Should Meat Be Excluded From the UK’s Value Added Tax?

The idea of using a meat tax to improve human health and protect the environment has been getting a fair amount of attention from prominent scientists in the media. Professor Mike Rayner was quoted last year as saying, “I would like to see a tax on red meat and meat products. We need incentives to cut down on meat and dairy consumption.” Marco Springmann told the Guardian, “Current levels of meat consumption are not healthy or sustainable. The costs associated with each of those impacts could approach the trillions in the future. Taxing meat could be a first and important step.” And Joseph Poore suggested that taxing meat will likely be necessary to avoid serious environmental problems.

Taxing food products to promote human health is controversial. It has been suggested that introducing taxes to limit particular food consumption behaviors is a troubling shift towards a “nanny state,” involves paternalistically imposing “alien values” on people, and interferes with the free market by picking and choosing winners and losers among different products. A decision to impose a dedicated tax specifically targeting meat would need to adequately address all of these concerns.

For this post, however, I’m going to sidestep those difficult questions to instead focus on a question with an answer that seems to me a bit more straightforward: given that the UK already has a Value Added Tax that applies to some food products but not others, should it continue to exclude meat products from this tax?

The UK’s Value Added Tax, or VAT, is meant to target luxury goods while withholding taxes on “staples.” But the definition of what exactly counts as a luxury is a bit mysterious. Currently beef, lamb, pork, chicken are all excluded from the VAT. But shelled nuts are considered to be “luxury goods” and have the 20% VAT imposed on them.

Treating meat products as “staples” likely hearkens back to earlier beliefs that meat was a required part of a healthy diet and an essential source of protein. However, it is now well-established that diets with low amounts of meat, and indeed fully vegan and vegetarian diets, can be perfectly healthy and can meet nutritional needs for the overwhelming majority of the population. Moreover, this can all be done relatively inexpensively…low meat diets do not require buying the latest luxury food items at Whole Foods.

But the problem is not just that there are equally nutritious alternatives to meat…it’s that meat is demonstrably worse than many of them on a number of measures. The World Health Organization currently classifies processed meat as “carcinogenic” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic.” Moreover, high levels of meat consumption are bad for the environment in a number of ways. Rearing livestock is the biggest contributor to methane (a greenhouse gas that plays a significant role in climate change), utilizes a large portion of the world’s fresh water supply, and is a significant source of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants (for a useful and accessible summary, see: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6399/eaam5324 ).

These are reasons that directly affect humans, and so could be thought of as both self-interested concerns and altruistic concerns (since future generations will be more seriously influenced by our impact on the environment). But one of the most common arguments against meat consumption is focused on animal welfare. Many vegetarians and vegans believe it is always wrong to kill an animal for human consumption, provided that alternatives are available. Practicing vegetarians currently make up a relatively small proportion of the population, but presumably a majority of people would agree that animals shouldn’t be mistreated or made to suffer needlessly, and there’s good reason to think that many of the animal welfare problems in current animal rearing practices (from housing to transporting to slaughtering animals) are a result of the pressure to produce vast amounts of meat as cheaply as possible to meet the current high demand for meat. So there are also strong reasons related to animal welfare to dramatically reduce per capita meat consumption that are based on values presumably shared by most people, though this is rarely directly mentioned in public policy discussions about taxing food.

Given all of the above, it seems as though there are strong reasons to include meat products in the VAT. But what about the objections mentioned above? The problem with these objections in the present context is that they seem as though they already apply to the current system. The current VAT system already favors certain foods over others and incentivizes goods according to particular values. In fact, the current system arguably provides perverse incentives that encourage people to choose at least some products, such as meat, that are less healthy, worse for the environment, and worse for animal welfare than other products that are taxed.

In other words, given that we already have a VAT tax that incentivizes some food products over others, it seems clear that meat products (and particularly red meat and processed meat) should be included. These products should no longer be regarded as necessary “staples” in healthy diets, and continuing to do so could have devastating consequences for the planet.

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3 Responses to Should Meat Be Excluded From the UK’s Value Added Tax?

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    My thanks to Adam Shriver for raising these issues, even though I’m not a resident of the UK and arguably shouldn’t weigh in on what should be included under the UK’s VAT (but for the record, I agree that meat shouldn’t be excluded). Two major reasons are mentioned for the desirability of reducing our meat consumption species-wide, in addition to individual human health: reducing GHG emissions significantly—a collective benefit in slowing our headlong rush into “Hothouse Earth” at least somewhat—and reducing the tremendous burden of animal suffering incurred by the global livestock industry, potentially markedly if we start getting over our denial over what the animals are experiencing. I would add a third: reducing the rate at which wild animal habitat is being converted into pasture or cropland for animal feed. The mass ratio of us humans plus all of our livestock versus wild land mammals is reportedly already at an obscene 98:2 (www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1711842115)–do we really want to go on putting things even more out of balance, because “demand” for meat is holding steady or increasing?

    Shriver questions what exactly should count as a “luxury,” something we should all consider in this Anthropocene epoch when all things are within reach if you can pay for them and so many of them are obtained, as we are now learning, at a great cost to planetary life. I think we should also question just what it is that we are referring to when we use the word “demand.” What does this consist of—the ability to pay, in conjunction with human “preferences,” which some think ought always to be satisfied, unless there are strong reasons to the contrary?

    In backing up his claims about the effects of meat eating on the environment, Shriver links to a review article by H. Charles Godfray,”Meat consumption, health, and the environment” (2018; https://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6399/eaam5324), which mentions “demand” reduction by the application of “dual process theory,” addressing “both conscious and nonconscious processes operating in parallel” to produce the sorts of behavioral choices we ultimately make in selecting our food and all the other things that we consume. The reference for this is Theresa M. Marteau, “Towards environmentally sustainable human behaviour: targeting non-conscious and conscious processes for effective and acceptable policies” (2017; https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsta.2016.0371), which offers some ways of thinking about the “nanny state” concern when certain kinds of behavior change seem to be warranted.

    Marteau points to a “paradox” that becomes apparent when people are polled about the acceptability about certain kinds of interventions designed to change behavior for the better: typically, information-based interventions aimed at what she calls our “reflective, conscious (‘System 2’) systems”—our “free will”—are seen as more acceptable than interventions (including economic ones like taxation) targeting the “automatic, non-conscious (‘System 1’)” systems that underlie our behavior—apparently people don’t like to think of themselves as being “programmed”—yet in terms of effectiveness in producing behavioral change, it is the latter type of intervention that wins out. Apparently, however, as people came to understand the “the non-conscious nature of much of human behaviour” and the greater effectiveness of interventions that target it, the more acceptable these sorts of interventions became at the policy level.

    This an encouraging finding, if correct. And it also might mean that there is hope for us to come to understand some other things about ourselves, and on that basis be able to change even more of our “demand” behavior. Like the fact that we’re primates, after all, and are therefore not physiologically evolved to eat at such high trophic levels—that’s why there are bad effects on our health—and also that, as primates, we are behaviorally very flexible, flexible enough to change much more than our diets, if our patterns of social and cultural feedback can ease up on their reinforcement of the status quo and start reinforcing a whole host of behaviors geared toward “scaling down and pulling back” (Crist 2018; http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6420/1242) from our Anthropocene expansion.

    • Keith Tayler says:

      Hi Ronnie. I am sorry I cannot agree with the last three paras of your post. We cannot place too much weight on polls when deciding the rights and wrongs of policies, or what “interventions” people might think should or should not be used to change human behaviour and cognition. Even if we agree that global warming is an existential problem and that one of interventions we should be taking is to get people to eat less or no meat, we should, I believe, avoid interventions that are specifically designed to target “implicit” learning or the so-called “System 1” of dual process theory, regardless of whether there is a majority in favour of this type of intervention.

      I am quite prepared to provide evidence and discursively reason about the dangers of global warming in order to influence human behaviour (as well as being critical of the bad science and reasoning by some climate scientists and global warming zealots), but I could never sanction the altering of reason and behaviour by targeting System 1 and, so to speak, going behind language and reason. For sure, within the limits of areas such as psychiatry we may in extreme cases find some means/end justification for such interventions. There are also elements of this type of intervention in marketing and the “persuasive arts”, but these should and often are exposed and controlled by regulation (“subliminal advertising”, has been illegal in the UK and some states in the US since the late 1950s). Of course the persuasive arts have moved on and there are now other methods of predicting our beliefs, preferences and behaviour that enables companies and governments to target interventions that also challenge key notions of privacy, fairness and autonomy.*

      Whatever the methods and no matter how good the science of global warming is, or how much we believe in the correctness of the ethics, it is both epistemologically unacceptable and unethically to use subliminal targeting to change what you call ‘“demand” behaviour’. No science, including good climate science, should be *communicated* and validated by such methods because it would not only distort and corrupt itself but science in general. Science must be communicated and discursively discussed and understood by as many people as possible if it is to remain science. Indeed, any understanding we may acquire of these methods should be used to prevent their use. Similarly, the notion that we should actively seek to change people’s ethics and politics using these means cannot be justified because *we* believe the ends to be ethical. Obviously there is mass philosophical argument for this position not least of which can be found in argumentation theory and discourse ethics, so I will not rehearse them here. In short, the ends do not justify the means.

      * This upcoming event on ‘The Methodology and Ethics of Targeting’ at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, Cambridge, may be of interest to those in the UK. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-methodology-and-ethics-of-targeting-tickets-59768625568

  • Dave Frame says:

    On the climate aspects of meat, we should be clear that policy involves trade-offs. The way we compare methane with CO2 gives a false impression of the “equivalence” between the two gases. (See https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/publications/view/2714 for a quick explanation.) One upshot of this is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of having person X ask person Y to eat differently so that X can keep driving his SUV. Working out a fairer sort of equivalence is probably an interesting problem – we can (and have) done the science clearly enough, but knowing how this maps to fair shares in climate policy is a pretty open question.

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