This week British economist Lord Stern called for the world to get off beef and on to broccoli: go vegetarian for the planet. Methane – burped, belched and otherwise released by cows in impressive amounts – is around 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
So the author of the influential 2006 Stern Review into global warming told Britain’s Timesnewspaper that the climate change meeting in Copenhagen would only be a success if it led to skyrocketing meat prices. Otherwise, Stern predicts, climate change will turn southern Europe into a desert and there will be ”severe global conflict”.
Stern isn’t alone. Also this week, Peter Singer called for a 50 per cent tax on all meat. According to the Australian vegetarian philosopher, cows are pretty much like cigarettes: they’re bad for you and smelly. They should be taxed accordingly.
It may come as a surprise, but there are flaws in this plan. We could all go vegetarian tomorrow if we tried – good news for the vitamin supplements industry. But a world without meat would be a much sadder world. And at best we’d be making a marginal change to global emissions.
According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, 85 per cent of methane from cattle is produced by cows in the developing world, because they have poorer diets, which produces more methane. And many of those cows aren’t just hanging around in paddocks waiting to become tasty beef – they’re work cows. India’s 283 million cows aren’t being eaten.
One environmentalist gripe is that cattle raised for human consumption themselves consume vast amounts of food that could go instead to humans. But grain-feeding produces less methane than feeding on wild grass. Purpose-grown feed is, at least in some respects, more environmentally friendly.
So: cow farts are a surprisingly complex issue.
It’s easy for Stern and Singer to urge the developed world to change its ways. But it would be much harder – and would get them invited to far fewer cocktail parties – if they decided a good use of their time was haranguing poor Indians into giving up their livestock. Stern and Singer are proposing little more than a green indulgence for the wealthy.
Anyway, practical problems aside, there’s something obscene about the idea that governments should deliberately make basic staples of life more expensive.
After all, Stern and Singer’s meat tax is hardly the only tax on food being proposed. Public health activists are adamant that the only way to get people to shed their ugly kilos is by making sweets more expensive.
Taxes on food have been among the most punitive in history. Dissatisfaction with taxes on salt was one of the causes of the French Revolution. Gandhi marched against the British salt tax.
We forget just how far we’ve come. A few centuries ago, getting hold of affordable and edible meat was like playing roulette – if the roulette wheel was made of parasites and salmonella.
Early cookbooks spent almost as much time teaching household chefs how to identify spoiled meat as they did describing recipes. The Compleat Housewife, published in 1727, told readers to prod carefully at beef in a marketplace. If the meat sprang back, it was fresh.
Admittedly, there is a positive spin you could put on the proposals to tax our food consumption: finally, the human race is so rich, so comfortable, that we can start making it a bit harder to get our basic needs. But food taxes will disproportionately affect the poor. If meat was as expensive as environmentalists would like, the rich wouldn’t significantly reduce their wagyu steak intake, but families on a tight budget would certainly eat less three-star mince.
And (need it be said?) hunger caused by inadequate or low-quality food supplies is still a major problem in the developing world. Just this year, in the Central African Republic, malnutrition caused by limited meat has created a humanitarian disaster.
These contemporary crises should remind us that humanity’s greatest struggle has been against malnutrition and starvation. Not for nothing did the Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel title his groundbreaking study of recent global history The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death.
Since 1950, the global population has increased more than 150 per cent. But, in real terms, the price of food has sharply declined in that period. Basic commodities such as grain and vegetables are 75 per cent cheaper than they were 60 years ago. And it’s the potent combination of rapidly expanding economic growth and technological change that did it.
But we shouldn’t forget how hard it was to get where we are today. Cheap food is our inheritance as human beings.