Lawyer and animal advocate, David Simon recently released his book, Meatonomics: The Bizarre Economics of Meat and Dairy - focusing on the rational, logical and analytic perspectives of a plant-based diet and how we are being mislead by food producers and lawmakers. He takes some time to answer my questions below, plus see below for an excerpt.
Why did you decide to write your book?
I wrote the book because I learned several years ago that animal food producers had spent several decades surrounding themselves with an elaborate and highly valuable cocoon of legal protection. In the U.S., these producers have convinced lawmakers to pass scores of laws at the state and federal level that make it harder for consumers to investigate, criticize, or sue them. They’ve also eliminated virtually all anti-cruelty protections that once applied to farm animals, and today, it is legal to do absolutely anything to an animal being raised for food. Connecticut’s anti-cruelty statute, for example, says it is legal to “maliciously and intentionally ... torture an animal,” provided the torture is done according to “generally accepted agricultural practices.” Most industrialized nations, including Australia, have seen similar legal developments. This framework of legal protection has significant economic value to producers and lets them offload , or externalize, their production costs onto society.
What do you hope to achieve with the release?
I hoped to give vegans and vegetarians new tools to help them explain the merits of a plant-based diet to others, and I hoped to give omnivores a new, left-brain perspective (i.e., one that is rational, logical and analytical) on an issue that has typically been characterized by right-brain discussion (i.e., dialog based on emotion and feelings).
What has the response been like so far?
The book has been favorably reviewed in the media seven or eight times. But more importantly for me, a number of people have told me – in person or by email – that they’ve read the book and it’s had an effect on them. One 67-year-old retiree wrote me, “this book will change my life.” As a writer trying to connect with readers, there’s no greater reward.
What’s the message you want people and activists to take from your book?
That the production of meat and dairy impose enormous economic costs on society (for example, a $5 Big Mac really costs society $13), and current levels of consumption are simply not sustainable. The only way to make meat and dairy production sustainable is to dramatically reduce consumption.
What are your future plans?
I’m continuing to spread the word about the book. In the next few months, I’m speaking at Dr. John McDougall’s Advanced Study Weekend in California alongside such luminaries as T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn, and later this year I’m speaking at the Colorado VegFest. I am also currently representing animal activists or organizations in five pro bono lawsuits against animal abusers or the venues that house them, and I hope to expand this practice to involve even more lawsuits in the future.
Imagine a bakery that sells every cake, pie, or loaf of bread for a dollar less than it costs to make. It’s a challenging business model, to say the least. But instead of going out of business, say the shop flourishes and expands, adding more ovens and increasing output for years. Impossible, right?
For a bakery, maybe. But not for America’s big producers of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. The animal food industry actually uses this contrarian business model with surprising success. Take hog farmers, who routinely spend an average of eight dollars more raising each pig than the animal yields when sold.[i] The farmers, at least the big corporate operators, are in hog heaven. That’s because government subsidies actually make this business model profitable for those at the top. For the same reason, corporate beef producers routinely spend from $20 to $90 more than each animal’s value to raise cattle.[ii]
Each year, American taxpayers dish out $38 billion to subsidize meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.[iii] To put this corporate welfare package in perspective, it’s nearly half the total unemployment benefits paid by all fifty US states to unemployed workers in 2012.[iv] However, as we’ll see, unlike unemployment payments, subsidies don’t actually benefit many Americans—nor many farmers—and they are often disbursed in illogical and unfair ways. Consider this: media mogul Ted Turner and former NBA star Scottie Pippen were among the more than one thousand non-farming New York City residents to pick up farming checks from the federal government in 2007.[v]
When it comes to the market for crops used as animal feed, which means the majority of crops grown in this country, America’s enormous farm subsidy program turns the system topsy-turvy. Bizarrely, government handouts encourage farmers to grow more of these crops even as prices decline. This is as backward as parents giving their kids extra money to make cold lemonade in the middle of winter. It just doesn’t make sense. Perhaps even worse than wasting the money, the consistent result of such a subsidy policy is to put small farmers out of business and damage rural communities here and abroad. But it doesn’t end there. Taxpayers also provide subsidies to encourage fishing even when it would otherwise be unprofitable. Yet with twice the number of fishing ships patrolling the seas than are necessary for the task, humans have already destroyed one-third of the ocean’s fisheries and, unless we cut back, are headed for complete destruction of all currently fished species within several decades.[vi]
Few Americans are aware of the realities of meatonomics—the economic system that supports our nation’s supply of animal foods—yet the peculiar economic forces powering our food system influence us in ways few imagine and nudge us to behave in ways we normally wouldn’t. Among its various effects, one of the most unsettling is that the system encourages us to eat much more meat and dairy than the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) advises.
According to conventional wisdom, factors like taste, dietary beliefs, and cultural traditions drive our decisions to buy animal foods. But the reality is that price plays a huge role in our eating choices as well. The alarming result of consumers watching our pocketbooks so carefully is that producers, who work hard to keep prices artificially low, are heavily responsible for driving demand. Doubling down on their strategy, producers also bombard shoppers with misleading messages about the need to chow down on animal foods. Consequently, Americans have, to a great extent, become puppets of the animal food industry. We eat what and how much we’re told to, and we exercise little informed, independent judgment. You might think you know why you choose to eat certain foods, but as we’ll see, the real reasons are much more complicated.
Spend a few hours with this book, and you’ll gain vital insight into how the economics of animal food production influence your spending, eating, health, and longevity. You’ll also discover how the forces of meatonomics affect the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, including tens of billions of animals used for food, and millions of small farmers here and abroad. Learning how these forces work can help you improve your personal life and the world in so many important ways, including saving money, losing weight, boosting your health, living longer, protecting animals and the planet from abuse, and preserving rural communities in the United States and elsewhere.
Meet the Owners
The Occupy Movement knows them as the One Percent. Comedian George Carlin called them the country’s Owners. They’re the rich power brokers behind the scenes, the business aristocrats who own almost everything in the United States and either influence or make almost all the important decisions in the country. In the meatonomic system, the Owners enjoy a base of economic and political power practically unequaled in any other industry.
The animal food sector wields its considerable economic clout to exert enormous influence over lawmaking at both the state and federal levels. In the past several decades, animal food producers have convinced lawmakers to adopt a broad range of legislation—including some so over the top that it can only be called shocking—to protect the industry and ensure its profitability. For example, it’s illegal to “defame” animal foods in thirteen states, and as Oprah Winfrey learned firsthand from a tangle with Texas beef producers, the industry does not hesitate to sue those who say unkind things about its products. Further, because undercover investigations at factory farms invariably yield graphic images of unsafe and inhumane conditions, the industry has sought—with surprising success in a number of states—to stop the flow of these shocking images by criminalizing the exposés.
Then there’s the federal food bureaucracy. Meat and dairy producers have conquered the two main US agencies that oversee them—the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—through a process economists call “regulatory capture.” This influence makes the USDA so bipolar, it’s a befuddling exercise to figure out the agency’s message or mission. The thirteen-member committee that formulated the agency’s latest set of nutrition recommendations was tasked with looking out for the nation’s health. But the group included nine members with ties to the food industry, casting doubt on the committee’s good faith and on the reliability of its output.[vii] In one example typical of the agency’s institutional confusion, a USDA brochure advises Americans to eat less cheese, while the agency simultaneously supports advertising that urges us to eat more cheese.[viii]
As for the FDA, it regularly ignores scientific research and public opinion to side with industry. In a move that might have made Louis Pasteur queasy, the agency permits milk producers to dose cows with dangerous growth hormone (a practice outlawed in Europe and sharply criticized by a US federal appellate court). It also refuses to require labeling of genetically-engineered foods despite public demand for such disclosure.[ix] As the FDA moves closer to approving the sale of a new genetically-modified salmon, this nondisclosure policy could soon make it impossible for consumers to distinguish between a gene-spliced fish and the real thing.
See upcoming Articles for more book excerpts
[i] Allan Schinkel, “Pork Production Costs: Farrow to Finish Production,” Animal Sciences 443: Swine Management (2000), accessed December 1, 2011, http://www.ansc.purdue.edu.
[ii] The loss per animal of $20 to $90 is for larger and more efficient producers—that is, those raising 100 or more head of cattle. Smaller producers’ losses are even higher, ranging from $184 to $305 per animal. Sara D. Short, “Characteristics and Production Costs of U.S. Cow-Calf Operations,” USDA Statistical Bulletin 17, no. 947-3 (2001), accessed December 1, 2011, http://www.ers.usda.gov.
[iv] Christopher Chantrill, “Government Spending Details,” US Government Spending (2012), accessed July 10, 2012, http://www.usgovernmentspending.com.
[vi] Boris Worm et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science 314, no. 5800 (2006): 787–90.
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