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Should We Tax Food According to its Environmental Footprint? | Opinion

The idea of taxing food according to its environmental footprint is deeply controversial. Here's why I support it.

In November 2020, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change released a report detailing a number of recommendations aimed at the UK government and food industry. The report concluded that should these recommendations not be addressed by 2025, action must be taken in the form of a carbon levy, taxing producers according to the environmental footprint of their produce.1 If implemented, it would see the UK become the first country in the world to have a food-specific tax, but is this the right measure to take? In my opinion, yes – assuming the other changes are not made in time – and here’s why.

FISCAL INCENTIVES WORK

The fact that animal-based foods are generally more damaging to the environment than those of plant origin is not exactly new information. Yet, people continue to eat meat and dairy. Evidence shows, however, that financial policies generate behavioural change, even without any new information.2 

We were all aware that our reliance on single-use plastic was causing irreparable damage to the environment, but only when supermarkets in various countries began charging just a few cents per bag did single-use plastic bag consumption decline significantly. In the UK, for example, a surcharge of just 5p per bag led to an 86% decrease in plastic bag consumption. A tax on food would likely increase the price of most foods – particularly those which we need to be eating less of – by significantly more than 5p. Modelling suggests that beef, for example, would be 40% more expensive if the environmental cost was reflected in its price. So the question is: if your Friday night £7 steak suddenly set you back £9.80, might you reconsider?

A REDUCTIVE FRAMEWORK IS BETTER THAN NO FRAMEWORK AT ALL

Farmers and representatives of the food industry have argued against a food-based carbon tax because a fully comprehensive policy that accounts for differing production systems might not be implemented, leaving certain farmers disproportionately and unfairly penalised. From the livestock farmers’ perspective, this risks perpetuating the already somewhat prevalent notion of ‘plant equals good, meat equals bad’ when, in reality, there are nuances as to how a certain animal product affects the environment, depending on the animal of origin and the production systems at play. 

Discover the positive and negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture 

Of course, the best policy would be one that accounts for every minute difference in the footprint of every individual food product. But the argument, when put this way, ignores the reality that even the most unsustainable plant-based foods are, in most cases, significantly better for the planet than animal products.3 Despite being a somewhat simplified version of the truth, ‘plant-good, meat-bad’ is, ultimately, the bottom line. Transportation only accounts for just 0.5-10% of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that whilst a plant-based protein imported from a neighbouring country is going to come at a greater cost to the environment than the locally sourced in-season alternative, both will have just a fraction of the environmental footprint of almost any joint of beef, whether it has come from the other side of the world, or a farm just a few hundred yards up the road.4

Furthermore, it hardly seems justified to argue against a policy based on it being oversimplified when there is – at this point – no actual evidence to corroborate these concerns. With no word yet from the government as to whether they are even considering implementing such a policy, let alone on how it would be calculated and applied, the argument is based on conjecture alone.

IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN JUST THE MONEY

Money aside, it is also important to consider the many other potentially wide-reaching and positive implications that could come about as a result of this initiative.

One of the first changes we could hope to see would be increased accountability. Before any tax can be calculated, we first need to establish a consistent means of measuring, reporting and tracking emissions across the supply chain. This will highlight where the problem areas are, enabling a fair tax to be calculated, but also likely motivate farmers and producers to make changes even before there is a financial reason to do so. Whether those changes come about through environmental concern or purely from a PR perspective, it ultimately doesn’t matter – change is change.

Another positive outcome we could expect to see is conversation. For the government to even consider such a drastic policy emphasises the grave nature of the climate crisis, and the urgency that is needed to tackle it. For those who have had the privilege of thus far choosing to disengage from the climate conversation or have even had it bypass their radar entirely, this may well be the wake-up call that is needed. Food is one of the very few commodities that affects us all. Independent of our age, economic status, academic background, dress sense, or taste in music, we all need to eat, and a policy like this would – in some way or another – impact us all. The very nature of the commodity in question, therefore, makes this policy, and the rhetoric surrounding it, uniquely all-encapsulating and provides us with an opportunity to potentially engage more people than any campaign or policy that has come before.

As a result of this increased attention, we could hope to see a shift in public perception towards our foods. Whilst I am not foolish enough to think that this tax alone would alter people’s attitudes and dietary behaviours enough to solve the problem once and for all, I strongly believe – or at least I hope – that it could be a hugely positive start.

FOR THE HEALTH OF THE PEOPLE AS WELL AS THE PLANET

The final point to note is something that the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change has been very clear on. This tax is about more than just the environment but also about the population's health. In fact, a 2018 study found that if we increase the price of foods to account for the healthcare costs associated with their consumption, unprocessed and processed red meat would cost 20% and 110% more, respectively.5

Furthermore, those foods which have been found to be good for both us and the planet, such as plant-based products, have also been shown to be better for our wallets. Any policy which generates a population-level shift towards a diet that is richer in plants would lead to improvements in health for the majority of the population without disproportionately impacting lower-income individuals.

DISCLAIMER: A TAX IS NOT THE BE-ALL AND END-ALL

To be clear, I do not for a second think that a carbon tax on food will solve all of our problems, nor am I under the impression that the development and implementation of any such policy would be simple and without fault, but modelling suggests that this sort of policy, if properly implemented, has the potential to reduce our food-related greenhouse emissions by around 9-12%.6,7

There will, of course, be a selection of individuals for whom this tax will never be seen as a good thing – whether that be a farmer who is unable to sustain their business or a meat lover reluctant to admit that their consumption patterns are negatively impacting both the health of the environment and their own. But with the state of the crisis at this point in time and the urgency with which we need to instigate change if we are to avoid emissions and global temperatures reaching the irreversible tipping point, we do not have the luxury of time to develop a benevolent policy which benefits all – even if such a thing did exist. 

The best we can aim for at this stage is a policy that generates the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. So, all things considered, a policy that has the potential to shift nationwide consumption patterns towards a more sustainable diet that is also affordable and has the power to improve population health sounds like a pretty positive policy to me.

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