Pig S%*t

December 8, 2008

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Great article in the Times on how the production of beef and pork is one of the main contributors to climate change:

“The trillions of farm animals around the world generate 18 percent of the emissions that are raising global temperatures, according to United Nations estimates, more even than from cars, buses and airplanes.

But unlike other industries, like cement making and power, which are facing enormous political and regulatory pressure to get greener, large-scale farming is just beginning to come under scrutiny as policy makers, farmers and scientists cast about for solutions.

High-tech fixes include those like the project here, called ‘methane capture,’ as well as inventing feed that will make cows belch less methane, which traps heat with 25 times the efficiency of carbon dioxide. California is already working on a program to encourage systems in pig and dairy farms like the one in Sterksel.

Other proposals include everything from persuading consumers to eat less meat to slapping a ‘sin tax’ on pork and beef. Next year, Sweden will start labeling food products so that shoppers can look at how much emission can be attributed to serving steak compared with, say, chicken or turkey.”

There are two factors at work here. One is the methane and nitrous oxide (NO2) produced from the farts and shit of the pigs and cows. When you are dealing with farm animals numbered in the trillions (compared to 6.5 billion people on Earth, or far less than 10% the number of farm animals), the effect is significant. And the numbers are growing – beef and pork consumption is projected to DOUBLE in the coming 50 years.

The other factor is that the raising and slaughter of pigs and cows, and the delivery of their meat to market, is energy-intensive. For example, meat has to be kept refrigerated from slaughter to cooking. Additionally, it requires the growing of vast amounts of feed to supply food for trillions of animals. Many, many times more calories worth of grain has to be consumed to produce any given number of calories in meat. The growing of this grain uses up countless acres of land, much of that land reclaimed from forest (forests serve as important sinks for CO2, as trees consume CO2 and produce oxygen).

This is a classic externality problem. When you buy meat in the supermarket, all of the costs of producing it are not included in the price. Instead, they are passed on to third parties who are external to the transaction. This is because the producers of the meat are not paying anything to release greenhouse gases, while the population as a whole is forced to deal with the consequences, whether or not they consume the meat.

Countries like Sweden have begun labeling, but I can’t see how this would be effective in most places. Labeling works best when it reveals hidden costs or risks to the consumer, such as health effects or energy consumption that the consumer has to actually pay for (so labeling the energy efficiency of appliances or the fuel efficiency of cars makes sense). Labeling meat in this case would only work if consumers could be shamed into not consuming it, which is extremely unlikely, at least not from a simple label.

More effective would be a tax. This would have the effect of internalizing the actual costs of producing the meat to the consumer. It’s also equitable, as non-meat eaters like myself would not have to pay for pollution caused by a product I don’t consume. Also, as the vast majority of people consume too much meat already, it would have an additional health benefit by raising its cost and therefore reducing consumption. Yet, while it would effective, it would also be, politically speaking, nearly impossible. In this country in particular, taxes are viewed as somehow inherently evil. They are also viewed as punitive, and voters would see a tax on beef and pork as a moral statement against meat-eaters rather than as a sound and equitable economic solution to serious problem (i.e., if there are environmental consequences to producing meat, then the consumers of meat should have to pay for it). Also, because the actual costs of the pollution are uncertain, there would be endless political bickering over the amount of the tax. Add in Republican climate-change deniers and the power of beef lobby, and the tax is clearly a no-go.

The other alternative (and the one on better ground in terms of ethics and sustainability) would be to convert everyone to vegetarianism or at least a limited form of it. Hey, I can dream, right? Think of it this way – who in 1690 would have seriously entertained the idea of ending human slavery? Who in 1800 would have entertained a woman’s right to vote? Who in 1950 would have supported gay marriage? Our current (and GROWING) levels of meat consumption are not sustainable in the long term. Eventually were going to be forced to do something about it.

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