The Downside Of Meat Taxes
The idea of a tax on meat to discourage animal product consumption has been a topic of enthusiasm for animal and climate advocates for years. The concept is appealingly simple: by imposing a tax on either the production or purchase of meat and other animal products, the cost to the consumer would increase. This, according to standard economic thinking, would cause people to buy fewer animal products and thus reduce the number of animals farmed for food.
Nations already have the infrastructure to collect taxes from businesses and consumers, making the policy easy to enforce. Hypothetically, the revenue raised could then be used to offset some of the negative consequences of eating animal products, such as the impact on the environment.
However, one of the main difficulties in assessing a policy like a meat tax is that it has not been implemented anywhere in the world to date. Therefore, the animal welfare benefits of such a proposal are still speculative. In this report, Animal Ask explores 19 previous studies and conducts a modeling experiment to understand how a meat tax in the U.K. may impact animal suffering.
One of the key findings is that much of the driving force behind meat taxes has been a concern for the environment and public health, with little attention paid to animal welfare. Because of this, the design of most meat taxes in the existing literature focuses on taxing animal products with the highest environmental costs (especially cows and sheep) with much less focus on smaller animals like chickens and fishes. This, the report finds, might push consumers toward plant-based alternatives but also toward greater consumption of chickens and fishes. The report calls this effect the “small animal replacement problem.” The problem with this is twofold: First, small-bodied animals may experience more suffering than their larger-bodied counterparts. Second, consumers must eat more small-bodied animals to get the same amount of nutrients they get from red meat.
To try to understand whether the small animal replacement problem would outweigh the overall drop in animal product consumption as a result of a meat tax, the author designed nine models based on the 19 existing studies they used to inform their report. They created a measure called “animal-years consumed” to determine the total amount of animal suffering spared or added in each model. Assuming that the lives of farmed animals are on the whole negative, the higher the number of animal-years consumed in a given scenario, the more suffering that scenario will have caused.
The report finds that, of the nine scenarios modeled, five of them demonstrated a net welfare improvement. This means that animal-years consumed dropped, in this case by between 2.28 and 18.4 million years. However, the other four studies saw a net increase in animal harm measuring between 1.55 and 15 million animal-years consumed. This finding means that it is very uncertain as to whether a meat tax will have a positive or negative effect on the suffering of animals overall.
According to the report, there are other downsides to a meat tax. For example, public opinion surveys find that the U.K. public is generally hostile to the idea. The report quotes a survey from 2021 which found that 55% of people in the U.K. were opposed to a meat tax. There is some indication that support increases when there is a commitment to putting the proceeds toward enhancing the environment. However, animal welfare is the least likely reason to drive support. This means that any successful meat tax would be much more likely to be driven by environmental concerns, which makes the small animal replacement problem more likely to emerge.
The author also points out several indirect impacts of a potential meat tax. For example, it’s common practice in the egg industry to kill male chicks, who cannot be used to lay eggs. In some cases, these chicks are then used as food for pet snakes and other reptiles. If a meat tax reduces egg consumption, more mice and rats may be killed for snake food instead. There is also the possibility, if taxes are production-based instead of consumption-based, that consumers will turn to unregulated imported meat to avoid costly domestic products.
Taking all this together, the report concludes that meat taxes should not be a focus for animal advocates. The policy would likely take huge amounts of effort to persuade the general public and politicians to support and, even if successful, it is unclear whether it would benefit animals. Instead, the author suggests, campaigners should focus on other tactics with stronger supporting evidence of their effectiveness. Reports like this are a helpful reminder to look below the surface and consider all potential impacts before embarking on an advocacy approach.