Some Crisp Thinking on Beef Impacts

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(photo by Petras Gagilas - flickr - CC)

I recently picked a few nits with a post by Jayson Lusk on the environmental impact of meat production. In this post about his recent WSJ editorial I think he is spot on about dealing with externalities associated with beef production.

He makes three main points.

The first point is that externalities are extremely hard to pin down and price accurately. To some extent, economists have let loose a monster upon the land, giving anyone a blunt tool to beat upon anything that they don’t like. Just because you can point out an externality, doesn’t mean that you have quantified it accurately or put it into a context relative to the costs of competing goods.

The second point is that instead of something like a beef tax to discourage consumption, a better approach is to address the externalities directly. For instance, beef production is a heavy user of water. It would be far better to make sure that water was priced correctly than to tax beef. Proper water pricing would address water waste in areas beyond beef production.

The third point is that we shouldn’t lose sight of the role of innovation in reducing the environmental impact of beef production (and other things):

Technological progress is a key solution.  Research shows that the carbon footprint of beef production fell 16% from 1977 to 2007, with much of that reduction resulting from responsible use of technologies.  Many consumers are averse to these externality-reducing practices and technologies, but more “natural” production systems are often associated with lower productivity, greater water and land use, and higher carbon footprints.

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7 Comments

  1. There was an excellent piece a couple of years back on bovine gene tech on a different front too: The Perfect Milk Machine: How Big Data Transformed the Dairy Industry

    In 1942, when my father was born, the average dairy cow produced less than 5,000 pounds of milk in its lifetime. Now, the average cow produces over 21,000 pounds of milk. At the same time, the number of dairy cows has decreased from a high of 25 million around the end of World War II to fewer than nine million today. This is an indisputable environmental win as fewer cows create less methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and require less land.

    That’s substantial.

    • Wow, amazing. This is why I follow you (on Discus not in person, that would be creepy). 🙂
      You are always finding Amazing facts. Thanks again

      • Heh–why thanks, HZ. I try to bring relevant stuff to discussions. But mostly that doesn’t go over so well–usually I’m condemned as a shill because I know something about the topic. Alas. It was a real treat (and not creepy) to see someone say something nice!

        But my day job is mostly focused on human genomics (because that’s where funding goes), although I do touch on as many species as I can because I find the other stuff more interesting. I’ve tried to tell the human genoscenti how far behind they are–ag genomics is far ahead from a utility perspective. But nobody wants to hear that really, either.

        Thinking about the bovines again though–funny how this doesn’t aerate the ag haters. I mean, these prized genomic specimens are all privately owned, right? Well–there are some great university research projects and excellent non-profit groups preserving heritage breeds. But the really key animals are all privately locked up. Not a peep from the usual suspects.

        Their inexplicable fixation on Roundup is really just bizarre and so narrow. It’s actually a shame they’ve let some people with stupid fixations cloud their understanding of the benefits and the bigger picture.

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