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Why Meat Demand in China and India Doesn’t Explain Global Food Crises

April 17, 2013
Consumers at a Chinese Market

Consumers at a Chinese Market

I’ve had several readers email and ask why I think increasing meat demand from China and India doesn’t explain the increase in global food prices. So I thought I’d share my answer here.

Changes in dietary preferences are gradual. Yes, China and India are likely increasing their demand for meat as a function of increasing incomes in both countries. As President George W. Bush described the situation as he tried to make sense of the 2008 global food crisis, “There are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class. That’s bigger than America. Their middle class is larger than our entire population. And when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up.” But it’s not like 350 million Indians woke up on January 1, 2007, and decide to eat more meat. Nor did they decide in March 2008 to suddenly stop. Gradual changes (like dietary preferences) cannot explain sudden fluctuations in global food prices (see the FAO’s Food Price Index graph below). Rather, sudden changes require trigger events or dramatically new conditions to occur.

FAO Food Price Index, 1990-2013

FAO Food Price Index, 1990-2013

Similarly, changing dietary preferences do little to explain the dramatic increase in price fluctuations. While we certainly saw ups and downs in global food prices historically, there were few events (with the possible exception of the 1974 global food crisis) where we see sudden and dramatic increases and decreases in global prices.

I also think it’s important to note that there is a question of equity evoked by this question as well. If we concede that increased demand for India and China have contributed to a gradual increase in global food prices since 2000 (note that this is very different from asserting that Chinese and Indian demand contributed to the global food crisis), we must pause and consider the broader implications of this framing. On a per capita basis, U.S. meat consumption is about three times that of China and more than ten times that of India. Why, then, do we blame changing dietary preferences in India and China rather than looking at ourselves? It’s commonly asserted that we would need something like six planet earths for everyone in the world to live like the average American. It’s a question of global equity, not of denial. To assert that the emergent Chinese and Indian middle classes are responsible for global food crises is to obfuscate our own culpability in global markets.

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