“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?


Neil Satra

I'm so used to a high standard of articles from Freakonomics that seeing this posted, even as a user submission, was surprising. Others have sufficiently debunked the insane straw man argument here, but I hope this is an anomaly for Freakonomics and not a trend.


If you want the good stuff from Freakonomics, you have to buy the books. The throwaway stuff is given away for free on the blog.

The Freakonomics blog is usually a "hate read" for me at this point.


In addition to the reasons already noted why this flowchart is rubbish (tl;dr: the perfect should not be the enemy of the good)...

... the advice to "avoid discussing your lifestyle choices with other humans" is also silly and counter-productive. As an (environmental) vegetarian, I recognise that my individual choices will ultimately have a very small direct impact on the world. In fact, the main impact my choices can have is through their impact on other peoples choices. (If my choices can influence one other person to act similarly, then I've doubled my impact; and their choices can then influence others as well...).

Of course, getting all preachy about the evils of meat isn't an especially effective strategy for influencing others, so I don't generally do that. But gently encouraging people to reduce (rather than necessarily eliminate) meat consumption is often not that difficult - particularly because avoiding the 'eating any at all meat is evil' framing tends not to evoke the same level of defensiveness in people, and leaves them much more open-minded about the arguments.



Also, the argument about buying from small scale producers being better than boycotts of large producers (because it's better use your money to vote "yes" than "no" and/or because the former has a large impact, while the latter has virtually none) seems misguided for a number of reasons.

1. Practically, there's not much distinction between dollars spent to vote “yes” vs. dollars withheld to vote “no”. They're just two sides of the same coin: my choosing not to eat meat means choosing to eat more lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu etc. The critical question is whether it's better for me to spend my dollars on one or the other.

2. A small impact is not no impact. Most things I do have small impacts on the world. I'm OK with that. Comparing that small impact (my choice not to consume something) to a big thing (industry profits) does not make it smaller.

3. Concentrating a small impact onto one (concrete) person rather than spreading it among many (anonymous) people does not make it a larger impact. It just makes it easier for us to relate to.



Re: 'Practically, there’s not much distinction between dollars spent to vote “yes” vs. dollars withheld to vote “no”.'

This is only approximately true if the producers on each side are large, in which the effect on each side would be minimal. However, if one of the producers is much smaller than the other, then each dollar is far more important to his or her net than to the larger producer's net, which is what will determine whether they stay in business. A small producer (in any industry) can be made or broken on a quantity of sales that wouldn't even be noticed by a large enough producer.

So, yes, if you care about something that a small producer is doing (the quality of their product, or some aspect of their production practices) you're doing a lot more good by putting your dollar to them that the harm you're doing in taking away from the large producer.


Other comments have covered the obvious point that vegetarians shouldn't be held to a saintly standard that everyone else is exempt from, but I think I have something to add. Surely the movement of vegetarianism *has* in fact made a difference to the market; consider being a vegetarian a couple of decades ago. You didn't have the same choice in meat substitutes and options in restaurants that you do now, except in places like Brighton. Why the change, if not the growing demand for such options from vegetarians?


Can we have a link to your Comprehensive Meat Classification System (and the accompanying Excel Spreadsheet that I'm sure exists)