Twenty Years of Animal Protein Affordability

Have you heard the hubbub about eggs? People say that they’re expensive. My wife told me that if she’s going to pay an arm and a leg, then she may as well get the organic, pasture raised eggs. Absolutely. That’s what the substitution effect predicts. As the price ratio of low-quality to high-quality eggs rises, we’re incentivized to consume more of the high-quality version. It has to do with opportunity costs.

Consider a world in which the low-quality eggs cost $2 and the high-quality eggs cost $6 per dozen. Every high-quality egg costs 3 low-quality eggs. You might still choose the high-quality option, but you know that you’re giving up a lot by doing so. Consider the current world where low-quality eggs are priced on par with high-quality eggs. Now, the opportunity cost of consuming the fancy, pasture-raised eggs has fallen. When consuming one high-quality egg costs you one low-quality egg, it’s much easier to opt for the high-quality version. You’re not giving up as much when you purchase it.

For vegetarians, the recent price swing has probably been rough. Not eating meat, they’re facing the price squeeze more so than their omnivorous counterparts. Through the magic of math, median wages, and average retail prices, the figure below charts the affordability of eggs and dairy products.* The median person has been facing falling egg affordability for two decades. Indeed, it’s only been the past few years, punctuated by the Covid crisis, that consumers experienced more affordable eggs.

Dairy products, however, have become much more affordable. The median American can now afford 50% more of their namesake cheese. Further, we can afford 20-25% more whole milk and cheddar cheese. So, the vegetarians are not so poorly off after all.

But how do meatier sources of protein compare?

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