This is quite a complex issue and it requires some historical context before we can really go into our modern system. In the 1920′s, Farm production had spiked as farms ramped up to feed war-ravaged Europe, including American farms. By the 1930′s farms were producing so much food though, that it drove the price of crops, particularly corn, so low that it became almost worthless. This was a tricky situation for the government, since it was them who had convinced farmers to up their production in the first place, and it was causing many farmers to lose their farms. To try and deal with this, the government convinced farmers to leave some of their land unplanted, “paid-land diversion”, often by supporting a set minimum price that they would expect to earn from it, called “minimum price supports”. But what began as a temporary stimulus became permanent, and since feed crops for livestock were so heavily subsidised, it made meat and dairy affordable for even poor people, pretty much for the first time. The advent of factory farming and the ability to raise and kill animals on an industrial scale made it even cheaper. Subsidies have evolved a bit since then, from “insurance” on potential crops grown to other versions of landholder grants.
Fast forward a few decades and the meat and dairy industry has grown rich, meaning they have an extremely powerful political lobby able to resist any potential cut to their subsidies, and to influence people to continue buying even against health warnings. People in Europe and America have also become accustomed to being able to afford meat due to the subsidies, and it would be a brave government indeed who would cut those, as it would likely increase prices at least three-fold. As it often does, history is now repeating itself, the corn surplus of the 1930′s is exactly what we are seeing again, except this time with dairy. Farms are producing more than people want to buy, which is driving down the price, and farmers are therefore asking for further subsidies, which again would be a temporary stimulus that would only solve the problem on a temporary basis. It’s basically what happens when the government steps in to disrupt market supply and demand, allowing farmers to produce a particular commodity at the same level of supply, despite a reduction of demand. You don’t have to be an economist to understand why this is a terrible idea.
In terms of how this works in practice, America is a particularly stark example. American farm subsidies take up $20 billion a year from taxpayers’ money, you can find a table below of how this is distributed:
The temptation is to write this off as a problem with America specifically, as the nation with the highest consumption of animal products per person, but this is an issue all over the developed world. In the EU for example, The Common Agricultural Policy which is the EU system of farm subsidies, takes up €53 billion a year, a full 40% of the EU’s entire budget. We can see from the table below how this money is distributed:
This system is now so bloated and absurd, that as a farmer you don’t even need to produce anything to receive subsidies. According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2007 and 2011, the US government paid $3m in subsidies to farms where no food was produced. Between 2008 and 2012, $10.6m was paid to farmers who had been dead for over a year. This system, in a country where millions live below the poverty line, is utterly immoral.
This is not just of ethics though, it is also highly dangerous for health. The Chairman of The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Health, Dr. Neal Barnard said: “As a physician, I urge you to shut down federal programs that pump billions of dollars into direct and indirect subsidies for meat, sugar, and other unhealthy products that are feeding record levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health problems that kill and disable millions of Americans every year. Most taxpayers have no idea that they subsidise unhealthy foods.” It is estimated that because of these factors and the impact of animal products on food security, global health and climate change, the world going vegan would save approximately 8.1 million human lives per year.
Countries all over the developed world are diverting eye-watering sums of tax payer money to subsidise an industry which is quite literally killing it’s people. If we subsided fresh fruits and vegetables in place of animal products, they would be extremely cheap and accessible to everyone, and if those crops being fed to farmed animals were instead fed to humans, we would add an addition 70% to the world’s food supply. The hope is, that as veganism becomes more popular and demand for animal products goes down, governments will be forced to acknowledge that it is not sustainable to subsidise an industry which it’s population no longer support. We are already seeing a shift in this, with dairy farmers moving to plant based milks as a way to make more money, and companies like Tyson reporting profit losses. In the meantime, there is a growing resistance to the corruption of farm subsidies, and as well as boycotting animal products, pressuring your local government representatives to act will at the very least show them that public awareness of this issue is growing, and that we do not support the way our money is being used.