Should the price of meat reflect its impact on the environment?

·4 min read

Meat is expensive — but we’re still paying far less for it than the cost of its environmental impact, according to a study released this week.

The paper, written by a German team, examined the ecological costs of meat, dairy and vegetable production in organic and industrial agricultural systems. Researchers then used that data to determine how much each food group would cost if its price accounted for its environmental impact.

In the German markets they studied, a steak would cost 146 per cent more if it reflected its true environmental footprint, while dairy prices would skyrocket by 91 per cent. There were also minimal differences between organic and industrial agricultural systems, researchers noted. Canada, a country with a similar food system, would likely show similar results.

Cattle, sheep and goat production currently takes up roughly two-thirds of the planet’s agricultural land and makes up about half of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2019 report by the World Resources Institute.

Abra Brynne, executive director of the Central Kootenay Food Policy Council, says people paying too little for meat is a problem — and not just because of the environmental impact.

“Consumers definitely do not pay enough ... for their meat if you really factor in a full life-cycle analysis and cost accounting, environmental, economic, social, nutritional and worker standards,” she said.

Underpricing is a problem for all types of meat, the study notes, and researchers suggest consumers pay more as a solution. Raising the price of meat, they argue, would place the financial burden of an environmentally damaging diet on the people who buy it, rather than spreading that cost across the general public in the form of emergency spending on floods, droughts and other extreme weather events.

If this were to happen, people would either move towards more plant-based diets or pay more for their carbon footprint, researchers argue. Coupled with subsidies and government help, they say this approach could make a difference.

“When you look at it in that kind of context, it’s not at all dissimilar to a carbon tax. The whole idea is that you cause something to be increasingly expensive so as to encourage people to change their behaviours,” said Brynne.

However, she says tackling the low price of meat needs a multifaceted approach, even if paying the true cost of food is important — adding that if we don’t, we’ll continue to feel the climate change impacts of a predominantly industrialized food system.

“The caveat I would put there is, of course, food is absolutely essential. And for many, it is increasingly so during this pandemic,” she said.

“We’ve commodified food, meaning the only way to access food is through an exchange of money. Increasing the cost of staples means that it’s that much further out of reach for those who are impoverished by the way our society is structured.”

This has long been a concern for food systems scholars and activists. Food, they say, needs to be priced at the cost of production, but governments also need to ensure that people with low incomes can afford to eat. Achieving this will require robust social supports for people who can’t work and those who are employed in low-wage or precarious jobs — and more than 60 per cent of food-insecure Canadians live primarily off their wages, according to PROOF, a team at the University of Toronto that studies food insecurity.

“If you want to increase food security, simply focusing on food prices isn’t going to solve it,” said Hannah Wittman, professor of land and food systems at the University of British Columbia.

“You need a whole systems change where you improve people’s income so they can afford to pay higher prices, and you ensure that higher food prices actually reflect the true cost of production, including social, health, economic and ecological externalities.”

Farmers, too, struggle to make ends meet despite working long hours, Brynne points out. Canadian farm debt has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, even rivalling levels seen during the Depression.

Ultimately, Brynne says the problem with meat prices goes all the way up the chain. But in her eyes, it’s a complicated conversation worth having.

“I guess what I’m getting at is that there is no one straightforward answer for every kind of livestock production in the province,” said Bynne.

“But there’s huge potential and an enormous opportunity … so that the climate costs associated with our production and our consumption considerations can be addressed, because the consumer has as much, if not more, of a role to play here as the farmers do in addressing climate change.”

Cloe Logan / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Cloe Logan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer