Should the government tax red meat and dairy?

A nuanced carbon tax could be one component in a wider strategy but it would need to recognise the difference in farming systems.  

Last week, a coalition of healthcare professionals released a report advocating a carbon tax on food products with a heavy environmental and health burden, such as red meat and dairy.  

Tax is rarely a popular policy choice for consumers and producers, and if done in the wrong way it could have disastrous effects for not only the domestic meat industry but also the environment. However, if implemented with a careful and ambitious approach, it could champion sustainable practices while penalising polluting ones.  

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, meat and dairy contribute 7.1 gigatons of C02 globally a year, which is 14.5 per cent of the world’s total carbon emissions. The UK Health Alliance report states that “meat production has a particularly high impact on the environment” and “consumption will need to be cut in half if the food system is to stay within sustainable environmental limits”.  


But different livestock systems have different environmental impacts. Intensively reared, grain-fed animal products are the most damaging, since the carbon used to produce the grain (diesel for tractors, oil-based fertilisers and pesticides), is the largest output of the whole process. This doesn’t even account for deforestation caused by the soybean industry, a widely used ingredient in livestock feed.   

While ruminants (cows, sheep, and lambs) get a bad rep for being heavy polluters, 100 per cent grass-fed ruminants, have numerous environmental benefits. These include carbon sequestration, rebuilding soil fertility, increasing biodiversity as well as making use of otherwise unproductive land.  

An ambitious tax approach would penalise the former, and not the latter.  

Unsurprisingly, the British meat and dairy industries are fierce opponents of a potential tax, fearing that their ‘climate-friendly products’ (most British livestock is reared on grass-based systems) would be unfairly targeted by a tax, while cheap, grain-fed imports would escape scot-free.  

A simplistic carbon tax would be a lose-lose situation for UK agriculture, increasing the prices of our more sustainable products, while unaffected imports would be more appealing to consumers due to the relative price decrease.

Cows reared on marginal land can be ecologically beneficial. 

 The government should implement a tax that accounts for the difference in emissions of the various production methods, irrespective of the origin of the product.  

It might sound impossible, but a highly-cited study in Sweden has modelled the impacts of such a tax on seven animal products, using the nuanced approach mentioned above. It found the tax would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in the sector by a whopping 12 per cent through the reduction in consumption, plus the financial incentive to be more sustainable.  

The study also confirms the potential benefit for domestic producers, as “imposing the same tax on all meat would likely shift a relative price in favour of Swedish meat because of the lower emissions per kg”.  

As a Master’s student of food policy, we are taught to embrace complexity in the food system and recognise that solutions do not lie in any one policy. Instead we need a coherent and all-encompassing national food strategy that puts sustainability and the health of the nation at the heart of all policymaking.  

Such a tax would be one component in this strategy, and it would send a clear signal of the government’s intent to tackle the environmental and health impacts inherent in the nation’s food consumption.  


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  1. I think this is something that has to happen but alongside other measures. Education needs to be so much better on the subject as so many people have been brainwashed by big agriculture for so many years.

    Most people don’t understand the damage meat does to the planet, never mind their own health, the rainforest and biodiversity and the animals themselves.

    It would be great to see labelling on food, perhaps on every food product giving it a rating out of 100 for how bad it is for the environment, so everyone has an understanding of the impact of their choices.

    If there was a tax on meat and dairy, it would be great if the money could be used to subsidise the products that have less environmental impact. A lot of people wrongly believe that eating plant based or vegan is more expensive and this would help to dispel that myth and make it achievable for more people and encourage new companies making vegan products to start up because there would be more demand for their products.

    There was one point I disagreed with however as a lot of evidence points to grass-fed being just as bad as grain fed because its less efficient as the cows take longer to reach the right wait and in that time release more methane. Plus the sequestering is only effective in the right soil and climate conditions and has a limit to it. I think the grass-fed is just another example of greenwashing, like ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’

    1. Absolutely, education has such a big part to play in empowering people to choose sustainable and healthy diets. But this has to happen alongside structural change, ie taxes, regulation on advertising and labelling.
      Subsidies yes, but maybe for the rural and upland communities to transition into different areas of production. Having relied on meat, and dairy production as means for life for so long, they will need support if we want our rural communities to thrive. It’s not their fault, so we need to give them a meaningful alternative.

      With regards to the methane issue, recent research by Myles Allen ( has suggested that methane doesn’t remain in the atmosphere like C02 does.
      One of the researchers on the project neatly sums it up, “Long-lived pollutants, like carbon dioxide, persist in the atmosphere, building up over centuries. The CO2 created by burning coal in the 18th century is still affecting the climate today. Short-lived pollutants, like methane, disappear within a few years. Their effect on the climate is important, but very different from that of CO2”

      Yes you do have to be careful with Grass-fed, you definitely have to look out for 100% grass fed, otherwise they might be supplemented with grain feed towards the end of their life to bulk up.

      With Organic, the guidelines are much stricter and the certification process is extremely rigorous with multiple audits every year to make sure farmers are adhering to the holistic principles of organic farming.

    2. I completely agree, especially with helping people transfer into new areas of production. With methane lasting only 10 years in the atmosphere, does that actually make any difference? Wouldn’t the only way that would be relevant was if we were talking about how to drastically reduce emissions quickly?

      With CO2, we’re ‘locked in’ to a certain temperature change and sea level rise now because of how long it lasts, but with methane it gives us more of an opportunity to reduce emissions so reducing meat consumption quickly should be even more of a concern as it’s something we can influence relatively quickly.

    3. What the author of the study is trying to convey is, that we need to focus on carbon dioxide emissions because they have a permanent impact, whereas methane emissions from livestock do not have a lasting effect on global warming. It also states it could have a global cooling effect if livestock herds do not increase. So yes reduction in meat consumption does have to happen.

      However, this theory has yet to be adopted by governments worldwide in their emissions strategy. So, at this point, governments are still viewing methane to be a damaging emission as c02, and will act accordingly to reduce that to the Paris Agreement targets (hopefully).

    4. “ With regards to the methane issue, recent research by Myles Allen ( has suggested that methane doesn’t remain in the atmosphere like C02 does.
      One of the researchers on the project neatly sums it up, “Long-lived pollutants, like carbon dioxide, persist in the atmosphere, building up over centuries. The CO2 created by burning coal in the 18th century is still affecting the climate today. Short-lived pollutants, like methane, disappear within a few years. Their effect on the climate is important, but very different from that of CO2″”

      This paper you reference by Myles Allen addresses the misrepresentation of the impact of methane on global heating by the Global Warming Potential criterion. The GWP is used by atmospheric scientists to measure the global heating impact of greenhouse gases relative to carbon dioxide. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 but because it oxidises to CO2 it’s enhanced potential to heat the Earth is limited to about a decade.
      This does not let methane off the hook however. Global methane emissions are rising rapidly. Whilst agriculture is not the primary cause of this increase, all sources of CH4 must be reduced rapidly if humanity is to deliver global net zero emissions in time to avoid irreversible, natural climate feedbacks from pushing the climate system beyond our influence.

      Clive Pierce

  2. Tax food? Tax the one thing that keeps people alive (except for water) – many are having difficulties surviving on what little they have as it is. To then enforce taxation upon them is really hitting the poor and deprived just it would seem to satisfy some inate idea of the so called interlectuals who all have their own ideas – perhaps before punishing people whose only crime is “being born on the wrong side of the track” those self same interlectuals should examine their own lives and see what extra taxes they should be paying to “save the world”.

    Much is being made of helping the poor and underprivileged in their quest for survival and then one of those companies who make those noises comes out with this idea – this beggers the question “how much of what they spout is real and how much is pure con to sell things?” Why do you think that governments and political parties of all descriptions in this country do not and will not tax foodstuff’s?

    Or are we just looking for a reaction, especially as a lot of Riverford prices are over the norm for the average foodstuffs anyway? Well congratulations – you have your reaction – one of anger and disgust mostly

    the Walrus

    1. Dear Walrus, thanks for your engagement and comment on this piece, where you make a very good point about inequality and who is most likely to suffer a tax on food. It is very fair to bring this up, and it is an omission in this article through space constraints rather than anything else. This piece has particularly focused on the environmental impacts and benefits of such a tax, which you quite rightly might suggest should never be parted from their social context. We very much appreciate you bringing this up in the comments nonetheless, and it’s been great to see the debate continue from other commenters as well.,

      Regarding your other point, Wicked Leeks does not in any way reflect the views or position of Riverford and is free to publish articles from a wide range of perspectives, with a view to inspiring conversations and debate on relevant food system issues. This opinion piece was written from the perspective of the author, including his own research and insight into the area, and is not designed to ‘solve’ the whole issue but offer few aspects to consider.

      Thank you again for your comment, which adds a valuable context to the debate.

      Best regards,
      Wicked Leeks

    2. Dear Wicked Leeks Comments Editor, Many thanks for your acknowledgement and explanation of “Wicked Leeks” in relation to its . . . . er . . . . parent company, Riverford. Whilst I agree that the prime reason for the article may well be from an environmental viewpoint however when discussing such things I do feel strongly that any social context and effect should be mentioned if only to explain that this part of the overall picture will not be covered due to both space and other reasons lest readers may take the view that the writer has little care for such things, which I’m sure certainly is not the case.

      With reference to Wicked Leeks’s position in this please remember that whilst the magazine (?) may consider itself unconnected to Riverford in this context it is produced partly as an information sheet concerning Riverfords activities amongst other things connected to them.

      But that besides I look forward to further discussions in the future between us – long may it continue

      the Walrus

    3. Dear Walrus, thank you again for your thoughtful response. We are transparently connected and are very proud to be published by Riverford. We hope simply to clarify that issues raised on Wicked Leeks, for example the idea of a tax on red meat or dairy, are not chosen because they are part of Riverford’s future plans or stance. Wicked Leeks is designed to host different and sometimes challenging viewpoints and debates on related food system issues. We believe that informing and inspiring conversation in this way is beneficial, (hopefully interesting!) and a potential force for good. That is why Wicked Leeks has been designed as a magazine with a wide range of articles, rather than a blog for Riverford.

      You’re very right that social justice is a huge part of sustainability in food and thank you again for bringing that up as a hugely valuable point.

      Here’s to more discussions in the future. We hope you continue to enjoy the magazine and various articles.

      Thank you.

    4. A lot of what we see/hear/read in/on all kinds of media is designed to sell things. Unfortunately a lot of consumers are brainwashed into thinking that the latest gadget or piece of plastic tat .. oh sorry ´´ fashion item ´´ is what they ´´need’´. Many of those who do have a choice put food at the bottom of their list of priorities. Maybe if more of these people did choose good organic food, this would lead to a fall in prices ? Or is that too optimistic ?

  3. Far better to put tax or import tariffs on unsustainably produced meat and feed soy and grain.. This will level the field for grass reared meat and drive good farming practices without being a tax on food. Meat prices will go up to match those of the quality stuff, but that should drive some level of moderation in consumers.

  4. An interesting article, but as an atmospheric and environmental scientist I feel duty bound to correct several misleading statements in this article.

    The author states, “These include carbon sequestration, rebuilding soil fertility, increasing biodiversity as well as making use of otherwise unproductive land.”
    The peer reviewed scientific evidence on the carbon sequestration potential of livestock grazed land is clear. Any net sequestration is likely to be modest at best and time limited. A scientific review published by the Food Climate Research Network concludes, “The potential contribution of grazing ruminants to soil carbon sequestration is small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions they generate. The ambitious claims made by advocates of grass-fed livestock about grazing as a significant mitigation opportunity are thus unfounded.” (
    Advocates of grass-fed systems tend to focus on their merits relative to intensive systems while ignoring the large body of scientific research which shows that a mostly vegan diet is now essential to simultaneously deliver the global net zero emission target and restore the Earth’s natural carbon sinks (

    “A simplistic carbon tax would be a lose-lose situation for UK agriculture, increasing the prices of our more sustainable products, while unaffected imports would be more appealing to consumers due to the relative price decrease.”
    If a carbon tax were implemented with effective carbon accounting then, clearly, it should favour those systems with lower emissions but not necessarily lower food miles, because, as numerous research studies have demonstrated, food-miles tend to be a relatively small contributor to the overall carbon footprint of many foods (
    “Instead we need a coherent and all-encompassing national food strategy that puts sustainability and the health of the nation at the heart of all policymaking.”
    Indeed we do, but this will only be possible if the strategy is founded on peer reviewed scientific evidence and not the pseudo-science sometimes promoted by some advocates of grass-fed livestock systems.

    Clive Pierce

    1. Hi Clive,

      I appreciate the in-depth comments. I do think that a reduction in the consumption animal products is urgent. But the limited focus on the piece was in a fiscal policy that would lead to a reduction in grain fed meat. This is where we have to begin our journey of reduction in my opinion. Like the Allen study says, herd sizes have to decrease.

      There is something seriously wrong with the food system, when 40% of global cereals are being produced for animal consumption. This is not an ecologically efficient situation. There is a general consensus that animal products consumption needs to fall dramatically with a simultaneous increase in plant-based consumption. However, in my opinion this does not mean that there isn’t a place for animal rearing in ecologically sound production.

      While the study you cite (the site seems to be down currently so not able to read it) claims that carbon sequestration is “small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions they generate”, this is not the singular benefit of animal grazing.

      If managed correctly animal grazing in a mixed farm returns fertility to the soil in a crop rotation, that otherwise would have to be supplemented through oil-based synthetic fertilisers.

      Ruminant production is still the only way of producing food from land that is not otherwise productive.

      Continuous crop production is not sustainable (organic matter levels decrease and soil structure deteriorates) it needs to be put into fallow to restore the soil and the fertility. Putting crops into grass and having animal graze in this system not only provides this service, but also allows the farmer to have a productive output at the same time.

      It is undeniable that there has to be a shift in our consumption and diets to have a truly ecologically sustainable food system, but it is my opinion that animal production does have a part to play, if only in a very reduced capacity.

      I look forward to your response,


    2. Hi Jack,

      Thank you for your response to my comments. These were made with my academic hat on.
      As you suggest, the scientific consensus calls for a significant reduction in livestock numbers rather than complete eradication, and there is clearly a role for farmed herbivores in managed, biodiverse ecosystems.
      That said, I’d like to draw your attention to the Vegan Organic Network – a body representing farmers and growers that produce fruit and vegetables without any inputs from animal husbandry ( While there is a long tradition of food production in which animal manures play an integral part, this isn’t a necessity, as farms like Tolhurst Organic have demonstrated over many years (


    3. Spot on, my man. Couldn’t have worded it better myself. There always seems to be this focus on the relative benefits of grass fed to factory farmed animals, rather than comparing grass fed to rewilding or veganic permaculture.

      Thank you for highlighting this.

  5. I agree that there needs to be a difference pointed out between intensive grain-fed as opposed to grass fed animals – their quality of life should also be part of the equation. Not sure taxation is the best way to do it – as it impacts most on those who rarely get choices due to poverty…. Maybe if we ensured ALL people with less than a certain income get free food vouchers…?
    Also – the vegan option needs to be ‘nuanced’ – definitely a plant-based diet is healthier for person and planet – BUT NOT when practically every vegan ‘product’ is packed full of palm oil and other ingredients that are mostly there just to bulk out something so it can be sold as a meat or dairy ‘replacement’ – if you eat vegan you ought to use whole foods and make your own ‘product’… I cycled across Asia and for hundreds of miles there was natural forest burning… as soon as all the animals are burnt, eaten or fled (not to mention plants, insects, birds and fungi…)- companies move in to plant palm plantations…. so – how many forest animals die to make a vegan (or non vegan) cheese/sausage/cake????
    The trouble is our economies and ways of producing food are easily highjacked by those who ruthlessly want to make money and do not care a fig about food – therein lies the real problem… we will get nowhere until we combat that…..

  6. Even within the few replies to this article the confusion with regard to the sustainability or otherwise of various types of meat production is obvious. No wonder consumers find it hard to tell fact from fiction, especially when vegan climate scientists seek to muddy the waters to suit their own misguided agenda’s.
    The Sweden example may not be perfect but it goes a long way to helping people figure out why they should buy what they do, and anything that balances the debate and makes clearer whats good and whats bad is to be welcomed.

    1. Tim,
      You’re so right, the landscape for the debate is rife with misinformation, or generalisations that make can make for convincing arguments but not so relevant in a local context. It also doesn’t help that it’s quite a polarised debate with two very passionate extremes on either end, with as you say their own agendas, which makes it hard to pick out balanced arguments.
      However, what is pretty clear to me, is that intensive feedlots are neither good for the environment nor the welfare of the animals, and that is where we should begin.


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