The idea of using a meat tax to improve human health and protect the environment has been getting a fair amount of attention from prominent scientists in the media. Professor Mike Rayner was quoted last year as saying, “I would like to see a tax on red meat and meat products. We need incentives to cut down on meat and dairy consumption.” Marco Springmann told the Guardian, “Current levels of meat consumption are not healthy or sustainable. The costs associated with each of those impacts could approach the trillions in the future. Taxing meat could be a first and important step.” And Joseph Poore suggested that taxing meat will likely be necessary to avoid serious environmental problems.
Taxing food products to promote human health is controversial. It has been suggested that introducing taxes to limit particular food consumption behaviors is a troubling shift towards a “nanny state,” involves paternalistically imposing “alien values” on people, and interferes with the free market by picking and choosing winners and losers among different products. A decision to impose a dedicated tax specifically targeting meat would need to adequately address all of these concerns.
For this post, however, I’m going to sidestep those difficult questions to instead focus on a question with an answer that seems to me a bit more straightforward: given that the UK already has a Value Added Tax that applies to some food products but not others, should it continue to exclude meat products from this tax?
The UK’s Value Added Tax, or VAT, is meant to target luxury goods while withholding taxes on “staples.” But the definition of what exactly counts as a luxury is a bit mysterious. Currently beef, lamb, pork, chicken are all excluded from the VAT. But shelled nuts are considered to be “luxury goods” and have the 20% VAT imposed on them.
Treating meat products as “staples” likely hearkens back to earlier beliefs that meat was a required part of a healthy diet and an essential source of protein. However, it is now well-established that diets with low amounts of meat, and indeed fully vegan and vegetarian diets, can be perfectly healthy and can meet nutritional needs for the overwhelming majority of the population. Moreover, this can all be done relatively inexpensively…low meat diets do not require buying the latest luxury food items at Whole Foods.
But the problem is not just that there are equally nutritious alternatives to meat…it’s that meat is demonstrably worse than many of them on a number of measures. The World Health Organization currently classifies processed meat as “carcinogenic” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic.” Moreover, high levels of meat consumption are bad for the environment in a number of ways. Rearing livestock is the biggest contributor to methane (a greenhouse gas that plays a significant role in climate change), utilizes a large portion of the world’s fresh water supply, and is a significant source of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants (for a useful and accessible summary, see: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6399/eaam5324).
These are reasons that directly affect humans, and so could be thought of as both self-interested concerns and altruistic concerns (since future generations will be more seriously influenced by our impact on the environment). But one of the most common arguments against meat consumption is focused on animal welfare. Many vegetarians and vegans believe it is always wrong to kill an animal for human consumption, provided that alternatives are available. Practicing vegetarians currently make up a relatively small proportion of the population, but presumably a majority of people would agree that animals shouldn’t be mistreated or made to suffer needlessly, and there’s good reason to think that many of the animal welfare problems in current animal rearing practices (from housing to transporting to slaughtering animals) are a result of the pressure to produce vast amounts of meat as cheaply as possible to meet the current high demand for meat. So there are also strong reasons related to animal welfare to dramatically reduce per capita meat consumption that are based on values presumably shared by most people, though this is rarely directly mentioned in public policy discussions about taxing food.
Given all of the above, it seems as though there are strong reasons to include meat products in the VAT. But what about the objections mentioned above? The problem with these objections in the present context is that they seem as though they already apply to the current system. The current VAT system already favors certain foods over others and incentivizes goods according to particular values. In fact, the current system arguably provides perverse incentives that encourage people to choose at least some products, such as meat, that are less healthy, worse for the environment, and worse for animal welfare than other products that are taxed.
In other words, given that we already have a VAT tax that incentivizes some food products over others, it seems clear that meat products (and particularly red meat and processed meat) should be included. These products should no longer be regarded as necessary “staples” in healthy diets, and continuing to do so could have devastating consequences for the planet.