The Cost of a Happier Chicken: Who Pays?

(Photo: SMcGarnigle)

Animal rights activists often oppose animal welfare reforms on the grounds that they make animal production more efficient. Rutgers professor Gary Francione argues this case convincingly, insisting that some “[w]elfare reforms make animal exploitation more profitable by eliminating practices that are economically vulnerable.” He adds, “For the most part, those changes would happen anyway and in the absence of animal welfare campaigns precisely because they do rectify inefficiencies in the production process.”  The point is compelling and controversial: welfare reforms–which so many consumers support–can make it easier for industrial agriculture to turn animals into food.

Improbably enough, industrial producers of animal products agree. As a justification for what concerned consumers perceive to be inhumane practices, factory farmers routinely insist that if they treated their animals poorly, production would decline. Thus, they conclude that consumers need not worry: the animals are doing just fine. Scott Dewald, Vice-President of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, explains, “Our producers take care of their animals, and we know that an animal that isn’t treated well doesn’t produce.”  Sherrie Niekamp, head of animal welfare for the National Pork Board, echoes this sentiment when she acknowledges that “Animal welfare is . . . a market driven issue.”

Putting aside the irony that there’s common ground between some animal rights advocates and factory farmers, it’s worth investigating what the available evidence has to say about this claim. Do improved animal welfare and increased productivity correlate? Is it in the economic interest of factory farmers to improve animal welfare? The answer appears to be “yes,” but only to point. Then, without doubt, it becomes “no.”  Definitively no.

Consider the case of laying hens and cages. In 2000, the United Egg Producers established voluntary welfare standards recommending that producers increase cage size from 48 to 76 square inches. Given that a typical bird needs 75 square inches to even stand up, this expansion can hardly be deemed a substantial welfare reform. Nonetheless, let’s assume that more space equals less stress, however nominal the reduction. Today, 80 percent of all eggs produced in the United States are under the UEP welfare label. The upshot, it turns out, is that egg productivity per hen increased. Thus it would seem, at first glance, that welfare improvements–at least with respect to eggs–indeed lead to a boost in production.

But the matter gets more complicated the more you bore into it. Most notably, while productivity per hen increased, overall productivity dropped. The decline was due to the fact that, with bigger cages, farmers with fixed barn space couldn’t cram as many hens into a single shed as they once could. Density of production, as one would suspect, pays. Commenting on this industry-initiated cage expansion, the agricultural economists F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk (whose superb book Compassion, by the Pound summarizes much of the literature on this topic) note how increased space has come at the “expense of farm productivity” and is more a reflection of “a real effort to improve animal welfare, and/or to protect the image of the egg industry” than a quest to boost profits.

Industrial operations don’t strike me as caring all that much about animal welfare, so the latter scenario seems more likely. Producers, aware that welfare reforms are costly, are only going to go far enough to convince welfare-concerned consumers that animals are being treated well. After all, when big producers embrace more serious welfare improvements–such as eliminating cages altogether and raising “cage free” birds–productivity doesn’t just dip, it plummets. 

Birds that are uncaged are often densely packed into barns, but they can move more freely and, in some cases, make it outside to really strut around. Movement means that a higher percentage of their feed supports their itinerancy rather than their egg production. Cage free hens, according to Lusk and Norwood, produce fewer eggs than their caged counterparts, die earlier, and have a mortality rate almost three times as high. Say what you will about the welfare benefits of birds not being in a cage, it’s anything but more efficient. For proof, just check out the price of your cage free or pastured eggs.

For now, then, I’ll tentatively conclude that animal welfare reforms don’t grease the wheels of efficiency so much as increase costs and make life more difficult for factory farms. But here’s an idea that has the potential to shift the nature of this whole debate: what if more space doesn’t, in fact, mean that animals are happier? What if this basic assumption is all wrong? I’ll explore this idea in my next post.

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  1. pedro says:

    I know there would be no common ground on a metric – but I think it would be an interesting academic discussion to propose a measure on effectiveness of the rights v welfare strategies – and then weigh them against each other. I doubt a rights person would even agree that conversion of individuals to veganism would be the appropriate metric, though using that measure I’d guess welfarists would have the upper hand. Not to mention that they’d also make incremental improvements in billions of lives.

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  2. Keith says:

    I can tell you without a doubt that you can see and hear the difference in stress levels in a hen that is roaming around a pasture versus one trapped in a cage. Yes, “free range” is less efficient. Which is more important, cheap food where the animal is reduced to nothing more than cogs in a wheel or allowing a chicken to express its intended natural behavior: scratching, foraging and dust bathing? Plus, when was the last time you compared cost per pound of your soda or snickers bar versus a dozen free range eggs? It’s not all that expensive.

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      “Which is more important, cheap food … or allowing a chicken to express its intended natural behavior…?”
      Cheap food is more important in some places, certainly. People trump other animals. That doesn’t take away from your point in a first world context, of course.

      Cost per pound is a bad metric for food; cost per unit of energy (e.g. Calorie or kilojoule) would make far more sense. I don’t buy many eggs, and I always buy the cheapest ones when I do; therefore I don’t know how much free range eggs cost. I’d do the calculations if I did. You should certainly be willing to do the research you suggest to others, though, right?

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      • Keith says:

        At an average cost of $1.5 per 2oz Snickers bar with 271 calories we get $0.006 / calorie.
        We charge $4.00 / dozen eggs at our farm and the USDA reports that large eggs are 864 calories per dozen. This gives us a cost of $0.005 / calorie. Our eggs are actually extra large and according to Mother Earth news actually have more nutrient density than most eggs (http://www.motherearthnews.com/eggs.aspx) so probably have more calories and definitely are more nutritious than a Snickers bar. We haven’t had our eggs sampled for nutrient quality so we can’t actually make any claims there beyond guessing that ours are similar to other pasture-raised suppliers.

        Now what about per pound? Snickers is $12 / lb. A dozen of our eggs are $2.67 per pound. Either way you look at it, it is still cheaper and more healthful to purchase eggs from a farm who raises animals in a manner more consistent with natural animal behavior.

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      • DanSanto says:

        Keith, I never thought I would see Snickers and eggs seriously compared in dollars per calorie. :-)

        However, your idea of an “average cost of $1.5 per 20z Snickers bar” is way way off. Most places have them for $0.50. Walmarts sell them for $0.45 per 2oz bar.

        Some places sell them for $0.60 to $0.75 per bar, but those are places like Lowes, Office Depot, etc. Not serious food sellers. Maybe some roadside cart sells them for $1 per bar, but I’ve never seen that. I can’t imagine what sort of situation would allow someone to sell them for $1.50 per bar. Whatever situation that might be, it is so far outside the norm that it shouldn’t be considered.

        Cut your price per bar to a third of your estimate. I guess that would make Snickers have a cost per calorie of $0.002/calorie compared to your farm’s eggs’ cost of $0.005/calorie.

        That said, you guys are insanely expensive for your eggs. I rarely see them in supermarkets for above $2.50 per dozen, and usually around $2 per dozen. Walmart sells them for somewhere between $1 and $1.50 per dozen.

        At $2/dozen, that would drop eggs’ cost per calorie to $0.0025.

        I think it’s one of the more ridiculous and useless ideas to compare cost per calorie between eggs and Snickers, and I can’t figure out what your point is (of course eggs are healthier than Snickers – DUH!), but let’s at least use real numbers.

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      • Seminymous Coward says:

        I appreciate your providing the egg pricing data. I’m afraid, however, that Snickers says their bars have 280 calories ( http://www.snickers.com/Nutritional-Info#Snickers ). Also, where do you buy your Snickers for $1.50? I’d suggest changing merchants, as that’s quite high. I’d estimate that the Snickers comes out a bit ahead on energy for cost, but eggs (in general) are certainly more nutritious.

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  3. Keith says:

    All comments and corrections taken into consideration the point is still valid and is that we should not complain about the “high” cost high quality food raised in an ethical manner when, if compared to most other industrial, processed, nutrient-deficient, food, comes out equal or ahead in cost. This doesn’t even count any other hidden costs at the food line like: environmental, health care, taxes via subsidies for grain, etc.

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    • Jim says:

      To keep this apples to apples how does the energy density or nutritional value of your ethical eggs compare to the eggs of factory farms? I would ask the same about the nutritional value comparison in actual meats between free-range and non free-range.

      My last question is in response to your first message regarding stress levels, would you be able to provide some background into A)the degree to which the stress is reduced and what measure is being used for chicken stress B) the impact on egg output and C) the impact on egg nutrition.

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      • Keith says:

        Good questions Jim. Regarding C) I cannot show you a scientific study proving anything, as most studies are funded by industry and industry would not want to fund a study showing you this. As I mentioned Mother Earth news sent egg samples from a variety of types of flocks and published the results: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/2007-10-01/Tests-Reveal-Healthier-Eggs.aspx. The graphics are compelling: http://www.motherearthnews.com/uploadedFiles/Eggs%20chart.pdf and http://www.motherearthnews.com/uploadedFiles/EggGraphic.pdf.

        This clearly shows that the eggs from chickens that are raised outside, on pasture, are much more nutrient dense. In some cases, over seven times more. This is a more fair, apples-to-apples comparison.

        Regarding A) I can only tell you what I have observed. We’ve raised chickens a couple of ways: 1. in a house with complete free access to a yard outside. Chickens sleep inside and go outside to eat, drink and scratch. 2. On pasture. Chickens live, sleep, eat and scratch outside. They have a shelter to live in but are moved to fresh pasture about once a week.

        I can tell when the chickens are “bored.” First off, the chickens raised inside tended to peck each others feathers to the point of bleeding. This is why, in caged operations they clip chickens beaks — so they don’t kill each other. Note that I said they “clip,” not “debeak”, as PETA would like you to believe. The chickens are bored and stressed and start having these behaviors that are not normal unless stressed. Many confined animals exhibit behaviors that are not normal for the same animal free ranging.
        My guess is that if someone wanted to do a scientific study in this you could measure some kind of hormone or chemical levels at different times of day in a control group and groups in different kinds of scenarios.

        Regarding B) as this article mentions the production (output) is lower in more free-ranging animals due to the animals 1.) expending energy moving 2.) expending energy keeping warm (if outside) and other factors like predator loss. I’ve measured our pasture-flock efficiency around 80-85% at peak times. Most caged flocks are probably closer to 95%. That means 95% of the chickens lay an egg a day. Breed also comes into play here a bit, but I’ll bet most pasture-producers don’t get above 85%.

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    • DanSanto says:

      Did you read our corrections? How do you get that your point is still valid?

      Even though you are comparing Snicker and eggs (ridiculous comparison) Snickers are less money per calorie than your eggs — by a factor of 2.5. (.2 cents per calorie for snickers vs .5 cents per calorie for your eggs)

      And then you said your eggs come out ahead in cost. How can you say that??

      Now, obviously Snickers are healthier, and the comparison is silly, so let’s look at something else.

      Eggs from the store, a generic brand (I picked some up over lunch, thinking of this article) cost me $1.79 for the dozen eggs, extra large, Grade A. Your eggs cost $4 per dozen – over twice as much.

      So, how is it that the ethically raised eggs come out ahead in cost? If you want to say your eggs are more nutritious, that’s one thing, but you seem to be saying they’re cheaper too. How can you say that??

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      • Keith says:

        DanSanto, In my correction I meant I was comparing your egg value $0.0025/calorie vs your snickers value $0.002/calorie. My point was that they were about equal but one is way more nutritious. You are right, it’s probably not the best example of my point though.

        I think the difference in cost between the grocery store eggs and ours can be accounted for by the factors I’ve mentioned:
        1. Nutritional differences
        2. Hidden health care costs
        3. Hidden environmental costs
        4. Hidden tax costs via subsidies
        And more:
        5. Farm Labor Pay — why shouldn’t farmers earn a white collar income?

        All that and the animals are not caged, stressed and living in their own manure. This last bit is what is hard to put into a cost spreadsheet and I think the point that this article is actually driving at.

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      • DanSanto says:

        Whoops, that should have been “obviously EGGS are healthier”. :-P

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      • Keith says:

        To be clear, DanSanto, I wanted to show that our eggs were cheaper per calorie and I was not able to, as you pointed out. They are however still cheaper per pound as said originally. :-D

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  4. DanSanto says:

    So the ethically raised food is more expensive (about twice as expensive in the case of eggs, and more than twice as expensive in the case of meats) but the savings comes when other factors are considered. Right?

    Let’s take a look at the numbers then.

    The average US family spends about $8513 in groceries per year. (not food – just groceries, since I figured that would be the best comparison with ethically raised foods) There are about 114 million families in the US. That’s about $970 bn spent on yearly groceries. Let’s say half of that is in meats, dairy, eggs, and other animal products – $485 billion.

    Double those costs if foods were to move to ethically raised food – an extra $485 billion.

    How much does the US spend in healthcare each year? In 2009, it was $2.5 trillion. Let’s say that eating the healthier groceries chopped off 5% of that – $125 billion.

    That’s still $360 billion more that ethically raised foods would cost.

    There is less than a third of a billion spent on dairy subsidies in the US. Let’s round it up to a full billion just to keep things even.

    That still leaves $359 billion more expenses for the ethically raised groceries.

    Environmental costs are pretty tricky to figure out, $359 billion is 31 times the budget of the EPA and National Park Service COMBINED.

    That’s a pretty phenomenal amount to be saving in environmental improvements.

    (and that’s not taking into account whether or not moving to ethically raised animals would have an overall environmental improvement or not – land use would increase over 5 times to raise an equivalent amount meat animals in open pasture compared to current farms)

    Then there’s the factor of what families would be giving up if they have $4000 less to spend each year because of food costs rising.

    It’s not an impossible thing to work with. Start giving some numbers to show whether or not the statement that ethically raised animals is actually cheaper than typical practice, even taking other factors like healthcare, subsidies, and environmental costs.

    There have been quite a few studies of the subject put out by universities (not just farm businesses who obviously have a vested interest in the matter), and almost universally they show that moving to open-range animal farms would be dramatically more expensive, even with other factors taken into account.

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  5. GLK says:

    The headline should read, “The Cost of a Happier PETA, Who Pays?”

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  6. Tom says:

    This had to be written by an urbanite. as no one who has familiarity raising chickens would try to argue that they are happier in confined pens than out in the grass eating bugs. What is wrong with pastured eggs costing more, they’re more nutritious. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians. and they were not intended to be stuffed with corn and hormones and exposed to light all day long to make them lay more eggs – and die faster. What’s wrong with paying for quality? And if quality food costs a little more, what’s the damage to the average family? We buy a little less plastic crap made in China?

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    • Jim says:

      ” Cage free hens, according to Lusk and Norwood, produce fewer eggs than their caged counterparts, die earlier, and have a mortality rate almost three times as high.” ~From the Article…so the die faster statement you made is at the very least rebutted by the article. If you would like to present a researched counter argument that would really help more than moralizing.

      As to the nutrition, other than references to mother earth news by Keith I haven’t seen any peer reviewed research indicating that pastured eggs are inherently more nutritious.

      I also find it very interesting that on an economics blog you state “What’s wrong with paying for quality? And if quality food costs a little more, what’s the damage to the average family? We buy a little less plastic crap made in China?” When almost everything on here is a look at how people try and maximize utility/the incentives that drive peoples decisions, etc. If you want a more ethical chicken it needs to provide either a large increase in utility or not be more expensive.

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      • Dre says:

        I think Tom was basing his claim on a very basic understanding of animal welfare: If the animal is allowed to live its life in similar conditions to the ones it evolved in in nature, that is considered humane. Why? Because than the instincts driving the behavior of the animal will be in a surrounding where they are utilized by the chicken. E.g. the chicken has evolved legs to walk on. If you constrain it to the crouching position it becomes an invalid, and most likely experiences pain in the muscles which are atrophied but occasionally moved. There is no morality for chickens, as their self-consciousness is low, but it is easy to define a more or less “appropriate environment” for the animal, given the body and brain the animal has.

        Beside nutrition, there are also chemical composition and flavor. These can be equally important. Large-scale industrial farming of eggs frequently means that also the feed of the chicken is ‘optimized’. It is not so hard to spot difference in flavor, and to imagine various harmful chemicals that are introduced into the egg due to this. One simple example is the distinctive smell of chicken meat produced in such highly cost-efficient farms: it smells of fish (probably due to fish flour used in the feed), as well as having heavy ‘farm’ (read: manure) overtones. The meat is also more watery, etc.

        To come to your last point, it seems to me that the questions of “more ethical chicken needs to provide either a large increase in utility or not be more expensive” are heavily biased and can easily be misguided. How can a single measure, a single metric — the cost efficiency of a single quantity (e.g. utility=calorie)— define such a complex thing as human food growth and consumption? It is clearly not a proper in-depth scientific analysis, and can be heavily biased to support ideology (i.e. what are you choosing to maximize? Why do you think that choice is the ‘ethical’ choice?)

        I can demonstrate this easily — if you want to maximize utility defined to be calorie, then forget eggs and chickens and feed humans Snickers bars (just a valid example) — clearly a pathological limit of such simplified analysis. If you want to maximize some combination of nutrition, calorie and cost, then which combination? It is obvious that there are many possible choices and therefore different solutions. The market speaks: there is a range of choices and solutions — poor people need the cheapest possible calories which at least resemble the flavor and texture of the original food, while more well-off people prefer to buy expensive food which has not been altered by industrialization. By your definition, it is all equally ethical, because different consumers seek to maximize different definitions of the word ‘utility’.

        I strongly object to the notion that cost-efficiency is the only parameter in this complex problem that needs to be maximized in the analysis. The relatively free market supports that conclusion, because consumers do pay more to get something that is less cost-efficient but more flavorful. Are these consumers behaving unethically? Or is your definition of ethical food way too simple?

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      • Jim says:

        Dre, I never mention anything about ethics in my comment I was mostly trying to emphasize that the post was mostly lacking in any support for the statements that were made and it was more of an emotional appeal then a researched argument. In fact the quoted segment is directly rebutted in the article above regarding the length of life for caged vs. cage free.

        Flavor is a subjective metric and as such I can’t say whether you are right or wrong and even doing a blind taste study would only give us a consensus opinion not any hard facts on flavor. As to “imagining” harmful chemicals I would be more comfortable if you had some literature on what these chemicals may be and what effects they are having on people.

        Finally my last point was merely emphasizing that Tom was saying that people should buy less cheap plastic stuff and pony up the extra money for cage free eggs because that maximizes his personal utility but it may not maximize someone else’s utility. Utility in this point is not limited to nutrition/calories but all the reasons that we use when buying something. Typically for someone to spend more on something there needs to be more perceived utility and in Tom’s case that could be supporting the cage-free movement through his purchasing. Not everyone feels that way and as such they won’t pay more if there isn’t an increase in personal perceived utility.

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      • Dre says:

        Hi Jim, sorry if I misunderstood your sentence “If you want a more ethical chicken it needs to provide either a large increase in utility or not be more expensive.” It seemed to me you are equating ethical food with either low cost (which I disagree with) or ‘utility’ (which I think is too vague to be useful). What did you mean?

        You are right that data can support or reject the biological harmfulness/benefit of food, and also that flavor preference is a subjective matter. Both of these properties however I just mentioned to emphasize that defining ‘utility’ of food is multidimensional, complex, and even ideological. Basically, it is up to the consumer to define what is acceptable or needed, and up to consumer+government_of_by_and_for_the_consumers to decide what is to be maximized. By all the comments and the article itself, which sound like they are lambasting loss of efficiency, I am pushed to offer this question: Is it more important to achieve cost-efficiency (=a higher overall money balance for the entire society) than it is to be able to offer people to enjoy what they prefer in life (=have less money but can buy expensive natural food)?

        The point of this article should be, in my eyes, “who pays, for what”. The scientifically (economically) relevant question here should be what QUALITY of food (calorie, nutrition, flavor, safety) can be produced, at which PRICE, with what EFFICIENCY, under what CONDITIONS for the animal. IF the consumer is informed about these factors, he/she makes a personal choice, and voila, the market develops. The real problem is *lack* of use of correct and complete information by the consumer (due to a plethora of factors).

        The producer on the other hand seeks profit, usually at the *expense* of at least three of those factors. This article points out that there is a small part of parameter space where the profit goes *together* with the factor of increased natural conditions for chickens. However, this point is quite trivial, as it is obvious that crushing an animal in a cage has to, at some degree of crushing, impair its biological functions. But that’s fine.

        Annoyingly (for me), this discussion degenerates into a biased and simplified one, where people (well, economists, I guess:)) try to focus on cost-efficiency, e.g. the article itself even scoffs “…it’s anything but more efficient. For proof, just check out the price of your cage free or pastured eggs.” DUH! Balancing dollar bills is just a tiny aspect of this story, *because* quality of food is so quintessential, personal, and entangled with ethical principles of humans. Why should we exclusively seek to maximize cost-efficiency in this context?

        To add insult to injury, common sense is completely violated by the suggestion that ‘happiness’ of caged and free animals should be actually studied. Of course, I could find a dozen of simplified, useless, un-insightful and biased metrics according to which animals should beg us to be crammed into darkness and iron cages. But an elementary, logical, fundamental understanding (both by a child or adult), especially of anyone who touched a living animal, immediately makes us recognize such approaches as deluded and self-important, simply a wasteful over-production of quasi-scientific arguments.

        To give a clear illustration: animals are not moral beings, but still they experience physical pain and have enough consciousness to ‘like’ (indulge in) or ‘fear’ (run away from) things, based on their natural instinct, biological setup. Therefore, it should be common sense to understand that pushing a living being into a crouching position is less desirable to that being’s biological body and bodily functions than letting it roam free. It is also clear that if the animal roams, it is exposed to the natural environment, where it is at risk of death or injury by natural causes (‘natural’=the way it has been for that animal as its organism evolved). That is exactly what that animal was shaped for, walking, eating , reproducing and dying. It was NOT shaped by nature for “living a long life”, while isolated, let alone a crouching blind invalid. So, “length of life” is a prime example of a metric that is obviously a misguided, idle, pointless choice of a ‘number’ that can ‘count’ something that only common sense can define: the welfare of animal with limited consciousness. Insisting on such inane analysis is a misguided abuse of the scientific method, isn’t it?

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  7. jake3_14 says:

    This whole productivity argument is a strawman. The reasons for pasturing chickens is to (a) make them and their eggs taste better and have higher nutrient density, (b) have them perform their role in integrated pasture management, i.e., better quality land for raising grass-fed cows, reduced pollution from raising livestock, and non-toxic pest control, and (c) create a luxury good. Nowhere in this scenario is productivity a consideration.

    If traditional practices are more costly per animal, what of it? There’s a viable and profitable market segment for those wealthy enough to afford premium poultry and eggs. Why isn’t the author content with normal market segmentation?

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  8. Keith says:

    DanSanto, your numbers are all great. There are problems though. The diary industry is not the only ag industry getting subsidized. Corn, wheat, and more. Also, who do you think funds university studies? It’s not the student’s tuition. Also, how much of that $8000+ budget for groceries do you think a) goes to waste and b) could be more nutritionally dense. I think that my grass fed beef could spin circles around any grain fed beef I you compare on regards to cost if you get rid of the grain subsidy. You might be surprised how much more efficient biological systems are in the long run than chemical and synthetic systems. Our current system is all about short term gain in quantity over long term quality and health. It’s so sad.

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    • DanSanto says:

      Keith, fine, let’s toss ALL the agricultural subsidies in (regardless of the fact that only a fraction impacts the cost of animal products). All agricultural subsidies put together total up to about $20 billion per year. Still just a drop in the bucket, still leaving the cost of ethical animal food rising by $340 billion dollars per year over the cost of typical animal food products.

      So, your idea that the cost of your grass fed beef being way cheaper than the grain fed beef if subsidies were removed is just plain false.

      The claim that agri-business has secretly corrupted the thousands of independent people writing hundreds of papers across decades – all to generate FALSE papers by universities, economists, doctoral candidates, government research groups, and independent research groups.

      That’s conspiracy theory cuckoo land.

      And now you’re suggesting that people also need to drastically change their eating/purchasing habits to make ethically raised food comparable by only eliminating waste when using ethically raised food. That’s nonsense. The whole point is to compare like to like.

      When comparing the cost of ethically produced animal products to typical animal products, you need to keep things like wasted food the same. You can’t say that only the cost of wasted food from typically raised animals counts, but not for ethically raised animals.

      And again, we aren’t comparing nutritional value here, but just the cost of the food. I’ll not contest that organic milk, meat, eggs, etc are healthier, but that doesn’t change the cost.

      By EVERY measure, taking absolutely everything you have suggested, ethically raised animal products are dramatically more expensive than the industrial farm version.

      If you disagree, find some numbers that support your position.

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