THE BIZARRE FORCES THAT DRIVE PEOPLE TO EAT TOO MUCH MEAT
* David Robinson Simon
Author of Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much — and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter
Americans consume almost 200 pounds of meat annually per person, more than almost any other people on the planet — and nearly twice what we ate 75 years ago. We also have twice the incidence of diabetes and heart disease as the rest of the world and almost three times the incidence of cancer. There is little doubt that, as this book's many authors argue, we must reduce our meat consumption. Perhaps, like an engineer peering inside a motor to see how it works, we can explore the machinery of animal food production to learn why meat consumption levels are so high to begin with. If we can understand what makes Americans want to stuff a half pound of meat into our mouths every day, maybe we can find ways to cut those huge consumption levels.
As consumers, we like to think we make informed, well-founded decisions about what to buy. But when it comes to purchasing meat, new evidence shows consumers are routinely denied the ability to make such informed, rational decisions. Instead, government bureaucrats and industry players overwhelm consumers with a triplewhammy of price miscues, product misinformation, and aggressive manipulation. Like an invisible leash pulling us around by the neck, this set of influences literally changes our behavior and makes us buy more meat than otherwise. This essay looks at one of the most pernicious forces that drive people to consume animal foods in such huge quantities: artificially low prices.
THE $1 CHEESEBURGER
The price of a McDonald's cheeseburger hasn't changed a bit in two and half decades — it was $1 in 1991, and it's $1 today. The prices of other consumer goods have increased substantially in that time. What keeps the price of meat so low?
The answer is externalized costs — a fancy term for a simple concept. Producers externalize their production costs when they impose them on society instead of bearing the costs themselves. Steve Wing, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill epidemiologist, expressed this phenomenon succinctly in a New York Times article published, serendipitously, the day I sat down to write this piece. "Pork is cheap and cheap to produce in large factories," said Wing, "because they don't pay for cleaning up the Des Moines water supply and they don't pay for the asthma neighbors get, they don't pay for polluting downstream water that used to be potable and they don't pay for the loss of property values." Couldn't have put it better myself.
The rise of factory farming over the past half century has, increasingly, given meat producers the means to externalize their production expenses and impose them on the rest of us. In my 2013 book Meatonomics, I add up these costs and find they total more than $414 billion. To put this huge number in perspective, it's about one quarter of Canada's gross domestic product or half of what the United States spends on Social Security each year.
Here's the rub: By massively externalizing their costs in this fashion, meat producers have been able to aggressively lower their products' prices. Thus, on an inflation-adjusted basis, the retail prices of various kinds of meat have fallen dramatically in the past half century. Since 1935, steak prices are down 20 percent, ham is down 48 percent, and chicken is down a whopping 74 percent.
It's hard to overstate the importance of a good's price when it comes to a consumer's decision to buy it or leave it. The most basic principle of economics, the law of demand, says that when a good's price is low, we'll likely buy more of it than if the price were higher. Pretty simple. But when it comes to meat prices, the result is shocking: Retail prices, pushed down to artificially low levels by producers' externalizing most of their production costs cause Americans to eat much more meat than we would if prices rose to their true levels.
How do we know that low prices are driving high consumption? Because hundreds of studies have shown that consumption of animal foods is closely linked to price. On average, for every 10 percent drop in meat and dairy prices, consumption rises by about 6.5 percent. Conversely, if prices rise by 10 percent, consumption falls by about 6.5 percent. There are lots of reasons people buy meat: beliefs, preferences, disposable income, force of habit, and other factors. But the data on price and consumption show that retail prices play an enormous role. As animal science professor Marta Rivera-Ferre notes, "consumer demand [for meat] is not linked with the actual biological needs of the human organism but with prices."
REPAIRING THE DAMAGE
Now that we know why the market for animal foods is broken, we can also posit one easy way to fix it: Let meat prices rise to their true levels. For every dollar of animal foods sold at retail, another $1.70 is imposed on consumers and taxpayers in the form of externalized costs. This means that a $5 Big Mac really costs society $13. A $15 slab of ribs really costs $40. If the retail prices of these goods reflected their true societal cost, meat consumption would drop faster than you can say "tofu."
There are lots of ways to add externalized costs back into the retail price of meat. We might eliminate government subsidies, impose a tax on meat, or use other legislative or regulatory measures to force producers to bear their fair share of costs. In fact, any activity that raises the price of meat will help shift Americans' protein consumption to plant-based alternatives and would be a welcome step in the right direction. Most consumers want to act rationally. Let's make that possible by giving ourselves the proper price cues to do so.CHAPTER 2
THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
* Tania Luna
Co-author of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected
It would be nice to be able to simply wake up one day and decide: "I'm going to eat less meat." But as my fellow humans know, things rarely work out that easily. Scientists suspect that one of the reasons we have a tough time changing our habits, even when we know they're bad for us, is because willpower — our internal voice of reason — is not unlimited. Just like any other resource, it can become depleted.
In an experiment by Roy Baumeister, participants waited in a room that smelled like freshly baked cookies. They were shown two types of foods: chocolates and radishes. Half of the participants were given chocolates and the other half got radishes. Next, researchers asked both groups to do a puzzle, and they timed how long it took participants to finish the task. The chocolate eaters kept trying for over eighteen minutes; the radish eaters quit after just eight. Plenty of subsequent studies have since revealed the same concept: When we have to expend effort to regulate our impulses, we eventually run out of self-control.
But why does it take so much willpower to change how we eat? Part of the answer lies in habit. Habit is the enemy of change. Luckily for us, surprise is the enemy of habit. Most of our actions are patterns: We go home, sit on the couch, turn on the TV, think about food, get up to check the fridge, consider making a salad, feel tired and cranky — and end up grabbing the cold cuts.
It doesn't take a fortune-teller to predict the outcome of habitual actions because they contain no surprise. It's also an efficient way to live. Habits require less neural activity than new behaviors. But who wants efficiency when you can have excitement and fulfillment? (Okay, maybe you prefer efficiency, but it has its limits). Surprise disrupts the pattern of habit, opening the door just a crack for new behaviors to slip in. Here are four tips for anyone attempting to disrupt their meat-eating habits.
1. SHAKE UP HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT FOOD
Willpower is a fickle friend, but there is one exception: People who have strong beliefs can override even the coziest habits. How do you shake up your food feelings? Neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz found that surprise can intensify our emotions by about 400 percent, creating just the kind of colorful memory that can act as your mouth's bouncer — keeping meat out when you don't want it in. So what might surprise you about food? Well, you can always Google "factory farming." A visit to a factory farm or slaughterhouse is another way to shock your system.
But there are also less emotionally scarring ways to surprise yourself. My husband, Brian, is from a part of Texas where vegetarian means "one of those people who's not from around here." Brian loves dogs, and intellectually, he knew that cows weren't much different, but it wasn't until he met a calf face to face for the first time recently that his perspective shifted. Rory the Calf had long, black lashes and a fuzzy nose; when she licked him, Brian fell in love. At the time we were traveling in Ireland, where burgers are served with nearly every meal, like napkins. After meeting Rory, however, Brian didn't want burgers. He's not a vegetarian, but now he doesn't eat beef. You could argue that he should be able to transfer his experience over to other animals. But that's just not how our brains always work. We need an emotional experience for that shift to happen.
2. MIX SURPRISE INTO YOUR SHOPPING.
Let's say you've shifted your thinking. That's step one. But how do you disrupt your old meat-eating habit even further? When willpower runs out, we've got to use our environment for help. The first place to mix in surprise is shopping. The more routine your trips to the supermarket are, the less room for change. So here are some very small ways to incorporate sparks of the unexpected into your list:
* Change the order of aisles you visit in the grocery store.
* Go to a different store.
* Always buy one non-meat food you've never tried.
* Visit farmers' markets and ask the vendors about their farms.
* Wear a reducetarian-inspired outfit while you shop. (Whatever that means to you!)
Yes, our brains love efficiency, but even more than that, they love novelty. New experiences release dopamine in our brains — the neurochemical that triggers excitement and pleasure. The more hits of dopamine you give your brain, the more motivated you'll be to keep up your surprising new approach to shopping.
3. "SURPRISIFY" YOUR KITCHEN.
Research shows that we make better food choices when we eat at home, but how can we get the most out of our home-cooked meals? As it turns out, a sprinkle of surprise works here too. Introduce novelty into your kitchen, and you'll be more likely to introduce novelty in your eating habits. The most effective changes are those that make eating meat a little harder and all eating other foods a little easier (and more fun). Google used this technique when it realized employees were binging on M& M's. First, managers placed the M& M's in closed, opaque containers. Second, healthy snacks were placed in easy-to-reach areas. The result? In just seven weeks, Googlers consumed 3.1 million fewer calories (an average reduction of nine packages per employee). Again, these aren't revolutionary switches, but they do cause us to pause. And within that pause, new behaviors have the opportunity to come alive. Here are a few other small surprise tweaks you can make this week:
* Use small skillets and plates for meat and large ones for everything else.
* Keep meat in a closed-off section of the fridge and fruits and veggies easily accessible.
* Purchase meat that isn't presliced.
* Buy beautiful (or funny) plates that you can use only when eating meat free.
* Make a relaxing or dance-inspiring playlist for healthy food prep. (Salad Songs?)
* Invite friends over to make and share meals together for the week.
* Create a theme for every month or even the year (for example, Moroccan March or The Year of the Homemade Salad Dressing).
4. TURN EATING AT RESTAURANTS INTO A GAME.
Last but not least, when eating out of the house, think about making the experience less about convenience and more about discovery. To really increase your dopamine levels, why not invite someone to join you. That way, you'll deepen your relationship as you collect surprising experiences together. A few tips for eating out:
* Ask the server to surprise you with a meat-free choice on the menu.
* Eat in a different way from the way you usually do (for example, with your hands, sitting on the floor).
* Share a plate of food and take turns tasting the same things at the same time.
* Have a blindfolded meal.
In short, take a look at your lifestyle. Where is there room for surprising, emotionally stirring experiences? Next, examine your eating habits. What's predictable? Make one small change per week and take note of which you enjoyed the most. Novelty boosts mood, and a positive mood increases willpower (making you even more capable of changing your habits). Plus surprise is fun, and who doesn't like fun? Now go on and surprise yourself.CHAPTER 3
A LITTLE LESS LONELY IN MY CORNER OF THE WORLD
* Joanna Zelman
Executive editor at The Dodo
I was seven years old when I decided to reduce my meat consumption to help farm animals. It was 1993, a lonely time to embark on such an endeavor in my small town. The experience is different today. The rise of social media has pieced together those in many corners of the world who are passionate about animal welfare, the environment, and human health.
These online platforms are helping create a global community that can chip away at some of the loneliness many of us experienced: First graders clamoring for Big Mac toys surrounded me two decades ago. When I unwittingly ate a pepperoni-stuffed calzone, the entire lunchroom pointed and laughed. (Okay, it was possibly just the handful of first graders at my table who laughed. Or, maybe, it was even just one kid. But it felt as if the entire world were laughing at me.) I was fortunate to have an understanding family, but there were few resources and community support was scarce.
Now, we can Instagram veggie snacks, pin tasty dishes, and "like" a cauliflower casserole. We can pledge to join health challenges, blog our concerns for animals, and join meatless Twitter chats. Heck, we can even brag more. Tenth burger free Tuesday? Shout it from the rooftops! (Rooftops = Facebook status update.) And we can support each other's goals: comments, retweets, and likes are simple ways people are encouraging friends, family, and strangers to improve their health and the planet.
A decade ago, my (incredible!) mother would stock up on bags and bags of the only gelatin-free marshmallows we could find when we visited Washington, D.C. ... six hours from home. These treats were so hard to come by that when I was roasting one marshmallow over a campfire and saw it melting into the flames, I lunged in and grabbed it with my bare hand. If only vegetarian marshmallows were an Amazon order away back then, I might have avoided wearing a burn bandage through the summer of 1999.
Access both to alternative products and to information have improved. We can find and share recipes online. Veggie-friendly restaurants are searchable by zip code. My friend on a budget wanted to reduce his meat consumption, so I sent him a Reddit thread of cheap vegan meals. We have easy access to advice from experts, like those at the Mayo Clinic encouraging meatless meals and the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention's (CDC's) fruit and veggie recommendations. We can calculate our carbon footprint with the click of a button — and then realize that what we put in our mouth impacts the planet. When a family skips steak once a week, it's like taking their car off the road for almost three months.
Like all tools, those available in the digital age can be used for ill as easily as goodwill. The illegal wildlife trade and puppy mills have taken advantage of the Internet to the detriment of animals. Some viral videos even unknowingly promote the illegal pet trade, like of the slow loris. And cameras shut off when those "teacup pigs" suddenly start growing. Meanwhile, misinformation is rampant, and it's difficult to mine for the reputable animal care advice.
Demand for the newest, hottest, shiniest, tech products to engage with our social media platforms are also demanding a lot from our planet's resources. Twice as many electronic products were sold in 2009 than in 1997, the EPA estimates — the sale of mobile devices increased nine times over. Americans throw out millions of electronics every year, often without regard for proper e-waste disposal. This toxic waste threatens the health of millions of people around the world.
But it's far from all bad. Whistle-blower sites like WildLeaks, online resources to report animal cruelty, and access to tools protecting animals are helping out the good guys. It's easier to donate to reliable welfare groups. Undercover animal footage spreads rapidly (when it's not banned).