“A Guide to Meat Consumption for Vegetarians”

You never know what Freakonomics Radio listeners will come up with after listening to our podcasts.

Here, from Josh Miner, is a response to our recent episode “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado,” in which we wondered why some people get upset over the plight of factory-farmed chicken while not many seem to care about the humans who suffer because of the extortion and violence in the avocado industry.

What makes Josh’s response so noteworthy? Among other things, it comes replete with flow chart. Read on!

I love your show — in fact, I loved this episode on the moral impact and consequences of our choices. I got so unbelievably mad, though, when you both simplified the question of how consumers’ choices about what they eat affects the food market in which they participate.

Here are some thoughts — not so well organized.

First of all, there are such things as moral avocados: my old friend Will Brokaw grows them in Ventura County, CA. Now it’s true these are luxury items, and most Americans don’t have access to them, but I don’t know that there is anything wrong with that (or at least, that is a different subject). They are grown and delicious and (reasonably accessible, even for me in the middle of the U.S., since he will ship them to you).

Now I’m no Pollyanna. I know that by choosing not to buy Michoacan avocados (or industrially-produced chicken), I am having basically no impact on whether and how those things are produced and sold. But — and here is what you both missed — by choosing to buy Will’s avocados and my other friends’ chicken, and beef from my beef guy Rod Ofte, I am making a significant impact on their livelihood simply because of the scale. My dollar represents a larger proportion of Will Brokaw’s gross sales when I give it to him for one of his avocados than it does when I use it to buy an avocado at my grocery store.

My work with local food systems over the past decade has taught me that you cannot underestimate the impact a small group of people making these types of choices can have. You do have to decide to follow the advice that you yourself gave on the show — that participating in a market absolves one from any moral quandary. I couldn’t agree more, but not all markets are the same, and by choosing to participate in some rather than others, individual consumers can know that they are doing a small amount of good by choosing to buy certain products, as opposed to mitigating or reducing a small amount of bad by choosing not to buy certain products.

In other words, boycotts are silly and don’t do anything other than massage one’s ego. The opposite  of a boycott, on the other hand, is a powerful tool indeed if wielded properly.

Sorry about the rant, but man, does this topic get my intellectual juices flowing. I even made a flow chart about it. Do you like flow charts? Who doesn’t like flow charts?



Wow. Just ... wow! You guys should hire Josh.


The chart is difficult to read, it would be nice if it could be expanded. I squinted a lot and was able to read most of it, though. I find the flowchart to be reductive and therefore insulting. I could comment further on it but like most of our choices and actions throughout our lives, it doesn't really matter beyond this moment.

Bourree Lam

See here for the expanded version with links: http://www.freakonomics.com/media/flowchart.pdf


I agree with the point about dollars spent to vote "yes" being more effective than dollars withheld to vote "no". Good way to phrase it.

However, this flow chart contradicts the same ideas. Having simple or simplified rules about what you do and don't eat DOES make a difference, you don't have to apply the same rule to every calorie that crosses your lips in order to decide that for you, the benefits of eating meat aren't worth the (environmental, health, moral) costs. If I can't afford or don't have the time to research every food transaction, does that mean I shouldn't bother buying the aforementioned 'moral avocados'? Making better decisions is a journey, and we shouldn't dismiss people's efforts because they don't go far enough for our own standards.


I love Josh's letter. I think he and I make similar food decisions for similar reasons. I dislike his flowchart. (Even though it is pretty funny.) I disagree with the idea that some exceptions void the validity of your other moral choices.

Yes, I occasionally eat bacon, take airplane flights and use an air conditioner. But that doesn't mean it is in any way hypocritical for me to try to keep my meat consumption to a minimum or to choose my meat carefully. (I don't call myself a vegetarian.)

In the same way, to make my grocery math come out right, I sometimes have to buy some products I feel good about and some I don't feel good about. That doesn't make my humane/recycled/organic/whatever purchases hypocritical. It's just doing my best.

What would be hypocritical would be for me to judge the way other people are doing their best.


More reasons for not eating meat (missing from the flowchart):

-You practice one of any number of other religions or cultures, besides Jainism, in which meat is not on the menu;
-You don't like the way meat tastes and/or you don't like its mouthfeel;
-You couldn't afford meat for most of your life and now that you can, your digestive system can't handle it and you don't feel like going through the ordeal of getting used to it;
-You have some kind of GI disease or disorder that prevents you from being able to eat meat;
-You simply can't wrap your head around using animals as food (sort of like how even most meat eaters don't think of, say, slugs or cats as food).

I think any of these are fine reasons to be a vegetarian. And I'm a proud omnivore, by the way.


I know this is tongue in cheek, but I still want to point out the absurdity of the argument. It boils down to "you're not doing the MOST good, so don't bother with anything". You could apply it to charitable giving as well, "you're not donating enough money to cure ALL world hunger, so don't bother donating any money".


I think there's a little more to it than that. Your point is strongest in relation to the environmental justification for vegetarianism (no reason to let great be the enemy of good), but even then the flowchart has a point regarding the absolutism that some such vegetarians display: those who "never" eat meat because environment, but don't hold the same absolutism in regards to their driving habits, etc. Not that there's anything wrong with that if it makes one happy, but it is a little tiresome when those same people get preachy about their one hobby-horse. The same holds true for other "topical" environmentalists, for lack of a better term.

However, I think you're actually mischaracterizing his point regarding the morality of vegetarianism. Some of the links lead to a fairly interesting application of the least harm principle, in the comparison of some meat and some grain crops. The gist of the argument is that one may do less harm to animals by eating, say, pastured beef (wherein a large number of food calories are derived from the death of one animal), than, say, grains (wherein a given number of food calories result in the death and displacement of a great number of wild animals). To put it vulgarly: maybe there are more animal deaths per soyburger than hamburger. Of course, the actual numbers are pretty much impossible to quantify, but if (hypothetically) one could demonstrate that such were the case, then, assuming that we need to eat, and assuming that some form of production agriculture is necessary to sustain the human population, shouldn't we consume the food that results in the smallest number of animal deaths, even if that means eating meat instead of eating plant products that indirectly result in animal deaths?

So the point of that argument is not at all to say that a vegetarian isn't doing "enough" (morally), its to say that an "uncritical" vegetarianism could be more harmful to animals than the calculated consumption of certain types of meat. Then, tying that in to his boycott v/s encouragement argument, a vegetarian not purchasing conventionally produced meat isn't really making a bit of difference to anything--that tiny boycott isn't affecting how conventional production works at all. However, someone who does care about these issues and who chooses to seek out "responsibly produced" meat, which will typically come from small producers, can make a very real difference in those producers' bottom line, and could actually serve to encourage that type of production.

I'm not saying I buy all this (in fact, I don't feel I need that eating meat needs any justification), but it certainly is nice to see someone actually put some real thought into it.



The flowchart is a mess. His only counter-argument to environmental vegetarianism is that vegetarians engage in unrelated carbon-intensive activities. This is equivalent to saying that eating in instead of going out to eat doesn't save you money because you aren't frugal when you buy electronics. If people find it easier to reduce their carbon footprint by consuming less meat than by flying less, then becoming a vegetarian is perfectly sensible. Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Perhaps his system is preferable to vegetarianism, but it may not work for most people and that doesn't make vegetarianism simply ego massaging.
Also, it's silly to commend decision based on religion, but to consider the same decision naive when based on secular moral considerations.


This is funny, but is also a complex demonstration of an utterly typical meat eater's unconvincing rationalization of their dismissal of and (guilty?) condescension towards vegetarianism. Perhaps this is obvious given the message in the bottom left box congratulating the moral vegetarian.

Why is vegetarianism held up to a standard of ascetic monkishness? Unless you're a rail thin hermit living in the mountains doing nothing but pre-modern subsistence farming, foraging, and meditating, it's narcissistic and stupid to be a vegetarian? There's zero worth in choosing a diet that is wildly more sustainable and much healthier?

And I scanned through those links at the bottom. The last three are ways to make meat less bad for you than modern factory meat, make animal husbandry a bit less environmentally damaging, and make it a bit less morally questionable. Only the first is an argument for anything other than why eating meat isn't quite as bad as you think, and it's a questionable one at best.



You're the one who used the words "narcissistic" and "stupid". Internally inconsistent is the way I see it most (morally based) vegetarians (So you'll swat a fly, but won't eat shrimp? You won't eat the burger, but you haven't given any thought to whether animals died in the harvesting of the grain for the bun? Meat is murder, but owning a pet is okay? Would you perform a Western blot? What if you need an HIV test? What if other people need them?), but my thoughts on the subject aren't really important in terms of how others choose to live their lives. Anyone is free to do whatever they want to, and, though a confirmed meat-eating individual myself, I wouldn't dream of "condescending" to someone over their own personal choices. See Tricia's comment above, which sounds about right to me.

BUT, the minute you (rhetorical you) start lecturing me on the morality of my hamburger, you'd better have put some real thought into the morality of your soyburger, or I can, and will, call you a hypocrite.



"A word of advice: avoid discussing your lifestyle choices with other humans, as you’ll make them feel inferior and morally bankrupt."

Funny story, part of the reason I first turned vegetarian is that because even though I felt there was nothing wrong about pasture raised beef, I really didn't want to get into any arguments with people about it -- it's easy to tell someone "I don't eat beef" and have them just assume my reasons.. but if I tell someone "I eat beef as long as it's not from a CAFO," how does THAT not make people think I'm making them feel inferior and morally bankrupt when I turn down their hamburgers? Heck, I just recently added fish back to my diet, as long as it's sustainably caught. My friends have already gotten annoyed with me when we go out for sushi and I have to check my Seafood Watch app for nearly every roll option. When I gave just a brief explanation of why I was doing it, a friend said, "Oh great, now I can never enjoy eel again."

Also, this flow chart really needs an option for "Too poor for pasture-raised beef."



Why only beef? Suppose I choose to eat deer, squirrel, rabbit &c that I have caught myself. (And to forestall irrelevant quibbles, suppose I use bow & arrow, snare, or other non-tech means.) Seems as though that knocks the 'meat has too big a CO2 footprint' on its head. I think what you mean is that modern agriculture & food distribution has too big a CO2 footprint: the strawberries I'll pick from my garden in a month or so have a much different footprint than the ones I can buy in the store today, shipped perhaps from Mexico or California.

As to the moral argument, I don't see much difference between me eating the deer or rabbit, and a mountain lion or coyote doing so. Or suppose I happen to be really poor, and collect my meat from the fresher roadkill, of which there's an abundant supply?


Do you believe a vote for a third party candidate matters? -> Seriously? -> Here's a guide on choosing the least offensive Democrat/Republican instead.


Do you believe a vote for a Democrat/Republican matters? -> Seriously? -> Here's an equation to determine the likelihood (n) that your vote--for any candidate--will make a difference in the outcome of a national election: n = (1/# of voters) minus the likelihood that a close race will result in the courts deciding the election's outcome anyway.


@Beth Also, this flow chart really needs an option for “Too poor for pasture-raised beef.”



Not only does it degrade the soil, atmosphere, water table but it produces more CO2 than all transportation combined. Oh, it also is an extremely inefficient way of producing consumable nutritious matter for us humans. It is way easier to grow a field of soy or whatever non go staple of your choice, than to grow it for a bunch of cow and then eat the cow, which themselves as an intermediary for our nutrition are extremely inefficient using the best methods. Remember, even if you did have 100% humanely and organically raised livestock - you have to account for the space they need plus the space you need for their feed or in this case pasture. At current population levels that is impossible. And I am forgetting a bunch of other points for the sake of brevity.

This article to me is just page view bait for freakonomics. Vegetarians and vegans will argue till the end of time and rightfully so... But what does it do to help convince people that the food they currently eat not only harms them but harms the planet.


Alex Chernavsky

"Suppose you’re inclined to eat meat but wonder about the moral permissibility of doing so. You think it might be wrong, since it requires the confinement and killing of sentient beings, but then it occurs to you that your forbearance won’t make a difference. Why deprive yourself of a simple pleasure when it’s not clear that doing so will save an animal’s life? It seems pointless, fruitless, wasteful, abnegating.

"If you look at it this way, you’ll probably continue to eat meat. But there’s another way to look at it. I’ve always thought of morality in terms of personal integrity -- of having high standards and striving mightily to live up to them. Morality, in this view, is more a matter of what one rules out as unthinkable than of what one decides or does. Do I want to participate in an institution that uses animals as resources -- that confines them, deprives them of social lives, frustrates their urges, alters their diets and bodies, and eventually kills them in the prime of their lives? It’s a matter of not getting one’s hands dirty, of not collaborating with evil. Perhaps other people can do these things, I say, but _I_ can’t. I want no part of such a cruel institution. There will be no blood on _my_ hands.

"One view of morality sees it as a mechanism of change, with each person being a lever of the mechanism. The other sees it in terms of what sort of person one is. When you hear that billions of animals are killed every year for food, you might think, 'My becoming a vegetarian won’t make a difference, so I may as well indulge my tastes.' That’s to take the first view. But why not say that what other people do is not up to you? You control your actions. Your actions reflect _your_ moral values and what sort of person _you_ are. Stand up for something. Say 'These things go on, but they do not go on through me!' You’ll feel good about yourself; I guarantee it." -- Keith Burgess-Jackson

(Note: I like this particular quote, but I disagree with much of what Professor Burgess-Jackson writes, particularly when he conflates vegetarianism and veganism.)



I am a vegetarian. A lot of people get defensive when that comes up. No, I don't bring it up all the time, usually only when someone asks why I'm not eating something. But some folks feel a need to take me down a peg when it does come up.

"I couldn't live without meat." Yes, you could and lots of people do. Meat consumption is unnecessary. Eating something is necessary. Eating meat is not. Eating wild caught oysters is not really bad as far as I can tell because I've never been convinced of any substantial capacity for suffering and harvesting these oysters does not have the same environmental effects of livestock production.

"Oh, do you recycle?" Yes, but even if I didn't, I'm not sure how that makes me an immediate party to extreme, unnecessary suffering. They are not equivalents.

I agree with some of the earlier comments in that the flowchart assumes that living a 92% morally defensible lifestyle is equivalent to living a 73% morally defensible lifestyle. They aren't equivalent, degree matters. People who believe degree does not matter are usually on the losing end of an argument.