I remember watching George H. W. Bush backing himself into a corner with that “read my lips…no new taxes” speech back in 1988. He may have won the presidency that year, but those six words would come back to haunt him during the budget process a few months later. It cost him his re-election.
We Americans don’t like giving up any of our money to the IRS come April. So imagine my surprise when a recent Bloomberg article suggested a tax on beef and other red meats could be in our future.
The rationale for a “meat tax” has been building ever sense a 2015 UN report called red and processed meats “carcinogenic.” Proponents said taxing these products would artificially raise prices, reduce demand, and theoretically improve health outcomes. Resulting tax revenues might also pay for raising healthcare costs attributed to a carnivorous diet, or to clean up the environmental impact of industrial-scale beef ranching.
Regardless of your opinion on taxes—I’ll tell you why this approach is a bit misguided, especially if its ultimate goal is to improve public health, lower obesity rates, and negate agriculture’s negative environmental impact. All good things, by the way!
At the most basic level, sin taxes do discourage behavior. Despite Libertarian complaints, taxation is a powerful tool, and when applied to things like cigarettes and beer, it has had measurable effect. But sin taxes also tend to be regressive in nature. That mean s they disproportionately affect lower income groups. Poor households pay about eight times more of their income on consumption taxes (another name for sin tax) than do rich families. This “blunt instrument” is the economic equivalent of a bazooka to swat a fly. There’s a lots of collateral damage that hurts all consumers, not to mention the farmers and manufacturers who make the products.
But for me, it’s more a question of whether or not meat eating is a sin in the first place. Although the UN think’s beef is bad, global medical research on the subject continues to contradict itself. Just read my recent post on Nitrates vs. Nitrites. I’m not going to tell you a diet exclusively of steak or spam is a good idea, but scientists are still scratching their heads about why the Artic Inuit or Kenyan Masai don’t stroke out despite dining almost exclusively on proteins and fats. So to say that a bacon cheeseburger is the equivalent of a pack of Marlboros is just scientifically irresponsible.
Finally—and this is the point I hope we can all get behind. Not all red meat is created equal. Taxing all beef penalizes producers raising steers the right way.
Electric City Butcher’s farmer friend Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch reinforced this point in a recent interview.
“If anything, grass-fed beef farmers should be getting a tax credit. We’re helping fix the environment. Why would you penalize the people that are doing good.”
The majority of society’s beef with beef is due to factory farming. Confined animal feed operations (CAFOs, AKA “feedlots”) produce meat that is high in fat, low in essential nutrients like omega-3s, and heavily reliant on fossil fuels. This, without a doubt, contributes to unhealthy people and an unhealthy planet.
Yet grass-fed beef, the fastest growing segment of the market, is raised on pasture and often distributed locally. This meat is leaner, more nutritious, and better for the environment. Check out programs like the Marin Carbon Project to get a sense of ranchers like Loren doing things the right way.
So what do we do?
“The thing is, farmers always overproduce everything,” says Loren. “And if we subsidized carbon, they would overproduce carbon. That would be the quickest, simplest, easiest way to help reverse the effects of global warming.”
Subsidize carbon, not corn? Now that’s an economic policy I can get behind. Or at least I’ve found another blog post topic.