Ubuntu | Thoughts | The true cost of meat

The real cost of cheap meat

The real cost of cheap meat

Ubuntu Thoughts  /  Article  /  4 min read
December 5, 2022
Ubuntu | Thoughts | The true cost of meat
Ubuntu | Simon Lodge, Founder & Chief of Sustainability
Simon Lodge
Founder & Strategic Creative Director
I think it’s fair to say that a dominant belief of our time is that low prices are good, and high prices are bad.
Expensive commodities are bad, inflation is bad — really anything that is expensive is bad. And that view has credit: low prices can (and are) often an issue of social justice. Low prices are how the things we want and need aren’t just reserved for the rich.

But low prices have to be real prices. We’ve put a lot of energy, money, research, and policy into making the prices of food low, and particularly meat, and it has worked very well. About 50 years ago, chicken cost around 60p a kilo — at today’s rate, that’s around £13.50 a kilo. But go to the supermarket, and that’s not what a kilo of chicken breasts costs today; it's as low as £5.35 a kilo, and the same is true for ground beef.

These is a huge price fall, and as you’d expect, we eat much much more meat because of it.

So I want to make a very unpopular argument here: meat is too cheap. The prices we pay are "fake", and in being fake, they are shaping our whole system and relationship with the environment, with animals and with ourselves.

In capitalism, a price is a miraculous thing, it’s a store of information. It converts the cost of something — what it requires to get the materials, to pay the labour, the factories that had to build it, and so on — all into one shiny number so people can make decisions, and the whole system can remain in a balance.

But that only works if the price includes all the relevant costs — providing costs aren't being hidden, or paid for by someone — or something — else. When that happens, in economics we call it an ‘externality’ — things that prices should include but don’t that keep us from making the decisions we would be making if the price was working as it was supposed to.

And meat is full of externalities. We’ve made meat cheap by offloading it’s cost onto animals, onto the environment, and onto each other.

This isn't just about animal suffering alone — although that is part of the story. It's about human suffering too. It's not about why you shouldn't eat meat (I'm among those who believe there are pretty ethical ways you can eat meat) but it is about why meat should cost what it actually costs, and the ways that might make our relationship to the animals we eat and the world that we live in a little bit healthier.

There are so many different aspects of the system to think about: what the animals are undergoing, what farmers are going through, what is happening to the communities that live alongside industrial animal operations, and much more. We need to have a panoramic view of what it costs to get meat to our plate.

This isn't always a fun conversation, but it's arguably one of the more import ones. It's one of those things that, no matter what you eat, everyone should know, as a lot of money and power is expended to make sure that we aren't aware, or that if we are, we can't do anything about it.

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