Maybe former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was right after all. Remember his wild prediction that Labor’s carbon price would mean $100 roasts for the average Australian?
It turns out that such prices forecasts may turn out to be true, but not for the reasons cited by Joyce. German scientists have suggested that the price of meat should be more than doubled to account for the environmental impact and the contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions caused by meat production.
In a new analysis published in the journal Nature Communications, scientists from the Technical University of Munich in Germany found that if prices for both meat and dairy products were to better reflect the “true” cost of food production, and their higher emissions footprint and related impacts on land use, then they should rise significantly.
The researchers determined that an average 146 per cent price premium, applied at the producer price level, should be applied to conventional meat production, with a 71 per cent price premium applicable for meat raised through organic methods.
The price of dairy products would also need to be nearly doubled, with a 91 per cent price premium for products produced through conventional cattle raising practises.
The researchers applied an assumed carbon price of €180 per tonne CO2-e (A$290), based on the recommendation of the German Federal Environment Agency on the appropriate cost of emissions-related externalities, and was consistent with guidance issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
While Joyce’s claims in 2012 about the impact of the Gillard government’s carbon price were widely dismissed as baseless, the analysis produced by the German researchers does raise fresh questions about the role meat production has in growing global greenhouse gas concentrations, and how dietary decisions can play a part in wider efforts to tackle climate change.
“Price surcharges for externalities might be perceived as an additional financial burden for consumers. It must be considered, however, that the costs of today’s agricultural externalities are paid for by society and thus also by the individual already,” the research paper says.
“This is yet done indirectly, for example, through emergency aid payments for floods or droughts and other increasing extreme weather conditions as an effect of global warming.”
“When external costs are internalized, however, it would be possible for these external costs to be paid according to the polluter-pays principle and thereby in an arguably fairer way.”
Meat has a comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions footprint, particularly when compared to other food products. The researchers found that almost 25 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions were created for each kilogram of beef produced.
Broiler chickens also had a high emissions footprint (13.2 kilograms of CO2-eq per kilo of meat), followed by pork (5.5 kilograms of CO2-eq per kilo of meat). These figures were increased further when factors like land-use change were taken into account.
“As the results show, the production of animal-based products —especially of meat—causes the highest emissions,” the research paper says. “These results are in line with the prevailing scientific literature. Such high emissions stem from the resource intensive production of meat, because of an inefficient conversion of feed to animal-based products.
“For beef cattle, this conversion ratio is reported by Pimentel and Pimentel to be as high as 43:1, meaning that 43 kg of feed are needed to produce 1 kg of beef product.”
Organic farming methods were also found to have a higher emissions footprint compared to conventional farming practises, but that there were added benefits of organic farming due to reduced environmental externalities in other areas, and had substantially less impact on factors like land use change.
The researchers found that the production of non-animal based food products, mostly fruit, vegetables and grains, had a comparatively negligible contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
After accounting for the climate change related costs of food production, the researchers estimated that meat production had an environmental cost that was 68.5 times higher than plant-based meat production, raising suggestions that the price of meat products would need to be substantially increased to reflect their true cost.
The agricultural sector is responsible for around 13 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, most of which is produced through enteric fermentation by cattle.