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Pigging Out

His case failing on the merits, a friend recently reduced his argument for open borders to four words: “I like cheap meat.” Most Americans do: in 1970, we spent an average of 4.2 percent of our incomes to buy 194 pounds of meat. In 2005, we spent 2.1 percent to buy 221 pounds. Recent trends in food costs may alter that pattern, but we’re still likely to demand massive quantities at moderate prices. Crudités platters don’t find as natural a toehold in the American psyche.

The Right seems to have an unusual attachment to ribeyes—perhaps in reaction to the Left’s yen for eulogizing lab rats and arguing for the unalienable rights of owls. But our counter to that prissiness has been callousness sufficient to anesthetize us to the means by which we’ve secured this supply of cheap meat. Maybe the idea of chickens with their beaks ground off or pigs that die without seeing daylight comes too close to lefty anthropomorphization to evoke red-state pity. But doesn’t the notion of independently owned, small-scale, locally diversified farms being gobbled by huge conglomerates offend some traditionalist sensibility? Add federal support—major collusion between government and powerful agricultural interests—and tell me again where endless veal figures into the conservative creed.

But take all of that off the table for the moment. A new report [1] by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health finds that apart from the moral objections, the local ramifications, and the nutritional concerns about factory farming, even the economies-of-scale arguments used to justify it don’t hold up. Overuse of antibiotics breeds super-bacteria with grave human consequences and attendant healthcare costs. And environmental degradation from these concentrated operations is so severe that it’s costing the federal government $100 million a year to keep pace with the damage. Local water supplies are being contaminated. Workers and neighbors are becoming ill from airborne toxins. Moreover, in an age of rapidly rising energy costs, shipping food from enormous centers makes less and less sense.

But most of us would prefer to not think about it, even as we participate—one, two, three times a day. We like cheap meat. And we don’t care what that makes us.