Farm Progress

From the perspective of the livestock industry, especially the U.S. livestock industry, controlling greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the carbon footprint of commercial livestock operations is like putting a band-aid over a long rip in a hot air balloon and expecting it to keep the balloon aloft indefinitely.

Logan Hawkes, Contributing Writer

June 9, 2016

5 Min Read

Most of us in the 21st Century agree that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a worthy practice to help protect the environment of our planet. While the causes and the degree of environmental damages related to increased greenhouse gases remains an area of contention for many, most will agree that the way we respect our environment is a mutual benefit that crosses both cultures and species.

Clean rivers and oceans, cleaner air and less smog in our cities and appropriate disposal of our waste is a collective responsibility, and the push over the last four decades to be more aware of the need for a healthy planet has helped enormously to reduce the footprint created by irresponsible and harmful practices imposed by an expanding, modern society.

But, in the effort to explore better ways and methods of protecting our environment, it is becoming more evident that sometimes our best intentions fall short of the mark. Sometimes our proposed solutions represent an over-reach.

This is arguably true when it comes to one of the latest proposals to help reduce the environmental footprint of livestock production by imposing a red meat tax on consumers. Those in favor of such action believe a so-called 'climate tax' on red meat would serve to curb consumer demand and would therefore help to reduce greenhouse gases generated through livestock production.

Maarten Hajer, Dutch political scientist, urban and regional planner and professor of urban futures in the faculty of Geosciences of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, says the world faces serious environmental problems if emerging economies such as China emulate Americans and Europeans in the amount of meat consumed.

“If we were all to copycat the way in which we feed ourselves [with red meat] in North America or Europe, the planet would be in deep trouble,” Hajer told United Nations officials at a recent UN environment assembly in Nairobi.

Hajer is the lead author of a report into the impact of food production and the environment. He stopped short of calling for a tax on meat sold in supermarkets but says he supports higher prices as a way to curb red meat demand worldwide.

Hajer is a member of the International Resource Panel (IRP), which comprises 34 top scientists and 30 governments worldwide. The Panel, headquartered in South Africa, was formed to help nations use natural resources sustainably 'without compromising economic growth and human needs'. It was designed to provide independent scientific assessments and advice on a variety of areas related to the environment.

The idea of taxing red meat isn't entirely new. Also in the news recently, such a climate tax may soon be a reality in Denmark. The decision is now in the hands of Denmark's Council of Ethics, which has the power to decide whether to go forward with the proposal. If approved, the price of red meat, particularly beef, will be going up soon if Denmark's political hierarchy agrees.

From the perspective of the livestock industry, especially the U.S. livestock industry, controlling greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the carbon footprint of commercial livestock operations is like putting a band-aid over a long rip in a hot air balloon and expecting it to keep the balloon aloft indefinitely.

According to a recent report by Matt Bochat, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension agent for ag/natural resources in Victoria County, Texas, research from the University of California-Davis reveals beef cattle production represents about 2.2 percent of total 4.2 percent greenhouse emissions generated by the U.S. livestock industry.

It is important to note that U.S.-produced livestock has the smallest carbon footprint when compared to all other livestock-producing nations. This includes all U.S. livestock including beef cattle (meat production), dairy cattle to produce milk, and the U.S. poultry industry to produce eggs. The smaller carbon footprint is largely the result of production efficiency and new technologies employed to produce these commodities in the United States versus other nations throughout the world.

In fact, the carbon footprint of the U.S. livestock industry has been greatly reduced over the last 65-plus years. For example in 1950, it required an estimated 22 million dairy cows to produce 117 million tons of milk. Today, it takes about 9 million dairy cattle to produce 209 million tons of milk, In other words, 59 percent fewer cows produced 79 percent more milk than they did in 1950.

In similar fashion in 1970, it took about 140 million head of cattle to produce 24 million tons of beef. In modern times the same amount of beef is produced by 90 million head of cattle. This represents a sizable reduction in the overall carbon footprint of the industry.

It should be noted that when attempting to understand the carbon footprint of both the U.S. and the global livestock industry, various agencies and organizations use many different methods and formulas for calculating the end result. Some groups make the mistake of 'doubling' emission gases by estimating the number of breaths each head of livestock makes over the course of its lifetime - even though those numbers were already included in the formula (for example) EPA uses to calculate the carbon footprint of the industry.

This helps to explain why one organization or agency may rate the total carbon footprint of the livestock industry higher or lower than others. It has long been said statistics can be deceiving – depending on how they are calculated and used, and by whom.

This being said, there is no question that the livestock industry, and agriculture-at-large, contribute greatly to the overall carbon footprint of the environment. It should be noted, however, that red meat production represents only a small percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Considering this, a 'climate tax' on red meat, whether in Denmark or worldwide, represents only an extremely small percentage in greenhouse gas emissions, so small in fact it raises the question whether our efforts to reduce the carbon footprint would not be better spent on addressing other areas and industries that contribute to it.

Certainly any reduction is a good reduction. But when it comes to food production and the great strides it has made to lower its carbon footprint over the years, perhaps putting the band-aid on the hot air balloon is not the best strategy, especially not when it requires a band-aid tax that would result in lower production.

While we might not miss a reduction in the overall number of hot air balloons, a cut in global food production at a time when the demand for more food is expected to become critical in the years ahead may not be our best strategy.

About the Author(s)

Logan Hawkes

Contributing Writer, Lost Planet

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