The Economic Bane of Meat and Dairy

by David Sudarsky

Ever since the Great Depression, US agricultural subsidies have guaranteed a reliable food supply. Billions of dollars are collected from taxpayers each year for this purpose. On the surface, such "food security" may appear to be a good thing. But where do our tax dollars go? Grain farming, dairy, and beef get a nice share, while fruit and vegetable growers do not. Grain farming? Unfortunately, a majority of the grains grown in the US are consumed by farm animals, not by humans.

How can it be that meat and dairy receive such large direct and indirect subsidies? Well, a number decades ago, meat and dairy products were thought to be an essential part of the human diet, so it made sense to guarantee their production. Today, thanks to modern science and nonpartisan nutritional organizations, such as the American Dietetic Association (ADA), we know that meat and dairy products are completely unnecessary for good health. Hence, there is no justification for us paying higher taxes simply to satisfy the palates of those who choose to indulge in meat or dairy foods. Shouldn't meat and dairy be subject to free market forces like most other nonessential products?

As bad as it may seem, wasted tax dollars are a relatively small portion of the economic drain due to meat and dairy. It's no secret that most cuts of meat and most forms of dairy products are laden with saturated fat and cholesterol. To be fair, I also need to include eggs, since they contain more cholesterol than any other food on the planet. In contrast, plant-based foods are low in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol. These facts are so very important with respect to health care. Health care costs are rising quickly, at a rate 2-3 times that of inflation! Increased health care costs raise all our health insurance premiums. Coronary bypass surgery is very common and very expensive. Cholesterol-lowering drugs are also very costly. What a waste of money! In the vast majority of cases, an unhealthy cardiovascular system is the result of lifestyle, namely poor diet and lack of vigorous physical activity. Before one considers cholesterol-lowering drugs, it's time to consider a lifestyle change. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jenkins et al. 2003) found that a vegan diet is as effective as statin drugs in lowering LDL cholesterol levels. That's not too surprising: Vegans usually have substantially lower cholesterol levels than the general population. Vegans are also more likely to maintain a healthy body weight relative to the general population, and relative to vegetarians that consume dairy. Despite the millions of dollars spent on advertisements recently claiming that dairy products help you lose weight, epidemiological data show that vegans are thinner than those who consume dairy. I'm still waiting for an explanation from the National Dairy Council on that one.

Economically speaking, lower taxes and lower health care premiums result in more discretionary income, and discretionary income generally leads to a more vibrant economy. As a longtime vegan, I for one would like to stop blowing my income on unnecessary subsidies (of all kinds) and on absurdly high health care premiums. Yes, we all know that there are stronger arguments against animal products than economic ones, but it's time we add economics to the list too.

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