The Meaning of Meat

by D. R. Hildebrand

Whenever possible, I avoid buying food at airports.  Earlier this month though, I was in a bind, saw a Qdoba, and decided to make an exception.  I got the rice, the beans, the roasted veggies, and said no to the meat, cheese, and sour cream, and at the end of the line asked for guacamole.  Apparently, when one orders certain vegetables and not others, the guacamole is not included—irrespective of the fact that no meat, no cheese, and no sour cream are part of the meal.

I told the manager I could have ordered a chicken burrito for the same price as a vegetarian one, or a beef burrito for thirty cents more; but asking for guacamole without any of the meat or dairy and it cost me more than all of them combined.  He looked at me like I had just informed him that water is wet and said, “Yeah, that’s right.”  Dumbfounded and annoyed, I asked him what, then, was the meaning of meat, and took my money elsewhere.

Not long before this I was out at a low-key restaurant in Brooklyn and I ordered a veggie burger.  The bill came and my friends and I passed it around, seeing what each of us owed, and I realized their meat burgers were priced the same as my veggie burger.  When the server returned I asked if there was a mistake.  She said no.  I asked her how that could be.  She said my veggie burger had come with a homemade sauce.  I cocked my head and raised a brow and she said, “Look, we’re not exactly serving high-quality meat here.”

Clearly!  Still, the answer begs the question—not just of this one restaurant or of Qdoba alone, but of numerous establishments—what are you serving?  And more so, what is it really worth?

Image by Christopher Rogers
Image by Christopher Rogers

Attempting to comprehend the true cost of meat is all but futile.  The numbers are astronomical and in some cases incalculable.  We can, however, certainly consider these expenses by name and surmise the respective price tags they carry.  Just addressing something as basic as land use, the United Nations Environmental Program reported in 2010 that 38% of all land is assigned either to growing livestock or food for livestock.  Growing and transporting billions of animals, and their food, comes at a cost, not to mention the gobs of fertilizer and the 90% of all pesticides they exploit.  Then, after years of fattening these animals they have to be transported once again.  Then they have to be slaughtered.  Then they have to be cut.  Then they have to be cleaned and inspected and packaged, and transported yet again.  Countless employees must be compensated.  Throughout the entire, cumbersome process, all 215 million tons of meat we consume annually must be kept refrigerated or even frozen.  Merely striving to prevent the epidemics we foresee from this system, we spend additional billions of dollars—then many billions more when it fails.  None of this even approaches the more abstract, unseen costs of deforestation, water pollution, waste management, or the 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions generated by such a monstrous, inefficient, inconceivably expensive industry.


Nevertheless, one little dollop of guacamole in my burrito costs me an extra fifty cents.

Because, aside from the taxpayers in New Zealand where as far back as 1984 the government recognized the ills of environmental degradation, mass overproduction, and inflated land prices, we pay for it all.  Vegan or omnivore, as long as we pay taxes we subsidize the entire process.

In the United States we grant an average of $20 billion per year to the meat and dairy industries.  Of all food-related subsidies, two-thirds goes to animals destined for slaughter, one-fourth goes to humans for direct consumption, and not one penny goes to the growing of fruits or vegetables.  The system is so antiquated and uneconomical that today three-quarters of these direct subsidies go to the top 10% of commodity-crops owners, even while the original intent of such 1920s bills was to keep small family farms, not mega corporations, from going out of business.

In a rational world we wouldn’t subsidize such a ruinous industry, but tax it.  If we desire meat as much as we think we do, having it should come not at a discount, not generously and freely, but with a levy, just as with alcohol, with cigarettes, and with airfare—and ideally one day oil.  The proposal might sound absurd but if, for example, we were offered a vodka-and-orange juice for the same price as an orange juice alone would we not question the vodka?  Or if we flew and never paid taxes for the flights would we not wonder how things like infrastructure, inspections, basic maintenance, and security were all financed?  None of this is at all different than a burrito or a burger.  Transporting, mutilating, housing, injecting, feeding, killing, cutting, cleaning, packaging, freezing, and distributing an animal comes at a cost.  Given away, it is meaningless.

Written by D. R. Hildebrand

David, who models under his middle name, Raphael, is represented by New York Models. His first book, Walking Marina, is an exposé of the male modeling industry, and is a commentary on beauty. David’s websiteFollow David on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Lauryn

    Exceptional post. I’ve had a similar experience at local restaurants here in Metro Detroit. I recently ordered a portabello burger and asked for hummus in place of mayo and was charged extra. Bacon, however, could be added for free, according to the menu. I mentioned my confusion to the waitress and they removed the extra charge from my bill, but I was fully prepared to have a heated conversation about the value of beans and tahini vs. pig flesh with the owner.

  • Mykel Monroe

    Great article. Keep in mind that sickness is big business.

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      Mykel, very true. You’re entirely correct.

  • Jay Jee

    All I see in this article is whining. You made that decision alone to live that lifestyle. Knowing there are minimal vegan options out there, you should have brown bagged it. Such an entitled attitude…

  • butro78

    yes, great article. maybe someday the animal ag subsidies will go away. hopefully some really wise veggie people will choose to run for office someday. if only clinton would have been in office when he woke up to veganism…

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      I think this is a campaign we need to initiate. I’m not sure how exactly, but at a very minimum we need to heighten awareness. Certainly, having some influential politicians on our side wouldn’t hurt but I wouldn’t rely on them to do anything educated or even logical without a massive dose of encouragement.

      • Mykel Monroe

        Take to the streets my friend with a megaphone in hand. There is an analogy that I use all time in referencing these kind of issues. It has to do with two beakers of water, some heat, and a frog. Throw a frog in boiling hot water he will jump out because it hurts him. But if you put a frog in room temperature water and raise it to boiling he will stay and die.

  • Debbie

    Chipotle is like this too. A veggie bowl is the same as chicken. Makes absolutely no sense….

    • John

      Although, at Chipotle, if you go the veggie option the guac does not cost extra.

  • Jeff Ridabock

    Vegan Options? Fuck that. Support 100% vegan establishments and tell your omni “friends” to suck it up. Screw options.

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      Jeff, you’re certainly free to support strictly vegan establishments, but sometimes you might find it edifying to step out of the vegan shell and be reminded of the reality that persists.

    • Eve

      I love that attitude. They can eat what I eat, I cannot eat what they eat [because I have a soul].

    • Jack

      Don’t be an entitled, elitist prick. Open your eyes to the fact that meat-eating isn’t going away. I’m veg too, that doesn’t mean I’m going to disavow anyone who doesn’t agree.

    • NicholeD

      That is really not a practical option for most people. These kinds of comments widen the “us vs them” gap, which is completely counterproductive to real change. Having vegan options at omni establishments goes a long way to normalizing veganism, which should be our first and most critical goal.