The True Cost Of Our Groceries
Many people are aware of the immense contributions of agriculture to overall greenhouse gas emissions, and what this means for climate change. Some others even know about the extensive subsidies animal farming industries receive to make them economically attractive to consumers—in other words, to keep meat, dairy, and egg products cheap enough. However, the market prices we see when purchasing non-human animal products are not equal to what these items actually cost in terms of social and environmental welfare.
Despite a wide body of earlier research examining the economic and social costs of agriculture separately, few had looked at how different kinds of food groups—such as plant-based versus animal-based items—differently contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in terms of their “true cost.” In this paper, a trio of German researchers did just that. Their goal in conducting this study was to provide a for assessing greenhouse gas emissions of “a variety of foodstuff and farming practices” in monetary terms. This allows them to show the price difference between current producer prices and true costs.
To carry out this study, the authors first differentiated the kinds of food groups they would be focusing on. These included animal-, dairy-, and plant-based products, and within each of these groups, whether they were farmed conventionally or organically. They then used a technique called “Life-Cycle Assessment” to quantify the lifespan of each of these food groups. Using this information and also the set prices of each food category for the regions of Germany they looked at, the team was able to calculate impacts from production, consumption, and disposal, and how much each of those stages contributed to emissions.
Importantly, their analysis went beyond CO2 emissions and included methane and nitrous oxide too. Each of these gases is important to consider at various stages of agriculture for its impact on global warming. For example, CO2 is most commonly emitted during the transportation of agricultural products and through the production of fertilizers. Methane largely comes from the digestion process in cows and other ruminants, and nitrous oxide emissions are substantially driven up from the overuse of fertilizers. In addition to the broad categories described above, the researchers also look at the emission costs through more specific lenses, such as beef, milk, and cereal production.
To those paying attention to the urgency of climate change efforts and how emissions are worsened through agricultural practices, the team’s findings are important, yet unsurprising. Specifically, they show that “external greenhouse gas costs are highest for conventional and organic animal-based products (2.41€ per kg of product), followed by conventional dairy products (0.24€/kg of product), and lowest for organic plant-based products (0.02€/kg of product). Part of what drives this massive (120x) difference between animal- and plant-based products is the extremely inefficient conversion ratio for producing meat. What this refers to is the amount of feed needed to produce 1kg (2.2lbs) of meat. In the case of beef, 43kg (94.6lbs) of feed are needed to produce just 1kg of meat. Emissions from the cows themselves, as well as the energy needed to heat the stables and take care of the animals in other ways also drive up this resource ratio.
The researchers found that a move away from conventional and towards organic farming practices could lower the true cost by internalizing the prices of consumption across the board. That is, organic practices generally yield less food, which would drive up overall market prices, and thus encourage people to waste less and social-environmental quality in their foods more. To be sure, the difference between organic and conventional farming for any food in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is far smaller than that between plant- and non-human animal-based products.
Ultimately, what the authors contribute here is a technique to better estimate the true costs of agricultural production. Although they focused on the German context, their lessons can be applied to the world broadly. First, plant-based agriculture is massively less costly than dairy and animal-based sources, to say nothing of the well-being of the actual animals. Second, organic practices can be better for the environment in terms of land usage and true cost. Finally, by applying these lessons to policy, we may cultivate a healthier food culture in which we appreciate our nutrition more, waste less food, and prioritize long-term sustainability rather than short-term profit.