4 ways to reduce the environmental cost of food
Economists call these consequences “externalities,” and this word has entered the mainstream conversation about food. The idea that food prices should reflect their true cost is popular.
But how do we do that? Should we increase food prices or should we try to reduce externalities? Talk to economists, and it’s a bit of both.
I spoke to two, at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Jayson Lusk, who heads Purdue University’s agricultural economics department, is refreshingly candid about the political split: “Ideology and perspective on how much government should regulate come into play. .” Lusk describes himself as “libertarian leaning” and he thinks market solutions generally work better than government solutions.
Will Masters is a professor of nutrition and economics at Tufts University and describes his politics as liberal. He believes in “a better life through government” and is outspoken about how his inclinations influence his economic ideas. The two also know each other and talk to each other a lot.
So here at Kumbaya Central, I think if Lusk and Masters agree on things, those things are probably reasonable and may even have a chance of being implemented.
Here are four areas where we might be able to secure agreement across the political spectrum. We’ll start small and easy:
1. Increase R&D on bovine methane
Who do you think said, “I would be very much in favor of the government spending money on R&D to reduce methane in cattle”?
That’s right, Libertarian Lusk. I asked him the question because more research and development on the matter is a favorite solution of the liberal masters. Can’t get a cleaner deal than that.
But if you’re looking for disagreement, just say out loud that livestock are the biggest food contributor to climate change. Cue the meat wars!
For the record, cattle also have advantages! They can turn grass into human food. Properly grazed, they can sequester carbon and contribute to soil health. But because of the methane that livestock generate and the deforestation driven by the growing demand for beef, they are a net negative climate, more so than any other food. It’s just math. And if we can change the equation by altering a cow’s diet or habits or DNA, that reduces the environmental impact of livestock – and the real cost of beef goes down.
After this one, it gets a little stickier.
Even diehard capitalists recognize that capitalism is ill-equipped to deal with pollution. If polluting is profitable, markets don’t offer many deterrents. We need government for that, and Lusk cites the success of the Clean Air Act of 1970 as a precedent.
Why can’t we regulate nitrogen runoff and greenhouse gas emissions the same way the Clean Air Act regulates particulate matter and carbon monoxide? Lusk is on board in principle. Masters is on board with enthusiasm: “I support the direct regulation of activities that cause both nitrogen/phosphorus runoff, but also carbon/methane emissions.”
Unfortunately, these are more difficult problems than air pollution.
“Uncertainty” is the word used by Lusk. Compared to pollution from, say, a manufacturing plant, greenhouse gases and water pollution from agriculture are difficult to measure. But if the government eschews regulation due to uncertainty and lets aggrieved people try things like lawsuits (the Des Moines Water Department tried and failed), that hardly seems fair.
If we regulate pollution from agriculture, it might drive up the price of food, but before you fret, a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut would love a word. Greenhouse gases alter the climate and there is near universal consensus that food is responsible for around a third of emissions. It will be very difficult to narrow down the regulatory specifics, but I think we should try anyway.
And regulation is not the only way.
3. Tie strings to grants
Subsidies to farmers amount to between 10 and 20 billion dollars a year. When I asked Lusk if it would be reasonable to require certain pollution mitigation practices as a condition of receiving them, he replied, “That’s not crazy,” which is libertarian for almost yes. He points out that, as always, the problem is who practices. Sure, cover crops sequester carbon – usually. And can even boost yields — sometimes. But what if they don’t?
Masters asserts that “this type of policy instrument is an essential part of the government’s toolbox”, but also addresses the problem of uncertainty. The program “doesn’t have to be perfect,” he says, “because the alternatives are often worse.”
Lol just kidding. I couldn’t even ask Lusk about it because, even from my home in Cape Cod, Mass., I could hear his teeth grinding in Indiana. I asked Masters if he thought beef should just be more expensive, and he replied, “In a hypothetical sense, I-wish-I-wish, yes. But concretely, that’s not where I would put my energy.
If the right is against, and the left recognizes its political impossibility, it is a non-starter.
But it’s worth talking about, because taxes are the easiest way to raise prices to reflect the consequences of a particular food. Many objections are ideological; people object because, say, taxing junk food is the nanny state in action, or food taxes are regressive. I try to operate in an area without ideology; pragmatism is my watchword. If a tax can improve people’s health or reduce the environmental impact of food, I’m willing to consider it.
I’m skeptical that taxes will change what people eat. There are so many variations of cheap and convenient foods designed to be over-consumed that if you tax some, others will take over. I’m officially in favor of taxing sugar in the supply chain because I think it might motivate manufacturers to reformulate certain products and because even if we didn’t it seems like a decent way to increase income to deal with the health effects of obesity.
The environmental impact, however, could lend itself to taxation. Not beef, but maybe carbon.
“A carbon tax, levied at source and refunded to low-income people, has long been supported by most economists, including me,” Masters told me.
Lusk isn’t keen, and a cap-and-trade system (where polluters buy credits for emissions to avoid exceeding a government-imposed cap) is more palatable to him than an outright tax. , but he is ready to consider it, which is enough for me.
And There you go. The Lusk/Masters of Maybe Axis. The uncertainties are real and give any opponent a very comfortable position. But the problems are pressing and they are not going to solve themselves. If a liberal and a libertarian can find solid common ground, who among us has an excuse not to join them?