Taxes: necessary to meat our challenges

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A healthier, more sustainable world, without paying more overall: this could be the result of the meat tax mooted by researchers this week.

New research suggests that a tax on red meat could prevent more than 220,000 deaths and save over US$40 billion in healthcare costs every year. Academics at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health argue that a levy on these meat products would help cover the burgeoning healthcare costs associated with them.

The Vegan Society would welcome a tax on meat. We would also, however, want subsidies to be rolled out for healthier and more sustainable plant-based foods including pulses, fruit and vegetables. A meat tax is not about making things more expensive for people. It is about balancing a global food system some think produces far more in social costs than the economic value of the whole system.

Who pays?

Health research carries bad news for red and processed meat. The World Health Organisation has ranked processed meat alongside smoking as a class 1 carcinogenic. Even unprocessed red meat is warned against, and categorised as a class 2 carcinogenic.

But meat also causes environmental harm. Globally, the UN calculated that livestock produce more greenhouse gases than the direct emissions from every plane, ship, car, truck, and lorry combined. Livestock also drain water reserves, are the single largest user of land, and harm biodiversity far more than other foods. Just as planes and cars are taxed, so too should meat.

There will be costs to pay, tax or no tax. The question is who pays for them. The way we are eating is causing a huge burden for the taxpayer in terms of healthcare and responding to climate change. A meat tax is inspired by the simple economic idea that the costs of production should be paid by the producers or consumers, not the state, if production is to be efficient. If a factory starts up and pollutes a river, harming livelihoods, then it is efficient for the factory and its customers to pay for the clean-up.

Incentives

We currently subsidise meat and dairy. Our Grow Green campaign calls for these subsidies to encourage a shift towards crops for human consumption. This would hand farmers the tools to protect the environment and public health. At present, policymakers are lumping them with the wrong incentives. In many ways, a meat tax would simply be equivalent to reducing or removing subsidies for meat production, so would help achieve environmental objectives.

Government intervention

Some object that government has no place influencing what people eat, which is a purely personal choice. To this we say: the government intervenes already; the question is not whether to intervene, but how. On your shopping receipt, you will see some items are taxed, others untaxed. The government has had to make a call on which consumer goods to tax. Furthermore, the government taxes sugar, sets out national eating guidelines, and provides subsidies for certain forms of food. The rhetoric of “hands off my plate” may be alluring, but ignores how the global food system is already, inevitably shaped by government policy.

Politicians should be less taken in by the rhetoric. A Chatham House report revealed that far from being outraged, people actually expect governments to lead on food policy where harms exist. Indeed, the report found that across societies, there is a ‘general belief that it is the role of government to spearhead efforts to address unsustainable consumption of meat’: so not just the harms of aviation say, but food – and meat. Indeed, it seems that part of expecting governments to lead on global challenges such as food security and climate change involves excepting them to lead on an international system such as food. The two are inextricably linked.

Incomes and complementary policies

Others will criticise a meat tax as regressive. There are concerns here that are entirely legitimate. But the criticism ignores the fact that millions of products have VAT applied to them, which is for now hard to change if we are to fund public services. Taxes tend to push up costs, but a meat tax ought to be accompanied by subsidies to bring costs down elsewhere: fruits, vegetables, and foods everyone requires for health are in some instances too expensive. Furthermore, policy can be implemented as part of a package; complementary policies can ensure that those on lower incomes receive support so that they are not worse off.

Our NHS is creaking. It is pushed further into trouble by the food environment we are faced with in this country. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that healthcare spending could rise to 38 percent of UK public spending in 2023-24, which could bring schools, roads, and defence into a fresh crisis. A meat tax is a smart idea which forms part of new “prevention is better than cure” approach. Indeed, a tax could save the government money, to prevent future tax rises on jobs and incomes.

Broad support

And if markets are to work efficiently, costs which producers generate should ideally be paid by them and their consumers. Otherwise the taxpayer effectively stimulates overproduction of products that carry harm for society, and, in turn, the taxpayer themselves. The tax therefore makes sense from a broad range of political perspectives. It is something we think will be brought in sooner rather than later, as views shift and times change.

 

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