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The economic case for taxing meat

Should Americans be taxed for excessive meat consumption? Here's the case for adding it to the list of 'sin taxes.'

By Money Staff Mar 31, 2014 4:03PM

This post comes from Charles Kenny at partner site Bloomberg Businessweek.


Bloomberg BusinessWeek on MSN MoneyAs tax season ramps up, we're bound to hear proposals aimed at making the revenue system simpler and more efficient. A perennial is the "sin tax." Rather than tax earnings—when we really want people to earn money—why not tax things we don't want people to do? Add duties to cigarettes, alcohol, and carbon dioxide to slow people’s smoking, drinking, and polluting, and you'll do them and the world a favor while raising revenue for schools, hospitals, and roads.


But why stop there? It's time to add one more sin to the list of habits that should be taxed: excessive meat consumption.


Grocery shopping © CorbisMeat has always been part of the human diet. Few dishes are as wonderful as a bolognese sauce made with a combination of pork, lamb, and beef. But taxing pigs, sheep, and cows is essential to contain the spiraling costs associated with massive meat eating.


When it comes to gorging on meat, Americans remain at the top of the global league tables. U.S. consumption of beef per person has actually declined over the past few decades, from 52 kilograms a year in 1970 to 41 kilograms in 2008. But chicken consumption approximately tripled over that period, to 44 kilograms per person, and overall meat consumption climbed from 105 to 122 kilograms a year—considerably more than the average personal weight (although some of that meat is thrown away or eaten by pets). By comparison, Indians consume less than 5 kilograms of meat per person.


But as the rest of the world gets richer, it’s closing the gap with the U.S.  The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that in 2012, 966 million pigs, 1.5 billion cattle, and 22 billion chickens were roaming (actually, mostly not roaming) the world's farms. For cattle, that's five times the number in 1890 and for pigs about a tenfold increase, according to Clive Ponting's Green History of the World.


That's one factor behind the growing global obesity epidemic: a British study comparing meat eaters and vegetarians found average differences in weight between meat eaters and vegans of 5.9 kilograms in men and 4.7 kilograms in women—and a recent U.S. study also suggested that meat consumption was positively linked to obesity.


At the other end of the consumption scale, all that meat production also makes for more expensive staple foods for the world’s undernourished. About one-third of the world's cropland is given over to growing feed for animals. Including pastureland, livestock production occupies 30 percent of the land surface of the planet. Some of that land could be used instead to cultivate crops for human consumption. If you are concerned that growing corn for ethanol is raising food prices, you should be even more concerned by the larger impact of factory livestock farming.


Beyond meat's impact on malnutrition, the livestock industry presents a growing global threat in its relationship with infectious disease. Domesticated animals have been the incubators of many of the world’s greatest killer diseases, from smallpox through measles to tuberculosis. The recent emergence of swine and bird flu suggests an increasing risk of pathogens jumping from the planet’s burgeoning domestic animal population to humans.


We've added to that risk by regularly feeding factory animals antibiotics. Eighty percent of all antibiotics consumed in the U.S. are used on animals. This widespread use has been linked to the rapid emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which kills 18,000 people a year in the U.S.

Greater meat production also has negative environmental effects. Livestock accounts for about 8 percent of global human water use (the proportion is a little higher in the U.S.)  Wheat takes about 1,000 to 2,000 cubic meters of water per ton of crop; rice takes approximately double that. Taking into account the water demands of feedstock, cattle take between 13,000 and 20,000 cubic meters per ton of beef (although chicken does considerably better at around 4,000 cubic meters per ton).


Land-based meat production is also a big factor behind declining fisheries worldwide. Millions of tons of fish each year are crushed into fish oil and dry feed to be fed to farmed fish as well as to pigs and chickens. And the effluence those animals produce creates "dead zones" in rivers and coastal areas.


What about climate change? Looking at feed production, "enteric fermentation from ruminants" (i.e., cows and sheep belching methane), manure decomposition and transport emissions related to livestock, the UN’s FAO estimates that 14.5 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are livestock related. Beef generates 27 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilogram of meat, compared with pork, at 12 kilograms, and 7 kilograms for chicken. If you want to tax coal to save the environment, you should want to tax flatus-prone livestock, too.


As for the suffering of those creatures farmed in factories and destined for the abattoir, it's a hard moral calculus. The animals wouldn't exist if it weren't for the industry, and even arable farming involves mass mortality—of rodents and other pests as well as water-based victims of fertilizer runoff. But imagine you care just a little bit for the low quality of life and death of the vast majority of animals in the meat industry. The U.S. Department of Transportation puts the value of a statistical human life at around $9 million. Put the value of a bovine life at 100 thousandth of that, it would still be around $90 a cow. (Perhaps some of the money raised from a meat tax could be used to provide better health care to the millions who die worldwide each year from conditions that cost only a little more than twice that amount per life saved).


Yet despite all the reasons for curbing meat consumption, livestock farmers got nearly a third of a billion dollars in subsidies in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Let's smash that pork barrel and put in place a per-pound meat tax instead, perhaps weighted by the environmental and health footprint of the particular kind of meat and production techniques. A well-cooked steak is one of the greatest achievements of human art and science. It's time we started paying the true cost of producing it.


More from Bloomberg Businessweek



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671Comments
Mar 31, 2014 5:57PM
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Why stop at a meat tax. why not also tax the air we breathe? When will the taxing stop? Here is an idea, reduce taxes... So people are eating more chicken then beef, why? Maybe because when taxes go up people have to cut back somewhere. Yet the government solution is when you need more money to spent, increase taxes
Mar 31, 2014 6:06PM
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are you f'kn kidding me?? This is the stupidest thing I ever heard, maybe we should tax stupid.
Mar 31, 2014 5:57PM
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More damnable social engineering.  Government OUT of my stomach!
Mar 31, 2014 5:59PM
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Whomever thought up this ridiculousness should be shot. It is my opinion that for every dollar hard working U.S citizens have to pay in taxes, the Senators and Congressmen who voted in the tax should have to pay two. I bet budgets would suddenly get balanced if we did that.
Mar 31, 2014 6:11PM
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Sounds like this article was written by a vegetarian with ties to PETA.

"Excessive meat consumption", "Massive meat eating".

Was the author trying to be a comedian? No bias with this attempt at telling a story.

What a joke.

Mar 31, 2014 6:02PM
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I know what needs to be done. Let's put a huge tax on the meat-heads who came up with this idea. If they can't pay the tax, then they lose their meat-head.
Mar 31, 2014 6:07PM
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We are supposed to be living in the U.S. in 2014...........Not Berlin in 1940
Mar 31, 2014 6:09PM
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This is one of the most stupid ideas I have ever heard! Freedoms are quickly disappearing, and we are too dumb to realize it! Taxes are raised so the government has more money to waste!
Mar 31, 2014 6:03PM
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I'm Looking for another country. This one has gotten too crazy. Thanks a lot, Libs.
Mar 31, 2014 6:07PM
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This Author Charles Kenney is an idiot for even suggesting such a thing.  Then again, what do you expect from a left leaning liberal journalist who writes for Bloomberg, yes the same Bloomberg that wants to ban big sodas among other things. Nobody is forcing you to eat meat, so leave well enough alone already will ya!
Mar 31, 2014 6:02PM
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Next they will taxing yah every time you pull your meat out to pee
Mar 31, 2014 6:06PM
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All one has to do is look at what kind of teeth we have to see we are meant to be eating meat.
This article is progressive stupidity.

Mar 31, 2014 6:04PM
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Tax babies. Ultimately population growth is the cause of all these 'problems'. Every time someone has a baby they add to the worldwide demand for all sorts of resources and increases in all sorts of pollution.

Mar 31, 2014 6:05PM
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You.....gotta.....be.....f---ing.....kidding......me.
Why not a "stupid article about new taxes tax", any author who suggests new taxes on ridiculous things get taxed 80% of their gross annual wages.

Mar 31, 2014 6:04PM
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The idiot that wrote this BS must reside on some other planet.
Mar 31, 2014 6:05PM
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Wall Street's on a feeding frenzy with our tax money and asinine business articles like this one make me think that they want to "eat"  more of our money in the form of "sin" taxes so they can keep getting rich. This reads like a PETA prospectus.  And it's one day too soon for "April Fool's", so they can't retract this article as a 1 April prank.
Mar 31, 2014 6:10PM
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So difficult to detect the difference between satire and just plain stupidity nowadays.
Mar 31, 2014 6:09PM
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How about controlling the world population first!!!  Today your suggesting cutting back on meat - next it will be wheat, and then rationing water to just a cup a day - no matter what we do if we do not get a hold of the population there will not be enough of anything eventually - what say you then??


I say we put an extra tax for each child (consumer) brought into the world instead of rewarding people for having them by reducing their taxes

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