Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Factory Farming and Health Care

This interview with Michael Pollan from The Daily Show reminded me of a post I meant to write before the holidays, following up on my last post about health care reform, but never got around to it. In it Pollan makes the argument that the reforms of the bill will make it so that insurance companies become more interested in your health, because future profits will come from that, not from figuring out more ways to deny you care or not even let you have insurance in the first place. In this, Pollan foresees a possible near future where big agriculture (mostly big corn) is taken on by big health insurance. And if you look at the lobbying of these organizations, it is pretty profound. The farm lobby donated $65 million during the 2008 election cycle, health care came in at $167 million, the second largest lobby organization around (the largest you ask? Why, that'd be finance with an easy win at $475 million). Now Pollan is mostly talking about things like high fructose corn syrup, which is certainly bad for you, but cheap sweetners have nothing on cheap animal products for our collective health.

One almost doesn't know where to begin. Well, at minimum diets high in animal products are the number one causes behind heart diseases, cancers, and strokes. It is also estimated that there are 76 million cases of food borne illnesses a year in America, almost all of which are caused by factory farming. Furthermore working in a slaughterhouse is still the number one profession for on job injuries, including the number one cause of chronic injuries. None of this covers the severe and often chronic conditions that the pollutions from factory farms give to the people that work on them and live around them. To give one example, children raised next to factory farms have asthma rates exceeding 50 percent, and children raised near factory farms are still twice as likely to get asthma as other children. Meanwhile factory farms basically serve as laboratories for ever deadlier flus and bacteria infections while at the same time destroying the ability of medicines to effectively treat those viruses and infections through use of antibiotics for non-medicinal purposes.

Health care costs are rising faster than the GDP in most countries, particularly fast in the US. There are lots of reasons for this; pay for service systems, an increased technological medicine, the costs of medical schools and the high costs of physician payments, the intense costs of end of life care, etc; but one of the reasons is we are simply sicker. You can not give a fuck about the lives and well-being of other animals, and still realize that we absolutely have to take a stand against factory farming. There are absurdly high costs to cheap meat and cheap animal products. People are getting sick, people are dying, we are destroying the planet, and bankrupting the country so someone can get a cheeseburger for two bucks (or however much they cost). We could do more for health care and national health care cost control than the most liberal utopian single-payer system if tomorrow we banned factory farms. Hell, even if we just effectively regulated them and stopped the government subsidies.

The health care bill that is coming out means that some of those externalized costs by factory farms get paid collectively. It means that not only insurance companies, but to some degree all of us become slightly more invested in the health and well-being of each other. In a rational world that would probably mean we turn against factory farming, but in the world we live in it will probably mean more broadsides against cheap sugar rather than against cheap meat (not that it's an either/or situation).