Here Comes the Meat Tax

Paying more for environmentally harmful foods may be inevitable.

A restaurant worker in a red and black uniform holds a three-patty cheeseburger.
A "triple bypass burger" at the Heart Attack Grill (Matt York / AP)

There is a “hospital-themed restaurant” in Las Vegas called the Heart Attack Grill. Inside, customers are invited to tempt death with food. The waitresses dress as provocative nurses and deliver “prescriptions,” which are enormous hamburgers. Depending on the number of beef patties between the buns, they’re known as single-, double-, and triple-bypass burgers. The system goes all the way up to octuple bypass.

Past that point, it would be ridiculous.

While various health experts endorse meat in various amounts, almost none endorse eating it the way Americans today do. The average U.S. citizen consumed more than 200 pounds of meat this year, more than twice the global average and nearly twice as much as Americans did in 1961. The average American man is eating more than his own weight in meat every year—even as that weight has increased to 196 pounds, up from 166 pounds in 1960.

Sitting aghast in a booth at the Heart Attack Grill, Thomas Jefferson would remind us that in the United States, informed consumers have the God-given right to do with their bodies what they choose. Watching people gorge on towers of beef might please him. But while self-harm may be a right of all people, a line is crossed when we step on the ability of others to do the same. In Jefferson’s view, it is sometimes necessary “to lay taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare.”

This approach to taxation applies nowhere more reasonably than greenhouse-gas-intensive commodities—also referred to as a meat tax, since animal agriculture is notoriously environmentally costly. A meat tax is not yet among the most pressing political issues of the day, but this week, a preliminary report from an investor initiative known Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return warned that a tax on meat is becoming “increasingly probable.”

The initiative looks at the impact of agriculture on the environment and how it will shape markets. The analysts cite the global popularity of “behavioral taxes” to nudge people to achieve social ends and decrease overall taxes—by reducing societal costs of such things as sugar and tobacco and carbon emissions—and argue that meat “is on the same path,” driven by “a global consensus around meat’s negative contributions to climate change and global-health epidemics such as obesity, cancer, and antibiotic resistance.”

Livestock has been estimated to account for around 15 percent of human-related greenhouse gases, and animal agriculture is water-intensive and space-inefficient. Over the next three decades, meat consumption is projected to increase by 75 percent.

The is based in part on research from the University of Oxford, where the food-policy researcher Marco Springmann and colleagues calculated that eliminating animal protein from the global food system would save $1.6 trillion in environmental costs by 2050. Springmann noted in a press statement that taxing meat “would send a strong signal that dietary change toward more healthy and sustainable plant-based diets is urgently needed to preserve both our health and the environment.”

A similar forecast came in 2015 from Chatham House, a London-based policy institute. “Shifting diets will require comprehensive strategies,” the authors wrote, “sending a powerful signal to consumers that reducing meat consumption is beneficial and that government takes the issue seriously.” The institute’s director of energy, environment, and resources, Rob Bailey, told The Guardian this week that he would “expect to see meat taxes accumulate” over the next 10 to 20 years. An author of the new Collier analysis put the timeframe at five to 10 years.

In places, this is already underway. Earlier this year, Germany’s environmental agency expressed interest in increasing taxes on meat, eggs, and cheese from 7 to 19 percent. The Danish Council on Ethics also recently recommended a meat tax to help the country achieve its obligations to the United Nations.

Any such approach would seem extremely unlikely in the United States, which has removed itself from a position of leadership in the global attack on climate change, and which subsidizes meat production rather than taxing it.

The United States has proved deeply divided on taxing even soda—which has neither nutritional value nor such deep-rooted cultural importance.

Of course, soda taxes are usually attacked on grounds of infringement on personal liberty. Meat taxes could be the opposite. The person who eats 400 pounds of animal meat every year is treading on the environment for others, and so a meat tax could be implemented as a matter of protecting personal liberty. Eating that way wouldn’t be illegal, but people who choose to do it would have to pay for the imposition of their choices on others. At this Jefferson would smile over his burger.

There are also concerns of harm to industry, and to people already struggling with food security—who need calories wherever they can get them. With these concerns in mind, the Oxford team outlined a meat-tax strategy that they believe could benefit middle- and low-income countries as well. Published earlier this year in the journal Nature Climate Change, it includes sparing healthy food from taxation, as well as selective compensation for income losses associated with tax-related price increases. Some tax revenues would be allotted for health promotion. Together all of this could “help avert most of the negative health impacts experienced by vulnerable groups, whilst still promoting changes toward diets that are more environmentally sustainable.”

Even for onlookers who care little for the planet—who would sooner sell or eat octuple-bypass burgers than allow their grandchildren to refer to Miami in the present tense—there is also the promise of money. A meat tax is an idea that could be part of not just health and climate debates, but economic conversations in decades to come. Possibly all the way until the end. As Jeremy Coller of Coller Capital put it more reservedly: “Far-sighted investors should plan ahead for this day.”