Should we tax meat to improve planetary health? A case study of values in the UK debate

Philippa Simmonds

The scale of global meat consumption is a challenge that perfectly demonstrates synergies between human health and environmental systems. According to a succession of high-profile global and national publications, reducing meat consumption in high-income ‘Western’ countries could be a key component of ensuring a liveable planet for future generations. But how exactly should we achieve such a reduction?

When consumed at the rate we do here in the UK, meat can contribute to a rise in noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and types of cancer. At the global scale, there is also increasing awareness that the vast and growing population of farmed animals puts pressure on various planetary systems, contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss. Climate impacts are partly due to the greenhouse gas methane emitted in the burps of cows and sheep- a side effect of their ingenious digestive systems- while deforestation to clear land for pasture or feed crops also plays a major role. This unsustainable system can sometimes feel locked in- meat is significant in Western cultural norms, and research from the USA shows that agricultural corporations spend vast resources to perpetuate the status quo.

In a June 2021 paper, we explored one potential way to reduce meat consumption in the UK: a meat tax. Most previous research on this topic had involved modelling studies- often looking at potential impacts a tax might have on outcomes like mortality, healthcare expenditure, and climate change mitigation. This evidence was compelling, but we soon realised that the debate around meat taxes was highly controversial. We decided to take a qualitative approach to understanding this- using concepts from political science and other social science disciplines.

We initially looked at 25 newspaper articles published over the preceding year, then conducted semi-structured interviews with ten key stakeholders. The people we interviewed held a range of positions across academia, civil society, and the livestock industry; and had a variety of perspectives on meat taxes.

Taking ‘arguments’ as the unit of analysis (e.g. “UK meat production is sustainable”, “a meat tax would reduce healthcare costs”) we found these fit into five categories: climate change and environment, human health, effects on animals, fairness, and acceptability of government intervention. We then further divided each category according to the level of political conflict, i.e. was this argument about the nature of the problem, or about the proposed solution? Finally, we sought to interpret the arguments through the lenses of different political ideologies, and different perspectives on sustainable food security.

The findings help demonstrate why this issue can be so controversial. Overall, we found that while the ‘meat tax debate’ nominally refers to a specific solution, the issue of whether meat consumption is a problem in the UK is still contested. We also found that the arguments being used are often connected with broader ideas about the role of the state, nature, and indeed human nature. For example, pro-meat tax arguments were more commonly aligned with modern liberalism, in which state intervention is accepted to promote equality of opportunity; while anti-meat tax arguments were more likely to align with classical liberalism, in which state intervention should be kept to an absolute minimum. At the same time, pro-meat tax arguments sometimes aligned with “demand restraint” or “food system transformation” perspectives on sustainable food security- either seeing humans as voracious and needing to be restrained, or focusing on systemic inequalities instead of individual actions. Anti-meat tax arguments often focused on ways agricultural practices and technologies could reduce GHG emissions from farmed animals without requiring a reduction in meat consumption: more in line with the “efficiency” perspective.

When we compared our findings to the existing literature, we found a lot of similarities with recent sugar tax debates. For example, we saw many of the same arguments being used (both pro- and anti-tax), and the types of stakeholders opposing a tax were also similar. These kinds of taxes share the quality of being “regressive”: the lower your income, the greater the proportion of that income goes towards the tax. Anti-tax arguments tend to frame this as unfair, while pro-tax arguments often focus on the potential population health improvements in lower-income groups.

However, despite these common threads, the meat tax debate has its own complexities. Firstly, the prominent environmental component sets this issue apart from products like sugar, or even alcohol and tobacco. Secondly, different perspectives on the rights of animals add a further layer. For example, in our data, stakeholders often assumed that vegans would support a meat tax- but a participant from The Vegan Society pointed out that a tax would risk increasing animal suffering if beef consumption were substituted with chicken.

Interestingly, a major government commissioned review of England’s food system came out a couple of weeks after our paper, and explicitly avoided recommending a meat tax- arguing it would be “politically impossible”. Meat taxes- like other controversial policies- stimulate disagreement and polarisation because they strike at the heart of deeply held values and norms. By making these values explicit, we hope to enhance and clarify deliberation. If we are to rise to the challenge of building a food system that promotes planetary health, then we need both quantitative evidence and social science research- in this case to explore how values shape what is politically possible.

Generating better understanding of the links between accelerating global environmental change and human health to support policy making and public education