Meatonomics' David Robinson Simon: 'Everything I envision for meat has happened with tobacco

David Robinson Simon’s latest colonoscopy was carried out at a major hospital in southern California by the head of its gastroenterology department. “I said something like, ‘I hope you don’t find any polyps, because I’m a vegan, so I shouldn’t be at risk,’” Simon says. “He said, ‘Ah, that’s a bunch of nonsense.’”

As Simon tells me this anecdote, 27 minutes into our interview, a new twist on the old joke crosses my mind: How do you know if someone is vegan? They’ll tell you … as you’re about to give them a colonoscopy.

It’s a cliche but the mainstream perception of people who voluntarily avoid animal products is that they’re smug and earnest – and out to recruit anyone who’ll listen. The persistence of the stereotype is testament to our attachment to eating meat, even as the arguments against doing so apparently pile up.

In his book Meatonomics, about the unseen economic drivers of the meat industry, Simon set out to make a new case for the head, to supplement the existing ones for the heart.

“The traditional three arguments in this field are around health, ethics and the environment – I just wanted to have a fourth perspective, which was economics,” he says. “If I can reach people through another set of arguments they may not have heard before then there’s just one other way to open the door.”

The figures Simon puts forward are so big as to defy comprehension: he says the externalised cost of America’s animal food system is US$414bn annually. Three-quarters of that is expenditure on healthcare relating to the “epidemics” of obesity, diabetes and heart disease that Simon says are driven by high rates of consumption of meat and dairy.

But as much as Simon sought with Meatonomics to make the case against eating animals with numbers alone, he admits it was “somewhat challenging” to prioritise that perspective over another that is well known and widely ignored: that animals raised for consumption undergo extreme suffering.

References to the structural cruelty of the animal food industry were cut from the book at the insistence of Simon’s publisher. “I think ‘sentimental’ was the word they used,” he says. (These paragraphs, on the “debasement” of animals in industrial meat production systems, subsequently appeared on his website under the heading: “Reprinted with appropriate sentimentality.”)

Simon is not an economist but a lawyer, whose day job is a general counsel for a healthcare company. He is closing in on his 10th year as a vegan after watching a HBO documentary called I Am an Animal about Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder of Peta, that sent him down an online rabbit hole of animal rights videos.

“Literally that night, I took all the animal foods out of my refrigerator,” he says. “I just transitioned overnight. I went from eating bacon double cheeseburgers at fast-food restaurants to eating vegan bacon double cheeseburgers.”

He is among a minority: in the US, an estimated 5% of people are vegan, vegetarian or pescetarian. The rest continue to eat meat in vast and increasing quantities. A 2015 report by the Chatham House think-tank found global consumption was already at unhealthy levels and set to rise by more than 75% by 2050. Later OECD figures say global meat production was projected to be 16% higher in 2025 than in 2013-15.

Consumption has skyrocketed because, Simon says, of the system of government subsidies, legislation and regulation he outlines in Meatonomics that allows animal food producers to keep output high and retail prices artificially low. If the industry were forced to cover its total costs, instead of imposing them on taxpayers, animals and the environment, a US$4 Big Mac would cost about $11, he says.

Though his argument in the book is specific to the US, the mechanics are broadly true for other countries, including Australia, which Simon visited in May on a lecture tour organised by the animal rights charity Voiceless. But outside of animal rights advocacy communities, he says Meatonomics has been perceived as “just another vegan diatribe” – and he hasn’t received any response from producers at all.

“More likely, it’s on their radar but they think that by not calling attention to it it’s less likely to get airtime than if they do address it.”

Part of omnivores’ resistance stems from the perception that vegans are out to control their behaviour: even vegetarianism is still seen as an agenda, despite empirical evidence of its benefits. “When people tell you things like ‘that burger means a cow spent her life in misery’, there is a sense that ‘how dare you tell me what I am allowed to eat or do, this is a free country’,” Simon says.