The Current

A tax on meat would reduce emissions and save lives, study suggests

Should that sizzle in your steak get a little more expensive? A new study suggests a tax on meat could save the environment.
According to the U.N., the global food industry is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. Meat production plays a significant part in that. (angela n./flickr cc)

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Tender steaks, juicy burgers, crispy bacon — they're all regular staples for many meat-eating Canadians. But if we have a hope of avoiding the worst effects of global warming, that will have to change, according to a new study from Oxford University.

The global food industry, from fertilizer manufacturing to food storing and packaging, is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. And meat production plays a significant part in that, according to the United Nations. 

For meat taxation

Taxing meat and animal byproducts would discourage demand and stave off climate change, says the lead author of the study, Marco Springmann. The University of Oxford researcher says world governments need to buy in. 

Springmann tells The Current's guest host Kelly Crowe that by the end of the century food systems will take up the whole carbon budget needed to keep global warming below two degrees.

"So it's clear that since meat is the biggest chunk of it, some way or the other, meat consumption has to come down." 

Should Canada bring in a meat tax? (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

A significant majority of climate scientists have warned that if the Earth's average temperature rises by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, the ensuing change in the world's climate would have severe and irreversible consequences.

"By reducing beef consumption in Canada you would reduce emissions and improve health," says Springmann, who is also a researcher at the Oxford Martin Program on the Future of Food at Oxford University.

The study also recommends lowering the price of foods that have a smaller carbon footprint as a way to offset the increased cost of carbon-intensive foods like meat.

Against meat taxation

Peter Shawn Taylor, author of a recent report for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation argues that carbon-based meat taxes are an intrusion of "big public health" into Canadian lives. 

"Taxing food for whatever reason is going to make people worse off," says Taylor, who is also an editor-at-large with Maclean's. "We're talking about removing an enormous supply of protein for the world." 
Protein can be found in many foods that are less common edible sources like algae, or even insects. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Alternative solutions

Concerns about humans needing meat as a source of protein, however, may be misguided, according to Evan Fraser, director of the Food Institute at the University of Guelph.

"If you think of protein as a category, typically we think of cows, pigs and chickens as the main providers of that," Fraser tells Crowe. "But we've also, of course, got aquaculture, legumes and plant-based proteins." 

Protein can be found in many foods common to Western diets -— but also in less common edible sources like algae, or even insects. 

I have eaten mealworm truffles and cricket flour brownies ... and both are excellen​t.- Evan Fraser, director of U of Guelph's Food Institute

Eating bugs may not be your idea of a tasty meal, but according to Fraser, it's all a matter of perspective. In the 1980s, for example, many had similar feelings towards sushi. The idea of eating raw fish was ridiculed as bizarre.

"Within 10 years, a cultural shift had occurred, linked to marketing and savvy advertising. Now consumers are eating raw fish on a regular basis in North America," he says.

Fraser argues the lesson from sushi is that taste is, at least in part, a product of culture — and that means it can be changed. A similar shift could take place, he said, with lower-carbon protein sources like cricket meal, which can be ground into a flour with properties similar to wheat flour. 

"I have eaten mealworm truffles and cricket flour brownies in the last month," he says.

"And both were excellent." 

Listen to the full segment at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Karin Marley.