Americans love meat. We eat three times the global average — a whopping 264 pounds per person in 2020.
And we keep eating more, despite growing awareness that the raising of livestock for food, particularly beef, is a major contributor to climate change.
With rising concern about a sector that worldwide accounts for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and shows no sign of slowing, some scientists, activists, and a few world leaders are talking up a contentious option: taxes on meat.
New Zealand is poised to be the first nation to implement a tax, with a law that would impose levies on farmers who raise beef cattle and sheep starting in late 2025. Denmark’s minister for taxation has said that he is considering a tax on beef, and European Union policymakers, facing mounting pressure to address emissions from agriculture, are weighing taxes and other price mechanisms in a mix of possible solutions.
“If food system emissions are not reined in, we cannot reach the goal of the 1.5 degrees of the Paris Agreement,” said Franziska Funke a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and coauthor of a study on meat taxes in Europe released earlier this month in the journal Nature Food. That goal — to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times — is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change, experts say.
Funke is among a group of economists and climate scientists who say global trends in meat production are unsustainable, and that taxes may be the most effective way to curb the world’s seemingly voracious appetite. Meats, including beef, pork, and chicken, are “significantly underpriced” compared with the cost of their environmental impact, they concluded in a study last year, most particularly from greenhouse emissions and nutrient pollution. Taking those costs into account would result in meat that is 20 percent to 60 percent higher than market prices, depending on the type of meat, the authors said. At current prices, beef would be $2 to $4 a pound more, they said.
In her latest study in Nature Food, Funke finds that to ease a likely outsize impact on lower-income consumers, revenue from meat taxes could be used to compensate those consumers.
The climate-warming emissions associated with livestock come from a few places. The clearing of land for grazing and feed releases carbon emissions. Fertilizers used for growing crops for feed release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. And large amounts of methane are released through burps and flatulence from the cattle themselves.
Beef by far is responsible for the largest amount of greenhouse emissions among animal products, according to Our World in Data, a scientific publication based at the University of Oxford. After that comes lamb and mutton, dairy cattle, farmed shrimp, cheese, farmed fish, pork, and poultry. Researchers looking at meat taxes have used various definitions of meat, some including beef, lamb and mutton, pork, and poultry.
Economists say their research has shown that a tax on meat would drive consumers to buy less — even more than it might for other foods.
“Out of all kinds of food items considered together, meat is on the end that there is quite a lot of the effect,” said Linus Mattauch, an economist at the Technical University of Berlin who published an opinion piece in the journal PLOS Climate this month, advocating for the use of meat taxes to reduce emissions.
Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade group representing cattle farmers and ranchers, called a meat tax “unnecessary” and said it would “drive up costs for low-income families.”
A spokesman for the group also said that the US beef industry had lowered the emissions intensity of its beef by 40 percent between 1961 and 2018, thanks to herd genetics, grazing management, and feedyard technology.
Buying local or specialty meats can, in some cases, make a difference in terms of their climate impact. Cattle raised on small farms that are grass-fed will have a smaller impact than those raised on grain. Likewise, farmers using grazing methods that allow for extra carbon storage in the soil can lower the carbon footprint of their beef. But grass-fed beef currently makes up just 4 percent of US beef sales, according to a 2021 report.
The emissions from beef, in particular, are a significant problem for the United States as it tries to slash its emissions under the Biden administration. Just one head of cattle can produce between 154 and 264 pounds of methane in a year, according to the EPA. And in the United States there were 29.4 million beef cattle as of July, according to the federal Department of Agriculture, their total emissions equivalent to 26 coal-fired power plants, or nearly 22 million gas-powered cars, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator.
But while the idea of meat taxes is gaining currency around the world, is there any chance of introducing such a tax in the land of the Big Mac, where we like to Have It Our Way? Experts say that’s a longshot.
Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist based in Texas who researches the latest ways the planet is changing, said of her state, “It’s like, ‘You can take my steak away from my cold and dying hands.’”
Tatiana Andreyeva, director of economic initiatives at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, said that given the “antitax climate” in the United States, there is “absolutely no way for a meat tax.” She said a more productive path in this country would be one that has already proved successful with tobacco and sugary drinks: Taxes became palatable only after campaigns about adverse health effects.
In the case of tobacco, a 158 percent increase in the federal cigarette tax rate in 2009 led to an 11 percent decline in cigarette sales the next year, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. And despite fierce opposition in some places, there are currently taxes on sugary drinks in place, including in the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, Seattle, and several cities in California.
The obstacles to a meat tax in the United States extend beyond individuals’ reluctance to change their diets, said Christopher Barrett, an economist at Cornell and co-editor-in-chief of the journal Food Policy.
“Powerful interest groups are aligned against it,” he said, including livestock producers, processors, restaurants, and labor groups, as well as groups that are ideologically opposed to taxes or restrictions that could be deemed paternalistic.
Rather than a tax, Barrett said, a subsidy for healthier, nonmeat foods might help shift consumer habits, in the same way that subsidies are helping drive the market for electric vehicles and solar panels.
“People respond to price signals,” he said. “In political terms, it’s usually easier to enact subsidies than taxes.”
Among younger generations, though, that could be changing. A 2022 survey by the consumer insights platform Veylinx found that 62 percent of American Gen Z respondents would support a 10 percent tax on meat to reduce consumption. And 71 percent of respondents said the government should subsidize meat alternatives to bring costs down and drive innovation.
There are other steps, too, that can reduce emissions from livestock. Used as a feedstock, the red seaweed strand Asparagopsis taxiformis could one day lower methane emissions from cattle by as much as 89 percent, according to a 2020 report by the EPA.
But that still doesn’t negate the deforestation problems associated with raising beef cattle in some parts of the world, which is why, increasingly, experts abroad are advocating a tax to try to change consumer behavior.
Here in the United States, Hayhoe, the Texas-based climate scientist, said it’s important for individuals who care about climate change but aren’t ready to become vegans to realize they can at least limit their meat intake, that is, make it a luxury, not an every day, every meal occurrence.
“The world doesn’t need everybody to be perfect,” she said. “The world needs everybody to be better.”