A Plant-Based Economy is a Thriving Economy
Thousands of years ago, early man’s currency was sheep, cows and goats, and the farming and consumption of animals has continued to shape our economy ever since. Today, however, we have come to see just how much economic damage modern animal agriculture actually causes. A diet based on animal products risks our health, weakens our workforce and costs the economy billions of dollars every year. Intensively rearing animals creates dangerous diseases and exacerbates antibiotic resistance, and this means a huge price tag, too. And as for the cost of dealing with climate change – of which, farming animals is a key driver – the price is truly eye-watering. Given the astronomical costs associated with meat, milk and eggs, is it time to transition to a plant-based economy?
Sick People, a Weakened Workforce
The consumption of animal products is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and some cancers. These are among America’s biggest killers.1 Not only do they cause terrible suffering and take our loved ones away from us prematurely, but they also cost our economy. And they cost it big.
About 92.1 million American adults are living with some form of cardiovascular disease (CDV) or the after-effects of stroke. Direct and indirect costs of total CDV and stroke are estimated to total more than $329.7 billion in both health expenditures and lost productivity.2
An estimated 23.4 million, or 9.1 percent, of American adults have diagnosed diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is lifestyle-related and accounts for 95 percent of all cases. The American Diabetes Association has estimated the total cost to the economy of diagnosed diabetes has risen to $327 billion in 2017 from $245 billion in 2012.3 Projections suggest that this devastating trend is set to rise and rise.4
As for obesity, the overall economic impact in the US is already immense. An October 2018 study by the Milken Institute states: ‘The impact of obesity and overweight on the U.S. economy has eclipsed $1.7 trillion, an amount equivalent to 9.3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.’5
We don’t have to accept this. We have the power to better care for ourselves and our loved ones, and help our economy soar simply by cutting animal products out of our diet. Vegans have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
The Cost of Safeguarding our Planet and our Children’s Future
Because animals are mass produced, often in appalling conditions, their defences are weakened, and bugs proliferate. Some of these – like swine flu, avian flu and SARS – can jump between species and can harm and even kill people. Such species-mobile diseases are called ‘zoonoses’. The 330 documented zoonotic events between 1940 and 2004 threatened economic development as well as lives. A report by the United Nations Environment Program estimates that emerging diseases have cost America more than a hundred billion dollars and had they become pandemics – i.e. spread farther and faster – they could have cost up to several trillion dollars.6
To try to combat these and other diseases that are rife inside factory farms, antibiotics are used all too frequently. Such overuse drives antibiotic resistance and leads to new highly dangerous superbugs emerging. Already, the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, a nonprofit that conducts research around the world on antibiotic resistance, estimates that antibiotic resistance has been responsible for upwards of $16 billion annually in extra costs to the U.S. healthcare system in recent years.7 As for the cost of discovering new and effective antibiotics, that’s a figure no one can calculate because we don’t even know if it is possible.
The farming of animals is also a leading driver of climate change, estimated by the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization to generate 14.5% of all man-made emissions.8 We are already seeing the impacts in record-breaking storms, raging forest fires, heat waves, rising waters, melting ice caps, and devastating floods. These events are increasing both in ferocity and frequency. In fact, the UN has warned that climate crisis disasters are already happening at the rate of one per week.9
The estimated cost of keeping global temperatures below the 1.5°C threshold needed to prevent climate breakdown is $0.5tn over the next 30 years.10 But if we exceed 1.5°C, which we will if urgent action is not taken by us all, what then? Well, then things get very serious. If there is a 3°C rise, scientists from Stanford University say this will cost the globe an additional 5-10 percent of GDP11 – that is tens of trillions of dollars.12
But, What About Farmers?
How will switching to plant-based foods impact our farmers, their jobs and their way of life?
There is good news here. The growing of fruits, vegetables, salads and herbs – is the most labor-intensive of all agricultural sectors13 and so switching from growing animals to growing vegetables will create thousands of jobs.
It will also better protect the soil and water supplies which, as we know, are the foundations of farming. Since we can get a lot more calories from a lot less land when we grow plant foods, we would need to use fewer chemicals to get the same amount of food, and that is better for soil quality and for biodiversity. Also as soil stores four times more carbon than trees, being able to leave more of it to nature will help our climate, too.14 And since the production of meat and milk uses a lot more water than plants require,15 switching to a plant-based diet helps protect water supplies and will ensure our farmers have sufficient supplies now and into the future. All great news for our farming community.
Already, many farmers – including Howard Lyman, a fourth-generation cattle farmer from Montana, Harold Brown, a beef and dairy farmer from Michigan, and Bob Comis, a pig and sheep farmer from New York state – have switched from growing animals to plants. And with so many more farmers now expressing an interest in making this change, The Rancher Advocacy Program was established to advise and support them.
The market is certainly changing. American consumers are drinking less cows’ milk but despite the decade-long downward trajectory,16 dairy farms continue to receive government support, which promotes further wasteful overproduction, and costs the taxpayer big. In 2015, the American government gave $22.2 billion dollars in direct and indirect subsidies to the US dairy sector alone.17
In 2018, dairy sales plummeted by $1.1bn18 and headlines proclaimed ‘America is Drowning in Milk Nobody Wants’.19 In contrast, the market for plant milks is growing rapidly, and is showing no signs of slowing.20 In the US, nearly half of all shoppers now add a plant milk to their baskets and globally, the industry is estimated to be worth $16bn.21
These new, healthy, sustainable plant foods offer great opportunities for our farmers and for our wider economy.
The Future of Business is Bright, The Future of Business is Plant-Based
Already, there is incredible innovation underway in the world of plant-based foods, and it is giving our economy a real shot in the arm.
Food scientists are examining animal products at the molecular level and sourcing plants with matching proteins and nutrients to create delicious plant-based meats, eggs, and dairy products. These are products that look and cook like their animal-derived versions but are created entirely from plants.
Business magnate Bill Gates has stated that ‘remaking meat is one sector of the food system that is ripe for innovation and growth’ and he’s absolutely right. The development – and sale – of these products is already reaping immense dividends. Just ten years after being founded, Beyond Meat was valued at $1.5bn,22 with 2019 described as a ‘blockbuster’ year.23 And while Wall Street believes that the plant-based protein industry, currently worth $14bn in the US, could grow to be worth $140bn within the next ten years,24 Beyond Meat is projecting it will be worth almost double that.25
Products like non-dairy milk, yogurts and cheeses, and faux eggs, meat and fish, make it easy for consumers to switch to plant-based foods. And millions are doing just that. A recent report by The Economist suggests that a quarter of 25- to 34-year-old Americans now say they are vegetarian or vegan,26 while one in three American households purchase plant milks27 and 12 percent of households purchase plant-based meat.28
The rapidly increasing demand for plant-based foods presents huge opportunities both for ambitious startups and established brands to diversify, expand and thrive.
These are exciting times. Not only are plant-based foods better for our health and our planet, it is clear that they’re great news for our economy, too. It’s what we call a win-win-win.
27 ‘State of the Industry Report: Plant-based Meat, Eggs and Dairy’, The Good Food Institute, June 2019