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The $12-Trillion Opportunity Within Our Food System

It’s a sick and tragic sight. Across the US, dairy producers are currently dumping tens of thousands of gallons of milk into fields and lagoons, as demand continues to plummet. It makes me think about the country’s more than 9 million dairy cows, forced to live out their highly unnatural lives, in dark, cramped milk-making prisons, often sick and in pain — just to keep pumping out a useless commodity. The same could be said of the US meat industry, which slaughters 9.59 billion land animals a year. To make matters worse, President Trump ordered slaughterhouses to stay open despite the clear danger to public health. This is something we can fix.

Here’s the sadder truth: For America’s modern dairy industry, milk dumping is a common practice — pandemic or not. Several years back, American dairy farmers discarded 43 million gallons of milk in the first 8 months of the calendar year alone. This is all because the industry absurdly keeps making milk no one wants to buy…and the government pays them to do it. Or, they buy it and turn it into cheese. At the start of 2019, the U.S. reached a record high milk surplus, resulting in 1.4 billion pounds of unwanted cheese. By the way, there is also a 2.5 billion pound meat surplus — and in 2018, producers were running out of space to store it all. Both industries have been overproducing for years.

Cow-based dairy consumption in the US has been steadily declining for decades, but even just a few years ago the government still granted the sector an unbelievable $22 billion in aid, which helped make up 73 percent of dairy farmers’ marketplace “earnings.” This isn’t exclusive to the US — the EU subsidizes meat and dairy farms with an estimated £24 billion, nearly a fifth of the EU budget, in taxpayer money.

Image credit: PCRM

This makes no sense and people should be outraged at this wasteful, outdated government practice of subsidizing dying food industries. This needs to change now. Here’s how:

  1. Stop giving billions of dollars to industries that are hazardous to human health.
    Here’s a major contradiction: The American government says we should fill 50% of our plates with fruits and vegetables to stay healthy. But its own agriculture policies then offer less than 1% of farm subsidies to support the research, production, and marketing of fruits and vegetables. Instead, it doles out billions of dollars a year toward meat and dairy production, which study after study link to increased risk for cancer, diabetes, and other common serious health ailments. A recent study showed that just a 10% national subsidy on fruits and vegetables could help save 150,000 lives a year. This is simple math. What is the government waiting for?
  2. Stop increasing environmental pollution with taxpayer dollars. Estimates suggest that at our current rate, cattle and other livestock will be responsible for half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Decreasing meat and dairy consumption is the single biggest way for humans to reduce their environmental impact on the planet. A recent survey showed that the majority of Americans who buy fruit, vegetables, and meat and dairy alternatives do it for environmental concerns. To take hard-earned taxpayer money and use it to bolster food industries like dairy and meat goes against what these taxpayers want.
  3. Divert precious funds to producing premium, plant-based crops. Three ounces of ham has 18 grams of protein. The same amount of roasted pumpkin seeds has 27. The former causes harm to human health, animals, and the environment, the latter does not. There are many high-potential plant foods that offer higher concentrations of nutrients than meat and dairy and are far healthier overall, and more sustainable. The government must start diverting dairy and meat subsidies toward research and production of healthier, more sustainable plant proteins including nuts, lentils, seeds, flax, hemp, coconut, oats, rice, and peas.
  4. Support food industries with actual growth potential.
    Globally, plant-based protein and meat alternatives are projected to increase from a $4.6 billion industry in 2018 up to $85 billion in 2030, according to investment firm UBS, at a rate of 20-to-30% per year. It’s estimated that plant-based milk will be a $38 billion business by 2025. In the United States, 41% of all households already buy plant-based milk, which equals almost 53 million households. As someone who actively invests in plant-based companies, the opportunities are in promising new growth industries — not the obviously declining ones, like dairy.

Farm subsidies in the US took off during the Great Depression to help affected farmers and stabilize markets. Nearly 100 years later, they are no longer serving the purpose they were created for. Instead, they support poor health and environmental destruction…100 years from now there won’t be anything left to subsidize!

These outdated subsidies happen around the world. The public is providing more than one million dollars per minute in farm subsidies, a lot of which is driving the climate crisis, according to a new report. Even scarier, our current food system causes $12 trillion a year in hidden costs to the environment, human health, and inclusive development.

It’s time to wake up, start crying over spilled milk — and do something drastic about it. The Trump administration’s handling of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants in the midst of the coronavirus has only highlighted the corruption and fragility of these industries. The solution is right in front of our faces: it’s time to transition away from antiquated industries toward a new, sustainable, plant-based food system.