From the ancient feasts of kings to the modern-day fast-food frenzy, meat has long been a global dietary centerpiece. As a critical source of protein and nutrients, meat (particularly beef) is a necessary staple of diets worldwide. Yet, how it and other ruminant meats such as mutton and goat are produced and consumed, particularly in relation to the looming environmental crises, begs humanity to reevaluate the actual costs of our carnivorous traditions.
While recent decades have witnessed a surge in vegetarianism and plant-based alternatives, some scholars argue that we need more substantial incentives, including meat taxes on consumers, to tackle overconsumption in the West. Research indicates that the uptake of plant-based diets would significantly lower emissions, particularly from the reduction of tropical deforestation (as most of the world’s beef is produced in Brazil, and Amazonian regions are being actively deforested to make room for more grazing land). The vegetarianization of the global diet is projected to have apparent knock-on effects, writes Erick Stokstad, such as the reduced cost of grain and soybeans—essential food staples in some developing countries—since there will be less need for cattle feed. As Daniel J. A. Johansson and Fredrik Hedenus explain, a changed diet would also reduce land prices in high-producing countries, making land more available for ecosystem recovery and sustainable urban development. But should meat taxes even be on the menu?
Beef production is largely responsible for greenhouse gas emissions from the food system, write Johansson and Hedenus. It results in land clearing for grazing and rearing, methane production from ruminants, and indirect nitrous oxide emissions from feed plant fertilization. Meat, specifically ruminant meat, is considered generally bio-inefficient, requiring six to seventeen times more feed, water, and land than needed to produce an equivalent amount of protein in soybeans. As surgeon Greta McLachlan found, meat production also often involves processes that make meat carcinogenic to humans, with the World Health Organization warning that processed meat may be of the same caliber as alcohol, tobacco, and asbestos. Furthermore, meat consumption rates differ widely worldwide, with overconsumption trends in the USA and Europe. As of 2010 figures, the USA alone accounts for 15 percent of meat consumption, writes Stokstad, with the average American consuming 330 grams of meat (or the equivalent of three quarter-pound hamburgers) daily. This has been found to profoundly affect dietary health in the West, with higher meat consumption correlated to malnourishment, obesity, and diabetes. Meanwhile, industrializing countries are only expanding their meat consumption, with early signaling showing that their dietary patterns may soon reflect those in the West.
Drawing parallels with successful policies like the “sugar tax” on soft drinks in the United Kingdom, meat taxes could incentivize a reduction in meat production by driving industry reformulation instead of relying on consumer behavior. Rather than forcing consumers to bear the tax burden, the sugar tax resulted in manufacturers reducing the sugar content of their products or paying the levy, with the funds contributing to improved access to physical education for students across the UK. However, in the case of a meat levy, it may come at the cost of putting dairy and meat farmers upstream out of business, not only denying smallholder farmers a livelihood but also disrupting the traditional cultural practices of herding for meat and dairy in many parts of the world.
Cameron Hepburn, an environmental economist at the University of Oxford, suggests that any meat tax should have a redistributive element to mitigate potential issues of environmental injustice—ensuring that the tax revenues are dedicated to helping low-income households afford rising meat costs. And this brings into contention the political necessity of food staples like beef and determining the threshold of necessity for meat consumption versus the luxury consumption of beef.
But how effective would a meat tax be in changing consumer behavior, and is it the role of the government to incentivize positive food choices for public health and the environment? While some scholars argue that taxes are simple “nudge theory,” meaning that the consumer will be forced to change behavior based on the impact on their wallets, others say that merely imposing a tax doesn’t guarantee a shift in the market. The effect on meat substitutes also needs consideration, as their availability, taste equivalence, and cost equivalence could play a crucial role in adoption.
We’re currently relying on a cultural shift away from heavy meat consumption, but the urgency of the environmental crisis demands more proactive measures. The problem is evidently not with the slaughtered steers themselves—the problem lies within how meat is produced, how the global supply chain functions, and how the consumption patterns of meat have to change regionally. It cannot simply be about shifting towards vegetarian options—policies must make meat alternatives more accessible, encourage smaller portion sizes of ruminant meat products, and increase costs on excessive consumption on specialty units of meat. In navigating the complex terrain of meat consumption and its environmental ramifications, the proposal for meat taxes emerges as a potential catalyst for change. As we deliberate on the intricate balance between ecological responsibility and societal needs, implementing such taxes requires careful consideration of their economic and social impacts, underscoring the imperative for nuanced, redistributive approaches that address both environmental concerns and social equity.