Should we all be eating less bacon? Would it be better for the environment, public health, and animal welfare if Europeans consumed fewer sausages? In November 2018, a study was published by researchers at the University of Oxford looking at the impact of a tax on red and processed meat. It’s already common for governments to tax harmful products in order to reduce consumption, including alcohol, tobacco, and most recently sugar. Should meat be added to the list?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Daniel who strongly supports an extra tax on meat as a way to reduce its consumption. Is this a good idea? What impact would it have in practice?
To get a response, we put Daniel’s comment to Dr Marco Springmann, James Martin Fellow at the University of Oxford, who led the study into the impact of a tax on red and processed meat. What would he say?
There are multiple reasons why one might want to tax meat. One reason is that livestock, and animal products in general, are responsible for the vast majority of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, and roughly 14-15% of overall greenhouse gas emissions. So, a really big chunk, and estimates are such that if we don’t reduce our reliance on animal products then there is a very slim chance that we can avoid dangerous levels of climate change in the future. So, that is one side.
The other side is that red and processed meat are responsible for a great many diet-related chronic diseases. At the end of 2015, red and processed meat were declared carcinogens (in the case of processed meat) and likely-carcinogens (in the case of unprocessed red meat), and that was based on fairly strong mechanistic evidence of how red and processed meat lead to cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. From that perspective, if something is declared a carcinogen, then governments ought to regulate it to basically protect their citizens, that’s the case for asbestos, but also for tobacco.
In each case, a tax on meat would address those problems. So, in the case of climate change a tax on meat would hopefully reduce the demand for meat, at least if we believe in the economic principle that consumers would buy less of a thing that becomes more expensive, and most things would be lower in greenhouse gas emissions, so if they substituted it for something else that would still result in a net reduction. A similar thing would be true if we approach it from a health perspective… Indeed, most things, like white meat, but also plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, nuts, most of those would be much healthier. So, by taxing meat, you would address those two aspects of climate change and health.
For another perspective, we also put Daniel’s comment to Jean-Luc Mériaux, Secretary General of the European Livestock & Meat Trading Union (UECBV). How would he respond?
My answer will be, of course: ‘No’. It is not a good idea at all… Firstly, if we tax meat on the grounds of health or environmental protection, we mean that meat is a risky product. Today, there are many studies that show just the opposite; meat plays a great role in a balanced diet, mainly thanks to the natural nutrients that are contained in the meat. It’s very difficult in our food system to find a food which gathers so many natural nutrients. It’s not only a question of quantity, it’s also a question of quality – that means the nutritional value of the meat.
For instance, when you eat around 100 grams of beef, you get 1 gram of iron, which is needed for human health. In order to get the same amount of iron from plant-based food, you would need to eat 1.2 kilograms of this plant-based food, such as spinach… Last year, the [Lancet] published a scientific study showing that the consumption of meat and dairy products reduces the exposure to some diseases by at least 20%. So, this is my first point. It would be unfair to tax meat because of health or environmental reasons.
Second, what are our experiences with taxes? In 2011, Denmark implemented a so-called ‘fat tax’. And what did Denmark do one year later? The same country removed the tax. Because of what? Because it was very complicated to administer, and because it lowered the demand in Denmark and encouraged people to cross the border in order to buy the same product outside of the country. There was no evidence at all that this ‘fat tax’ was efficient regarding public health. So, because of that, Denmark decided to remove the tax.
Thirdly, if we introduced a tax, who would be the first victims of the tax? The most vulnerable consumers. That means those, maybe, who need more nutritional products, such as meat…
Should there be a red meat tax? Would it be an effective way to address public health and environmental protection? Or would it be a bureaucratic nightmare to enforce, and be ineffective in practice? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!