How guilty should you feel about eating lamb?

by on July 22, 2011 at 6:55 am in Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

A few days ago this chart made the rounds in the blogosphere.  It shows, among other things, that eating lamb is much worse for the environment than is eating beef.  A key part of the problem is that a greater percentage of the cow ends up being used for food, compared to the sheep.  You therefore might be tempted to apply a heftier carbon tax, or “personal guilt tax,” to the lamb, but not so fast.

To the extent that farmers feed a whole big lamb and get a little squib of meat in return, the price of lamb is already correspondingly higher than the price of beef (where the tripe is sold to Italy, the cheese is sold to Kraft, etc.).  Consumers are already internalizing this relative price difference between cows and sheep.

The correct response is to eat less meat of all kinds.  It’s not obvious you need to apply a special tax (fiscal or conscience tax) to lamb, above and beyond the general meat tax which is called for.

You may reject a constant returns to scale or proportionality assumption and view the proper tax as a fixed mark-up on both beef and lamb.  That still will lower the relative price of the costlier item.

In terms of animal welfare, a sheep is probably free range with greater probability than is a cow, which somewhat favors lamb consumption again in relative terms only.

You can make other assumptions and get other results, naturally.  Still, in relative terms there is no prima facie presumption against lamb compared to beef.

1 jb July 22, 2011 at 7:18 am

about as guilty as I feel while eating beef. or taking long hot showers. or driving in the HOV lane (alone).

2 Eric July 22, 2011 at 7:27 am

I take it you’re talking about a percentage meat tax. If the meat tax were fixed in $/kg, you’d have to take into account the differential usage between lamb and beef. Sometimes the percentage might also not make sense, but I think it’s better than most alternatives.

3 Eric July 22, 2011 at 7:45 am

Most lambs are raised on grasslands, crop residues, and byproducts of human food production. If the lambs were not eating these things they would still be produced and their natural decomposition would release the same amount of carbon as the lambs “farting”. Remember, matter can not be created or destroyed-it can only change forms. Also, if less lambs are raised, some other ruminant would process this material and give of carbon containing compounds. Bottom line, taxing lamb (or beef) would not reduce emissions. It would help feed a revenue hungry government and make it more costly to feed a person.

4 Sean July 22, 2011 at 10:43 am

Small quibble. Grassland would turn over more slowly if it was not grazed. Without the constant wooly natural selection for fast-growing plants, ones which grew, metabolized, and died more slowly might replace them, thus locking up carbon for longer periods of time and reducing the amount pulled from the soil.

5 J Thomas July 22, 2011 at 11:43 am

Plants which metabolize slower remove CO2 slower also.

What you’re looking for, if you’re interested in that kind of thing, is plants that continue to grow and trap biomass. Replace your grasslands with forests, where forests will grow, and you reduce CO2 some until the forests burn.

Another approach favored by Freeman Dyson is to avoid plowing, but plant crops with some sort of punch. so that more old roots turn into humus. The higher the humus content of the soil, the more carbon is locked up, and over the whole world’s croplands that would add up. I don’t know how much humus we can put up with in cropland, but it would make a difference provided that the crops can grow well without plowing.

6 Zach July 22, 2011 at 10:53 am

Less methane and more CO2 would likely be produced from natural decomposition. The methane is the problem with livestock, in regards to global warming.

7 Jamie July 22, 2011 at 7:48 am

So, if I prefer cigars to cigarettes, I shouldn’t feel guilty about smoking them in public because I paid a private party more for them?

8 Scoop July 22, 2011 at 9:27 am

Assuming you dispose of them correctly and that the people around you are free to choose to leave, there is no reason whatever to feel guilty about smoking them in any place that allows you to smoke them. All the social costs, and much, much more, are in the cost of the pack.

9 jonathan July 23, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Scoop means “no”.

10 Jamie July 24, 2011 at 7:39 am

I suppose the people around lamb eaters are, in fact, free to leave the planet.

11 Gareth July 22, 2011 at 8:01 am

What Eric said. In addition, sheep maintain grassland landscapes. Without them they’d return to scrub. At the very least this gives them an aesthetic value.

In any event, the report’s approach is the product of a lot of puritanical nonsense indulged in by rich people.

12 Dan Dostal July 22, 2011 at 11:53 am

Yes, this. I’m a foody and an environmentalist. Animals and plants are all part of the natural cycles of the Earth. We aren’t hurting the planet by factory farming, just ourselves. Choose grass-fed meat not because it’s better for the environment, but because it’s better for you and your taste-buds.

13 Rahul July 22, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Has there ever been a double blind study about the taste superiority of grass fed? How much of the perceived taste is placebo? Personally I’m skeptical if I can even tell them apart.

14 Finch July 22, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Yeah, Rahul, you can tell them apart. Grass fed is the stringy, poorly marbled steak. You can tell them apart by look, not just by taste.

I can understand how a varied diet would lead to taster meat, but as it is, you just can’t make a cow eat enough grass fast enough to make a good steak.

15 J Thomas July 22, 2011 at 5:59 pm

People say that it’s easy to tell the different beefs apart and I believed them without ever doing a double-blind or even single-blind study.

I don’t know why I believed that. I’ve already found other contexts with colas and beers where people were sure they could tell the difference and in practice they could not. I just assumed that this one was different.

It could be true, though. I won’t know until it’s tested.

16 Finch July 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Seriously, go to Whole Foods and look at the two side by side. The difference in marbling is visually obvious.

My understanding from reading on the subject is that farmers just have a really hard time convincing cows to eat enough grass. Raising grass fed beef is technically demanding.

17 Craig July 22, 2011 at 4:35 pm

I’m a grass based cattle producer and I say Amen brother!

18 AndrewL July 22, 2011 at 8:03 am

Should I stop exercising? exercising raises my heart rate which in turn requires me to take in more oxygen and expel more carbon dioxide. If my CO2 production rate is grater than the median CO2 production rate for humans, should I pay a tax to offset the extra air that I am using? Maybe I can buy a carbon credit from some more sedentary fellow who will literally be paid to sit on his/her ass all day and do nothing.

19 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Ultimately, the greater CO2 production rate is coming from a greater consumption of food. So an appropriately structured tax on food would simultaneously capture the externality you’re imposing on other people by exercising more.

Of course, the real solution is just a simple carbon (and methane, I suppose) tax that doesn’t take aim at any particular type of consumption.

20 Andrew' July 22, 2011 at 12:29 pm

And tax the people who don’t exercise for their medical externalities. Make sure the tax money from both go to destroy clunkers.

21 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm

The reasoning about medical externalities is why I’m skeptical about national health care. Indeed, the logic inexorably leads there (you can see it at work with cigarettes now). Though to be fair, insurance companies attempt to incorporate that information into their own costs, so for a consumer there’s a chance it’d end up being a wash.

Why would the tax money form both go to destroy clunkers? I’ve not heard any good arguments for destroying clunkers.

22 Andrew' July 22, 2011 at 1:19 pm

I was trying to think of the most wasteful program I could. My satirical point being that we are going to tax people for exercising and then tax others for not exercising, while destroying the money necessitating people to either crank up the economy or lower their living standards to compensate.

23 Ted Craig July 22, 2011 at 8:17 am

Actually, pork is better than either.

24 Eric July 22, 2011 at 8:29 am

Good point Gareth. Also, it is interesting that in most carbon trading schemes farmers are paid to leave land in permanent pasture because it creates a “carbon sink” where plants absorb atmosphereic CO2 as part of photosynthesis and deposit it in the soil as organic matter via root elongation and subsequent shedding as the plants are grazed and then regrow. There is a net reduction in atmospheric carbon even with the livestock’s emissions. So, taxing the meat should result in lower supply, and therefore, less carbon absorbing pastures.

25 Speedmaster July 22, 2011 at 8:57 am

Where would eating bark and gravel fit on that chart? 😉

26 tkehler July 22, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Why bring the North Korean peasant diet into it?

27 Zach July 22, 2011 at 9:08 am

Without investigating, when I saw that chart the other day, my first thought was that much of the carbon difference came from the fact that most of the beef we eat is domestic whereas most of the lamb we eat is originally from New Zealand or Australia or something. At least whenever I buy lamb, it’s usually imported. Shipping would increase the carbon footprint substantially.

28 Gary Rylander July 22, 2011 at 9:10 am

The solution is to buy more than a little squib of lamb at an ethnic market where you can get anything from an entire lamb to lamb sausages. I’m partial to the Lebanese Butcher in Falls Church, Virginia (I think this place is on Tyler’s Ethnic Dining Guide).

BTW, it’s interesting that Goat is not listed in the table, as it is probably the world’s most widely eaten domesticated animal due to its ability to graze on the broadest range of terroir

29 Andrew' July 22, 2011 at 9:23 am

Our food produces CO2 and is an “environmental catastrophe.”

Anyway, what really irritated me about that chart was that they said it was a combined health and environmental analysis. I just want the health analysis. I want to eat enough meat for health and maybe a little more to be sure. The right health analysis would facilitate me reduction of meat consumption.

30 NickCroom July 22, 2011 at 9:25 am

This doesn’t capture the whole picture – there are massive differences due to farming technique as well, and not simple ones. For example intensive cattle ranching can lead to a lot lower emissions than free range. But in either case you need flat land that could otherwise be used for arable crops. Sheep however can be raised on hill farms which would otherwise be useless for farming,

31 Sanjay July 22, 2011 at 9:27 am

I’m a vegetarian and have no skin in this game, but — when Professor Cowen says that the effect comes from the fact that the lamb doesn’t give you as much meat per weight as the cow, do they take into effect that you get wool from the sheep? Or don’t you? I’m not clear on iff their are “wearin’ sheep” and “eatin’ sheep.”

32 Davis July 22, 2011 at 10:01 am

right — what are the carbon emissions of wool compared to cotton or synthetic oil-based plastics? if no one ate lamb, wouldn’t wool farmers kill just as many lambs but waste them?

33 Sean July 22, 2011 at 10:39 am

Sheep farmer here. While the economics are slightly different in Australia and New Zealand, here in the US, wool is actually a loss for farmers as, in all except the largest flocks of certain breeds (primarily Merinos), it costs more to shear a sheep than what you get for selling the wool. The money is in the meat and shearing is only a necessary evil to allow sheep to survive the summer. More and more farmers are moving towards haired breeds on which the coat simply falls out.

Bottom line, if we didn’t eat lamb to subsidize it, wool would be a high cost luxury good. Assuming anyone was willing to pay the price.

34 Rahul July 22, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Aren’t you using Mexican labor? Why is the shearing cost so high?

35 Sean July 22, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Heh. That might help a bit. Not quite so much of that up in the North East, but it does make things better in Texas. It’s a trade that takes a couple years to become proficient at (vs other seasonal labor which requires little to no time to learn), but one which only exists a couple months out of the year (vs construction that can be worked at constantly until proficient), so there’s a real barrier to entry for the migrant worker.

The fact is, though, is that wool is worth very little. You get only a few cents for a fleece and a good shearer can do maybe 20 an hour (200 a day is considered sort of the equivalent of being a WWI fighter ace.). Increasing use of synthetic textiles is only making things worse. The only breed where the money really works out for wool is the Merino. If you have wool clothing it is Merino. However, they are not a good meat sheep and their extremely wrinkled skin makes them more difficult to shear. It’s a real catch 22 and since the Australians have pretty much cornered the world market on high quality wool, American farmers (for what our tiny flocks are worth internationally) go in the other direction, which destroys economies of scale and makes wool even less worthwhile.

36 Careless July 22, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Well that post was a lot more interesting than the chart, thank you.

37 mulp July 22, 2011 at 10:07 pm

You should be a big supporter of a carbon tax, say about the equivalent of a $100 barrel of oil, which would make synthetics more expensive.

Alternatively, you should seek subsidies to make you competitive with the highly subsidized cottons and synthetics from fossil fuels.

Of you should form a industrial complex to bioengineer a superior sheep, say one with genes to produce a silk like wool, or perhaps a kevlar equivalent. Maybe bioengineer a sheep that is easier to shear, big and round with long legs like on some cartoons and that sleeps standing up (lots of area for wool, high above the dirt). Obviously your efforts would be on making your industry get all the profits while keeping the farmer living on the edge.

Or get a government program which creates the funding for a marketing campaign like that for cotton.

Or switch to another crop, maybe llama – alpaca for example.

The economics of sheep are really easy; the only reason you aren’t making lots of money is a personal lack of innovation and hard work.


38 Sean July 23, 2011 at 5:02 pm

If you’ve never shorn an Alpaca and feel the need to do penance for some grievous sin, I’d highly recommend it. 😉

39 Eric #2 July 22, 2011 at 9:28 am

This post is a great example of why I’m not in favor of Pigovian taxes. The theoretical argument about how it corrects for externalities is unassailable. On the other hand, nobody is able to recognize externalities consistently (in my opinion), determine the appropriate size of the externality, or often even the sign of the externality. There is only a narrow range of taxes in which a Pigovian tax does more good than harm and I don’t believe policymakers can hit that range with any regularity. As is often the case, Hayek got it right when he said, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

40 mulp July 22, 2011 at 8:57 pm

So, you think economists should ignore the natural world, and expect the profit motive to change the laws of nature to conform to economic theory?

41 Paul N July 22, 2011 at 9:31 am

Is meat really worse for the environment? Why is it so cheap then? At my local (not fancy) grocery store, chicken thighs are $1.69/lb. All apples, including those that grow readily not more than 10 miles from this store, cost $1.99/lb, and they are mostly water. You can get a pound of hot dogs for $1, but a pound of celery costs $2.

42 Chuck July 22, 2011 at 10:23 am

There is no cost to emit carbon, so it does not show up in the price of the food. In addition, I believe we subsidize meat production quite a bit.

43 mulp July 22, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Nor for polluting the water and killing the food in rivers, bays, and oceans that were once major sources of both food and employment. The States are in conflict with the EPA on the effects of chicken farms on the Chesapeake Bay, with all the polluters pointing to all the others saying “they should stop their pollution first.” As multiple States are involved, the States are pointing to each other saying “they should stop polluting first”. And all of them are saying “it costs too much” while the sea and fresh water food industries are blaming government for their inability to make a living for lack of crop to harvest.

Why hasn’t the free market solved the problem? The EPA by implicit and explicit policy has left it to others to solve the problem just as the critics of the EPA say should have been done instead of the Clean Water and Air and EPA laws.

44 Sean July 22, 2011 at 10:40 am

Massive government subsidies. Particularly for corn which feeds the factory farm animals.

45 jason July 22, 2011 at 11:20 am


46 Jim Milles July 22, 2011 at 9:39 am

How much of the sheep is consumed varies quite a bit culturally, doesn’t it? Perhaps in western high cuisine countries much of the sheep is discarded, but in more traditional cultures and western countries like Scotland and Iceland, very little is not consumed by humans.

47 Scoop July 22, 2011 at 9:45 am

All talk of carbon emissions from absolutely everything except electricity generation, engine fuel and heating is an absolute joke.

If you really worry that climate change will be disastrous, then logic demands you must focus all your lobbying energy (and pretty much all your life energy) on advocating the immediate substitution of nuclear power for fossil fuel generation and the construction of so many surplus nuclear plants that they can power a very rapid transition to electric cars and electric heat. If you did a desperate WWII-style response, pulled out all the stops, you could achieve this in the OECD, China, India and Brazil in ten years. (I’m not personally sold on this; I’m just saying that if you really believe man-made carbon emissions are causing climate change that will be disastrous, this is the ONLY logical response because it’s the only response that will come close to solving the problem.)

Advocating any other efforts related to climate change means you’re either colossally stupid and don’t really understand what you claim to believe or that you don’t really believe it and you’re just signaling your virtue by telling others they have to give up things for the greater good. (You’ll generally be advocating that they stop doing things that you don’t do at all, so you won’t have to suffer for your “principles.”)

Tyler obviously knows that climate change is no place for marginal improvements. I can only assume he posted this because he enjoys making clever arguments that the author of this piece was too stupid to see, even granting the idiotic premise that carbon emissions from meat type substitutions matter.

48 Chris July 22, 2011 at 11:18 am

Well I mostly agree, marginal improvements are fine by me. Knowing lamb is slightly worse than beef is worthwhile for individuals to know. That some wooly headed signalers think driving a Prius or eating chicken is going to make a dent in global warming is their problem.

49 Finch July 22, 2011 at 11:30 am

Scoop ftw.

50 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Between 14 and 22 percent of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases come from meat production. While this is a far cry from being the majority, it’s not insignificant either. When a single degree increase in global mean temperature costs trillions of dollars, knowing how to limit the effects of that 18% of GHG emissions is a worthy goal.

Unless, of course, you’re just someone who gets off on putting himself up on a moral pedestal to make fun of other people who put themselves up on a moral pedestal.

51 Scoop July 24, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Yes, but this isn’t a post about eliminated meat consumption, which might reduce greenhouse gas significantly. It’s a post about whether individuals should feel “OK” or “guilty” about eating lamb as opposed to other meats. Even if the answer is guilty and all the world’s lamb eaters switched to other meats, then world CO2 output would fall by about one tenth of one percent — effectively not at all.

If you believe that climate change is a massive problem, one that will kill billions of people and extinguish many of the world’s species, worrying lamb vs. other meats is not an appropriate use of your time.

52 J Thomas July 22, 2011 at 1:39 pm

If you really worry that climate change will be disastrous, then logic demands you must focus all your lobbying energy (and pretty much all your life energy) on advocating the immediate substitution of nuclear power for fossil fuel generation and the construction of so many surplus nuclear plants that they can power a very rapid transition to electric cars and electric heat.

That’s provided you worry that climate change will be disastrous in the medium run, but you have no worry that nuclear accidents plus normal minor radioactive contamination will be disastrous in the medium run. In that case your idiotic claim becomes correct.

53 Andrew' July 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Scoop is more correct than you think to the extent that nuclear paranoia has forced us to use the inferior more dangerous legacy nuclear technology (that the government invented).

54 J Thomas July 22, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Since we have not used the new technology, we do not have much of a baseline about how dangerous it is. There is theoretical reason to think it ought to be safer. See how much water that argument carries when you try to get insurance…. But you can’t get private insurance, can you? The last I heard you could only get the government to insure nuclear plants because free-market insurers refused to accept that bet. That could have changed while I wasn’t looking, though.

We are not forced to use dangerous legacy nuclear technology, unless we are forced to use nuclear technology.

55 Scoop July 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm

If you think that nuclear power is as dangerous in the medium run as climate change, you don’t really believe that climate change dangerous.

The models for climate change show billions of people dying and many — perhaps most — of all species of plant and animal being extinguished in the wild. There is absolutely nothing that could go wrong with nuclear power that ends with billions of people dead. Japan was a worst-case scenario and what will the results be? Ten thousand people with suspicious cancer?

56 J Thomas July 24, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Scoop, you are thinking entirely in the short run.

You have no basis to suppose that Japan was a worst-case scenario. You do not even have a basis to suppose that you know the long-run consequences of that one accident.

You have the illusion that you understand what could go wrong with nuclear power. You do not. Nobody does.

If it’s a question of “we don’t really know the answers so we have to go with our best guesses because they are the best guesses we have”, then my best guess is that nuclear power will turn out considerably more expensive than planned, but will have only minor consequences that will perhaps make a few thousand square miles uninhabitable for a while, and low-rent for a longer while, and that this will have no effect on the human genome in the long run.

But our best guesses are not at all reliable. We fundamentally do not know what we are doing. This makes it hard to do good planning.

So my own plan that I hope others will follow, is to start out by hoping that we still have 30 years before we need to take drastic action. I estimate it would take 20 years to build a giant network of nuclear power plants. We would have to build prototypes and then full-scale plants, the construction crews and the operating crews would train new people to build and operate twice as many the second cycle, etc. 20 years.

So I want to spend 10 years looking for some alternative that looks obviously safer than nuclear power. If after 10 years we get something better we can ramp up in 20 years or less, I want to go with that instead. If not, I want to go with nuclear power. Meanwhile we will have 10 years better understanding about global warming, too.

Since I made this plan 2 years ago, in 8 years I will strongly support nuclear power unless something turns up that I haven’t seen yet.

If it turns out that 30 years is too late, then that’s unfortunate. But rushing into a stupid plan because you don’t have time to think, tends to be catastrophic in itself.

57 Lars July 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

I opened this thread solely to see how quickly someone would start bragging about being enviromentally destructive. Assumption confirmed with comment 1!

58 Andrew' July 22, 2011 at 11:52 am

Lars, lambs don’t eat coal.

59 Yancey Ward July 22, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I know I am ordering the lamb chops today for lunch.

60 Yancey Ward July 22, 2011 at 12:15 pm

But more seriously- all religions have to deal with happy, in-your-face heretics. It is in the nature of a some of us to defy authority and self-righteous people.

61 Andrew' July 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Or maybe eating lamb isn’t really that environmentally destructive even though an environmental group sent out a memo last week.

Except for the lamb of course.

62 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 12:31 pm

“happy, in-your-face heretics” reads as “dicks who don’t care about violating others’ property rights”

63 Rahul July 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Whose property right was he violating? The lamb’s?

64 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Taking the reality of negative externalities of GHG emissions as a given, you just have to identify the people being screwed. Florida coast dwellers, Bengali families, Dutch farmers. Etc.

65 Andrew' July 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Both you and Lars are starting with the assumption that these things are destructive. You recognize this. But it clearly isn’t very destructive. It’s all in the future. Maybe. While lambs eat grass that was CO2 until the grass grew. So, aside from the methane, lamb is a carbon sequestration technology.

Below you talk about screwing Florida beachhouse owners, but what is your alternative? Fewer mouths to feed in Detroit?

66 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 7:04 pm


67 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Also: if I dump carcinogenic chemicals into a river, just because its effects are projected into the future does not mean I’m not generating externalities.

68 Yancey Ward July 22, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Is that what they are, and what they are doing? How are you powering your computer?

69 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Here’s a question for you, Yancey. We’re generating externalities that does violence against other people and their property. Your make a rhetorical attempt to throw charges of hypocrisy in the faces of anyone who thinks this is a moral concern, because interacting with the current system makes it impossible to avoid getting away with those externalities unpriced. At the same time you mock those people who do try to reduce their carbon production, you mock people who purchase carbon credits to counteract their externalities as buying indulgences, and you mock the people who try to change the system as “self righteous.” It’s a pile of contradictions, and a troubling example of total obliviousness and moral abdication.

So, the question is, what do you suggest people do who think we should not do violence toward other people?

70 J Thomas July 22, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Zephyrus, I do not know how Yancey Ward will answer your question, but the obvious answer is that if you think we shouldn’t do violence, then don’t do violence.

If you don’t do violence to me, and you don’t try to stop me from doing violence to other people, and you don’t try to stop me from doing violence to you, then

then I won’t have any problem with you. Carry on, you’re doing fine.

And if you want to go out drinking and explain to me why I ought to be like you, I’ll probably even listen.

If you buy.

71 Yancey Ward July 23, 2011 at 4:55 pm

We’re generating externalities that does violence against other people and their property.

Are we? That was what I was asking you. Of course, you react viciously when I questioned this doctrinaire position, proving my original point. As for the rest of your comment, I really don’t have much more to say than that you should at least walk your talk before attacking me, at the very least, don’t you think? I do mock hypocrisy frequently, as I should, especially when those are the people trying to modify my behavior.

72 Zephyrus July 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Yancey, please check out for a basic overview of the effects of global warming.

73 Zephyrus July 23, 2011 at 6:02 pm

As far as J. Thomas, obviously you’re free to live your life as you please. My point is that you have no right to violate other people’s property rights and no right to expect others not to intervene when you engage in that violence.

74 J Thomas July 23, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Zephyrus, I don’t actually have any major disagreement with you. I want to point out that if you want people to do something you think is good, you can try to convince them but they probably will not agree. You need force in reserve, if it’s worth getting a lot of compliance.

There are people who argue that it’s bad to use force. I have a lot of respect for the ones who manage to finesse the situation when people use force on them and they don’t want to retaliate or get others to use force in their favor. But there aren’t many like that.

As for the right to violate other people’s rights, I have to figure that any rights which are not enforced are at best in abeyance. A right you can’t depend on is more like a pious hope.

75 Chuck July 22, 2011 at 10:05 am

It seems to me if we simply tax carbon emissions at a rate appropriate to the negative externalities of emissions, saving money and reducing carbon emissions will be pretty well harmonized.

76 Chris July 22, 2011 at 11:20 am

How do we price the externalities?

77 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Good question. But we’re pricing them now, just at $0, while it’s almost certain that it’s $20/ton and most likely significantly more.

78 Andrew' July 22, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Where is the damage? And will the tax be used to mitigate the damage? Will it be effective (like geoengineering) or will it be ineffective?

You could say that the tax needs to be pegged to sea levels. Otherwise it’s probably just arbitrary revenue raisers used to justify further government indebtedness requiring constant increase in GDP.

79 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Sigh. Read for a basic overview of the damages. I’m not going to do your homework for you, just like I also don’t have to prove to you that the world is round.

80 Edward Burke July 22, 2011 at 10:45 am

I would much rather eat lamb than have a lamb eat me. Purely coincidentally, I enjoyed my first “lambburger” just days ago, and my! it was tasty. I still marvel that I’ve never found lamb offered as a pizza topping. And a restauranteur I spoke with recently could not account for lamb not being readily the chief constituent of meatballs for pasta recipes, except to opine that the flavor would somehow get lost; culinary empiricism beckons.

81 Davide July 22, 2011 at 11:43 am

One aspect the chart (and the study behind it) spectacularly fails to consider is the amount of drugs (antibiotics, hormones, the works) bovines require to be reared intensively, as opposed to free-range ovines. Tyler himself notes that the free-range distinction: however, for a study that claims to be “full lifecycle” that’s a serious shortcoming.

I live in the UK and I will keep preferring British lamb to British beef for my red meat fix. As was stated by several commenters, though, chicken and pork are both lower-carbon options.

82 tkehler July 23, 2011 at 3:02 am

I gather than one reason for the huge doses of antibiotics is that factory farmed animals are fattened on grains and corn, which their stomachs digest poorly.

83 Jim July 22, 2011 at 11:56 am

“You therefore might be tempted to apply a heftier carbon tax, or “personal guilt tax,” ”

Can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to tax guilt or breathing, but I do appreciate your guidance in the case the mood ever does strike.

84 Dan Dostal July 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm

So hippy chicks are highly attractive. I’ve done my fair share of posturing for them and really enjoy a healthy, active, passionate woman. Sadly each and every one I’ve encountered is ruled more by emotion than logic. This makes the chase easier, but much less enjoyable. I’m completely confident that some guy got laid by making this chart. He will continue to enjoy the benefits of this chart for sometime, especially if he continues to espouse this crap. He’s probably totally convinced by it. If attractive women were smarter, we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of crap.

85 Andrew July 22, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Seriously, can we get Dan some sort of Misogynist of the Month award?

86 tkehler July 23, 2011 at 2:59 am

Nah, he’s already Idiot of the Month and he can only hold two awards at the same time.

87 Rahul July 22, 2011 at 12:15 pm

The correct response is to eat less meat of all kinds

Why? If consumers can internalize the relative price difference of sheep and cows why not make the same assumption about beef and ,say, cereals.

88 Dan July 22, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Based on the underlying assumption we should kill all animals after all doesnt a bear crap in the woods. And compared to beef and sheep we get almost no meat from bears.

89 Andrew' July 22, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Close, but the ruminants produce methane. But I still don’t understand the logic. If you assume a grass field, the lamb converts some of that into CO2 and methane. However, grass grows back and now you have grass carbon and lamb carbon. Aside from the methane you have sequestered more CO2 by storing it as an animal through the winter. Now, you eat the lamb and start over, so I’m not sure what steady state looks like. Of course, you can’t assume a grass field because there might be clearcutting of trees to create a meadow for the lambs, although I’m not sure that’s how it works on average. I don’t know if EWG did the complete analysis.

90 Dean Sayers July 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I don’t see how this follows. Paying more for something doesn’t offset any greater material consequences of the act (i.e., the fact that it is a disincentive process does not translate into lower carbon emissions).

Clearly, carbon emissions aren’t the only problem here anyways. If a certain amount of labor is tied up in producing meat, and more is tied up for one type, it can be seen as a less efficient usage of that resource. Furthermore, there is a limit to human consumption – and if a greater percentage of human consumption goes to a less efficient model (be that labor, carbon or monetary efficiency), than overall efficiency goes down.

I don’t see how price penalties can replace efficiency in the usage of resources.

91 Urso July 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm

“Paying more for something doesn’t offset any greater material consequences of the act ”
No, but it certainly dissuades you from committing that act in the first place, thereby self-limiting the harms.

92 J Thomas July 22, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Paying more for something doesn’t offset any greater material consequences of the act (i.e., the fact that it is a disincentive process does not translate into lower carbon emissions).

Bear with me here, because I think it could work.

Say we want to use less fossil fuel. There’s good reason for us to use less oil — we import a lot of it and the costs are a sizeable fraction of our balance of trade problem. There’s reason for us to use less coal also, though that is less indisputable.

So, say we put a transfer tax on fossil fuel. When the fuel is first mined or pumped or imported, we slap a great big tax on it. The producers add the tax to their prices, and it distributes everywhere.

Meanwhile, we take the entire proceeds of the tax and divide them evenly among voters and add the money to their debit cards every week.

Businesses that use up fossil fuel to make their products, add the cost (including the tax) to their prices. Businesses that find ways to use less fossil fuel can make higher profits or sell at lower prices. They have an incentive to use less fossil fuel if they can find a way.

The average voter can pay the fossil fuel taxes with the tax money the government has given him. Voters who use more fuel than usual will pay a transfer tax to voters who use less. All voters can save money by using less fossil fuel and by buying products that use less fossil fuel — they get the same fraction of the tax money but they spend less of it on fossil fuel, and have more for everything else.

When a significant part of the fossil fuel price is the tax, then fossil fuel prices won’t go up and down as much, or at least not so much down, and alternative fuels can depend on a price floor that makes them less risky to invest in.

If we accept that it’s a good thing to use less fossil fuel, for whatever reason, then the tax is a good thing. One reason to use less of it is that it’s going to run out and it takes time to phase in alternatives; better to phase them in early than late.

This might not reduce world fossil fuel burning, because if the USA imports less the rest of the world might find prices lower and still consume it all. But it would be a good thing for the USA to import less regardless. If you believe it’s a good thing for the world to burn less fossil fuel, then it’s a good thing for the USA to burn less even if the rest of the world doesn’t go along. And such a tax will not hurt voters, on average. If you need to use fossil fuel you just pay for it, you pay the tax with the tax money. It only hurts voters who burn more than their share.

93 Sigivald July 22, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Answer to the title question: Not at all.

A pox on the hippies.

(Zephyrus said: “Good question. But we’re pricing them now, just at $0, while it’s almost certain that it’s $20/ton and most likely significantly more.”.

Almost certain? An interesting turn of phrase for an area where the very existence of a problem is deeply questionable.

I suspect that the “real” external cost of a ton of carbon emissions is much more like $0, if not $Negative.)

94 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 7:36 pm

You are misinformed. A scientific consensus exists that anthropogenic climate change is real.

95 Zephyrus July 22, 2011 at 7:45 pm

To get a better view of the science as it stands now, please check out and skim a few of the articles that Nature has published on climate change.

You can also check out Science’s coverage:,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=d4254cc904f96be6&biw=1364&bih=687

A tidbit from them in 2004: “This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect.”

96 Anonymous July 22, 2011 at 7:52 pm

That says nothing about whether the consensus is for climate change or against climate change.

97 cynic July 22, 2011 at 7:41 pm

I despise that anyone brings up this chart. A comparison of kg co2 vs kg of food is about as relevant as a comparison of kg co2 vs photons of light absorbed, or kg co2 vs average specific heat of food. A kg of dirt probably has a ratio of something 10*10^9:1 of kgs/kgs of co2, but that hardly makes it an ideal source of food. Unless you are a trucking company, food is reasonably measured in calories, nutrients or some combination thereof, not sheer weight.

98 Rahul July 22, 2011 at 11:03 pm

I think weight makes sense because people buy food by weight (mostly). So instinctively I’m better prepared to think of $-per-pound. Would you be able to guess the $-per-calorie cost of beef and bananas?

99 grackle July 23, 2011 at 11:44 pm

I note that the study was produced by an organization dedicated to curtailing meat consumption. I’m so surprised that they reached the conclusions they did.

100 Sonic Charmer July 24, 2011 at 3:18 pm

To the extent that farmers feed a whole big lamb and get a little squib of meat in return, the price of lamb is already correspondingly higher than the price of beef

Why don’t you just follow through with this logic: to the extent that raising meat has costs, the price of any meat is already correspondingly higher than (whatever-we’re-supposed-to-substitute-for-meat).

Oh, you are going to say meat has “externalities”. I see. Please show us your calculations of those “externalities” that aren’t summarized in the price already. I assume you have unravelled in full detail, with giant input-output matrices and a detailed interconnected model of the oceano-atmospheric system coupled to humanity’s political-economy and so on, all the unmeasured costs – positive and negative – imposed by the activity of raising meat that aren’t already in the market price itself.

Oh, I see. We can just call those costs “carbon” and then come up with a “carbon” [sic] tax. The use of “carbon” (I assume this term is supposed to denote the molecule carbon dioxide?) as a proxy for externalities is sloppy and I don’t buy it. It is based entirely on the theory that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will drive a global warming that will impose costs on humanity, and that theory is entirely based on computer models which (having worked on them and seen them in action) I don’t buy either.

So what argument is supposed to remain for any sort of Pigouvian tax on any of this “carbon” [sic]-costly meat at all, or indeed for having this conversation in the first place?

It’s in the price. If you don’t think it’s in the price, you need an actual argument to that effect. You don’t have one and aren’t capable of generating one. Nobody is.

101 J Thomas July 24, 2011 at 10:09 pm

It’s in the price. If you don’t think it’s in the price, you need an actual argument to that effect. You don’t have one and aren’t capable of generating one. Nobody is.

Try this — first, it isn’t in the price. Massive government subsidies at various levels have distorted the price out of all recognition. If we can remove the subsidies then after things stabilise a lot of the costs will be in the price, and I tend to expect that a lot of Americans will find meat to be largely unaffordable. Which is one reason the subsidies are there, because a whole lot of US voters like to eat meat.

The use of “carbon” (I assume this term is supposed to denote the molecule carbon dioxide?) as a proxy for externalities is sloppy and I don’t buy it. It is based entirely on the theory that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will drive a global warming that will impose costs on humanity,

Well, look at it. There’s a whole lot of carbon which has been sequestered since the Pennsylvanian age or thereabouts. We are releasing it all into the world ecosystem in less than 2 centuries. What will be the effects of that? Nobody knows. There’s no data. A lot of this carbon has been out of circulation since before there were land vertebrates. What effect will it have? All of our historical data is based on climate that did not have this carbon. We are creating a situation which is unprecedented within the last 300 million years.

We don’t need a detailed understanding of climate to see that this is a brand new situation that we are rushing into blindly.

So the issue is not to precisely predict the costs. The issue is that we cannot currently predict the costs, that we face unknown risks that threaten to be very large.

We will predictably refuse to take drastic action to forestall unknown risks. But it makes sense to reduce our current drastic actions which have unknown risks. Not that there’s a whole lot to do. If, say, 70% of our fossil fuels are already burned, there’s a fair chance another 30% won’t break us.

102 Sonic Charmer July 26, 2011 at 12:16 am

Massive government subsidies at various levels have distorted the price out of all recognition.

Possibly. I’ll buy that there are massive government subsidies. There are also massive government interventions and distortions of lots of other kinds, which could have opposing effects, or similar distorting effects on meat substitutes, as well as on various other components of the meat- and indeed food-supply chain overall. Have you catalogued them all? What is the net distorting effect of ‘government’ on the end resulting price of meat? Large or small? Positive or negative? You say ‘beyond all recognition’, but to truly know that would require assembling the exact same sort of calculation which I came here to say no one can do. Hence (at least to the best first-order approximation you can come up with), it’s in the price. Or, if you think it’s not, you need an argument to that effect (something more convincing than waving hands and saying ‘beyond all recognition’). Like I said.

But, I’ll accept your argument as a good one for removing those distorting government subsidies, whatever they are. Sure, let’s go ahead and try that. But not because of purported ‘externalities’. Just because those are (probably) a bad idea in and of themselves. And then, let’s see what happens. Whatever does happen, though, it won’t add up to any sort of ‘guilt’ or ‘environmental’ reason to reduce the amount of meat we eat. But if the price goes up, and the amount of meat eaten goes down, so much the better I guess.

[carbon] We don’t need a detailed understanding of climate to see that this is a brand new situation that we are rushing into blindly.

That’s not an argument for anything either way. One can’t even know the sign of the effect (good or bad?) from the ‘brand new’ concern you are raising.

So the issue is not to precisely predict the costs. The issue is that we cannot currently predict the costs, that we face unknown risks that threaten to be very large.

They do? According to what reasoning? That requires an argument. The current best argument is based on computer models (the results of which – again – I don’t buy). So what is one left with. The concern that something very bad ‘could’ result? In which situation is that not true?

But it makes sense to reduce our current drastic actions which have unknown risks.

What exactly is so ‘drastic’ about this carbon thing you’re raising. Just citing the ‘amount of carbon’ and saying it’s ‘unprecedented’ is meaningless by itself unless it has some bad effect of some kind. (Humanity has also constructed and populated the universe with a growing and ‘unprecedented’ number of approximately-rectangular physical objects…so what?)

What actual effect of the amount of ‘carbon’ (carbon dioxide, you mean, right?) do you worry about and on what basis should forestalling it cause us to reduce/tax meat intake? Where is the cost-benefit analysis of the effects of doing so on the concern you state?

Let me know,


103 Sonic Charmer July 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm


It shows, among other things, that eating lamb is much worse for the environment than is eating beef.

On inspection, the chart shows nothing of the sort. What it purports to show (as if this can be fully measured accurately, but let’s go with it) is that more kg of CO^2 (“carbon”) are emitted in the process of raising a kg of lamb than in raising a kg of beef. The notion that this makes the former ‘worse for the environment’, full stop, is baloney. But this isn’t even what you mean to say, you mean to say lamb is more likely to induce global warming. If you had said that, the statement would have at least made sense (though I would have still called baloney for reasons stated above).

People have gotten into the lazy, lazy habit of mentally modelling ‘the environment’ as a one-dimensional system in which lower “carbon” [sic] emissions are good and higher are bad. Why is this not seen for the laziness and sloppiness than it is?

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