At this point, the data is clear—we need to ease our dependence on red meat in our diets. Going fully vegan is great, but even if someone can’t make that work yet, giving up red meat can still help lower your carbon footprint.
But here’s the burning question—how can we encourage people to say goodbye to red meat? Outlining the health risks of eating red meat can be a good deterrent, but it definitely won’t persuade everyone. Some people are happy to swap hamburgers for Beyond Burgers simply because of the environmental impact of the former, but there are also plenty of people who won’t be budged by that talking point. Trying to sway people with facts and statistics has gotten through to some, but now, some are thinking of going with a different strategy: taxing red meat to dissuade people from purchasing it in the first place.
The idea of a tax on red meat was recently suggested in a report published by Fitch Solutions. Last fall, the University of Oxford researchers concluded that a red-meat tax would prevent 220,000 deaths globally. They looked at nearly 150 countries and found that in high-income nations, red-meat prices would have to be increased by over 20% in order to decrease consumption. Their proposed tax would lead to a 16% decrease in global consumption of processed meat and save global gas emissions by more than 100 million metric tons. Cattle is by far the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases among livestock, and accounts for a shocking 10% of global emissions.
So far, few politicians are actually trying to implement this tax in the U.S., but in Germany, politicians have suggested raising the VAT (Value Added Tax) on meat from 7% to 19%. Most food products in Germany already carry a 7% VAT, but an increase to 19% for red meat would represent a significant jump. Although the idea is on the table, no actual legislation has been passed. In fact, no countries have passed any kind of specific tax on meat yet, so we don’t know what this policy would look like in practice. However, we can look at what happened to other products that are subjected to “sin taxes” to speculate.
Since many people are already taking the initiative to cut back on red meat, the logic behind a sin tax on red meat is that this tax would merely accelerate the progress already being made in this area. This wouldn’t be the first time that a sin tax has been implemented to reduce consumption. It’s happened to soda, cigarettes, and sugar—and it’s been relatively effective. However, these taxes have been levied for health reasons, not out of concern for the environment—although a tax on cigarettes reduces air pollution and benefits the environment in addition to public health. But despite the fact that these taxes do generally result in decreased consumption, there is some controversy around the concept.
These taxes tend to affect the wallets of the poor more than the wealthy; an increase in grocery bill might not mean anything much to someone in the top 20% of income distribution, and everything to someone in the bottom 20%. That demographic is also most likely to live in food deserts where fresh produce and plant-based alternatives may not be readily available. In the long term, a red-meat tax can save people money on healthcare costs, but it will still have an immediate financial impact in the short term. However, it’s also true that the effects of climate change will have a greater impact on the global poor than the rich, and therefore, a policy that mitigates the consequences of climate change are more critical for them in the long run.
A meat tax might not be a magic bullet, though. The Fitch Solutions report actually promoted taxing red meat instead of imposing additional regulations on the meat industry, because the researchers behind this particular report doubted that it was possible to act from the top down on this particular issue. But what if companies actually flouted regulations in response to a meat tax? In order to prevent sticker shock and maintain their profits, companies might lower standards for production, resulting in more pollution and worse conditions for animals.
On the other hand, without government subsidies, red meat would be much more expensive—the price would reflect the true cost of red meat’s environmental impact. Furthermore, the red-meat tax could be used to promote sustainable farming and plant-based eating, with a focus on low-income areas. Ultimately, as long as the brunt of the tax is born by the consumer rather than masked by the corporations, it will have a desired corrective effect. Or, as the economist Benjamin Lockwood at the University of Pennsylvania says, “if the goal of a tax is to discourage consumption of something that’s unhealthy, then people will only reduce their consumption if they actually see that tax and feel it.” Even accounting for the regressive effects on lower-income individuals, tax on red meat could help cut down consumption across the board, which would be a net positive for the environment.
Before implementing such a tax, measures would need to be taken to ensure that people living in areas with limited choices would not lose out on a source of nutrition (because despite the risks of red meat consumption, sometimes people can’t be picky about where their calories, vitamins, and minerals come from). Furthermore, additional oversight would be necessary to prevent corporations from cutting corners. Tax revenue could be invested in different initiatives: for example, helping livestock farmers transition to producing plant crops, and nutrition/education programs for low-income areas.
The more radical idea? An all-out ban on factory-farmed red meat. With our urgent need to address the climate crisis by almost any means possible, the prospect might be appealing to people who have already said goodbye to hamburgers and steak and want others to do the same for the sake of the environment. But the fact that not one single nation has even been able to implement a meat tax yet means that an outright ban is currently unfeasible.
With the right approach, a red-meat tax could be an effective way to curb emissions from agriculture. Sin taxes don’t come without controversy, but the meat industry is unquestionably damaging our environment—and we can pay up now, or face the consequences later.
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