by D. R. Hildebrand

Whenever possible, I avoid buying food at airports.  Earlier this month though, I was in a bind, saw a Qdoba, and decided to make an exception.  I got the rice, the beans, the roasted veggies, and said no to the meat, cheese, and sour cream, and at the end of the line asked for guacamole.  Apparently, when one orders certain vegetables and not others, the guacamole is not included—irrespective of the fact that no meat, no cheese, and no sour cream are part of the meal.

I told the manager I could have ordered a chicken burrito for the same price as a vegetarian one, or a beef burrito for thirty cents more; but asking for guacamole without any of the meat or dairy and it cost me more than all of them combined.  He looked at me like I had just informed him that water is wet and said, “Yeah, that’s right.”  Dumbfounded and annoyed, I asked him what, then, was the meaning of meat, and took my money elsewhere.

Not long before this I was out at a low-key restaurant in Brooklyn and I ordered a veggie burger.  The bill came and my friends and I passed it around, seeing what each of us owed, and I realized their meat burgers were priced the same as my veggie burger.  When the server returned I asked if there was a mistake.  She said no.  I asked her how that could be.  She said my veggie burger had come with a homemade sauce.  I cocked my head and raised a brow and she said, “Look, we’re not exactly serving high-quality meat here.”

Clearly!  Still, the answer begs the question—not just of this one restaurant or of Qdoba alone, but of numerous establishments—what are you serving?  And more so, what is it really worth?

Image by Christopher Rogers

Image by Christopher Rogers

Attempting to comprehend the true cost of meat is all but futile.  The numbers are astronomical and in some cases incalculable.  We can, however, certainly consider these expenses by name and surmise the respective price tags they carry.  Just addressing something as basic as land use, the United Nations Environmental Program reported in 2010 that 38% of all land is assigned either to growing livestock or food for livestock.  Growing and transporting billions of animals, and their food, comes at a cost, not to mention the gobs of fertilizer and the 90% of all pesticides they exploit.  Then, after years of fattening these animals they have to be transported once again.  Then they have to be slaughtered.  Then they have to be cut.  Then they have to be cleaned and inspected and packaged, and transported yet again.  Countless employees must be compensated.  Throughout the entire, cumbersome process, all 215 million tons of meat we consume annually must be kept refrigerated or even frozen.  Merely striving to prevent the epidemics we foresee from this system, we spend additional billions of dollars—then many billions more when it fails.  None of this even approaches the more abstract, unseen costs of deforestation, water pollution, waste management, or the 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions generated by such a monstrous, inefficient, inconceivably expensive industry.

Cattle

Nevertheless, one little dollop of guacamole in my burrito costs me an extra fifty cents.

Because, aside from the taxpayers in New Zealand where as far back as 1984 the government recognized the ills of environmental degradation, mass overproduction, and inflated land prices, we pay for it all.  Vegan or omnivore, as long as we pay taxes we subsidize the entire process.

In the United States we grant an average of $20 billion per year to the meat and dairy industries.  Of all food-related subsidies, two-thirds goes to animals destined for slaughter, one-fourth goes to humans for direct consumption, and not one penny goes to the growing of fruits or vegetables.  The system is so antiquated and uneconomical that today three-quarters of these direct subsidies go to the top 10% of commodity-crops owners, even while the original intent of such 1920s bills was to keep small family farms, not mega corporations, from going out of business.

In a rational world we wouldn’t subsidize such a ruinous industry, but tax it.  If we desire meat as much as we think we do, having it should come not at a discount, not generously and freely, but with a levy, just as with alcohol, with cigarettes, and with airfare—and ideally one day oil.  The proposal might sound absurd but if, for example, we were offered a vodka-and-orange juice for the same price as an orange juice alone would we not question the vodka?  Or if we flew and never paid taxes for the flights would we not wonder how things like infrastructure, inspections, basic maintenance, and security were all financed?  None of this is at all different than a burrito or a burger.  Transporting, mutilating, housing, injecting, feeding, killing, cutting, cleaning, packaging, freezing, and distributing an animal comes at a cost.  Given away, it is meaningless.