A Tax on Meat

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Eric Holt Gimenez over at Food First sent along this wee nugget from Grand Island, Nebraska.

It’s a story about biofuels, based on a report from, er, the American Meat Institute, which ascribes the rise in the price of meat to biofuels. The estimates per animal are striking: “the costs [are] 53 cents per chicken; $3.40 per turkey; $38 per hog and $117.50 per fed beef animal.” These are the costs associated with higher corn-feed for the animals, the price of which has been driven up by the US governments hare-brained biofuels schemes.

But statistics, like love, is a battlefield. Later in the report, we learn from Ron Litterer, president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA, that “too often, corn and ethanol demand are blamed for high food prices overall”.

And this is the bit that interests me. We know that there’s a great deal of environmental harm in meat consumption. Biofuels are clearly bonkers. So what are we to do to drive down the amount of harm caused through the production and consumption of meat?

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have an idea: a meat tax. I was initially attracted to it — I think there are some interesting similarities between a meat tax and a cigarette tax.

But if there are, then the more progressive case is not to tax the consumers of the offending goods, but the producers. This is why the cigarette class-action settlements were so very important, and why similar action is warranted around meat manufacture. Just as with cigarettes, the revenue could be used to help steer folk away from steers, and guide us, through active public policy, toward sustainable food.

For the working poor, the price of food is getting higher, and there’s no sign that wages are catching up. Another tax on already-expensive food doesn’t seem to be the answer. Active politics that targets the profiteers, on the other hand, offers many reasons to cheer.

And, like it or not, the market has a role to play here. One of the deep problems is that the price of energy doesn’t reflect its social and environmental costs – a Pigouvian carbon tax would be the way to go. This would, I suspect, also bump up the price of meat (since most meat is produced unsustainably). To offset this kind of tax, a great deal of redistribution would be required. But it’s the kind of redistribution, living in a world of profound inequality, that’s long overdue.