How A Carbon Price Could Gut Animal Agriculture Without Taxing Farmers And Ranchers

Even a very modest carbon price would offer most farmers and ranchers more revenue than they make raising animals for slaughter, according to the scientist who founded Impossible Foods.

“It’s kind of magical, actually,” Patrick Brown said Nov. 4 at WebSummit in Lisbon. “If there were a carbon market, and a ton of carbon dioxide was priced at $50, almost everyone who’s in the animal-agriculture industry could make much more money by getting rid of their cows, getting rid of their livestock, and allowing the biomass to recover on their land.”

Brown repeated the claim Nov. 9 at the Glasgow Climate Conference, which counted among its accomplishments new ground rules for global carbon markets.

“If, as I think most of us hope and expect, there’s a functional carbon market within the next few years, and if the price is at or above the minimum price that economists think is required to meaningfully impact climate change—which is about $50 US per ton of CO2—the vast majority of the land currently being used to raise animals for food could produce much more income by restoring the original biomass and selling the carbon credits from that restoration,” he said in Glasgow.

“There’s huge potential – I’ve calculated what the value of the land would be for that purpose versus the current price – there’s large amounts of land around the world that’s worth ten to 50 times as much” when used for carbon capture.

Brown and computational biologist Michael Eisen base their calculation on a paper published last year in Nature that estimates the “carbon opportunity cost” of using land for animal agriculture instead of for carbon sequestration.

In the U.S., land used for farming and grazing could sequester 55 billion tons of carbon, which at $50 per ton would generate almost $2.8 trillion.

The value of all U.S. ag land, including buildings, according to the USDA, is $2.7 trillion.

Of that, pasture land is worth only about a third as much per acre as cropland.

If carbon were sequestered over 50 years, U.S. farmers and ranchers could earn $50 billion per year by reforesting pasture land, Brown said. If, as expected, the carbon is sequestered much faster, say in 30 years, they could earn $94 billion per year.

Net farm income, minus federal subsidies, is about $73 billion per year, but the income per acre, again, is lowest on pasture land.

Farmers and ranchers could earn the most where farmland has replaced forest, Brown said, such as in parts of the U.S., and in countries like Brazil and the UK.

Indeed, Brazil—where animal ag has driven deforestation of the Amazon—immediately trumpeted the deal in Glasgow as a new revenue source for the country. As Reuters reported:

“The deal was ‘a Brazilian victory’ and the country is gearing up to become a ‘big exporter’ of carbon credits, its environment ministry said on social media. The country is home to much of the Amazon forest, and has huge potential to build wind and solar plants. ‘It should spur investment and the development of projects that could deliver significant emissions reductions,’ Brazil’s chief negotiator Leonardo Cleaver de Athayde told Reuters.”

Farmers globally could earn twice as much revenue, Brown said, if they also receive revenue from reversing nitrous oxide emissions.

Brown is a former physician and a Stanford University emeritus professor of biochemistry. He founded Impossible Foods in 2011 on a mission to wipe out animal agriculture by 2035 by providing plant-based meats that are healthier, tastier and cheaper than animal-based meats.

“For most of the places where people are grazing livestock or grazing cattle, you’d have to be out of your mind to continue doing that if you could make $50 per ton of carbon dioxide by growing trees,” Brown said in Lisbon. “You’d be nuts to continue raising cows.”

Brown added that the transformation would take place once carbon markets operate under reasonable standards, such as auditability, uniqueness (so carbon credits could be sold only once), and a guarantee of permanence (such as a conservation easement on the land).

“When the carbon markets will get mature enough that if you’re capturing carbon you can be confident enough there will be a customer on the other side to buy it, once that happens it will be transformative.”

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