Organic meat, usually highlighted as friendlier to the environment, actually has a climate cost as high as conventionally farmed meat. According to a new study, which estimated the greenhouse gas emissions (GEI) resulting from different foods in Germany, the only eco-friendly meat is no meat at all.
A team of German researchers wanted to explore the “invisible” environmental costs of food production, from land use and fertilizers to methane emissions and transportation. They focused on meat products, dairy, and plant-based food and compared organic and conventional production in each case.
The results are striking. Compared to conventional farming, organic methods improve the emissions profile of dairy and plant-based products, reducing their impact on the planet, because organic farming bans the use of mineral nitrogen fertilizers, which brings down the emissions costs of this production method.
But meat was the big exception.
Conventional and organic methods of meat accounted for similar high emissions costs, the study showed. For the researchers, this might be because organic livestock needs more land to satisfy the welfare standard and because of its lower productivity, making it less efficient than conventional methods.
Emissions from conventional livestock come from their manure and, for cows and sheep, by burping methane. The grain can also lead to emissions if it’s linked to deforestation. While organic cows don’t eat imported fodder and are grass-fed, they grow more slowly and release more emissions before slaughter.
“We expected organic farming to score better for animal-based products but, for greenhouse gas emissions, it actually doesn’t make much difference,” Maximilian Pieper, lead researcher, told The Guardian. “But in certain other aspects, organic is certainly better than conventional farming.”
But that was only one part of the study. Pieper wanted to make the environmental cost more tangible for consumers, to put a clear environmental "price tag" on different meat products.
According to the team's calculations, conventionally-produced meat would have to be 150% more expensive than now to account for the environmental impact. By comparison, organically-produced and plant-based foods would have to cost just 6% more. In other words, organic meat is priced to reflect its environmental impact, while conventional meat is cheap because no one is paying for the environmental damage it causes.
The research is based on the “polluter pays” principle, which suggests that those whose actions cause harm to the environment should bear the responsibility of paying for it. This would be represented perfectly in the choice to eat a meatier diet over one with more plant-based foods -- but only if the price of meat actually reflected the true environmental cost.
A very cheap piece of meat is actually hiding the true impact on the planet and providing no incentive to make better food (and environment) choices. But if the “polluter pays” principle is applied, the higher cost of meat would encourage a shift away from more environmentally-harmful diets based on meat towards greener ones richer in plants.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. Increases in the price of vegetables and fruits would make healthier food unaffordable for many. And essential food, which for many people includes beef and dairy for nutritional purposes, shouldn’t become unaffordable. To prevent this, the researchers suggested using government subsidies and social compensation measures as alternatives to an extra environmental tax.
If changes are applied sensitively, there would also be trickle-down benefits, the researchers argue. Meat consumption would be reduced by driving more sustainable choices with the cost. This would free up land from livestock that could be returned to nature, which would help for the recovery of ecosystems around the world.
Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford, not part of the study, told The Guardian. “The policy implications are clear: applying an emissions price across all sectors of the economy, including agriculture, would provide a consistent and much-needed incentive to change towards healthier and more sustainable diets that are predominantly plant-based.”
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.