A Tightly Packed Cow Pen

Say NO to Beef Industry, for different reasons

I might have grabbed the attention of a few beef lovers hating me for what I am going to write. But after I learnt the connection between the beef industry and climate change – this is an important discussion to proceed with. There is always a tussle between the environment and economy, complicated trade-offs that we try to strike a balance. Environment was partially ignored in the last two centuries to expand economic growth but economists realized it is impossible to achieve growth by deteriorating the environment. At this point, I would say there is enough damage done to the environment and unfortunately the price will be paid by us

Issues pertaining to climate change and the environment is vast, but specifically the beef industry is long debated because the GHG (Green House Gases) emissions from livestock is significantly increasing every year. Among the livestock, beef is responsible for most of the emission estimated to be around 300 kgs CO2-eq per Kilogram of protein produced.  The results are consistent with almost 40 percent of the emissions being in the form of methane (CH4). Multiple studies show the environmental effects of the beef industry is a growing concern. Extensive industrial animal farming with limited planning on the feed methods are few blames placed on the industry. Additionally, Sweden resorted to cater to the Japanese beef demand by organically producing and processing beef. To my surprise, the organic promotion actually contributed 60 percent higher than the conventional system. Paradox of being organic when the business ignores the carbon debt.  

Environmental impact of food by life cycle

White paper released by the US state outlines a minimal impact of the meat industry compared to transportation,but consumption of beef is projected to increase by 69 percent by the mid century. The most important requirement for cattle is the feed and exponential growth in  ‘industry farming’ would demand excess feed. This would simply mean to meet the bulging  demand countries with better low cost agriculture resources would become the main producer. 

India with rich agrarian history is already a top producer of beef and the export has increased over the past six years. Although the quantity of beef exported increased in 2016-17, the value of beef in effect declined. India seeking to take the comparative advantage sold to the world market 30 percent lower than Brazil. This is because of a simple demand supply equation, there is a minimal domestic demand but an identified global demand. Beef produce has to be disposed off in the global market which further limits the bargaining power and price control by India.  In addition to this, India’s unregistered slaughterhouses are rapidly growing with poor regulations and hygiene conditions.  

The US tops the world beef consumption followed by China and Brazil, environmentalists have already initiated the discussion about the environmental effects in the US. However, with respect to India the case is quite tricky to handle. India consumes 19 lakh metric tonnes compared to the US consumption of 123 lakh metric tonnes. Ranking fifth in the world’s beef production, India has a high possibility of attracting more beef industries to set up. More industries would mean a better economy and naturally people favouring free trade (including me in other cases, but not in this one) would argue for beef industries to be set up in an effort to boost our economy.

Existing industries make profits at the cost of ruining the ecosystem, so why does the greenhouse gas emission by the beef industry need to be taken seriously? 

India’s beef industry needs special attention for two reasons: one, the production is sharply increasing, two, our consumption is not likely to grow. According to international trade theories, a country exports a good that it can produce at a cheap rate and can fetch a price in the world market for the growing demand. The poorly organized beef industry in India has the potential to become the largest supplier to the world very soon. It is indeed good news as far as the profit  is concerned. But one needs to account for the environmental cost in this equation. 

Sustainability in business and factoring environmental cost is not very common in India as much as it is in the developed countries. To explain why accounting for environment cost is important, imagine if the emissions are carefully studied and the price is fixed based on that (higher price) then the price of beef from India would be demanded less since it is expensive and unfortunately economists could justify the external cost to benefit the country’s economy but fixing after the damage is done seems to be more costly. (even through an economists lens)

To get a better understanding, check the visual on how much resource it actually takes up for India to produce buffalo meat and export. The price of beef does not calculate the opportunity cost of the natural resources being used thereby undermining the natural resource utilization in the process of production.

The amount of resistance to environment exploitation in the west is much prominent and the markets indeed have a mechanism  to adjust according to the consumers preference. ‘Impossible burger’ is an innovative substitute for beef burgers- a case in point for businesses shifting based on vegan choices made by the customers. As organizations, environmentalists started campaigning against the beef industries, a clear incentive evolved for businesses to alter their products. But with India, the problem is complex, since we are not purely the consumer market for the meat industry, resistance needs to be more strong and severe even before the industry flourishes across the country. It is analogous to a multi million dollar soft drink company moving to India overusing water from India to export and of course sell it during local cricket matches. Due to various political and cultural reasons the beef industry in India might be working under the sheets but it is extremely necessary to bring in more accountability before it is too late to realize the damage caused. At the end of the day, people have freedom and liberty to make their own food choices, but let us not forget that beyond religion, politics, trade, economics, we all strive to make sensible choices keeping in mind the health of our environment. An informed choice about our lifestyle needs to be made based on the climate change and environment concerns

On World Environment Week, I came across multiple areas in which the environment needs attention. Right from plastic, CO2 pollution, conservation, global warming and the list goes on but the driving force behind all these developments was better quality life. Ironically, we realized recently that this aspiration to ‘high quality’ could probably damage the ecosystem. I believe a well informed economic choice with moralistic understanding of the environment will indeed fix half of the problem.  They are not going to manufacture plastic if consumers refuse to demand it. Alternate innovations will pick up to replace plastic and the process goes on.

They are not going to manufacture plastic if consumers refuse to demand it. Alternate innovations will pick up to replace plastic and the process goes on.

The good news is, if there is a concerted effort made to rethink our economic choices there is a hope to restore our environment.

And let us be the change we want to see in others.

Manjari Balu
Economics enthusiast and a coffee lover aspiring to build a network of like minded thinkers across the world.