Industrial Farming: Immorality, Subsidized
As a lifelong vegetarian, no style of meat production is particularly appealing or justifiable to me. However, despite my herbivore bias, I still see an ethical dilemma present in current industrial meat facilities. Little respect is given to the conditions and treatment of the animals in industrial facilities. Animals rarely see the light of day for any substantial amount of time and they are raised on concrete floors; they are treated as mere products without regard for their status as living, breathing beings. The greatest crime, however, is that industrial facilities survive purely out of price floors, legal code, and other direct government subsidies that hinder competition from natural, local food systems.
A superior product in the marketplace should not require extra help from a government agency, whether it be in the form of a price guarantee for corn (the main substance fed to livestock in industrial facilities), legal code that mandates industrial farming (or heavily restricts other methods of non-industrial farming), or other government subsidies. The fact that industrial livestock facilities rely on government assistance for survival is a testament to their flawed, unnecessary, and undesirable business practices. (If they don’t require government assistance for survival, why continue providing subsidies and other competitive advantages to these corporate industrial livestock giants?) If people prefer to purchase industrial livestock meat over locally grown free range meat, there is no need for subsidies or other governmental involvement. Clearly, subsidies are needed only when a corporation or industry (such as industrial livestock producers) offers a lousy product that people won’t normally desire.
Government subsidies merely provide the illusion of cheap prices, which goes a long way in distorting the prices and actions of people in the marketplace. The fact that industrial meat is the cheapest does not mean it’s a better product or business model, particularly when you account for the government assistance needed to lower the price in the first place. Of course, it is us, the taxpayers, who are providing the subsidies, so the cost we pay for “cheap” food at the grocery store isn’t actually very cheap. We pay taxes to provide farm and grain subsidies, fund the bureaucracies who regulate and administer fines to farmers who don’t cooperate with the industrial system, among other taxpayer-funded programs.
Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water- of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food. – Joel Salatin [i]
Clearly the industrial food system has government tilted in its favor; its products are cheap not because of their superior taste or flavor, but because they have managed to successfully crawl into bed with government to dismantle other legitimately competitive businesses. The philosophy of the industrial food system can be summed up in this statement: if people won’t buy your lousy, nauseating product, lobby government for subsidies and other protectionist interventions to dismantle competitors who actually offer a product desirable to the public.
In a true free market of limited or no government intervention and subsidies, a product only survives so long as it appeals to the demands of the general public. As soon as a company offers a product that people do not desire or demand, the company is hit with losses and will go bankrupt so long as it doesn’t change its practices. This occurs because other competitors can easily take the place of a lackluster company who fails to please its customers. Corporations in the industrial food system face no such market competition and customer input, because they are guaranteed government assistance regardless even if people resist their product. Industrial livestock corporations succeed financially based on how well they please government bureaucrats and follow government regulations, not how effectively they can please customers with a quality product. Are you beginning to see the apparent flaws in this industrial, bureaucratized food system of ours? Our current system has come at the demands of government bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists, rather than the demands of people in their local communities yearning for sustainable, clean, tasty food systems.
The inherent immorality in our current food system is that individuals cannot simply choose to opt out of the system and be done with it. Sure, if a few million of us chose to never again purchase industrial-raised meat, some corporations would face a loss of millions or billions of dollars. However, what would be the corporate reaction? Would they actually change their business practices to match the public’s desire for a local, sustainable, earth-friendly food system? Or would these Agribusinesses lobby government for an extra several billion dollars in subsidies and beneficial regulations to stay afloat? Unfortunately, history has shown the latter is the opted path, as it is with all politically-connected corporations and industries, because it demands little change or adaption on the part of the corporation. As a result, today we are stuck with an uncreative, unsustainable, and frankly undesirable industrial setup that very few people would actually choose over a more natural local food system.
In a true free market system with open competition and no government assistance to businesses, I believe industrial livestock and food systems would be run out of the market within a matter of one or two decades. They would be forced to reallocate their resources to fit the demands of a local food system, or suffer the consequences of consistent losses and, eventually, bankruptcy. The free market is a powerful moral force, because it cumulates the demands and desires of the people by giving each individual the power of choice. The fact that we evidently don’t have a free market within the industrial agriculture system proves that the system must indeed be immoral, unsustainable, or impractical to at least some degree. If it was a moral, worthwhile system, government subsidies would not be necessary to sustain the practices of industrial livestock and agriculture.
The industrial livestock system in place today is not justifiable for one basic reason: it requires government subsidies to stay afloat. I find the greatest moral dilemma with the fact that the system brings in billions of dollars of government support whether customers demand such a product or not. Government’s involvement and propping up of the system has essentially eliminated the power of individual choice, leaving the public susceptible to the whims and desires of corporate lobbyists, government bureaucrats, and our oh-so-wise politicians. The treatment of the animals, the conditions of the factories, the wages of the workers are all secondary. If people are forced to participate in and fund a system they find morally or ethically reprehensible with no option of withdrawal, it is absolutely not justifiable. It is tyrannical.
[i] Salatin, Joel. Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007.