Taxing Red Meat Would Save Lives and Slow Global Warming

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But many people still don't like the idea of paying more for their steak.

Should red meat be taxed? It's a question that's bound to raise controversy, as people generally dislike being told what they can or cannot eat. But when those same people are burdening a health care system with ailments brought on by the overconsumption of meat, does a government have the right to request more help in paying for it? One could argue yes.

While this controversy has been sizzling for years, it's been brought to the forefront by a new study out of Oxford University, published this week in PLOS One. Titled, "Health motivated taxes on red and processed meat," it outlines optimal tax levels that would nudge consumers toward healthier food choices, similar to what's been done with tobacco, alcohol, and, most recently, sugary beverages.

The research team, lead by Dr. Marco Springmann, found that a red meat tax could prevent 220,000 deaths and save more than US$40 billion globally in healthcare costs every year. The study listed optimal tax levels for 150 countries, based on differing health and economic burdens created by meat consumption. The taxes would be higher in regions that consume significantly higher amounts of meat – usually high-income developed nations – since these places spend more money treating associated chronic diseases. Low-income countries would have lower taxes because people eat less meat and are not as ill.

So, what kinds of taxes would these be? From Dr. Springmann's summary in The Conversation,

"The health taxes on sausages in Germany and bacon in the US, for example, would increase prices by a whopping 160 percent, whereas prices for processed meat in China would have to increase by 40 percent, and those in Ethiopia by less than 1 percent. Due to its relatively modest healthcare spending, the UK is somewhere in the middle with an 80 percent increase."

Processed meat (i.e. bacon, jerky, sausages) is considered more harmful than non-processed (steaks, ground beef), with the World Health Organization labeling the former as carcinogenic in 2015 and the latter as probably carcinogenic. Springmann and his team said that a tax would reduce processed meat consumption by about two portions per week, while non-processed red meat consumption would stay the same to compensate for the decrease in processed meats.

This conversation, however, goes beyond health.

We also have to talk about the planet. The idea of a meat tax is particularly relevant within the context of the recent IPCC report on climate change, which gives us 12 years to keep global warming below 1.5 Celsius. Eating less meat is a crucial part of fighting greenhouse gas emissions; and encouraging people to embrace a more climate-friendly diet is not beyond a government's reasonable mandate – especially considering that this has always done for health and safety reasons, both of which are affected by climate change.

For example, BBC says the UK's climate minister Claire Perry has agreed "it was appropriate for the government to advise people on healthy diets because the obesity epidemic is costing taxpayers more in health bills, but implied that this principle did not apply when considering the health of the planet." This is unfortunate, since eating less meat is arguably the single most effective action a person can take to help the planet right now. As Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth said,

"It's a complete no-brainer, and it's a dereliction of duty for government to leave the job of persuading people to eat less meat to the green groups."

Springmann agrees, although his study was more focused on health outcomes than climate. He says that lowering consumption of red and processed meats "could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by over a hundred million tonnes – mainly due to lower beef consumption."

It would be great if people did so voluntarily, but the unfortunate reality is that, as 'Nanny state'-like as a meat tax may seem (that was the description used by Perry), disincentives work better than incentives. People are more likely to change their habits if they feel pain associated with continuing the status quo than if they're rewarded for changing. Take coffee cup fees, for example. Reusable cups are easier to remember to bring from home if you're charged for a disposable one, as opposed to given a discount for having a reusable one on hand.

When drastic results are wanted – whether for improvements in public health or building climate change resiliency – then drastic solutions are required, and a meat tax would fit that bill perfectly. It's not banning meat outright, and still respects people's decision to eat it if desired, but it forces shoppers to choose it more carefully, stretch it a bit further, and perhaps even enjoy it more when a special occasion comes around.