John Norris: Which came first? The consumer or the product?

September 18, 2017, by John Norris

My daughter will periodically declare herself a vegetarian for a number of different reasons, none of them dietary in nature. This will last for a few days or until the next time we have spaghetti for dinner, whichever comes first. It seems her convictions are no match for a good Bolognese sauce.

A couple of weekends ago, she came home from college and we all went for a hike at one of the parks here in town. In the parking lot at the facility was a van for a vegan catering business. Interestingly, the company’s logo included a rather large caricature of a baby chicken. At least there was a big yellow chick on both sides, the hood and the back of the vehicle.

My son and I noticed the paradox at about the same time, and I said: “That doesn’t make much sense. If everyone was a vegan or vegetarian, there wouldn’t be a lot of chickens roaming around.” However, my daughter is perhaps a little more idealistic about such matters, and asked why I thought this. My response was quite simple: “Why in the world would anyone go to the expense of keeping a bunch of chickens if no one ate them or their eggs?”

After all, we produced something like 100 billion eggs in the U.S. last year, and slaughtered about 9 billion of the things. That is why people go to the trouble of raising chickens; they are a sustainable source of food. If, for whatever reason, everyone suddenly stopped eating them and eggs, farmers would get rid of their, um, existing inventory, in very short order. Believe me, you could measure the average lifespan of a chicken in minutes, if not seconds.

Basically, for every action there is a reaction, sometimes unintended.

For instance, what do you think has happened to domestic wool consumption over the last several decades? Ask yourself, do you buy as many woolen clothes? Why not? Global warming? Or could it be central heat has become more commonplace, efficient and cheap? We keep our houses and offices much warmer than we did a few decades ago, don’t we? As a result, our clothes really don’t need to be as heavy.

As a result, what do you suppose has happened to the number of sheep in the United States? Has it gone up or gone down? I think you can guess. So, would you imagine the number of lambs processed for food in the United States has increased or decreased over the last half century or so? Oh, I won’t keep you guessing: Total lamb “disappearance” in 2016 was about 57 percent of what it was in 1970. As result, per capita consumption of lamb is roughly a third what is was back in the day, when there were fewer people walking around.

Interestingly enough, U.S. consumption of, you guessed it, chicken has skyrocketed since 1970, almost tripling per capita. Spurious correlation? Perhaps, but curious just the same.

Now, who would have thought better forced air would have had anything to do with the amount of lamb, and perhaps chicken, we eat? Heck, I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I imagine we aren’t consuming as much mint jelly these days either. This is just fine by me, because mint jelly is pretty gruesome stuff.

So much so, it could turn occasional vegetarians like my daughter into carnivores, maybe even chicken eaters, which takes us back to where we started.

(Read this article as previously published in the Montgomery Advertiser on September 18th, 2017)