Meat, taxes, and the sustainability of the global food system

Part of the scientific community refers to the current geological era as the Anthropocene, due to the impact of human activities on terrestrial ecosystems. In June 2018, Science magazine published a research article on one of these activities: food production, and meat production in particular. “Impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change,” it concluded.

It is not just a matter of reducing greenhouse gases from food production – which accounts for 26 per cent of total GHG emissions – but of saving the future global food system. “With current diets and production practices, feeding 7.6 billion people is degrading terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, depleting water resources, and driving climate change,” underlines the article.

The increase in meat production and consumption over the last five decades is coming under the spotlight. Whilst in 1961, 71.36 million tonnes of meat were produced for a world population of around three billion people, in 2014 the figure had soared to 317.85 million tonnes for just over seven billion people. As for the number of animals slaughtered during this period, the largest growth was seen in that of pigs: going from 400 million to nearly 1.5 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The world’s leading pork producer is China, followed by the United States, Germany, Spain and Brazil.

The boom in the meat business and meat culture

“After the Second World War, Europe experienced a boom in the meat-eating culture. It was a model that spread to the rest of the planet, where all the middle and upper classes want to imitate the European countries that serve meat as the main dish of every meal,” Green MEP Florent Marcellesi told Equal Times. “We were coming out of a period of severe malnutrition and meat was identified with the food that could end it: it represented modernity.”

“It meant leaving behind the war and turning towards a model whereby people are strong, a vision of society with very masculine and competitive values,” he says.

Anne DeLessio-Parson, professor of Sociology and Food Justice at Willamette University in Oregon, has also observed this association between meat consumption and masculinity and points out that, “historically, for human beings, the cow represents wealth and the conquest of land – like that of America – through imperialism. And this is how even today’s systems, which are highly industrialised and cruel to animals, are developed [...]. There is resistance to overcoming the cultural barrier through which meat has become very important to many people, and culture is very resistant to change.”

It is also a huge business. In the United States, for example, the meat and poultry industry generated US$894 billion, which represents just under 6 per cent of the economic power’s GDP, according to a 2012 study. And in Spain, a major exporter of pork, beef and bovine, the meat business generated over €22 billion in 2018, which amounts to 2 per cent of its GDP, according to the Business Federation for the Spanish Meat Industry (FECIC).

“After the war, to ensure food security on the continent, Europe opted for a monoculture model that puts animal protein at the centre of production,” explains Marcellesi. “The current Community Agricultural Policy finances agribusiness. But that means factory farming, not local livestock farming.”

High-emission food tax on the political agenda

The idea of a tax on meat started to timidly make its way onto the political agenda after the Paris Climate Conference in 2015. The study published by Oxford University and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington was the first to mention food-specific emissions taxes.

Recognising what a ’sensitive’ issue food price rises can be, it suggests doing so as part of a public health policy. A system of economic compensation would minimise food shortages or underweight-related premature deaths in the most affected countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia.

In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) designed a fiscal policy for diet and the prevention of non-communicable diseases with a pricing policy that combined a tax on the broadest range of unhealthy products with subsidised fruits and vegetables. Regressivity is crucial when it comes to implementing these policies, as the lower a person’s income, the higher their food expenditure, under Engel’s Law, and all the more so when applied to basic foodstuffs, such as dairy produce, than to certain non-essential food items with healthier alternatives on the market, such as sugar-sweetened beverages.

“Developing such policies in the United States is complicated. We could stop subsidising grain for animals, which makes meat very cheap in the supermarket,” says DeLessio-Parson. “But the most vulnerable groups would be the hardest hit (…). The main problem we are faced with is the economic system; there is a great deal of inequality and poverty,” she underlines.

Whilst China is providing its citizens with guidelines on the maximum amount of meat a person should eat a day, for example, Denmark has made two attempts to tax meat products. In 2011, it became the world’s first country to impose a tax on saturated fats. It was removed just a year after its approval.

Among the reasons behind its failure were the influence wielded by its detractors and its lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the public. In 2016, the call for a climate tax on beef, set out in a report by the Danish Council of Ethics, met with fierce opposition from Denmark’s food and agricultural industries. The governing party rejected the idea, based on the “limited effect” it would have in a country that produced 1.7 million tonnes of pork in 2014.

“Governance and social pact” for eco-social transitions

The progressive urbanisation of the world, as referred to in the New Urban Agenda of Habitat III in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, is central to this phenomenon, which also concentrates the consumption of resources in cities. Although they only occupy 2 per cent of the total land, cities account for 70 per cent of world GDP, consume more than 60 per cent of all energy, produce 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and generate 70 per cent of all waste, according to the UN.

“Increasing urbanisation and total disconnection from the countryside go hand in hand; cities are seen as being superior to the countryside,” explains Marcellesi. “A more sustainable world would be a less urbanised world, which does not mean less civilised, but one that knows how to put nature back into the city. We have to rebalance the city with the countryside and acknowledge the importance of the countryside as a key contributor to a sustainable future,” stresses the MEP.

Bioregions – such as Ontario’s Greenbelt that contains the expansion of the city or the agricultural sector of the Vienna metropolitan area, which already occupies 17 per cent of the urban area – the new territorial framework that integrates urban, rural and wild habitats, are among the responses offered by eco-social transition policies to climate change. As underlined in the first report on diet and climate change in the United Kingdom, published by Chatham House, it is crucial that these be “win-win policies” or that they combine “governance and social pact”, point out researchers from the Spanish think tank Foro Transiciones.

The challenge behind eco-transitions, they add, lies in the fact that they “require a change of narrative, values and development rationale that can only be approached through broad social and institutional agreement”. The growing opposition of impoverished citizens to policies or taxes from which “not everyone gains” – as in the case of the yellow vests – clearly illustrates this point.

Aside from prospective meat taxes or the shift to (more) sustainable diets, technology will also play a key role in reshaping a resilient future food system. By 2050 our planet will host nine billion people. With companies such as Hampton Creek Foods, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, among others (which replicate products of animal origin using only ingredients from the vegetable kingdom), Silicon Valley is starting to talk about food-tech as the next technological disruption of the current industrial revolution.

This article has been translated from Spanish.