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Time to Tax Meat?
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Time to Tax Meat?

It's no news to vegans that animal farming is killing the planet. The methane from farm animals' digestive systems is thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet, and with 50% more ruminant animals than there were fifty years ago mass farming for meat is a serious environmental menace.

But now a group of prominent scientists have published an article in the Nature Climate Change journal calling for governments to step in and tackle the problem.

Seeking an economic solution

The paper presents the hefty evidence that farming for meat is contributing to global warming. It also sets out to discuss solutions, and to address the need for political action.

The scientists suggest a tax or emission trading scheme on meat products, such as have long been suggested for tackling other causes of polution. They point out that, in the absence of a massive movement towards change in our diets, a mechanism is needed to reduce meat consumption. And raising prices, they say, is a way to deal with this.

Do we need this intervention?

As a vegetarian I'm reticent about any measure that might seem like enforcing my lifestyle on others. On an individual level I feel uncomfortable with pressuring people to change their diet rather than persuading them through the benefits.

But the fact is that such interventions are sometimes necessary. A free market is not a neutral mechanism. It steers businesses towards putting profit before everything else, and individuals towards putting themselves before the wider good. Like workplace targets, taxes can change people's behaviour, and once something is in their economic interest their beliefs will sometimes follow.

Left to their own devices, many people will change diet far too late to save the planet. Maybe this more nuanced approach to government intervention - not telling people what to eat, but giving them a motive to change - could be what we need.

The objections

Of course the meat producing industry has immediately raised objections. And of course many of them are flawed.

They object that such a scheme would raise consumer prices, when that is the whole point of the scheme. Those price changes are meant to change behaviour.

They point out that animals are a natural way of turning grass into protein to eat, ignoring the hugely unnatural circumstances in which those animals are raised and the fact that the grass they eat was planted there by humans.

They point out that meat livestock have been used to manage the countryside for centuries. Very true, but the same could have been said of Medieval serfdom, while battery farming of chickens has been around for decades. 'We've always done it this way' is no defence when a better alternative is found.

Governments are unlikely to raise taxes on meat yet. But the more scientists step forward to show the predicament that we're in, the more likely we are to see such a change.


Photo by Wendy Piersall via Flickr creative commons

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  1. robz
    Governments seem keen to apply taxes to tackle problems - global warming? Tax fuels. Alcohol over-consumption? Raise the taxes on drink. From the government's point of view, it does not lose any "income" - if the levels of consumption go down because of the higher prices, the tax increase compensates for that. But taxing does little to address the underlying problem. Actually meat is already subsidised by grants and tax breaks given to farmers (read the book Meatonomics to understand this in the USA), so tax dollars are already paying for its production, its just consumers (and non-consumers!) don't pay for it at the supermarket till, but before that by their general taxation being given to farmers. Just go ahead and ban meat, and use the tax dollars saved to give out free fruit and veg to boost peoples' health.
    1. Andrew Knighton
      Andrew Knighton
      I hadn't thought about subsidies - thanks for that Robz. Given those subsidies, the first step for those seeking a softer approach than banning seems to be to only allow those subsidies for growing plant food - that would change a lot of farmers' approaches pretty quickly.
      1. robz
        Yeah, or the subsidies could be diverted to projects like the community forest food garden in Seattle, or London's proposed community gardens on the Olympic site, where people can take part in growing and harvesting both wild and cultivated plants themselves. The health benefits would soon outweigh the costs.
        1. Andrew Knighton
          Andrew Knighton
          Definitely a better alternative. I hadn't heard about the proposal for community gardens on the Olympic site, but that's a great idea, and would do a lot more for fitness in the city than the games did.


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