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.
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.