What do these crises have in common:

Economic crisis
Water shortages
Global warming

Okay, they probably have lots of things in common. But the answer I was looking for is "food."

Imagine for a minute that everyone in the United States stopped overeating and became vegetarians, perhaps with some fish thrown in the mix for protein and Omega-3. We all know that situation can never happen, so this is just a thought experiment.

Healthy eating would have a huge impact on healthcare costs. It would be partially offset by people living longer, but I have to think multiple sports injuries cost less than one heart bypass operation. And I read somewhere that 40% of mortgage foreclosures are caused by health problems. (Anyone have a link for that?) So in the short run, until the world is overrun by 200-year old marathoners collecting Social Security, the economy would be better off if people ate right. And that would free up money to insure the uninsured.

Now imagine that cattle are taken out of the food chain. Suddenly you don't need to cut down the rain forests to create new pastures, and the cost of food would drop because veggies are much cheaper than cows. Preserving trees would help the environment, which is also good for the economy. Beef suppliers wouldn't be too happy about this situation, so that is one offset to consider. But your food bill would be substantially lower.

Two-thirds of the world's fresh water supply goes to agriculture, and some sources claim that half of that water is wasted because of inefficient irrigation methods. Once again, food is the culprit. If we irrigated more efficiently we'd have plenty of water.

Now consider how much energy is expended in the pursuit of food. The typical American eats twice as many calories as needed. And most families are making multiple car trips to the grocery store, or to get take-out, every week. If we cut our calories in half, we could enjoy more leftovers and reduce all the driving we do for food. Plus we'd weigh less, so our cars would use less fuel hauling us around.

Therefore, food-related inefficiency is a big contributor to most other crises. Unfortunately, food is somewhat sacred, so political solutions around food are not practical. And our cigarette-smoking President isn't in a position to tell people they should eat less. So don't expect anything to change.
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+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2009
"There are some blind leading the blind here. "A field of cattle"? Unless it's very few cattle, they will quickly eat all the grass. The reason cattle are more expensive is because you have to grow lots of stuff for them to eat, which requires lots of other fields.

I'm a meat eater, but from the midwest, where we know about fields and cattle. "

This argument is made a couple of times in the comments, but I have a question? Is it less expensive to grow feed for cows then more expensive exotic crops directly for human consumption. All sorts of fruits and vegetable require all sorts of inputs, and cows aren't the only source of meat. You can't compare the cheapest vegetables to the most expensive meats.

Also, I'm a libertarian. This issue shouldn't be about just numbers. Any style of eating negative impacts the environment. End of story. And no, the earth is not about to blow up, and no, we are not about to run out of food. So why are we having this discussion? Are some people find it troubling that anyone can go to the store and buy anything they want? SHould all products come with the government stamp of efficiency or be banned? (thus creating black markets) How dare the government try to tell me how to be more efficient. You guys simply aren't asking all the questions or taking all of the factors into account. You're just health nuts or environmental fanatics who want to control everything because of your personal tastes. People don't want to be inherently unhealthy in the same way that people are not inherently violent (that's why we don't want to live in a police state). This is just more unnecessary and possibly costly social engineering.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2009
I read somewhere that more methane gas is produced from all of the cattle we eat than all of the carbon emissions combined. So, if we were to "eat more chicken" we could end our "global warming" crisis.

(BTW - methane gas = f a r t)

Just saying...
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2009
WHat a little social engineer scott. I have several problems with your presuppositions.

1. We don't know how to achieve weight loss and improve health in large population groups. This is why so many kinds of diets exist. See Penn and Teller BS "Eat This."

2. You assume that eating vegetables = eating less food (you mentioned less trips to the grocery store or to dine out; mind you that a trip down the road to get a half pound of food requires as much gas as a trip down the road to get a whole pound of food), but isn't the point of eating healthier that you can eat as much as you want, but it's okay because you're not eating crap?

3. You ignore the fact that farming can be an energy intensive activity that also damages the environment. Even "organic" farming isn't great for the environment.

4. PLus, what if somebody is unhealthy and dies early, at say age 55. Wouldn't they cost us less than somebody who lives to be 90 who requires round the clock assistance and healthcare services for the last 15 years of their lives. Simply living another 35 years means a lot more resources consumed too. I don't care how healthy you are. Our bodies simply aren't meant to live that long. They start falling apart even in healthy individuals.

Scott, you are a faux libertarian. You're too much of a technocrat. You once said, "Normally I'm libertarian when it comes to other people's behavior, unless their behavior is going to cost us more in tax dollars." But isn't that true about any even slightly risky behavior? This argument has been made again and again to roll back our freedom. Are we richer today than we used to be because every kid wears a helmet while riding a bike? The whole reasoning behind that law was to protect the tax payer from having to pay for some uninsured kid who rides helmetless and cracks their skull open. I don't feel wealthier today, but I do feel less free. Any behavior, or choice of car, or choice of house, or personal activity can now be subject to government intervention according to your philosophy Scott. You're now starting to apply this logic to opportunity cost. Saying that everyone should eat healthy is like saying that everybody should work 12 hours a day. YEs, it would make us wealthier. Yes it would be better for society. But I don't WANT to work 12 hours a day regardless. It's not my job to make society wealthier, and it isn't your job either. Are you trying to say that it would be immoral for people to act freely in a society in which the government provides services to us? How dare you cost us money! In my opinion, if the government is going to provide healthcare services to its people, it has to except that those people are going to behave in ways that might be costly. The only other alternative is to roll back freedoms making people feel uneasy about the government providing healthcare in the first place. Most countries with national healthcare, that I know about, don't charge meat eaters (as if eating meat makes you inherently unhealthy) extra, and they have fewer cases of obesity. So if you're afraid that free healthcare means lots of fatties chomping down, getting fat, taking advantage of society's kindness (don't fat people already pay taxes, too? Don't they pay more already if they buy more food? Don't they provide farmers and food workers with employment?) then you're just focusing on a personal dislike of unhealthy eating, disguising it as some necessary piece of social engineering to get society on the right track.
Jun 9, 2009
Speaking of Michael Pollen, the NYT publishish a very good article by him called "Farmer in Chief". It's an open letter to the 'then' next president of the US. on what should be done to fix the food industy in America and, for that matter, the world. It's a little lengthy for a newspaper article but a very good read. Here's the link.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2009
My number one idea would have been people, too...

Maybe veggie food is priced the same or even cheaper in urban california where there is a notable demand. Here, in a central european province town vegetarism is somehow rare. Vegetable food is more expensive than the same amount of meat.
Jun 9, 2009
Since when does vegetarian=healthy? Fast food and excessive amounts of processed sugar are certainly negative, but meat is an important part of a healthy diet. For example, look at athletes (who you could argue are the healthiest people), you don't see too many vegetarians for a reason.

There are 4 food groups, or do you not remember health class?
Jun 9, 2009
Good God... the world's fish stocks are already on the brink. If everyone started eating more fish they'd be annihilated:

UN's report on the state of the world's fisheries:
Jun 9, 2009
This is an interesting video by Michael Pollan (the Omnivore's Dilemma) where he talks about a type of holistic farm he visited where the farmer uses very simple methods to both increase production and improve the quality and quantity of the top soil without using chemicals or complicated equipment.


I think there are many different ideas we can try to improve our health and our planet at the same time. Just as people have already started to recycle, to compost, to drink more water and increase their consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, so too will we eventually start cutting back on meat consumption.

I like meat, and would resist giving it up entirely. But my fiance and I have noticed that when we reduce our meat consumption and increase our vegetable consumption, we both feel better overall, are less lethargic and need less time to prepare, consume and (ahem) digest our meals.

Your post seems to indicate that lack of efficiency and appropriate watchdogs are the real culprit and not food.
Jun 9, 2009
Of course then we'd all be overrun by the cows...our eating them is the only thing keeping them from taking over the world! :)

By the way...I am impressed that you got today's comic past your editor with the sexual reference. Either that or I just have a much more dirty mind than I even thought
Jun 9, 2009
"Plus we'd weigh less, so our cars would use less fuel hauling us around."

Actually, I saw on a Nova program that only 5% or less of the energy used to move your car actually moves the passenger. I think this assumes a single person in a sedan or something, but still.
Jun 9, 2009
it takes 12 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. We could be so much more efficient with our land use.
-4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2009
I've never understood the value of social thought experiments that are completely, or near completely implausible in teh first place. The only thing they achieve is to geet people incensed about the premise of teh thought experiment.

I'm beggining to think that Scott's recent slew of rediculously implausible thought experiment posts isn't so much about soliciting interesting answers from his readers but rather about... "DANCE MONKEY DANCE!"
Jun 9, 2009
Malignor's right.

You need a license to have a dog, but any idiot with working genitalia is allowed to reproduce.

I considered a similar system of licensed parenthood myself. There should be a basic test to remove the dumbest from the gene-pool. It should consist of things like:

Your baby is crying. Do you:
A) Shout "Shut up!"
B) Shut the door so you can't hear it and turn up the volume on the TV.
C) Check to see if the baby needs feeding or having its diaper changing

There should be a number of questions along this line, and a single wrong answer should warrant immediate sterilisation.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2009
National Geographic just published a great article on food scarcity.


Here's a quote:

"It takes up to five times more grain to get the equivalent amount of calories from eating pork as from simply eating grain itself—ten times if we're talking about grain-fattened U.S. beef.... Even China, the second largest corn-growing nation on the planet, can't grow enough grain to feed all its pigs. Most of the shortfall is made up with imported soybeans from the U.S. or Brazil, one of the few countries with the potential to expand its cropland—often by plowing up rain forest. Increasing demand for food, feed, and bio fuels has been a major driver of deforestation in the tropics"

It is not realistic to expect the entire world to go vegetarian. It is perfectly reasonable, however, to encourage people to eat less meat. We cook and eat the way we were raised. It isn't that hard to serve small portions of meat as an enhancement to the meal - rather than as the centerpiece - but it requires a bit of conscious effort to make the change.

Another simple idea: If you have kids, have them read the article and then discuss it over dinner. They'll probably start nagging you to change habits. The true cost of food is just not enough on our radar.
Jun 9, 2009
There are some blind leading the blind here. "A field of cattle"? Unless it's very few cattle, they will quickly eat all the grass. The reason cattle are more expensive is because you have to grow lots of stuff for them to eat, which requires lots of other fields.

I'm a meat eater, but from the midwest, where we know about fields and cattle.
Jun 9, 2009
Scott, you own a restaurant! As IIRC it's not vegetarian! You're gonna put yourself out of business.

More to the point, people like hamburgers. People like bacon. A free economy means that not just money, but all resources flow towards demand. On the other hand, demand responds to cost. If water were more expensive (I think it should be), then beef would also be more expensive, and people would eat less of it.

I'm a great believer in progress, though, so I think better ways to clean used water will be found, and better ways to use or recycle other resources.
Jun 9, 2009
I think pbarrows is on to something.

Personally, I think a breeding license systems should be set up. Make it like a driver's license, where you have to prove yourself capable of taking care of a dependent, take a course that teaches the basics, and pass a test.

Ideally, we can find a verifiable, conveniently reversible means of making people sterile. Then just reverse it when people get their breeding license.
Voila! Fewer people to consume resources, and fewer idiots are abusing their responsibility as parents. This means a higher percentage of well-raised kids, fewer broken homes, less stress on social systems, better quality of life, etc.

That alone should give a 10-20% push in the right direction.
Jun 9, 2009
I think the key to solving the world's problems is in drastic population reduction. War is a very-energy hungry and environmentally unfriendly way of killing people, but as you say the key is in our food-source.

We can kill two birds with one stone by simply transforming the world's societies into one's based on cannibalism. This will reduce the population, reduce the demand for energy and water, reduce pollution, solve housing problems, and advance the quality of the gene pool by eliminating those who weren't smart enough to avoid ending up as dinner. Since all the food is fresh and locally available, there is the added benefit of reduced transportation and distribution cost, further reducing pressure on the economy.

Jun 9, 2009
Then of course the next groups to get bailouts will be the beef and pork producers I think it should be more of the case where government get rid of things that are harmful to consumers, like cigarettes and such, maybe mandate what and how fast food places can serve food. Trying to regulate what everyone can eat, and you are in for a real headache. How long after meat is banned to you think before cannibalism breaks out? "Ted from accounting really pissed me off today, but he sure is tasty rotisseried with a hickory barbeque sauce."

I have a question for you, which would feed more people, a field of corn (or lettuce, or some other vegetable) or a field of cattle? Unless some great strides are made in agriculture, there would not be enough food being grown to support all of these new vegetarians. And without the cattle, sheep and pigs, who would fertilize the crops that you enjoy eating so much?

It would take several generations to really see the health benefits, and I don't think any politicians are thinking that long term, not even al gore.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2009
I know you're just pushing buttons, but if I don't get my steaks, I'm going to start kicking some vegetarian butt. Factor that into additional healthcare costs.
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