Farming News - Factoring in emissions could see beef prices rise 40 percent

Factoring in emissions could see beef prices rise 40 percent

20 May 2014
Frontdesk / Arable / Livestock


Lending further weight to warnings by food policy leaders that current trends for increasing livestock production around the world are environmentally unsustainable, a report published late last month in Environmental Research Letters has revealed that cattle production has a carbon footprint 28 times that of wheat production.  


Scientists from the United States produced a direct comparison of beef and wheat production. They said that, although greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from food production (alongside other negative externalities) are not considered in current retail prices future climate policies may put a price on emissions, which could affect more polluting food types.  Thus the researchers from the University of Texas at Austin suggested "it would be useful to know the extent to which those policies would increase the incremental production costs to food within the US food system."


The researchers found that, given the carbon footprint associated with beef farming, if true cost accounting were introduced for agricultural production costs could rise by 40 percent.


The researchers, Kelly Sanders and Michael Webber, used lifecycle assessment (LCA) to estimate the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from producing a kilogram of beef compared to the same amount of wheat. Sanders and Webber said, "Wheat and beef were chosen as benchmark staples to provide a representative range of less intensive and more intensive agricultural goods."


The team looked at sources of emissions associated with the products, including from cultivation, processing, transportation, storage, and end-use preparation, and estimated that emissions costing would be between $10 and $85 (£6 to £50) per tonne CO2e. They found that wheat production costs would increase by between $0.01 and $0.09 per kg as a result, which would increase total wheat production costs by around 0.3–2 percent per kg.


However, for cattle, the cost would be $0.31 to $2.60 per kg of beef, which would lead cosys to increase by between 5 and 40 percent per kilo based on average 2010 food prices.


Sanders said that, although it is not surprising that beef production has a much larger carbon footprint, given that grains are fed to livestock, the areas where major emissions occurred was a surprise; although most people would expect transport costs to be much larger, raising the animals themselves were responsible for more emissions, the Texas researchers found.


"These calculations show there is a disconnect between consumer cost and environmental cost [of food production]," Sanders said, adding that the findings have implications for current food policy, particularly subsidies, which go to artificially reduce meat prices, and do not account for the industry's environmental impacts.