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Article: A hamburger at what price? Print E-mail
A hamburger at what price?

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A hamburger at what price?

An interview with Bruce Poon by Claudette Vaughan

Bruce Poon is a volunteer for Vegetarian Network Victoria and previous incarnations of vegetarian groups in Victoria. He started 'The Case for a Vegan World' Wiki. His main focus is on informing himself and others of the real advantages for the world of adopting a vegan lifestyle. This includes the environmental benefits, health benefits, reduction in suffering, economic and other societal benefits. He conducts lectures for schools and councils in Melbourne and tries to extend the knowledge of Veganism to those within the 'green' community.

Bruce is also the Founder and Chairman of OzQuest: Young Australian Adventures ( which is a charity that takes young Australians overseas to perform community and scientific work in the majority world. He is currently leading the expedition program to Namibia in Africa. Bruce is on the board of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award in Victoria. In his spare time, Bruce is also the CEO of two computer companies, designs computer games, develops property and learns swing dancing.

A hamburger at what price?

Abolitionist: What price is a hamburger?

Bruce Poon: Of course, we all know that monetarily, a hamburger costs just a few dollars. Let's briefly address the economic system that makes it so.

The problem is, of course, that the monetary cost isn't the only cost. Economists call this the problem of 'externalities'. These are things which are external to the economic system, and yet, important nonetheless. A classic externality is the suffering of the cow, whose flesh is central to the meal. In our current economic model, animals have no rights, and there is no penalty for inflicting suffering. Vegans would I think universally agree that the price paid in suffering is 'too high' and cannot be justified, no matter how cheap the burger appears in dollar terms.

Now there are two ways to approach the problem. The first way, the way we do it now, is to have an economic system, a monetary system if you like, which is 'narrow', and has many 'externalities'. It then is up to each individual consumer to inform themselves and make decisions about not only the monetary cost, but also the other costs of each product. While this approach is fraught with bad estimation, matters of opinion and poor incentives for good behaviour, it is the system we are stuck with at the moment. Right now, when we look at a burger, we have to not only sum up the economic cost, but we also need to inform ourselves (or not) and make appropriate value judgements of the other costs. Just how much water and land were used, how much pollution, how much health risk is involved, how many greenhouse emissions were caused, how much suffering was endured? To some extent, consumers will always be asked to make some of these judgements. It becomes important that they are given accurate information about these factors so they can in fact make good decisions. Right now, many of these factors are not labelled, and so in light of this lack of information, decision making is sketchy at best.

The alternative approach to the problem is for the economic system to bring the 'externalities' INTO the system, thus eliminating them as externalities. They then become PART of the economic system, and will be included in mainstream economic approaches, and result in a change to the price. Despite many years of working on this problem, particularly under the heading of 'green economics', it remains a largely unsolved, and unadopted approach. Perhaps some things, such as 'Suffering', cannot in fact be given a monetary value.

But take for example, greenhouse emissions. We now know that these are causing global climate change, and there is an urgent need for reducing them. One way that the Government of a country could reduce the volume of emissions and solve the problem would be to introduce a 'carbon tax'. This would be a tax on all activities which generate greenhouse emissions, so that the price of these products would then incorporate the taxes paid to the Government. There are many advantages to this approach, when you understand that the economic system is a highly optimised and extremely clear driver of behaviour. Many things about our cities and countries work well, because the economic system is efficient. Unfortunately for us, the pace of micro-economic reform in Australia has slowed in recent years. The Government seems busy fighting wars and trying to get re-elected.

I would personally support a carbon tax, as it is a tax on pollution, not a tax on productivity, like so many of our other taxes. The most important thing about such a tax would be to make sure that all the producers of greenhouse gases were included. This would, for example, vastly increase the price of beef, because of the large amount of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) that beef cattle produce.

So what are these 'externalities'? What are the things that a consumer needs to think about when they buy a hamburger, or that an expanded economic system would need to include?

There are some obvious environmental factors.

There is the land degradation of our country brought about by the raising of beef cattle. Nearly half the entire continent is devoted to rangelands for beef and sheep. This land has been and continues to be cleared of forests in order to provide pasture. The landmark study 'Balancing Act' by the University of NSW and CSIRO shows that The Beef Industry causes 58 times more land degradation than the industry average, in order to produce each dollar of 'product'. Animal products are responsible for at least 92% of the total land degradation. They do this by deforestation, soil compaction, soil acidification and the flow on effects of salinity, erosion, loss of topsoil, production of manure and by products and toxic materials used in processing. If we did not have these industries, the Australian environment would thrive and there would be no need to contemplate extinctions of native animals. In an American context, it has been estimated that each hamburger is responsible for the loss of about 5 square meters of Amazonian Rainforest, along with the endemic animal, bird and plant species that they support.

There is the water used in the production of the meat. The CSIRO have estimated it takes between 50,000 and 100,000 litres to produce a single Kilo of Beef. Let's say there is 100g of Beef in the typical hamburger, that is 5,000 litres or $4 worth of water at the price paid by Melbourne consumers. Some people assume that this must already be included in the economic system, and its true, to some extent. But there exist major subsidies to these industries in terms of the price of water, and they will often pay a hundredth or a thousandth of the cost for managed drinking water that consumers pay. Without these subsidies, these industries would probably not be viable. Within Victoria, where I live, 77% of the agricultural water is used by animal industries; cattle, sheep and dairy. We only need to reduce the size of these industries fractionally to free up huge amounts of water for household use and to generate environmental flows. Shorter showers is a simplistic and ineffective impost on the population.

It takes up to 80 times more fuel energy to make beef calories as opposed to vegetables, fruits or grains. This gives this country an insatiable desire for oil. Because of this misuse of resources, we currently import 30% of our oil and within a dozen years will need to import 80%! We have gone past our own 'Peak Oil' moment in Australia. Our own supplies are running dry. So what are we prepared to do in order to secure more cheap oil? The Lancet estimates nearly 1 million Iraqis dead so far.

I have already mentioned the problem of our own biosphere, the health and well being of native animals as individuals and species. Many of them are becoming endangered because of habitat loss, fueled by the ever greater need for pasture. And because we waste grain on feeding cattle, it is unavailable to be eaten by humans. This drives the poorest individuals in the world to be unable to afford the grains, and they starve, already at the rate of 25,000 people per day. This will increase as environmental conditions deteriorate.

Then there are the health costs associated with eating a hamburger. While this might seem to be a private cost, done at the discretion of the individual, we have a largely publicly funded universal health system, and so everyone bears the burden. We have epidemics of Obesity, Diabetes, Cancer, Heart Disease, Alzheimer's and other horrible diseases in the Western world. These lead to a health spend in the tens of billions of dollars annually, along with the other costs to the economy. Obesity alone was recently calculated to cost $22B per year in Australia. Needless to say, vegans are only 1/9 as likely to be obese as the meat eating population. All of these problems would be largely solved if people didn't eat so many animal products, like hamburgers. I recently calculated that there could be savings of between $30B and $50B annually. What this means is that the health cost to the individual, and to society, is probably significantly more than the cost of the food. I have always preferred to spend money on good food, rather than on medical bills.

And then there are a range of hidden economic costs. The OECD estimates we spend hundreds of millions of dollars subsidising animal industries in Australia. So quite apart from the financial cost of the environmental damage, and damage to our health, there is good money being thrown at the industry to accelerate the rate at which they destroy our health and environment!

And then there is the suffering. Anyone who understands the cost to others of meat would refrain from it. I recently saw the excellent documentary 'Earthlings', and it reinvigorated my passion for getting out there and educating people about all of the various reasons they might abstain from animal products.

So there we have it, these are the costs of a hamburger. When a person walks up to the counter and orders a Happy Hamburger, they should not only consider the few dollars that is costs immediately, but also the massive destruction of the environment, the use of soil, trees and water; the damage to their health, the years of life they will likely miss out on through not being vegetarian; the damage to the economy, their support of wars to secure fuel resources, and finally the suffering and death of a poor animal that committed no crime against them.

We must find a way for people to see that the price is way too high.

Your research is cited all around the world so please tell us your views on making a vegan world Bruce.

We are not that far from a vegan world! We only need to educate enough people, most of them I guess, about the facts surrounding their use of animal products. Like emancipation of the slaves, or suffrage for women, a good idea, once out of the bottle, cannot be contained.

In 'The Case for a Vegan World' I outlined the various arguments for veganism. These included environmental, health, suffering, sociological, economic and even religious reasons. I think that each of these reasons stands alone, and for many, as sufficient reason to abstain from using animal products.

In order to make our world vegan, we will need to use each of these arguments appropriate to each audience. For those charged with public health outcomes (doctors, politicians, some bureaucrats), the health reasons should be sufficient, even if they are completely unconcerned about the other arguments. For many individuals also, naturally concerned about their own health, a proper education on the pros and cons of animal product use is sufficient for them to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. For many, the suffering of animals, once seen and understood with enough detail, is plenty. For the great many people who now see themselves as 'environmentalists', and that is a big fraction of the population, the environmental costs of animal products should be enough for them to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.

The transition will happen in this way. Research will continue to pour in that documents the disastrous consequences of our addiction to animal products. This will be collated and presented in various ways. Public understanding of this information will be hampered by entrenched corporate interests, but more and more people will start to have the blinds removed from their eyes. We will gain support in educating people about the facts.

As people become more educated, they will take sane decisions to reduce or eliminate animal products from their life, either because they are concerned for themselves, or their family, or their country, or animals. As use diminishes, and the number of vegetarians increases, they will increasingly become a political force. Eventually, rational economic policy will kick in to see subsidies reduced, and it will be just too expensive for most people to eat meat. Fast food will switch over to vegetarian burgers as an option, and then as the default. The politicised body of vegetarians will demand that animals have some rights. At some point, there will be so much public feeling that eating meat ought not be a choice given to people, and it will be outlawed, just as cannibalism is today.

The structural changes in industry and the economy will be significant, but by no means difficult or too far ranging to be contemplated. More bank tellers were displaced from their jobs by ATMs than farmers that will be put out of business by a change to veganism. Farmers will find better uses for their land, Abattoirs will close and be turned into museums (because future generations will not believe that these things could have been allowed), and TV celebrity chefs will continue to spring up, but they will all be vegetarian.

What does "sustainable" mean in a vegansí world in relation to climate change?

While there is almost universal agreement on the causes of climate change due to greenhouse emissions, the impact on the world will continue to be monitored so that we can keep abreast of what emissions are doing, and what reaction is likely from the planet. The science will then give us a level of emissions which are 'sustainable', bearing in mind that this level is likely to change over time.

We then need to consider how this level of emissions is to be shared amongst the people of the world. This is a classic problem of equity amongst peoples with vastly disparate means. The cashed up and industrialised West is likely to try and use their muscle to insist that they get the lions share of emissions allowances. Perhaps most equitably, the total allowance for emissions should be split down to each person, and that person would then 'trade' their emissions limit with others. This is philosophically the most equitable position I can see, but it is unlikely to be adopted, for political reasons. If it was, Australia as a whole would have to cut their current rate of emissions by about 90%. This IS possible, and is mainly an issue of political will.

I would fully support a goal of a 90% cut in Australian emissions. We could then trade down to 10% of current emissions over time, paying carbon taxes until the point that we get there.

With climate change experts, is there a conspiracy to conveniently under-play meat production and consumption for fear of up-setting the farmers and its strong lobby group?

I don't know if there is a conspiracy, but there is certainly an effort in some quarters to underplay and avoid consideration of meat production as a principal cause of greenhouse emissions. As my own recent paper shows, in Australia more than half of our emissions considered over a 20 year impact timeframe are caused by the production of animal products. When the impact of land use is taken into account, this turns into an opportunity to cut our emissions by between 50 and 100% over a 100 year period.

It is MOST frustrating to see well meaning people banging on about saving the world, either not understanding or not recognising that the single most important step for anybody to take is to reduce their animal product consumption. There is an enormous volume of material discussing the issue now, and yet only a tiny fraction of it is cognisant of the role of animal products, particularly in Australia. I see it as our job to make sure those who are genuine about wanting to solve the problem, know the truth, and have the opportunity to change their material. If they are presented with facts and then decide not to change their material, because they themselves are not vegetarian and have no intention to be, then they expose themselves as dreadfully hypocritical.

What is the solution to climate change in Australia?

I don't have all the answers, but the solution is not too difficult or costly. It mainly requires a change in mindset.

I am a big fan of well regulated markets being used to drive change in the economy. The alternative is central planning and changes by government fiat, and that always ends up being wasteful and often ineffective.

It seems that a carbon tax would do the job nicely, although the Government has decided to take the route of a 'cap and trade' carbon market. If this is set up well, it should be a good mechanism to regulate carbon emissions, with the cap being lowered as required by the science and our international obligations. The devil is certainly in the detail though! It has been suggested already that animal production will be given a free kick, and excluded from the market. This will automatically mean that it is ineffective, as you have the largest source of emissions excluded. It is impossible to meet our reduction targets if the largest emitter is excluded.And yes, this is all about politics and the political muscle of the farmers and the organisations and parties that represent them.

My preferred solution goes like this: Step 1. Everyone becomes vegan! Step 2. We wind down and eliminate the animal industries. Step 3. We reforest 1% of the rangelands per year, a major undertaking over 100 years. These actions would see Australia's emissions drop by up to and over 100%. How can it be over 100%? Because reforesting actually creates carbon sinks that count as 'negative emissions'. Should we invest in renewable fuels and cut back on coal and gas use? Of course we should. I am 100% behind the push for renewable energy generation. This will not only cut emissions (cutting is better and surer than creating sinks) but will produce good financial results over time. Should we reduce use where possible? Of course! Reducing use of energy where it is unnecessary is one of the cheapest and easiest mechanisms to cut costs and emissions.

Note that this solution is incredibly cheap, and in fact, pays for itself. The move to reduced meat production and consumption will produce such large savings in other sectors of the economy (e.g. fuel, health) that we will be wealthier through the process.

In NSW there are serious problems with finding solutions to the water crisis due to the drought. Producing meat to eat requires 50 times as much water as growing an equivalent quantity of wheat. Do you make these connections?

In Victoria too! The drought is either cyclical and incidental, or more likely, a change in climate brought about by our destruction of the land in the first place. Without the forests, water is not held in the land, nor transpired to make clouds and rain. But then we do have some water. What we do with it is waste it on animal products, when we know full well that this will lead to shortages for people's use. If these industries paid market rates for their water, and it was allowed to flow efficiently to the highest value use, many of these industries would simply not be viable in their current form. In other words, current water pricing policies and market structures are another subsidy to these industries which allow them to continue.

There was a study by Melbourne University a couple of years ago that showed 90% of a person's water use is from what they eat, rather than anything to do with showers or watering their garden. The conclusion from this is that any sensible attempt to reduce water consumption will concentrate on where most of the water is used, animal agriculture. This is not politically palatable though, so we are told to have shorter showers, quite cynically, because it matters not a bit.

Cattle production is the biggest contributing factor to deforestation and desertification. How will this affect Australia's wildlife and animals?

Unfortunately it has already caused the extinction of many species. As climate change hits harder, it is likely to cause hundreds more. The deforestation and desertification process simply leaves species without sufficient range of habitat. Without habitat, animals die and species become endangered, vulnerable to extinction, and eventually, go under. If we eliminated animal industries the country could be a green paradise and the envy of the world in terms of range of animals, habitats, healthy rivers and skies. There would even be a lot more forest available for the extraction of forest products (timber).

Australia's unique animal species have been sacrificed for hamburgers.

Can you be an environmentalist and still eat meat?

No. This will become an accepted truth soon enough.

Bruce Poon

This article has been reproduced from abolitionist-online, Issue 7, February 2008.

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