Part I – David Simon
David Robinson Simon is a lawyer and advocate for sustainable consumption. He works as general counsel for a healthcare company and serves on the board of the APRL Fund, a non-profit dedicated to protecting animals. David received his B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and his J.D. from the University of Southern California. He is also the author of New Millennium Law Dictionary, a full-length legal dictionary. He lives in Southern California with his partner, artist Tania Marie, and their rabbit, tortoise, and two cats.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food! How are you today, on this September 3rd, 2013? This program, you know, is called It’s All About Food, and I think that if you don’t believe that it’s all about food right now, at the end of the hour, I’m absolutely sure you will be convinced – because everything is connected to food! So let’s just jump right in and get my first guest on and talking, because we’ve got a lot of things to talk about. David Simon is the author of a new book, Meatonomic$. He’s a lawyer and an advocate for sustainable consumption. He works as General Counsel for a healthcare company and serves on the board of the APRL fund, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting animals. David received his BA from UC Berkley and his JD from the University of Southern California. He’s the author of New Millennium Law Dictionary, a legal dictionary. He lives in southern California with his partner, artist Tania Marie, and their rabbit, tortoise, and two cats. Welcome, David, to It’s All About Food!
David Simon: Hi Caryn, thanks very much.
Caryn Hartglass: So, you wrote a pretty incredible book: Meatonomic$, with a dollar sign on the “s.”
David Simon: That’s right. Just released two days ago, in fact.
Caryn Hartglass: Very good! I hope it does very well, because everybody needs to read it.
David Simon: Terrific.
Caryn Hartglass: There aren’t that many books out quite on this subject. I’ve spoken with Marion Nestle sometimes and she’s done all kind of work with connecting government issues, politics actually. She came out with that first book, Food Politics, which was recently reissued for its 10th anniversary. And a while ago I spoke with Wenonah Hauter, talking about a book, Foodopoly, about the history of how we got to where we are today with our food system. And you’ve done an incredible job of summing up all of the economics behind our food system. I just want to tell you that reading your book and seeing all the billions of dollars referenced everywhere, it is quite overwhelming.
David Simon: It’s a lot of money, isn’t it? Crazy.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s just so much money! And so unnecessary!
David Simon: You’re right.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so let’s check off some of these items here that are in your book, starting with the check-off program. Can you tell us a little bit about that? That’s just one of the crazy things that has endured in this country, and has not really helped.
David Simon: Yes, these check-off programs are really incredible. No one has heard of them, but we’re all affected by them. We see and hear their messages on a regular basis, but very few people are actually familiar with how they work. A check-off program, much like a check-off box, is essentially a tax program that was enacted by Congress. They applied it to a number of commodities, but in particular, they applied it to most animal foods – so there’s one for pork, one for beef, eggs, lamb, milk, and other dairy products. They way the programs work is they collect a small tax at the point of wholesale transaction so that the first wholesale buyer, typically a packing house or a slaughterhouse, remits – for example, a dollar per head of cattle to a central organization, and the funds are spent on promoting the animal food that’s covered and doing research that eventually helps to convince consumers that these foods are healthy. The reason these programs are so significant in this country is that they’re remarkably effective. When I added up the numbers that the check-off programs themselves boast about, it turns out that on average, for every dollar they collect and spend, they see something like 8 dollars in additional sales.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow, nobody can get a turnaround like that.
David Simon: It’s incredible. And what that means is that each year, they spend about 550 million dollars, and the boost in animal food sales that relates to that is about 4.6 billion dollars. It’s a massive number. All Americans who eat these products, somewhere between 5 and 7% more foods than these people would be buying otherwise.
Caryn Hartglass: Now why would the government care to have a program like this?
David Simon: That’s a very good question, and in fact, you put your finger on another very important part of these programs: they’re backed by the US government. In a 2004 Supreme Court case, the Court held that when a check-off program speaks, it actually speaks the message of the federal government. So when you hear something like, “Beef: it’s whats for dinner” or “Pork: the other white meat,” or “Milk: it does a body good,” that’s actually the federal government telling you to buy more meat, pork, or dairy. And your question is a wonderful one. I have no idea why our government would want people to buy more of these products, because across the board, in every demographic, data shows we’re already eating more than the USDA recommends for these products. In every category – men of every age, women of every age – the USDA recommends a certain amount, and we’re exceeding it in every demographic group.
Caryn Hartglass: I know when our country was going through war, at least war that we recognized as war, we had all these different propaganda policies because the men were overseas and the women were at home and we wanted to send the meat overseas, so we all had to learn how to eat differently. So we were encouraged, back then, by the government to eat fruits and vegetables, so that the “better” food, the protein food, could go over to our soldiers. But other than that, I don’t know other than certain people making money, why the government would want to go into ensuring marketing of these products. Is there a program like that for broccoli?
David Simon: There are some programs like like for fruits and vegetables. Mangoes have a check-ff, mushrooms have a check-off, blueberries have a check-off. But the amounts of money are radically different. There’s about 50 million dollars spent on fruits and vegetables check-off programs versus, as I mentioned earlier, the 550 million dollars spent on animal food check-off programs. So, it’s apples and oranges, so to speak. There’s not even a comparison.
Caryn Hartglass: I believe that if we were putting some good money to marketing the benefits of fruits and vegetables and encouraging people to eat them, they would eat more of them.
David Simon: You’re absolutely right, and you put your finger on another issue, which is federal subsidies. The ratio at which we subsidies meat and dairy as compared to fruits and vegetables is completely disproportionate. We spend something like $38 billion subsidizing meat and dairy, and only about $17 million subsidizing fruits and vegetables. That means that fruits and vegetables get 0.0004% of the funds that meat and dairy get from subsidies.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s very clear throughout your book that you are not encouraging the consumption of meat and dairy, that they are the big evils. I’m right there with you because I’m a vegan and I have been for 25 years. I’m waiting for everybody to get the message. Some people are getting it, and there’s so many ways to approach health and animals and the environment, and now the economics behind it, which are just incredible And you always hear the reasons why people don’t want to give up meat and dairy; some of them you address in your book. People think that if they treat the animals “humanely,” isn’t that better, healthier, more economical? And you’ve done quite a lot of study here showing that economically, it’s not a better alternative.
David Simon: That’s right, and in fact, I’m glad you said “humanely,” because one of the other things I look at in this book is how animals are treated in factory farms. We’re used to hearing that there are some ethical issues in factory farms; listeners won’t be surprised to hear that there are some ethical problems. I sort of found systemic legal issues that go much more deeply than even most informed vegans are aware. For example, there’s this concept in our country of something called a customary farming exemption. What these customary farming exemptions do is that they take a formerly robust animal anti-cruelty statute – for example, Connecticut used to have a statute that it’s illegal to engage in cruel behavior toward any animal, but then the legislature came along and enacted the exemption, which carves out a massive exemption for all farm animals. So for example, in Connecticut today, it’s legal for one to “maliciously and intentionally, maim, mutilate, torture, wound, or kill an animal, provided the act is done while following generally accepted agriculture practices.” So to paraphrase Connecticut’s law, it’s legal to intentionally torture a farm animal. And while as shocking as that is, virtually every US state has the exact same law in place, though they’re worded a little differently. And these laws apply to all sorts of things you wouldn’t think: animals that are raised organically, animals that are raised in cage-free conditions, in free-range conditions, and even in some instances, animals that are raised in humane conditions. So there’s just a lot that we don’t know about what goes on in these factory farms, and there’s a lot of misinformation and in attempts to placate consumers. These so-called “humane” ways of raising animals just don’t cut it, because of these exemptions that exist.
Caryn Hartglass: I know many of us want to believe that our government is here to protect us and make sure that we’re getting quality products, and most of us just want to trust and not dig any deeper. We’re continually discovering that there are regulations, some of which are actually good, but they’re not enforced. Some regulations, like the thing you just read, which was horrific, is something that most people don’t even know about. Getting back to what I mentioned before about people thinking that if they eat more “humanely,” I remember doing a simple calculation one time, just trying to estimate the land mass on the earth and if we could grass-feed all of the cows that were being raised for meat. I quickly determined that we didn’t have enough land to grass-feed without confining these animals. I didn’t even think about chickens! You bring up this study that was done, and that’s exactly the problem. We’re eating too many animals, and there just isn’t room if we were going to let them roam and graze like this image we have in our mind of the idyllic farm, which really doesn’t exist anymore. We have to confine these animals.
David Simon: That’s right. Many people are familiar with Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he profiles this sort of now-famous farm called Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin, and Polyface looks like a great place to be an animal. There’s a lot of pasture and the animals rotate through it – but as I show in the book, the Polyface model, even though it looks nice, is completely unworkable in this country. If we wanted to raise all of our animals in that sort of pasture setting, we would need something like 300,000 additional farms of that size – something like twice the size of Texas. So as much as people would like to think that buying grass-fed beef or pastured pork or even free-range chicken is a good thing, it just doesn’t work. It’s not sustainable, because the land just doesn’t exist.
Caryn Hartglass: Another thing that doesn’t work is when people talk about vegetarian diets being healthier, people are slowly getting that message, slowly weaning themselves off red meat and moving to chicken and fish, kind of getting off of chicken and fish as a big health food. Everyone thinks that we need a little bit of it, or even a lot of it, because it’ good for us. I don’t think that most people realize the monumental issues where so many fish species today are extinct or becoming extinct. We’ve got this aquaculture, and some of the things you were talking about regarding aquaculture I didn’t even know. So can we talk about the fish side of things? A lot of people don’t even realize that fish are animals.
David Simon: You’re right. So, we have two ways of producing fish in the world. One is capture fishing, where you would go out and fish with a big boat and catch wild fish. Capture fishing has depleted a third of the world’s fisheries; the cod fishery in the North Atlantic has completely collapsed and has closed. Experts predict that by about 2050, if we keep going at the rate we’re going, all commercially-fished species one the planet will have collapsed. On the flip side of that, we have fish farming, which is often touted as the silver bullet of food production, because that’s going to be the future of how we produce fish around the world, but the latest science on fish farming also shows that it is damaging the world’s oceans, because among other things, fish farming results in a highly concentrated area of fish waste. There are a lot of chemicals – farmers dose their animals with antibiotics, fish farmers dose their fish with other chemicals designed to keep fish lice off of them. And fish farming, sadly, doesn’t work either.
Caryn Hartglass: Something I was surprised to read that I hadn’t read before is all about the emotions that fish have, and the fact that they can feel pain. Some scientific studies are even starting to recognize that, although the scientific studies you mentioned are so horrible, how they figured these things out. And then the other part is in these factory farms for fish and aquaculture – even if we had the ability to make their environment clean, and there are some groups that are doing all kinds of fancy things with technology to filter their water, the fact that they’re so confined affects them so emotionally. And for some of us who care about what other species may care is one issue, but it’s also not good for producing food.
David Simon: You’re exactly right. Fish farms are just the factory farms of the sea. Just as land animals are subject to this concept of hyper-confinement, the exact same kind of hyper-confinement applies to fish in fish farms. 27 18-inch trout crammed into a space the size of a bathtub, typically. And as you point out, the recent research does measure how these animals experience these kind of conditions. As it turns out, fish have the same stress hormone as we do: cortisol. They measured that cortisol level in fish that are hyper-confined and subject to the kind of infestations of lice that this hyper-confinement causes, as well as a variety of other scenarios. As you also say, it’s true that the latest research shows that fish feel pain. So this concept of catch-and-release that people are fond of – a trout has something like 20 pain receptors in his or her face. They feel pain just as we would.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, I’m taking a deep breath here – feeling their pain. You have estimated toward the end of your book that the total externalized costs of US annual food production totals 414.8 billion dollars.
David Simon: Yeah, it’s a massive number.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, massive. The biggest part of that pie is healthcare.
David Simon: That’s right.
Caryn Hartglass: So I think what you were trying to tell us in this story, Meatonomic$, is that the government is subsidizing and encouraging behavior, consumption, that ultimately leads to really bad health. And then we have even more expenses to deal with.
David Simon: For people who don’t know this term, externalized costs, if I take my garbage to the front of the driveway and leave it there and pay for the garbage collection to pick it up, I’ve internalized my garbage collection costs, but if I drive to a park at midnight and dump it there, I have externalized my garbage collection costs. So what I’m arguing in this book is that animal food producers are basically dumping their food in our parks at midnight, and that that $414 billion total of externalized costs is more than half of what we spend each year on Social Security, just to put it into perspective. It’s just a huge number.
Caryn Hartglass: This whole concept of externalized costs has really been, unfortunately, growing and thriving. A lot of corporations take advantage of it from the top down, passing on expenses to their suppliers and their customers so that they have to pay less and less and can then make more and more. It’s quite an interesting process. Now, we’ve very briefly touched on a number of issues in our food system where we’re encouraged to eat a lot of meat and dairy, and it’s not cost effective, it’s not a good choice for health, environment, animals…now, the question is, what do we do about it? You have proposed a meat tax.
David Simon: That’s right. And I know that a tax is controversial, but I think this mechanism is relatively simple and one that would work. I propose a 50% excise tax at the federal level on the sale of all meat and dairy products. An excise tax is just like a sales tax. And at the same time, I suggest that we provide, on average, a $500 tax credit to consumers, which would have the effect of compensating for the additional food budget that people would experience as a result of the tax, so that at the end of the day, no one spends any more than they do today on food, but the tax causes them to shift a significant portion of their buying from animal foods to plant-based foods.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s kind of a trick with dollars.
David Simon: It’s kind of a trick, but when I do the math, I come up with some incredible benefits from a tax like this. For example, each year that this tax is in effect, we could save 170,000 people’s lives. We could save 26 billion animal’s lives. We could return to its native state almost 6,000 square miles of US land that’s now used to graze livestock or raise crops to feed them, which in the future would no longer be needed for that purpose. That’s like twice the size of Texas. So this tax would also put $30 billion back into the US treasury, by the way, which could be used to provide food stamps or subsidies to lower-income peoples, or to start better food programs.
Caryn Hartglass: And we have already a very messy financial structure in our government – lots of loopholes and so many groups we don’t even know what they’re doing, whether they’re doing things efficiently or how much corruption is involved. One more tax – how do we even get that into the conversation?
David Simon: That’s a good question. I knew when I proposed this tax that it wasn’t something we were going to pass right away. But I thought that now is sort of a good time to start a dialogue about this, just put the dialogue on the table, and if other people are interested in it, maybe it could get some legs and some traction. Ultimately, this is how any change has to start. Someone has to come out and say “This might work.” If people get behind it, it just might, who knows?
Caryn Hartglass: I agree that in order to make change, there has to be some sort of economic incentive. I know that’s unfortunate, but in our capitalist system, that’s how things work. Most people are not aware of how their food quality affects their health and their lifestyle and all life on earth, and they’re looking for quantity, not quality. In order to make change, or in order to get people to move in the direction and buy the things you want, you have to play with the price.
David Simon: That’s exactly right. As a nation, we’re consuming twice the meat that we did just 75 years ago. One of the main reasons for that is because on an inflation-adjusted basis, because of things like this massive externalization of costs that we’ve been talking about, prices of animal foods have been dropping. The price of chicken, if you adjust it for inflation, is almost 80% lower than it was in 1935. At the same time, we, as a nation, consume per per person 6 times more chicken than we did in 1935. That’s exactly what the Law of Demand predicts. The Law of Demand says that as prices go down, consumption goes up. A significant, powerful way to change that is to increase the price of animal foods – let them rise to what should be their normal level, instead of holding them down artificially, and the effect of that rise would be to cause consumption to drop in a significant way.
Caryn Hartglass: I just realized that I wanted to ask you – in addition to talking about the economics of locally grown food, you show how, economically, buying locally is not always the best choice. Some countries can raise animal food a lot more cheaply than other countries and shipping them from one place to another is not a significant addition to the cost. Is that the same with plant foods?
David Simon: Yes. The concept of local production requires that we do something called a life-cycle assessment on food, in order to determine its carbon output. The typical life-cycle assessment finds that processing, production, and preparation account for something like 70 or 80% of the carbon footprint of any food, plant or animal. While transportation accounts for something like 11%. For any food, while local consumption is good and you want to support your local farmer, the question is actually more complicated if you’re trying to determine, what is this food’s carbon output? From a carbon perspective, buying the answer isn’t always clear if you should buy locally or from another continent. But yes, the complexities can be equally difficult for both plants and animals. In general, I think that not being too dogmatic about local consumption is probably a good idea.
Caryn Hartglass: Good. And then another one is about organic. I”m not sure if your results were applied to plant foods as well as animal foods, because you showed, in many cases, that raising an animal with non-organic methods is more economical.
David Simon: There’s a lot of enthusiasm int he organic community, to the effect that organic production is environmentally friendly because it results in less carbon emissions and less harmful byproducts like nitrogen and phosphates and the things that enter our waterways. But what I find for animal foods is that it’s a completely mixed bag, and you cannot categorically say that producing animal foods is more environmentally-friendly than producing those foods in organically-friendly ways, just because, mainly, it takes more land to raise animals organically, and it takes more time. If you’re not dosing chickens with growth-promoting antibiotics, guess what? They grow a lot more slowly. And that means they’re got more time in the hen house, so you have to run the lights more, have to run the generators more, etc.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Well, we’ve come to the end of the program! I wanted to mention that you are doing a book signing here in New York City next week.
David Simon: I am! September 9th at Mooshoes, a vegan shoes store at 78 Orchard Street.
Caryn Hartglass: And what time is that at?
David Simon: That is from 7pm – 8:30pm on Monday, September 9.
Caryn Hartglass: Mooshoes is a great vegan shoe store, and the owners, Sarah and Erica Kubersky, have done a great job at having a number of different book signings there. It’s a great space, and they’re been very generous, so I think it should be a fun event.
David Simon: I think it will be great.
Caryn Hartglass: And then the bottom line is that we should just lighten up on that meat and dairy, shouldn’t we?
David Simon: Yes, we should. And even better, go vegan, right!
Caryn Hartglass: Go vegan! That’s what it’s all about. I’m putting it out there too – meat tax, whatever it takes! David, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food, all the best to you, and great luck with this book, Meatonomic$.
David Simon: Thanks so much for having me, Caryn. I really appreciate it.
Caryn Hartglass: Take care. Well, that was David Simon, and it’s a really good read, Meatonomic$. If you don’t understand what’s going on in our food system or just need a source where it’s all in one place, this is a good place to start. Okay, let’s take a quick break. Next, we’ll be talking to Bhava Ram, the author of Warrior Pose. We’ll be right back.
Transcribed by Sarah Brown, 9/29/2013