Carbon-Labeled Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner

Carbon-Labeled Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner

Ethan Pauling*

Seared, juicy, cooked to a rosy medium with a mouth-watering aroma, and carbon-labeled¾that’s how I like my steaks. If you drive across the great state of Texas, you will see ranch after ranch after ranch. As someone who was born on a farm in Iowa and grew up in Texas, I have a personal connection to farming and ranching. I believe it is an honest profession that can give a person a sense of self-worth and something of which to be proud. However, as this industry grows, its environmental impact will “beef up” if not effectively corralled.

The environmental issue addressed here is that certain agricultural practices, like converting forests to ranchland, release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and severely disrupt ecosystems. Additionally, approximately 13% of the world’s net carbon dioxide emissions stem from land cover change, such as deforestation, afforestation/reforestation, and wood harvesting. Roughly 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation. In addition to carbon sequestration, tropical rainforests help to regulate the global temperature by insulating the earth. A lower albedo value translates to a higher heat absorption factor, and forest cover acts to reduce the albedo value of the land. Deforestation raises the albedo, which results in a land surface that reflects more solar radiation and disrupts the natural temperature cycling provided by forest cover. Converting forested land into beef ranchland has significant environmental impacts, as described above.

Currently, the beef industry is thriving and growing with an increasing global population. Without a plan to manage the potential environmental impacts of beef production, the rising demand to eat beef may result in additional carbon releases. Such a solution could exist in the form of a new food labeling program for beef products that identifies the amount of carbon released during production. This label would allow consumers to purchase beef products with a lower carbon value, which would signal to producers to change their practices toward those with a lower carbon footprint. A labeling program would encourage the economic market to help solve an environmental crisis, instead of increased regulation directly limiting carbon-intensive production methods and land use changes which could severely impact producers.

The proposed program could survive potential legal challenges if it is implemented as either mandatory or voluntary by the federal, or a state, government. A few of these challenges stem from the different areas of the US Constitution, depending on which level of government proposes the carbon labeling program­. A mandatory federal program such as the National Organic Program would allow producers to work with just one labeling program, instead of multiple state programs. However, a mandatory federal program may be the least politically viable option; therefore, this blog briefly explores potential legal issues associated with different types of government implementation of the program. For example, the Dormant Commerce Clause applies to a state mandatory program and the First Amendment free speech clause applies to a federal mandatory program. This blog also explores a potential issue for international trade effects of a federal labeling program, under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

The Dormant Commerce Clause is an offshoot of the Commerce Clause in Article I of the US Constitution that delegates to Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. It prohibits states from enacting laws that result in a discriminatory or excessive burden on interstate commerce. The Supreme Court has ruled against state laws that favor local products over out-of-state products and held these laws to violate the Commerce Clause. However, the proposed carbon label on beef products would apply evenly to in-state and out-of-state producers. Because of that “even-handedness” in its application, the proposed label should satisfy the standards for non-discrimination set by the U.S. Supreme Court if implemented as mandatory through a state government.

If proposed labeling program would be implemented through the federal government as mandatory, it should pass the First Amendment Free Speech Clause that is understood to prohibit the federal government from telling people what to say. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that information that is “purely factual” in its nature and that is used in a manner that is “reasonably related to the government’s interest” is not compelled speech. The purpose of a government-mandated carbon label is to inform and guide consumers to food choices that will reduce the negative impact of poor beef production practices. These production practices and land use change records are “purely factual” in nature. Further, the government must gather this information to carry out the purpose of the label, so courts should see it as “reasonably related to the government’s interest.” Therefore, the proposed label should stand if implemented as a mandatory program through the federal government.

International trade policies, such as the GATT 1994, should not prevent the U.S. government from requiring a carbon label for beef products sold in the United States. A carbon labeling program that considers land-use changes and the carbon sequestration abilities of different habitat types could face international allegations of discrimination against foreign beef producers that ship to the U.S. However, Article XX(g) of GATT 1994 acts as an exception and allows policies if they “relate to” the conservation of natural resources. Reducing the carbon footprint of beef production would also satisfy this exception, as significant land use changes would decrease anywhere beef production occurs, whether domestic or international.

To conclude, a label on beef products would allow consumers to help make choices that result in better environmental stewardship of producers and a reduction in the carbon intensity of the beef industry. The labeling program may be an alternative to additional laws and regulations that have unequal effects on beef producers. Additionally, by achieving low carbon intensity and labeling their beef as such, producers would create favorable options for consumers that likely lead to increased sales. This label could bring together the beef industry and our natural world, while ensuring that both are able to thrive



*About Ethan Pauling

I was born in northwest Iowa and grew up in central and southeast Texas. I like to know how things work, and I am especially interested in how our natural world works. I earned a B.S. in Environmental Science at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently, I am working toward a J.D. and a Masters of Environmental Law and Policy at Vermont Law School. My goal after law school is to combine science with legal tools to help guide decisions that are in the best interest of both humans and nature. I am an optimistic person, so I see a future where all can thrive. I enjoy being outside, playing soccer, riding motorcycles, and anything related to water (fishing, swimming, etc.)!