Why a Meat Tax Tackles the Wrong Problem

  • Meat production is in the spotlight as countries in the North struggle to address issues such as environmental impact and loss of biodiversity.
  • Using taxation as an instrument to achieve behavior change is not new – alcohol, tobacco and sugar all provide essential learnings.
  • However, a uniform meat tax would merge all types of meat production into one. Here are some better alternatives to make farming more sustainable for everyone.

Despite the recent popularity of plant-based diets, the world is on track to consume more meat in 2022 than ever before. This trajectory has led to many proposals for a meat tax, to reduce meat consumption and its negative externalities.

Are the arguments for a meat tax valid?

The use of taxation as an instrument to achieve behavior change is not new – alcohol, tobacco and sugar all provide essential lessons. These types of taxes are often seen as win-wins because they encourage certain segments of the population to change their behavior, and for the part that does not, the government generates revenue. However, taxation is a relatively blunt instrument compared to other policy interventions, and there is often an unpredictable relationship between taxation and how behavior change occurs.

While there is general recognition of the need to reduce meat consumption for health or environmental reasons, the validity of a meat tax is much less clear. Moderate meat consumption is still seen in most cultures as an important part of a healthy diet, and the environmental impact of meat production varies widely across farming practices, making a flat tax on meat much more more controversial and ineffective in capturing true costs and benefits. of meat products.

Proponents of a meat tax argue it could help shift production from conventional meat to meat substitutes and reduce consumption, with the ultimate goal of reducing the overall meat footprint and its impacts. associates on the environment and public health.

Why a meat tax could get in the way of sustainable agriculture

However, a uniform meat tax would merge all types of meat production into one. This means that a large intensive feedlot could be taxed the same as a sustainable rancher with fewer cattle. By applying a uniform tax, extensive and arguably less efficient systems would have a harder time absorbing the tax and could be squeezed out of the market – achieving the opposite result of attempts to improve sustainability by favoring larger and more efficient farms. .

Meat is at the heart of many diets, and for good reason: it’s one of the world’s leading sources of complete protein and provides valuable vitamins and minerals. Meat plays a significant role in cultures and is linked to many local traditions, so there is a good chance that the meat tax will – at least partially – lead households to cut spending elsewhere. Also, since a low-priced burger and a high-end cut would be taxed at the same level per pound, the relative revenue from mass-produced prices would be higher. This would disproportionately affect low-income families who already have statistically more severe malnutrition and increased inequities in our food system that are already difficult to address.

Alternative policies to make agriculture more sustainable

For a meat tax to be effective in achieving sustainability objectives, it must be formulated in a differentiated way and take into account a series of parameters. While a differentiated tax, in theory, could help address sustainability challenges better than a flat meat tax, it would also be more complicated to implement and would require agreement on thresholds and definitions around what would be called “sustainable”. Instead, there are other, simpler options that can be deployed now.

1. Redirect subsidies towards sustainable agricultural practices

Almost 90% of the $540 billion in global agricultural subsidies given to farmers is depleting our natural resources and continuing to fuel our climate crisis. The UK’s environmental land management scheme is an example of using subsidies to encourage more sustainable farming practices, paying farmers for environmental benefits, instead of offering payments based on the area of ​​land cultivated. .

2. Help farmers switch to more sustainable practices

Farmers are unlikely to change their practices when there is an upfront cost or risk to their livelihoods. Governments should share the risk and provide funding or guarantee loans to farmers to make this change, especially given the broader public good that is being achieved.

3. Support all types of innovation

Achieving a just transition in agriculture means promoting (1) tools to improve the efficiency and sustainability of conventional farming practices and (2) investing in the R&D of new complementary production systems that are in balance with their use. natural resources.

4. Reorganize the regulatory framework

Achieving change requires a comprehensive review of the agricultural framework in each country and in trade agreements, to ensure that the language and interpretation of existing laws and policies do not run counter to the stated goals of better environmental outcomes. and social.

5. Empower consumers at all income levels to make more sustainable purchasing decisions

This means investing in education to achieve healthier diets and implementing policies that will create a level playing field around sustainable labeling standards.

A meat tax is not necessarily the right approach to address our environmental, biodiversity and public health crises, especially with a range of better options available. Policy makers and wider stakeholders need to ensure that the tools we use do not “punish” good agricultural practices or unintentionally cause social injustice. Only a concerted effort by all players in the meat sector can ensure that decision-making is fit for purpose and tailored to actually promote sustainable practices rather than unintentionally causing negative outcomes.

Melvin B. Baillie