In an article published last week in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, contributing author Richard Conniff argued for the imposition of a carbon tax on beef.
Using oft-cited figures which suggest that over 1.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere for every 100 grams of beef produced (nearly twenty times the greenhouse gas emissions associated with equivalent production of tomatoes or wheat), economists at the Toulouse School of Economics have proposed a 40% tax on beef to lower worldwide consumption, reduce the release of greenhouse gases, and slow the anthropomorphic warming of the atmosphere. These same French researchers also predict that such a steep tax on cattle and dairy production will also reduce the not-insubstantial contribution of this industry to water pollution, deforestation, and global loss of biodiversity.
Several of my vegetarian and vegan friends were quick to post this article on Facebook and other social media sites, with one friend specifically calling me out for my meat-eating primal ways. How can I be an environmentalist – or more pointedly, how can I be a bioethicist who writes frequently on environmental ethics and climate change – if I’m a die-hard carnivore who eats beef regularly as part of my ‘caveman lifestyle’?
It is true that contemporary analyses of greenhouse gas emissions suggest that modern agricultural practices, including animal husbandry, are a large source of carbon dioxide and methane. As an industry, agriculture is surpassed only by energy generation and by manufacturing in the production climate-changing gases. Suggesting that a carbon tax on beef will address this problem, however, is misplaced from both an environmental and a public policy perspective.
The Toulouse study and subsequent New York Times article overstate a number of key facts and overlook important nuances related to beef production. It is true that cattle are a large net source of greenhouse gases, but this is true only for cattle raised on feedlots where they are fed large quantities of commercially grown corn, wheat, and other cereal grains. When you actually consider grass-fed beef raised on small organic farms, the carbon emission story is quite different.
The carbon emission numbers used by French researchers (and others) come from organizations and agencies like the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, a partnership of 15 environmental research centers around the world). However, the estimates of greenhouse gas production associated with beef and dairy production do not take into account potential carbon sequestration.
As studies published in peer-reviewed publications like the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation have found, when cattle are raised using a responsible and sustainable system that mimics the natural ecosystem, the total amount of carbon dioxide produced is actually much lower. Similarly, alternative models of calculating greenhouse gas emissions show that, if you rotate the grass-fed cattle on pasture and if you take into account carbon sequestration associated with that approach (i.e. capture and storage of atmospheric carbon by grasses and other plants stimulated by herbivores grazing in a natural environment), sustainable animal husbandry can have a carbon neutral or even a carbon negative situation. Such an approach can also prevent (and even help remediate) the environmental damage often seen with agricultural production. Pasture-raised cattle can reduce the number of invasive species and help fertilize the fields on which they are temporarily raised; if herds and crops are rotated properly, farmers can achieve higher yields at lower cost while also eschewing the use of toxic pesticides and water-polluting fertilizers.
This is what the local farmers in my region strive to achieve. This makes my purchase and consumption of organic beef and other meats at my Greenmarket (the main source of almost all of the meat I eat) more environmentally conscious and sustainable than most, including many of my vegetarian and vegan friends. Because I get most of my meat and vegetables from the local farmers market and a community-shared agriculture (CSA) program, I would also be willing to bet that my overall carbon footprint is lower than most of the self-described vegans and vegetarians shopping at Whole Foods. While CAFO-raised meat and poultry is a large producer of carbon dioxide and methane, another significant agriculture-based contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is fertilizer production and use, irrigation of water-intensive crops in semi-arid areas, food waste due to spoilage in fields and homes, and fuel used to harvest crops mechanically and to transport crops to market. All told, this releases more than three-times the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that commercial production of beef. So those Mexican avocados that American consumers so readily eat during the cold winter months have a larger carbon footprint than the ground beef I get from a farmer just 10 miles down the road.
This is why the proposed carbon tax on beef is a bad idea. It is akin to using a shotgun to hunt mice, at least as far as the problem of greenhouse emissions and fossil fuel use is concerned. While such a tax might reduce consumption of beef in the short term, it could actually exacerbate the climate change problem in the long term (a situation that we academic policy wonks call unintended consequences). Specifically, if applied broadly, a carbon tax on beef is likely to have a disproportionate impact on the small-scale organic producers than the large industrial CAFO-based operations. These are the very farmers whose sustainably minded practices are likely carbon neutral or negative. Moreover, the tax doesn’t address the other agricultural-based sources of greenhouse gases.
If we want to use economic incentives and disincentives like a carbon tax to reduce the impact of agricultural production on greenhouse gas emissions, we need to think more broadly. It should be progressive tax based on a particular food’s total carbon footprint, taking into account all of the greenhouse gases released and all of the fossil fuels used in manufacture and transport. Thus, there might be a 50% tariff on Chilean grapes flow to the Northeastern US while a 2% tax on eggs raised on local farms using free-range and sustainable practices.
Beef isn’t the problem. Our global (as compared with local) and industrial (as compared to sustainable) approach to food production is.