Food and Drink

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.

Should vegans avoid avocados and almonds?

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Avocadon’t?
Nataliya Arzamasova/Shutterstock

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford

A video recently doing the rounds on Facebook included a segment from the BBC comedy quiz show QI. The video asks which of avocados, almonds, melon, kiwi or butternut squash are suitable for vegans. The answer, at least according to QI, is none of them.

Commercial farming of those vegetables, at least in some parts of the world, often involves migratory beekeeping. In places such as California, there are not enough local bees or other pollinating insects to pollinate the massive almond orchards. Bee hives are transported on the back of large trucks between farms – they might go from almond orchards in one part of the US then on to avocado orchards in another, and later to sunflower fields in time for summer.

Vegans avoid animal products. For strict vegans this means avoiding honey because of the exploitation of bees. That seems to imply that vegans should also avoid vegetables like avocados that involve exploiting bees in their production.

Is that right? Should vegans forego their avocado on toast? Continue reading

Coffee with Colleagues: Caffeine is a “Social” Enhancer

By Nadira Faber

The coffee you are having with your colleagues at a business meeting does more than keep you awake. Many of us know that caffeine can help with alertness and working memory – the first systematic study on caffeine and performance, sponsored by Coca-Cola, was published over 100 years ago. But did you know caffeine can also have “social” effects?

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Are Incentives Corrupting? The Case of Paying People to be Healthy.

Written by Dr Rebecca Brown

Financial incentives are commonplace in everyday life. As tools of states, corporations and individuals, they enable the ‘tweaking’ of motivations in ways more desirable to the incentiviser. A parent may pay her child £1 to practice the piano for an hour; a café offers a free coffee for every nine the customer buys; governments offer tax breaks for homeowners who make their houses more energy efficient. Most people, most of the time, would probably find the use of financial incentives unobjectionable.

More recently, incentives have been proposed as a means of promoting health. The thinking goes: many diseases people currently suffer from, and are likely to suffer from in the future, are largely the result of behavioural factors (i.e. ‘lifestyles’). Certain behaviours, such as eating energy dense diets, taking little exercise, smoking and drinking large amounts of alcohol, increase the risk that someone will suffer from diseases like cancer, heart disease, lung disease and type II diabetes. These diseases are very unpleasant – sometimes fatal – for those who suffer from them, their friends and family. They also create economic harms, requiring healthcare resources to be directed towards caring for those who are sick and result in reduced productivity through lost working hours. For instance,the annual cost to the economy of obesity-related disease is variously estimated as £2.47 billion£5.1 billion and a whopping $73 billion (around £56.5 billion), depending on what factors are taken into account and how these are calculated. Since incentives are generally seen as useful tools for influencing people’s behaviour, why not use them to change health-related behaviours? Why not simply pay people to be healthy? Continue reading

Animal suffering and the pointlessness of moral philosophy

(Above image here) Consider the infamous Chinese dog market. Dogs are rounded up, sometimes beaten while still alive (ostensibly to improve the flavour of their meat), killed, and eaten.

Everyone I know thinks it’s obscene, and that the suffering of the dogs cannot possibly be outweighed by the sensual satisfaction of the diners, the desirability of not interfering, colonially, with practices acceptable in another culture, or by any other consideration. It’s just wrong.

‘It’s just wrong’ is the observation that moral philosophers exist to denounce. They draw their salaries for interrogating this observation, exploding its naivety, and showing that the unexamined observation is the observation not worth making.

But what can the moral philosophers bring to the discussion about the Chinese dogs? Alone, and unaided by science, not much. The philosophy turns out to be either (a) reheated science or (b) a description of our intuitions, together with more or less bare assertions that those intuitions are either good or bad.  Continue reading

Should vegans eat meat to be ethically consistent? And other moral puzzles from the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics

Should vegans eat meat to be ethically consistent? And other moral puzzles from the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

The latest issue of The Journal of Practical Ethics has just been published online, and it includes several fascinating essays (see the abstracts below). In this blog post, I’d like to draw attention to one of them in particular, because it seemed to me to be especially creative and because it was written by an undergraduate student! The essay – “How Should Vegans Live?” – is by Oxford student Xavier Cohen. I had the pleasure of meeting Xavier several months ago when he presented an earlier draft of his essay at a lively competition in Oxford: he and several others were finalists for the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics, for which I was honored to serve as one of the judges.

In a nutshell, Xavier argues that ethical vegans – that is, vegans who refrain from eating animal products specifically because they wish to reduce harm to animals – may actually be undermining their own aims. This is because, he argues, many vegans are so strict about the lifestyle they adopt (and often advocate) that they end up alienating people who might otherwise be willing to make less-drastic changes to their behavior that would promote animal welfare overall. Moreover, by focusing too narrowly on the issue of directly refraining from consuming animal products, vegans may fail to realize how other actions they take may be indirectly harming animals, perhaps even to a greater degree.

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In defence of drinking alone

By Rebecca Roache and Hannah Maslen

 

 

Yes they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinking alone

– Billy Joel, Piano Man

 

Drinking alone is often frowned upon. Those who do it can be quite defensive about it—as illustrated by a Reddit thread entitled ‘Why do people think drinking alone is sad?’, a recent Wall Street Journal article by Lettie Teague called ‘Drinking alone: a bad idea or a toast to oneself?’, and a monologue on drinking alone by the American comedian Peter Holmes. Enjoying several glasses of wine at a dinner party, sharing a case of beers with a friend while watching the football, or toasting an achievement with a round of cocktails, are all considered acceptable. Less socially acceptable, however, is to do any of these things in solitude. Even holding the amount of alcohol consumed constant between settings, drinking alone rather than with friends is often seen as a more troubling activity. Continue reading

The moral limitations of in vitro meat

By Ben Levinstein and Anders Sandberg

Almost everybody agrees factory farming is morally outrageous, with several billions of animals living lives that are likely not worth living. One possible solution to this moral disaster is to make in vitro meat technologically and commercially viable. In vitro meat is biologically identical to real meat but cultured in a tank: one day it may become cheaper, more efficient and safer than normal meat. On animal welfare grounds, then, in vitro meat seems like a clear win as it has the potential to eliminate or greatly reduce the need for factory farms. However, there is a problem…

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Is this really me? Parasites and other humans’ cells in our brains change our psychology

Many people are suspicious about being manipulated in their emotions, thoughts or behaviour by external influences, may those be drugs or advertising. However, it seems that – unbeknown to most of us – within our own bodies exist a considerable number of foreign entities. These entities can change our psychology to a surprisingly large degree. And they pursue their own interests – which do not necessarily coincide with ours.

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Guest Post: Why isn’t the world going vegan?

Written by Catia Faria

Universitat Pompeu Fabra

Last month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, one of the world’s most influential organizations in its field, published an updated version of a paper concluding that animal-free diets are absolutely healthy (Cullum-Dugan & Pawlak 2015). The article presents the official position of the Academy on this topic, according to which, when well designed, vegetarian and vegan diets provide adequate nutrition for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.

 It would be reasonable to expect that such conclusion had a significant impact on people’s dietary choices. If adopting a vegan diet imposed great costs on the health of human beings, then doing it might not be what we are required to do. Yet the health argument has been, again, debunked. So, why aren’t people going massively vegan? Continue reading

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