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.