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The unkind, unsustainable and unhealthy food tax

News Section Icon Published 31/01/2013


From carbon levies to cigarette duties, taxes can be useful tools to help curb unsustainable behaviours. In this guest blog, Compassion in World Farming CEO, Philip Lymbery, argues the case for a tax on "cheap" meat.

Taxes. No one likes paying them. They’re the stuff of nightmares. But I dream of The Unkind, Unsustainable and Unhealthy Food Tax. That’s The UUU Food Tax, for short.

I’m no politician. I recognise that The UUU Food Tax doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. It doesn’t leave a pleasant taste in the mouth either. It won’t get me elected. But it’s time we had a serious conversation about something like The UUU Food Tax. You see, time isn’t necessarily on our side. Besides, appeals to people to voluntarily change their behaviour appear to work for some, but not all. Taxing the food industry, in just proportion to the damage it causes to animals, the environment and people, is legitimate public policy.

A history of success

I’m inspired by how taxes and other public-policy initiatives have significantly impacted the consumption of tobacco. According to the NHS, the percentage of people smoking in England has dropped from 39 in 1980 to 21 in 2009. Given the serious impact tobacco has on human health, including the financial, human and other resources needed to pay for care and treatment, one in five people smoking today is not only an individual tragedy for everyone concerned, but also an enormous demand on society.

Would a tax on "cheap" meat work?

If taxing tobacco can help change people’s behaviour for their own wellbeing and for the good of society, why can’t we tax unkind, unsustainable and unhealthy foods, like "cheap" meat, eggs and dairy?

There is, of course, no such thing as "cheap" meat, eggs and dairy. They may be cheap to buy in the supermarket. But, like tobacco, their full price is elsewhere. The costs inherent within cheap food are born by us, as consumers and tax payers, but as importantly, the animals and the environment.


Of course, no one wants to pay more taxes. But if it means we change our individual behaviour so that we eat healthier by eating much less animal-produced foods, as well as protecting the environment, well, who could argue with that?

Well, a lot of people did argue with that. In November, the Danish government abolished an unpopular tax on food products containing more than 2.3 per cent of saturated fat that it had imposed about a year earlier. Saturated fats are found in meat, eggs and dairy, as well as other foods like potato crisps and margarine.

One unintended consequence of the Danish fat tax was that it caused Danes to go to such neighbouring countries as Sweden and Germany to avoid the levy. This is, of course, understandable. But it highlights the need, if it is going to make any meaningful impact, for international action on food tax.

As with tobacco taxes, which were unimaginable not that long ago, we may well be seeing the beginning of fat taxes. Just in January, Sweden’s Board of Agriculture called for an EU-wide tax on meat.

"I believe meat will become more expensive", said Marit Paulsen, a Swedish MEP who is vice-president of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee. "I don’t know how, but if we have to add an emission tax, then let it be, but let us for God’s sake now start a proper discussion with the knowledge we have which includes the fact that we can’t afford to use so much money producing meat."

Developments in Denmark and Sweden and elsewhere to tax food are needed to reverse the cheap-meat culture that's causing so much damage. Current policies in food subsidies have driven us down the dangerous road to high-fat foods. We should be making sure our food is healthy for all, regardless of income.

Tax the bad – subsidise the good

I am firmly behind such measures as food taxes. From making bad food cost a bit more to investing in subsidies for good food to ensure its affordability, financially and ethically, seems to me to be a good idea that everyone can agree with. Bringing better balance into the food system, as well as reducing cruelty to animals and improving public health; a real win-win situation.

All of this leads me to announce Compassion’s support for a new campaign by Sustain, the Alliance for Better Food and Farming, launched with a new report, A Children’s Future Fund. We lend our particular support for the long-term objective of developing food duties on unsustainable food, taking into account environmental, animal-welfare and health attributes.

The campaign makes the case for taxes as a cost-effective way to make our food system healthier, more sustainable and fairer. A children’s future fund should be created to pay for policies to improve children’s health and their future wellbeing. Already, 18 public-interest organisations have signed up to support the campaign. They include the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Friends of the Earth, UNISON, Royal Society for Public Health and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

I recall it was a similar broad consensus of organisations that tackled the social problem of tobacco. I believe the challenge of making agriculture and food production more humane, nutritious and sustainable is that bit more within reach!


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