By Peter Hanley-Walsh
Climate change is one of the most important issues facing the planet and almost all governments in developed nations are trying to implement policy to tackle it, with initiatives such as going carbon neutral in the next few decades and heavily subsidising renewable energy generation. However, there is currently little action being taken to tackle one of the World’s worst offenders when it comes to pollution – the agriculture industry.
When it comes to agriculture, consumers do not appreciate the levels of emissions their animal-based products are responsible for because the prices are too low. Climate change represents a market failure issue, where the price of goods fails to reflect the true costs of their production, the responsibility for tackling this lies with the Market Regulator (the Government).
Global agriculture is responsible for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, and beef and dairy alone are responsible for 65% of this. To put this into perspective; methane production from cattle accounts for emission levels equal to 1.5 billion cars, agriculture has a footprint equal to 2.4 billion cars – a shocking statistic considering there are only 1 billion cars in the world. If the government has announced initiatives to pull petroleum-fuelled vehicles from the UK’s dealerships by 2035, why aren’t we taking equally large measures with agriculture?
I propose a policy initiative that tackles both the demand and supply issues we face when it comes to meat consumption/production; duty and licensing. These are not radically new concepts and we interact with goods that are levied with such instruments every day, they are also an incredibly powerful way of shifting consumption patterns toward more socially responsible behaviour without banning products or appealing to altruism.
Banning products does not significantly reduce the social cost of the products, for example the size of the EU drug market is around €30 billion annually – despite the illegality of production and consumption. Reliance on a growth in the general public’s social conscience has been demonstrated as flawed through the lack of people permanently ‘going vegan’, despite many being aware of the environmental impact of their consumption, our behaviour is determined almost exclusively by our wallet.
A duty levied on meat could immediately raise the price to a level that more accurately reflects its social cost, as we do with alcohol and cigarettes which would curb the UK’s almost insatiable demand for meat. A production license would ensure farms must comply with stringent emission standards as well as the animal cruelty prevention standards that currently exist, and as there is already a licensing system in place the administration costs would be low. This policy seems to be a low-hanging fruit for politicians looking to score points with an ever-growing portion of the electorate demanding action on climate change.
As mentioned above, this system isn’t new. One of the first cases of such an initiative was the Gin Act of 1751 and the circumstances under its implementation are frighteningly similar toglobal meat consumption, within the context of the climate crisis.
Prior to the duty and licensing implementation, the first half of the 18th Century saw a ‘Gin Craze’ in the UK with the per capita consumption increasing eightfold to around 9 pints per person each year from 1700-1751.
Gin consumption had significant social costs through increased crime and lower productivity levels, as a result the Government interfered in the market to ensure the price of gin was accurately reflecting its social cost. Within 100 years, consumption of all British made spirits had fallen dramatically to around 4 pints per person and now it lies around 1 pint per person, despite the ‘staggering rise in gin sales’ seen in the last 5 years. Global meat consumption is 4 times what it was 50 years ago and is rising as the developed world grows richer, and as the price of meat falls with mass farming becoming more and more prevelant.
If gin was licenced because of the productivity losses associated with it, why would we not do the same for agriculture where the costs are significantly higher? It is estimated that the Global costs from climate change will reach well into the trillions of dollars, and around $2trn per year for the US alone, in productivity losses.
Food production consumes 50% of global land and 70% of freshwater, it contributes to 78% of eutrophication and freshwater pollution as well as being listed as a causal factor to the extinction risk of 24,000 of the 28,000 endangered species of wild animals. However, a major factor in all of this is the consumption of wildly inefficient animal products. Cows require 10 times the amount of feed per kilo than chickens need to lay a kilo of eggs, alternatives such as the Impossible Burger consume 96% less land, 87% less water and 89% less greenhouse gas emissions than their beef counterparts. The solution is to push people towards these alternatives as well as vegetarianism and veganism and, as they did with gin toward beer and ale, consumers will move towards products with significantly reduced social costs when incentivised effectively.