Democratic lawmakers have long claimed that excrement produced by livestock and poultry farming — “farting cows,” as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) once put it — have an outsized impact on global temperatures. Discussion about crafting new disincentives for meat consumption resurfaced as the Inflation Reduction Act advanced through Congress after months of gridlock.
Vox reporter Kenny Torrella, for instance, noted that the Inflation Reduction Act devotes 5% of its funds toward “changing farming practices” while entirely ignoring meat and dairy production — the sector’s “biggest climate culprit.”
“Even though the money to cut emissions from agriculture is misplaced, the strategy — hand out money to do the right thing rather than penalize polluters for doing the wrong thing — is politically smart, and in keeping with the bill’s carrot rather than stick approach to energy,” Torrella wrote. “Just like the environmental movement had for decades, the effort to shift our meat-centric food system to a more plant-based one has historically focused on the stick approach: suing farms for pollution, banning the cage confinement of hens and pigs, and even floating the concept of a tax on meat consumption.”
Biden was able to advance many of his policy goals through the $740 billion law, which includes $369 billion in climate spending. The package likewise incorporates billions in new taxes that the federal government will reap from businesses and the middle class with a twice-as-large Internal Revenue Service.
Though Torrella admitted that “handing out carrots in Congress might be a more politically effective path to reforming the factory farming industry, the emissions that it spews, and the suffering it creates,” he personally supports a meat tax, claiming that the approach “has a lot of merit” and could “build public support for a life and death issue that is too often ignored.”
How large could such a tax be? According to researchers Cameron Hepburn and Franziska Funke, as high as 56% for beef, 25% for poultry, and 19% for lamb and pork — costs that are necessary to “reflect the environmental costs of their production.”
“Part of the tax revenue could finance subsidies for growing vegetables, grains and alternative proteins, or help low-income households meet their food bills on a more regular basis,” the researchers, respectively associated with the University of Oxford and the Technical University of Berlin, suggested in an article for The Conversation. “Just as meat and dairy must become more expensive, healthy and sustainable plant-based foods should become more affordable.”
Not all policymakers, however, are shy about punishing meat consumption. Henry Dimbleby — the lead non-executive board member of the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs — said in an interview with The Guardian that a meat tax would help avert the “incredibly inefficient use of land” that livestock production represents.
“If we fail on this,” Dimbleby argued, “we will fail to meet our biodiversity or climate goals in this country. We also have a huge opportunity to show thought leadership worldwide, and show them that this can be done, that we can farm sustainably and still feed people.”