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Agriculture

Published on December 19th, 2016 | by Carolyn Fortuna

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Animal Agriculture Subsidies Threaten Our Planet

December 19th, 2016 by  


This is a quiz. What is the single greatest human cause of climate change on the planet? Is it:

  1. carbon-belching buses
  2. power plants
  3. animal as food production

animal agriculture

If you guessed “3,” you’re right. Surprising, isn’t it? Animal food production now surpasses both the transportation industry and electricity generation as the greatest source of greenhouse gases, according to research by two World Bank scientists.

It seems like we’re taught by our families that we eat meat because it tastes delicious, is better for us than nearly any other food item, and has been part of our traditions for as long as anyone can remember. Even the collective language of our US culture frames eating meat as “normal.” Think of it: bloody meat confers a primal, animalistic force, a way to strengthen our own life blood and power. We “beef up” our bodies to make them more vital and appealing, and the young person who is a “beefcake” is attractive and muscular.

Vegetables hold a sedentary connotation. When we are “couch potatoes,” we’re weak and ineffectual. Vegetables are for frail, small framed persons, nerds, as it were. The unfortunate phrase, to “become a vegetable,” is the ultimate blow to the nerd, as it confers losing the mind, or the intellectual self.

But the reason we eat meat and deride a plant-based diet is much more complex and insidious than tradition. It’s a mindset perpetuated by the animal agriculture industry, and we need to understand it if we’re going to create a culture where what’s actually good to eat is the norm.

How the U.S. Government Props up Animal Agriculture

Symbolism is formidable in US society, especially with a pervasive media culture that positions and prefers some lifestyle choices over others. The cultural symbolism of meat implies power, wealth, and privilege. Think of gluttonous royal kings in medieval times chomping down on legs of lamb while the average citizens ate spoiled fruit rinds and crusts of stale bread. You get the picture.

The meat industry perpetuates these stereotypes to compel many individuals to select meat items over fruits and vegetables, the latter of which have properties which are more healthy, restorative, and sustainable.

Educating ourselves about the animal as food system’s formidable propaganda can help us toward a better life and world. The recognition of meat’s real narrative can help us toward spending less, improved overall health, weight loss, longer life, animal conservation and sanctuary, rural community preservation, and planet habitat protection.

But how?

Economic forces drive the production of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, and affect the U.S. consumer in multiple ways. Even though the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) advises us to eat fewer animal products daily, the animal agriculture system encourages us to eat much more. Animal as food producers do more than influence our buying decisions: they control our food decision-making with artificially-low prices, misleading messaging, and incessant lobbying toward animal-friendly legislation and regulation. Their most important persuasive device is the embedded charge that the $414 billion annual externalized cost that this animal food system imposes on taxpayers, animals, and the environment. Meat and dairy producers accrue yearly retail sales of around $250 billion.

Each year, American taxpayers subsidize the animal food system with $38 billion, according to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. According to David Robinson Simon in the book Meatonomics, for every $1 of product they sell, the animal as food system imposes almost $2 in hidden costs on taxpayers. To bring it down to an analogy with the fast food culture, your $4.00 Big Mac really costs society about $11.00. Everyone — those who eat meat and those who do not — incur a share of $7 in external costs each time someone buys that iconic burger with its mysterious special sauce.

Compared to plant protein, raising animal protein takes up to one hundred times more water, eleven times more fossil fuels, and five times more land. And the growth of lobbying in relation to the cost of running a national political campaign has ushered in an era in which legislation has weakened existing laws about cruelty to farm animals, food defamation, undercover investigations, food injury lawsuits, and ecoterrorism. Our legislators need the animal agriculture industry’s cash to stay in office, and the trade-off that props up the animal as food industry hurts U.S. citizens.

How do Plant-Based Subsidies Compare to Animal Agriculture Subsidies?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spends $25 billion or more a year. Very little of this allocation is spent on the small farmer. Indeed, the USDA acknowledges that there is “limited financial support for small farms and farm-related businesses.” According to Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute, “If you subsidize something, you get more of it.” Most agricultural subsidies go to farmers of a handful of major crops, including wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton, with payments heavily tilted toward the largest producers. Corn and soy, particularly, facilitate the meat and processed food we’re supposed to reduce in our diets.

Some farm subsidy programs counter adverse fluctuations in prices, revenues, and production. Other programs subsidize farmers’ conservation efforts, insurance coverage, product marketing, export sales, research and development, and other activities.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of the United Fresh Produce Association, says, “We’ve taken a different approach from the commodity growers.” He explains that specialty crop farming, because of its variety, is by necessity different from commodity regulation, and the flexibility that comes with independence is preferable to most small farmers. Even if flexibility doesn’t come with cash….

Then again, a 1% decrease in the 160 million acres of corn and soy translates to an 11% increase in the 14 million acres of fruits and vegetables. Why don’t taxpayers subsidize the foods that are better for us? A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar, which can help keep appetite in check. Farm bills do almost nothing for fruits and vegetables. If there’s any obligation to spend the public’s money in a way that’s consistent with public health, shouldn’t subsidies benefit fruits and vegetables? We need to advocate for better subsidy systems than the current ones that spend billions underwriting a system detrimental to public health.

We Can Tackle the Devastating Effects of Animal Agriculture at the Local Level

Over the last century, US per capita meat consumption has nearly doubled and is correlated with the US preponderance of obesity. The average American eats about 200 pounds of meat per year. Meanwhile, we’re told that vegetables and fruits are an important part of a healthy diet, and variety is as important as quantity. We know that no single fruit or vegetable provides all of the nutrients we need to be healthy, so we’re supposed to eat plenty everyday. But the subsidies go mostly to non-fruit and vegetable agricultural sources. What can we do to reverse the devastating effects of animal agriculture at the local level?

We definitely need to rise up and speak out about:

  • the reality of how animals are raised
  • the effects of an animal-centered diet on human health
  • the necessity to overturn legislation in 13 states that prohibits negative discourse about animal foods
  • efforts of undercover investigators at factory farms
  • legislation to decriminalize imagery around unsafe and inhumane conditions in animal food factories in many states
  • the USDA’s appointments of committee members from the animal as food industry who have conflicting interests
  • the need for prominent labeling of dangerous growth hormones, which are already outlawed in Europe, and labeling of genetically engineered foods, which continues to stall in legislatures despite public demand for such disclosure
  • how animal agriculture uses a vast amount of our freshwater and is a major contributor to the dire and growing problem of drought and water shortage across the globe
  • agricultural activity as a source of pollution for 48% of stream and river water and for 41% of lake water due to storage and disposal of animal waste
  • over half of planet’s arable land is used for animal as food agriculture and is behind the majority of deforestation, land degradation, and species extinction
  • one in eight people still suffer from food scarcity – and it’s only getting worse. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “the number of hungry is currently climbing at the rate of some four million a year.”

Animals as food systems are key factors in the environmental crisis that threatens the basis of life on earth. Due to the rapid and radical 20th-century transformation of our food system from sustainably-based, locally focused production to a fossil-fuel dedicated industrialized system, agriculture has changed more in the past two generations than it did in the previous 12,000 years. Animal as food systems are impediments, not contributors, to ending world hunger. We have the capacity to rise up and push for changes in the animal agriculture system if we act together.

Sources

Goodland, Robert and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change Are . . . Cows, Pigs and Chickens?” World Watch (November/December 2009): 10–19.

McIntyre, Jenny. Introduce Bill to End Government Subsidies for Animal Agriculture.

National Dairy Council, “Research,” The Dairy Connection.

USDA 2016 Fact Sheet.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, “Benefits of Research & Promotion Boards (Checkoffs).” (2011).

Photo credit: Phil Roeder via Foter.com / CC BY


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About the Author

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. She’s molds scholarship into digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+



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