Why calls for a meat and dairy tax are misguided

Ben Ramanauskas

March 20, 2019

1828 recently published an article by Oliver Norgrove, making the neoliberal case for a meat and dairy tax. It was well written and I found much to agree with. For example, Norgrove rightly points out that taxes levied on food in an attempt to deter their consumption are inappropriate, as diet must be the responsibility of the individual, not the state. He was also correct in drawing attention to the heavy environmental cost of meat and dairy production.

However, I disagree with the main thrust of his argument: that meat and dairy should be taxed. I do so for a number of reasons.

First, such a move would be regressive, hitting the poorest people in the country the hardest. The cost of living in the UK is already very high, with many people struggling to make ends meet. A tax on staple foodstuffs such as meat and dairy would exacerbate an already growing problem. We would see increased financial pressure on the UK’s lowest earners, who would be forced to cut down their consumption of meat and dairy – and possibly remove them from their diets altogether. At a time when many people are forced to rely on food banks, this simply cannot be justified ethically.

This leads us to my second objection. Although adverse health consequences are often cited as reasons for placing a tax on meat (though not by Norgrove), the benefits of consuming red meat and dairy are often not discussed. They are an excellent source of protein, iron, and calcium – deficiencies of which can lead to serious medical conditions such as anaemia and rickets. Ratcheting up the cost of meat and dairy risks increasing health inequality and taking us back to Dickensian times – hardly a desirable outcome for the public health lobby.

As for the environmental impact of the farming industry, Norgrove is right to be concerned. A meat and dairy tax would, however, be the wrong approach. When it comes to designing taxes and tax systems, simplicity is key. A specific tax levied on meat and dairy risks complicating the tax system even further and could lead to market distortion.

A more sensible solution would be to introduce a border-adjusted carbon tax, as I have previously argued for. Such a move would offset the significant negative externalities of the farming industry while avoiding the negative consequences that are sure to arise from a specific tax on meat and dairy.

We should also focus on increasing efficiency in the farming industry so that meat and dairy production has less of an environmental impact. If the UK ever manages to extricate itself from the clutches of the EU, then we will have an excellent opportunity to reform the agricultural sector.

Currently, the UK is subject to the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), which means that farmers receive very generous subsidies from taxpayers. These subsidies prop up producers, ensuring that they’re shielded from the true force of the market. This leaves them inefficient and unresponsive to the wishes of consumers. Phasing out subsidies will force farmers to up their efficiency and respond to consumer pressure for less pollution.

Leaving the CAP will also allow our farmers to fully embrace the many benefits of science and innovation. Biotechnology allows farmers to increase production using fewer resources. However, the EU takes a cautious approach towards biotechnology, particularly in the genetically modified sector. As such, UK farms are prevented from reaping the potential environmental benefits of biotechnology. Leaving the CAP will mean that our farmers can become world leaders in using biotechnology to reduce pollution in agriculture.

An argument that’s also sometimes raised is that a tax should be placed on meat and dairy for reasons of animal welfare. We should all be deeply concerned about animal welfare, and it’s true that the conditions in which animals are kept on factory farms are truly appalling. What’s more, it is an often overlooked and neglected problem. Something should certainly be done about it.

However, it’s not clear that a tax on meat and dairy would do anything to solve this – in fact, it could exacerbate the problem. Production through industrial methods is relatively cheap, and this is reflected in the low cost of meat and dairy in supermarkets. A specific tax on meat and dairy would increase prices across the board, which could result in the cost of ethically produced products becoming prohibitively expensive as their prices are already doubly high. This would likely lead to many people switching to cheaper factory-produced meat and dairy products.

A more effective way to increase the welfare of farm animals is through a mixture of regulation and market forces. The government should introduce legislation to ensure that farm animals are treated in a humane manner. Animal welfare charities should also drop the gimmicks that the likes of PETA indulges in, as they tend to put the public off. They should instead focus instead on increasing awareness of certain farming practices, which would likely lead to a shift in consumer behaviour. And this would, in turn, drive more farms towards humane conditions in search of profit.

Pollution and animal welfare are both incredibly important topics, and the UK should become a global leader in tackling them. However, calls for a tax on meat and dairy are misguided. It would hurt the poor, complicate the tax system even further, and might even lead to animal welfare standards decreasing. A carbon tax, innovation, education, and the free market are the best ways to solve these problems.


Written by Ben Ramanauskas

Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University and a former adviser to the International Trade Secretary.


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