The production of livestock is responsible for a massive share of the methane that is released into the atmosphere, and is a major contributor to global warming.


Would levying taxes on meat be an effective means to reduce consumption and thus reduce the environmental harm?

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    First you would need to show that organic meat is actually better for the environment, which as you point out is an open question. It would be far better to simply charge meat producers for the actual cost of cleaning up their... bovine excrement... and other problems. That way if organic producers are better they will pay less. But mostly, people who want to eat meat will be doing so in an environmentally neutral way. Expect food riots if you do that, though. Also, you left out land degradation and deforestation. – Móż Jul 19 '16 at 3:14
  • Whether organic is better or not, increasing prices would reduce consumption, which would be better. Also, charging producers for clean-up costs is essentially a tax, since this cost would be passed on to consumers. As for land degradation and deforestation, these are of course significant issues, but organic farming per se wouldn't affect either one. Perhaps I've muddied the waters a bit by combining consumption reduction and organic agriculture in one question. – LShaver Jul 19 '16 at 3:28
  • @LShaver only if you consider anything that government does that increases costs a tax. But to most people regulations requiring business to, say, avoid killing people are not a tax, they're a cost of doing business. Even libertarians mostly concede that "don't harm others without consent" is a reasonable requirement. – Móż Jul 20 '16 at 2:42
  • No way, it is way too late for playing tax games. The way the meat market is set up it makes money. Good luck trying to change that by adding taxes. And if something COSTS more us idiot people think it is worth more...and will pay the extra costs. That is a fact about us humans. Sorta like buying something that is heavier is 'more valuable' than something light. – stormy Jul 22 '16 at 6:38
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    A singular approach in the form of tax may not be the complete answer. Other options to consider include effective marketing of alternative foodstuffs and non-beef meats; education about environmental impacts of meat (particularly beef) production; and Incentives for farmers to move away from beef to less impactive livestock. – zxspectrum Mar 18 '18 at 4:45

Would levying taxes on non-organic meat be an effective means to reduce consumption and thus reduce the environmental harm?

Yes. But.

It would add complexity compared to just taxing all meat, and thus make the tax less efficient. The increased costs would be the primary cause of reduced consumption. Whether only taxing conventional meat would have a distinct benefit is very difficult to establish.

Tax Effects

The tax would almost certainly increase final product costs, and thus reduce consumption. But the reduction is likely to be both slower that you might expect (due to cultural preferences for meat), and politically more costly (people would react negatively to the tax).

The costs would rise both directly through the tax and compliance costs, but through a variety of secondary effects like policing import substitution (or production shifting) and efforts by affected industries to weaken, bypass or repeal the tax.

One marginal effect would be on game and pest meat. Those animals are likely to count as "technically organic" but are very rarely certified, and most certification systems don't allow them to be considered. But if there was a significant cost benefit to certification there would probably be attempts to certify them. In Australia some camel and kangaroo meat would fall into this gap in the system.

Social Effects

It would also force organic certifiers to interact a great deal more with government, and expose them to significantly greater corruption pressures. That would also increase costs, either of preventing the corruption or by exposing society to the costs of that corruption.

There's also likely to be a significant expansion of the organic certification system, into an area where it is currently fairly weak. That would require close supervision at a time when that system would already be under strain. The chances of major problem would be high.

Environmental Effects

There is an increasing amount of research into the environmental benefits or otherwise of organic agriculture, but much of it focuses on cropping. This meta-analysis of biodiversity(pdf) for example, finds benefits but the great majority of studies were of crop farming. This study on protein sourcing suggests that meat is 1.5-2 worse over the complete lifecycle, with specific disadvantages ranging up to 100-fold - so even if organic meat farming is half as bad as inorganic, it's still worse than not eating meat.

If meat consumption is diverted, the question of what it's diverted to is also important. Many alternative sources of protein are environmentally problematic, from the soy monocultures in the USA to the complex social and environmental changes caused by food fads like quinoa - marginal land is put into production, farming techniques change and land is degraded in the search for quick profits.

One other environmental issue is that factory farming of meat animals is common, and can be environmentally disastrous if pollution controls are lax or absent. Few controls decrease cost of production, which can make the product seem cheaper, but as we see in Florida right now the large algal blooms that are one possible result are not necessarily cheap or easy to deal with. New Zealand has a problem with their dairy farms producing what is politely called "faecal coliform contamination and nutrient excess in waterways", or colloquially referred to as "rivers of shit". Avoiding those problems costs money, increasing the cost of production. It also often lowers production intensity, which can have the overall effect of reducing total production.

Which suggests that an alternative approach would be to focus on enforcing existing environmental regulations, and making sure that meat production is included in new ones. As greenhouse gas restrictions become more common, for example, livestock farmers often argue that they should be exempt due to the difficulty of measuring or reducing their emissions. Not doing that would directly benefit the environment through reduced production, as well as through the secondary effect of increasing costs.

  • Thanks for the thorough analysis, it seems you've put quite a bit of thought/research into this. Are there methods to either reduce meat consumption and/or reduce the environmental harm caused by the meat industry, that you think would be relatively effective? – LShaver Jul 22 '16 at 7:03
  • Some results recently published related to the greenhouse gas (GHG) portions of this answer. pnas.org/content/114/48/E10301 concludes "removal of animals from the US agricultural system resulted in predictions of ... a decrease of 2.6 percentage units in US GHG emissions". Doesn't really contradict the answer given here but it challenges the implication of the tangential comment "... meat farming ... worse than not eating meat". 2.6% US GHG is not nothing, but it's far from 1.5-100x. – Jean-Paul Calderone Mar 15 '18 at 13:44
  • @Jean-PaulCalderone "only" 2.6% of US emissions is about 134,000 kilotons of CO2 -- equivalent to emissions of 27 million average world citizens. Nothing to sneeze at, by any means. Source. – LShaver Mar 19 '18 at 18:36
  • Sure. It doesn't come for free, though. The study details various nutritional shortfalls that would come along with the elimination of animals. Anyway, just wanted to point out that it's not a 50% improvement we're considering here. Now that would be a big win. – Jean-Paul Calderone Mar 19 '18 at 18:45

Wouldn't a tax on $SOMETHING have environmental benefits?

Well, here's some statistics from British Columbia's trumpeted carbon tax, supposedly the most successful such tax in... well, the world:

Ref: https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/insight/british-columbia-carbon-tax-failed-experiment-market-based-solutions-climate-change

The BC government, of course will say "But! But! But! The economy has grown during this period!" That's nice, so has the rest of Canada's:

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Nine percent. Over the course of seven years. This isn't a solution to anything, it's a pithy half-measure like Daylight Savings Time that makes politicians look like they're doing something. All I hear in the comments section of every news story about the astronomical price of gas in this province isn't "Well, that means I'll just buy an electric car!" but "WE HAVE A GOD-GIVEN RIGHT TO CHEAP GAS!!!1!ONE!" and the usual conservative/oil industry propaganda about how an EV isn't a solution.

Sin taxes don't do anything. If you want real change, start a revolution and institute a ban.

  • An interesting point, but, isn't this an apples to oranges comparison? A tax on a industries at the point of production seems significantly different than a tax on consumers at the point of sale. Not saying the latter is necessarily more effective -- but it would be a better place to look for a comparison. – LShaver Mar 19 '18 at 17:54
  • It is a tax on consumers at the point of sale. See the breakdown of gas prices in British Columbia: globalnews.ca/news/2712837/… – Ernie Mar 20 '18 at 18:30
  • Indeed. I assumed it was similar to the California tax on power producers. Might be valuable to include this detail in your answer. However, I still think the comparison breaks down a bit since purchasing plants instead of animals is an easier switch than replacing a gas-burning car with an electric car. – LShaver Mar 20 '18 at 18:58
  • I doubt it. The link to the foodandwaterwatch.com article is fine to prove my point. – Ernie Mar 20 '18 at 20:06

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