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Meaty matters – it’s time for a broad-based food tax

As the Government prepares to reveal its food strategy, Richard McIlwain, of the Vegetarian Society argues for a new tax approach.

This article is part of AAT’s Time for change, towards a fairer, more effective tax system. Download the report here.

Most people know the abattoir is not a nice place, may have seen the warnings about animal agriculture and its impact on global climate change or noticed the World Health Organisation’s warning linking red meat and cancer.

But does this awareness mean we are eating less meat?

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The National Diet and Nutrition Survey, a representative survey of our eating habits, does indeed report that between 2008 and 2019, meat consumption fell by 17%.

Which suggests some of the messaging is cutting through. But it’s not enough. We need to go further and faster, with additional cuts between 20% and 50% by 2030 being mooted.

The urgency is largely driven by our rapidly changing climate, with animal agriculture responsible for almost 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, meat-heavy diets also impose considerable costs on our health. A recent Oxford University report suggested that excess consumption of red and processed meats is linked to a growing number of medical conditions, including heart disease and cancer.

So, how might we deliver a targeted reduction in meat consumption quickly but in a fair and proportionate way?

At the charity Keep Britain Tidy, I helped raise awareness around the littering of single-use plastic carrier bags. With limited effect. We then successfully lobbied for the 5p carrier bag charge. It created immediate, widespread behaviour change with a 90% reduction in single-use bags. Furthermore, evidence from other countries suggests that a deposit return scheme can substantially reduce littering and drive-up recycling of drinks containers. Our government is now proposing to introduce one.

So, well-designed fiscal measures, charges, levies and taxes, can clearly drive people to behave differently. But could a tax on meat help reduce current rates of consumption?

The answer is most likely yes. Apply a high enough tax rate to meat sales and basic economics suggests consumers will respond and reduce consumption. Of course, heuristics, our tendency to not comply with economic theory and instead short-circuit it, suggests we may find work arounds. Black market meat perhaps and clandestine imports. And if demand for plant-based alternatives increases, might their prices rise as a result, at least in the short-term, until the sector scales and reaches maturity. A double whammy for the consumer and an open goal to those vested interests who will decry that a meat tax would lead to job losses and hit the poorest in society.

Hardly inspiring stuff for any political party wanting a cross on a ballot paper on election night.

Instead, I suggest that rather than a meat tax in isolation, what we need is a complete review of our current food system and how good fiscal policy can drive positive change.

When it comes to meat, both the negative environmental and health impacts are currently externalised onto society. Taxpayers pick up the bill whether they eat meat or not. Surely, it would be fairer to focus on the producers and consumers? Producers are already subject to some carbon levies on energy and no doubt more could be done here. What is missing is a consumer-focused carbon tax, which could be priced to reduce the consumption of meat and other high-carbon goods.

Of course, this doesn’t tackle the health care risks associated with meat consumption. Hence, we need to be bold and develop a tax system which encourages not just environmental sustainability but healthy eating, driving producers to divest from unhealthy food and develop new healthier options, while also encouraging the consumer to buy food, not simply because its healthy but because it’s the cheaper option.

The Government has acted, albeit in a limited and piecemeal fashion, introducing the sugar tax. Following the logic behind my argument for a broader carbon tax, perhaps we need a health tax for food. Fat, salt and sugar are now displayed on packaging.

But with the UK’s diet recognised as one of the unhealthiest in the western world, awareness is not translating into behaviour change, hence I suggest an urgent need for a proactive food tax, which would be targeted at reducing our consumption of unhealthy food.

The revenue derived from both the environmental and public health taxes should then be deployed to support a subsidy of healthier and lower carbon options. This two-pronged approach is supported by an Australian modelling study from 2017, which suggested that both tax and subsidies were required to deliver healthier eating patterns.

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In summary, we must make radical changes to the way in which we consume, if we are to maintain the health and wellbeing of a growing population and the biodiversity, which we value and on which we all depend.

Now is not the time for piecemeal gestures. We need a joined-up policy to help drive transformational change.

It’s a brave government that will grasp this nettle but grasp it they must.

About the author

Richard worked at the Environment Agency before serving as Deputy Chief Executive at Keep Britain Tidy for more than a decade. Richard became Chief Executive of the UK Vegetarian Society, the world’s oldest vegetarian society, in 2020.

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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