Meat should be 2.5 times more expensive than it is, study finds, but NZ producers say that's not the case here

Conventionally produced meat would cost about 2.5 times more than it does now if its impacts on the environment and climate were taken into account, German researchers say.

Dairy - another of New Zealand's most important exports - would cost about twice as much, and organic meat more than two-thirds more.

But Kiwi producers say the research isn't relevant to New Zealand, saying our farming practices are far more efficient than those overseas.

The research

Scientists at the  Technical University of Munich looked at how much carbon different food production methods put into the atmosphere. 

Using the German Federal Environment Agency's estimate of €180 of economic damage from every tonne of carbon dioxide produced, they found meat produced the normal way should be priced about 146 percent higher. Dairy should be 91 percent more expensive and organic meat, 71 percent. 

"Social and environmental costs from the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are currently not considered in the cost structure of farmers or the subsequent food chain and are thus a burden on other market participants, future generations, and the natural environment," their study, published Wednesday in journal Nature Communications, reads. 

"These external costs are not yet included in the market prices for food and... lead to significant market price distortions and welfare losses for society as a whole."

Agriculture will be a part of Germany's emissions trading scheme (ETS) which comes into force in 2021, but carbon will only be priced at €25 a tonne initially, rising to €55 by 2025 - well below scientists' estimates of the true cost. 

In contrast to meat, the research found including the cost of climate damage would only add 6 percent to the cost of fruit and vegetables. Producing meat takes up a lot more resources than plant-based food - about 43kg of feed is needed to produce one kilogram of beef, the study says.

Organic farming has its own problems, such as much lower yields than conventional mass production and requiring more land. Though its popularity compared to mass-produced meat would rise if it cost less, the researchers' modelling suggests overall demand would also fall in favour of plant-based food. 

"The presumed consequential decline of animal-based product consumption would free an enormous landmass currently used for feed production. Further expansion of area-intensive organic agriculture would subsequently be made possible."

Dairy performed better than meat in the analysis because "the mass of milk or eggs a farm animal produces during its life is significantly higher than its own body weight on the day of slaughter". 

"The same amount of resource input leads to a significantly higher amount of secondary (eggs, milk, etc) than primary (meat) animal-based products."

The benefits of hiking the price of meat and dairy would have other positive effects, the researchers say. 

"A change in demand toward low-carbon (organic plant-based) food products is shown... to positively affect the wellbeing and health of the individual, whereby national spending in health care could be reduced," the study claims.

"The internalisation of external costs would also likely result in a lowered amount of thrown away food as appreciation for food would rise with its increased monetary value... Pricing of food that includes environmental and social costs would thus also significantly contribute to fair market conditions, and simultaneously to climate change mitigation."

The researchers noted there would need to be some form of income redistribution to account for increased food prices, which would hit low-income households the hardest, but it wasn't a focus of the paper. 

Disputed findings

Beef + Lamb NZ said the findings don't apply to New Zealand's agricultural sector.

"There are huge differences between feedlot operations, commonly used overseas, and New Zealand’s pasture-fed farming," a spokesperson for the industry representative said. 

"The carbon footprint of New Zealand sheep and beef production (on-farm Life Cycle Analysis) is one quarter of the global average. Research has also shown that lamb exported to the UK still had a smaller carbon footprint than UK-produced lamb, even when transport costs were taken into account, because of the way it’s produced."

A study published in January did find New Zealand production was more efficient than the global average, but Kiwis' diets somewhat made up for that, with the typical emissions "broadly in line with estimates from around Europe".

New Zealand isn't expected to bring its agricultural sector into its ETS until 2025, and even then it will have an enormous 95 percent discount thanks to a deal the previous Labour-led Government had to make with coalition partner New Zealand First. The Government has threatened to bring the sector in sooner if progress on limiting emissions isn't made before then. 

"In New Zealand our sheep and beef sector has already reduced its absolute greenhouse gas emissions by over 30 percent since 1990 (and of the remaining emissions, a significant proportion is being offset by 1.4 million hectares of native forest and 180,000 hectares of pine plantations on our sheep and beef farms)," said Beef + Lamb NZ.

"Also the main premise of the report appears to be that there is no externalisation of the greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture. This will shortly not be the case in New Zealand as we are currently working under He Waka Eke Noa on a framework for managing agricultural emissions and placing a price on them.  

"We urge consumers to look at reports such as this with caution unless the research specifically looks at the New Zealand context."

Federated Farmers echoed Beef + Lamb NZ, saying it was an "interesting study" that did not "distinguish between New Zealand’s unsubsidised, efficient and pasture-based farming regime and other less GHG-efficient methods used across the globe".

"New Zealand farmers are the most efficient in the world and it is inaccurate to lump in the life cycle assessments of the GHG of New Zealand meat and milk with the global average,' said president Andrew Hoggard.