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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.

“I think a lot of the indignation stems from that. The challenge is to try and present information in ways that doesn’t cause that sort of response.”

The societal shift needs to be led by the medical community, which he says has been dismissive of the link between particularly red meat and noncommunicable diseases. “Whenever somebody tells me they’ve got a friend or relative who’s just been diagnosed with cancer, for example, I always ask, ‘And did their doctor recommend any dietary changes?’

“Usually, the answer is no. Sometimes it’s chicken.” He laughs.

“What we need is regular, mainstream, meat-eating doctors to tell their patients, if you’ve got heart disease or diabetes, you should be on a plant-based diet. And we’ll get there, I’m sure we will.”

He draws hope from an unlikely historical example: tobacco. “Seventy years ago, if you asked somebody if smoking was bad for them, they’d say, ‘Heck no, whenever I catch a cold, I smoke a cigarette and I feel better right away.’

“I just think we’re at that same place and we need to go through that evolution where we come to grips with the truth.”

It is less outlandish than it sounds, he says. “Exactly everything that I envision for meat has happened with tobacco.”

That backlash was led by doctors – GPs, not specialists – on the basis of their observations of patients. When the health risks of tobacco were recognised in the surgeon general’s report in 1964, about 42% of US adults were smokers compared with 15% today.

The industry rapidly lost credibility and influence, with Congress requiring that all cigarette packets display warning labels the following year. By 1970 all US states and territories had implemented cigarette taxes, and radio and television advertisements had been banned. Judges, previously cowed by the industry’s history of litigation, were empowered by policymakers to allow lawsuits against tobacco companies to proceed to trial.

The final blow came in 2004, when the government ended subsidies for tobacco farmers through its buyout program.

“I really do think if we could do it with tobacco it’s completely plausible that it could happen with meat,” Simon says. He is heartened by recent references – and in mainstream publications – to a “tax on meat”, his preferred solution for wrenching consumption back down to sustainable levels. Last year an Oxford University team calculated that surcharges of 40% on beef and 20% on milk would account for the damage their production causes people via climate change, while also improving health through reduced consumption.

There are signs the cultural shift is under way through initiatives such as “meatless Mondays”, which have been adopted in many US school districts. The impact of the so-called “reducetarian movement” on the industry may be negligible, but Simon says it is effective is in changing attitudes to make it more acceptable not to eat meat.

While it doesn’t matter to him how people come to vegetarianism or veganism, they’re more likely to stick to it if they’re motivated by ethical reasons, he says. “They’re much less likely to go, two or three years down the road, ‘You know what, I’m just not getting enough’ – fill in the blank – ‘iron, protein, calcium.’”

In the past Simon has “flirted with different diets”. Diagnosed with high cholesterol, he tried vegetarianism for a month or two; at another point he went on the Atkins diet. “Two completely different ends of the spectrum, but neither one really stuck.”

But with veganism motivated by animal rights, he says: “Once that switch clicked, I’ve never had any – well, I mean, I look at a steak sometimes and think that looks pretty good, but I’ve never had any desire to go back.”

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