Correction: This story has been significantly revised to address several inaccurate and incomplete statements about meat production's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
It may be delicious, but the evidence is accumulating that meat, particularly red meat, is just a disaster for the environment — and not so great for human beings, either.
Agriculture today accounts for for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions — posing one of the biggest challenges to countries desperately trying to curb the emissions that promote global warming. And half of those agriculture emissions come from livestock, which produce large amounts of methane, a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas.
The environmental impact is the driving reason why members of a United Nations panel last month urged its environmental assembly to consider recommending a tax on meat producers and sellers. Raising the cost of buying meat, the argument goes, would reduce demand, and ultimately, production of it.
Maarten Hajer, professor at the Netherlands's Utrecht University, led the environment and food report that recommended the meat tax.
“All of the harmful effects on the environment and on health needs to be priced into food products,” said Hajer, who is a member of U.N.’s International Resource Panel, which comprises 34 top scientists and 30 governments. “I think it is extremely urgent.”
But, he added, “Food is very political.”
Taxing specific bits of the American diet can be a touch matter. In June, a successful proposal to tax sugary drinks in Philadelphia caused an uproar among lobbyists, some groups representing the poor and even Bernie Sanders, who argued that the tax was regressive.
The response to limiting meat, which is certainly more beneficial to a diet than soda, could be mutinous.
But Hajer argued that governments must soon move to limit the major greenhouse gas producer. The idea of a meat tax has developed over the past 25 years as a “completely obvious” measure to economists and environmentalists, Hajer said, as knowledge of the environmental toll of meat emerged.
By no means is meat the only element of agriculture that contributes greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation of land for agricultural purposes -- to grow crops or grasses for cattle to graze -- also adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, partly because trees absorb CO2. Rice fields are a also huge source of methane emissions. And applying fertilizer also produces substantial amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of nitrous oxide.
But in multiple ways, meat is one of the worst offenders. For example, agriculture consumes 80 percent of water in the United States. These two charts show that meat is particularly thirsty. For a kilogram of red meat, you need considerably more water than for plant products.
Governments are starting to take notice. China, which consumes half of the world’s pork and more than a quarter of its overall meat, announced new dietary guidelines last month that advises people to their reduce their average meat consumption by half. That country’s meat consumption has increased by nearly five-fold since 1982, even though its population has only increased by 30 percent during that time.
Meanwhile, Denmark is considering a recommendation from its ethics council that all red meats should be taxed. The council argued in May that Danes were “ethically obliged” to reduce their consumption to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
“For a response to climate-damaging food to be effective, while also contributing to raise awareness of the challenge of climate change, it must be shared,” council spokesman Mickey Gjerris said.
This graph shows that phasing out meat and simply eating less would knock down greenhouse gas emissions considerably — particularly in developed, meat-loving countries.
Laura Wellesley, a research associate at international policy institute Chatham House, said she thinks a global tax could be achieved in the next 20 years. She has studied attitudes about meat consumption among the four most carnivorous countries: China; the United States; Britain and Brazil.
Countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland have dramatically reduced their agricultural emissions output, as much as a half. But countries that are expanding their meat-lovers' impulses are doing so at much larger jumps. Brazil’s greenhouse gas output from food production has increased by 47 percent from 2000 to 2012. In China, a 35-percent jump from 1994 to 2005 means 220 million more tons of greenhouse gas emission. So, Estonia’s 58-percent cut from 2000 to 2012, while commendable, is less than 2,000 tons.
Overall, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions have hardly decreased since 1990, despite growing awareness of the threat they pose to the planet. Food and meat production is typically not targeted by civilians and governments as a way to whittle global warming.
Global livestock contributes an estimated 14.5 percent to annual greenhouse gas emissions. In raw numbers, that's more than emissions from every car, train, ship and airplane combined. (However, methane doesn't live in the atmosphere anywhere near as long as carbon dioxide, produced by transportation, so its contribution to the planet's warming is more of a short-term phenomenon.)
Of meat's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, 65 percent is enteric fermentation (or, cow, sheep and goat belching and farting) and manure, according to a 2014 Chatham House analysis. Feed constitutes one-fifth of that, followed by land-use change, energy use and post-farm activities.
The methane produced by cattle digestion alone is what leads many researchers to call for focusing on the impact of red meat, rather than poultry or pigs. Pigs and poultry contribute only 10 percent of total livestock emissions.
But Wellesley said reducing meat consumption in rich countries was equally important to boosting meat access for the world’s poorest. Americans ate an average of 120 pounds of meat in 2009, compared with an average of four pounds in Bangladesh. The planet could be in trouble if populous, economic centers in China and Brazil acted like the West.
China is a "grave concern" to experts, Hajer said.
Along with a tax, a meat cutback could be achieved by making plant-based diets more appealing and less expensive. People in the West often think that vegetarianism is a diet for wealthier folks, Wellesley said.
This chart shows the considerable health benefits that could be reaped from reducing meat consumption as part of a more nutritious diet. The United States could slash its health-care spending the most by phasing out meat for vegetables.
But until tariffs are levied, experts worry about how to make people realize that meat is harmful for the environment. Wellesley said people globally are more apt to wring their hands over cranking the air conditioner. That cheeseburger is largely seen as disastrous to heart health or their thighs, not global warming.
“Government is wary of introducing taxes on food products,” Wellesley said. “Civil society and industry may say the tax would would harm or limit the poorer members of society. Those concerns were raised in the focus group.”