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Climate change

Should We Have a Meat Tax?

December 12, 2017

Call it the burger lover’s dilemma: we know deep down that it’s awful for the planet, but the beef patty tastes so damn good.

Most of us still chow down. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that the average American consumed 211 pounds of meat per year in 2015, with that figure expected to rise to nearly 219 pounds by 2025. It’s especially troubling given that, according to the United Nations, global livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions. If we could cut that appreciably, we’d be doing the planet a great favor.

Overcoming the craving isn’t easy. But according to the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) Initiative, a scheme run by the London private equity firm Coller Capital, our mouths may be forced. The group argues that it looks “increasingly probable” that meat taxes—much like those now added to tobacco, carbon, and sugar in many countries—will be introduced around the world in order to satisfy the targets set forth in the Paris climate agreement.

A tax would surely encourage consumption of plant-based protein. But FAIRR argues that it would also provide revenue that could, for instance, pay to treat health issues linked to excessive meat consumption, such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

It’s worth noting that FAIRR has an agenda: it was set up to highlight “investment risks and opportunities connected with intensive livestock farming and poor animal welfare standards.” But it’s far from alone in suggesting that a meat tax is a good idea: Denmark’s government, for instance, has considered such a tax, and British think tank Chatham House has encouraged the U.K government to do the same.

It’s not clear how much a tax would be, but Denmark suggested something around $1.20 per pound—which would add $250 to a typical American’s annual food bill. It’s a very particular (and brave) politician who would attempt to push through such reform.

Still, plant-based alternatives to meat are becoming increasingly impressive. (The meat-free burger that bleeds, made by Impossible Foods, is particularly good—I ate the firm’s “meatballs,” and they were delicious.) And, as Bloomberg notes, such startups are receiving increasing backing from environmentally aware billionaires like Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio. As meat-free fare becomes increasingly common and increasingly tasty, a meat tax may just become a little easier to swallow.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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