A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the G7 and its general failure to curb fossil fuel subsidies. I’ve also written a lot about the impact of meat eating, and the climate emissions of beef. But it occurred to me that I’ve never put the two together and looked at the impact of lifestock subsidies on climate change.
Lots of countries use agricultural subsidies of one kind or another, perhaps making fertiliser or equipment cheaper, or reducing the costs of water and irrigation. The EU, the United States, and a number of others subsidise livestock and feed. Taken together, OECD subsidies for animal products add up to tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer support, as this graphic from the Meat Atlas shows:
These subsidies might be payments to farmers per head of cattle, or support for building new facilities or animal housing. There are export incentives and finance guarantees. In some countries meat and dairy has discounted rates of VAT. Taken together, farmers in the EU receive the equivalent of $190 per cow. All of these make meat cheaper than it should be, prop up consumption, and turn a blind eye to the environmental harm from meat and dairy.
Encouraging more animal products is of course the exact opposite of what we need to be doing. With meat now causing as much climate change as transport, it’s one of the most neglected aspects of global warming – and subsidies use taxpayer’s funds to push us towards an even bigger problem.
Ultimately subsidies for meat and dairy are unsustainable and need to be wound down. Since many farmers depend on them however, it will need to be done in ways that do not lead to bankrupcty and farm closures. For example, subsidies could change to favour smaller farms and silvopasture – rearing animals among trees – rather than industrial feedlots. Beef subsidies are by some distance the most damaging, so their withdrawal could be carried out alongside a support programme for farmers switching from beef to much less damaging chickens or pigs.
Britain will be free to change its policies and subsidies after leaving the EU, and we could choose to reduce the number of beef and dairy cows. Unless that comes with a reduction in demand however, it would just lead to more imports coming in from elsewhere – presumably the US, if Donald Trump gets his way. So changes to subsidies would need to be part of a wider policy package around shifting diets away from meat consumption, perhaps including a carbon tax of some kind.
That’s hard to imagine right now, with politicians very wary of telling people what they should and shouldn’t eat. But as the European Public Health Alliance warned recently, “current dietary patterns high in animal products are incompatible with the aim of avoiding dangerous climate change.” If current growth trends in meat and dairy continue, then agriculture will take up the entire global greenhouse gas budget by 2050. Something’s got to give, and it ought to be public support for beef.