A tax to curb meat’s problems | FT Food Revolution
Livestock farming takes a heavy toll on the environment and excessive meat consumption can carry health risks. One idea to curb these problems is the introduction of a meat tax. But opponents claim that could put meat out of reach for poorer consumers, make farmers cut corners on animal welfare, and encourage suppliers to import cheaper meat
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There's almost no chance that we could meet our Paris Climate targets without addressing agriculture and especially our diets.
Nobody wants to be told what they should do. Food is very personal. Eating is very personal.
What I'd like to see is factory farming becoming a stranded asset. Cows are the new coal.
We need to eat less meat, and one of the solutions to that which has been talked about is to introduce a meat tax.
The idea of a meat tax is ludicrous to be honest. It would be crazy.
The global meat consumption since the '60s is really expanding. We eat three times or four times more than we did in the past.
We are consuming 8 to 9 times the amount of meat that scientists usually regard as both healthy and sustainable.
Consumed responsibly, as part of a balanced diet, is a health-giving product, so why on Earth would you tax it? I think it is a completely different argument to high salt products, high sugar products and highly processed products with what we know are some unhealthy ingredients within them.
We've lived in this world for the last 50 years where processed meat and factory-farmed meat has become cheaper and cheaper because of subsidies and beneficial tax situations.
At the moment meat is way too cheap and that gives a false signal to the consumer who then thinks, oh, it's relatively cheap. It can be an item that I consume very regularly.
This overconsumption is creating a lot of non-communicable diseases like heart diseases, diabetes too and cancer.
There's been quite a lot of discussion over the last year or two about the government's obesity strategy. Meat was included within high salt products and high sugar products and highly processed products. And the government interestingly took meat out of that group of foods, because I think they recognise that it's a healthy product.
At the moment, meat doesn't have a bill attached to it for the health impacts, for the climate change impacts it is associated with, for the ecosystem impacts and so on.
Around 90 per cent of Amazonian deforestation is a result of livestock production. It's the number one user of antibiotics worldwide, the number one user of fresh water worldwide. Plus it's more greenhouse gases than the whole of the transport sector - planes, trains, and automobiles.
Everything we do in this world has an impact on the climate, doesn't it? And agriculture is no different. I do feel that there's a really strong argument that the mechanisms and the tools we've got now to measure our carbon footprint are just not accurate enough. They're not holistic enough.
The environmental impacts are numerous and impossible to overstate.
The rationale for a meat tax is very much to pay the full price for that food, in this case, meat. So you are still free to actually consume meat provided you pay the full price. For example, you pay a contribution to the healthcare services that are then needed to treat the diet-related diseases. Or you pay a price for the carbon emissions.
A meat tax would simply put the price of meat products up and we know that those lower income households, people will cut back and consume and cook lower nutrient-dense products and health will be compromised.
Meat taxes are what we'd call a sin tax, a tax on behaviour that society deems to be harmful. Where we've seen them work is say in the UK where the levy on cigarettes is very high and that has helped reduce the number of smokers here.
We promote a meat tax which is fair towards consumers and also fair towards farmers. This can be done if a consumer tax on meat is used to pay farmers money, subsidies to reduce emissions and to pay consumer subsidies for healthy food.
Surveys have shown that people in Germany would be willing to tolerate some form of meat tax, but only a certain amount. Once you get past a certain point, people act more aggressively against it as a policy measure.
Livestock farmers are marginal businesses. People aren't making a great deal of money. And I think if there was a tax it would just apply pressure on those farmers. And that does. We know that when things are tough economically within the livestock world, farmers have no choice but to cut back on labour, on staff, on feed. And quite often those reductions will have an impact on animal welfare.
The big problem with meat taxes is that you create the wrong incentives for farmers by pushing them to make cheaper meat. There's two issues with that from an environmental perspective. One is that a lot of that cheap meat will be imported. That will raise the carbon footprint because you've got to consider the transport emissions involved. And cheaper meat is often produced in a way that is not environmentally friendly. The farming practises are not only not as environmentally sound, they also can be unethical.
Instead of focusing on passing attacks that would make meat cost more, we should focus on policy solutions that would promote the foods that we want people to eat more.
In Germany and Italy, dairy is taxed at 7 per cent and oat milk, for instance, taxed at 19 per cent. If the subsidies are switched, the consumer will be able to make a choice of food they eat on a level playing field.
I would personally rather tackle these issues through education and awareness and encouraging people rather than attacks. I don't think we want a nanny state that tells people what they should be doing and pushes them to do it financially.
When I bring up needing to shift our diets, even not specifically talking about a meat tax, I get the reaction that a meat tax does get which is I don't want people telling me what to eat.
New Zealand are bringing in a carbon emissions tax of livestock in 2025. They're the first country to do that. It's inevitable that will happen because we do have to tackle climate.
I don't see a meat tax being passed in the US. But the conversation about the very strong evidence for whether it would be a meat tax or ending promotion of meat and dairy and instead promoting plant-based foods, that gives me hope.
Public support for meat taxes is very much based on the assumption that governments take those revenues and use those revenues to improve the conditions in which livestock is raised.
Why on Earth would you tax one of the most nutritious foods on Earth? Why would you do that? And why would any government choose to increase the costs of food that go on people's plates? And certainly the most healthier food to increase their cost is not a vote winner.
I think there are good chances we will see taxes on meat or other animal source foods in some way or form. In multiple countries, the discussion is very much there. It just depends on the political will and also the population to express its preferences properly.