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.