The idea of applying a tax on meat has recently received a lot of attention, both in Canada and internationally. However, the leading proponents of taxing meat make some big assumptions about all meat being “bad” for the climate. By digging into the complexities of livestock production, we can find plenty of reasons why a general tax on meat could in fact yield the opposite of the intended climate change mitigation. A much more appropriate and equitable way to confront greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the agricultural sector is to tax carbon: specifically, carbon equivalents from fossil fuels used for transportation and production.
As anyone who has tasted local, organic, grass-fed beef knows, there is a world of difference between that and the kind of beef you might find at a fast food joint. Just about everything about these two types of meat is different, including the price (the organic beef will likely be more expensive), the taste (although we can never say definitively which tastes “better” since taste is subjective), the nutritional value (the evidence says grass-fed beef is healthier) and the economic impact (the locally produced meat recirculates more cash back into the regional economy). Even the feeling you get after eating organic beef is different, relating to the overall quality, probable portion size and the sense that you are not consuming food laden with hormones, antibiotics and a large environmental footprint.
These differences stem from the wide variety of ways in which livestock are managed. The differences between industrial, “extensive” and “agro-ecological” practices are immense. In contrast to intensive industrial farms, extensive systems use fewer resources and have a smaller yield relative to the amount of land used. The farming area can be much larger than that used for industrial farms. Agro-ecological systems take an ecosystemic view of agricultural landscapes, and thereby strive for a level of management intensity which reproduces natural processes such as nutrient cycling, population regulation and energy flows.
These different livestock management practices are exemplified in what the animals are typically fed. The industrial model typically uses monocropped grains produced off-site as a primary feed, while extensive and agro-ecological models typically use diverse vegetation that grows on-site (and, in the case of pigs and chickens, live insects and waste diverted from human food streams). Another key difference is scale. Industrial models aim to maximize output by cramming animals into concentrated animal feeding operations, while at the other extreme, extensive systems typically feature a very low ratio of animals per area of land. Meanwhile, agro-ecological methods strive to mimic the size of population an environment would naturally sustain, as well as the land use patterns of ruminants (like cows and sheep) and monogastrics (like pigs and chickens), based on the specific geographical profile of each farm.
Differences like these, in turn, play a big role in determining how much methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted from a farm. Globally, the current practices in livestock production do produce a considerable amount of GHGs (about 14.5 percent of global emissions, compared with 5 percent of Canada’s emissions), but that figure is arrived at by adding up all the carbon dioxide from tilling animal feed crops (required for industrial livestock), burning down rainforests to expand pastures and production of soy (which will be fed to industrial livestock) and energy-intensive post-farm processing and transport. It also includes all the nitrous oxide emitted from manure storage and the application of fertilizers used to produce grains, which are then fed to industrially managed livestock; and not least, all the methane emitted in the process of livestock digestion and manure management. It’s important to keep tabs on this output of GHGs related to livestock, but there are many reasons why it’s deeply problematic to assume that a demand-side tax on meat will result in significant climatic improvements.
The first reason is that nearly half of all GHG emissions attributed to livestock come from the production, fertilization and processing of livestock feed, as well as post-farm transport — not directly from the animals themselves (or their by-products). This is an important distinction because these emissions would continue to occur if this agricultural production were diverted toward human foods rather than livestock feed — the eventual result, presumably, of a tax on meat.
A second reason relates to all the GHG emissions that are not presently attributed to the livestock sector, but that occur indirectly as part of the broader production chain for industrial livestock: things like the manufacture and long-distance transport of fertilizers, herbicides and pharmaceuticals. For the most part, these fossil-fuel-based emissions are recorded under other sectors like manufacturing, transportation or energy. As Simon Fairlie points out, industrial livestock systems are the main culprits at many of these indirect emissions points, demanding refrigeration, heating, shipping, processing, the extraction of fossil methane (or even coal) as feedstocks for ammonia (the primary input in synthetic fertilizer) and so on. In contrast, the aim of agro-ecological farming is to use natural in situ inputs in regional economies, which significantly cuts down on the need for all these fossil-fuel-dependent industrial inputs.
This leads to a third key point, which is that direct GHG emissions from animals, known as “biospheric emissions,” are qualitatively different from GHGs coming from fossil fuels, and in some ways they are less damaging for the climate. For instance, animals breathe out CO2 all the time, but clearly this is of little concern to the planet (or scientists), since the amount emitted in respiration is just about equivalent to the amount that was only very recently removed from the atmosphere by the plants eaten by those animals. In contrast, CO2 emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels is a serious problem for the global carbon cycle, because it is taking carbon that has been sequestered, or stored, in the earth for hundreds of millions of years and suddenly putting it up into the atmosphere.
This temporal difference between biospheric and fossil-fuel emissions can also be seen in methane and nitrous oxide. Methane can be emitted naturally by domesticated and wild ruminants (such as cows, deer, elk, moose, goats, sheep and bison), wetlands, rice paddies and termites; but it can also be emitted unwittingly by an oil drilling operation, or burned up in a heating furnace. In the case of fossil methane, the embedded carbon is, again, transferred to the atmosphere after being sequestered in the Earth’s crust since long before humans existed. Emissions of nitrous oxide operate in a similar way. Animal urine and dung contains ammonia (NH3), which plays an essential role as a natural fertilizer thanks to its nitrogen content. However, it releases N20 into the atmosphere. The rate of release is about the same for synthetic fertilizers, but the key difference is that synthetic fertilizers have to be externally manufactured in an energy-intensive process that relies on hydrocarbons as a feedstock, and have further been shown to degrade agricultural soils. In short, the biospheric exchange of carbon and nitrogen between soil, animal and atmosphere takes part within natural surface-level cycles, while GHGs from fossil fuels are a synthetic disturbance to those cycles.
Biospheric emissions can indeed become a problem when the size of the global herd outstrips the natural environment’s capacity to recycle those emissions. The trick is determining an appropriate size limit for the herd. We know that the climate can sustain a large number of ruminants; there were 30 to 60 million methane-belching and ammonia-excreting bison and 100 million small antelope in the Great Plains before industrialization (as a weak comparison, there are currently about 104 million cattle in the US and Canada combined). The crucial need is to offset the animals’ biospheric emissions by feeding them natural plants that grow in their environment, which serves to store carbon in the soil. In typical pastures the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil is often equivalent to half (or less) of the amount emitted above ground, but other agro-ecological settings (such as silvopastoral operations which combine livestock grazing with forestry) can store more than they emit, leading many experts (including even the Food and Agricultural Organization) to claim that the livestock sector could play a significant role in climate change mitigation efforts.
Although we are still learning about the intricate interplay between biospheric emissions and the climate, there is enough evidence to question the global herd’s impact on atmospheric methane and nitrous oxide. For instance, a study by the Food and Agricultural Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency found that while the global herd grew in the 1990s, global methane concentrations levelled off at the same time. The report concluded, “The role of ruminants in greenhouse gases may be less significant than originally thought, with other sources and sinks playing a larger role in global methane accounting.” Finally, while the global livestock herd has indeed grown substantially since the 1970s, in OECD nations the number of cattle, sheep, and goats has declined (while the number of pigs has grown). In other words, the demand trend for ruminant meat in industrialized countries — where the meat tax is usually proposed — is already on the decline.
Theoretically, taxing meat in the developing world and Asia would work to stem growth in the global herd, but this approach raises issues of equity, particularly between small farmers and large industrial producers, not to mention its unwelcome tinge of colonialism. If indeed the global herd has surpassed the climate’s natural threshold for biospheric emissions, then there could be other ways to reduce the herd besides taxing meat, ways that do not adversely affect extensive and agro-ecological farmers. These could include regulations, such as quotas, or market mechanisms such as incentives for sustainable producers, or educational campaigns expounding the benefits of eating less meat — and local, organic meat at that!
There are indeed good reasons to reduce meat consumption overall (particularly in North America) — but applying a tax on meat is not the right way to accomplish that goal, in part because it’s not just meat that North Americans overconsume, and in part because it’s not just livestock production that is environmentally damaging.
While less meat might be consumed overall as a result of a meat tax, the meat people continue consuming would likely be environmentally damaging industrial meat, not meat produced in an agro-ecological context. A tax on meat unfairly punishes the small farmers who are trying to practise restorative agriculture by continuing to force them to compete toe-to-toe with large-scale industrial producers whose environmental footprint is only partly accounted for. More important, it fails to get to the root of the climate problem, which is the emission of GHGs from fossil fuels. Some provinces have opted for a tax on carbon-emitting fossil fuels. This policy will help us to reduce the emissions from agriculture that are of greatest concern to the climate, while providing agro-ecological farmers a more level playing field on which to compete with the big polluters.
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