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Meatonomics by David Robinson Simon
review by John Beske
Why do people eat so much meat? Some people
will say it's because eating animals is a part of our culture and
tradition – maybe it's even hardwired in our DNA. Or perhaps it's just
so convenient and ubiquitous, or that it tastes so good or recalls
happy memories. A lot of it could just be habit. And, of course, most
people have been led to believe it's a healthy or even essential part
of their diets.
But what if there's more to it than that? After all, even though people
have eaten meat in most cultures throughout human history, it's usually
not been consumed in quantities approaching that of people in modern
day post-industrial societies. In fact, Americans eat, on average,
twice as much meat as they did a century ago. A large part of this is
because it's so cheap. In most places, you can get a McDonald's
hamburger for less than the price of a pound of broccoli.
But why is meat so cheap? And what does all this cheap meat mean for
our economy, for our health, for our planet, for our future?
The answers are complex, and sometimes nefarious. And they have never
been spelled our so succinctly, so thoughfully and so grippingly as
they are in the powerful book from Meatonomics from David Robinson Simon.
Most people who pay attention to our food economy can tell you that
beef, pork, chicken, dairy, eggs and the corn and soybeans that feed
all the animals that become food are heavily subsidized industries,
but, as far as I know, the case has never been laid out with the care
and detail as it has been here.
Let's start with a couple of facts I didn't know until I read this book:
• The US government collects a small tax called a Checkoff on every
cow, pig, chicken and other animal (as well as eggs and dairy products)
that end up in our food system, and then uses that money to finance
elaborate and catchy ad campaigns to stir up consumer demand. Yep, all
those "Got Milk?", "Beef, It's What's for Dinner", "Pork: the Other
White Meat" and "The Incredible Edible Egg" campaigns have all been
paid for with tax dollars. And they are effective! The USDA estimates
that these campaigns, which collectively about cost $557 Million each
year, drive additional consumption of animal products by more than $4.6
Billion each year (this one impressed us so much that we created a Daily Meme about it).
• The animal industries have become exceedingly skilled in the art of
"regulatory capture." They manage to install their allies and even
their own exectutives into the leadership postitions at the USDA and
FDA – the very agencies responsible for insuring a healthy, abundant
and fair food supply for everyone – and then they make sure that all
regulations coming out of these agencies primarily serve the narrow
interests of the very industries they are supposed to be regulating.
One result is that meatpacking operations have moved out of the cities
and into rural areas where they can keep a low-wage workforce and keep
most of their operations and practices hidden – restricting USDA
inspectors or even replacing them with the company's own people. In
some states, they've even managed to install "Ag Gag" laws which make it a crime to record or report animal cruelty, unsafe or unsanitary practices and even criminal behavior.
In whole, as Mr. Simon succintly lays out, the animal industries have
been thoroughly expert at externalizing all their costs while
internalizing all the profits. As a result, "for every dollar in retail
sales of meat, fish, eggs, or dairy, the animal food industry imposes
$1.70 of external costs on society. If these external numbers were
added to the grocery-store prices of animal foods, they would nearly
triple the costs of these items."
Mr. Simon even goes so far as to total up all the environmental,
medical, ethical and economic costs that the animal industries impose
on society, which add up to the staggering sum of $414 Billion per year.
To get to that number, he takes us through a number of areas of concern
including diseases that are caused or exacerbated by the consumption of
animal products, environmental costs, food safety issues and animal
cruelty. These are all widely-discussed topics among vegans, and issues
we frequently address here at Vegan Street. In my nearly 20 years as an
animal activist, I've argued each of these points hundreds of times,
and I thought I knew this stuff about as well as anybody.
And this is why Mr. Simon's research is so important and this is such a
valuable book: we know that environmental damage and increased heart
disease has a cost. But here we see it, all quantified and laid out
with a dollar sign in front of it.
It's possible to see how these issues play out on a personal level – we
can see the the eyes of a hopeless pig in a factory farm, we can
witness the toxic damage a river endures after being flooded with the
waste from a nearby hog farm, we can hold the hand of a loved one who
is recovering from angioplasty – but as soon as we start looking at the
big picture it becomes overwhelming and abstract. This abstraction
becomes more clear and understandable when we can quantify it, and
nothing quantifies like money. And when Meatonomics starts tallying up the costs of animal agricuture, the results are quite visceral and immediate indeed.
Considering the dire subject matter and the general percieved dryness
of the field of economics (I used to keep a college economics textbook
at my bed table as a sleep aid – three paragraphs and I was out like a
light), I would have expected the book to be a snooze fest, but Mr.
Simon's writing is witty, relaxed and compelling. He actually manages
to make this a hard book to put down. His facts are always effortlessly
in context as he turns over one rock after another to expose the slimy
mechanics hidden below. All of these shady dealings, misguided laws and
counterproductive regulations are almost as fascinating as they are
This does not mean this is a completely easy book to read, or at least
not for me. Some of the facts he uncovered angered me nearly to the
point of hyperventilation. On several occasions, I had to leave the
room and cool down for a while.
Fortunately, in the end he does provide a couple of solutions: the
obvious personal one – stop participating in this messed up system by
eliminating animal products from your diet and your life; and second, a
macrocosmic plan to increase taxes on meat, purge the giant
agribusinesses out of the USDA, and reallign agricultural subsidies to
line up with people's needs rather than further lining the pockets of
these giant corporations.
The plan is elegant in its simplicity, and it would help solve some of
the world's most pressing problems. I'm afraid that for now, though,
our political system is too broken with too much power being given to
the wealthy and self-interested, and too many people are unwilling to
look beyond their own dietary habits to ever see the system for what it
is. It's going to take some time, a lot of grassroots effort and
perhaps even a food scare or some other collapse to usher in a
large-scale shift away from eating animals. In this meantime, Meatonomics
is a book every vegan activist should read and take to heart, because
it could become one of the strongest tools in our belts as we continue
to move forward.
2013, 2014, Vegan Street