Taxing Meat Is Murder*: The Case Against a Livestock Levy

The cap and trade vogue has, for a while now, been growing and blooming, becoming a semi-effective tool to push large industries towards a green transition and “conscious capitalism”. Recently, carbon taxes have been called for by multiple organizations. Amongst them, Chatham House Institute, a British think tank, pushing for an additional on meat in the hope that it will reduce its consumption, and thus greenhouse gas emissions caused by its production and sale (Chatham House Institute, 2015). Nevertheless, climate levies can easily be misapplied: their versatility is yet to be proven, and imposing a surcharge on any product or service claiming it could counter climate change can be a slippery slope. In fact, it seems that tithing meats might be more harmful than not as it could be a nuisance to the economy of the industry, social equilibrium and technological development.

Acknowledging that the current structure of the meat industry is detrimental to the environment is inevitable, and looking at the direct consequences of a Goods and Services Tax (GST) on meat, one can understand why it could come across as a brilliant idea: a 40% surcharge, according to Springmann et al. (2016), would lead to lower demand, constituting less of an incentive for companies to engage in mass-scale meat production; hence, greenhouse gas emissions would decrease. This analysis, however, is short-sighted and misses the bigger picture.

Today, from farming to packaging, millions of people are directly involved in the meat industry (Bureau of Labour Statistics, 2017). Lowering meat consumption would have drastic consequences on the revenue of those professionals. Taxing meat would thus be an additional blow to the one caused by the current vegetarian tendencies. In fact, since the beginning of the millennium, meat consumption in developed countries has been on an overall declining trend (OECD, 2017).

 

Further, the tax wouldn’t simply have a considerable economic impact on a large portion of the population, but would be aimed at the wrong one as well: the meat industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions occurs primarily through methane production in intensive farming and transportation as reported Springmann et al. (2016); despite that, the surcharge would be unfairly imposed on consumers, and greatly impact non-intensive farmers and independent workers, as they are most vulnerable to market fluctuations (Williams and Stout, 1964).

Moreover, when designing tax systems, the models adopted by governments aim to rebalance inequalities by using public funds to invest in sectors benefiting the masses. A meat tax however, would be regressive (SACSS, 2015). Of course, the rate would be flat, regardless of the consumer’s income; and since meat is a cornerstone of the modern human’s diet, those who can afford it would simply pay the extra fee to obtain it. On the other hand, lower income households wouldn’t adapt as easily: buying meat would turn into a luxury for which they wouldn’t be willing to pay. Hence, a meat tax would indeed reduce meat consumption and might even alter diets radically, but it would only be targeting a specific class, widening the already vast gap between social strata.

Exploiting the global dependence to the current monetary system might appear as a tempting way to control meat consumption, however it is the easy and simplistic way to deal with environmental issues in the food industry. Setting a tax for consumers to pay would only hide the issue instead of solving it, and hindering any progress towards sustainability by demotivating the development of new technologies that push the industry forward rather than eclipsing it by covering its flaws (Basu, 2007).

All in all, despite their appeal, meat taxes could generate a myriad of setbacks on a massive scale without necessarily solving the food industry’s environmental issues. Yet, lobbies and funds keep financing initiatives that push for those damaging reforms; which begs the question: are environmental benefits enough to justify foregoing socio-economic wellbeing, creating divides and promoting classism?

 


*Title inspired by The Smiths’ 1985 record Meat Is Murder

 

References:

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 2017. Canada’s Meat Product Manufacturing Industry. Retrieved from: http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/market-information-by-sector/processed-food-and-beverages/profiles-of-processed-food-and-beverages-industries/canada-s-meat-product-manufacturing-industry/?id=1449838074216 (Accessed on Feb. 8, 2018).

Basu, S. 2007. Global Perspectives on E-Commerce Taxation Law. Ashgate, Belfast.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2017. Occupational Employment Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/naics4_311100.htm (Accessed on Feb. 8, 2018).

Charlebois, S. 2017. Eating meat is not a ‘sin’ that should be taxed. The Globe and Mail. December 31, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/eating-meat-is-not-a-sin-that-should-be-taxed/article37465661/ (Accessed on Feb. 8, 2018).

Chatham House Institute. 2015. Reducing meant consumption critical to achieving global climate goal. Retrieved from: https://www.chathamhouse.org/news/2015-11-18-reducing-meat-consumption-critical-achieving-global-climate-goal (Accessed on Feb. 8, 2018)

Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return. 2017. Climate Tax on Meat Becoming ‘Increasingly Probable’. Retrieved from: http://www.fairr.org/news-item/climate-tax-meat-becoming-increasingly-probable/ (Accessed on Feb. 8, 2018).

OECD. 2017. Meat Consumption. Retrieved from: https://data.oecd.org/agroutput/meat-consumption.htm (Accessed on Feb. 8, 2018).

South Australian Council of Social Service (SACSS). 2015. Fact Sheet: Why a GST Increase is a Bad Deal for Low Income Households and for South Australia. Retrieved from: https://www.sacoss.org.au/sites/default/files/public/documents/Fact%20Sheets/GST%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf (Accessed on Feb. 8, 2018).

Springmann, M., Mason-D’Croz, D., Robinson, S., Wiebe, K., Godfray, H.C., Rayner, M. and Scarborough, P. 2016. Mitigation of potential and global health impacts from emissions pricing of food commodities. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3155.

Williams, W.F. and Stout, T.T. 1964. Economics of the Livestock-Meat Industry. Macmillan, London.

2 responses to “Taxing Meat Is Murder*: The Case Against a Livestock Levy”

  1. jessicastpierre says:

    This article title is appropriate and original considering the inspiration found from The Smiths’ record. It presents the main subject of the post clearly. This is a good post that share many different aspects and opinions over one subject which is the use of carbon tax over meat. That leaf us with a strong message on the desire to improve the environment with taxation over an industry that encounter for a large production of methane that actually would not necessarily promote that, but more a greater inequality between households. For me, the strongest aspect of the post is when the author mentioned the irrationality of the consumers paying for the effects of greenhouse gases created by the intensive farms and the transportation of animals and transformed products. This totally does not penalize the sources that cause environmental issues. Actually, I would add that consumers should have the opportunity to make the choice they want by purchasing and encouraging this practice or by doing the opposite to encourage the reduction of methane emission in that industry. This choice will be dependent on consumer values toward climate change, not on their purchase capacity. Within the post, there is an argument that is well presented, but it can be controversial depending on the readers mind about the absence of meat in the diet. It is true that the diet can be negatively affected, but to a certain extent as there are many possible alternatives for proteins on the market.
    Just for better esthetic and visual comprehension of the figure, it would have been beneficial to have included a clearer picture. This is the only small detail I find to be improved as the post present understandable information about a subject personally unknown before.

  2. Julie Major says:

    One cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs: of course, a lower demand for meat would be a problem for those who live off this industry, but climate change affects everyone on the planet. Assuming demand for meat would just go down with a tax, and people would eat other things, I’m not sure there would be a serious ECONOMIC impact on consumers – they would just change their habits (which does not mean it does not impact them, but they would not be “forced” to spend more on food). I would challenge the statement that meat is a cornerstone of the modern diet. This is highly dependent on culture, and it’s quite clear and well-known that red meat should be consumed in small amounts to maximize health.

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