Meat of the Matter: Strike Four on Meat?

Let’s start today with the obvious: The large and diverse group of activists who attack and demonize virtually all of animal agriculture almost always focus on three negative impacts they ascribe to livestock production and meat-eating: Environmental impact, animal welfare and human health and longevity.

Now, an attorney-turned-author wants to add an additional strike against everyone involved in animal husbandry, in meat and dairy product processing and basically everyone who consumes any animal foods.

What’s Strike Four?

Money. According to this theory, economics will eventually overwhelm global meat production, and turn the world into opt-in vegans.

The author is David Robinson Simon, whose 2013 book Meatonomics purports to make the case that the economics of animal agriculture will end up driving livestock production down the same road that tobacco farmers traveled two decades ago, aka, Destination: Oblivion.

Let’s set aside the fact that in 2017 more than a billion people worldwide are regular cigarette smokers. That’s one out of every three adults alive on Earth, so if Mark Twain hadn’t died in 1910 from heart disease related to his being a lifelong smoker, he would have noted that reports of tobacco’s death are greatly exaggerated.

But like any good lawyer (Simon serves as general counsel for a healthcare company when he’s not being paid for speeches denouncing policymakers, livestock producers, farmers, consumers, or basically anyone who hasn’t taken the vow to live the vegan lifestyle), he’s getting a lot of run for what we have to acknowledge is a clever way to re-frame the arguments against meat-eating.

“The traditional three arguments in this field are around health, ethics and the environment,” Simon told The Guardian newspaper. “I just wanted to have a fourth perspective, which was economics.”

Then, like a litigator making closing arguments to the jury in a lawsuit seeking damages, Simon puts forward some eye-popping numbers. He claims that the external costs of what he calls “the animal food system” in the U.S. exceeds $414 billion annually.

Now, externalized costs are typically defined by economists as the costs that occur when the production or consumption of goods or services imposes costs upon a third party.

Here’s an example: Driving a car involves costs to the owner-driver of the automobile beyond the purchase price, including buying gasoline, paying taxes and taking care of maintenance and repairs. Those are direct costs.

However, it’s possible to estimate — and let’s specify that all external cost calculations are speculative numbers — the eternal costs of driving a car, such as the impact of traffic congestion, injuries and fatalities caused by accidents, the pollution and smog that result from burning gasoline and diesel fuel, even health problems related to the proliferation of drive-thrus, coupled with our national proclivity to overuse those retail and foodservice options.

It’s that last item — healthcare costs — that underlies Simon’s inflated figures.

As reported by The Guardian, Simon explained that three-quarters of his $440 billion-dollar price tag involves healthcare costs related to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, which he links to the consumption of meat and dairy.

If that statement were part of a legal proceeding, the opposing attorneys would be on their feet in an instant, objecting on the basis of, “Counsel is assuming facts not in evidence.”

Simon Says

As for the rest of his alleged $440 billion external costs of eating meat, the subtitle of Simon’s book tells that story: “How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much — and How to

Eat Better, Live Longer and Spend Smarter.”

In other words, he’s implicating federal spending on everything from farm support to transportation infrastructure to agricultural and food science research, assuming that if all that went away, it would somehow be a positive development for the nation and the world.

Talk about begging the question: If the world were to go vegan, there will be an exponential need to ramp up the production of food crops, food product development and food distribution systems to feed the 5 or 6 billion people currently consuming meat and dairy products.

Transitioning from growing tobacco to other crops is pretty straightforward, and in fact has happened in many areas of the country without incidence.

Depopulating the world’s grasslands, which are not suited to the cultivation of row crops, would have a monumental impact on global food production, and as always, Simon falls into the same trap that virtually all veggie activists do: He simply subtracts the (alleged) costs of meat production without re-calculating the additional costs of replacing those trillions of calories supplied by animal foods with plant sources.

And let’s not pretend that the world will come to look at meat eating in the same light as cigarette smoking. Animal foods provide healthy, valuable nourishment, and only deaf/dumb/blind activists deny that reality. Cigarettes, on the other hand, are a delivery system for an addictive drug that causes well-documented ill effects on human health.

Simon can preach all he wants about some fourth strike against the meat industry. But his exact argument could be applied to any other industry — such as automobiles — and in virtually all of those cases, the response is about mitigation, not elimination, to deal with the negatives created by the manufacture, sale and use of that industry’s products.

The bottom line is that everything creates external costs, including the manufacture of all the alt-meat products currently en vogue.

The goal is to control those costs, not to pretend that they can be erased simply by substituting one product for another.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.


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