science of us

A Meat Tax Sounds Nice to Me

Photo: Ryzhkov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Yesterday CNN reported on a PLOS One paper imagining what the world might look like if we taxed meat the way we tax alcohol and cigarettes (and, possibly, sugar).

The study speculates that adding costs to processed meat and red meat could save 222,000 lives and $41 billion worldwide, including 53,000 lives and $20 billion in the United States alone. (Greenhouse gases would also drop.) The “economically optimal” tax rates that the researchers calculated to achieve this were, for the United States, 163 percent on processed meat (such as bacon, deli meat, and hot dogs), and 34 percent on unprocessed red meat (such as beef, lamb, and pork). (In the U.K. the numbers were 79 and 14 percent, respectively. “The tax is higher in the U.S. due to an inefficient health system that wastes a lot of money,” the lead researcher told CNN.)

The backbone of the researchers’ argument is that meat consumption is inherently unhealthy, which is territory I tread into with great discomfort. The World Health Organization classified processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as “probably” carcinogenic in 2015, although detractors suggest that high-quality meat from well-cared-for animals shouldn’t necessarily be lumped in with the rest. (Maybe the next tax-speculation model could include exemptions for farmers who raise their livestock ethically?) In their paper, the researchers emphasize that the highest benefits to a meat tax could be seen in “high and middle-income countries” where basic nutrition is less of a concern.

The various swirls of my own personal-health interests and beliefs begin to converge here. I was intrigued to see that some people in the low-carb high-fat (LCHF) world I follow on Twitter took issue with the fact that the PLOS One study’s main author, Marco Springmann, eats a vegan diet.

I’m still trying to sort this out. Is a vegan person attempting to quantify the effects of taxing meat a conflict of interest? That is interesting. Why would it be a conflict of interest? Would a personal belief cloud someone’s ability to interpret numbers? If so, wouldn’t that go both ways, barring everyone who has a personal eating habit they believe in from researching and running numbers on nutrition and public health? Maybe I’m missing something. For what it’s worth, I’m currently looking for the middle ground — trying to find a way to eat relatively LCHF while also eating meat less frequently, more carefully. Also I followed a “he’s vegan” link I saw shared on Twitter and was totally charmed by Springmann and his rationale. (“I’m a researcher. If you give me some good studies, I try to change my behavior based on it.”)

Fortunately there is already a solution to all of this, which is to replace all your meat with nuts.

A Meat Tax Sounds Nice to Me