Should we tax meat to improve planetary health? A case study of values in the UK debate

By: Philippa Simmonds

In summer 2021, a food system strategy commissioned by the UK government advised that a meat tax would be “politically impossible”. But why are meat taxes so controversial?

According to a succession of high-profile global and national publications, reducing meat consumption in high-income ‘Western’ countries could be a key component of ensuring a liveable planet for future generations. When consumed at the rate we do here in the UK, meat can contribute to a rise in noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and types of cancer. At the global scale, there is also increasing awareness that the vast and growing population of farmed animals puts pressure on various planetary systems, contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss. Climate impacts are partly due to the greenhouse gas methane emitted in the burps of cows and sheep – a side effect of their ingenious digestive systems – as well as deforestation to clear land for pasture or feed crops also plays a major role. This unsustainable system can sometimes feel locked in. Meat is significant in Western cultural norms, and research from the USA shows agricultural corporations spend vast resources to perpetuate the status quo.

In a paper published in June 2021 we explored one potential way to reduce meat consumption in the UK: a meat tax. Most previous research on this topic  involved modeling studies – often looking at potential impacts a tax might have on outcomes like mortality, healthcare expenditure, and climate change mitigation. While this evidence was compelling, we soon realised the meat tax debate is highly polarised. We decided to take a qualitative approach to understanding this by using concepts from political science and other social science disciplines.

We initially looked at 25 newspaper articles published over the previous year, then conducted semi-structured interviews with ten key stakeholders. The people we interviewed held a range of positions across different sectors such as academia, civil society, and the livestock industry; and contributed a variety of perspectives on meat taxes.

Taking ‘arguments’ as the unit of analysis (e.g. “UK meat production is sustainable”, “a meat tax would reduce healthcare costs”) we found these fit into five categories: climate change and environment, human health, effects on animals, fairness, and acceptability of government intervention. We then further divided each category according to the level of political conflict, i.e. was this argument about the nature of the problem, or about the proposed solution? Finally, we sought to interpret the arguments through the lenses of different political ideologies and different perspectives on sustainable food security.

The findings demonstrate why this issue can be so controversial. Overall, we found that while the ‘meat tax debate’ nominally refers to a specific solution, the issue of whether meat consumption is a problem in the UK is still contested. We also found that the arguments being used are often connected with broader ideas about the role of the state, nature, and indeed human nature. For example, pro-meat tax arguments were more commonly aligned with modern liberalism, in which state interventions are accepted to promote equality of opportunity; while anti-meat tax arguments were more likely to align with classical liberalism, in which state interventions should be kept to an absolute minimum. At the same time, pro-meat tax arguments were sometimes aligned with “demand restraint” or “food system transformation” perspectives on sustainable food security; either seeing humans as voracious and needing to be restrained, or focusing on systemic inequalities instead of individual actions. Anti-meat tax arguments often focused on ways agricultural practices and technologies could reduce greenhouse gas  emissions from farmed animals without requiring a reduction in meat consumption: more in line with the “efficiency” perspective.

When we compared our findings to the existing literature on sugar taxes, we saw many of the same arguments being used (both pro- and anti-tax) from similar stakeholders. These kinds of taxes share a  “regressive” quality: the lower your income, the greater the proportion of that income goes towards the tax. For example, one proposed model for taxing red meat would increase the cost of unprocessed meat (like steaks) by 14%, and unprocessed meat (like bacon and sausages) by 79%. Anti-tax arguments tend to frame these kinds of price increases as unfair, while pro-tax arguments often focus on the potential population health improvements in lower-income groups.

However, despite these common threads, the meat tax debate has its own complexities. Firstly, the prominent environmental component sets this issue apart from products like sugar, or even alcohol and tobacco. Secondly, different perspectives on the rights of animals add a further layer. For example, in our data, stakeholders often assumed that vegans would support a meat tax; but a participant from The Vegan Society pointed out that a tax would risk increasing animal suffering if beef were to be substituted with chicken.

So, are meat taxes really politically impossible? Like other controversial policies, this issue stimulates disagreement and polarisation because it strikes at the heart of deeply held values and norms. By making these values explicit, our paper seeks to enhance and clarify deliberation. If we are to rise to the challenge of building a food system that promotes planetary health, then we need both quantitative and qualitative research to fully explore possible policy solutions.

This is an edited version of a post that was originally published on the Planetary Health Alliance’s blog. To read the original version, please click here.

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