Over the last few months, a frenzy of headlines such as “Meat tax could save thousands of UK lives, say scientists” have appeared. This is not the first time the red meat tax debate has hit national news; 2017 brought us “Meat tax ‘inevitable’ to beat climate and health crises” and will likely not be the last. This blog weighs in on the red meat tax debate, exploring the pros and cons of such a policy and then focuses on what it might mean for food security.
Supporting Red Meat Tax
- For the environment:
- The tax could lead to a shift towards vegetarian or vegan diets, which can reduce emissions by 20–55%, while even small concessions to diet, such as swapping beef or lamb for pork or poultry alone can reduce GHG emissions by 20–35% according to this study. In addition, these dietary shifts could lead to water and land use reductions, both of which are under threat by the growing population.
- For population health:
- Red meat has been classified as carcinogenic when processed and probably carcinogenic when unprocessed by the World Health Organisation . Its consumption has also been linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, colorectal cancer and obesity. It’s estimated that in 2020 there will be 2.4 million deaths attributable to red and processed meat consumption. Modern factory farming methods are also thought to be detrimental to public health due to increased risk of animal-to-human disease outbreaks and antibiotic resistance.
- For economies:
- For animals
- Unethical treatment of livestock reared in factory farms is well documented; including atrocious handling practises such as maiming, unthinkable living conditions and cruel slaughtering methods; despite the industry’s continued attempt to conceal this from the public.
Against Red Meat Tax
- For Livelihoods
- Livestock farmers may suffer from loss of income due to charging lower prices for their produce due to decreased demand.
- Reduce Producer Incentive
- The tax may reduce incentive for the industry itself to find new ways of reducing its emissions or adopting best practises which already exist. If pre-existing best practises were implemented by all producers, emissions could be reduced by 30% according to Food and Agriculture Organisation.
- Production methods differ in emission
- Ineffective method?
- A systematic review looked at how price changes of food can affect consumer behaviour, and found that often, increasing the price did little to change consumption. However, out of 16 different food/beverage categories, meat came in 4th place as the most responsive to price changes and research has calculated optimal taxation levels for meat to produce effective results.
- For the environment?
- Some argue that ploughing land that is currently used for grazing livestock could produce more emissions, and could put more pressure for production of soy and palm oil, both of which are encouraging deforestation in South America and S.E. Asia, which itself contributes to GHG emissions. However, nearly a quarter of all palm oil imported to the UK is for animal feed – so the livestock industry itself drives demand for palm oil anyway.
The UN defines ‘Food Security‘ as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”
Red Meat Tax and Food Security
MPs have called for people in higher income countries to consume less meat in order to reduce the growing food insecurity in the Global South. The average meat consumption per capita in the UK is around double the global average. This has contributed to increases in the price of grain, as it’s used for livestock feed, making food less affordable for those already food insecure. A tax on red meat, particularly in high income countries could hopefully redistribute this inequitable consumption of meat. There are many people in lower income countries, who would benefit nutritionally from higher levels of consumption of red meat.
For many, a red meat tax itself may appear as going against the definition of food security. A tax would reduce ‘economic access’ to meat. It would likely affect people on lower incomes who may already be food insecure more so than richer households, thereby worsening food security for vulnerable populations. However, this problem could be mitigated, if the revenues of the tax were used to subsidise healthy foods.
So… what’s the answer?
Clearly, the red meat tax conversation is a complex one that is far from over. By no means am I declaring it the final solution to the world’s problems. But with our current capitalist food system, climate change is going to continue, relentlessly. Likely, the only way to change this in the long term would be for a systematic restructuring (a topic for another blog!). But for the time being, with systematic restructuring far from sight, in order to prevent global warming from irreversibly damaging the planet and its inhabitants, governments must act to do something. At the very least, from a health perspective a ‘processed meat tax’ should be implemented, for the same reasons a sugar levy was introduced successfully in the UK. However, I also believe a red meat tax should be seriously considered, at least to be trialled, particularly in higher income countries. Revenues should be used to subsidise healthy foods like fruit and vegetables, and should be implemented in tandem with other incentives aimed at the producers of livestock, and initiatives to tackle other issues within the food system, such as food waste and food miles.
What do you think? Feel free to comment below!