Green-Taxing Meat and Dairy Products: A Case Study in Sweden
Many animal advocates know that, broadly speaking, meat and dairy production are environmentally damaging industries. In addition to the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are produced through factory farming, an incredible amount of waste is generated by the animals that are raised and killed. As advocates for the environment become more aware of this link, there is a strengthening push to include animal production in the list of industries that could be subjected to “green taxes,” that is, a way of factoring the “marginal damage costs” or “social costs” of buying particular products. The same types of calculations have been done (if not applied) for industries such as coal and gas, and in the case of meat and dairy, “such a tax would provide incentives to reduce environmentally damaging practices in animal food production, and at the same time promoting the dietary changes needed.”
A paper published in Food Policy looks at the possibility of applying such a tax to meat and dairy, using Sweden as a model / case study. In Sweden, the total consumption of beef, pork, and chicken grew from 460,000 to 725,000 tons between 1990 and 2009, which is an increase of 58%. Set against this context, researchers wanted to understand how different levels of green tax may affect demand (also called “elasticity”), and in addition to GHG emissions, factored nitrogen, ammonia, and phosphorus emissions into their cost calculations. Including emissions beyond GHG is a novel approach, and one of the ways this research has been more thorough than others like it. The reason for this was simple, and important: “Swedish meat and dairy production accounts for approximately 18.5% of total nitrogen,” researchers noted, “including nitrogen from ammonia emissions, and 8.3% of total phosphorus released into the Baltic Sea from Sweden.”
After their calculations and modelling were completed, the researchers found that a considerable dent could be made:
Meat products were found to be more sensitive in both prices and income than dairy products. Taxing all seven products simultaneously could result in reductions up to 1.5% of all the included pollutants, compared to total emissions in Sweden, and up to 12.1% from the livestock sector.
More specifically, in terms of increased cost, they found that the marginal emission costs of Swedish meat from these pollutants were “between 1.8 and 32.5 SEK per kg produce. These tax levels corresponded to 8.9% and 33.3% of initial prices.” Imported meat would have a slightly different calculated cost, partly because of transportation, but also because externalities such as local pollution would not factor in. Overall, the researchers found that a green tax was a relatively efficient way of accounting for the environmental impact of meat and dairy production, and may slightly favor local production to imported products.
Though many animal advocates recognize that the production of meat and dairy can be incredibly environmentally damaging, a great deal of our advocacy tends to focus on ethical approaches, i.e. we should not eat meat or consume dairy products because of the harm they cause to animals. However, this study shows that incentivizing the public through finances to reduce their consumption can have a positive effect, and make a serious dent in the demand for meat, and to a lesser extent, dairy. Still, the researchers note that “in the past, policy makers have shown resistance to imposing taxes on food products, regardless of recommendations to reduce meat consumption in order to mitigate GHG emissions, improve food security or population health.” The reasons for this political resistance are unclear. However, it is obvious that green taxes could be a potentially positive avenue for advocates to explore, and though they do not go “all the way” in terms of ethical perspectives or encouraging veganism, it appears that they might be an effective tool for us to promote.