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A Perdue poultry and chicken farm is seen in Bridgeville, Delaware on May 2, 2020. (Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

Meat-Eating and Subsidizing Our Way Towards Extinction

If it isn't direct or indirect subsidies then the checkoff program will get you devouring animal products, however cruel their production is or how bad they are for your health or the planet's.

Simon Whalley

Much fuss is rightly made of the $11 million fossil fuel companies are subsidised every single minute of every single day. We ask why we are subsidizing the cause of the climate crisis to the tune of $5.9 trillion a year when the cost of decarbonising our economies stands at $3.8 trillion a year. It's hard to make sense of the asinine nature of our politics unless the word corruption is used. While fossil fuel interests pocket trillions of our hard-earned taxes and then corrupt our politicians further, there is another industry that is corrupting our politics while overseeing animal abuse and destroying the natural world at a rapid pace—animal agriculture.

In the U.S., the meat industry spent $3 million in 2015 to stop the government creating new dietary guidelines that recommended a reduction in meat consumption.

While the amount spent in lobbying is far less than the oil, gas, and coal companies, the return on investment (ROI) is on a par. In 2016, the dairy, livestock and poultry and eggs industries spent around $11.2 million on lobbying activities in the U.S. An interesting and relevant point is that spending on lobbying always increases when there is an outbreak of disease in a specific industry. Take for example, the livestock lobby whose spending peaked in 2006 when they forked out $3.5 million. This was shortly after an outbreak of mad cow disease. Another example occurred in 2015 when avian flu swept through the Midwest poultry population and in response the industry picked up the phone to its man or woman in Washington and spent a record $1.7 million. To illustrate how cheap our politicians are, in 2013, when a farm bill which contained a subsidy for dairy was introduced, spending by the International Dairy Foods Association increased to $1.7 million and the following year, when no subsidy was at play, dropped to $750,000. The ROI was astronomical, and many business experts would claim it to be impossible. In the year after the Agricultural Act of 2014 was passed, direct and indirect subsidies to the dairy industry hit $24.7 billion and they increased to $43 billion in 2016 and $36.3 billion in 2017. By 2018, a staggering 42% of U.S. dairy production revenue came from government support. You might think that this is benefitting men and women in blue dungarees with a pitchfork in hand, but this money finds its way into the vaults of huge industrial dairies at the expense of animal welfare and family farms, 20,000 of which have gone out of business since 2010.

In his illuminating book, Meatonomics, David Robinson Simon describes an industry that has completely gamed the American political system for its own benefit. If it isn't direct or indirect subsidies then the checkoff program will get you devouring animal products, however cruel their production is or how bad they are for your health or the planet's. The checkoff program in the U.S. is a system where congress collects a small fee on the wholesale price of a product and then that fee sloshes into a fund to pay for "research" and marketing of the product. So, for example, for every cow sold at market, $1 will enter into a fund that promotes the consumption of beef or dairy depending on the cow. The money will be spent in a number of ways by the trade association that oversees the fund. It might be spent paying researchers at a university to find a positive relationship between eating their product and an improvement in health or it might go to an advertisement on TV with a catchy slogan like "Beef. It's What's for Dinner". This "research" will then be disseminated around the world through global media and the industry funded American diet is spread through American TV and movies. The checkoff program is exceptionally effective and for every dollar spent, it is estimated that the ROI is as high as $38. The dairy industry is the biggest winner when it comes to checkoffs with it responsible for the additional consumption of 3.1 billion kg of dairy. The industry then donates money to a number of nutritional organisations like the American Society for Nutrition and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics which both publish well respected research journals. In case anyone wonders why the American Heart Association recommends eating meat, it might be due to the fact they receive almost $200,000 from The National Livestock and Meat Board. It is widely accepted that Americans eat more meat that even the compromised United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends, and yet the same organisation responsible for creating the guidelines is also responsible for overseeing the $557 million checkoff program. Americans eat almost three times more meat than the world average. In return, one third of cancer cases are related to meat and dairy consumption while meat eaters are three times more likely to have diabetes than vegans and meat eaters increase their chance of getting heart disease by 18%. The health costs associated with eating animal products were estimated at $314 billion in 2013, or three fifths of Medicare spending. When they should be recommending Americans reduce their consumption of animal products, they are actively doing the exact opposite.

North of the border, in 2019, the Canadian government created its first dietary guidelines without the "assistance" of industry. It is no surprise that the guidelines were radically reformed, and milk was no longer deemed necessary for a healthy diet. Meat was no longer specifically recommended with it being replaced by "protein". The same happened in Belgium in 2018 when industry was omitted from the process. Belgians were advised to increase their consumption of plants and decrease dairy and meat consumption and avoid processed meats. The changes were in response to a growing epidemic of obesity with one-fifth of Belgians now obese and almost 60% overweight. In the U.S., the meat industry spent $3 million in 2015 to stop the government creating new dietary guidelines that recommended a reduction in meat consumption.

While it is obvious we need to stop channelling funds to the duplicitous fossil fuel industry immediately, if we are to prevent further pandemics spreading, halt deforestation, keep warming to within 1.5°C, and reduce the number of chronic diseases, it is clear we need to eliminate subsidies to animal agriculture as well. If we fail to do this, it will be humans that are soon cooking. 

In total, David Robinson Simon calculates that simply adding a 50% tax to the products created by this industry that treats animals as mere cogs in their machine, pollutes our waterways, creates a large part of our carbon emissions, deforests entire countries, causes 60% of extinctions, creates global pandemics and ravages our health, would save 172,000 American lives annually and cut emissions by the equivalent of those created by all U.S. motor vehicles and vessels. 

As it stands, all the healthcare and environmental clean-up costs are added on to the tax-payer's bill. These are known as externalised costs. The reason animal products are so cheap is not because of true market forces but due to systemic corruption and the taxpayer picks up the tab, whether they support these industries or not. Many Americans like to argue that they shouldn't have to pay for the health care of their fellow citizens, yet they stay silent when their consumption of animal products is subsidized by their fellow citizens who may choose not to eat any animal products at all. It is estimated that for every dollar spent on animal products, $1.70 in external costs are shifted onto taxpayers. According to Meatonomics, the animal food market is worth about $251 billion in the U.S., but overall external costs are $414 billion. If these costs were internalised, the price of a $5 carton of eggs would increase to $13, a $4 Big Mac would cost $11 and a $10 steak would cost $27. This true reflection of the cost would consequently reduce consumption and with it the damage inflicted on animals, health and the environment.

These artificial prices not only impact the domestic market, but they also affect farmers outside America's borders. For instance, the low prices of subsidized American products mean that farmers who produce meat and dairy in poorer countries cannot compete with cheap imports and their markets become saturated with the fat of these unhealthy American products. After the Brexit vote in the U.K., American agriculture lobbied the government hard to force the U.K. to reduce its food standards in line with lower American standards. This would encourage more consolidation and larger factory farms in the U.K. as they attempt to compete with the influx of cheaper lower standard products from the U.S. 

In what is possibly the most insidious form of systemic corruption animal ag is responsible for in the U.S., six states have adopted what are known as "Ag gag" laws. These are laws which penalize citizens or workers from providing evidence that supports wrongdoing or criminal activity. This affects animal welfare, food safety, marketplace transparency, worker's rights, environmental protection and ultimately, free speech. A U.S. citizen who films the illegal dumping of waste in North Dakota will be tried for a class B misdemeanour, in West Virginia, a worker capturing the abuse of pigs in factory farms will be sued for damages inflicted by the video and in Montana, videoing dangerous working conditions in a factory farm will get you labelled a criminal.

While it is obvious we need to stop channelling funds to the duplicitous fossil fuel industry immediately, if we are to prevent further pandemics spreading, halt deforestation, keep warming to within 1.5°C, and reduce the number of chronic diseases, it is clear we need to eliminate subsidies to animal agriculture as well. If we fail to do this, it will be humans that are soon cooking. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley is an educator in Japan, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Japan and the author of the upcoming book, Dear Indy: A Heartfelt Plea From a Climate Anxious Father.

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