Meat is not healthy, government subsidies force us to keep eating

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The World Health Organization (WHO) report released on Monday should give pause to everyone on campus with a dining plan. From Resnik to the Underground, red and processed meats are ubiquitous, and the recent WHO report ties these foods to an increased risk for several types of cancer. The report ties the daily consumption of at least 50 grams of processed meat to an 18 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Campus is not the only place where such processed meat is in abundance and even excess. In 2012, the average American consumed 54 grams of processed meat per day, putting her at an elevated risk. This report highlights the need for change in how Americans think about and use meat, as well as how the government subsidizes the meat industry.

First, let’s break the report down: It’s written by the International Agency of Research into Cancer (IARC), the branch of the WHO that specializes in cancer research. The IARC classifies correlates for cancer into five groups: carcinogenic, probable carcinogenic, possible carcinogenic, unclassifiable, and probably not carcinogenic. To be classified as carcinogenic, a substance must be proven to cause cancer in human subjects, while a probable carcinogenic substance only requires strong support in animal test groups.

The report placed processed meat in the carcinogenic group and red meat in the probable carcinogenic group. It also announced the 18 percent increase in risk tied to processed meats and tied 34,000 cancer deaths per year to processed meat consumption. Most people know that hot dogs aren’t a health food, but the category of processed meat includes anything that has been salted, cured, fermented, or otherwise altered. This translates to sausages, bacon, jerky, lunch-meats, and more.

Americans eat almost three times more meat than the global average, and much of that is either red or processed. One of the reasons Americans eat so much more meat is that it’s amazingly cheap and plentiful in this country. Meat prices should be through the roof with the high demand, but farm subsidies help keep the cost down.

The United States Department of Agriculture spends around $20 billion annually on agricultural subsidies. The vast majority of that money goes to corn and soy. These crops are integral to many people’s diets — us vegetarians are practically made of tofu — but most of the yield goes to meat. In 2014, 5.3 billion bushels of corn went to animal feed, compared to the 1.4 billion that went directly to humans. The government is practically picking up the tab for the meat industry.

In contrast, fruit and vegetable farmers get almost no support. Specialty crops, defined by the Department of Agriculture as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops,” are actually ineligible for both of the major subsidy programs. Without government support, produce is significantly more expensive to grow and therefore to buy. The farm subsidy system locks Americans into a strange parallel universe from most of the world by making meat is the cheaper alternative.

The WHO report is just another voice in the chorus proclaiming the detrimental affects of high-meat diets. The American Cancer Society has long touted the benefits of limiting processed meat. Even the American government itself has admitted that it is important to eat a diet skewed away from meat, recommending a healthy meal that’s half fruit and veggies and one-fifth meat.

Yet even while paying lip service to the medical community, the government continues to economically promote excessive meat consumption. The WHO report should serve as a reminder that the farm subsidy program needs to be reevaluated if America wants a healthier population.

What does this all mean for us on campus? There’s an idea in American culture that a meal is not complete without a meat component, but the science is showing that that might not be the best idea. So next time you’re ordering pancakes at the Carnegie Mellon Café, maybe opt for the veggie sausage as a side — I promise it doesn’t bite.