In conversation with FoodNavigator

12 things you need to know about the meat tax debate

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Meat taxes are a controversial idea that get strong reactions on both sides of the debate. But, with pressure on global resources continuing to rise, it is a topic that is likely to remain on the agenda in the coming years. Here’s FoodNavigator’s guide to the topic.

Meat taxes are in the news again

This time it’s a study by the University of Oxford that’s grabbed the headlines. The researchers claimed “a health tax on red and processed meat could prevent more than 220,000 deaths and save over $40 billion (€35.5 billion) in healthcare costs every year”​. Much like taxes on other products that can harm health – including alcohol, tobacco and sugar – a tax on red and processed meat could encourage consumers to make healthier choices, they argue.

Meat tax study
Source: Health-motivated taxes on red and processed meat: A modelling study on optimal tax levels and associated health impacts, Marco Springmann et al, Plos One

OK, so how much are we talking?

That depends on the meat – red versus processed – and the region. There’s a big table in the study (which was published in the journal Plos One​) with all the possibilities, but to summarise: prices for processed meat increased by 25% on average, ranging from 1% in low-income countries to over 100% in high-income countries; and prices for red meat increased by 4%, ranging from 0.2% to over 20%.

And what would the impact be?

If the health taxes were introduced, consumption of processed meat would decline by about two portions per week in high-income countries and by 16% globally, while unprocessed red meat consumption would remain steady, due to consumers substituting it for processed meat. There would also be a “meaningful​” saving in terms of greenhouse gas emissions – 110 million tonnes a year, representing 1.2% of all food-related emissions.

Sounds like a win-win

Given livestock’s share of GHGs is 14.5%, you might think that. And it isn’t the first study to indicate that it’s a concept worth mulling over: in 2016 the University of Oxford was again behind a study claiming that beef should be taxed at 40% and milk at 20%. However, it’s far from straightforward, not to mention politically unpalatable.

Oh, do tell

Well, farmers are pretty miffed by the whole thing – and they can be a powerful group when they take offense to a new policy proposal they don’t like, or rather the headlines it creates. They have begun to question both the nutritional and environmental data being used to push the message that meat consumption needs to fall in order to have any chance of meeting global emissions reduction targets.

So, is it all fake news, then?

No. Few can disagree that consumption of livestock needs to fall, especially in developed countries, but it’s the type of livestock products consumed where the wrangling is. “There is now near universal agreement of the ‘less’ part but very little understanding of what ‘better’ means,”​ explained Mark Driscoll, founder of Tasting the Future consultancy. Indeed, it’s worth highlighting (again) that red meat consumption would remain steady with a tax, with processed meat the real target.

©iStock/Crédits Brekbit

What is better meat, then?

That could be the $40 billion question, it seems. Some have had a crack at it, but not really got very far. One of the most recent studies, by the Eating Better campaign, concluded that: “Currently, there is no label that delivers neatly across all our better meat and dairy principles, although organic comes closest.”​ But it’s filled with caveats and complexities. For example, there is research showing that grass-fed animals have a greater climate impact than those fed grains and soy, with the latter producing less methane. Intensive systems for poultry can also have a smaller footprint than more extensive ones. However, there’s animal welfare and antibiotic use to consider. Even if you manage to get anywhere, next up is the conundrum of pitching one type of meat against another – for example, beef versus turkey.

Is that why politicians have steered clear?

It’s certainly an excuse to do nothing. But as Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, has put it: food as a climate policy is a “blind spot […] because tackling food emissions means tackling consumers. And consumers vote.”​ In Europe there’s also the challenge of agreeing something between countries with very different approaches. In the UK, the climate minister told the BBC​ recently that it’s not up to government to advise people on a climate-friendly diet. "Who would I be to sit there advising people in the country coming home after a hard day of work to not have steak and chips?”​ said Claire Perry. "I think you're describing the worst sort of Nanny State ever.”​ That hasn’t stopped others having a go. The Dutch Council for the Environment and Infrastructure has recommended that the government “work with the whole food value chain to ensure that the proportion of animal protein in the Dutch diet is reduced from 60% at present to no more than 40% by 2030.”​ Similar pressure is being applied in Denmark, whilst in Germany last year, the environment ministry took meat and fish off the catering list at external events.

I can’t imagine that went down well

In the land of the Bratwurst sausage, forcing soya lasagne on people certainly doesn’t win you friends. Or so you might think. According to Mintel research, published in July this year, Germany has emerged as “a leading force in the vegan revolution”​ – the country accounted for 15% of global vegan introductions between July 2017 and June 2018. With stats like that, it is little wonder that politicians are quite happy for the m

german food beer sausage pretzel Droits d'auteur AlexPro9500
©iStock/Droits d'auteur AlexPro9500

arket to work its magic and usher in a new era of lower meat consumption.

That seems a less controversial approach

True. As a report by Chatham House, published in December 2014, noted: “A number of factors, not least fear of backlash, have made governments and environmental groups reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to shift consumer behaviour.”​ However, the think tank also found that people weren’t quite as opposed to the idea as politicians think. And four years on, with flexitarianism all the rage (thanks to the health benefits largely), animal welfare sitting high up the consumer concerns list and millions more consumers now used to Pigouvian taxes (from sugar levies to carrier bag charges), there’s an argument that now’s the perfect time to introduce a tax on meat.

I feel we have come full circle

That tends to happen in this debate. However, the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (Fairr) Initiative, supported by investors managing more than $4 trillion (€3.5 trillion) of assets thinks it is “highly probable”​ that some governments will begin to tax meat. Over 180 countries now impose a tax on tobacco, 60 jurisdictions tax carbon and at least 25 tax sugar, so why not meat. “We are not suggesting there should be one,”​ Fairr’s Rosie Wardle told FoodNavigator, but “we are predicting that in the medium to long term future, a meat tax of some kind may well be on the agenda”.

That seems a little vague

A fair point, but look at how quickly the plastics issue has garnered support: policy proposals for taxes and bans have been conjured up in a matter of months. OK, so the plastic story is pretty unprecedented, but it could happen again. And campaigners have already begun to loosen the reigns in relation to food consumption – data from tracking firm Sigwatch suggests that meat reduction could be the next plastic in terms of activity. “Greenpeace has come out as anti-meat, or rather pro-veg, which is … out of its comfort zone,”​ Robert Blood, the company’s founder, told FoodNavigator. “That’s quite revealing because they don’t do that unless they think they can succeed.”

Source: Plos One 

Published online ahead of print: DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0204139

Authors: Marco Springmann , Daniel Mason-D’Croz, Sherman Robinson, Keith Wiebe, H. Charles J. Godfray, Mike Rayner, Peter Scarborough

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