Applying the "polluter pays" principle, a Cornell University ecologist and author suggests a way to improve the environmental sustainability of agriculture: Levy taxes according to food-chain ranking so that products with the worst environmental impact cost the most.
"We should internalize the costs of dietary preferences. If one chooses to eat high-impact food, one should pay the full costs of such a choice," says David Pimentel, the professor of ecology and agricultural science who is a co-editor and co-author of the newly published book Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health (Island Press, 2000, ISBN 1-55963-807-9).
At the top of the ecologist's tax table (see information box below) – and highest in his ranking of foods that require the most resources to produce while wreaking more environmental degradation -- are meats from factory-farmed mammals, such as beef, pork and eggs. The same foods are the least healthy when consumed in excess, Pimentel notes.
To be taxed the least are products at the bottom of humans' food chain – foods that are more efficiently grown while causing less environmental impact – such as legumes, grains, vegetables, starch crops, fruits and nuts. People eating plant-based diets generally consume fewer health-care resources, the author maintains.
Pimentel's beef with beef and other mammalian food products at the top of the food chain centers on efficiencies of production and their "true costs," including long-term degradation of the environment. Writing a chapter on agricultural sustainability with Robert Goodland, the tropical ecologist and adviser to the World Bank, the Cornell professor offers statistics to spoil the appetite of filet mignon fans:
- Seven pounds of cattle feed is required to produce a pound of beef, compared with two pounds of fish feed for some aquaculture species. o In the United States, the 104-million-strong cattle herd is the country's largest user of grain.
- Growing an acre of corn to feed cattle takes 535,000 gallons of water.
- Agricultural production consumes more fresh water than any other human activity. Worldwide, about 70 percent of pumped fresh water is consumed (is not recoverable) by agriculture. In the western United States, the figure is about 85 percent.
- Worldwide, food crops are grown on 11 percent of the Earth's total fertile land area.
- Another 24 percent of the land is used as pasture to graze livestock for meat and milk products. Marginal land for pastures makes possible the production of meat and milk products on land unsuitable for food crops.
- Most cropland is threatened by at least one type of degradation (including erosion, salinization and waterlogging of irrigated soils), and 10 million hectares of productive land are severely degraded and abandoned each year. Replacing agricultural land accounts for 60 percent of deforestation now occurring worldwide.
The new book, with 23 co-authors and three co-editors, represents the synthesis and findings of the Global Integrity Project. Since 1992, that project has brought together leading scientists and thinkers from around the world to examine the combined problems of threatened and unequal human well-being, degradation of the ecosphere and unsustainable economies. The contributors examine key elements of ecological integrity and consider what happens when it is lost or compromised.
For his part, Pimentel notes that "a powerful trend to eat lower on the food chain" has started in many developed nations. U.S. beef consumption, after peaking at 95 pounds per person a year in 1976, has dropped to around 65 pounds today. Beef consumption in Europe and the United Kingdom never reached those levels and is now falling even faster than in the United States.
"But the countervailing trend is for people in developing nations to eat more meat as they become richer," Pimentel says, noting that China's pork consumption jumped 14 percent in 1995 alone. Pimentel and Goodland called on international aid agencies such as the World Bank to phase out investments in intensive livestock production in Third World countries, "especially grain-fed livestock, and leave it to the private sector." Such groups, they write, "should ensure that good economics prevail, including accounting for full environmental and social costs."
The authors would make exceptions in their tax plan for small-scale meat and milk production, such as natural range-fed cattle, the family cow or pig and scrap-fed chickens. But they know where the food chain tax collection should focus for the greatest bureaucratic efficiency. In the United States, they write, "beef sales are the single-largest revenue source within the whole agriculture sector. Only four meatpackers in the United States hold 82 percent of the market, suggesting a low-cost place to tax."
Proposal to tax foods by environmental sustainability and food-chain ranking
By Robert Goodland and David Pimentel from the book,
Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health
Most Impact/Least Efficient/Least Healthy
--To Be Taxed Highest--
1. Mammals: Swine/Cattle/Goats/Sheep/Rodents/Lagomorphs/Camelids/Deer
2. Birds: Chickens/Geese/Ducks/Pigeons/Turkeys
3. Other Vertebrates: Fish/Reptiles/Amphibians
4. Invertebrates: Crustaceans/Insects [Honey/Propolis]/Annelids/Mollusks
5. Saprophytes: Fungi/Yeasts/Other Microbes
6. Autotrophs: Legumes/Grains/Vegetables/Starch Crops/Fruits/Nuts/Algae
Least Impact/Most Efficient/Healthiest