A comparative analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of wheat and beef in the United States
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The US food system utilizes large quantities of liquid fuels, electricity, and chemicals yielding significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are not considered in current retail prices, especially when the contribution of biogenic emissions is considered. However, because GHG emissions might be assigned a price in prospective climate policy frameworks, it would be useful to know the extent to which those policies would increase the incremental production costs to food within the US food system. This analysis uses lifecycle assessment (LCA) to (1) estimate the magnitude of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions from typical US food production practices, using wheat and beef as examples, and (2) quantify the cost of those emissions in the context of a GHG-pricing regime over a range of policy constructs. Wheat and beef were chosen as benchmark staples to provide a representative range of less intensive and more intensive agricultural goods, respectively. Results suggest that 1.1 ± 0.13 and 31 ± 8.1 kg of lifecycle CO2e emissions are embedded in 1 kg of wheat and beef production, respectively. Consequently, the cost of lifecycle CO2e emissions for wheat (i.e. cultivation, processing, transportation, storage, and end-use preparation) over an emissions price range of $10 and $85 per tonne CO2e is estimated to be between $0.01 and $0.09 per kg of wheat, respectively, which would increase total wheat production costs by approximately 0.3–2% per kg. By comparison, the estimated lifecycle CO2e price of beef over the same range of CO2e prices is between $0.31 and $2.60 per kg of beef, representing a total production cost increase of approximately 5–40% per kg based on average 2010 food prices. This range indicates that the incremental cost to total US food production might be anywhere between $0.63–5.4 Billion per year for grain and $3.70 and $32 Billion per year for beef based on CO2e emissions assuming that total production volumes stay the same.