Senators' Pre-emptive Strike on 'Cow Tax' Is Shortsighted

I've said it before: There is a quick, painless way to immediately cut global greenhouse gas emissions – reduce beef consumption. Livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of global GHGs, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Cutting most of that takes a simple lifestyle change, nothing more.

Apparently, Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Chuck Schumer of New York missed that memo – as well as President Obama's directive that science must guide government decisions involving, among other things, "mitigation of the threat of climate change."

The logical conclusion for anyone looking at the science would be to create policies that pare down beef consumption. Instead, Thune and Schumer introduced Senate Bill 527, which would bar the government from creating a "cow tax" that would effectively tax GHG emissions from livestock.

Here's the history: In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA, under the provisions of the Clean Air Act, cannot refuse to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In mid-2008, the EPA began investigating the implications of considering GHGs pollutants, and it issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The Department of Agriculture, in turn, indicated that farmers with herds larger than 25 dairy cattle or 50 beef cattle would have to buy permits for their methane emissions.

By November of last year, farmers were apoplectic. The American Farm Bureau calculated that the tax would cost $175 per dairy cow, $87.50 per beef cow and $21.87 per hog. Mark Maslyn, the AFB's executive director for public policy, said, "Steep fees associated with this action would force many producers out of business. The net result would likely be higher consumer costs for milk, beef and pork."

Briefly, the furor calmed. But recently, the EPA said it would fast-track the process of regulating greenhouse gas emissions—which would mean at sources of emissions. Hence, the anti-"cow tax" bill, a pre-emptive strike.

Blocking such a tax is exceptionally short-sighted and simply a bad idea.

In its discussion of agricultural emissions, the EPA document suggests:

The only means of controlling such emissions would be through limiting production, which would result in decreased food supply and radical changes in human diets.

The assumed response, which Sens. Thune and Schumer are hoping to play to is, "Oh no!"

But the document is wrong, and even if it was right, it wouldn't be such a bad thing.

First, taxes on emissions don't necessarily lead to reduced uses of emissions-emitting items, be they cows or cars. Instead, production methods can change. Experts at the UK's Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research note that if farmers grew grasses with high sugar levels, such as white clover and birdsfoot trefoil, they could cut emissions markedly. Such feed is far easier for animals to digest, so they belch less, emitting less methane. German scientists are working to develop a pill that could do the same thing. Without a tax, there is a far smaller incentive to develop and test such projects.

Even if the document was correct, and controlling emissions could only be done by limiting beef production or changing the American diet, would that be such a calamity?

As we've seen, switching from meat to a Mediterranean diet, even just a couple of days a week, can effect massive reductions in per-capita greenhouse gas emissions. According to research published in the journal Earth Interactions, even poultry produces 1/60th the GHG emissions per calorie that beef does.

So switching off beef is probably the single quickest, most effective action a person can take to reduce one's emissions footprint. Reams of medical studies have also shown that vegetarian diets are far healthier than ones laden with beef.

Ireland is also contemplating a similar tax in order to meet its emissions targets. Meanwhile U.S. senators, placating lobbyists, are actually considering banning the tax. That doesn't seem so smart.

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