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Can America Swallow a Meat Tax?

If we want to save the planet and improve our health, we may not have an option

The average American man feasts on more than 200 pounds of meat each year — a lot of it poultry, but plenty of beef, too. 

The figure is more than twice the global average, and almost double the amount that Americans were consuming in the 1960s. Our national love affair with meat may have taken a dip after the economic woes of the Great Recession, but it’s bounced back in the decade since, and it’s hard to imagine people cutting back anytime soon. 

Alas, thanks to the specter of accelerating climate change due to human consumption, we’re having to reckon with just that. We’ve known for a long time that the rising demand for meat around the world is a major generator of greenhouse gas emission — not just because livestock burp, poop and fart out incredible amounts of methane gas, but because the need for water and land leads to the exploitation of water supplies and deforestation. And while animal agriculture in the U.S. is far more efficient than it is in developing nations, the mounting evidence that cheap meat takes a toll on our bodies and supports horrifying factory-farming practices is equally hard to ignore. 

In short: We don’t think about the actual costs of eating meat. And that’s why it’s time to seriously consider a tax on animal protein, designed to change eating habits while generating funds to strengthen food security for the hungry and underprivileged at a critical time. 

It’ll be crucial to limit harm to farmers and communities that rely on affordable meat for nutrition. But it’s possible to do this right — and maybe even in a way that doesn’t require an ugly consumer tax at the register. 

Climate change experts, animal-rights advocates and governments have already been debating meat taxes for years, decrying how a per-pound price at the butcher fails to reflect all kinds of hidden consequences. That includes the environmental toll for raising and feeding a herd of animals, but also the literal health-care costs that taxpayers end up paying when there’s increased heart disease or pollution-related ailments across a population. It’s an almost libertarian framing for the pro-meat-tax crowd, and perhaps an apt one — per one recent study, 20 percent of Americans eat so much damn dairy and beef that they account for 41 percent of emissions related to food production.

“The person who eats 400 pounds of animal meat every year is treading on the environment for others, and so a meat tax could be implemented as a matter of protecting personal liberty,” James Hamblin argues in The Atlantic. “Eating that way wouldn’t be illegal, but people who choose to do it would have to pay for the imposition of their choices on others.”

How much in actual dollars does our love of meat, over other protein staples like soy, cost us? 

Estimates vary, but a major 2018 report out of Oxford University concluded that the U.S. could save $20 billion and some 53,000 lives every year if it implemented a substantial meat tax to discourage consumption. Researcher Marco Springmann and his team found it would take a 34 percent price spike on raw meat and a staggering 163 percent increase on processed meats like hot dogs in order to achieve those figures. That’s not far off from a German study published just last week, which suggests that the price of meat in Germany needs to be 150 percent higher in order to reflect the full economic cost it has on the environment.

This is contentious stuff for enthusiastic carnivores to soak in, and many will point to a controversial international review that concluded in 2019 that eating lean red meat in moderation is good, actually. Then there’s the fact that we badly misunderstand the impact of methane released by livestock — the gas is less damaging than carbon dioxide, for a variety of reasons, and there is real cause to believe the headlines about American cow farts destroying the ozone layer are overblown

Nonetheless, we still eat way too many fatty processed meats and still spray way too much agricultural methane into the sky, and without sweeping changes, it’s hard to imagine that behavior changing. As we’ve discovered with items like tobacco, soda and sugar, taxes designed to discourage consumption actually do work if they’re implemented in the right way (a big caveat, admittedly). Even livestock farmers and meatpackers, who stand to lose the most from decreases in meat-eating, could be wooed with tax funds, argues Oxford’s Springmann. 

“If you design this policy well, then it shouldn’t be to the detriment, necessarily, of producers,” he told Marketplace. “The good thing with a tax instrument is that you actually raise revenues and [use them], for example, to provide those incentives and help livestock producers diversify their portfolio.” 

And a tax doesn’t always have to look like a tax. One little-known fact about American agriculture is that the livestock industry has benefited from nearly a century of subsidies. Meat and dairy is subsidized by some 38 billion in taxpayer dollars each year, but produce growers get nearly nothing; in fact, certain loopholes make it cheaper to leave land unplowed and receive a subsidy than use it to grow vegetables. 

It’s these forces that have helped American meat become the industry that it is today, argues Meatonomic$ author David Robinson Simon. And other experts agree that shifting those subsidies away from meat production and toward other uses could do a lot to shift consumer behavior. In the Netherlands, plans have been proposed to implement a meat tax along with a produce subsidy — a much more tolerable policy for a consumer than merely raising a cost on them. 

After 2020, as the pandemic continues to ravage working-class communities, those subsidy or tax revenues could also go a long way to fund food security programs. And it’s important to acknowledge that even if we stopped eating meat altogether, our climate-change picture would remain dire. A meat “tax” of any kind needs to be a complement to much larger efforts to punish fossil-fuel companies that have accelerated climate change through aggressive political and economic plays. It may be wiser as well to start with a tax on processed meats and foods, rather than all forms of raw meat, given America’s cultural obsession to meat as a signifier of wealth, nutrition and masculinity.

The good news is that we’ve made so many gains in agriculture since the turn of the millennium. We eat a lot more meat than we did in the 1960s, but that’s largely due to a boom in poultry, which produce less emissions than pigs or cows (the worst offenders). 

Even then, we produce more beef today with fewer total emissions than in the past, thanks to advancements in animal caretaking and methane reduction. (Companies have developed special feed that can help cows produce fewer farts.) And we know that simply eating less meat has an observable impact on emissions; the NRDC estimates that from 2005 to 2014 alone, U.S. diet-related greenhouse gasses fell by about 10 percent, largely as a result of reduced beef consumption. 

Many of us have already discovered how shifts in supply chains affect prices at the supermarket, and had to cut back on meat amid the pandemic, whether because of budget or circumstance. It’s time now to levy the moment into something more long-term — and although a meat tax sounds unpalatable, it’s a dose of reality that American mouths need.