By Helena Robling
It’s always sensitive to touch upon people’s meat consumption. As a topic for discussion it’s comparable to religion or party politics, everybody has an opinion, standpoints are usually quite firm and not seldom extreme. Saying YES or NO to meat can be as decisive for social identity as religious or ideological convictions, especially in our individualized western societies where consumption patterns rather than values often are permitted to determine who we are. This is one of the reasons why I love debating food choices, meat in particular, and why I am now dusting off the old meat tax idea.
As a starting point, some perspective: We know that globally, livestock production is responsible for more GHG emissions than the transport sector as a whole (which is already completely crazy, that means more pollution than all cars, planes, trains and boats together!)
Furthermore, on a finite planet with a growing population, the way we use the land is a huge issue. Today animal agriculture uses far more land resources than any other human activity. One third of all arable land on the planet is used to grow feed crops for livestock, and 40% of cereal and about 77–85% of the world soy production goes to animal feed.
The deforestation to create pastures is also a major contributor to GHG emissions as well as land and soil degradation and loss of biodiversity connected to animal agriculture.
I could go on..
The idea today is not to linger in blaming ruminant animals for their digestive processes leading to methane emissions. In the debate we tend to forget the good things that animals bring, such as the fact that grass-eaters have the sympathetic ability to digest plants that are inedible for humans and thus add to the global food supply. As long as they are not fed cereals and protein plants, of course.
And ultimately, we are discussing people’s meat consumption. And people like their burgers.
So if we want to diminish meat consumption without completely killing farmers that produce meat in a sustainable way there has to be some kind of compromise between extreme standpoints of meat eaters and non-meat eaters. One idea on how to do this came from the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation in a report last month (sadly once again only available in Swedish..)
The central idea of the report is a fee per kilo on all meat products, imported and exported, in the consumption stage. The amount collected through the fee would be introduced in a payment scheme for the ecosystem services that sustainable agricultural methods provide. The idea is to give farmers an economic incentive to steer production away from environmentally damaging methods and support grass-fed pasture farming that positively contributes to an open landscape and biodiversity in the countryside.
During a forum for vegetarians (yes I attended..) the author of the report explained that a fee can be fully redirected to the ecosystem payments in contrast to a tax which would have to be included in the governmental budget and hence more easily be subject to political or budgetary fluctuations. Also, the same fee per kg (about 2-2.5 €) for all meat would make the cheapest meat relatively more expensive in comparison to previous price than an expensive meat more likely to have been produced in a sustainable way. It is primarily the cheapest meat on the market that is targeted with this fee and the purpose is to substitute it with vegetable alternatives.
A Previous report showing the carbon dioxide equivalents from different school meals, this one showing the difference between spaghetti with meat sauce and with lentil sauce. (Ingredients are listed to the right: Milk, bread and margarine, salad, ketchup, meat/lentil sauce, spaghetti)
My spontaneous reaction was very positive when reading the report, I would however like to highlight three aspects that I think are essential in applying something similar.
* The payment scheme for ecosystem services can be a way to get the farmers on board, which ultimately is the most important factor to make such a policy successful. There has to be some incentive for farmers to agree on the adjustments and they should also to some extent participate in the policy making process, as well as consumers associations.
*A comprehensive assessment of what will happen to meat production globally if introducing such a fee in one country should be done. Many argue that a country fee would only result in more meat exported and no positive consequences in the long run. However, the report focuses on Sweden’s production climate record. GHG emissions is however a global issue, so if the fee doesn’t reduce the production of meat but only alters who consumes it, little progress has been made in fighting global climate change.
* Drawing on the previous discussing on locally grown food and trade distortion (link to my last post), what will the EU say about such a policy? Swedish meat production is known to have high standards when it comes to animal welfare and environmental protection which leads to a relatively higher meat price. According to the report, consumption of the cheaper (i.e imported) meat is estimated to decrease more than domestically produced, more expensive meat. Isn’t there a risk that such a fee will be accused for over proportionally disadvantage EU producers and subsidizing domestic ones?
Myself, I am what you could call a “flexitarian”, I love the occasional meat feast, especially on a barbecue and particularly if I know the origin and production of what I eat. There is no “meat-hate” in my soul and I don’t want to deprive anyone of their burger… I however firmly believe that we urgently need to reconsider the 3-times-a-day meat routine so many of us follow without further thought. And maybe a similar fee could speed up the process of change.
There is so much more to write on this topic, I will hopefully come back to it in future posts. [Janina chiming in: also check out previous posts on sustainable meats, the willingness to pay for cheap meat and my personal opinion on whether a meat tax is a viable green policy option!]
In the meantime, please comment with any thoughts and opinions you might have on this. And let’s skip some burgers and consider to eat some “bug”ers instead!
Featured image by Thomas Hawk, via Flickr CC.