Quantifying the Impact of Economic Growth on Meat Consumption

(update: see https://​​forum.effectivealtruism.org/​​posts/​​EztxZhPQ8Qv8xWe3v/​​kbog-did-an-oopsie-new-meat-eater-problem-numbers)

I decided to do some analysis to gain insight on the impact of economic growth on meat consumption in the developing world, which has occasionally been discussed in the past.

First I took the finding of York and Gossard (2004) that for every $1,000 increase in per capita PPP GDP, African countries consume 1.66 kg more meat per person per year.1 For some perspective on the significance of that difference in GDP, see https://​​en.wikipedia.org/​​wiki/​​List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP%29_per_capita.

Then I used FAOSTAT data on meat production2 and consumption3 from various samples of low income African countries which are targeted by Givewell-recommended top charities to determine what proportion of that 1.66 kg is likely to come from various types of meat.

I excluded dairy and eggs because I figured that all those animals are also slaughtered for meat at some point and therefore are already taken into account, given that these are developing countries. Moreover, egg production numbers are not available whereas dairy farming causes by far the lowest amounts of suffering. I also excluded game meat because its impact is on wild animal suffering, it isn’t farmed, and I doubt that marginal meat consumption includes game meat. Finally, I excluded meat of “all other types” from the analysis.

I also excluded fish because there is no significant correlation between income and fish consumption in African countries.1

Then I used Brian Tomasik’s estimates of suffering per kg to determine days of suffering caused to various animals. For cattle, camels, horses, mules, and asses I used his estimate for suffering per kg of beef; for pigs, sheep and goats I used his estimate for suffering per kg of pork; for all poultry and rabbits I used his estimate of suffering per kg of chicken.4 Even though Tomasik is uncertain about these numbers themselves and points out that they shouldn’t be taken at face value, they provide a decent general guide.

This gave me numbers of days of suffering for the various kinds of animals farmed in sub-Saharan Africa. Note that Tomasik adjusted the number of days of suffering to account for the differences in average subjective badness based on how different kinds of animal farms operate in the US.

Here are some significant considerations not taken into account in the model that will affect the amount of suffering caused to farm animals. (Plus sign means that this consideration will cause the amount of suffering to be greater than the analysis indicates. Minus sign means that this consideration will cause the amount of suffering to be less than the analysis indicates. Question mark indicates that the direction is unclear.) Together, they give strong reason to be uncertain about the results of these calculations.

· Domestic animals are smaller in developing parts of Africa than they are in US factory farms, meaning more animals are raised per quantity of meat. (+)

· African farms are subject to generally weaker standards of regulation, slaughter methods, etc. (+)

· Most of the new meat consumption in Africa is poultry and pork,5 so the numbers in these calculations give too much weight to less-suffering-intensive cattle. (+)

· Marginal African farm production is not always going to be factory farming and may involve less intensive conditions than farming in the US. (-) (However, much of the new production is factory farms,6 and traditional farming may not be any more humane.)

· There may be supply side elasticities on a regional level. (-)

· Suffering per kg could be different for goats and sheep than it is for pigs. (?)

· Production ratios may differ from consumption ratios of different types of meat in the target countries. (?) (Not the case for the 4th calculation.)

· Consumption ratios of different types of meat for poor Africans may differ from that of Africans in general. (?)

· The income effect on meat consumption for poor Africans in the target countries may differ from that of Africans in general. (?)

Due to these considerations, I would say that the numbers here should be taken with a grain of salt, probably allowing for a factor of +/​- 10 for reasonable but not great confidence.

Considerations entirely outside the model: impact of development on wild animal suffering, climate change, technological progress, global economic development, etc.

Another thing to underline: this is the effect of economic development on meat consumption. It is not the effect of economic aid on meat consumption. Depending on how much you think AMF/​SCI/​DWI contribute to changes in income per capita, you will have to evaluate them differently. Even GiveDirectly’s effects aren’t straightforward to calculate per donor because GDP here is being measured in terms of purchasing power parity, not a nominal currency conversion.

I’ve left the actual numbers for the end because I didn’t want anyone to take them and run with them without first having to read all the disclaimers about uncertainty and assumptions. So here is my quick summary: depending on how we are measuring meat consumption in aid target countries, and including my +/​-10 guesstimate for certainty as well as taking the highest and lowest values of the 4 different calculations I performed, an increase in $1000 to a person’s income will generate:

Between 0.04 and 13 days of large animal suffering (per person per year at $1000 additional income); median about 1

Between 0.16 and 41 days of pig, goat, and sheep suffering; median about 2

Between 0.65 and 138 days of chicken and rabbit suffering; median about 10

Clearly if the answer is at the low end of the range then economic development is unequivocally good in direct well-being respects. If the answer is near the high end then it could be difficult to claim that the welfare benefits of economic development are more important than the animal suffering, depending on how much you care about animals.

Now as Carl Shulman points out in the comments, if this possibility is troubling to you, then you should reconsider why you aren’t prioritizing animal-advocacy charities over poverty charities in the first place.

Finally, here are the Excel sheets so that you can view them:


And here they are in editable form:



1. http://​​smas.chemeng.ntua.gr/​​miram/​​files/​​publ_141_10_2_2005.pdf York and Gossard study on incomes and meat consumption

2. http://​​faostat3.fao.org/​​download/​​Q/​​QL/​​E FAOSTAT data on production

3. http://​​faostat3.fao.org/​​download/​​FB/​​FBS/​​E FAOSTAT data on consumption

4. http://​​reducing-suffering.org/​​how-much-direct-suffering-is-caused-by-various-animal-foods/​​ Brian Tomasik’s numbers on farm animal suffering

5. http://​​www.slideshare.net/​​guycollender/​​trends-in-livestock-production-and-consumption-cees-de-haan-world-bank World Bank slideshow, shows that most new meat consumption is poultry and pork (slide 4)

6. http://​​www.worldwatch.org/​​node/​​1826 Factory farming is the fastest growing type of food production, especially in the developing world.