The neoliberal case for a meat and dairy tax

The introduction of the sugar tax almost a year ago was deeply divisive. Campaigners in its favour argued that it was crucial in the fight against childhood obesity, whereas opponents argued that sugar consumption was on the decrease anyway and that a tax of that sort would disproportionately hurt poorer people.

In general, taxes levied on nutritional grounds are inappropriate. Individuals are best placed to decide which foods are worth buying and better for consumption, not a nannying state. Nobody serious argued that sugar was nutritionally beneficial, but that educating consumers and providing them with the right information was the correct solution.

Despite this, however, there are situations in which taxes on the consumption of certain foods are justified. One such example would be a levy on meat and dairy consumption, justified instead by the heavy cost of that consumption – namely the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the subsequent effect this has on the environment.

In attempting to tackle the costs of consumption, taxes introduced on negative externalities are inherently more just. This week’s parliamentary protests over the government’s alleged inaction over climate change might have been harsher than necessary, but they do point to an ever-growing public appetite for greater action to combat the problem.

The influence of the pastoral sector in contributing to climate change is well documented. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, livestock supply chains account for 14.5 per cent of gross anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with cattle (beef and milk) responsible for most of that figure.

While efforts are underway internationally to encourage the proliferation of low-carbon agricultural practices, national governments must play their part and intervene where externalities associated with public policy induce negative consequences. Furthermore, we already have useful evidence which highlights the merits and possible effectiveness of a meat and dairy tax.

A 2015 study in the Food Policy journal examined the effects of the introduction of a meat and dairy tax in Sweden. Taxes there were indexed according to the relative harm caused by each food group, in terms of its emissions output. Taxes were levied on seven product categories: beef, chicken, pork, milk, cheese, cream, and fermented products. The unit tax applied ranged from 8.9 per cent to 33.3 per cent of the respective price per kilogram.

The results of the research were modest but positive, and illuminate a potential path forward for UK policymakers. The study showed that by introducing a meat and dairy tax, greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector were reduced by up to 12 per cent. It also found that among taxed products, beef proved the most crucial to regulate.

The UK should certainly look towards emulating the system established in Sweden. A meat and dairy tax could help to address some of the harmful environmental externalities which accompany such widespread consumption. In a similar fashion, products ought to be taxed relative to their external costs, so any tax on consumption introduced would avoid a flat rate.

While many will protest at the prospect of further taxation, the heavily growing demand for climate action means that a move towards taxing negative externalities would be a positive one – and not at odds with the principles of neoliberalism. Unlike with the sugar levy, the case for a meat and dairy tax is strong, with firm ethical grounding. We may not want it, but we certainly need it.

Written by Oliver Norgrove

Oliver Norgrove is a master's student of constitutional politics, former Vote Leave staffer, and Brexit commentator.