UK medics urge imposition of taxes on high-emissions foods

What’s happening? A climate tax should be imposed on food with a heavy environmental impact by 2025 if the sector does not take voluntary action to reduce environmental damage, according to a report by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. The coalition includes 10 Royal Colleges of medicine and nursing, the British Medical Association and the Lancet. Action to reduce the consumption of high-emission foods, such as dairy and red meat products, is essential to combat climate change and would also boost health while reducing illness, says the report.

Why does this matter? This is far from the first call for a tax to be placed on foodstuffs with a large impact on the climate.

In February, for example, a report by research group CE Delft recommended the EU impose a “sustainability charge” on meat as a way of compensating for its environmental footprint. The proposition would raise €32bn ($35bn) per year while cutting emissions by 120 million tonnes annually, said the group.

This also isn’t the only example of taxes on meat and dairy being promoted for health reasons. A study authored by 22 international scientists published in October argued taxing such food products is one way of reducing future pandemic risks.

“Incredibly dense” poultry and pig production in some nations is contributing to the emergence of virus strains, the study noted. Additionally, cattle farming in some regions is spurring deforestation and reducing biodiversity. Other scientists have suggested that protecting ecosystems such as tropical forests may be one way of preventing future virus outbreaks. Doing so would decrease the likelihood of viruses being transferred from wildlife to humans.

Indeed, we noted last week how, according to the UNEP, zoonotic diseases represent around three-quarters of emerging infectious viruses. Habitat destruction, deforestation and biodiversity loss from human activities remove natural barriers and create ideal conditions for such viruses to spread to humans from wildlife.

If a tax was to alter consumer behaviour, it could also go some way to allowing more sustainable farming practices to be adopted. In the US, for example, research has suggested switching to 100% grass-fed beef would require the country to increase its cattle herds by 30% in order to meet demand – which would also come with a need for increased land for grazing. However, the US consumes 4.5-times more beef per capita than the global average. Reducing demand, therefore, could allow for a shift to grass-fed to be made.

Lateral thought from Curation – While taxing food with a high environmental footprint may be one way of lessening its impact, there is perhaps another solution: make agriculture less emissions-intensive. One example is using experimental feeds in a bid to reduce emissions from cattle.

Saying this, it’s also been reported that some of these feeds – such as those that are seaweed-based – could have a negative impact on biodiversity, once again highlighting the delicate balance needed to be struck when addressing agriculture’s effect on the climate.

One solution, therefore, could be looking to insect-based feeds. Research suggests using such feeds does little to impact the final meat quality in chicken and pigs. Furthermore, since many facilities use waste products as feed for the insects, there could be an additional environmental benefit.

Nick Jardine

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