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The Illusion of Cheap Food

Through subsidies and sacrifice, Americans foot the bill for factory farms

All Animals magazine, July/August 2010

by Julie Falconer

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, especially when it’s cooked up by the nation’s factory farms.

Though animal agribusiness giants have long touted their ability to produce cheap food for the masses, supermarket prices mask a largely hidden reality: Taxpayers shell out billions to prop up an inhumane, inefficient, and environmentally destructive industry.

Existing market economies don’t directly capture the financial burden, but “it’s not just an exercise in hypotheticals,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who wrote the 2008 report CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations. “We are really paying a cost.”

“We’re bailing out the industry; we’re giving them all kinds of stuff,” Gurian-Sherman says. “And what we get in return is pollution and sick animals and impoverished rural communities.”

For years, the federal government has used public funds to subsidize grain farmers whose production expenses exceed market rates—a payoff that translates to artificially low prices for factory farmers buying livestock feed. Taxpayers have also subsidized remediation efforts when waste containment systems fail and helped producers dispose of massive amounts of manure.

Meanwhile, the public has watched factory farming practices destroy the quality of life of neighboring communities and compromise one of the greatest medical miracles of modern society. The profligate misuse of antibiotics—to accelerate growth rates and prevent disease caused by crowded, stressful, unsanitary conditions—has created resistant superbugs and diminished the effectiveness of lifesaving drugs.

“We’re bailing out the industry; we’re giving them all kinds of stuff,” Gurian-Sherman says. “And what we get in return is pollution and sick animals and impoverished rural communities.”

It doesn’t have to be a devil’s bargain. Some studies have shown that more natural animal husbandry methods for hogs and dairy cattle can be economically competitive with similarly sized factory farms, Gurian-Sherman says, but agricultural research funds have long been focused on refining the flawed CAFO system. “With a comparable research effort for alternatives, there’s no doubt that their efficiency could be increased considerably.”

Of course, our choice of farming practices shouldn’t be based on price alone, as Whole Foods CEO and HSUS board member John Mackey points out. “If it were legal to employ child laborers in sweatshops, we could also drastically lower the cost and prices of most things that we manufacture and sell in the United States,” Mackey writes in the new book Gristle: From Factory Farms to Food Safety (Thinking Twice About the Meat We Eat), a collection of essays edited by recording artist Moby and Global Animal Partnership executive director Miyun Park. “But would that be acceptable?…The only reason our abuse of animals is still tolerated is because most people aren’t aware of it.”

Indeed, the biggest losers of this perverse system are the nearly 10 billion animals who suffer each year in prolonged, intensive confinement. In recent years, the USDA has bailed out pork producers whose supply exceeded demand and egg producers unable to sell their spent hens—and then used the meat in federal food programs. In March, a bill was introduced in Congress to better direct these taxpayer expenditures; the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, H.R. 4733, would require federal agencies to purchase pork, veal, and egg products only from sources that don’t subject animals to intensive confinement—basic standards already adopted by many states and corporations.  

Urge your legislator to support the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, H.R. 4733; find contact information at humanesociety.org/leglookup.

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