Adam Smith on vegetarian diets

June 20, 2016

The recent trend in extreme weather (drought in California, El Nino, and supertyphoons) has proven that climate change is here and that it can get worse if nothing is done.


Unnatural climate change is caused by excessive greenhouse gases, best represented by carbon dioxide (CO2) from human activity. Though a lot of CO2 emissions come from energy and transportation, food production also contributes greatly to it. In some estimates for example, meat consumption contributes to 18% of greenhouse gases.


A huge chunk of CO2 emissions can be prevented simply by switching to a non-meat diet. The most usual objection to this is that non-meat food is not delicious and that a non-meat diet is not healthy. The first objection, being a matter of taste, is not a serious objection. It can be easily overcome by a change in mindset or by making non-meat foods more delicious. The second objection can be overcome by either scientific proof or by actual experience. There are many scientific studies proving that vegetarian diets are healthy. As a vegetarian, the common misconception I found is that people think that vegetarians just eat leaves, which actually more true for vegans and not vegetarians. In fact, vegetarians should eat dairy to get their Vitamin B12 and D. The effects of vitamin deficiency can be felt as cognitive impairment, which I've personally experienced as reduced test scores and slower math ability, while I was a newbie vegetarian. This was easily solved by dairy as milk products. But if you're a vegan, then you must take the necessary supplements. Some people think that vegetarian diets are a relatively new trend. But from a historical view, vegetarian diets have always been there. India has had it for thousands of years, while in England, it was already known in the 18th century, as proven by Adam Smith, the founder of economics:

Meat is not a necessary of life. It is known from experience that grain and vegetables with the help of milk, cheese, butter or oil (where there is no butter) can afford the most plentiful, wholesome, nourishing, and invigorating diet without any meat. Decency does not require any man to eat meat as requires wearing a linen shirt.The Simple Wealth of Nations, Book 5, Chapter 2

Smith's biographer Rae even writes that Dr. Joseph Black, the scientist who first documented the properties of carbon dioxide, was a vegetarian:

Black was a vegetarian. His usual fare was “some bread, a few prunes, and a measured quantity of milk diluted with water.” Adam Smith’s only weakness was for lump sugar.Simple Life of Adam Smith

I hope that with scientific evidence and historical experience supporting vegetarian diets, those who want a more survivable planet can have all the reasons needed to either be a vegetarian or simply eat less meat.  

Potatoes: Probably The Best Vegetable Food for Smith

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith talks about the qualities of each major crop, favoring potatoes over oatmeal:

But potatoes are different. The chairmen, porters, prostitutes and coal-heavers in London are the strongest men and the most beautiful women in Britain. They come from the poorest people in Ireland who eat potatoes. This proves the nourishing quality of potatoes.