A few weeks ago, we had the incredible David Robinson Simon on our podcast discussing his new book, Meatonomics: The Bizarre Economics of Meat and Dairy. This book is bound to be a game-changer. It’s completely fascinating, and will make you think of meat in a whole new light. But don’t take my word for it. Take Ken Swensen’s! Ken – an incredible animal activist – is reviewing Meatonomics for us today. Prepare to have your mind blown, and then prepare to go buy yourself a new book.
Review by Ken Swensen
David Robinson Simon has a couple of questions for us:
Gas is four bucks a gallon, coffee and a bagel wipes out a five dollar bill, and it costs twelve dollars to go over the GW Bridge. Why is a fast-food hamburger still a dollar? (Hint: it costs the buyer a dollar.)
If meat is selling at far less than the cost of production, who is picking up the rest of the bill? (Hint: it’s not Tyson.)
David Simon has taken on a daunting task. He attempts to quantify the true economic costs of meat production and consumption. And given the complex, intertwining tentacles of culture and tradition, government regulation and corporate power, he is to be congratulated. As noted at several points throughout the book, this is an inexact science made more difficult by the fact that our meat production impacts other nations, not the least of which is the farmed-animal nation that bears the greatest cost. Meatonomics analyzes the staggering price we pay for placing meat, fish and dairy foods at the center of our American diet.
The book is divided into two parts. The first section explains how our society has set up ground rules which ensure that meat is deeply underpriced and therefore heavily over-consumed. The ironies and inequities pile up in what Mr. Simon calls a “diabolical dynamic.” The U.S. government acknowledges that we eat too much meat and dairy, while heavily advertising and subsidizing these same products. The regulatory agencies that police the meat and dairy industries are simultaneously mandated to promote their growth. The corporate power of animal agriculture thwarts any efforts to apply sensible environmental regulations to its operations.
Although many of these issues are analyzed in other books, the density of detail and the extensive research make this section a worthy contribution. I didn’t know, for example, that the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, which requires that transported pigs or cattle be given rest, food and water if their journey is longer than 28 hours, is a law in name only. According to Mr. Simon, a FOIA request in 2009 showed that neither the USDA nor the U.S. Department of Justice “had investigated or prosecuted anyone under the law in the previous five decades.” It was equally enlightening to learn that almost forty years ago the FDA warned about the dangers of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in farmed animals, and it was Congress, pressured by meat industry lobbyists, that thwarted efforts to limit their use.
The second section is the crux of the book, and it is a pioneering effort. Mr. Simon assigns a dollar value to each externality of the animal agriculture industry, i.e., those costs that “are not reflected in the good’s price and are instead passed on to third parties.” The tally includes external health and environmental costs, government subsidies, and a value assigned to take into account animal cruelty. Even though the final figure is a staggering $414 billion dollars per year, it is assuredly underestimated, and perhaps more persuasive because of it. As Mr. Simon asks “how do we measure the economic cost of a species becoming extinct?”
Indeed, it is the costs that are not included that caused me to long for a more complete assessment. Naturally, Mr. Simon had to place parameters on the study, using only those national figures that could be reasonably estimated based on existing data. Most problematically, since economics is a human discipline, the costs of animal cruelty are calculated from an average consumer’s perspective. (Compassion by the Pound, the book that is cited to document the costs of farmed animal cruelty, offers a severely constrained view of the issue, but it is likely the most comprehensive economic analysis available.)
Understandably, Mr. Simon does not attempt to estimate, for example, the externalized costs of dumping subsidized grain on the international market, or the fertilizer runoff destroying our oceans, or the economic impact of exporting the factory farming model around the world. Still, the factors that are included, mostly in costs to our health, add a whopping $1.70 in external costs to the price of a $1.00 hamburger. What is the economic cost of that frozen turkey selling for $35.00? A sobering $95.00. Now that price would have a chilling effect on meat consumption.
Mr. Simon proposes a fix, which at first I found highly improbable. A meat tax? In America? True, it’s not going to happen soon. But who would have thought 30 years ago that we could tame the powerful tobacco marketing machine? And, as we see in recent news, Mexico has instituted a national soda tax. The act of proposing a meat tax and answering all the imagined criticisms, as Mr. Simon does, gives the concept a legitimacy that it did not have prior to Meatonomics.
In spite of the author’s rational approach, the book is not without emotion. There’s disappointment and sometimes outrage, but never shrillness. Always readable, with a clear and concise manner, it’s an easy book to digest. And as a final appreciative note, the chapters on fish are particularly enlightening, covering their ecological importance, their sentience, and the complete senselessness of their destruction – especially highlighting the astonishing size of annual bycatch.
This is an important book that deserves a wide readership, including policy makers and others who care about our future. For animal activists it is an educational tool that expands our ability to engage with omnivores – reaching out to them with informed financial, environmental and health arguments. And for the omnivores or wavering vegans this is a wake-up call, especially for meat-eating environmentalists, exposing the phrase as an oxymoron.
To dismantle a corrupted system, we must know where the supports are located that keep it standing. In the end, you gotta follow the money. David Robinson Simon shows us the money.
Ken Swensen is a lifetime New Yorker. Forty years ago he gave up meat and dairy and switched to a macrobiotic diet. Three years ago he became a vegan and realized that animals need all the help we can muster. Ken runs a small business, trying to get two kids through college. He volunteers for ACTAsia for Animals supporting their work teaching Chinese schoolchildren compassion for animals and respect for the environment. He has an MBA from New York University.