Monday, November 17, 2008

An Omnivore's Solution

Recent environmental activists have been proposing that Michael Pollan* be appointed Secretary of Agriculture. They don't seriously think it could happen, but just the thought excites them. (example here)

My impression is that they believe should Pollan become Secretary of Ag, he would take actions to force individuals into something closer to veganism. Pollan described to a large readership that much of the grains we grow are fed to animals, before fed to us, producing what he calls large amounts of waste. Since economic activity naturally uses fossil fuels, this "waste" is a contributor towards global warming.

This group of activists believe that if I decide to pay the added costs of fossil fuels (e.g. more fertilizer, more gasoline), to convert corn into beef, instead of eating corn, that I am committing an environmental crime. They wish to dictate in certain terms how fossil fuels are used to produce the goods that I consume.

I prefer an alternative philosophy. Fossil fuels are used in everything, to produce different goods for different people. Some people use more of those fuels than others, and they consequently pay a higher price the more of those fuels they use. Instead of dictating to people how they use fossil fuels, try to price fossil fuels right, and let people choose the goods (including food) that they prefer to eat.

Also, consider this thought. Suppose that we forgo meat consumption, using less land, fuels, fertilizer, and hence fossil fuels to produce our food. We save lots of money in the process through a lower grocery bill. We will certainly spend that extra money. How do we know these "other" things purchased will not use more fossil fuels than the meat we once ate?

* If you are not aware, Michael Pollan is a talented story teller who writes about food. His book The Omnivores Dilemma attempts to describe why the "true" costs of our food is not apparent at the grocery store. His understanding of markets and social coordination is poor, but then, he is not an economist. For a superb and fair critique of the book, see this one by George Mason economist Tyler Cowen.

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