Comment: Meat tax gaining traction

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The notion of a meat tax is gaining traction and is a topic of conversation around the globe.

Think tanks have been recommending the introduction of a meat tax for some time. It was raised in 2013 in a Nature Climate Change article  (Rippel et al), Chatham House found a meat tax would be far less unpalatable than government thinks in 2015, the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at Oxford University pondered on it at the end of last year and it has also been raised in connection with this week’s release of the Lancet Commission on obesity’s new report  The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change.

The tax has been suggested as a way of countering the health costs associated with the global obesity epidemic and for environmental concerns about the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock and the resources used. On the face of it, it seems a simple solution, but it is actually a very complex area and raises many questions for society.

Taxing a basic food group, like natural meat protein, is as basically nuts as taxing water would be and would be extremely unpopular. Consumers are up for change, but even so, It’s asking a lot of them to change ingrained food culture habits of many generations, especially at distressing times such as we are witnessing.

Taxing meat would then have to be weighed up with the health costs of the people who were then not ingesting sufficient nutrients, like iron, or selenium, because they cannot afford to eat enough meat and/or cannot get the nutrients they need from legumes and pulses. As someone suggested the other day, think of all the extra human-produced greenhouse gases that would be produced as a result! Those not getting enough nutrients would then have to take supplements, at an extra (not-minimal) cost – which would be an inadvertent tax upon a tax.

The Lancet’s Global Syndemic Commission report extends beyond its original mandate to look at obesity, adding the latter two inter-linked topics, under-nutrition and climate change, into one framework for policy makers around the globe to consider for society. Boyd Swinburn,  professor of population nutrition and global health from the University of Auckland, is one of two leading co-authors of the report. The other is Bill Dietz, chair and director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University.

The thought-provoking report, which is worth a read, has suggested removing the US$5 trillion of subsidies for fossil fuels and food industries subsidies and redirecting them into more sustainable energy, agricultural and food systems practices. Getting rid of livestock production subsidies completely would be a way bringing the retail value of meat closer to the true production cost – and would also level the playing field for unsubsidised producers, like New Zealand.

A meat tax also ignores the downstream benefits of livestock production for the health and economic well-being of rural communities.

Then there would be the outside possibility of the red meat sector being taxed at both ends, one by a carbon tax, such as in the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme which aimed at directly targeting greenhouse gas emissions at source, and then a meat tax on consumption, which would impact on all types of meat production and consumption. All costs would flow through to the consumers. You can’t do both, so which would you choose?

Who would administer the scheme and collect the tax and how would it be done? It would add to an already complex food-business world.

Moving on, this is a global issue, but which countries would be brave enough to try a meat tax? The Global Syndemic report acknowledges the difficulty of introducing sustainability principles to national dietary guidelines, noting many countries’ efforts have failed because of the strength of the food industry lobbies. Only Sweden, Germany, Qatar, and Brazil “have developed dietary guidelines that promote environmentally sustainable diets and eating patterns that ensure food security, improve diet quality, human health and well-being, social equity and respond to climate change challenges,” it says.

Arguably, the one place it could be introduced is the US, but the chance of that in that current political environment is ZERO. Earlier this year, UK Green Party member Caroline Lucas also proposed a meat tax for the UK at the Oxford Farming Conference.

The New Zealand Coalition Government has now confirmed a meat tax is not going to be introduced here in New Zealand, either, though the pregnant pause following Associate Minister for Health Julie-Ann Genter’s initial response that it wasn’t under active consideration ‘at this stage’, hasn’t convinced everyone.

“This announcement from a Green Party Minister which shows that this Government is continuing its attack on farmers proves how far this Government will go with any new taxes and adding to the cost of living,” says the National Party’s agriculture spokesman Nathan Guy.

“The red meat sector is worth around $9 billion of exports. Over 25,000 New Zealanders are employed and will be horrified the Government is not ruling out taxing the red meat industry,” he says, asking, “Where will this tax and spend agenda stop?”

There is no doubt change is coming in some form, but policy-makers will need to be careful not to makes changes too fast, too soon and seek to avoid unintended consequences. Keep it simple and natural.



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