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THE PRICE OF PROTEIN

Take a stroll around your local supermarket and you will notice something rather interesting. The price of meat is around the same as the price of produce. In some cases, produce costs more! Eggs are $1.80 a dozen, while you can't buy a small box of berries for under $1.99. Chicken breast at $1 per pound for the price of apples?

How can this be?

Surely it is less costly and time consuming to pick a green out of the ground or a sweet off the tree than it is to raise an animal for slaughter then kill it, skin it, gut it, and chop it up. The latter is a multi-step process that involves hordes of (underpaid) workers in multiple locations, not to mention the hardship on the animal who is forced to be confined to a small space its entire life then be shipped over long distances to be shot in the head and sliced in half. How can the flimsy price of animal protein reflect all the food it takes to feed the beasts, who consume pounds of corn and soy per day during their regrettably brief and miserable lives, while producing equal amounts of manure and methane, which has nowhere to go but in our waters and into the air.

But back to the point: How on Earth can meat be so cheap??? Two words: subsidies, and externalized costs.

If you've been keeping up with the news, you'll know that our elected officials are currently debating the Farm Bill, which among other things addresses how much money is given to farmers to grow/raise the food we consume. Why the government and by extension taxpayers should give farmers anything at all aside from the price of their goods doesn't make sense from a market standpoint and is a throwback to a bygone time. If you've ever taken an economics class you know that consumer demand should dictate price and profit should dictate participation. That's what happens in the case of fruits and vegetables, which receive almost no government aid.

The Farm Bill has been much debated, and delayed. It seems the price of protein is a very contentious issue. One side argues that factory farms - those large-scale productions that account for most of the world's meat, eggs, and dairy - are the safest, most efficient, and most cost-effective way to raise large numbers of animals, and the only way to sell eggs, milk, and body parts at a price that virtually every American can afford.

But critics counter that a grocery-store price tag does not reflect the actual cost of producing a pound of protein. While corporations bank the profits, contract farmers foot the bill for waste disposal. Should anything go wrong - and manure lagoons are known to leak and flood - taxpayers are left to clean up the mess. If factory farms were forced to pay for the management of their own animals’ waste – and for cleaning up after big spills – then food prices would rise dramatically. (The result being that consumers would eat a lot less meat. With the laundry list of diseases associated with meat-eating, how's that a bad thing?)

Everyone who pays income tax is forking over money to keep CAFOs (factory farms) in business, in the form of farm subsidies, which has only helped to perpetuate the animal-factory industry. Sadly, this goes for meat-eaters and vegans/vegetarians alike.

In CAFOs Uncovered, the Union of Concerned Scientists detailed U.S. policies that allowed factory farms to dominate meat and dairy production. Subsidies to grow animal feed, for example, saved CAFOs $35 billion in operating costs between 1997 and 2005. According to the Environmental Working Group, the feds wrote checks for $256 billion in farm subsidies for commodities, crop insurance, and disaster programs, and $39 billion in conservation payments between 1995 and 2012. And the big boys (names like Tyson, Perdue, and Smithfield) get the lion's share of government money. Obama himself said agriculture is agribusiness, with politics and profit being inextricably intertwined with animal protein.

And the price is paid by the planet.

A 2006 UN report showed that global emissions from all livestock operations account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, even more than cars, trucks, and planes. It takes three units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one unit of food energy on average among all agricultural products. But for industrial meat, the ratio can grow as high as thirty-six to one. The modern intensive confinement production systems can be stressful for animals. The crowded quarters; the competition for a small amount of breathing room; and the attendant stress, conflict, and aggression can increase the shedding of pathogenic bacteria.

We as a nation have moved to a model of agriculture that produces cheap meat but risks the health of everyone, and while the CAFO model appears to be efficient, that is only because important costs are not reflected in either the cost of the production system or its products, but are instead paid for by the public in other ways. These external costs include declining property values, the public health costs of pollution, the cost of fighting resistant infections, and the cost of cleanup of spills and other environmental disasters, notes David Kirby in his book, "Animal Factory."

All of these costs are picked up by you, though they are not included in the cost of producing or buying the meat, poultry, eggs, and milk that the modern industrial animal agriculture provides. It is externalization, not efficiency, that makes industrial meat so cheap. CAFOs are neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. We can no longer afford to remain blissfully unaware of the cost involved at so many different levels of that ice cream or frozen yogurt, the diner omelet, protein shake, chicken breast sandwich, bacon breakfast, etc. etc. Just because it comes in socially acceptable pretty packages doesn’t mean you should accept it.

As the Pew Commission report notes, industrial animal farms seemed to bless the world with tremendous increases in short-term farm efficiency and affordable food, but the boom has not come without serious unintended consequences and questions about its long-term sustainability. Ill-advised policies created CAFOs, which did not evolve naturally through agricultural progress or from rational planning or market forces but were a product of short-term thinking to feed a rapidly growing population by satisfying the ever-increasing appetite for flesh. Factory farms now produce most of the animal protein in our diets. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the overuse of antibiotics; air quality problems; the contamination of rivers, streams, and coastal waters with concentrated animal waste are all realities that won't just go away on their own. It will take new policies to replace them with more sustainable, environmentally friendly production methods, but as we are seeing with the debacle that the Farm Bill has become, these changes are not likely to happen anytime soon.

Government protects the prevailing system, the status quo. Misguided federal farm policies have encouraged the growth of massive confined animal feeding operations by shifting billions of dollars in environmental, health, and economic costs to taxpayers and communities. And the forces that be profit considerably by maintaining things as they are. It is up to you as a consumer. Supply will match demand, and until demand for meat and eggs and dairy falls to zero, supply will still exist, at the cost of the taxpayer’s money, environment, health, and the future.

It is said that food - like sex, politics, and religion - is an intensely personal, emotional, and complicated subject. Thus the phrase "there's no accounting for taste." Well, it is intensely personal, emotional, and complicated, for the animal that is killed! And when the production of food comes at so great an expense, it needs to be addressed.

The power lies with you. Each time you visit the market or sit down at the table, you make a vote. Vote plants.

* We'd like to thank author David Kirby, whose book "Animal Factory" provided much of the fodder for this post. Buy it today!

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