Uncle Sam, the Cheese Pusher

U.S. government demands more cheese on pizzas

More than 6,000 Pizza Hut restaurants are adding 25 percent more cheese to their pan pizzas. That’s 150 million pounds of extra milk for an even cheesier pie. And it comes with 300 million pounds of greenhouse gases, millions of acres of lost land, and 240 million pounds of extra animal manure, which leads to toxic runoff in our waterways and further air pollution.

We’re used to seeing cheese-stuffed cheese pizzas and cheesy-crusted cheese tacos. Americans love their cheese. But the alarming part of this queso-explosion is that it’s not all fueled by customer demand, but by a government “dairy checkoff” program.

Got Milk? You guessed it. All those milk mustaches are part of a program overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that producers are forced to pay into. These programs are marketing schemes to convince us what to eat — creating demand for products we don’t necessarily need or want.

Not all producers want to pay into these programs. And not all Americans want that extra-cheesy pizza.

The amount of dairy produced in the United States is so overwhelming that no one really knows what to do with it. So it’s dumped into new fast food products. It’s dumped into elementary schools, where milk is the leading contributor to food waste. (And nutrition experts have shown that children don’t need milk, as lots of us were led to believe.) The excess milk is even dumped in fields.

Each year, and every year for decades past, dairy producers comfortably produce far too much cheese, knowing the government will bail them out and buy the surplus. In 2016 alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $20 million taxpayer dollars to buy 11 million pounds of cheese that no one wanted.

Got Milk Facts? Get the details about dairy and environmental pollution here.

How much more dairy can the government push on us? And at what cost to the planet?

Big Dairy already adds nearly 95 billion pounds of greenhouse gases to our planet every year. Cattle also contribute methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period — methane makes up more than half of dairy production’s total emissions. Dairy cattle are responsible for 19 percent of the global water footprint of animal agriculture.

The cattle industry is also a leading factor in deforestation and overgrazing wildlands. This conversion and destruction of land represents a major threat to biodiversity and wildlife. The San Joaquin kit fox is one of the most endangered animals in California due to habitat loss and pesticide runoff from the many dairy facilities in the region. The southwestern willow flycatcher, a songbird, also has critical habitat in areas of the United States with high dairy-facility density.

Let’s let people choose for themselves. The market should dictate demand for food products, not government agencies. Unlike the artificial demand being created by the dairy checkoff, actual market demand has created exponential growth in plant-based cheese, yogurt and ice cream alternatives. Plant-based milks meanwhile have seen demand increase by 61 percent in the past five years.

If a company wants to make a cheesier pizza, so be it. But the USDA needs to get out of the marketplace and stop bailing out the biggest industry polluters. Instead, it should be making sure Americans are eating enough fruits and vegetables to meet the agency’s own dietary guidelines and promoting a sustainable food system that protects our air, land, water and health.