Would a Tax on Beef Really Help the Environment (and Our Health)?

We spoke to Oxford researcher Dr. Adam Briggs about the implications of a "beef tax" for consumers.

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Feb 7 2016, 8:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Lucas Richarz

The time-tested pairing of cheeseburgers and soft drinks might get a lot more expensive in the UK.

The British Government is already under increasing pressure to tax sugary drinks in the wake of successful trials in France, Mexico, and closer to home in the city of Brighton.

But now, pressure could also be mounting in favour of a tax on red meat. Not because it's bad for your body, like sugar, but because it's bad for the environment.

READ: Scientists Have Created the UK's First Herd of 'Eco-Cows'

It takes about 1,847 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, and beef production requires 28 times more land than chicken farming. Plus, anyone who's been on a farm will tell you that cows produce a lot of gas.

In fact, they expel so much methane that their farts can cause entire buildings to spontaneously combust. Given that methane is 21 times more harmful to our atmosphere than CO2, it's not exactly a stretch to say that cow farts are doing a serious number on the environment.

A recent study, published on BMC Public Health, looked at the potential environmental and economical benefits of forcing UK consumers spend even more money on beef. We spoke to Adam Briggs, public health researcher at Oxford and lead author of the study to see how more taxes could be the answer to curbing climate change.

MUNCHIES: Hi Dr. Briggs, so how could a carbon tax potentially affect consumer behaviour ? Dr. Adam Briggs: We estimate that the carbon tax would increase the price of beef by £1.80 per kilo, which is a 5 to 45 percent price increase depending on the cut and quality of the meat and would lead to around a 20 percent reduction in consumption. However, we estimate both consumption of pork and chicken would increase by 10-12 percent to compensate.

People who eat red meat tend to really like it, regardless of price, kind of like smokers and drinkers. Do you think that an economic disincentive would really be enough to dissuade steak and burger eaters? Yes, I do. Price is the strongest determinant of food purchasing decision-making. We know that price increases do lead to reduction in smoking and alcohol consumption, and the same goes for food. We are not trying to turn everybody into vegetarians. This is much more about incremental changes to people's consumption habits. If enough people either reduced their portions slightly, or switched red meat for white meat for the occasional meal, it could have major positive ramifications for the climate.

What would be the ideal tax rate for these type of products? This is a tough one to answer. We modelled a tax rate based on the societal costs of carbon—what it costs society to deal with the side effects from greenhouse gas emissions, such as aim pollution, changing disease patterns, changing weather patterns—and just included this in the price of foods with above average emissions.

Based on your economic models, how much could of an impact could this type of tax have on the environment? We found it could reduce emissions by up to 18,000 kilotons, which is around 80,000 Boeing 747 flights between London and New York, as well as raise revenue and potentially improve health. 'Ideal' is defined by politicians and climate scientists. I would say that developing a pricing structure that will help keep the planet within two degrees of warming, as agreed during the Paris Conferences, would be great, but I don't know what that price would be. Most soft drink tax work suggests meaningful behaviour change around a 20 percent price increase, so our tax rate is consistent with this.

Brits are already taxed pretty heavily. What would be the best way to convince your findings are in their "real world" best interest? I would say that there is something to be gained from people simply being aware that not all the food they eat has the same implications for the planet's health, and that small changes can help, as well as potentially be healthier. However, in order to get a meaningful buy-in to this type of idea, there will need to be a political will and a consensus opinion that individuals will suffer both economically and in terms of their health without action. What will trigger that? I'm not sure. We hope that this paper will in some small way help to kick start the debate.

Thanks for speaking with us, Dr. Briggs.