Eating meat, particularly the hefty amounts of it consumed by people in the developed world, has long gotten the side-eye as a major environmental sin. Around a quarter of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions are calculated to come from food production, and of the emissions released by agriculture, up to 80 percent come from raising livestock, according to estimates by researchers at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The water and arable land sunk into growing animals to eat simply beggars belief, and consumption levels are rising. According to the UN, the world was on track to eat more meat in 2021 than in any year on record. And in many places, the environmental problem isn’t necessarily inefficiency or wasteful practices. It’s the sheer volume of meat being produced.
So there’s buzz in certain circles — namely, the ones economists move in — about whether a tax on meat could help curb consumers’ appetites enough to make a real difference to the climate. University of Oxford researchers brought up the idea in a journal article in August, and such a tax has been discussed at length in the Netherlands. New Zealand already plans to tax farmers for the methane emissions from cattle, but meat taxes directly paid by consumers would conceivably be easier to apply and track.
In the simplest version of this argument, you tack a hefty tax onto the price of a steak, sink the proceeds into something like developing more sustainable agriculture, and see a nice drop-off in demand. But is that what would actually happen?
Though taxes on environmentally damaging foods have yet to get started, taxes on food deemed bad for your health have been enacted and have a checkered history. In Denmark, a 2012 tax on saturated fats in foods was a “catastrophe, basically,” says Sinne Smed, a professor at the University of Copenhagen who studies food taxes. The way the tax was structured made it costly for manufacturers and retailers to determine the new prices for food products, she explains, and opponents who claimed it was hurting business were able to get the tax withdrawn after a mere 15 months. All the same, the tax may have been working: Research published soon after its repeal showed saturated fat consumption had declined. But for a tax to last, Smed says, it needs to be simple to administer and have strong proponents in the government.
Then there’s the question of what economists call substitutions. Say a meat tax is put into place and people do actually buy fewer steaks. What, then, are they buying instead? If they start buying twice as much cheese as they did before, the tax might be making things worse; cheese has a sizable carbon footprint too.
Ideally, shoppers would go out and stock up on lentils. One way to help make that happen is to apply a tax linked to environmental damage to more than just meat. In a study in Food Policy, Smed and a colleague used a model of Danish consumers’ behavior to see how putting environmental taxes on 23 different foods would change people’s choices. They found that at least in Denmark, such taxes could result in a substantial decline in greenhouse gas emissions per household — nearly 20 percent in some scenarios. It’s impossible to say from this study if the same would be true in the United States — for that, the analysis would need to be redone with data about American consumers.
Perhaps the most troubling roadblock to a meat tax’s success, however, is that many people really, really like meat. As people move up the socioeconomic ladder, meat is often one of the first things they add to their diets, and they are willing to pay a lot of money to keep eating it — demand for meat, in the parlance of economists, has low elasticity.
Meat taxes wouldn’t necessarily make much difference in people’s buying decisions, Alena Schmidt, a researcher at University of Basel in Switzerland, and her colleagues found in a model of Swiss consumer behavior. That’s partly because of the overall financial picture in Switzerland. “In Switzerland, we spent only 10 percent of income on food,” she explains. “People are not too price-sensitive.” Even in the United States, if meat got much more expensive, people might try very hard to keep it in their diets. And with the yawning divide between rich and poor in this country, a tax on meat might result in a scenario in which the wealthiest can afford as much meat as they want without even trying, and the poorest can’t afford much at all.
Taxes on environmentally damaging foods may well have a role to play in reining in greenhouse gas emissions. But putting them into effect is trickier than it seems.
Veronique Greenwood is a science writer who contributes frequently to Ideas. Follow her on Twitter @vero_greenwood.