Beef, Dairy Consumption Linked to High Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Using a “food impacts” database, researchers from Tulane University and the University of Michigan have reportedly found that high levels of beef and dairy consumption account for large portions of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions. Martin C. Heller, et al., “Greenhouse gas emissions and energy use associated with production of individual self-selected US diets,” Environmental Research Letters, March 2018. The study reported that the distribution of greenhouse gas emissions by food group was “quite typical of Western dietary patterns, with the dominant impacts coming from meats and dairy.” Beef consumption accounted for 72 percent of the emissions difference between the highest-impact and lowest-impact groups. The researchers also discovered that beverages, primarily fruit and vegetable juices, had the third-largest impact in the analysis.
A New York Times op-ed argued a similar point less than a week before the study’s publication. Citing a paper by researchers from the Toulouse School of Economics on the practicality of instituting an EU carbon tax on beef to reduce emissions, Richard Conniff asserted that a similar proposal could help the United States. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to put a carbon tax on fossil fuel, a larger source of greenhouse gas emissions? You bet. But many people who now commute in conventional gas-fueled automobiles have no better way to get home — or to heat their homes when they get there. That broader carbon tax will require dramatically restructuring our lives,” Conniff wrote. “A carbon tax on beef, on the other hand, would be a relatively simple test case for such taxes and, according to the French study, only a little painful, at least at the household level: While people would tend to skip the beef bourguignon, they could substitute other meats, like pork and chicken, that have a much smaller climate change footprint.” Conniff acknowledges that a co-author of the French paper said the proposed tax “has no chance of becoming reality, ‘not even in Europe’ and certainly not in the United States. Our politicians continue to regard the beef industry as, well, a sacred cow.”