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Health and wellness

Would you pay a meat tax? Climate and health crises might be unavoidable without one, report says

Meat is now following the same path as tobacco, carbon emissions and sugar towards a ‘sin tax’, report states, with one expert predicting some form of meat tax emerging within five to 10 years

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 8:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 8:15am

“Sin taxes” on meat to reduce its huge impact on human health and climate change look inevitable, according to analysts for investors managing more than US$4 trillion of assets.

The global livestock industry causes 15 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and meat consumption is rising around the world. Dangerous climate change cannot be avoided unless this is radically curbed. Many people already eat far too much meat, seriously damaging their health and incurring huge medical costs. Livestock also drive other problems, such as water pollution and antibiotic resistance.

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A new analysis from the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) Initiative, an investor network, argues that meat is now following the same path as tobacco, carbon emissions and sugar towards a sin tax – a levy on harmful products to cut consumption. Meat taxes have already been discussed in parliaments in Germany, Denmark and Sweden, the analysis points out, and China’s government cut its recommended maximum meat consumption by 45 per cent in 2016.

Jeremy Coller, founder of FAIRR and chief investment officer at the private equity firm Coller Capital, said: “If policymakers are to cover the true cost of human epidemics like obesity, diabetes and cancer, and livestock epidemics like avian flu, while also tackling the twin challenges of climate change and antibiotic resistance, then a shift from subsidisation to taxation of the meat industry looks inevitable. Farsighted investors should plan ahead for this day.”

Maria Lettini, director of FAIRR, said: “As implementation of the Paris climate agreement progresses, we’re highly likely to see government action to reduce the environmental impact of the global livestock sector. On the current pathway we may well see some form of meat tax emerge within five to 10 years.”

The analysis notes that nations begin to implement sin taxes as consensus forms over the harm caused by the product. Today more than 180 jurisdictions tax tobacco, more than 60 tax carbon emissions, and at least 25 tax sugar.

Current levels of meat consumption are not healthy or sustainable. The costs associated … could approach the trillions in the future
Marco Springmann

The first global analysis of meat taxes done in 2016 found that levies of 40 per cent on beef, 20 per cent on dairy products and 8.5 per cent on chicken would save half a million lives a year and slash climate warming emissions. Proposals in Denmark suggested a tax of US$2.70 per kilogram of meat.

Meat taxes are often seen as politically impossible, but research by think tank Chatham House in 2015 found they are far less unpalatable to consumers than governments think. It showed people expect governments to lead action on issues that are for the global good, but that awareness of the damage caused by the livestock industry is low. Using meat tax revenues to subsidise healthy foods is one idea touted to reduce opposition.

“It’s only a matter of time before agriculture becomes the focus of serious climate policy,” said Rob Bailey, research director for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House. “The public-health case will likely strengthen government resolve, as we have seen with coal and diesel. It’s hard to imagine concerted action to tax meat today, but over the course of the next 10 to 20 years, I would expect to see meat taxes accumulate.”

Marco Springmann, a fellow of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at Oxford University, said: “Current levels of meat consumption are not healthy or sustainable. The costs associated with each of those impacts could approach the trillions in the future. Taxing meat could be a first and important step.”

The need for a high meat tax could be reduced if breakthrough technologies emerge to drastically cut the emissions from livestock, Lettini said, but none exist today. Another, more promising option is the nascent but fast-growing industry in plant-based meat alternatives, such as the meat-free Impossible Burger. Bill Gates has invested, and major meat and dairy companies are now piling in with investments and acquisitions.

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“There are huge opportunities in the market,” Lettini said. “If we can start replacing meat protein with plant-based protein that has the same look, taste and feel as meat, where real red-blooded meat eaters are happy to dig into a burger that is plant-based, we are changing the world.”