Could higher food prices lower emissions?

If we are serious about cutting back on emissions of greenhouse gases, we have to be prepared for big hikes in the price of food.


Beef eaters face paying more in a bid to lower emissions. Image: Mike Harper via Flickr

Making food more expensive is a key way of bringing down the output of climate-changing carbon emissions, says a new study by UK and US academics.

In line with the findings of the research, the cost of beef around the world would go up by an average of 40%, while chicken, pork, milk and vegetable oil prices would rise by around 20%.

…big hikes in food prices could stop 1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG) being emitted into the atmosphere…

The study, by a team of researchers from the UK’s Oxford Martin programme on the future of food and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, says that big hikes in food prices could stop 1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG) being emitted into the atmosphere – more than the total emissions now generated by aviation worldwide.

Food pricing

“We do recognise that food pricing is a highly sensitive issue,” Dr Marco Springmann, lead author of the study, told Climate News Network.

“But it’s a conversation we must have: the price of food, particularly in the developed world, has been too low for too long and does not factor in climate related factors – the system of food pricing is even more of a market failure than that in the energy sector.”

In 2013 the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that livestock was responsible for more than 14% of total global GHG emissions, with cattle – raised for both beef and milk production – accounting for more than 60% of that total.

The study looked at emissions created not only by livestock but throughout the food production and processing system.

Researchers also considered the costs to health services of diet-related chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, strokes and cancer.

“What is very important is to factor in food-related health issues alongside the damage that types of food production can cause to the environment and to the climate,” says Springmann.

“If you had to pay 40% more for your steak, you might choose it once a week instead of twice”

The study’s authors stress that measures would have to be taken to ensure price increases did not hurt people in low-income countries. Emission taxes related specifically to food could be used to compensate consumers and to subsidise fruit and vegetable consumption.

The researchers estimate that their recommended price increases would result in a 10% cut in food items high in emissions.

“If you had to pay 40% more for your steak, you might choose it once a week instead of twice,” says Springmann.

“Food production and consumption have been left out of climate policies due in part to worries about food security, but the system has to be changed – or else we won’t reduce emissions.”

Misguided tax?

There are those who disagree with the study’s findings, saying that the primary focus in the battle against climate change should be on putting a stop to more fossil fuel extraction.

Richard Young, policy director of the Sustainable Food Trust, an organisation that campaigns for changes in food systems, says calls for a tax on meat and dairy products are misguided and would increase rather than decrease overall GHG emissions from agriculture.

In a letter to the Guardian newspaper, Young describes the FAO figures on livestock emissions as both flawed and misleading. He says livestock recycles existing atmospheric carbon and, under appropriate management, it is capable of storing large amounts in soils under grass.

This article first appeared on Climate News Network
Kieran Cooke, is a founding editor of Climate News Network and is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and Financial Times. He now focuses on environmental issues