Last week, a coalition of health professionals published a report advocating a carbon tax on food products with a high environmental and health burden, such as red meat and dairy products.
The tax is rarely a popular policy choice for consumers and producers, and if improperly enforced it could have disastrous effects not only for the domestic meat industry, but also for the environment. However, if it is implemented with a cautious and ambitious approach, it could defend sustainable practices while penalizing those that are polluting.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, meat and dairy products contribute 7.1 gigatonnes of C02 worldwide per year, which represents 14.5% of total carbon emissions in the world. The UK Health Alliance report states that “meat production has a particularly high impact on the environment” and “consumption will have to be halved if the food system is to stay within sustainable environmental limits”.
But different farming systems have different environmental impacts. Grain-fed and intensively reared animal products are the most damaging, as the carbon used to produce the grains (diesel for tractors, oil-based fertilizers, and pesticides) is the largest crop in the world. whole process. That doesn’t even take into account the deforestation caused by the soybean industry, an ingredient widely used in livestock feed.
While ruminants (cows, sheep and lambs) have a bad reputation for being big polluters, 100% grass-fed ruminants have many environmental benefits. These include carbon sequestration, restoring soil fertility, increasing biodiversity as well as using otherwise unproductive land.
An ambitious tax approach would penalize the former, and not the latter.
Unsurprisingly, the UK meat and dairy industries are staunch opponents of a possible tax, fearing that their ‘climate-friendly products’ (most UK cattle are raised on grass-based systems) could be unfairly targeted by a tax, while cheap grain fed imports would get away with scot.
A simplistic carbon tax would be a losing situation for UK agriculture, raising the prices of our more sustainable products, while unaffected imports would be more attractive to consumers due to the relative decline in prices.
The government should put in place a tax that takes into account the difference in emissions from different production methods, regardless of the origin of the product.
It may seem impossible, but a widely cited study in Sweden has modeled the impacts of such a tax on seven animal products, using the nuanced approach mentioned above. He found that the tax would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the sector by 12% through reduced consumption, as well as the financial incentive to be more sustainable.
The study also confirms the potential benefit for domestic producers, as “imposing the same tax on all meats would likely shift a relative price in favor of Swedish meat due to the lower emissions per kg”.
As a master’s student in food policy, we are taught to accept the complexity of the food system and to recognize that the solutions do not lie in one policy. Instead, we need a cohesive and comprehensive national food strategy that puts sustainability and the health of the nation at the heart of all policy decisions.
Such a tax would be an element of this strategy and it would send a clear signal of the government’s intention to tackle the environmental and health impacts inherent in the country’s food consumption.