A meat tax is probably inevitable: Here’s how it might work

Raising livestock and growing crops to feed them has destroyed more tropical forests and killed more wildlife than any other industry. Animal agriculture also produces large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

The environmental consequences are so profound that the world cannot meet climate targets and keep ecosystems intact without rich countries reducing their consumption of beef, pork and chicken.

To reduce emissions, slow biodiversity loss and secure food for a growing world population, there must be a change in the way meat and dairy products are made and consumed.

A rapidly evolving market for novel alternatives, such as plant-based burgers, has made it easy to switch away from meat. However, in countries like Britain, meat consumption has not fallen fast enough in recent years to sufficiently control agricultural emissions.

Instead, the prices of meat and other animal products will eventually need to reflect all this damage. There are several ways to do this, but each intervention poses its own difficulties.

In our opinion, the most likely result will be simple and direct taxes on meat and animal products. Our latest research, published in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, looked at how an environmental tax on meat might work.

Our calculations suggest that the average retail price of meat in high-income countries would need to increase by 35% to 56% for beef, 25% for poultry, and 19% for beef. lamb and pork to reflect the environmental costs of their production. In the UK, where the average price of a 200g beef fillet is around £2.80, consumers would pay between £3.80 and £4.30 at the checkout.

Fortunately, our research found that a meat tax, if implemented correctly, need not increase pressure on poorer households, or the agricultural industry.

Fairer, healthier and greener food

Before food prices soared in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, agriculture ministers in countries like Germany and the Netherlands were already considering the idea of ​​a meat tax. Even if a meat tax is currently unthinkable in the current political environment, higher taxes on meat and dairy may become unavoidable in order to decarbonize agriculture at the rate needed to limit global warming to at least 1.5°C. .

Read more: Emissions from the global food system alone threaten warming above 1.5°C, but we can act now to stop it

Our analysis showed that by redistributing revenue from a tax on the sale of meat and animal products evenly across the population, in the form of flat lump-sum payments at the end of each year, perhaps most low-income people they would have more money than before. tax reform.

Would people spend this compensation on meat or other products associated with high levels of contamination? Research from British Columbia in Canada showed that returning revenue from a carbon tax to citizens had no significant effect on the amount of emissions cut by the province (between 5% and 15%). Making meat relatively more expensive would probably encourage people to spend their money elsewhere.

Part of the tax revenue could fund subsidies for growing vegetables, grains and alternative proteins, or help low-income households pay their food bills more regularly.

A diner enjoys a Greek salad with a glass of white wine.
The healthiest (and cheapest) option.

Just as meat and dairy must become more expensive, healthy and sustainable plant-based foods must become more affordable. Using revenue from a meat tax to reduce value-added taxes on fruits, vegetables and grains, for example, could provide much-needed relief to the poorest households during a cost-of-living crisis, while also encouraging everyone to reduce their consumption of animal products.

Leveling the playing field

Other types of regulation, such as stricter rules on managing animal feed or manure more sustainably, risk putting domestic farmers at a disadvantage against foreign competitors who do not bear the additional costs of complying. with these standards. This is why a form of “border adjustment”, as economists call it, is also necessary to include products from overseas.

A tax applied to any company that sells meat, including restaurants and cafes, as well as supermarkets, in a given country would capture all meat producers. Other research indicates that consumers tend to be more supportive of environmental taxes of this nature if they are phased in at a lower tax rate initially.

Some of the revenue raised by the tax could be given directly to farmers, leaving them with higher profits than before. This could be paid according to their land stewardship work, restoring habitats such as peat bogs. Or, it could help them invest in transitioning to new sources of income, such as high-quality organic meat production from low-density herds that, when consumed in much lower quantities, can still be compatible with emissions targets. .

Taking steps to make plant-based foods more affordable and meat substitutes more appealing will pave the way for a future in which it is possible to make meat and dairy products much more expensive. The good news is that, once its time comes, meat taxes could help us eat better, at a lower cost.

If implemented correctly, a meat tax could protect the environment, while helping to ensure a sustainable future for ranchers, as well as affordable and sustainable food for all.

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