Meat & Dairy:
The Devastating Environmental Cost
Leading researchers and ecologists call for tax on meat
and dairy to reflect true environmental impact

What, exactly, is the environmental cost of an animal product-based diet?

There are probably few people, if any, better qualified to answer this question than David Pimentel, a celebrated professor of ecology and agricultural science at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

David Pimentel, Ph.D.

Professor Pimentel's ecological credentials are virtually unmatched. His research spans the fields of basic population ecology, ecological and economic aspects of pest control, biological control, biotechnology, sustainable agriculture, land and water conservation, natural resouce management, and environmental policy. He has published more than 500 scientific papers and 20 books, and has served on many national and government organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences; President's Science Advisory Council; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Department of Energy; U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare; Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress; and the U.S. State Department.

Professor Pimentel's position as a foremost authority also derives in part from the fact that during his long and illustrious career he has teamed with scores of other eminent researchers to publish ground-breaking papers on a wide variety of subjects. In fact, many of the most important published, peer-reviewed studies in this area list him as a primary researcher.

Landmark Book

Most recently Professor Pimentel rounded up 22 esteemed colleagues -- also top researchers in each of their fields -- and compiled an awesome work of breathtaking scope called Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health (Island Press, Washington DC, Jan. 2001)

Among the many very appealing facets of Professor Pimentel is that he is reasonably accessible and willing to discuss his methods, his sources of data, and how he or his learned colleagues came up with various calculations. At least he has been with inquiries from VegSource. This stands in stark contrast to the "corporate" scientists -- those who appear to work chiefly to enhance corporate coffers by obfuscating issues, muddying waters and downplaying real risks -- who are often unreachable or unwilling to comment or clarify, or even defend, their questionable work. (For more on how industry "scientists" often promote highly questionable, discredited - or sometimes non-existent - studies to try to minimize the seriousness of environmental problems, see our earlier article on what celebrated Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich terms "brownlash." Opens new browser.)

Land Use and Animal Agriculture

With the assistance of Robert Goodland, Ph.D. (who is currently the Enviromental Adviser to the World Bank, where he received Presidential Excellence Awards in 1998 and 1999), Professor Pimentel provides insight into land use for food.

As shown in the table at right, Goodland and Pimentel cite data which show that worldwide, food and fiber crops are gown on 12 percent of the Earth's total land area. Another 24 percent of the land is used as pasture to graze livestock that provide meat and milk products, while forests cover an additional 31 percent. The small percentage of forest and grassland set aside as protected national parks to conserve biological diversity amounts to only 3 precent of the total terrestrial ecosystem. Most of the remaining one-third of land area is unsuitable for crops, pasture, and forests because it is too cold, dry, steep, stony, or wet, or the soil is too infertile or shallow to support plant growth.

The researchers point out that currently, a total of 3,265 pounds of agricultural products (including feed and grains) are produced annually to feed each American, while China's food supply averages only 1,029 pounds/capita/year. The world average value is 1,353 pounds/capita/year. The low number for China correlates with a vegetarian diet, the researchers point out, noting that most people in China eat essentially a vegetarian diet.

Water Resources

Goodland and Pimentel believe that the present and future availability of adequate supplies of fresh water is frequently taken for granted. Natural collectors of water such as rivers and lakes vary in distribution throughout the world and are frequently shared within and between countries. All surface water supplies, but especially those in arid regions, are diminished by evaporation. For insance, reservoir water experiences an average yearly loss of about 24 percent.

All vegetation requires and transpires massive amounts of water during the growing season. For example, a corn crop that produces about 6616 pounds/acre of grain will take up and transpire about 534,600 gallons/acre of water during the growing season. To supply this much water to the crop, not only must 855,119 gallons of rain fall per acre, but also a significant portion must fall during the growing season.

The renowned scientists state that perhaps the greatest threat to maintaining freshwater supplies is overdraft of surface and groundwater resources used to supply the needs of the rapidly growing human population and the agriculture that provides its food. Agricultural production "consumes" more fresh water than any other human activity. Worldwide, about 82 percent of the fresh water that is pumped is "consumed" (so that it is nonrecoverable) by agriculture. In the U.S., this figure is about 85 percent. All people require a minimum of 24 gallons/day for cooking, washing, and other domestic needs, while each American uses about 106 gallons/day for domestic needs. Add to that a 1/4-pounder with cheese, and you've added more than 3,000 additional gallons of water to your daily consumption. About 80 nations in the world are already experiencing significant water shortages. For instance, in China, more than three hundred cities are short of water and the problem is intensifying.

Surface water in rivers and lakes and groundwater provide the freshwater supply for the world. However, groundwater resources are renewed at various rates but usually at the extremely slow rate of 0.1 - 0.3 percent per year. Because of their slow recharge rate, groundwater resources must be carefully managed to prevent overdraft.

Yet humans are not effectively conserving groundwater resources, the researchers note, and their overdraft is now a serious problem in many parts of the world. Goodland and Pimentel cite several examples worldwide to support this assertion. Most notably, they state that in the vast U.S. Ogallala aquifer, annual overdraft is 130 to 160 percent above the replacement level. If this continues, this vital aquifer is expected to become nonproductive in about 40 years. High consumption of surface and groundwater resources is beginning to limit the option of irrigating arid regions. Furthermore, the scientists cite research showing that per capita irrigation area is also declining because of salinization and waterlogging, both deleterious effects of continual irrigation.

Environmental Sustainability

Throughout the book, Pimentel and his colleagues focus on the concept of environmental sustainability. A big part of that equation, they note, is to reduce demand for food, overall:

Reducing demand can be achived by eating more efficiently on the food chain. Diet matters: environmental sustainability (ES) can be brought about by reducing feeding inefficiencies, such as those existing in producing grain-fed livestock, and encouraging more efficient diets, such as plant-based ones.

The researchers note that the acceptability of plant-based diets is a matter of degree, and that human societies differ in what diet they find comfortable. Among those who restrict their consumption of animal-based foods, there is a continuum from eschewing red met, then "white" meat (poultry), then mammals or all terrestrial aniamls. Some will eat cold-blooded animals but not warm-blooded ones (i.e., some people eat fish, but not rabbits or chickens).

The figure above shows the environmental sustainability ratings for where people eat on the food chain, and a proposed tax logic to reflect the true environmental cost for various foods.

In their book, the researchers make detailed and virtually unassailable arguments to support their wise conclusions on how we can achieve long-term sustainability and integrity in agriculture:

  1. Most people of the world -- those already at the efficient, low-impact end of the food chain -- would stay at the low end of the chain, but would diversify their diet;
  2. Affluent people now eating at the top of the food chain would pay full costs of their high-impact food choices, consonant with the "polluter pays" principal, via food taxation for those foods depleting resources at very high rates -- or elect to consume more efficiently lower down the food chain;
  3. People starting to move up the food chain (e.g., in China and India) would be encouraged to stop where they are -- and to consider moving back down the chain.

Pimentel and Goodland note that incentives are needed to promote grain-based diets by applying good economics and good environmental management to food and agriculture. In particular, conversion efficiency and "polluter pays" principals should be used in setting full-price policies, which internalizes environmental and social costs. They note that cattle feedlots and slaughterhouses consume much water and generate much highly polluting waste. Wastes often are not efficiently reused but are instead disposed of in the nearest watercourse. Feed and forage production consume even more water. These costs need to be internalized.

In the researchers' view, the highest taxes would fall on the least efficient converters, namely hogs and cattle. Slightly lower taxes would be assessed on sheep and those cattle grazing natural grassland.

No taxes would be paid on grains (rice, maize, wheat, buckwheat), starches (potatoes, cassava), and legumes (soy, pulses, beans, peas, peanuts). Modest subsidies on coarse grains (millet, pearl millet, sorghum) would alleviate hunger and are unlikely to be abused (as the rich usually won't eat such foods).

Encouragement for domestic or village-scale beneficiation, such as of peanuts to peanut butter and cashew fruits to roasted nuts, often doubles or triples the profit to the grower. Peanut butter and cornflakes were invented expressly to increase the consumption of those low-impact foods at the bottom of the food chain.

The authors conclude that "Adoption of such policies will not solve world hunger overnight, but it will certainly help."

If you are looking for a comprehensive discussion of food choices and ecological sustainability, head for your local or online bookstore and pick up a copy of Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health. Written in a scholarly style by some of our current greatest thinkers, this work is filled with valuable facts, figures and loads of references to many other important works, and is an invaluable addition to any ecologist's library.

See also How Much Water to Make One Pound of Beef?


Update: William Harris, MD, comments on Professor Pimentel's suggestion to tax meat and dairy in order to reflect the real environmental and health costs:

I have never met David Pimentel but have always admired his work. I corresponded with Robert Goodland at the time the World Bank was floating the China-Smallholder Cattle Development Project and think we're lucky to have him on our side.

As for taxing meat I see pros and cons.

there's nothing politicians like better than levying new taxes that they can run through their greedy fingers, so the pols might go for it.

we'll never see the end of alcohol and tobacco because taxing them provides huge revenues to the government. Taxing meat might have the same effect.

Another solution
If I were carrying the ball on this I'd go for an across the board final and complete end to all USDA subsidies, price supports, and "production flexibility contracts" which would save the taxpayers a lot of money.

I don't like to encourage more taxes for anyone and as a libertarian I support the right of the individual to cut his own throat with the razor of his choice as long as my taxes don't pay for the razor and the guy's medical bills. That way his bad choices have their own unshielded bad consequences and eventually he may come to his senses. We'd be telling the meat folks that we're not the national nanny and that they're free to raise and sell their stuff for whatever the market will bear, but that we're not going to give them yearly bailouts when profits don't meet their expectations, we're not going to pay for their feed grains, pay their public lands grazing fees, shoot their predators for them, and let the Rubes think meat is cheap when their own taxes have already paid half the meat bill. Then I'd insist that the IRS stop requiring that citizens pay a third of the animal food advertising expenses. Under those conditions I think the $.99 hamburger would disappear fairly soon and consumers would suddenly discover an appetite for the healthy vegetables and fruits that don't get much help from the USDA and the IRS in the first place.