The food and climate puzzle

January 26, 2021 Food

Our high-carbon eating habits have damaged the environment and now threaten our future. Encouraging more sustainable practices, from the farm to the kitchen table, will require a regulatory recipe with multiple ingredients, says TSE economist Céline Bonnet. But consumers may find it hard to swallow.

Food consumption is responsible for between 15% and 28% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Beef is the biggest culprit, with higher emissions than pork or chicken meat. Extensive production systems can also generate higher greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production, although grazing helps to sequester carbon.

The consumption of animal products has implications for land and water use: producing animal feed uses 35% of land resources and 20% of drinking water resources. Livestock farming has other indirect effects on the environment, including soil degradation, air, water and soil pollution, loss of biodiversity, and deforestation.

The standard approach in economics recommends regulation at the level of the polluter, based on the “polluter pays” principle. However, research shows that it would be simpler, more efficient, and fairer for the food industry to regulate consumption rather than production. This avoids any problem of measuring the different types of pollution at farm level (carbon impact, eutrophication, acidification, land use, water use, and loss of biodiversity). It also prevents unregulated imports from gaining an unfair advantage over domestic production.

Three-course menu

There are three different types of regulatory instruments: fiscal policies, informational and educational tools, and behavioral instruments such as nudges.

Fiscal policies are a particular focus of my research. I have shown that a high level of carbon tax (200€/tonne of CO² equivalent) on animal products would imply an increase in the price of animal products by 7% to 40%, depending on the type and the piece of meat. This price increase would allow a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the purchase of animal products. Fiscal policies will therefore not be sufficient to achieve European targets of a 30% reduction in 2030 compared to 2005. They will have to be combined with other tools.

Information and education policies can reduce the asymmetry of information between producers and consumers on product quality, farming conditions and environmental impact. However, consumers must be prepared to pay for these attributes of the product. Economic research shows that quality is an important criterion for consumers, and some are willing to pay more for it, but environmental concerns are given much less consideration. Studies so far show that it is difficult to change eating habits, especially regarding meat which is perceived as a normal and necessary consumer good and part of the norm of traditional food.

Behavioral instruments make it possible to change consumption habits and norms gradually. In France, the Green Monday initiative suggests we avoid meat or fish on the first day of the week, encouraging a simple and gradual transition to meals that have less impact on the environment. Experiments have also shown that if vegetarian options are placed first on restaurant menus, they are more likely to be chosen.

Reducing meat consumption is one of the major challenges for developed countries in the fight against climate change. Public authorities will have to improve regulation while supporting all actors in the sector to shift towards more environmentally friendly practices. Solving the problem will not be easy: many measures will have to be combined to produce significant effects.

TSE Mag #21 Winter 2021

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