The carbon footprint of food

Ezra reports:

…two Carnegie Mellon researchers recently broke down
the carbon footprint of foods, and their findings were a bit
surprising. 83 percent of emissions came from the growth and production
of the food itself. Only 11 percent came from transportation, and even
then, only 4 percent came from the transportation between grower and
seller (which is the part that eating local helps cut).

In other words, when it comes to food the greenest things you can do, if that is your standard, is to eat less meat and have fewer kids.


Or use less intensive agricultural processes.

If you do eat meat, eat pasture fed beef instead of grain fed, but better just eat less or no meat. That also happens to be good for your health (in Michael Pollan's words "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." (where food is not processed food):

See also "Vegetarian is new Prius" and "Rethinking the meat guzzler"

I don't agree with Michael Pollan (I'm not really sure why he has become so popular). The scientific evidence doesn't really support his claim that it's significantly more healthy to not eat "processed food" or to eat very little meat. As long as you eat a balanced diet (i.e., meat, vegetables, fruit, fish, grains) you'll be fine. For most foods we either have no idea what they really contribute to long-term health, or the effects are small (20% less risk of a cancer than very few people get isn't significant). Likewise there's no evidence that organic food is healthier.

Pollan isn't very different from the various other people that try to sell "diets" or tell you what to eat. They don't want to admit that it doesn't really matter that much for almost everyone (unless you have a specific condition or nutrient deficiency).

Try asking someone what the effect on your lifespan would be if you switch to eating the way they want you to. Unlike things that are clearly harmful, like smoking (6-8 years less, on average), there's no data at all on various diets.


There is no reason to use "a sales tax on food that varies by the volume of carbon emitted in its production" if you're worried about the externalities of food production. All you have to do is slap a Pigouvian tax on CO2 emissions, and then the externality is internalized. Problem solved without forcing the government to make calculations on the true carbon cost of varying kinds of food production.

But the more people there are, the more innovation. Is population control really the solution?

Less factory-farmed meat means less meat, period. The loss of productivity means that the overall meat supply would drop drastically and prices would go up.

Actually, beef cattle already spend most of their lives on pasture. The feedlot is used primarily to induce marbling--i.e., the growth of intramuscular fat--using a grain-based diet not entirely dissimilar to that recommended by vegetarians.

Also, contrary to the impression one might get from reading the articles linked above, meat really doesn't account for a very large portion of the typical American's diet. Average consumption is about two three-ounce servings per day. Americans get fewer calories from meat than from sugar, flour,

Even if the price of the cheapest cuts were to skyrocket to $6/lb (what grass-finished hamburger or stew meat generally costs now), it would only take an extra dollar or two per day to make up the difference--a price easily affordable to all but the poorest among us.

The link below provides some more information on ag subsidies as they relate to this years revolting farm bill. You will notice meat is not listed as one of the products receiving the lions share of farm subsidies.

Crop the Crap, An unacceptable farm bill.

Since the last farm bill was enacted in 2002, the five crops that receive the lion’s share of farm subsidies have also enjoyed massive price hikes: cotton (105 percent price hike), soybeans (164 percent), corn (169 percent), wheat (256 percent), and rice (281 percent).

The article proceeds to list some of the other damage ag subsidies cause

They harm the environment by encouraging over-planting. By undermining America’s trade negotiations, subsidies raise consumer prices and restrict U.S. exports. Cotton subsidies undercut impoverished African farmers desperately trying to make a living. They contribute to obesity and rising health care costs by subsidizing corn and soy (from which sugars and fats are derived) rather than healthier fruits and vegetables.

It is perfectly clear that reducing meat consumption is not going to improve the environment and is likely to increase environmental destruction.

My question is why does this perniciously counterproductive concept continue to get so much attention and support.

Could some of the economists in the house please explain that to me?

The amount of shit these Capitalists get up to, how well they hide it and how well they passed it off as completely normal.

....sickens me.

"Since local producers are likely to be much less efficient than big firms, it seems likely that local food actually has a larger carbon footprint. That won't go down well at the farmers' market."

In what way are they more likely to be less efficient? Isn't the presence of ag subsidies and their tilt towards large producers a good indication of efficiency (or lack thereof)? I've come across research that indicates that small to medium farms are much more efficient over a broad variety of crops, but the large ones are better at turning tax revenue, marginal land, and petroleum-based chemicals into corn. It isn't largeness, per se, that makes a farm efficient, but location, location, and location (i.e. rain, soil, and sunlight conditions).

"The feedlot is used primarily to induce marbling ... using a grain-based diet not entirely dissimilar to that recommended by vegetarians."

No, vegetarians don't generally recommend this diet for cattle, they recommend it for people. Cows are a poor mechanism for turning sunlight into calories and protein.

"the typical American gets more calories from added sugar, from flour, or from added fats than from meat"

Yes, but from where do they get their protein? We don't need as much protein as had been claimed in the past, and we don't need to get it from meat. About the only thing that is difficult to get in a strictly vegan diet is B12, but a few free-range eggs and supplementation takes care of that.

TJIT, you should realize that if you got rid of all ag subsidies, meat would be one of the first things to go. BLM is sometimes said to stand for Bureau of Livestock and Mining because of their tendency to support intensive cattle ranching in areas where ruminants were sparse. Yes, ecosystems evolved in the presence of grazing, but not at the levels at which modern industrial meat production wants to do it. Cattle are fed primarily on corn and cotton seed, both of which are heavily subsidized crops. Eating less beef would require less, not more, land to be devoted to crops to get the same dietary inputs. In this article in The Economist ($?), they claim, "Calorie for calorie, you need more grain if you eat it transformed into meat than if you eat it as bread: it takes three kilograms of cereals to produce a kilo of pork, eight for a kilo of beef. So a shift in diet is multiplied many times over in the grain markets."

There is very little the childfree person can do, including switching to a Hummer and eating meat exclusively, that could have such an adverse impact on our universe as breeding does.


The bipedal fungi of Planet Zontar are drafting a stiff letter of protest, since all this breeding activity raises the microwave background temperature in their galactic neighborhood by 50 picokelvins per century...

That sounds about right Yancey.

Now all you have to do is convince my wife and doctor.


If you were Columbus or Magellan or even Ernest Shackelton, you would be very happy to have turtles, pigs and dogs stowed away for eating instead of vegetables, which will have long since rotted by the time you really need them.

Furthermore, I would trade a hell of a lot of breeders' brood for the opportunity to get just the American Bison back. Screw the breeders!

"The grain-based diet recommended by vegetarians is very similar to the diet used by farmers to induce the growth of intramuscular fat deposits in livestock."

Do you believe that because saccharin induced cancer in rats, it does in humans?

"What's your source on that?"

Personal experience, experience of humans pre-industrial revolution, experience of vegetarians and vegans.

Do you believe that because saccharin induced cancer in rats, it does in humans?

I'm not sure, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised if it caused cancer in doses proportional to those given to rats. Of course, I know that what's bad for one species is not necessarily bad for another, but given that a cow's natural diet includes some wild grains, it's likely that a grain-based diet is even less beneficial to humans than to cattle.

Personal experience, experience of humans pre-industrial revolution, experience of vegetarians and vegans.

So against numerous controlled studies showing benefits from increased protein intake, you offer some anecdotal evidence, and...pre-industrial humans? You mean the ones who were, on average, several inches shorter than either modern humans or pre-agricultural humans? It's not certain that this was due to inadequate protein intake (it could also be inadequate calcium intake or a general lack of calories), but it's hardly grounds to recommend a low-protein diet.

In fact reducing beef consumption is going to increase environmental destruction. By making beef production uneconomic land that is being used for environmentally friendly and sustainable grazing is going to be converted to monoculture crop production which is far more environmentally destructive.



And no.

1 kg beef takes 1000 kg water. 1 kg grain takes 100 kg water. And don't get me started about the plethora of bindweed in Montana, due to cr*ppy grazing practices.






Your posts are typical of those who, (because of their general ignorance regarding environmental issues), simply regurgitate mindless slogans when discussing environmental issues.

Let me provide some information that will hopefully improve your knowledge base and make you a more effective advocate on environmental issues. Your comments are in blockquotes.

1 kg beef takes 1000 kg water. 1 kg grain takes 100 kg water.

If you peel back what is behind that factoid you will find that most of that water usage charged to beef is from grain production.

Once again, with feeling, ag subsidies (and these days ethanol mandates) drive grain production, cattle feeding does not. For decades ag subsidies caused large surpluses of grain production. In a typical government response other policies were introduced to deal with the overproduction of grain caused by subsidies.
These included.

1. Restricting planted acreage (set asides)
2. Required destruction of a percentage of the growing crop
3. Subsidies for storage of surplus grain to smooth out its entry onto the market.

The presence of those policies make it abundantly clear to anyone who understands economics ag subsidies (and these days ethanol mandates) drive grain production, cattle feeding does not.

Clearly, apart from ethical concerns there's a place for cattle. They can digest cellulose and make meat. That's potentially valuable. We grow lots of cellulose that we won't want to burn or build with.

Also clearly, we aren't growing cattle in an optimal way wrt to energy use, water use, etc. This is partly for cultural reasons and partly it's by law and regulation. We really ought to adapt, and that requires a combination of relaxing some legal standards and modifying some legal standards. Ideally we might allow traditional beef production but have its cost be proportional to the damage it does.

As ethical concerns reduce demand, that could help some too. If it doesn't help the world climate it will at least help the US balance of payments as more of our beef gets exported instead of consumed locally. Also, as beef prices rise into unaffordability there's room for ethical reasons not to eat beef to spread. If you can't afford it anyway it's a lot easier to choose not to eat it because it's a bad thing to do.

By making beef production uneconomic land that is being used for environmentally friendly and sustainable grazing is going to be converted to monoculture crop production which is far more environmentally destructive.

That's both a false dilemma and and overstatement. First, not all cattle operations are the same. As Dano and I suggest above, some BLM and ranching practices have led to the destruction of natural habitat and introduction and proliferation of non-native species. Here in NM, rancher Sam Donaldson has reportedly benefited from federal subsidies for predator control (read: killin' coyotes) on his land.

Second, mono-cropping is not our only alternative.

For another, the existing system has tended toward mono-cropping. Iowa is one big cornfield; scientists are racing to clone sheep and cattle (the ultimate mono-crop); and we basically only grow about 3 varieties of cotton of the many that were once available (did you know that naturally blue, green, and brown cotton varieties were once known to the pre-Columbian natives?).

I see your point about cattle demand not driving ag policy, but I think you are underestimating the effect the ag policies have had on cattle raising. Without the feds pushing them towards it, do you suppose that corn-finishing would be as prevalent as it is? After all, I believe that the USDA rates beef based on the marbling which comes from intensive corn feeding. And when there are surpluses of corn, do you suppose ranchers might benefit from that?

Very grateful to a bunch of much better skills. I look forward to reading more of the future of the subject. Keep the good work. Thanks!

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