Meat tax could help cut emissions, but must be significant to work: study

Dive Brief:

  • An environmental tax on retail meat products could help lower greenhouse gas emissions in high-income countries, but it would have to be significant to have an impact, according to University of Oxford researchers.
  • The average retail price would have to increase by 35% to 56% for beef, 25% for poultry and 19% for lamb and pork to reflect the environmental costs to produce them, the researchers said in a Fast Company op-ed.
  • Taxing meat as a way to curb emissions has been floated by some European countries, but as food inflation rages, gaining support for such efforts could get strong pushback from consumers and producers.

Dive Insight:

As major countries aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030, meat offers a prime opportunity to make progress toward the goal. The global livestock industry is responsible for 14.5% of manmade emissions and the second-largest share of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The idea of a meat tax has been floated in the last decade as a way to address the problem. An earlier Oxford study in 2016 found that a 40% tax on beef and 20% tax on milk could offset environmental damage by reducing consumption, and ultimately production. Sustainability nonprofit FAIRR said in 2017 that it believed meat could be taxed internationally in a way similar to tobacco and sugar. Animals being cut from global diets would save roughly $1.6 trillion in environmental and health costs by 2050, according to data from the 2016 Oxford study cited by FAIRR.

Climate-conscious consumers also show some willingness to accept a meat tax. According to a survey released in April by research firm Veylinx, 37% said they would support a 10% extra tax on meat products. Among Gen Z, a clear majority — 62% — endorsed a meat tax.

Critics have argued, however, that the costs of implementing a meat tax would fall heavily on lower-income families. And with meat prices continuing to rise, consumers would see pay even more if they were taxed to the degree recommended by the Oxford researchers. For example, consumers would pay between $1.87 and $2.98 more per pound of 90% lean ground beef according to the USDA retail average of $5.33 per pound for the week ending Aug. 19. And for a whole pasture-raised chicken, priced at an average of $7.33 in July, they would pay an extra $1.83.

Others have argued that a meat tax could also could harm smaller ranchers and farmers that use sustainable agriculture practices, and push them out of the market.

But the University of Oxford researchers argue that a meat tax, if done correctly, would not negatively impact the poor or farmers. They argued that meat taxes can “create additional revenue that can be used to compensate producers and incentivize the switch to more sustainable crops and farming practices,” such as carbon sequestration.

The researchers said that a meat tax can be designed in ways to increase public support. One way is for legislators to simultaneously combine meat taxes with other social policies. These could include implementing higher animal welfare standards, lowering subsidies to the meat industry and using tax revenue to support lower-income consumers, the researchers said.