Posts Tagged ‘meatonomics’

bee in the sand

There’s a beautiful beach called “Crystal Cove” near my home, so close that my partner Tania and I, who consider it our personal sanctuary, walk on the shore several times a week.  (This stretch of coastline is one of the best things about Orange County, California, a place so conservative and corporate-friendly that voters here rejected a GMO labeling initiative by a two-to-one margin.)  In the past year, however, we’ve seen something strange on the beach along with the starfish, anemones and shorebirds: dying bees.  Sometimes there are none.  Other times they’re present by the dozens, wriggling in circles in the wet sand at the water’s edge like drunken, disoriented little aviators.  Eventually, they get tired and simply expire.  You can pick them up, barely alive, and move them inland to a safe place, but it makes no difference.  They’re fatally lost, they can’t find their hive, and they’ll be dead in a few hours.

749px-Anthidium_February_2008-1“Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) refers to the mysterious disappearance of millions of US honeybees over the past half-century – and at an alarmingly accelerated rate since 2006.  I don’t know for certain whether dying bees at the shore are casualties of CCD, and the academics I asked didn’t know either.  But it sure seems likely, especially since CCD is such a generalized concept that almost anything might fit the category.  Which brings me to the main point of this post: the evidence shows that CCD is yet another unfortunate, costly result of Americans’ extraordinarily high consumption of meat and dairy.

mcdonalds-Big-MacIn my book MeatonomicsI show that our nation’s obsession with animal foods – leading us to consume more meat per capita than any other country on the planet – costs us more than $400 billion yearly in hidden, or externalized, costs.  The expenses related to these bee die-offs are also significant, which is why the agriculture industry and the US Department of Agriculture take CCD seriously and are devoting resources to addressing it.  One-third of the food we eat depends on honeybee pollination – giving those pollination services an estimated value of $215 billion worldwide.[1]  In 2008, there were just 2.4 million honeybee colonies in the United States, down from 5.9 million in 1945.[2]  These massive colony losses have already raised honey costs and beehive rental costs, hurt some beekeepers’ incomes, put others out of business, and threatened to disrupt the production of crops worth $15 billion.[3]

Let’s consider how bees are dying, then look at why meat and dairy are to blame.  One leading explanation for CCD is that the prevalent use of pesticides on crops is killing the little pollinators.[4]  When exposed to toxins, bees become disoriented and die within twenty-four hours.  The bee deaths at the beach, of course, fit this pattern like a honeycomb fits a hive.

800px-Corn_field_ohioAnother theory for the bees’ disappearance is that with vast amounts of US cropland now dedicated to monocrops like corn and soybeans, foraging bees cannot find sufficient nutritional or seasonal variety to meet their needs.[5]  Moreover, bees get important immune-boosting benefits from consuming a variety of pollen types, and when they consume only one type, these benefits are diminished.[6]

A final hypothesis says that bees are dying because the pollen of GMO plants is altering the DNA of bees or of bacteria that live in bees’ guts.  One researcher who studied this phenomenon found that genetic material transferred to bees from GMO corn may have “altered the surface of the bee’s intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow parasites to gain entry.”[7]

764px-Honey_bee_on_a_dandelion,_Sandy,_Bedfordshire_(7002893894)Of course, it could even be a combination of all three of these factors.  After all, bees evolved to consume healthy pollen from a variety of natural plants, not toxic pollen from pesticide-soaked, genetically modified, monocrops.  So the triple-whammy theory makes sense too.

It seems indisputable that CCD is a consequence of industrial agriculture, but what does this have to do with meat and dairy?  That’s easy: most of the crops we grow in this country are fed to livestock.[8]  Thus, the top three US crops are corn, soybeans, and hay. Farm animals eat 70 percent of the soybeans, 80 percent of the corn, and virtually all of the hay.[9]  Moreover, 94% of US soy is GMO, as is 88% of US corn.[10]

Thus, the picture that emerges is this: most US cropland is dedicated to GMO monocrops being raised to feed livestock.  And the research shows that it is precisely these crops that are killing bees.  So it is fair to conclude that animal agriculture is largely responsible for the massive bee declines associated with CCD.

800px-Fresh_cut_fruits_and_vegetablesWhat can we do about it?  For starters, we can consume less meat and dairy and eat more organic fruits and vegetables.  This switch alone would go a long way toward helping restore the natural and variegated sources of healthy pollen that bees need.  I propose some other solutions to this and other problems of animal agriculture in my book – so for more details, check out Meatonomics.


[1] Dennis vanEngelsdorp et al., “A Survey of Honey Bee Colony Losses in the U.S., Fall 2007 to Spring 2008,” PLoS ONE 3, no. 12 (2008).

[2] Ibid.

[3] George Raine, “Many Causes Blamed for Honeybee Die-off: Colony Collapse Disorder Could Cost $15 Billion,” San Francisco Chronicle (June 1, 2007).

[4] Pettis J, vanEngelsdorp D, Johnson J, Dively G. Pesticide exposure in honey bees results in increased levels of the gut pathogen Nosema. Naturwissenschaften. 2012;99:153–158.

[5] M. Spivak, E. Mader, M. Vaughan, N. H. Euliss Jr., 2011.- The plight of the bees.- Environmental Science and Technology, 45: 34-38.

[6] Alaux C; Ducloz F; Crauser D; Le Conte Y. 2010. Diet effects on honeybee immunocompetence. Biology Letters.

[7] Gunther Latsch, “Collapsing Colonies: Are GM Crops Killing Bees?,” Spiegel Online (March 22, 2007).

[8] Edgar G. Hertwich et al., “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials” (report, Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, United Nations Environment Program, 2010), 80.

[9] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Major Crops Grown in the United States”; Lester Brown, “Soybeans Threaten Amazon Rainforest,” Grist (2010).

[10] Ryan Beville, “How Pervasive are GMOs in Animal Feed?,” GMO Inside Blog (July 16, 2013).

With a nod to the Harper’s Index, here’s the Meatonomics version of 40 numbers that tell a story. Sources for all figures are cited below. To view or download as a pdf, click here.

Average market value of a cow in the North Central United States : $245

Average cost to raise a cow in that region : $498

Amount US taxpayers spend yearly to subsidize meat and dairy : $38 billion

To subsidize fruits and vegetables : $17 million

US retail price of a pound of chicken in 1935 (adjusted for inflation) : $5.07

In 2011 : $1.34

Pounds of chicken eaten annually per American in 1935 : 9

In 2011 : 56

Factor by which US per-capita consumption of chicken and other meat exceeds world average : 3

By which US incidence of cancer exceeds world average : 3

Portion of US cancer, diabetes and heart disease cases related to meat and dairy consumption : 1/3

Annual cost to treat US cases of these diseases related to meat and dairy consumption : $314 billion

Portion of annual Medicare spending this represents : 3/5

Dietary cholesterol needed by humans, per National Academies’ Institute of Medicine : 0

Daily maximum recommended dietary cholesterol, per USDA (in milligrams) : 300

Milligrams of cholesterol per gram of ground beef : 0.9

Per gram of salmon : 0.9

Revenue collected by US fishing industry per pound of fish caught : $0.59

Portion of this figure funded by taxpayers as subsidies : $0.28

Pounds of dead fish and other animals discarded daily as unintended “bycatch” : 200 million

Portion of the worldwide targeted catch this represents : 2/5

Portion of Earth’s wild fisheries that have collapsed and ceased producing : 1/3

Pounds of wild fish needed to raise one pound of farmed salmon or tuna : 5

Portion of US seafood that comes from fish farms : 1/2

Number of foot-long, farmed trout typically raised in a space the size of a bathtub : 27

Number of pain receptors on the face and head of a trout : 18

Average amount Americans would pay to end inhumane hyper-confinement of pigs : $345

Number of states whose animal cruelty laws do not protect farmed animals : 37

Number of federal anti-cruelty laws that protect farmed animals during their lifetimes : 0

Annual government-managed “checkoff” spending to promote meat and dairy : $557 million

To promote fruits and vegetables : $51 million

Grams of protein in three ounces of canned ham : 18

In three ounces of roasted pumpkin seeds : 27

Average percentage by which a vegan’s blood cholesterol level is lower than an omnivore’s : 25

By which her weight is lower : 18

By which her life expectancy is longer : 13

Human lives that a 50% excise tax on meat and dairy would save yearly : 172,000

Animal lives it would save : 26 billion

Pounds this tax would cut yearly from US carbon-equivalent emissions : 3.4 trillion

Pounds of carbon equivalents emitted yearly from all US motor vehicles and vessels : 3.3 trillion


Note:  The sources below provide raw data.  For full explanations and detailed calculations, see David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much—and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2013).

Value and cost of a cow:  Sara D. Short, “Characteristics and Production Costs of US Cow-Calf Operations,” USDA Statistical Bulletin 17, no. No. 947-3 (2001) (data for “North Central” region).

Subsidies to meat and dairy: Grey, Clark, Shih and Associates, Limited, “Farming the Mailbox: US Federal and State Subsidies to Agriculture – Study Prepared for Dairy Farmers of Canada” (2010); U. Rashid Sumaila et al., “A Bottom-Up Re-Estimation of Global Fisheries Subsidies,” Journal of Bioeconomics 12 (2010): 201–225; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), “Agriculture and Health Policies in Conflict” (2011).

Subsidies to fruits and vegetables: Iowa Public Interest Research Group, “Junk Food Trumps Fruits and Vegetables in Federal Subsidies,” EcoWatch.

Chicken prices and consumption: US Census Bureau, Statistical Abtracts (1940); US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Average Prices (2011)”; USDA Economic Research Service, “Red Meat and Poultry – Per Capita Availability.”

Per capita meat consumption and cancer incidence by country: ChartsBin,; World Cancer Research Fund International, “Data Comparing More and Less Developed Countries”; American Cancer Society, “Cancer Facts and Figures 2011”; National Cancer Institute, “Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results.”

Disease cases related to meat and dairy consumption: Romaina Iqbal, Sonia Anand, and Stephanie Ounpuu, “Dietary Patterns and the Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction in 52 Countries: Results of the INTERHEART Study,” Circulation 118, no. (19) (2008): 1929–-37; A. R. P. Walker, “Diet in the Prevention of Cancer: What Are the Chances of Avoidance?” The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health 116, no. 6 (1996): 360–66; Dariush Mozaffarian et al., “Lifestyle Risk Factors and New-Onset Diabetes Mellitus in Older Adults,” Archives of Internal Medicine 169, no. 8 (2009): 798–807.

Costs to treat diseases related to meat and dairy consumption: Paul A. Heidenreich et al., “Forecasting the Future of Cardiovascular Disease in the United States: A Policy Statement from the American Heart Association,” Circulation 123 (2011) 933–-944; American Cancer Society, “Cancer Facts & Figures 2012”; American Diabetes Association, “Economic Costs of Diabetes in the US in 2007,” Diabetes Care 31, no. 3 (2008); US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Diabetes – Success and Opportunities for Population-Based Prevention and Control: At a Glance 2010.”

Medicare spending: US Department of Health and Human Services, “2014 Budget.”

Cholesterol needed and recommended: National Academy of Sciences, Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005); USDA, “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.”

Cholesterol in ground beef and salmon: USDA, “Cholesterol (mg) Content of Selected Foods per Common Measure, Sorted by Nutrient Content,” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21 (2008).

Fishing revenue and subsidies: U. Rashid Sumaila et al., “A Bottom-Up Re-Estimation of Global Fisheries Subsidies,” Journal of Bioeconomics 12 (2010): 201–225; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “US Domestic Seafood Landings and Values Increase in 2010” (2011).

Bycatch: R. W. D. Davies et al., “Defining and Estimating Global Marine Fisheries Bycatch,” Marine Policy 33, no. 4 (2009): 661–72; Michael Parfit, “Diminishing Returns,” National Geographic (November 1995).

Collapse of fisheries: Boris Worm, et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science 314, no.: 5800 (2006): 787–-90.

Wild fish fed to farmed fish: Rosamond L. Naylor et al., “Effect of Aquaculture on World Fish Supplies,” Nature 405 (2000): 1017–24.

Farmed fish consumption: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Fishwatch: US Seafood Facts.”

Trout stocking density and pain receptors: Matthias Halwart, Doris Soto, and J. Richard Arthur, eds., Cage Aquaculture: Regional Reviews and Global Overview (technical paper no. 498, UN FAO Fisheries, Rome, 2007); Lynne U. Sneddon, Victoria A. Braithwaite, and Michael J. Gentle, “Do Fishes Have Nociceptors? Evidence for the Evolution of a Vertebrate Sensory System,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 270, no. 1520 (2003): 1115–21.

Willingness to pay to end animal cruelty: F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk, Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 344–45.

Anti-cruelty laws: Cody Carlson, “How State Ag-gag Laws Could Stop Animal-Cruelty Whistleblowers,” The Atlantic (March 25, 2013).

Checkoff spending: Geoffrey S. Becker, “Federal Farm Promotion (‘Check-Off’) Programs,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (2008) (figure for fruits and vegetables excludes soybeans and sorghum, most of which are fed to farmed animals).

Protein in ham and pumpkin seeds: USDA, “Content of Selected Protein (g) Foods per Common Measure, Sorted Alphabetically,” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24.

Cholesterol, weight and longevity advantages of vegans: Jack Norris and Ginny Messina, “Disease Markers of Vegetarians” (2009), accessed August 19, 2012, (referenced data are from table 1, “Cholesterol in USA Vegans”); S. Tonstad et al., “Type of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight, and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes,” Diabetes Care 32, no. 5 (2009): 791–96; Gary E. Fraser and David J. Shavlik, “Ten Years of Life – Is It a Matter of Choice?,” Archives of Internal Medicine 161 (2001); US Census Bureau, “Expectation of Life at Birth, and Projections” (2012).

Lives saved by meat tax: humans – “Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2009,” US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Vital Statistics Reports 59, no. 4 (2011) (assumes 44.1% reduction in consumption and corresponding reduction in deaths related to meat and dairy consumption; for details see Simon, Meatonomics); animals – Free from Harm, “59 Billion Land and Sea Animals Killed for Food in the US in 2009” (2011), accessed August 18, 2012, (assumes 44.1% reduction in consumption).

Carbon equivalent emissions saved by meat tax: According to the US EPA, total US carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions were 6,821.8 million metric tons (MMT) in 2010. (US EPA, “US Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report,” Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2010 (2012). Researchers estimate that 51% of emissions of CO2 equivalents is attributable to animal agriculture, which represents 3,479.1 MMT of the US total. (Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change Are . . . Cows, Pigs and Chickens?” World Watch (November/December 2009.) The 44.1% of this figure that the tax proposal would eliminate is 1,534 MMT, or 3.4 trillion pounds of CO2 equivalents. That is more than the 1,497 MMT that the US EPA estimates was emitted in 2010 by all US motor vehicles and vessels. (US EPA, “Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” 14, table 3.12; note that MMT and teragrams are equivalent units of measure.)

Cruelty Costs Graphic“Not everything that counts,” said Einstein, “can be counted.”  But in the study of animal cruelty and its effects, surprisingly, now there is something important that we can count: the financial costs that cruelty imposes on society.  That is to say, besides the heavy physical and emotional toll that the day-to-day abuse of farmed animals causes the animals themselves, these practices impose significant, measurable economic costs on people as well.

We can calculate these costs using what economists call “willingness to pay.”  Add up what everyone in the United States is willing to pay to end cruelty to farmed animals, and that’s the total cost that cruelty imposes on American society.  An economist would call this an “externalized” cost of animal cruelty.  Externalized costs are expenses of production that producers impose on society rather than paying.  For example, if I dump my garbage in the local park at midnight instead of putting it in a trash can at the curb, I’ve externalized my garbage collection costs on society instead of internalizing them.

There are a variety of ways to estimate cruelty’s costs, but there’s one way of doing it that makes particular sense.  In their recent book Compassion by the Pound, economists Jayson Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood calculate the externalized costs imposed on compassionate consumers by cruel factory farming practices.[1]  Lusk and Norwood use an interesting technique for measuring cruelty’s costs: they conduct live auctions with real people who used real money to bid on alleviating particularly cruel factory farming practices for a particular group of animals.  In their study, people actually paid an average of $57 in hard dollars per person to move 1,000 laying hens from battery cages to free-range systems, and they paid $23 per person to move 1,000 sows and their offspring from gestation crates to shelter-pasture systems.  Extrapolating from these results, Lusk and Norwood estimate that people would actually pay an average of $342 and $345 per person, respectively, to implement these welfare changes on a national basis.

Using these figures as a base, we can extrapolate further to estimate how much Americans would pay to end three more factory practices that are particularly cruel: zero grazing for dairy cows, rapid growth and hyperconfinement for broiler chickens, and overstocking and inhumane slaughter of farmed fish.  Take $343.31, the midpoint of the range between the two figures Norwood and Lusk estimated people would pay to improve hen’s and pig’s lives, and apply it to all the hypothetical changes.  The total that this exercise suggests each American would pay, on average, to make all five of these changes is $1,717.27.  Adjusting this figure for inflation, multiplying by the number of US adults, then amortizing the total over twenty years (the standard IRS depreciation period for farm buildings) yields a total of roughly $20.7 billion yearly that farm animal cruelty imposes on Americans in externalized costs.

While this cruelty number might seem high, it is actually on the low side.  For starters, the estimate of $20.7 billion yearly covers only five inhumane practices. It doesn’t include numerous others, like raising veal calves in crates, force-feeding ducks to produce foie gras, castrating pigs and cattle without anesthetic, and killing male chicks by starvation, suffocation, or grinding.  Adding these and other practices to the calculation might double or triple the total.

This number also doesn’t cover the financial costs to the animals themselves.  Economists don’t recognize non-human costs, but perhaps they should.  After all, it’s not hard to measure animals’ willingness to pay for better living conditions, and doing so would give us an understanding of cruelty’s economic costs to the animals themselves.  In one study, for example, researchers measured pigs’ willingness to pay for food and companionship by having them press a nose-plate to either eat or hang out with friends (they chose food by a factor of two to one).[2]

Would Americans really pay almost $2,000 each to end factory farming’s cruelest practices?  Moreover, could we?  Of course, not everyone could or would.  But this figure is just an average, and while some would pay less (or nothing), some would pay much, much more.

Assuming that $20.7 billion is a reasonable estimate of the cost of cruelty, how does knowing this number help us?  In other words, what is it good for?  One way this number is useful is to counter arguments about the value of the meat and dairy industries to society – particularly when the cruelty figure is added to the other $394 billion in externalized costs of animal food production.  It turns out that for every $1 of animal food sold at retail, the industry imposes almost $2 in externalized costs on society.  Perhaps the animal food sector is not as good for the American economy as producers would have us believe.

Another way this figure is useful is to put cruelty’s true costs in perspective.  $20.7 billion is enough to run Iceland’s government for four years.  It’s eight times the combined annual profits of Tyson and Cargill, two of the world’s biggest animal food producers.  In short, it’s a massive number, and while it can’t adequately convey the suffering that billions of farmed animals endure each year, it does help us understand – and measure – how this suffering affects people.

[1] F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk, Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] L. R. Mathews and J. Ladewig, “Environmental Requirements of Pigs Measured by Behavioral Demand Functions,” Animal Behavior 47, no. 3 (1994): 713–19.

factory-farmingFor almost as long as they’ve been in use, factory farms have been synonymous with three kinds of problems: environmental, nutritional, and ethical.  But today, new data compels us to consider an overlooked fourth category: economic. Scheduled for release in September 2013, the book Meatonomics looks at the strange economic forces behind meat and dairy production – and how those forces affect consumers and taxpayers.  It’s a new look at a bizarre, upside-down industry, and its revelations are shocking.

One curious fact to emerge from the book is that animal food producers impose almost $2 in hidden costs on Americans for every $1 of product they sell at retail (for details, see the pie chart below).  Another is that by “externalizing” most of their costs in this fashion and taking other steps to keep prices artificially low and manipulate buying behavior, these producers deprive consumers of the ability to make informed, independent decisions about how much meat and dairy to eat. That’s the main reason Americans consume more meat per person than anyone else on the planet.

Here’s a sneak preview from the book: the never-before-calculated external costs that animal food producers impose on American consumers and taxpayers:

This is the first in a regular series of provocative posts on the forces of meatonomics and how those forces affect our individual health, the environment, how we treat animals, and ultimately, our national prosperity. I hope you’ll subscribe to the blog so you can receive regular updates. Also, please feel free to peruse the site for upcoming events, reviews of the book, sample chapters, pre-ordering information, and more.