“You don’t have to be a vegan to be repulsed” by what’s going on at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center the New York Times recently wrote. You needn’t be a vegan to be repulsed by what it’s doing to our country’s health, either.

The taxpayer-funded center says that the U.S. consumer benefits from its experiments. But no one should be duped into this believing this. Meat—any meat—costs lives. It promotes intolerable suffering and disease—not only among animals, but also for many Americans by raising their risk of heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, and early death.

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It costs millions, too, and not just the center’s $22 million budget. Just last month, the Physicians Committee helped stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to increase beef promotion through a program that would have spent $80 million in beef ads and marketing. It was a big victory in the fight against heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases caused by meat consumption.

Despite this win and others, we will all probably spend our lives paying the staggering healthcare costs for America’s meat habit. Americans spent $21.3 billion on cholesterol-lowering medications in 2010. (Dietary cholesterol is only found in meat and other animal products.) Eating meat is also linked to obesity, diabetes, and cancer, which cost us $210 billion, $245 billion, and $216 billion per year, respectively.

The Earth also pays a massive toll. A study published earlier this year found that livestock-based food production causes about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a major source of water pollution, among other environmental devastation. Another study published this year found that people who set meat aside increase their longevity and reduce their contribution to greenhouse effects. Even modest reductions of animal product consumption could potentially provide significant health and environmental benefits.

Doctors and scientists on the advisory panel for the government’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have taken note of this parallel between human and environmental health. In a draft of the pending guidelines, the panel says that a plant-based diet is “more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet,” which relies heavily on meat and dairy products. And it goes without saying that animals also benefit from this stance.

But that’s not enough. We need U.S. governmental agencies to align their priorities and begin creating and updating policies—from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to the Animal Welfare Act—to begin saving lives instead of endangering them. If that’s not enough, Congress needs to step in and enact lifesaving legislation.

Lives will continue to remain in danger until both the general public and the government hold the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center and meat producers accountable. 

Barnard is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a national nonprofit with 150,000 members, including 12,000 doctors.