If Meat’s What For Dinner Tonight, Pay Up! Calls For A Meat Tax Gain Momentum


meat tax

Published on January 7th, 2019 |
by Carolyn Fortuna

January 7th, 2019 by  

Recent calls for a meat tax reflect growing concerns about holding those most responsible for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of all kinds accountable. In the same way that in the past year, state and local governments across the US have launched a new wave of litigation seeking to hold fossil fuel companies liable for damages caused by climate change, so, too, have an increasing number of individuals, researchers, and organizations called for a meat tax due to the environmental deterioration caused by cattle rearing and associated meat consumption.

meat taxA late 2018 editorial in the New Statesman America has reinvigorated arguments to call out the animal husbandry industry for its devastating environmental and other impacts. “Not only would Britain be gently nudged in a healthier direction but the UK could see a 17% reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions,” Sam Pugh argues. He adds that, with the Paris Agreement on climate goal of global average temperatures well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and even to increases to 1.5°C, introducing a meat tax would position the UK alongside Denmark and Sweden as committed and leading nations in halting climate change.

The food system is responsible for more than a quarter of all GHG emissions, of which up to 80% are associated with livestock production. The aggregate dietary decisions we make have a large influence on climate change. Support for a meat tax is based on “considerate, progressive, and evidence-based policy” that is an essential step forward to offset the negative outcomes from meat consumption. Let’s just say it: people who follow plant-based diets have smaller environmental footprints. Adopting sustainable eating habits can help reduce GHG emissions, water consumption, and land used for factory farming, which are all factors in global warming and environmental degradation

It is a tax which all Western nations, including the US, should consider.

Meat as Agent of Environmental Degradation

“Greater eaters of meat are in general more cruel and ferocious than other men.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Let’s just say it: people who follow plant-based diets have smaller environmental footprints. Adopting sustainable eating habits can help reduce GHG emissions, water consumption, and land used for factory farming, which are all factors in global warming and environmental degradation. Animal agriculture is water-intensive and space-inefficient. Over the next 3 decades, meat consumption is projected to increase by 75%. This data is based in part on research from the University of Oxford, where the food policy researcher Marco Springmann and colleagues calculated that eliminating animal protein from the global food system would save $1.6 trillion in environmental costs by 2050.

Springmann, et al., determined that including the social health cost of red and processed meat consumption in the price of red and processed meat could lead to significant health and environmental benefits, in particular in high and middle-income countries. The lead researcher explained in a press statement that taxing meat “would send a strong signal that dietary change toward more healthy and sustainable plant-based diets is urgently needed to preserve both our health and the environment.”

To assess the health and environmental effects, the Oxford researchers modeled 4 different dietary scenarios for the year 2050:

  • a ‘business as usual’ scenario based on projections of future diets
  • a scenario based on global dietary guidelines which includes minimum amounts of fruits and vegetables, and limits to the amount of red meat, sugar, and total calories
  • vegetarian and vegan scenarios which both conform to the dietary guidelines

The result? Adopting global dietary guidelines would cut food-related emissions by 29%, vegetarian diets by 63%, and vegan diets by 70%, the study concludes. The researchers state that transitioning toward more plant-based diets that are in line with standard dietary guidelines could reduce food-related GHG emissions by 29–70%, compared with a reference scenario in 2050.

Without a real effort to reduce meat in everyday diets, projected GHG emissions increase by 51% in the Springmann study. Dietary changes toward less animal-sourced foods decrease the reference GHG emissions by 29–70%. Indeed, that percentage is likely to be a conservative estimate once the beneficial impacts of dietary change on land use through avoided deforestation are taken into account.

meat tax

Investor Network Opinion Points to Likelihood of a Meat Tax

“Not eating meat is a decision, eating meat is an instinct.”

— Denis Leary, comedian —

Established by the Jeremy Coller Foundation, the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) Initiative is a collaborative investor network that raises awareness of the material environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risks and opportunities caused by intensive livestock production. FAIRR believes that intensive livestock production poses material risks to the global financial system and hinders sustainable development. Their mission is to build a global network of investors who are focused and engaged on the risks and opportunities linked to intensive livestock production.

FAIRR commissioned a 2017 private report which determined it is becoming “increasingly probable” that the implementation of the Paris Agreement will lead some governments to tax meat in the same way many now tax sugar, carbon, and tobacco.

Noting that livestock farming generates more emissions than all the world’s planes, trains, and cars combined, The Livestock Levy found that that animal protein products are on a similar trajectory to goods such as tobacco, carbon, and sugar. In all these cases, the path to taxation was initiated by a global consensus around the negative impacts to society, followed by an assessment of financial costs to the public and, finally, support for some form of additional behavioral tax.

meat tax

Graphic courtesy of FAIRR

The report concludes that, while the concept of a meat tax to improve public health and/or environmental outcomes is at an embryonic stage and faces several practical challenges for how implementation might work, it is on a “clear path that is likely to end with taxation in some form.” That could have enormous impact on the food and agriculture sector, consumer behavior, and broader capital markets.

The FAIRR report recommends that far-sighted investors should stay close to discussions taking place on this issue. “As the international community works to implement the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, governments and other international institutions will need to create a pathway to a more sustainable global food system – meat taxation may well feature on that road.”

“Meat consumption is also one sector where both the issues of environment and health overlap,” Rosie Wardle, head of investor engagements with the FAIRR Initiative, told Futurism. “We feel that everyone should have the right to a healthy and nutritious diet,” she said, “and ideally that should help promote a shift towards eating more plant proteins, which is healthier and better for the planet.”

meat tax

Danish Council on Ethics: It’s Time to Implement a Meat Tax

“Vegetables are interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat.”
Fran Lebowitz (‘Metropolitan Life’)

In 2016, the Danish Council on Ethics, an advisory body to the Danish parliament, released a report examining whether the choice of consuming foods with a large environmental footprint should be left to the consumer – or whether regulation should be introduced to reduce the climate impact of food consumption. 14 out of 17 council members recommended putting a tax on beef. The main reason was beef’s massive contribution to climate change, which is seen as a serious ethical problem because it harms other people and constitutes a serious threat to the global society’s development and to nature.

Therefore, the Council determined, the moral responsibility to reduce GHG emissions should be shouldered by all citizens in solidarity and not left entirely to the individual consumer. In fact, they outline that a number of factors casts doubt about the efficiency of laying the choice to the consumer:

  • The individual’s effort in itself makes only a very small difference for nature and the climate. It makes many people feel their efforts have no real effect.
  • This tendency is intensified by the fact that many become discouraged when they see that others fail to take their share of the responsibility.
  • The lack of support could be interpreted as a modern version of the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons:’ The individual may perceive it as their self-interest to consume as much as possible and, thus, emit as much greenhouse gas as possible into the atmosphere, but, when everyone is doing the same, the climate is destroyed to the detriment of all.
  • Climate changes are ‘far away’ in space and time from the act itself (e.g. eating a beef), and the harm done to others is indirect and in the future, which makes it difficult to relate to at the supermarket counter.
  • Climate-damaging foods are, in reality, too cheap, since the costs of externalities such as restoration of climate damage are not reflected in the price. The financial incentive that ought to be in place to pursue climate-minded acts simply is non-existent.

The report outlined that taxes should be imposed on any food based on its degree of climate impact and, ideally, joint international initiatives should be pursued. The problem, they stated, is supranational — emissions do not respect national borders. Effective international efforts should parallel putting a national tax on the most climate-damaging food — meat from ruminants. Taxes should be considered justifiable since climate-damaging foods are currently priced too low when taking into account the societal costs they entail.

meat tax

Other Countries Consider a Meat Tax

The German Federal Environmental Agency (GNF) has expressed interest in increasing taxes on meat, eggs, and cheese from 7 to 19%. Currently, meat and dairy in Germany are subject to a 7% value added tax (VAT) alongside fruit, vegetables, and cereals, rather than the regular 19% tax rate. This led the GNF to conclude that VAT reductions on animal products such as meat and cheese amount to environmentally harmful subsidies, and, due to the environmental harm caused by meat and dairy products, these commodities should face a higher tax rate.

In 2016, three MPs for the Swedish Green party tabled a motion in the Swedish Riksdagen (Parliament) calling for the introduction of a climate tax on food. The motion was comprised of 2 steps, the first of which was the introduction of a tax on beef.

A 2017 study published in Climate Change considers the extent to which one food exchange could contribute to achieving GHG reduction targets in the US. The researchers used the targeted reduction for 2020 as a reference and apply published Life Cycle Assessment data on GHG emissions to beans and beef consumed in the US. They  calculated the difference in GHGs resulting from the replacement of beef with beans in terms of both calories and protein. Results demonstrated that substituting one food for another, beans for beef, could achieve approximately 46 to 74% of the reductions needed to meet the 2020 GHG target for the US. In turn, this shift would free up 42% of US cropland (692,918 km2).

While not currently recognized as a climate policy option, they say the “beans for beef” scenario offers significant climate change mitigation and other environmental benefits, illustrating the high potential of animal to plant food shifts. “I think there’s genuinely a lack of awareness about how much impact this sort of change can have,” Helen Harwatt, the lead researcher, told The Atlantic.

meat tax

Health Considerations of our Daily Meat

“Much meat, much malady.”
Thomas Fuller, English clergyman (1608-1661)

Health considerations as well as GHG emissions that result from animal agriculture make a meat tax a likely scenario. Consuming just 50g of processed meat (a hot dog, for example) a day raises the risk of developing bowel cancer by 18% over a lifetime. With the average adult consuming 70g a day and 1 in 4 now obese, the burden of meat consumption is real. The average US citizen consumed more than 200 pounds of meat in 2017, more than twice the global average and nearly twice as much as Americans did in 1961. The average US man is eating more than his own weight in meat every year — even as that weight has increased to 196 pounds, up from 166 pounds in 1960.

Similar to tobacco, which was marketed as harmless and could even provide health benefits, a meat tax would be comparable to a sugar tax, which was introduced in the UK as a levy on high sugar soft drinks.

meat tax

Final Thoughts

“A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.”

— William Shakespeare —

The choices we make about the food we eat have major ramifications for the state of the environment. As Westerners, we’ve been taught through generations that meat is good, healthy, and a sign of prosperity. Research indicates that adopting global dietary guidelines would not be enough to reduce food-related GHG emissions by itself. Instead, total GHG emissions will need to fall to achieve a climate stabilization pathway that would have a high probability of limiting global temperature increases to below 2 °C.

To achieve climate stabilization, a balance will need to be struck among the degree of adoption of plant-based diets, advances in mitigation technologies of the food sector, and disproportionate reductions in non–food-related GHG emissions.

Images copyright free via Pixabay 


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About the Author

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She’s won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. She’s molds scholarship into digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+

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