We Should Tax Meat and Subsidize Fruits and Vegetables

I originally published this in The Hill Times, but it’s behind a paywall now, so here it is for those interested. I think this is a really important topic that we will increasingly hear more about in the years to come!

Nothing elicits grumbles quite like talking about taxes. Governments around the world tax income, carbon, alcohol, tobacco, sugar, houses, inheritances, even saturated fat. And these taxes can be not insignificant; in Canada, for example, 35 percent of the pump price for gas is tax.

If a group of investors managing trillions of dollars is correct, the newest tax may be on animal foods. The Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) recently issued a report warning investors to factor the likely inevitability of a meat tax into their long-term investment strategies. Meat taxes are already being considered by governments in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, and are being discussed by policy experts internationally.

Over-consuming animal foods is undeniably harmful. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that the animal agriculture sector should be a “major policy focus” in addressing problems of climate change and air pollution, land degradation, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) argues that reducing global meat consumption is essential to avoid catastrophic global warming, urging governments to lead in shifting behaviours. Climate change alone is projected to cost Canadians up to $43 billion annually by 2050. 

Diets too high in animal foods and too low in plant-based foods are also associated with a host of lifestyle illnesses, including cancers, cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, and obesity. Up to half of all cancers and 80 percent of heart disease can be prevented through lifestyle changes, especially the adoption of diets that emphasize whole plant foods. Research from Oxford University shows that shifting towards more plant-based diets could reduce global mortality by 6 to 10 percent. Together, these diseases and mortality cost the Canadian economy tens of billions of dollars each year in health care expenses and lost productivity. 

Clearly, diets rich in animal foods are costly for the public. But not only do they not absorb these externalized costs, Canada’s animal foods industries gain financially through government policies and legislation. Billions of dollars are transferred as direct gifts, including through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Growing Forward funding programs, worth billions. For example, the federal government is spending $3.8 million to build the Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence in Calgary with a mandate to increase beef production and sales. Farmers also enjoy antiquated tax deductions, which are realized mostly by large corporations rather than small farmers. And supply management, which is enabled through federal legislation, allows agriculture companies to inflate food prices. Ironically, supply management is arguably itself a form of meat tax, with benefits accruing to the industry rather than the public.

The playing field needs to be levelled. Governments around the world are now moving to revise eating recommendations to recommend more plant-based diets. In keeping with this trend, Health Canada has issued a draft update to our own food guide, emphasizing plant-based foods for both health and environmental reasons. But as important as national eating guidelines can be in influencing the menus of individuals and institutions, they’re an insufficient policy response to a pressing social, environmental, and economic issue. 

That’s why the World Health Organization has proposed that food-related taxes and subsidies be used to improve health outcomes, and the United Nations and Chatham House are urging government to address diet in their climate change policies. Taxes and subsidies are essential not only for raising revenues, but for shaping socially beneficial behaviour. Carbon taxes, for example, aren’t simply about a cash grab, but are a policy response to the existential threat of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Food should be affordable. Taxes on food, then, should be offset with corresponding progressive measures that subsidize healthy, affordable food for those who need it most. Food affordability isn’t an argument against a meat tax; on the contrary, the artificially low price of animal and processed foods and relatively high price of fruits and vegetables disproportionately negatively impacts the poor, as do the impacts of climate change. The solution is not to keep meat cheap for everyone but rather to make accessing healthy, sustainable foods the easy and affordable choice, especially for those with low income.

Taxation isn’t a moral statement or a penalty. It’s a policy tool we use to raise revenues—sometimes to pay for expensive industries with externalized costs—and guide socially positive behaviour. It’s in the best interests of society for all of us to consume fewer animal foods and more fruits and vegetables. Taxes on animal foods coupled with progressive subsidies on plant-based foods would help us achieve this.