climate change food

The other climate change subsidy: cattle

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.


  1. Reblogged this on Sustainable St Albans and commented:
    More on the vegan theme – this time from Make Wealth History…. If current growth trends in meat and dairy continue, then agriculture will take up the entire global greenhouse gas budget by 2050.

  2. Not sure Jeremy if you read all the recent meat and dairy carbon footprint stuff on the Guardian but there has also been some -poorly argued – pushback on sites like Seems many environmentally minded would rather a climate crisis rather than give up their meat and dairy.

    Anyway being a Vegan myself I think there are reasons apart from climate change that should see the end of all meat but taking a step back even if ‘human’ pasture meat or non-factory chicken pork and dairy was continued the cost of that would be huge and become a luxury good for the supper rich. The question is if things are as bad as the scientists say then IMO carbon taxes and emission trading won’t be enough –and will drive up meat even further- and some sort of carbon rationing will be needed. Under this possible scenario would the many who couldn’t afford these luxury goods allow the super-rich and powerful to indulge themselves while they make do with vegan foods?

    I’d imagine many activities like air travel, maybe cruise ships, hummers a whole list of things would become social taboos that even if the rich pay their indulgence tax, they would still be ethically unjustifiable. It will be interesting to see what sort of lists people will come up with but in a hotter world with economic and climate shocks people will have short fuses and the idea of the rich and powerful still with their snouts in the carbon trough will become untenable.

    BTW I am aware that even average consumers in affluent countries can be considered carbon hogs so when it gets really bad and carbon rationing or the like cuts in one wonders how low we will all have to go?

    1. Yes, I’m aware of the Resilience articles and others like it. I think there’s a couple of different dynamics at work. One is that a lot of the warnings about meat come from those promoting vegetarian or vegan diets. Unsurprising of course, but in some cases that unfortunately leads to exaggerated claims about the impact of livestock, which then invites counter-argument to try and bring some balance back. It also presents people with unnecessarily black and white choices on what they eat, and that can alienate those who might be prepared to eat less meat, but aren’t ready to give it up entirely or are just plain confused by the whole thing.

      That’s no reason for vegans and vegetarians to stop advocating for what they believe in – it’s a reason to step up and make the case if you’re a ‘flexitarian’ or whatever it is you call yourself. There are so many in-betweens that would make an impact – giving up beef and eating chicken instead would make a massive difference.

      The other problem is that the organic farming movement is desperate to wave the flag for grass-fed beef, and integrated farming methods using pigs or aquaculture. In protecting their interests and/or advancing their cause, they are often too quick to shoot down calls to eat less meat.

      It’s a good point that meat eating could end up being a luxury thing, and that would still be aspirational as well as unjust. I’d like to see the carbon cost priced in, but I’d also like to see alternative meats going mainstream alongside it, and a mass movement of people recognising that eating too much meat is bad for us anyway. It wasn’t so long ago that people had a ‘sunday roast’ view of meat as something a bit special, and that’s more what we should be aiming for at this stage.

      1. It might be a bit academic I don’t think we will have much of an economy with debt, carbon and resource restraints the bet and consumption and cheap fossil fuel economy will be a thing of the past and I’m reasonably sure factory farming will go with it.

    1. Fascinating that many environmentalists won’t have a bar of this even when the environmental reasons as spelled out.

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