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The cost of cows: Why we are all paying the price of the meat industry

November 29, 2023
The cost of cows: Why we are all paying the price of the meat industry
Though plant-based dining is often seen as expensive, America’s meat-eating habit is having a greater impact on our wallets.

When burgers are cheaper than salads, it seems simple why the western world is so reluctant to give up meat, even with an influx of new animal-free protein options – it comes down to dollars and cents. With the average price of a Big Mac in America at $5.15, meat-centered fast foods are considered the epitome of affordable eating. But in reality, that burger costs more than you think. In fact, without government subsidies, a pound of hamburger meat would be $30. And while consumers may not be spending that much upfront, we are all paying for factory farming externalities in other ways.

The 2023 Farm Bill is projected to spend over $725 billion of taxpayer’s money over the next five years. A significant portion of this budget funds subsidies for industrial farms, keeping the cost of meat artificially low while allowing the prices of fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods to skyrocket. In its 90 year history, the bill has transformed from a way to support small farmers during the Dust Bowl into a system for the factory farming industry to increase profits at the expense of human health and the planet.

Originally established during the Great Depression, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 provided subsidy payments to farmers who reduced production of certain crops in order to diminish surplus and regulate agricultural workers’ income. After World War II, the Farm Bill was repurposed to meet the demand for a growing export market, investing heavily in monocrops such as corn and soy which are primarily used as livestock feed in industrial farms. This laid the groundwork for a history of policies benefiting the meat industry, despite growing evidence of environmental and ethical drawbacks.

Currently, the U.S. government spends $38 billion each year to subsidize meat and dairy products, while only $17 million – 0.04% as much – goes to fruit and vegetable farmers, creating price discrepancies which shape the standard American diet and cause national health consequences. According to the CDC, nine in ten Americans do not reach their nutritionist-recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables, contributing to the nearly $173 billion spent each year on healthcare for diet-related conditions in the U.S.

Besides the health impacts, our modern industrial agriculture system is costing consumers through overconsumption of resources and destructive effects on the climate. The food industry is a leading cause of global warming, mainly due to carbon dioxide and methane emissions from livestock farming, which is becoming an economic crisis. The cost of climate and weather disasters in the U.S. totaled over $165 billion in 2022, and that price tag will only increase as environmental damages become more severe. 

Additionally, water bills have risen nationwide by 50% over the past decade. While citizens let their lawns turn brown and take five-minute showers to avoid extreme water prices, the government continues to invest in incredibly water-intensive agricultural systems. Producing one pound of beef requires the same amount of water as taking 135 showers, and yet the financial burden of our water shortage continues to fall on individuals. 

Investing in climate-resilient foods on a wide scale is not just socially favorable, it’s also cost-effective. Shifting to sustainable food production is vital to ensure that everyone can access not only nutritious food, but also water, clean air, and a stable climate without having to pay for the pollution of industrial agriculture. 

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