Food & Drink

Meat Is A Liberal Issue. It Shouldn’t Be.

The political discourse around meat consumption has become increasingly polarized in recent decades. And given that cattle production in 2021 is forecasted to represent a whopping 17 percent of the $391 billion in total cash receipts for agricultural commodities, no wonder meat is a politically charged topic.

Reducing the consumption of animal products seems to be a liberal cause. In February, AOC declared that she would be going vegetarian for lent. In April, following a recommendation from vegan Senator Cory Booker, Vice President Harris was reported to be eating only plant-based meals before 6pm. By contrast, President Trump famously served a fast-food feast to a champion football team and subsists on a diet of bacon, eggs, burgers, and steak. But the partisan divide over meat reached new heights in May when the internet exploded over a false rumor that President Biden was taking away burgers from Americans.

Yes, as it stands, those who worship seitan tend to lean left, and excessive meat-eating is linked to the conservative right. But this unfortunate outcome belies an important truth: well-reasoned conservativism ought to lead us to the plant-based bandwagon. Anyone who values small government, respect for tradition, the First Amendment, a free market, and the lives of fellow creatures should join the fight against the overconsumption of meat in the U.S.

Today’s animal agriculture industry relies on the hand of big government and cronyism to prop itself up. For example, the federal government spends billions of dollars each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries. Last year alone, federal payments were in excess of $46 billion. In the words of former Republican Senate staffer John Connor Cleveland: “This is nothing less than government-sponsored welfare to livestock producers, who are insulated from market shifts thanks to the low costs for their feed.”

It’s not like these subsidies are honoring a basic respect for tradition. On the contrary—gone are the days of cows roaming in pastures with an idyllic red barn behind them; they were replaced long ago by concentrated animal feeding operations that have more in common with a factory than a home on the range.

As Geoff Dembicki points out in The Independent, since the majority of crops like corn and soybeans become animal feed, and because the meat industry is so consolidated—the top four meat producers control about 80 percent of all beef—these funds largely prop up the factory farming model. So too do mandatory commodity check-off programs, which force farmers to hand over payments to lobbyists and industry trade groups, that in turn advocate for a Big-Ag agenda. If anything, the current system has pushed out traditional farming, as small farmers may not be able to afford these payments.

Plus, factory farming has devastating environmental impacts on rural America, where conservatives are more likely to live. In Iowa for example, manure spills are semi-regular occurrences. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an organization opposed to the factory farming model, estimates there have been more than 100 manure or ammonia leaks from Iowa Select, Iowa’s largest hog operation. As one resident laments in Vox, due to this pollution, he cannot enjoy the lake near his house: “[T]he lake turns into this slimy green sludge. You [can’t] even canoe through it, let alone fish.”

And then there’s the Constitution—under siege thanks to the meat industry. Consider the First Amendment, which includes our inalienable right to free speech. And yet Ag-Gag laws, which prevent would-be whistleblowers from entering factory farms, are popping up all over the country, an affront to the First Amendment. Meanwhile, some industry lobbyists want to ban the use of terms like “burger” and “sausage” on the labels of plant-based meat products, arguing paternalistically that consumers are too stupid to distinguish flesh from peas. Thankfully, judges are largely striking these proposals down.

Legislators who have introduced these bills have made their intent clear: The plant-based meat industry is taking market share away from the animal agriculture industry, leading them to ask state legislatures to intervene in the marketplace for their benefit. But the plant-based industry represents one of the best examples of how free market systems can help address climate change. 

American entrepreneurs like Pat Brown, CEO and Founder of Impossible Foods, and Ethan Brown, CEO and Founder of Beyond Meat, are creating plant-based meat products that taste nearly identical to conventional products. And consumers are eating them up. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat weren’t the brainchilds of bureaucrats—they came about through private innovation. Innovations like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger ought to be heralded as proof that free, open markets are one the best solutions to the world’s greatest problems—not harassed with burdensome red tape.

But perhaps most fundamentally, factory farming is an assault on the very foundations of conservative thought—a basic respect for the value of life and the natural rights that come with it. As Matthew Scully, a special assistant and senior speechwriter for President George W. Bush details in The National Review, “This need only be applied to animals to remind us that all creatures have natures, capacities, and yearnings that define their own fulfillment, their creaturely happiness, the good for which they exist in a design larger than any schemes of human devising.”

The call to respect all lives has religious undertones. Nearly every text of worship contains some kind verbiage about respecting non-human animals. It’s no wonder Pope Benedict XVI warned it would be antithetical to religion to relegate “living creatures to a commodity,” referencing our nascent “industrial use of creatures”  Indeed, in just about every way, factory farming is the devil incarnate.

While headlines in liberal media warn about the threat Republicans pose to the plant-based food industry, conservatives should be natural allies. We can’t eradicate factory farming without reducing societal consumption of animal products—there simply isn’t enough land. And we can’t shift societal norms without a bipartisan effort. So, left or right, it’s all aboard the tofu train.


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