Buffalo extermination - environmental catastrophe or savior?

Given my Wall Street Journal article earlier this week, I've received a large number of questions and comment about beef cattle production and the environment.  One comment on the piece in the WSJ made an observation that had never occurred to me.

One of the big concerns with beef production is methane emissions.  Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon.  Cattle are ruminants, and their digestion produces methane (which is released not from the back-end of the cow as is typically asserted but rather the front-end).  

In any event, it seems a common presumption of many who are worried about this issue is that if we got rid of all the beef cattle in the US (or at least drastically reduced their numbers), that would be a great thing because we could significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and help curb climate change.

In fact, we did something very much like that in the US in the mid to late 1800s, and it is almost universally considered a tragedy.

According to some environmental groups, there was once more than 20 million bison roaming the Great Plains.  This number may not be far fetched.  According to one academic paper, the bison carrying capacity of the Great Plains in 1860 was estimated between 13.78 to 20.67 million bison.   According to EPA calculations, American bison generate as much or more methane as do beef cattle on a per-head basis (compare table A-184 to A-187).  

In 1990, there were only about 50,000 head of bison in the US.  Today there are less than 200,000.  Thus, there has been a 100 fold reduction in bison numbers since the mid 1800s.

Were these bison causing climate change back in the 1800s?  Is it a great victory for the environment that they were almost eradicated?    

Logically consistency would seem to dictate that we think about the methane emissions of the ~20 million American bison in the 1800s the same way we think about the methane emissions of the ~29 million beef cattle in the US today.   I suspect the total amount of methane emissions from 1860s bison population and 2014 US beef cattle population are roughly similar (according to the EPA, feedlot beef cattle have much lower per-head methane emissions than bison - about half as much).  

So, bison depopulation - environmental boon or ecological travesty?  Neither?  Both?

Assorted Links

A great story about my older sister, Keri Moore, on the front page of the Lubbock paper

Good nuanced discussion on climate change by Charles Mann in the Atlantic

Interesting speculation on link between antibiotics given to children and obesity

Long piece on high-profile anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva in the New Yorker; the writer's general discussion GMOs reflects the growing awareness by journalists about the scientific literature on the subject

Bruce Ferree writing for Quality Assurance and Food Safety has some nice things to say about my Food Police book

Varney and Co

Tune in on Tuesday to Varney & Co at 11am on the Fox Business Network. I'll be talking meat, environment, and economics.


Livestock, Externalities, and the Environment

The Wall Street Journal published a piece  today that I wrote dealing with externalities in livestock production.  I didn't choose the title - my argument isn't that livestock production doesn't have environmental impacts, rather I question the relative size of the impacts and discuss the best way to handle those impacts.

A few snippets:

That the price of meat is too low might come as news to food consumers who, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paid 14% higher prices for ground beef this June than they did in June 2013 and 29% more than two years ago. Recent droughts and high corn prices—due in part to Washington’s support for ethanol—are largely to blame. It is unclear how high prices must rise to overcome the view that meat is “too cheap.” Some industry critics have even called for new “meat taxes” to discourage consumption.


The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that U.S. agriculture, including livestock production, accounts for only about 8% of total greenhouse-gas emissions in the country. Livestock in the U.S. have lower greenhouse-gas footprints than in other parts of the world. This is partly because American producers generally use higher-quality feeds, higher-yielding breeds, and more productivity-enhancing technologies such as probiotics, vaccines and growth hormones. Future improvements in feed and animal genetics could further reduce animal-agriculture’s impact. As economists have shown, one should not underestimate the ability of innovation, markets, the courts and private negotiation to resolve the adverse effects of externalities.

Moreover, the concept of externalities when applied to food is nebulous. At a recent Institute of Medicine meeting I attended, a room full of Ph.D.s struggled to understand exactly what to measure.


Let us also not gloss over what is beef’s most obvious benefit: Livestock take inedible grasses and untasty grains and convert them into a protein-packed food most humans love to eat. We may be able to reduce our impact on the environment by eating less meat, but we can also do the same by using science to make livestock more productive and environmentally friendly.

For more on that last point, see my previous post.

The piece was in part motivated by the fact that social commentators’ accounts of externalities often reflect a shallow understanding of complexity of the subject.  The economists A.H. Barnett and Bruce Yandle accurately discerned the fact that, “economists unwittingly developed a weapon of mass destruction that, in the hands of journalists and popular policy analysts, at times corroded almost to the point of uselessness the beneficial theory of markets and competition.”  As a participant in one of the CDC-IOM planning workshop on “Exploring the True Costs of Food”, I have witnessed the disconnect that often exists between public health advocates and economists on the nature and role of externalities (I discuss some that disconnect and the complexity of externalities in this article published in Agricultural and Resource Economics Review).  Often, factors that are argued to be externalities are simply zero-sum transfers (as is the case for health care costs paid by public insurance programs like Medicaid), have effects that are actually internalized in other market prices (such as the risk of injury to workers in meat packing plants), or are not externalities at all. 

If the issue is that livestock are consuming "too much" water and that water isn't appropriately priced, the key is to think about how to develop water rights and markets so that the price of water reflects its relative scarcity.  But, it should also be clear - given the correlation between drought and beef prices - that a lot of the water use is factored into the price of beef.

That there are externalities in beef production is hardly news.  The much more difficult question is how to address them.  Technological progress is a key solution.  Research shows that the carbon footprint of beef production fell 16% from 1977 to 2007, with much of that reduction resulting from responsible use of technologies.  Many consumers are averse to these externality-reducing practices and technologies, but more “natural” production systems are often associated with lower productivity, greater water and land use, and higher carbon footprints.