market impact of free-trade coffee.

To begin, many different “Free-Trade” certifications programs exist, including certification efforts by big companies such as Starbucks and Nestle.  However, the Fair-Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) is the largest and most widely recognized certification system, and thus will be the focus of my discussion (source: The Market for Organic and Free-Trade Coffee).  The FLO’s “mission is to connect disadvantaged producers and consumers, promote fairer trading conditions and empower producers to combat poverty, strengthen their position and take more control over their lives [link].”  Those are laudable goals, but how does the FLO attempt to achieve those goals?

The FLO’s certification has three central criteria that must be met for a coffee to be labeled as free-trade (source):

1) The producer is guaranteed a minimum price depending on coffee grade (e.g. $1.26 per pound for washed Arabica).  If the market price exceeds the price floor, then a price premium of $0.05-$0.10 per pounds is added to the market price.

2) The buyer provides credit to producers for up to 60% of the expected harvest value at the beginning of the growing season.

3) Buyers enter long-term (1-10 year) contracts with producers.

It is clear that these criteria help small, credit constrained coffee producers.  Essentially, the long-term contracts and price floor give income stability by guaranteeing sales.  In contrast, large coffee producers with access to credit can more easily withstand the coffee price fluctuations that occur frequently.  By providing income stability to small coffee farmers, fair-trade advocates hope to eliminate speculative export middle-men and provide an equal playing field between small and large producers.

However, I pause to consider market impact of the price floor and market premium for fair-trade coffee.  As an economist, the FLO’s fair-trade pricing criteria act as a subsidy, and recalling basic Econ 101, subsidies lead to over-production.  That is, in terms of economic efficiency, should there be as many coffee farmers as exist today?  The basic analysis says no.  However, the real world is more complicated than Econ 101, and economics has little to say about equity and ethics.  Today, this blog cannot answer the question “Is fair-trade coffee ‘good’ or ‘bad’?”; rather, I can tell you what fair-trade coffee is.  Enjoy your cup of joe!

Water, water everywhere?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy) by Dan Karney on Oct 14, 2011

This week I came across an interesting website called The World’s Water from the Pacific Institute that collects data about freshwater supply and usage by country.  I already knew that the United States consumes a lot of water, but I want to use this website to compare quantitatively how much water the U.S. used relative to rest of the world.  Not surprisingly, the data reveal that on a per capita basis, the U.S. consumes the most freshwater of all countries with large water supplies.  Furthermore, if all countries had the water consumption rate of the U.S., then total worldwide freshwater withdrawals would become nearly three times greater.

To begin my analysis, I note three interesting facts about U.S. freshwater supplies and consumption, using data from the website cited above.  First, the U.S. ranks 4th in annual renewable freshwater resources with 3,069.0 km^3/yr, and ranks ahead of Indonesia but behind Canada.  Brazil ranks first in freshwater resources with more than 2.5 times as much as the United States.  Obviously, larger countries in land-mass have an advantage in this ranking, since more area provides more opportunity for freshwater resources, all else equal.

Second, the U.S. ranks 9th in annual freshwater withdrawal per capita, and ranks ahead of Suriname but behind Tajikistan.  Interestingly, the countries that surround the U.S. in this ranking are not similar to those countries in the previous ranking, with the exception of Canada that occupies the slot three places below the United States.  In particular, the countries near the top of the consumption per capita list are generally low on ranking of total freshwater supply, meaning that countries with large supplies like Brazil can be low on the consumption ranking (where Brazil is 87th ranked).

Third, the U.S. uses 1600 cubic meters per person per year (m^3/p/yr) of freshwater.  In comparison, China only withdrawals 550 m^3/p/yr of freshwater, almost 3 times less (where China is 71st ranked).  Thus, the U.S. not only has a high ranking in withdrawals per capita, but has significantly larger withdrawals.

Finally, I apply the per capita withdrawal rate in U.S. to all countries and find that the worldwide total withdrawal would almost triple compared to current levels.  Of course, increasing the quantity supplied of freshwater comes at a higher cost.  Therefore, as the demand for freshwater increases as worldwide GDP levels increase, then the amount of money spent freshwater consumption will increase dramatically!