Should Meat be Taxed?

Friday, 8th January 2010 at 9:00 UTC 11 comments

I want to raise a policy idea that has floated around mind for some weeks: placing VAT on meat. There are many reasons why this could work, but my main concern was to come up with something that could be backed by both meat eaters and non-meat eaters, and that provides a gentler nudge towards a transition.

I was looking for something that could fit into an outline manifesto of simple solutions to the Climate Crisis like the one produced by Campaign against Climate Change in their “Climate Emergency” campaign, to go alongside banning short haul flights, creating a million green jobs and placing a 55mph restriction on roads to increase fuel efficiency and push more long-distance journeys on to railways.

I wanted a policy that was simple to understand but demonstrably separable from the Animal Rights mandate. It needs to have some kind of logical consistency that appeals to rational arguments often neglected in favour of pictures of suffering animals and denunciations of the very crowd supposedly being brought on board.

The UK has never taxed food in the shops because it is a requirement for life. Where one is paying for a service, i.e. for a plate of prepared food being placed on the table in front of them in a restaurant then it is considered an optional service, and VAT is applicable. Sweets, on the other hand, can attract tax because they are seen as luxuries.

I raise this because it has been shown that human beings do not need meat to survive, and so at root, moving meat out of the non-taxable category would be a clear sign of legislative acknowledgement of this fact. Meat is a luxury, but food isn’t. Those who want to eat meat should pay for the damage it causes.

Also, it would be a much more workable policy than any sort of meat ban, as it could easily be backed by anyone who acknowledges the CO2 emissions and huge land usage from meat production to be a bad thing. It would not, however, remove the option to have lamb at Easter and Turkey at Christmas.

My concern would be that it would return meat to its status as a rich-mans dinner. Society is so unequal that anything you increase the price of will simply be ignored by the richest few percent, but this cannot be a barrier to action. There might also be an issue to do with derivative products: should the pastry in a meat pasty attract VAT? Or should it just affect the meat component? How would you divide this up? Would a threshold of, say, 50% meat content merely result in minimal reductions? What about sausages that aren’t 100% meat anyhow? Would it be best to tax at source, or at consumption?

I also think there is some precedent in the use of taxation to curb vehicle use and smoking. Just because you drive a car doesn’t mean you oppose road and petrol taxation, even if the RAC’s political lobbying wing would like the government to believe that.

So there it is: put a tax on meat and meat products. Discuss!


Entry filed under: Climate Change, Ethics, Food, Politics, Sustainability.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. brainduck  |  Friday, 8th January 2010 at 9:35 UTC

    Cheese is about as bad, so you’d have to do that. In fact to be consistent you’d need to bump up all animal protein.
    Not convinced it would be a good idea, likely to be v inequitable.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 8th January 2010 at 13:01 UTC

      So, where would you start?

  • 3. Jay  |  Friday, 8th January 2010 at 15:16 UTC

    To do this would be very good news for the dining industry. It would reduce the price difference in buying meat to eat at home, and going out and going out for a meal.

    McDonalds would expand into smaller towns, and there would be a diner on every street corner.

    • 4. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 8th January 2010 at 18:37 UTC

      This might be the problem of using common VAT, rather a separate form of taxation. After all, tobacco duty is done separately. One could therefore put a 10% tax on meat at abertoir prices (the last point “common” to all meat production), which would then be subject to VAT at point of sale. Thus it would still push McDonald’s prices up. Does that resolve your issue?

  • 5. Miriam  |  Friday, 8th January 2010 at 18:50 UTC


    The problem is that lamb, while using a lot of land, is also an important part of sustaining the upper fells and taxing it would lead to a destruction of the economy.

    I could see an argument for taxing pork, beef, poultry, because these tend to be farmed on land that could be used for other purposes.

    • 6. brainduck  |  Sunday, 10th January 2010 at 0:47 UTC

      Sheep-farming’s only marginally commercially viable anyway. Maybe it goes, or maybe we start embedding carbon costs properly across all foods, and people switch away from beef. Wide-spread sheep-farming is a relatively recent introduction, and not as low-impact as is often assumed.
      Climatically we’re right at the edge of viable sheep habitat anyway – witness the recent ‘all the sheep are going to die in the snow’ panic, also footrot etc – they prefer warmer conditions.

  • 7. Jay  |  Friday, 8th January 2010 at 20:27 UTC

    The consequence of people eating out more often is not necessarily a bad thing.

    But now you want to add not just vat, but also additional duty at the point of slaughter? That could get quite complicated. Under eu law you have to have similar taxes for all similar products. So you’d then have to devise a system of how to fairly tax not just imported fresh meat, but also imported prepared meats like chorizo, and prepared meals containing meat.

    Probably better off just sticking with adding vat for all meat. Although there would be a lot of hostility to the notion that meat is a luxury.

  • 8.  |  Saturday, 9th January 2010 at 23:50 UTC

    I am not sure that a government who wished to maintain credentials as one that cares for the poor would be a ble to implement.

    The average ‘poor family’ (I acknowledge this is a terrible description of a copncept family, but nevermind) I believe would likely continue to eat meat and then struggle even more with other payments and suffer greater hardship etc etc. Otherwise the ‘average poor family’ (sorry again) would likely cut it off their diet and no you might end up with a problem of protein deficiency within children. I am aware that vegetarians cope and are able to get enougfh proteins but I would like to suggest that this is maybe a very middle class undertaking and the stereotyped poor family I am conceptualizing might not ensure the relatively expensive meat replacements enter into their children’s diets.

    Further to this I would also like to suggest that you speak of this with very little knowledge about what is required to replace protein in diets in terms of world agriculture. One example I might give would be the sudden demand in lentils. I suspect you know little about world lentil production. Otherwise would you be able to tell me about the ability of the current system to cope with a sudden demand and the consequences this would have on the staple diets of those such as that seen in India. This policy would have a knock on effect that would see food prices in such places baloon out of control causeing loss access amongst, for example, 600 million in the India to their staple protein sources.

    • 9. brainduck  |  Sunday, 10th January 2010 at 0:39 UTC

      ‘Meat replacements’ aren’t expensive, unless you insist on weird processed crap. It’s considerably cheaper to buy non-animal protein sources. It’s not particularly difficult to cook veggie food either, with a few exceptions it’s much more difficult to give yourself food poisoning from animal protein sources.

      If you actually look at what people eat, the average British diet contains about twice as much protein as most people need. Protein deficiency is close to unknown in the UK outside the context of gross malnutrition. Veggie nutrition really isn’t that complicated, difficult or expensive, & I’ve been ~ vegan for 7 years now & happily running marathons on it.

      If the world’s population went vegan overnight, we’d actually see a dramatic reduction (IIRC ~ half) in soya plantations, because so much of it is fed to cattle (particularly American feedlot cattle).
      Not looked at that WRT lentils though – do you have any data please? *shrug* maybe India would even benefit from having a valuable cash crop.

      I agree that in some situations then animal protein can be a relatively efficient option – if I had a more geographically stable life I’d be considering keeping garden chickens on scraps, for instance. But for most of the UK, particularly in urban areas, most of the time non-animal protein is far more ecologically efficient.

  • 10.  |  Sunday, 10th January 2010 at 14:46 UTC

    No, I have no data. Just thought I would play devil’s advocate and see if I could generate discussion. I probably agree with you, particulary about Soy production, there is no doubting that much less land would be needed if we all went vegetarian.

    I am actually far more concerned about a transition of farm land to bio-fuel production. I think this can be a good idea, for example, with the use of sugar cain in Brazil. But the transition to this in the US using other crops is terrible as the efficiency cannot go close to matching sugar cain production.

  • 11. tiggs  |  Friday, 15th January 2010 at 13:26 UTC

    For most of human history meat *has* been an uaffordable luxury. That’s why the Trad British Roast Dinner (TM) has so much padding!

    Did you know that it was only the introduction of fish and chip shops to the nation just prior to the First World War, dramatically increasing the protien quoitent of most young men, that we even had an army to send off. Without the cheap fish protein, they were all so undernourished that there were serious doubts about their ability to pass basic fitness.

    A little piece of almost relevant history.

    Please don’t anyone suggest we should ban meat on the grounds it would decimate army enlistment.

    Respectfully yours



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