It’s easy to click on more than a dozen different web stories ripping the livestock and meat industry as the leading culprits in a host of eco- and health-related ills affecting the world in 2018.
Most of those posts appear on pro-vegetarian, consumer activist and/or “lifestyle” websites devoted to being hip, trendy and oh-so au courant.
That’s to be expected.
It’s worrisome, however, when a pro-business pub like Fortune magazine offers its brand and its audience to a columnist to launch a flat-out anti-industry rant that regurgitates the worst of the mantras activists love to flog: cattle are causing climate change and meat-eating is crippling the public sector with healthcare costs associated with heart diseases, obesity and diabetes.
If only we’d all just stop buying and consuming beef and pork, all would be right with the world, the writer asserted in an article titled, “Why It’s Time for America to Tax Meat.”
“According to data provided over email by research firm Technomic,” the article noted, “the average fast food cheeseburger costs $4.02, but that price tag doesn’t take into account a number of invisible external costs, also known as externalities.”
Can you guess what those might be? How about “poisonous methane emissions from cows” and “higher healthcare costs” associated with “unhealthy diets?”
The solution? Heavy-duty taxation on meat, similar to what has been imposed on cigarettes in the United States.
Other than ultimately providing another bonanza for any number of Indian reservations, which could use their sovereignty to market tax-free meat, the idea that a meat tax would drive us to vegetarianism is highly suspect. For one thing, meat is a product of choice, and going cold turkey (literally) with meat-eating doesn’t end anyone’s desire for a steak, a burger or a ham sandwich, the way that tobacco cessation curtails the urge to smoke.
Second, “meat” doesn’t come in a neat, pocket-size package sold almost exclusively at retail. To deal with that fact, it’s likely that a tax would be imposed on each head of livestock. However, that would hugely incentivize not a cessation in meat-eating, but rather a tremendous growth in imported meat, which would be damaging to American agriculture, as well as the entire food industry.
Hard to believe a business-first magazine such as Fortune is in favor of such a scenario.
Moreover, the so-called evidence in favor of a meat tax is itself suspect.
As sources, the Fortune writer cited the American Institute for Cancer Research, an organization that calls itself non-partisan but in fact is committed to a no-meat agenda, and which received a one-star rating from Charity Navigator because an audit showed that more than 50% of its revenues went to fund-raising, instead of research and education.
It’s an activist org, not a research institution.
In addition, the article relied heavily on a study conducted at the University of Oxford in England, which alleged that, “If Americans switched to vegetarianism en masse, we could reduce our healthcare costs by up to $223.6 billion each year by 2050, as vegetarians typically have lower rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain forms of cancer.”
With the exception of “Americans,” practically every word in that sentence is fictional.
We’re not going to make some wholesale changeover to a veggie diet; the $223 billion is a made-up figure based on an aspirational reduction in hospitalization and treatment costs of the aforementioned diseases; and it’s not at all conclusive that giving up meat-eating would reduce the incidence of chronic diseases such as cardiac events, cancer or diabetes.
All three of those conditions are caused by a cluster of “lifestyle” factors that include (but are not limited to) sedentary lifestyles, exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins, high-stress occupations, excess tobacco and alcohol use, and overconsumption of high-carb, high-sugar foods and beverages.
Eating minimally processed, high-protein meat and dairy foods would help, not hurt effective management of those diseases.
Finally, and this cannot be stressed enough — I know I’ve repeated it some ten thousand times in my career—every study that purports to calculate a cost-benefit of conventional animal foods versus vegetarian alternatives must account for the added crops, processing and packaging required to substitute the trillions of calories needed to replace meat and dairy with plants.
Folks, there isn’t enough arable land on Earth to grow enough crops to feed nine billion people if every acre of grassland is taken out of production and every food animal in existence were somehow removed from the planet.
No study, no paradigm, no master plan to turn the world vegetarian has a shred of credibility until its authors include a calculation of the actual impact of eliminating animal agriculture and replacing it with a massive increase in non-meat food production.
And that includes even business organizations, such as Fortune, that pride themselves on not pursuing an agenda.
Because the people pushing that alternative future definitely have one.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.