What to consider when choosing a burger?

10 Apr 2019

My 10-year-old daughter is a very conscientious environmentalist. Very. She turns off water while brushing her teeth, picks up plastic from beaches, and—as many of my stubbed toes can attest to—faithfully turns off lights throughout our house. You can then imagine my surprise when stopping at a fast food joint the other day for a quick bite to eat, she eagerly demanded a burger. Humouring her request, I nevertheless thought it was prudent to remind her of beef’s environmental impact, so I asked her:

“Don’t you know that cows are a big contributor of greenhouse gasses that cause climate change?”

“I know, daddy, that’s why I’m ordering it.”

Stunned at her unapologetic callousness, after a brief pause to find and pick up my gaping jaw from the floor, I continued:

“So… you think climate change is good?”

Looking confused, she replied:

“What? What do you mean? Cows cause global warming, I’m eating beef, so there are fewer cows!”

Reigning in my urge to drop on the floor and laugh hysterically, I considered my options of showing her the errors of her ways. I briefly toyed with an idea of giving her a crash course on supply and demand, with the invisible hand propping up cow numbers to meet her consumerist needs, only to result in an environmental tragedy of the commons due to negative externalities. Remembering, however, that her fifth grade calculus was not quite up to scratch, I vied for a more policymaker-level explanation:

“Well, think of it this way. If you alone don’t eat that burger, it probably won’t make much difference. But if lots of people stop eating burgers, beef farmers will start farming fewer cows, and there will be fewer greenhouse emissions.”

My daughter bit thoughtfully into her burger. After slowly masticating her mouthful of burger 32 times (an optimal number for a healthy gut), she continued:

“But what about the poor farmers then, won’t they have less money because people buy fewer burgers?”

Policymaker-level discussion indeed.

“Sure,” I say. “You are a hundred per cent right: If people start eating less beef, farmers may lose some money. But it’s not like you’re going to stop eating altogether – you may order a chicken burger instead, and if lots of people do that, chicken farmers will start making more chickens. They will probably need more people and hire some of the people who used to work in cow farms. Even some beef farmers may choose to raise chickens instead of cows…”

Global meat consumption has increased nearly four-fold in the last fifty years. Increases in global consumption of bovine meat, in particular, is worrisome because cattle emit methane, which is a greenhouse gas roughly 30 times more potent than CO2. FAO estimates that 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, and 65% of that comes from cattle alone. Production and consumption of one kilogram of beef is estimated to be equivalent to 39 kilograms of CO2 emissions, or enough to drive a car for over 150 kilometres. One kilogram of poultry, on the other hand, produces only 6.9 kilograms equivalent of CO2 emissions.

While raising an environmental consciousness of consumers is one way to reduce emissions (and hopefully after reading this blog, you’ll choose chicken instead of beef – if not dropping meat altogether), policymakers across the region and beyond have started considering other options.

The most low-hanging fruit is withdrawing domestic support of methane-producing livestock farmers, such as subsidies, low-interest loans and other financial incentives. Other options include addressing the negative externalities via a Pigouvian tax or market-based mechanisms. For example, in 2003, the New Zealand Government was the first country in the world to consider establishing a “fart tax” on livestock farmers to fund research to address the externalities of these emissions. Such options, however, are often a hard political sell: the “fart tax” was vehemently opposed by livestock farmers and was substituted by voluntary contributions by the industry.

Yet another emerging train of thought is to address these externalities via trade regulations, such as through non-tariff measures. Non-tariff measures are broadly defined are as policy measures other than ordinary customs tariffs that can potentially have an economic effect on international trade in goods, changing quantities traded, or prices or both. The Asia-Pacific region has seen a dramatic increase in the stock of non-tariff measures, and they are a growing concern among member States. Border Carbon Adjustment (BCA) is a type of non-tariff measure where imports are taxed based on their greenhouse gas content. However, the effects of such taxes have been analysed and shown to disproportionately negatively affect the poor. One of the recommendations that the authors of the study put forward was to ensure that proceeds from such tariffs are channelled towards producers in countries negatively affected.

In conclusion, policymakers need to be cautious about drastic actions, as they are likely to disproportionately affect the poor and may be politically damaging. As such, careful stakeholder analysis must be conducted, and those on the losing side must be compensated by those who gain – all of us.
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Epilogue

In our next visit to the same fast food establishment, my daughter ordered a chicken burger.