Will going vegetarian decrease poverty?

Frequently in discussions on vegetarianism, someone will claim something along the lines of:
1. We're feeding food to animals who we then eat
2. By the second law of thermodynamics this means we're wasting food
3. Therefore, if we stopped feeding food first to animals, there would be more food and we could feed the poor better
Someone usually then responds with something like:
There is not a fixed quantity of food produced; if we stopped eating animals we would simply produce less food, and the poor would be as hungry as before.
It is not immediately obvious who is correct. We need to know two things:
  1. Will food prices fall as a result of going vegetarian?
  2. Will this cause the poor to eat better?

The first question is easily answered. A fall in demand results in a fall in price (see picture: a decrease in demand from D1 to D2 results in a decrease in price from P1 to P2).



However, the mere fact that food is cheaper does not mean it is more available. Given that many poor people sell food as their major source of income, a decrease in food prices means a decrease in their wages. The question we now need to ask is: do wages decrease faster than food prices?

The answer is no[1]:
Even though many rural households gain from higher food prices, the overall impact on poverty [of high food prices] remains negative.
So going vegetarian will help decrease poverty.

References:
1. Ivanic, M., and W. Martin. “Implications of higher global food prices for poverty in low-income countries.” Policy Research Working Paper 4594 (2008): 405-16.

Credits: picture is a modified version of this

2 comments:

  1. About your question: "Will food prices fall as a result of going vegetarian?"
    Why would there be a decrease in food demand? The demand for meat would go down if more people became vegetarian, but the demand for vegetables (for humans) would go up. Why does this necessarily mean a decrease in overall food demand?

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  2. flywtink: The animals need to eat vegetables in order to live. When you eat an animal, you are in effect also eating all the vegetables it has eaten. This is obviously more inefficient than just eating the vegetables it would've eaten directly (to see this just consider the second law of thermodynamics: you have to lose energy at every stage of eating, so the more stages of eating you have, the less efficient the process will be).

    To produce one calorie of beef takes about 50 calories of vegetables; so you can decrease your consumption of vegetables by 98% by going veg. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_effects_of_meat_production

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