Emissions Pricing For Food
The food production system is currently responsible for more than a quarter of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is projected to make up an increasingly large share of GHG emissions in the future. One policy that has been suggested to reduce GHG emissions is to levy taxes on emissions-intensive food commodities, thereby causing a dietary shift towards foods with lower GHG emissions. However, such policies are rarely implemented, largely due to concerns that they could negatively impact food security and human health. This article, published in Nature: Climate Change, sought to investigate the issue by determining how the implementation of GHG taxes on food commodities could impact both GHG emissions and human health.
The authors used a coupled modeling framework bringing together multiple data sources representing agricultural, economic, environmental, and human health aspects of the food system. They relied primarily on the International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT), a model that enables researchers to explore long-term agricultural markets and project food consumption of 62 agricultural commodities in over 150 world regions.
Using this model, they projected to the year 2020 and measured the impacts that GHG taxes would have on food prices and consumption. They also calculated commodity-specific emissions factors using regional data from the Food and Agriculture Organization and examined the implications of emissions pricing for food and nutrition security. They did this by estimating health impacts associated with dietary and weight-related risk factors from various sources.
Results for emission and tax levels showed that GHG emissions and taxes varied by commodity and region, but that differences were greatest between commodities. Based on emissions levels, GHG taxes were highest for animal-sourced food, including beef, lamb, pork, and poultry. Increased prices, and therefore reduced consumption, were greatest for beef, vegetable oils, milk, and lamb. Price increases were also higher in countries with high emissions intensities, including low- and middle-income countries of the Americas, and were lower in countries with lower than average emissions intensities, including several high-income countries.
In regards to impacts on human health, results showed that levying taxes on all food would lead to 107,000 avoided deaths overall. Two-thirds of those would be due to changes in dietary risk factors (mostly due to reduction in red meat consumption). One-third would be due to changes in weigh-related risk factors (i.e., fewer people being overweight and obese). However, broad taxes would increase deaths in some low- and middle-income countries in Africa and East Asia due to more people being underweight and having less access to fruit and vegetables.
The authors found that these countries would benefit from alternative tax scenarios in which only certain foods were taxed and revenue from taxes was used to either subsidize fruits and vegetables or provide income compensation to offset increased prices. Overall, about three-quarters of all countries would benefit from taxation of all foods, particularly if taxes also subsidized fruits and vegetables, and the rest from alternative scenarios. This overall plan would reduce global GHG emissions by 8.6%, about two-thirds of which could be attributed to reductions related to reduced beef consumption and one-quarter to reduced milk consumption.
In conclusion, the authors state that “levying GHG taxes on food commodities could, if appropriately designed, be a health-promoting climate change-mitigation policy in high-income, middle-income, and most low-income countries.” They also note that “contrary to concerns that increased food prices and reductions in food availability would negatively impact food and nutrition security,” its benefits to health would very likely outweigh its costs.
For advocates, the paper provides further evidence of the detrimental impact that the production of animal-related food products has on the environment and the benefits that reduced consumption of such products can have for both the environment and human health. The paper recommends reduction rather than elimination of animal-related foods and the authors note that the “avoided deaths” attributed to GHG taxes in their plan represent just 1% in most regions. They also comment that this number is small when compared to the “potential health benefits of a dietary change towards plant-based diets,” which they cite as between 5-8 million avoided deaths in 2050.