SPECIAL IDEAS REPORT

Idea of the DayMonday, June 22, 2009

Tax Meat

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Reasons for eating less meat range from the personal to the global. Many health risks--obesity, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, some cancers--fall as a person's meat consumption goes down. Most people ask, "How will I get enough protein?" Eating a varied diet is the answer. Plants provide plenty of protein; in fact, spinach has more protein per calorie than beef. The average American diet includes almost twice the FDA-recommended amount of protein. To feed everyone in the world the American diet, we'd need the resources of an extra Earth.

From an environmental point of view, meat production is a double whammy, increasing atmospheric pollutants even as it reduces (through deforestation, overgrazing, trampling, erosion, water pollution) the plant life that would help absorb them. Raising meat animals and the crops used to feed them takes up 30 percent of the planet's land and emits 20 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas pollution (more than transportation). And the volume producers of beef, pork, and poultry crowd their animals into cramped, unsanitary lots and barrage them with antibiotics to forestall resultant diseases; the flow of the drugs into our food and water supplies helps breed antibiotic-resistant supergerms.

Many wars--patriotic rhetoric aside--are about scarce resources: water, land, food, energy. Livestock farming increases incentives for conflict by consuming all of these--and inefficiently. Growing one calorie of meat takes two to five calories of feed--or, in the case of U.S grain-fed beef, 10 calories of feed. Diverting one-third of the world's grains to livestock and away from the humans who would happily eat them raises prices for those crops and brings hunger, malnutrition, or starvation to millions of poor people. 

So how do we cut back? Convincing the world's meat-eaters that cattle, sheep, and pigs are our relatives may take more time than we have. But there's always the pocketbook route to changing behavior. Taxing meats with a surcharge that would go into a fund to care for people with meat-induced illnesses would be one approach. And ending the U.S. and international policies and subsidies that have made meat, especially beef, artificially cheap would drive meat-eating out of fashion in a hurry; one source estimates the true cost of a pound of factory-farmed beef at $815 a pound.

Less meat for the world's most privileged people? Sounds like a win-win-win: better health for people, animals, and planet.

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Comments (9)


Its seems like most of the ideas posted in this blog are very much "nanny state" ideas. Not much support for letting people do what they want around here.

Tim Fowler (Replying to: Tim Fowler)


To the extent meat is subsidized, why subsidize it and tax it. Just get rid of the subsidies.

But doing that won't increase the costs to $815/lb, that's a ridiculous claim.

i definitely agree on eliminating the subsidies. i also believe it's pretty bad to use grain on raising this enormous abundance of livestock - something that's made economically feasible on that scale by these very subsidies - instead of making it available for people to eat directly. (although certain practices similar to those being criticized here - subsidies and monoculture domination and heavy pesticide use - help provide that huge grain yield; but that's another conversation.) and the environmental arguments are very strongly in favor of reducing meat consumption.

Tim, I too am skeptical of that $815/lb figure, but I think it probably comes from a source trying to count all of the 'externalities' induced by meat production and consumption, on top of the subsidies' cost, including pollution, healthcare costs, perhaps opportunity cost vis a vis the grain feed, etc.

I'm not in the camp that believes that an animal has the same right not to be killed that a human being has, although I still think it's a largely avoidable evil; however, these other arguments - environmental and fiscal and health - are enough to lead us to begin adopting non-coercive ways to incorporate the true cost of meat into its price, rather than making taxpayers and (indirectly) the world as a whole subsidize that cost. I'd be happy if the end result was that people still ate meat, but ate far less of it, if it was produced in a more natural and humane manner as it once was. It appears at first glance as though modern technology has made this one-time luxury into a cheap commodity, but the tax structure belies that. First let's drop these subsidies.

Tim Fowler (Replying to: sv)


I'm sure the $815/lb. is an attempt to count all the externalities, but I think its unreasonable even as that. A quick search didn't find the current "factory farm" beef production, but the vast majority is not "organic" or "free range" beef, and the 2004 figures are probably close enough.

"Total beef production during 2004 was 24.5 billion pounds."

http://www.cattlenetwork.com/Beef_Content.asp?contentid=21030

20+billion lbs, $800+ per lb, that's $16tril+, or more than the entire US GDP for American beef production. A measurement of the externalities as that high isn't seriously grounded in reality.

I don't think its just at first glance that modern technology (and the general wealth of the US) has made what was in many times and places a luxury in to a (relatively) cheap commodity. I think it really is a relatively cheap commodity. I doubt the subsidies, even indirect subsidies and special tax breaks, not just actual direct subsidies, amount to close to the actual end market price for beef, let alone a large multiple of the price. Maybe you remove the subsidies and we have to pay a third more (just an uneducated guess pulled out of thin air, that isn't intended to be a solid figure), adding that much to the price would cut usage, but it wouldn't make it a rare item.

I'm not sure what you mean by "(indirectly) the world as a whole"? Some beef exporters may subsidize their exports. If we import that beef than its subsidized by people outside out country, but that's still nowhere close to the world as a whole. Perhaps your talking about the fact that the process of getting beef causes CO2 and methane to be released in to the air, but I'm not 100% sold on the "global warming is a massive man made problem that we can cure by lowering greenhouse gas emissions" idea, and even if I was, I don't consider the existence of an externality to imply the presence of a subsidy.

Thorley Winston (Replying to: Tim Fowler)


I don’t have a problem with eliminating taxpayer “subsidies” for agriculture but I suspect that if we did that and the market adjusted the price accordingly, meat would still be relatively cheap in the United States in part because many of the “subsidies” for agriculture include things like ethanol subsidies which artificially raise the price of corn, which might otherwise be used for livestock feed. If we did so on a global scale, meaning that not just the United States but all of our trading partners eliminated their agricultural subsidies and protectionist policies then it’s likely that agricultural commodities including meat might be even cheaper than it is today.


Tim Fowler (Replying to: Thorley Winston)


Good point about how some of the subsidies for other things make meat more expensive.

W.C. Varones

Right on, Marge!

You can't be a meat-eating environmentalist.

And this exposes Al Gore as a hypocrite.

SusanElizabeth1949

I doubt very much if this will ever come to pass. Members of Congress want to keep their JOBS.

Sorry folks but humans evolved as omnivores not herbivores.

Thorley Winston (Replying to: SusanElizabeth1949)

Good point and kudos for using the correct term “omnivore.” One of my pet peeves whenever certain types of political environmentalists attempt to force their dietary preferences on the rest of us is when opponents wrongly refer to themselves as “carnivores.” Human beings normally eat both plants and animals rather than just one or the other.


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