09/07/2016 02:39 EDT | Updated 09/07/2016 02:39 EDT

Balancing Our Love Of Beef With The Environmental Toll Of Consumption

Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Butcher tying up beef bottom round at counter in butcher shop

Beef often gets a pretty hard time when it comes to its environmental impact. Why is there a beef with beef? And what could smart policy do about it?

First things first

Before we get into it, let's begin with an important preamble: 1) Personally, I think beef is delicious 2) I'm not trying to take it away from you.

As the summer draws to a close and the smell of BBQ still hangs in the air, the idea of a beefless world is for many of us just too terrible to contemplate. But as we'll see, beef's savoury taste also presents us with some rather unsavoury problems.


Korean beef galbi. Yum. (Photo courtesy The Black Peppercorn)

Beef is great, just not for the environment

Canadians love beef. While consumption has been steadily falling since the 1980s, we still eat a lot of it: on average we consume 24 kilograms per person per year, second only to chicken.

But producing all that beef takes a toll. A U.S. study found that on a per-calorie basis, beef production requires 11 times the water and 28 times the land compared to an average of other livestock categories. And the study's lead author expects that the results would be pretty similar for Canada.

However, for now let's put aside these 'other' types of environmental impacts (as well as potential health and ethical concerns), and focus on GHG emissions.


Beef is a huge contributor to global emissions. Because cattle are ruminant animals, the way they break down their food causes them to emit methane, a powerful Greenhouse Gas. It comes out of both ends, but burps apparently get most of the blame.

All in, the GHG emissions from beef production in Canada total about 27 megatonnes per year. That's 3.6 per cent of Canada's total emissions, over a third of our agricultural emissions, and nearly three quarters of our emissions from animal production.

Making the price of beef reflect its environmental cost is sensible ecofiscal policy.

Other types of livestock don't even come close. The same study we noted above found that beef had five times the emissions per calorie of other meats and animal products. For context, that's 10 to 40 times the emissions of most vegetables and grains.


When it comes to environmental impacts, beef is off the charts (Source: World Resources Institute)

Addressing beef's GHG hoofprint

If Canada is serious about hitting its national emission targets, we need to be looking for mitigation opportunities across all sectors, especially high-emitting ones like beef production. This doesn't mean we have to cut beef out entirely (phew!), just that we need to try to reduce the emissions that come with it.

Eating less beef is obviously a great way to do this, but our meat eating habits are slow to change. Luckily, there are some ecofiscal solutions that could help.

Ecofiscal solutions

People respond to prices; it's the law of demand. When the cost of something rises, we consume less of it. This has already been shown to be true of beef in Canada: when prices went up last year due to supply issues, Canadians reduced consumption by eating less and by shifting their consumption to other types of meat.

Making the price of beef reflect its environmental cost is sensible ecofiscal policy. Carbon pricing is a great way to put a price on emissions, as we've argued previously. But emissions from livestock don't lend themselves to carbon pricing very well. As a result, livestock emissions are typically exempted from carbon pricing schemes.

All you need is levy

An effective way to price beef's emissions could be to bring in a climate levy on beef, where for every kilogram sold, a small amount would be added to the price to account for the additional GHG emissions that beef generates compared to other types of meat. The levy would be applied at the point of wholesale; imported beef would be subject to it, but beef destined for export would be exempted. And crucially, Canadian farmers would receive a partial rebate from the levy if they could demonstrate that their emissions intensity was below the industry average.

Our back-of-the-envelope estimates put the value of a beef levy at somewhere between 40 and 50 cents/kilogram. Based on my rather unscientific research of beef prices (snapping a pic at my local grocer), this would mean a price increase of somewhere between three and four per cent.


A carbon levy on this ground beef would increase the price by only three to four per cent (Photo taken by author)

But while its effect on prices would be small, a beef levy could have powerful effects on incentives. On the demand side, a slight increase in the price of beef would encourage consumers to eat less of it by buying other types of meat, or more vegetables and grains. On the supply side, farmers would work to lower their operations' emissions intensity in order to qualify for the rebate, which would help to reinforce some positive existing industry trends. As a result of these effects, emissions from beef would fall.


A beef levy would help unleash GHG-mitigating innovations like--I kid you not-- this gas-collecting cow backpack

I know, a beef levy leaves a bad taste

I'm fully aware that a beef levy would face strong and inevitable pushback from the livestock sector, libertarians, and the beef-loving public. But if Canada is serious about lowering its emissions then we need to consider all our options, and a beef levy makes an awful lot of sense: beef is a major source of emissions, and putting a climate levy on it would create powerful incentives for consumers to consume less and for producers to produce it better.

Enthusing about a beef levy probably isn't a great way to make friends at a backyard BBQ, but don't be surprised if you hear more about this idea in Canada and abroad in the coming years as we continue to beef up our climate policies.

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