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On taxing meat – why (not)?

A recent study indicates that reducing the consumption of meat would help considerably to slow down climate change. It may even be one of the most efficient ways to do so, since livestock emissions are making up 14.5 percent of all human causedgreenhouse gas production – which is a little more than that of all cars, trains and planes combined. In addition animal suffering and the adverse effects of excessive meat consumption on human health present two strong reasons why industrial meat production should be severely regulated. Introducing a “sin tax” on meat therefore seems to make a lot of sense from an ethical point of view and also from the perspective of (health) economics. After all, we put so-called “sin taxes” on other behaviours that we consider bad for people or the environment like smoking or fuel. If taxing meat can be supported by even more compelling reasons (after all, neither oil nor tobacco suffer in the production of the desired goods), governments seem to be obliged to engage in it. Surprisingly, however, there has been little discussion so far in politics or the media about it.

One of the main concerns seems to be that taxing meat seems to hit those the hardest that fight with bringing food on the table on a daily basis, namely people with low income. Every excise tax is discriminating towards the poor, since it raises the prices on goods without regard to income. In the case of taxing food I think that most people will react extra sensitive: eating is one of the most basic human needs while smoking or driving a car is (often) not. It seems therefore quite harsh to tax something that most people consider as basic. Especially in countries with a meat based diet (e.g. Germany or the US) people might find that one of their basic sources of nutrition is being taken away. But apart from the strong sentiments, it may be unjust to tax food in general, since poor people will be left with even fewer choices than they have now. This is a serious concern, since many poor families are already in need of food stamps or other subsidies by the government.

Still, I think that analogous arguments from the discussion of taxing fuel or smoking hold. Just as you do not have to smoke and you do not have to drive everywhere (at least if there is public transport available), you do not have to eat meat in those large amounts in which we consume it in the first world. In Western countries, where there are still plenty of choices what groceries to buy and consume, there are many alternatives to the daily dose of ham or sausage. Taxing meat also does not need to make it totally unaffordable. After all, taxes do not need to be sky-high: a moderate rise in the prices of meat may lead to the desired result that people curb their consumption and keep it on a moderate level. In addition, gains from the taxes may be used to promote the production of meat alternatives (e.g. vegetarian spread or sausages, which are still remarkably expensive in most supermarkets) and in subsidizing farmers and companies that provide good conditions for their animals. Thus, animal suffering may also be relieved, which is no small reason. As long as we are talking about a moderate increase in pricing (maybe) together with an investment in supporting meat alternatives I think that taxing meat seems just enough given the benefits.

Another argument may be raised against “sin taxes” in general. A true libertarian might object that the main purpose of taxes is to finance government not to control or even punish people who pay them. However, we may ask what it is we are paying for exactly. If all we want is some sort of Nozickean minimal state the objection is quite valid indeed. But if we also want that the state takes care of our environment and the needs of our descendants, we may also want to finance this enterprise. In the case of climate change I think that the costs and the needs of those who are and will be affected are the decisive reasons, not considerations of paternalist control. States may have to save money in order to deal with the effects of climate change in the future, e.g. with the effects of floods or blizzards. They also need the money to invest in techniques to combat climate change, e.g. alternative energies. Hence, meat taxes would serve a classic purpose.

Of course, one may wonder whether taxing meat is feasible in practice. We may think of the effects of other sin taxes, e.g. people buying cheap cigarettes duty-free or on the black market, or people driving to other countries only to buy fuel). A black market for meat or cheap imports surely does not seem to be desirable considering the pain that may be inflicted on animals. Also, what should be avoided for the same reason is the meat industry trying to counter the effects of the tax by making their production more effective and cheap. Here, only better standards and harder regulation will probably be the best route (and will naturally make meat more expensive). Hence, much more effort is involved in dealing with the problem of our considerable meat consumption than a simple sin tax. Still, I think a moderate meat tax is a good place to start.

I am an academic manager at the Munich School of Philosophy, overseeing a graduate school on “Ethics, Education and Culture in the 21st Century”. Previously I was a post-doc researcher in the philosophy department at the university of Munich. My research interests include the capability approach, non-ideal theory and theories of social justice.

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  1. Rebecca, thanks for this excellent discussion. Do you think there is a difference between imposing the cost directly on meat consumers vs. imposing it on meat producers (both from the moral and the effeciency perspectives)? For instance, as you mention, we can have much tighter regulation and welfare standards on meat production which will increase the cost, or we can simply impose a tax on meat production.

  2. Hi Rebecca, thanks for this post. I find the arguments pretty compelling, but then I'm a vegetarian, so it's probably preaching to the converted. The more basic question that came to my mind while reading this is as follows: do we need some principled approach for when and how we impose taxes on activities that have externalities? Or is it okay to do it on an ad hoc basis? The reason why I think this is important is that virtually every activity has *some* externality or other. But some activities are clearly protected by moral and also legal rights. In other cases, the externality might be too small, or it might be too burdensome, in comparison, to impose a tax. So we probably need some kind of threshold conception. I am pretty confident that meat would be above the threshold. But then many other activities would probably also cross the threshold. Do we have a deeper reason for prioritizing a tax on meat, or is this just a question of practical considerations (e.g. what is politically feasible)?

  3. Thanks for the great post, Rebecca. I would be interested to ask: do you think there is any normative reason to stop at the line of taxing and more tightly regulating meat production/consumption, rather than directly prohibiting? I can think of various practical/political reasons (e.g., feasibility of getting through legislation). But it struck me that the moral reasons you outline – particularly those of climate change and animal welfare – quite plausibly lead as far as the latter. The case might seem particularly plausible insofar as meat is so easy to replace in one's diet, easier, for example, than finding alternatives to using (some) oil (at least in the current world), and it would avoid the worries of the move falling hardest on the least-advantaged and companies trying to find ways around the law.

  4. Dear Siba, Lisa and Andrew,
    first of all, thanks for all your good and interesting comments. I hope it is okay if I answer them in one post.
    1. On putting the burden on the producer: as you have well pointed out, Siba, I have hinted at the policy of having much tighter regulation on meat production. I think this is an important issue and that we should have these regulations in any case. In these cases, costs will indeed rise and therefore consumption would also decrease. What I was worried about is whether this is enough to reduce the consumption of meat considerably enough, since there may still be cheaper meat products that are relatively cheap. I also thought that taxing would give the state some funds to invest in supporting the development of good meat alternatives or subsiding companies that work very sustainably. But what you propose is also a good solution and if it leads to the desired results (animal protection, protecting the climate) I can certainly accept it.
    2. Dear Lisa, thanks for this input. Yes, thinking about how and when to tax is certainly at the heart of the matter. If you look at the discussions about these so-called sin-taxes, one objection is that if, e.g. meat or smoking is taxed, we must also include other kinds of harmful behaviour or products, e.g. sweets, junk food or risky sports. So, it seems to be rather difficult where to draw the lines and setting thresholds are very often in danger of being somewhat arbitrary. All in all, I do not have a every good answer to that on this point other than that there are several reasons in play (about externatilities, burdens, political feasability) that must be balanced against each other.
    3. Andrew, thanks for this remark, which is quite interesting. Of course, that is one sound and clear conclusion to draw which would indeed avoid discrimination of lowe-income-classes. I am just afraid that, here, practical reasons and experiences from the past speak against this. For instance, there may also be very compelling reasons to prohibit alcohol, but trying to do so has often only driven people into the black market and illegal imports. I thinks this is what would happen, too, if meat consumption is forbidden. Also, I believe that if animal suffering can be avoided and if consumption is moderate, we should still be allowed to eat it meat. For some people (as some nutrionists say) or some regions the replacement may not be so easy, so I think it woud be less intrusive and burdensome just to raise the prices to regulate consumption.

  5. Thanks for the interesting post, Rebecca. One possibility that may be worth exploring is that there may be other, non-tax based means, to reduce meat consumption. Perhaps we could add labels to meat products stating that, by purchasing this product, the consumer contributes to global warming, animal suffering, etc.. This may also have the effect of reducing meat consumption.

  6. Rebecca, thank you for this great post. You mention that one of the reasons in favour of taxing, versus other behaviour change strategies, is that "taxing would give the state some funds to invest in supporting the development of good meat alternatives". I agree with you, that this is a reason in its favour (which derives from animal suffering and sustainability issues), but perhaps the force of this reason is diminished when we move from thinking in the abstract to looking at the actual alternatives? It may be the case that the development of these meat alternatives raises its own ethical issues. What are the meat alternatives that you are thinking of here? Is it so-called "artificial meats" – in vitro or cultured meat and meat from genetically modified organisms – and is the thought that there are no or less ethical issues with this type of meat production?

  7. Dear Tom and Fay,
    thanks for these interesting and thought-provoking points. I agree that we should seek less intrusive means like tagging products. Here, in Germany, this is a strategy that is employed in order to get people to buy goods that are locally produced. Also, cigarette packs have these kinds of warning on them while they are also heavily taxed at the same time. I do not know any empirical data how much effect these kinds of labels have, but judging from whatI know from the discussion behavioural economics and nudging, there might be some considerable effect that can be achieved if those means are used right. After all, in "Nudge" one of Sunstein's and Thaler's examples is the way to structure a cafeteria (or a grocery store). If the healthy products are put first and presented in a favourable light, consumption should be increased. It might be an interesting idea to do the same with meat products and see how far it goes. So, yes, maybe I want to be a "nudger" here, thanks for pointing this out to me, I was not really aware 😉
    As for meat alternatives I share your worry. Maybe "alternatives" is too general. I was thinking of the standard meat substitutes that are already offered, e.g. soy based or wheat based products, vegetable products etc. They are often quite pricey compared to certain meat products (e.g. in Germany, for instance, you can get cold cuts for a very low price, if you do not care too much about the quality) and many of the are only available in special stores, e.g. those that sell organic products. A lot of people cannot afford to shop there or simply do not want to. That was the problem I was thinking about.
    Of course, in virtro meat is a different thing, especially because it is a new, experimental thing. So, no I do not think that there are no ethical issues involved here, quite to the contrary!

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