The Hog:Corn Ratio

Tyler Cowen points to an interesting argument in Simon Fairlie’s recent book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance.

The overriding advantage of meat is that demand for it is elastic.  People don’t need it but they like it, and up to a point, however much you produce, they’ll keep on buying it.  The demand for cereals for human consumption, on the other hand, tends to be inelastic.  People need their pound of grain a day, but they don’t need much more, and they won’t buy any more unless they have sufficient wealth to invest the grain in animals, either to produce higher value food, or else to keep it “on the hoof” for a rainy day (or a drought).

The existence of meat means that a farmer can sow wheat, barley, oats, beans, maize, and so on with reasonable confidence that, in the event of a good harvest, someone will buy it, because even if everybody has sufficient, it can be fed to animals.  This dynamic is not restricted to a money economy.  It works exactly the same for Melanesian subsistence farmers who can sow enough sweet potato and manioc to cover a bad year knowing that it is not a waste of effort, because in a good year the surplus can be fed to pigs.

Take the animals, the elastic element, out of the equation and the business of sowing grain suddenly become far more risky…This elementary matter of the need for a feed buffer fails to feature in most of the literature that is written about meat-eating and vegetarianism…

Regardless if this is a true, this points to an interesting thread that has been crossing my reading path lately – and Simon Fairlie’s name always seems to be attached. In his recent book, he makes the case that eating some meat is greener and more sustainable than eating no meat at all.

The comments on the post are worth reading as well.

More on the hog:corn ratio

Also – reading about this got the old Hot Corn Cold Corn song in my head: