The Beef with Beef
Beef often gets a pretty hard time when it comes to its environmental impact. In this blog, I take a look at why that is, and what we could do about it.
First things first
Before we get into it, let’s begin with an important preamble: 1) Personally, I think beef’s delicious 2) I’m not trying to take it away from you.
As the summer draws to a close and the smell of BBQ still hangs in the air, the idea of a beefless world is for many of us just too terrible to contemplate. But as we’ll see, beef’s savoury taste also presents us with some rather unsavoury problems.
Beef is great, just not for the environment
Canadians love beef. While consumption has been steadily falling since the 1980s, we still eat a lot of it: on average we consume 24 kilograms per person per year, second only to chicken.
But producing all that beef takes a toll. A U.S. study found that on a per-calorie basis, beef production requires 11 times the water and 28 times the land compared to an average of other livestock categories. And the study’s lead author expects that the results would be pretty similar for Canada. (A major Canadian research project is looking into this now.)
Beef is a huge contributor to global emissions. About three quarters of it comes in the form of methane, a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas 25 times as powerful as CO2. Because cattle are ruminant animals, the way they break down their food causes them to emit methane. It comes out of both ends, but burps apparently get most of the blame.
The odd bovine burp wouldn’t be such a big deal, but with over 5 million beef cattle in Canada, we’re talking about a lot of them. All in, GHG emissions from beef production in Canada total about 27 megatonnes per year. That’s 3.6% of Canada’s total emissions, over a third of our agricultural emissions, and nearly three quarters of our emissions from animal production.
Other types of livestock don’t even come close. The same study we noted above found that beef had five times the emissions per calorie of other meats and animal products. For context, that’s 10 to 40 times the emissions of most vegetables and grains.
And sure, there are fancy organic/pasture-raised/grain-fed/spa-pampered varieties of beef with lower emissions. But these are only a small share of the total market (at least for now). Most of the beef that Canadians eat comes with a significant emissions footprint.
Addressing beef’s GHG hoofprint
If Canada is serious about hitting its national emission targets, we need to be looking for mitigation opportunities across all sectors, especially high-emitting ones like beef production. This doesn’t mean we have to cut beef out entirely (phew!), just that we need to try to reduce the emissions that come with it.
One way to do so is to eat less of it, something that other countries are already encouraging. The Dutch government recently recommended that citizens limit meat in their diet, especially red meat. And even China is on board, recently issuing guidelines that encourage citizens to cut their meat consumption in half, a move that’s expected to have significant climate benefits.
There are also some cultural undercurrents supporting this type of shift. World Meat Free Day is now a thing, as is Meatless Mondays. Veggies are moving to the “centre of the plate” in some restaurants, and veganism is on the rise (this author is in fact a ‘weekday vegan,’ which isn’t at all as difficult—or joyless—as it might sound).
But despite all this, our meat eating habits have been slow to change, and emissions from our beef consumption, while down since the early 80s, are still high. Luckily, there are some ecofiscal solutions that could help.
People respond to prices; it’s the law of demand. When the cost of something rises, we consume less of it. This has already been shown to be true of beef in Canada: when prices went up last year due to supply issues, Canadians reduced consumption by eating less and by shifting their consumption to other types of meat.
Making the price of beef reflect its environmental cost is sensible ecofiscal policy. Ideally, both GHG emissions and the other environmental impacts from beef would be priced in, but let’s stay focused on GHG emissions. Here are some ecofiscal ideas for making the price of beef reflect its climate cost:
Carbon pricing as panacea?
If you’re looking to add GHG cost to the price of a good or service’s emissions, a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system is a great way to do it, as we’ve argued previously. The tricky thing is that emissions from livestock don’t really lend themselves to carbon pricing very well. The sources are too diffuse to directly monitor (and it doesn’t sound like a very pleasant job anyway). As a result, livestock emissions are typically exempted from carbon pricing schemes.
Offsets riding to the rescue?
A compromise solution could be to use carbon offsets. Cattle farms could take steps to lower their emissions, get their reductions verified, and then sell them as mitigation offsets. Some carbon pricing schemes in Canada and the U.S. already support offsets. Offsetting can be a useful way to extend carbon pricing’s emissions coverage, but when it comes to reducing beef’s emissions it has its limits—because offsetting only affects the supply side, there’s no incentive for consumers to reduce their demand-side emissions.
All you need is levy
An alternative could be to bring in a climate levy on beef, where for every kilogram sold, a small amount would be added to the price to account for the additional GHG emissions that beef generates compared to other types of meat. (Ideally you’d have a specific levy for all types of meat, but a focus on beef makes sense because of its much-larger emissions.)
The levy would be applied at the point of wholesale. Imported beef would be subject to it, but beef destined for export would be exempted, which would help avoid competitiveness impacts. And crucially, Canadian farmers would receive a partial rebate from the levy if they could demonstrate that their emissions intensity was below the industry average.
By pricing a high-emitting portion of Canada’s GHG inventory that carbon pricing doesn’t touch, a beef levy would be a valuable complement to carbon pricing. It would help to drive cost-effective emissions reductions. It would help reduce some of beef’s other environmental impacts. And it would raise revenues that could be used for any number of purposes, including compensating the farmers that end up negatively impacted (you could even make any help conditional on their instituting Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs), as discussed here).
Here’s how a beef levy would be put into action:
- First, the average emissions to produce a kilogram of beef in Canada would be determined (recent estimates have put it at around 17 kg CO2e/kg beef at the low end and around 22 kg CO2e/kg beef at the high end; both figures are for carcass weight).
- Second, the average emissions of other types of meat would be subtracted, to reflect only the additional emissions from beef (as noted above, other meats have on average about a fifth of beef’s emissions).
- Finally, to produce a per-kilogram rate for the levy, beef’s average emissions intensity would be multiplied by the going carbon price (BC’s $30/tonne carbon tax provides a good reference point).
Using the figures above, a back-of-the-envelope estimate puts the value of a beef levy at somewhere between 40 and 50 cents/kilogram. Based on my rather unscientific research of beef prices (snapping a pic at my local grocer), this would mean a price increase of somewhere between 3 and 4%.
But while its effect on prices would be small, a beef levy could have powerful effects on incentives. On the demand side, a slight increase in the price of beef would encourage consumers to eat less of it by buying other types of meat, or more vegetables and grains. On the supply side, farmers would work to lower their operations’ emissions intensity in order to qualify for the rebate, which would help to reinforce some positive existing industry trends (between 1981 and 2011 the GHG intensity of beef production in Canada fell 15% as a result of industry efforts to develop technologies in genetics, nutrition, reproductive physiology, and herd management). As a result of these effects, emissions from beef would fall.
We know, a beef levy leaves a bad taste
We’re fully aware that a beef levy would face strong and inevitable pushback from the livestock sector, libertarians, and the beef-loving public. But if Canada is serious about lowering its emissions then we need to consider all our options, and a beef levy makes an awful lot of sense: beef is a major source of emissions, and putting a climate levy on it would create powerful incentives for consumers to consume less and for producers to produce it better.
Enthusing about a beef levy probably isn’t a great way to make friends at a backyard BBQ, and it will probably be some time before a policy as unappetizing as a beef levy has its day. But don’t be surprised if you hear more about this idea in Canada and abroad in the coming years as we continue to beef up our climate policies.