Monthly Archives: November 2011

Taxpayers Fund Animal Cruelty and Environmental Devastation

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published October 10, 2011 on Care2.
“A new report finds that $62 of every $100 that U.S. farmers earn comes from one level of government or another.  In 2009, that added up to a staggering $180.8-billion (U.S.).”

As explained in Animal Cruelty: Who is to Blame?, the atrocities of animal slavery are essentially consumer-generated. What this means is that not only are consumers responsible for the brutality that is inflicted on our behalf, we also have the power to actually put an end to widespread animal cruelty by refusing to purchase products and services that involve exploitation in any form.

But many people may not be aware of how much taxpayers are indirectly, but overwhelmingly, helping to fund this excessive and corrupt business in another way: government assistance. When you begin to investigate the huge excesses and waste associated with large-scale animal farming, it becomes clear that assistance from the government is an essential factor in helping this industry to stay afloat.
Because industry and investors are primarily business people, who are focused on making money by fulfilling demand for specific products, they would ordinarily be indifferent to whether they are selling apples or animal products. There are, however, two strong economic factors which cause industry to nurture the demand for animal products, and, on the flip side, resist efforts to promote vegan living.

The first economic factor is the highly profitable excesses of animal agriculture. Animals consume (in plant foods) multiple times the protein that they provide. Depending on confinement and feed factors, cows require 9 to 13 times as much protein as they provide; pigs 5 or 6 times; and chickens twice as much. This means that most of the crops grown in huge monocultures, such as soy and corn, are sold to animal agriculture.

When you add the extra transportation, harvesters, and fuel to the high demand for crops fed to animals, along with the other resources required to raise, transport, and slaughter animals (and refrigerate them afterward), it’s easy to see why multiple large industries have a strong interest in the continued existence and growth of animal agriculture (and why socially responsible consumers should reject it outright, even without taking into account the deplorable rights violations to the individuals in question).  With its extreme waste and inefficiency, animal agriculture makes all agriculture many times larger than it would otherwise need to be to feed its human consumers.

But how is it possible that such waste and excess should actually pay-off financially? The answer is that the animal industry (including the huge monoculture crops that feed it), is supported by tens of billions of dollars in annual farm subsidies and other government handouts that make it highly profitable to produce animal-based foods over plant-based foods. A recent article from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine explains the extreme inconsistency between government nutrition guidelines and the subsidies they provide to suppliers.

Not only do such colossal government handouts artificially affect supply, these subsidies also lower the prices of animal products, which would be close to three times as high without subsidies. Considering the exorbitant costs of animal agriculture to the environment; and the costs of saturated fat, cholesterol, and excess sodium to human health, a responsible government would tax, not subsidize, animal products, even if the rights of animals were not an issue.

This is tremendously important because, according to the economic principle of “demand elasticity”*, the demand for animal products would likely decline to nearly half of its current level if the government simply stopped providing subsidies, since this would cause prices to rise closer to their natural level of 2.6 times current (subsidized) prices. If animal products were taxed to compensate for their disastrous effects on the environment and human health, prices would rise to multiple times current rates, dropping the quantity demanded to a small fraction of its current level – a boon for the environment, human health, and most important, the individual animals whose lives are discarded like one more waste product of this obscene business.

* In economic terms, “demand elasticity” indicates the percentage change in quantity demanded in response to a one percent change in price. (Animal products likely have an average demand elasticity of -0.7, ranging from -0.01 to -1.7).

In addition to subsidies, the animal industry receives various other government handouts which contribute to the deceptively low prices of animal products. These extra “sweeteners” are in the form of extremely low costs for grazing animals on public land, and the purchase of surplus animal products for government activities such as the National School Lunch Program.

Given these huge economic gravy trains enticing Big Food to push animal products as relentlessly as Big Tobacco used to push cigarettes, it is no wonder they do so with such zeal. These powerful special interests are unlikely to be attracted to the strong market potential for environmentally-sustainable, healthy, and ethical vegan food. Indeed, we can expect them to use every trick in the book to thwart efforts to move consumers in such a direction.

A large proportion of animal advocacy hours are currently dedicated to targeting the animal industry and the government with demands for greater social responsibility and tougher legislation. However, not only is it obvious that this approach is heavily flawed when examined according to the principles of demand and supply, but when you remember that Big Food – along with Big Oil and other huge corporate interests – control the government itself (including tax and subsidy policy makers), it becomes clear that we cannot influence such a powerful and heavily entrenched industry on any large scale – either directly or through government policy.

But again, there is one way in which we do have power over them. If we target our advocacy toward the consumers of animal products, by helping people to understand how and why to become vegan, we can actually help to shift demand toward vegan products and away from animal products and the extreme misery that they cause.

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Filed under care2, subsidies

Animal Cruelty: Who is to Blame?

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

For many of us who are aware of the multitude of ways that animals suffer at the hands of humans around the world, this ubiquitous cruelty is the most pressing social justice issue of them all. From declawing to debeaking, ear clipping to tail docking, the suffering that human beings inflict on animals being used for food, clothing, research, ‘pets’ and entertainment appears to know no bounds, and the many brutal ways in which we force animals to succumb to our desires appear to be limited only by the scope of our imaginations.

But why does all this cruelty take place? And what can we do about this horrifying brutality as individuals? It’s easy to point the finger at the direct perpetrators of animal cruelty as being villains who need to be brought to justice. It’s much harder – and yet much more significant – to turn that critical eye inward and ask oneself, ‘What am I doing to contribute to this?’ But it is only by asking that question that the path toward emancipation from barbaric injustice becomes clear.

The vast majority of the time, money and effort of animal welfare organizations goes toward trying to develop new laws and regulations to address the many separate issues relating to animal cruelty, while at the same time trying to force the industry to adhere to those currently in place.  As explained in Are Anti-Cruelty Campaigns Really Effective?, these efforts consistently fail to create any significant improvement for animals.

Behind these campaigns lies a hidden assumption that the animal industry is responsible for animal cruelty. But is this assumption warranted? Isn’t industry simply a middle agent put in place to do the dirty deeds requested by consumers of animal products? Although it’s true that the animal industry is an eager and aggressive middle agent, its role is only that of middle agent. As such, while institutionalized exploiters certainly have a lot to answer for, it is consumers who are primarily responsible for animal cruelty through their purchases of animal products.

Many people will likely respond that their concern is not with the rights of animals not to be enslaved and killed, but with the excessive brutality in the animal industry; gratuitous violence for instance, and the cruelty that is inflicted on animals along the way to being slaughtered and butchered – debeaking,  dehorning, detoeing, mulesing, castration, tail docking, etc. But as long as our society continues to treat animals as property and economic commodities, our legal system will continue to accept such mutilations as a necessary evil on the way to providing goods and services to a human population largely indifferent to what is hidden behind remote sheds and slaughterhouses.

In any case, even if we did find some way to eliminate every single practice involving physical mutilation, it’s impossible to make slavery and murder anything other than slavery and murder. We can slap fancy labels on the products of animal misery and market them as ‘humanely-raised’, ‘animal compassionate’, ‘ethically-produced’ or ‘guilt-free’, but needless killing is needless killing, and no amount of regulation can change that.

It is understandable that individual stories of horrific suffering make people want to seek out the perpetrators, bring them to justice, and protect potential victims from experiencing the same treatment. But pointing the finger at institutional exploiters ignores the most significant issue – that no matter what the suppliers do along the way, consumption of animal products ultimately requires taking animals’ lives.

How can we expect morally decent behavior from the people we ask to carry out the task of breeding, confining and ultimately killing and butchering the animals we choose to enslave and eat? These are innocent beings who most people would rather caress and embrace than hurt and kill.

There is something very unjust about the fact that we delegate the most obscene work of our society to a select few who are emotionally hardened enough to carry it out, only to later denigrate them for their disconnection from their natural sense of empathy. When thinking about it honestly, most of us would be hard-pressed to find it in ourselves to slaughter an animal – or to rip off her skin, or slice open her body to remove the entrails, or butcher her flesh into supermarket-sized pieces… And yet, we continue to ask others to do it for us, while most people refuse to even watch these things on video or hear others describe them.

But our distaste toward being involved in such violent acts isn’t something that should be squelched and suppressed, as Michael Pollan or Julie Powell would have us believe. No – we should be grateful for the revulsion we feel when we imagine what happens to animals in between being born and being on our plates. Our horror is a sane reaction to practices that are nothing short of horrifying.

We cannot separate ourselves from depravity simply because we have found a way to tuck the dirty deeds out of sight – behind the walls of slaughterhouses and other obscure buildings. And all the disconnection and indifference in the world cannot change the fact that it is impossible to distinguish the immorality of a Pollan-style DIY approach from the immorality of any other act of unnecessary violence.

In any court of law, those who are complicit in a crime are considered to be responsible along with those who carry it out.

As expressed so eloquently by Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

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Filed under animal rights, animal welfare, care2