"Meat Taxation Is Unavoidable"

Environmental economist Professor Dr. Linus Mattauch on the true cost of a kilogram of beef and why meat taxation is better than a ban

Professor Mattauch, you are pursuing the question of whether meat in countries of the Global North is too cheap in the context of climate change. Why did you take up this question?

...because there's a research gap.


How so?

Livestock are responsible for 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock farming not only puts a strain on the climate but also affects nitrate pollution in our soil and water as well as biodiversity. Forests are cleared to create space for new pasture areas and grow feed. There is also a correlation between certain illnesses and high meat consumption. While we are taxing greenhouse gas emissions in the energy and transport sector in an effort to reduce them, all these environmental impacts of meat consumption continue to be disregarded. The cost of meat doesn't reflect them and is too low. The question is by how much? In order to accurately determine the cost, we must properly assess the magnitude of environmental and health externalities associated with livestock production and meat consumption in economic terms, and this has not yet been done for meat. 

Do you have a model calculation at hand for what a kilogram of beef would need to cost if it were to include all those external effects such as carbon emission, nitrate pollution, and massive decrease of biodiversity?

The external costs from climate change and nitrate pollution amount to a global average of 5.76 to 9.21 USD per kilogram for beef - depending on whether dairy products are also produced at the same time. In industrialized countries, this would mean that a kilogram of beef would on average be 35 to 56 percent more expensive, lamb and pork 19 percent, and poultry 25 percent. But this is only a rough initial calculation, which is still too low as it does not include damage resulting from the loss of biodiversity. Scientists do not yet fully understand how much a schnitzel eaten in Germany contributes to the loss of rainforest via global land use effects. Additionally, the adverse health effects for humans and the impact on animal welfare are not considered either. This means that, taken together, the social costs could be many times higher. How one quantifies this is also always a question of moral value judgements.

At such a price, a kilogram of beef would be hard to sell.

Exactly. Of course, policymakers can't simply increase the price tenfold. However, this real price could be a signal to start thinking about also taxing meat to reduce its consumption. After all, this must be the goal, because without a reduction in per capita meat consumption in the countries of the Global North, it will not be possible to halt the loss of species and stop straining planetary boundaries. Part of my research also involves considering how environmental policies can be justified through health benefits. As an environmental economist, I am certain that taxation of these effects and thus a price increase for meat is the most efficient path to preventing further strain on our planet as well as adverse health impacts resulting from livestock farming and meat consumption.

Yet another tax and then on an essential group of goods like food... It seems impossible to gain public support for such a proposal.

Of course, it's necessary to gradually introduce it and start small. For instance, all climate economists say that the current carbon price for coal, gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and gas introduced in Germany in early 2021 is much too low. However, what mattered most was that it was Introduced at all – from zero euros previously to 25 euros per ton of CO2. This could also be a possibility for meat taxation. But I admit that the approach of environmental economics to tax socially undesirable things so that they are in less demand is not something people intuitively follow. On the other hand, the proposed animal welfare levy is clever. The levy imposed on animal products is coupled with a specific purpose: Livestock farmers can use this to improve rearing conditions. This increases acceptance because it is clearer what the tax is for.

If I understand you correctly, meat taxation is inevitable sooner or later. However, it will come up against the problem of acceptance. Let's assume you had the opportunity to speak with politicians who may be skeptical or even vehemently oppose meat taxation. Which arguments based on your research would you raise to convince them?

The climate issue seems to be the dominant environmental problem in the minds of politicians. Studies show that greenhouse gas neutrality will not be achieved without ambitious measures in the nutrition sector. It won't be possible without reducing meat consumption. There are indeed many other worthwhile measures such as government-mandated standards for more environmentally efficient livestock farming or subsidies for planted-based meat substitutes. However, it is hard to imagine that the necessary transition towards less meat is possible without price increases. A tax seems to me to be a much more liberal instrument than reducing meat consumption through bans. Additionally, like the carbon tax on gasoline, it generates revenues that could not only be used to help livestock farmers but also to compensate lower-income households.

Interview: Sybille Nitsche