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'Meat tax' to fight climate change?

Melanie Hall
October 16, 2018

Meat would actually cost about triple its current market price if we factored in its environmental impact. Could a "meat tax" cut consumption and help do what needs to be done to fight climate change?

Slabs of raw meat
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Bachmann

Despite the dire warnings about the meat industry's catastrophic impact on the climate, some consumers feel it's just too difficult to cut out their long-held carnivorous habits — that is, if they even want to. When meat is so cheap in many countries, there's even less incentive to try.

But the low prices found on supermarket shelves mask meat's hidden costs. Research has revealed that meat is being sold to consumers at just a fraction of what it would cost if it accurately reflected the true value of the environmental damage it inflicts.

What if governments imposed a tax on meat to encourage people to change their diets? Many nations put a "sin tax" on products deemed harmful to society, such as alcohol and tobacco, so should the price tag on meat not also reflect its true environmental cost?

Read more: A Dutch butcher shop minus the meat

Group of dairy cows
Not their fault! Humans' huge appetite for meat and milk makes cows terrible for the climateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

Switching to a 'flexitarian' diet

The meat and dairy industry is on track to becoming the biggest contributor to climate change, outpacing even the fossil fuel industry.

According to an analysis by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the non-profit GRAIN, the world's livestock sector could be responsible for 80 percent of the allowable greenhouse gas budget by 2050.

The impact of meat was further underlined in a recent major study which found that huge reductions in meat consumption are crucial to avoid devastating climate change.

Another comprehensive study published in the journal Nature found Western countries should cut beef consumption by 90 percent. The paper's researchers have called for a worldwide switch to a "flexitarian" diet to keep climate change under the limit of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), meaning eating mainly plant-based foods and meat on rare occasions.

How to achieve this? One suggestion the study authors make to reduce meat consumption is to tax it.

Person biting into a fast food hamburger
The craving for meat can be both physical and psychologicalImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Rain

Eating meat to rebel

Considering the western world's meat consumption, that won't be easy. In Germany for example, the average person eats 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of meat annually.

Katrin Wenz, agricultural consultant at Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), told DW that while levels of meat consumption are falling overall, she added there's also a reverse trend.

"We have a population group that isn't even that small — a few percent — where it's a particular trend to eat a lot of meat," she said. This group consists largely of men who do a lot of physical activity, and believe they need large amounts of animal protein.

"There's a growing consensus that animal farming should be reformed — and perhaps they think, 'I'll simply do what I want.'"

She added that in the whole of the EU, "meat is very cheap, and that has to do with the fact that we import very cheap animal feed from South America."

Read more: Beef (and Burger King) still eating away at forests

Add to this how farmers' unions for years had advised farmers to produce more, which led to cheaper prices, especially for pork. This has resulted in decades of systematic price-dumping.

"We don't produce a high-quality product, but a cheap product for the global market."

Infographic showing meat's hidden costs

Meat's true cost

Supermarket prices for meat are misleading, a study from researchers at the University of Augsburg revealed — and hide the huge secondary costs arising from the environmental impact of meat production.

Upon quantifying and monetizing the environmental impact of meat production in Germany, researchers found that conventionally farmed meat would cost three times the price the consumer actually pays. That's an additional cost of 196 percent (see graphic above).

When the meat is organically farmed, those hidden costs amount to 82 percent more than the price advertised on the shelves.

Such additional costs were calculated by quantifying three factors in animal farming: pollution resulting from nitrogen fertilizer use, greenhouse gas emissions and energy usage.

These environmental costs aren't obvious. For instance, they include the money water suppliers have to invest in filtration systems to remove nitrates from drinking water as a result of farming. This cost is borne by consumers — just not in the price of meat, rather in their utility bills.

"The problem is that these environmental costs currently don't have a market price," Tobias Gaugler, one of the study's authors, told DW. 

From a purely economic perspective, this amounts to a "market distortion," he added.

"Environmental costs, and pollution and the corresponding damage to human health, have a cost of zero," said Gaugler. 

These prices "don't reflect the reality."

Read more: Your hamburger, the environmental killer

Meat in the supermarket
Supermarket prices for meat fail to include the environmental and health costsImage: picture-alliance/Global Travel Images

To tax meat like alcohol and cigarettes?

So could a "meat tax" be the solution to help reflect the true cost of meat, while at the same time encouraging people to cut their consumption?

The investor network Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (Fairr) is among groups calling for the introduction of a sin tax on meat.

But not everyone is convinced that sin taxes are the way to go, including Gaugler.

"This step wouldn't be politically feasible," he told DW. Although such a tax is justifiable, the political will to do it is lacking. "Because people think, 'wait, I would have to pay even more for something,' and society wouldn't accept it."

Gaugler instead calls for the bill to be footed far earlier in the production chain, such as with the fertilizer producers, rather than landing directly on the consumer.

"Our hope is to change the whole market structure, so that mass animal production [sector] would become more expensive — not because politicians say so, but because the market structure makes that happen," he told DW.

Infographic: The global demand for meat

Wenz agrees that a meat tax isn't the best way to go.

In Germany, meat and milk products enjoy a reduced sales tax rate, and many vegetarian and vegan organizations are calling for that to be abolished, she pointed out.

Wenz believes people should trade their consumption of conventional meat for more environmentally friendly, organic meat. 

A meat tax would result in a distorted, higher tax on better-quality meat, she argued.

"You could tax, but not as an instrument to use on meat from more environmentally friendly farming," she concluded.

Alternative ways to cut meat consumption

Julia Klöckner, the German minister for food and agriculture, recently told newspaper taz that the German government has no plans to raise sales tax on meat products from the current reduced 7 percent to the regular 19 percent, saying: "Meat shouldn't just be for better earners."

The German Ministry for Food and Agriculture told DW it was already carrying out a number of measures to help protect the climate, including trying to minimize food waste.

Bacon being cut into strips
To save the climate, the average global citizen should massively reduce their meat intake, numerous studies sayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Anspach

When asked about introducing a tax on their products, meat companies either refused to comment or — unsurprisingly — didn't welcome the prospect.

Westfleisch, one of Germany's largest meat producers, told DW it sees "such an artificial price rise extremely critically."

"It benefits neither the consumer, nor the environment, nor animal welfare," a spokesperson told DW. "Experience from abroad shows that despite the introduction of penalty taxes, consumption of affected products hasn't changed considerably."

Westfleisch believes disseminating information and education for the generations to come would constitute a "more promising way to a sustainable change in meat consumption, nutritional awareness and possibly positive consequences for the climate."

For Wenz, efforts to reduce meat consumption should instead focus on consumer information to help informed decision-making; offering more vegetarian options at cheaper prices in canteens; and clearer labeling for meat products.