Why vegetarians are from Knysna and meat-eaters from the Karoo

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Factor endowments sound like one of the most boring dinner conversation topics ever. 

The land-to-labour ratio of India, Europe or the Masai Mara does little to whet the appetite and might actually be a polite way to signal that the evening is coming to an end.

Yet, factor endowments explain far more about ourselves – from what we produce and trade, to how we marry and what we eat – than we would care to admit.

The ratio between a country’s endowment of land and labour – the land-to-labour ratio – is a common economic theory.

One of the central theories of international trade, for example – the Heckscher Ohlin theory – uses factor endowments to explain what countries produce and trade. 

Succinctly put, a country will export goods that use its abundant factors intensively and import goods that use its scarce factors intensively. 

Basically, if SA has a lot of land relative to Bangladesh, we should produce things that use land intensively (like cattle), and export this to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh should produce things that uses its most abundant factor – labour – most intensively (like clothes), and export this to SA. 

Both countries would win from the trade. This is Econ 101 stuff.

But increasingly the land-to-labour ratio is also used to explain the social and cultural differences between places.

How we marry is an example. Take lobola, the bride price traditional to most marriages in southern and eastern Africa. 

Why do Africans have a lobola, while Indians have a dowry?

The answer: factor endowments. See, sub-Saharan Africa traditionally had a lot of land relative to people. A high land-to-labour ratio meant people were immensely valued for their ability to perform labour. 

Women, given their reproductive ability, were therefore of great value, and powerful men would claim multiple wives to ensure a long lineage and large workforce. 

That’s also why polygamy is still popular among many societies across the continent, and why indigenous slavery (raids on neighbouring tribes to poach their people rather than their land) was a feature of precolonial Africa.

By contrast, labour is abundant in India relative to land.

There the institution of a bride price never emerged; instead, it would be a dowry system, where the bride or bride’s family would pay (in property or money) for the right to marry the husband. 

This was to consolidate the most important asset – land, not labour – to ensure a successful lineage.

Europeans, incidentally, had the same low land-to-labour ratio, which is why it is typically the wife’s family who pays for the wedding in European custom.

Factor endowments can also say much about what we eat. In a series of tweets on 12 June, agricultural scientist Sarah Taber explained how our eating habits are the result of the environment and endowments (the land-to-water ratio) around us. 

She mentions that many cultures have traditionally had low or no-meat diets. Think of the Ganges valley, Nile valley, or the Amazon. What do these places have in common? It rains a lot. 

This matters because in such environments, plants that humans can consume tend to grow – like those with tender stems, leaves and fruit, or those with enlarged seeds or energy-storing roots. 

On the other hand, many societies, like the Mongols, Bedouin, Inuit or Masai, have evolved to consume almost only meat. 

This is because they live in places that are dry or very cold, where plants are either very sparse or very tough, and made entirely of things that humans cannot digest. 

But cows, sheep, goats, horses and camels with three- to four-chambered stomachs that turn the cellulose into sugars can consume these scrubs.

Taber says that we neglect to factor in these differences when we debate vegetarianism, for example: “Failure to recognise the role of local environment in diet is a major oversight in the vegetarian community at large. 

Traditional vegetarian societies are trotted out to showcase that low or no-meat diets are possible. 

But it’s done without recognition as to why those particular societies did it, and others did not.” We fail to recognise that for dry regions, the bottleneck in productivity is not land, she says. It is water.

She explains that a farm in a dry area, if used for cultivating vegetables, might produce enough food to feed 10 times the number of people than it would if it was to produce meat. 

But it would require 1 000 times more water to produce those vegetables. “In places where there’s limited land and a surplus of water, it makes a lot of sense to optimise for land. 

So there, grow and eat crops. And in places where there’s a lot of land and limited water, it makes sense to optimise for water. So there, grow and eat ruminants [meat].”

In many ways, viewing low or no-meat diets as the “one true sustainable way is very much a vestige of colonialism,” says Taber. 

“It found a way of farming that works really well in Northwestern Europe, assumed it must be universal, and tries to apply it to places where it absolutely does not pencil out,” she says.

The next time you run out of dinner conversation, a discussion about factor endowments may not be such a bad option after all.

Johan Fourie is associate professor in economics at Stellenbosch University.

This article originally appeared in the 7 July edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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