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Paying All Costs

11 April 2009

The Great Vegetarianism Debate is something I try to stay out of. It’s not that I don’t have opinions on it. It’s more that I feel that my opinions tend to be misunderstood.

In general, I feel that vegetarianism is a a more lifestyle choice than an omnivorous one. But I also do not feel that vegetarians have an inherent moral superiority than non-vegetarians.

Mostly, my issue with vegetarianism is that it obscures the bigger issue. It’s not about whether you eat meat or don’t eat meat. It’s about whether or not you eat conscientiously. It’s about paying all costs.

What does food cost? The trite answer would be “what it says on the sticker at the supermarket”. But is what you pay really what food costs?

Rarely. Food production and supply is a very competitive industry. Therefore, most non-monetary costs, such as pollution, cruel treatment to animals and workers, soil degradation, are going to be externalized. The only costs you see in an apple are the dollar costs of production, labor, transit, and storage. And even then, not even. The grain industry, for example, is heavily subsidized, so the price the distributor pays the farmer does not even cover production costs.

Tthere are many negative externalities such as waterway pollution from run-off and fermenting, anti-biotic filled animal waste, air pollution from transit and excess methane, pain from animal confinement, soil erosion from intensive farming, poverty from sub-minimum wage day labor’s pay, non-renewable resource depletion from a system built on petroleum, resistant diseases because of antibiotic overuse, poor societal health due to nutrient-poor food….
Those are all costs, costs that society as a whole, and each of us as an individual, has to pay.

If those externalities were internalized, food would be grown more sustainably, more healthily, because the cost of the food would include the cost of replenishing the soil, cleaning the air, preventing pollution, raising animals humanely, and the regulation necessary to ensure standards are carried out; all of which have labor and capital costs.

If the monetary value of these externalized costs were reflected in the costs of the food we buy, what we eat would be very different. We would eat very little meat, mostly because we couldn’t afford to. In fact, most people probably wouldn’t have the choice but to be primarily vegetarian.

Not entirely vegetarian, I’d argue, because I believe that if we have an obligation to put the ecosystem back in balance, that also entails substituting for the natural predators of populations that have become dangerously overpopulated, such as deer and rabbit, to the point of endangering not just themselves, but their ecosystem as a whole, as well as most invasive species, such as zebra mussels. Squid and jellyfish populations have skyrocketed from global warming, so eating those proves no harm, and indeed prevents their choking out other ocean species. And if anyone wants to eat pigeons and squirrels, I certainly won’t stop them.

Note none of these are domesticated animals. Domesticated animals are overpopulated, certainly, but we control their population. We don’t need to eat more, we need to breed less, so that each can live healthily, without restrictive confinement, antibiotics, growth hormones, or stress. That would mean there would need to be a lot fewer animals around. Yes there are a lot more arguments you can make about the “ethical treatment” of farm animals that basically say domestication is wrong, but I’ve never understood what those people would have you do. Release them all into the wild? They’d die. Stop raising them entirely? They’d die. If a cow, or chicken, or pig is raised in an environment where they have a happy, natural, unconfined life and a swift death and their activity and waste are used to replenish, not deplete the environment, I don’t really see what’s wrong with eating their flesh (except a person distaste for cow-meat). I have a really big beef with the industrial meat complex, because it’s unsustainable, and full of costs which are externalized, one of which is the humane treatment of their animals.

At the moment, the people who pay full economic costs of their food, are those who choose to. They’re the ones who buy what’s local, seasonal, fair trade, sustainably grown, humanely raised, and unprocessed*.

Do I pay full cost of my food? Not always, I admit. I try, but there are always tradeoffs to be made. My produce comes from the Chester Co-Op which does source a lot of food that’s from far away and conventionally raised. But it’s also supporting the effort to bring fresh fruit and vegetables to a food dessert, an effort I value highly and believe in supporting. There’s a social benefit that’s offsetting the economic cost I’m not paying. Like girl-scout cookies.

A contentious omnivore can be as sustainable as a contentious vegetarian, and can is easily more sustainable than an uncontentious vegetarian, though an uncontentious omnivore is most likely, but not necessarily, less sustainable than an uncontentious vegetarian.

The most important thing is to think. Not close your mind one way or the other, but ask questions, demand answers, discuss, and decide for yourself. But ignorance of our food chain is one of our society’s biggest sin.


*It’s difficult to find processed food at full cost these days, especially anything that comes in plastic.

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