Tax Carbon, Not Meat Part 1: Differentiating Livestock Management Practices

Tax Carbon, Not Meat Part 1: Differentiating Livestock Management Practices
Beef cattle at an Ontario family farm.David Bradley

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.  Not all meat production is equal — and different livestock management practices around the world produce different social, ecological, and economic outcomes. 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.

As anyone who has tasted local, organic, grass-fed beef knows, it is very different from the kind of beef you might find at a fast food joint. Just about everything about these two types of meat is different, including price (organic beef will likely be more expensive), taste (although taste is subjective), nutritional value (evidence says grass-fed beef is healthier), and economic impact (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 immense variety of industrial, extensive, and “agro-ecological” livestock management practices. In contrast to intensive industrial farms, extensive systems involve much lower levels of inputs and outputs relative to the amount of land used; meanwhile, agro-ecological systems take an ecosystemic view of agricultural landscapes, and thereby strive for a level of management intensity that reproduces natural processes such as nutrient cycling, population regulation, and energy flows.

What animals are typically fed exemplifies these different livestock management practices. The industrial model typically uses monocropped grains produced off-site while extensive and agro-ecological models typically use diverse vegetation that grows on-site (and, in the case of pigs and chickens, live insects as well as 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 extensive systems typically feature a very low ratio of animals per hectare. Agro-ecological methods meanwhile strive to mimic the natural population-carrying capacity and 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, current livestock practices produce considerable GHGs (about 14.5 percent of global emissions, compared with 5 percent of Canada’s emissions). 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 (to 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 fed to industrially managed livestock; and not least, all the methane emitted in the process of livestock digestion and manure management.

As Simon Fairlie points out, industrial livestock systems are also the main culprits at many 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.

In short, 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). As well, many GHG emissions are not presently attributed to the livestock sector, but occur indirectly as part of the broader production chain: 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. These emissions would continue even if this agricultural production were diverted toward human foods rather than livestock feed — the eventual result, presumably, of a tax on meat.

If we consider the GHG emissions associated with animals in an ecosystemic sense, we can see why a tax on meat fails to get to the heart of the climate problem — fossil fuels. As a comparison, it would be akin to suggesting that “transportation” ought to be taxed because “transport is bad for the climate,” when we know there are many forms of transport (walking, cycling, various watercraft, electric vehicles, and trains) that are relatively benign as far as their GHG output.

In part two of this blog, we look at the impacts of animals themselves.

This article was originally published by Policy Options/Options Politiques on 25 January 2017

Ryan M. Katz-Rosene is a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies and an organic farmer based in Cantley, Quebec.

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