The Real Reason Some Are Calling For A Meat Tax

On November 4, lost in the hubbub of the US presidential election, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) released a report that recommended implementing a carbon food tax which would be levied on food producers for the carbon footprint of their products. They urged the British government to do this to encourage the changes necessary for it to become a carbon-neutral nation.

As The Guardian wrote while covering the report's release, food production is responsible for a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, with red meat and dairy disproportionately contributing to that number. Red meat, namely beef, poses a second environmental problem because swaths of forests are cut down for grazing, reducing the trees that can absorb carbon dioxide. Lastly, people in richer nations eat more meat than is healthy, while fruit and vegetable intakes remain low. 

Taxing the carbon footprints of these companies would do three things. First, it would hopefully encourage these companies to decrease their carbon footprint by reducing and supplementing their meat products. Second, it would raise the price of meat so that people would consume less of it, thus further disincentivizing the producer — hence the label "meat tax." Thirdly, it may push companies to invest more in developing lab-grown meat, the potential of which is exhibited in a piece about astronauts potentially surviving off of such meat on Mars. The possibility still a long way away, but with added investment, we may draw closer to cleaner meat, making everyone happy. 

The larger discourse

Of course, the UKHACC's report was not the first foray into this topic. In 2018, for example, The Conversation ran two articles on the topic of implementing a meat tax, one for and one against. 

The article for the meat tax emphasizes it as a health tax, instead of a carbon tax. Pointing to red meat's connection with raised risks for cancer, strokes, diabetes, and heart disease, the article argues that a health tax is necessary for improving the public's health. The difference between the two taxes, however, is that it places the blame more on the consumer's shoulders than the producers. 

The argument in the article against the meat tax says that since consumers are already eating less meat, there's no point in taxing it: "Taxing a food product that's been entrenched in our culture for so long is idealistically silly. We should let the market evolve and allow consumers to make their own choices." The most moving case made against such a tax is that it could disproportionately affect poorer communities who cannot afford other sources of protein. However, its author accepts the health and environmental cost of eating meat. 

A counter to the regressive issues of imposing taxes on the most vulnerable is given by Ecologist: Use the raised money and other changes to "reduce prices on healthier products and to increase understanding of healthy cooking." The UKHACC recommends a tax to help the inhabitants of the planet, not to shame or starve them.