Government’s backpedalling on ‘meat tax’ is ‘sleight of ham’
Scrapping a non-existent tax on meat is greenwashing gone awry, writes Deirdra Barr, our Director of Marketing and Communications.
The news about the government backpedalling on a supposed ‘meat tax, and other seemingly onerous green schemes, is yet another example of greenwashing gone awry. Is this a new form of gaslighting? ‘Carbonlighting’? Removing something that isn’t there in order to assuage disgruntled groups is indeed a hall of mirrors in an already complex landscape. Interestingly, the farming and agricultural media largely fail to mention that this ‘meat tax’ was never in play.
Although globally there has been a lot of discussion about a meat tax, with viable economic models presented from the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists Journal and with it being on the agenda for many years in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, no proposals have advanced into actual legislation. And there is no evidence of the UK government ever seriously pursuing the policy in any form, aside from a nudge document in 2021.
There are several reasons why one would want to tax red and processed meat. The first one relates to health and the World Health Organisation classifying the consumption of red meat as carcinogenic to humans if eaten in processed form, and as probably carcinogenic if eaten unprocessed. The implications on health costs are very apparent.
Most of the discussion about meat taxes is carbon driven, but in Germany, social scientists at Hamburg(er!) University found that just over half of Germans would pay a tax of up to €0.39 on each kg of meat, as long as the government promised to invest the revenues in improving conditions for livestock.
And the climate data is irrefutable. The government’s own Climate Change Committee recommends reducing meat consumption by 20% by 2030, and the National Food Strategy led by Henry Dimbleby goes further in suggesting a 30% reduction in meat consumption. In addition, a report recently commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy states that:
Our food systems are responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock (and particularly ruminant products) being a disproportionate driver of emissions, land-use change, freshwater use, and a major source of other pollutants. Shifting dietary habits towards more environmental options (e.g. plant-based, local) and enabling sustainable agriculture is fundamental to achieving Net Zero.
Of course, the potential backlash with the UK public feeling they are being told what to eat and the implications for farmers makes a ‘meat tax’ a risk that the government isn’t happy to take, despite the compelling evidence of the environmental and health benefits and the carbon targets that are on the agenda.
After all, 51% of participants in a Behavioural Insights survey opposed a direct meat tax to encourage consumers to buy environmentally sustainable foods. When presented as a tax on any food with high environmental impact, public opposition decreased to 36%. A tax on meat can be perceived as an attack on individual lifestyle rather than a sustainable food choice measure, so perhaps the success lies in how it is framed.
As a campaigning organisation with a vested interest in reducing the consumption of meat for climate, animals and health benefits, we feel a positive approach to supporting the market for environmentally sustainable foods and changing our food systems is a more achievable and stronger approach. These are the approaches that the Vegetarian Society will be discussing at political party conferences this October.