Should governments subsidise the meat and dairy industries ?

Price is a very powerful tool to manipulate our consumption decisions. The amount of money governments pay as a subsidy to keep the price of certain commodities low is one of the most important factors affecting national and global food consumption. Meat and dairy industry as one of leading sector of the economy receives huge direct and indirect subsidies from governments in many countries, provoking huge concern because of the impact it has on human health, the environment protection, and on animals right. Denmark, for instance, is currently considering a recommendation from its ethics council that all red meats should be taxed. The council argued in May that citizens were indeed “ethically obliged” to reduce their consumption to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Why does it matter?

The amount of subsidy governments pay to meat and dairy industry is striking to many, if not very surprising. According to recent data from Metonomics, the American government spends $38 billion each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries, but only 0.04 percent of that (i.e., $17 million) each year to subsidize fruits and vegetables.

Subsidizing the dairy and meat production will obviously reduce their price. When the price of something is lower, people tend to consume more of it. This is one of the reasons why meat and other dairy products become a larger share of our daily consumption.

The same is true in the European Union, over the last fifty years, there has been an exponential increase in the consumption of animal products. Despite this huge increase in demand these items cost extremely little. This is because of the fact that the dairy industry receives huge amount of subsidies both from the union and member states. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of EU provides agricultural subsidies which according to the European Commission costs each EU citizen around 30 euro cents a day. As the Union’s most expensive programme which almost represent 40% of the EU’s budget, CAP provides €53 billion a year as a subsidy for agricultural products which include meat and diary products.

Western diets are highly characterized by a high intake of animal products. The data from Organization for Economic Cooperation and development (OECD) shows that in 2014 the average American adult consumed 90 kilograms (198 pounds) of meat in 2014. The global average during that same year was 34 kilograms (75 pounds). By 2024, these numbers are projected to increase to 94.1 kilograms (207.5 pounds) per person in the U.S. and 35.5 kilograms (78.3 pounds) globally.

The size of meat and diary industry is thus immense. The North American Meat Institute estimate that, in total, the meat industry contributes about $894 billion to the US economy. Beef alone is a 95 billion a year a year business. In 2015, in all industries involved in meat production with all suppliers, distributors and retailers this industry employees around 6.2 million people with total wage of $200 billion. All these dimensions affects the total cost of meat consumption borne by the society, like this short video well recaps:

The ethical dilemma

One may wonder why are those subsidies a problem since the Humans won the struggle for life by eating meat for centuries. What is wrong with helping an industry that feeds you and has apparently nothing morally reluctant? What is wrong with giving access to meat and to a so-called balanced diet to as many people as possible? What is the ethical dilemma here? We actually feel furthermore prompted to question this issue that no one is questioning it, while it is completely part of his/her daily life — say, well-hidden in his/her fridge shelves.

We do think that it is counter-intuitive to subsidise an industry that is already the bigger one, that has the biggest lands, the best performing machines and the best organized production process, whereas an increasing number of small farmers are closing their local enterprises around the world.

As mentioned above, it is striking that nobody, at an individual level but also higher up, questions this situation. Such a practice appears deeply anchored and institutionalized from both a historical and a cultural point of view, although everyone in the world agrees that we can’t reasonably keep on eating the same amount of meat that we were used to, since we are a growing number of people in an increasingly polluted planet.

It seems more and more difficult to deny that such an industry is not providing good-quality products to the final consumers. Ethical concerns would not raise if traceability of the goods was clear, as well as their healthiness. Besides basically denying the threat to the consumers’ health, the large-scale production process is primarily denying animal rights and decency.

It is thus obvious to us that subsidizing the meat and dairy industry is not pursuing the best possible equilibrium in terms of equity. It is highly contradictory in the sense that, on one side, this policy helps people to have a wide access to food so that they live well, but at the same time, it is a concrete and daily threat to their health, to their close environment, and to other living beings which they share the same physical characteristics before being humans. Following the utilitarian approach, we are promoting a policy which aims at researching the best outcomes to as many people as possible.

If there may be nothing wrong with milk, the social habit to consume it daily is somewhat peremptory… Before reading the main arguments for supporting our answer, you should thus first think twice when watching the two following milk TV advertisings, and just realize that you are part of a social construction which encourages you to consume milk proteins at every step of your life — whose highest authorities can either be your Mum or your Bollywood dancing partner !

Environment and climate change

Whilst arguments concerning animal rights can be used to justify the end of government subsidies of the meat and dairy industries, it is possible to look at this question from a purely human perspective. There is a fair amount of disagreement as to how much importance should be placed on animal suffering or animal life. Most of us are desensitized to this a few days after seeing a horrific slaughterhouse video. Most governments are more concerned with their voters and their citizen’s concerns. These concerns can be quite selfish. This is why, when discussing public policy, it is important to consider citizens. Many countries are or at least claim to be committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing down the process of climate change. Much like for the COP21 in Paris last year, countries regularly make commitments in order to keep global warming under the 2°C threshold. This effort is mostly focussed on reducing greenhouse gas emission, most notably carbon dioxide. It is fair to agree that global warming is a concern, does or will affect inhabitants of our planet negatively and should be prevented.

However, meat and dairy production are one of the biggest sources of CO2. The UN’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) estimates that livestock is responsible for 18% of global CO2 emissions[1].It also consumes more water and land, precious and rare natural resources that could be used for vegan food production instead. Government subsidies of this industry is not only damaging for the environment but also inconsistent with their claimed goals and international commitments. It is unrealistic to combat climate change effectively without considering the impact of the food industry. Pollution and other negative environmental consequences are negative externalities. This means they are not taken into account by the market price of a good. This is the case with meat. Subsidies, in the way they are carried out today are counterproductive. They help lower the cost of meat and dairy products. Not only is their price not representative of the environmental cost, it is not even representative of the real production cost. This allows meat and dairy farmers to produce cheap meat profitably, despite its detrimental effects on the environment.

This is a strong argument against government subsidies. Helping reduce meat production and consumption would be an effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is compatible with a utilitarian ethical perspective. It would also help countries to honour their international commitments, which is deontologically more ethical. Stopping subsidies towards these industries and favouring others could even be more efficient, produce more food at a lower cost to government because more environmentally friendly agriculture is more sustainable from both an ecological and an economic perspective. Furthermore, environmental reasons are already used for other forms of public action (incentivising the use of public transport for example). This is an equally if not more valid argument for adjusting agricultural subsidy policies in a similar way, in order to affect what we produce and consume.

Health issues

Providing food cannot be totally equity-oriented if not taking care about health and sanitary issues. Of course, getting food maximizes your utility in absolute terms but the economic theory also suggests that the marginal utility decreases with quantity. Even though a good such as food is a vital need, we can get enough of it because of our body’s natural satiety limit. Hence, subsidies to the dairy and meat industries cannot be a sustainable policy incentive in terms of equity if it is not part of a credible comprehensive framework that improve people’s health and well-being.

The link between being in good health and consuming meat and dairy products every day is still not clearly established. On one side, the fact that it has been a repeated public policy recommendation since the end of the Second World War in the developed economies doesn’t help to cast doubt on its effects. But on the other side, this fact offers an adequate field for long-term studies about meat and milk high-consumption effects on cancer, heart diseases, diabetes or obesity, given that all these diseases have reached disturbing proportions in our societies during the last fifty years.

According to the American wellness researcher Joe Keon in his 2011 book ‘Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth About Cow’s Milk and Your Health’, the largest epidemiological study ever, actually from China, showed a direct relationship between dairy consumption and cancer — the more dairy, the more cancer. He also suggests that we should think hard about consuming the cow’s milk since no other animal species drinks the milk of another species, and that no other species drinks milk after a very young age.

If, still, policy makers have to go beyond correlations and get strong scientific causations in order to support their policy decisions, the doubt is enough to seriously reconsider the framework for public action and, at least, think about reducing the global level of meat consumption. The mere precautionary principle is a sufficient ethical argument to rethink the current measures allowing the dairy and meat industries’ processes.

Animal ethics

“ Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way.”

Peter singer, a famous utilitarian and most influential advocator of animal right argues that humans and animals share an important aspect of equality, in the capacity to suffer or to enjoy their lives. In his interview at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs on October 6, 2011, he says:

“I think in terms of equality between humans and animals, in a very specific sense, the sense in which they do share an important equality, and that is the capacity to suffer or enjoy their lives. What I am opposing is discounting or ignoring the pain of animal beings, simply because they are not members of our species. I want to extend equality beyond the species boundary. We should give equal consideration to the interests of all beings, all beings have interests, all can feel pain, irrespective of their species.”

But in a reality things are unfortunately quite different. One recent study titled the Economics of Meat Consumption by Jon Haveman shows that 9.1 billion land animals, 8.7 billion chickens and 400 million cows, pigs, ducks, and turkeys are being ruthlessly killed to to feed only US consumers every single year. Of which over 99% of farm animals are raised in factory farms, which only focus on maximizing profit at the expense of the animals’ welfare. Worldwide data from Animalequality shows that over 56 billion farmed animals are killed every year by humans. These figures do not even include fish and other sea creatures.

Obvious human and social aspects

We have considered the ethical implications of these subsidies on humans. In this case, we cannot neglect the benefits of such subsidies. Firstly, it is worth considering the people who work in this sector. Their livelihoods depend on the meat and dairy industry and they rely heavily on subsidies. If the government were to end their subsidies abruptly many of these people would lose their jobs or not be able to sustain their farming. While this is obviously to be considered in making an ethical decision it is worth noting that these consequences to the end of subsidies are also a reason for this end. If it had no impact on the size and shape of the industry, there would be no real ethical argument for changing anything, at least from a consequentialist point of view. However, we cannot deny that this would be unpopular with those working in this industry. They could transition to a different form of farming but this would still take time and be difficult. This is directly comparable to the negative effects of the subsidies because it affects human beings.

All humans and in fact all of the planet’s inhabitants are affected by the environmental impact of the industry, including those that work in it. We are not all affected equally depending on where we live and also on the generation we belong to. It is probable that future generations will be worse affected. If we consider that all humans are equal the loss to these workers’ livelihoods is less important to the global effect on human life, let alone the other lifeforms on the planet. In the same way, the negative health effects of the current meat consumption, upheld by government subsidies, are more morally significant because they affect more people in an way that is more or less equivalent to the job losses.

The other issue is more cultural. Traditional foods can be an important part of national or regional cultural identity. These dishes and foods often involve meat and dairy products. What is an English breakfast without bacon,a Christmas dinner without turkey, France without cheese? This can be taken into consideration. Cultural identity is important. However we argue that it is not as important as human continued survival on planet earth or our health. It is more complicated to compare with animal well-being. Stopping these governmental subsidies would not destroy a national or regional identity. It might weaken the importance of certain foods or dishes as part of this culture but this seems like a small price to pay for other benefits to reducing the weight of the meat and dairy industry on our planet.

What to do ?

This issue has many ethical implications that concern different aspects of human life, our environment and planet, our health, our culture and way of living as well as our work and livelihoods. It also, more obviously affects, animals in the way they are bred and raised, the suffering they endure and how their life is ended. Subsidies may not have constructed the current meat and dairy industry but it supports it and favours mass production and the continued mass consumption of these products as a part of normal life. They continue to support an industry which is not even sustainable on its own economically, let alone from an ecological perspective. This is based on old aims of ensuring food security in terms of quantity. In the EU or the US, this is simply no longer necessary or efficient.

These subsidies are worth questioning from an ethical standpoint and we believe that these ethical concerns should be relevant to government action. Whether or not you choose to factor in animal wellbeing, environmental and public health concerns are already well-established policy areas. Readjusting subsidies would change the incentives in the agricultural industry would still leave a certain amount of freedom in both production and consumption but would simply favour a more ethical and sustainable system which would benefit citizens’ health and their living environment.

It seems clear that changing the subsidy system is an ethical imperative. However, we do recognise that this has political implications. The agricultural industry has significant lobbying power and political clout. This makes elected officials hesitant to act. This does not diminish the ethical necessity of action but it is worth considering transition measures and complementary policies to ease this drastic change. Here are some policy ideas to consider:

  • Support smaller farmers

The bigger the company, the higher the tax should be (to a certain threshold). The smaller is the farm, the higher should be the subsidy (to a certain threshold also), so that you defend local agriculture as well as local traditions and processes, with, obviously, better regulations on animal protection — cows’ welfare in our case. This would help increase the quality of the products on offer

  • Subsidise the production of meat alternatives like vegetables high in calcium or pulses high in protein.

Environmental factors should be prioritised. Subsidies could allow farmers to produce more eco-friendly produce without increasing prices for consumers to an excessive degree.

  • Reform the education program in schools concerning a balanced diet to represent modern science and more diverse diets.

This does not necessarily mean promoting vegetarianism or veganism solely but by giving a balanced view of different diets, recognising that meat and dairy are not essential to our diets and presenting the negative consequences of our current meat and dairy consumption. This could help reduce the meat bias in our society.

  • Develop incentives and nudging on reducing meat and dairy products consumption

This may only be possible in public establishments such as school cantines.

  • Modify the subsidy structure gradually over several years

This could serve to ease the transition and in the meantime, alternative training could be offered to livestock farmers in order to accompany their transition into hopefully more sustainable agriculture.


[1] The Livestock, Environment and Development initiative, “Livestock’s long shadow, environmental issues and options”, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, 2006.

Friends of the Earth Europe, “Meat Atlas — facts and figures about what we eat”, Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, January 2014, 68 pages.