Meat - a taxing issue?

At a debate organised by the Food Ethics Council the jury favoured a tax on ultra-processed foods over a tax on meat.


Richard Young, Ecologist

5th June 2019


Young is policy director of the Sustainable Food Trust


There is little doubt that food systems and the natural world will come under ever-increasing pressure in the coming decades.


Without concerted action, existing cropland soils will become even more degraded and less resilient to weather extremes. Subsistence farmers in the drylands will also continue to degrade soils as they and the livestock on which they depend are pushed onto more marginal, brittle land.


Farmers tend to get the blame for this, but look a little closer and it becomes clear that the degradation caused by their over-stocked animals is often the result of developed and developing countries continuing to acquire, by fair means or foul, more and more of their better land to grow food for their own burgeoning populations back home.


Reducing consumption


At the same time, unless we are very careful, yet more of the last remaining natural habitats, such as rainforest and savannah grasslands – home to some of our most iconic and threatened wildlife – will be converted to food production, principally soya beans, palm oil, sugar and maize, with devastating impacts on the environment and biodiversity.


Over recent years, a large number of reports, which have considered at least some of these issues, have almost all come to the similar conclusion that we need to reduce our consumption of meat, because feeding grain directly to humans is more efficient than feeding it indirectly, via farm animals producing meat or milk.


Almost without exception, these reports recommend cutting beef and lamb production and consumption. Some additionally recommend cutting dairy consumption, but many also recommend either leaving chicken and pork consumption at current levels or actually increasing it, as recently recommended by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change.


Underlying these conclusions is evidence that demand for meat is growing in developing countries, as some of them become more affluent and adopt Western-style diets, where meat consumption is already high.


However, if current projections are correct, it is clear that the planet will not be able to produce enough grain to feed the animals to meet this demand, without destroying more of the natural world. From this has developed the concept of introducing a tax on meat to reduce its consumption.


Methane emissions


Ruminants produce the greenhouse gas methane, of which the levels in the atmosphere are about twice as high as they were before the industrial revolution.


Chickens do not produce methane and pigs produce only small amounts, though the manure from housed cattle, pigs and poultry can also result in some methane emissions, especially if not well managed. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.


Beef and lamb are considered unhealthy meats by some nutritionists, because about half of the fats they contain are saturated.


Studies consistently show a small increased risk of bowel cancer and some other diseases in people who eat a lot of processed red meat, but the evidence on red meat itself is less clear with some studies appearing to find a small link between high red meat consumption and diet-related disease and many other studies finding no such a link.


Two teams of researchers now have found that people who eat red meat have lower levels of disease than people who do not, when – and this may one of the keys to explaining the confusion – both meat-eaters and those who don’t eat meat, also have an otherwise healthy diet.


Meat tax


With much of this in mind, the idea of a meat tax was recently debated at a meeting organised by the Food Ethics Council (FEC), a charity founded with the help of a donation of £100,000 from the late Joanne Bower.


Joanne’s life was, and continues to be, an inspiration. She cared passionately about farm animal welfare, about farming in harmony with the precious beauty of the natural world and all the creatures and plants that inhabit it.


One of her long-standing concerns was that we needed a committee on ethical standards in farming and food production. She proposed this to successive administrations, but as she couldn’t get any Government to establish one, she did what she could to set it up herself, giving half of the money she had saved over the decades on behalf of the Farm and Food Society, by never charging for her time while running it.


Overall, I’m sure she would have been delighted by the quality of the FEC’s meat tax debate.


While the SFT shares the same serious concerns as other campaign groups, government committees and many scientists, our analysis of the issues, especially in relation to methane, saturated fat and red meat (as part of a healthy diet) leads us to significantly different conclusions about how to address these problems.


Small farms ...


Sequestering carbon ...


Tipping the balance ...


Incentivising habits ...