Is it time to ban meat?


Meat production is an environmental disaster. Research has found that it accounts for twice as many GHG emissions as plant production, with meats such as beef being particularly harmful. In fact, plant production accounts for only 29% of agricultural GHG emissions while beef alone accounts for around 25%. Faced with this reality, we must conclude that reducing the environmental impact caused by meat production is a vital part of tackling climate change. The question is how we should go about it. In the most extreme case, an outright ban on meat could eliminate the problem. Less extreme solutions could include imposing taxes on meat or taking action to make its production more sustainable. 

The latter option is particularly appealing to consumers, as it would allow a business to go on largely as usual. Furthermore, some techniques to make meat production sustainable are not even very expensive to put into place. Experiments have shown that feeding cows red seaweed could reduce methane emissions by as much as 82% without affecting the quality of the beef. Unfortunately, changes like this might not have enough of an impact. The most sustainable meat is often much more environmentally damaging than the least sustainable sources of plant protein. Only 10% of lamb produces less than 12 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents to create 100g of protein. Meanwhile, only 10% of pea producers produce more than 0.8 kg of CO2 equivalents to make 100g of protein. We have to conclude that dramatically reducing the consumption of meat would have a much greater impact on GHG emissions than consuming more sustainably sourced meat. This is particularly true for meats such as beef and lamb, which have a very high environmental impact. 

Having concluded that we need to reduce meat consumption to meet our climate mitigation goals, we just have to consider what the best way of doing this would be. One option would be outright bans. However, this option is deeply flawed. Firstly, it’s probably not politically viable. Although proportions vary by country, the majority of consumers around the world are neither vegetarian nor vegan. People have strongly negative attitudes towards vegetarians and vegans. In fact, a study found that the only group viewed more negatively than vegans was drug addicts. Given people’s strong feelings about veganism, an outright ban on meat would probably trigger virulent political resistance and would be unlikely to last. 

Furthermore, banning meat wouldn’t maximise welfare. Meat consumption should be understood as a good that has a negative production externality. This means that it’s creating costs on third parties which aren’t being taken into account in the pricing, and the costs to society are higher than the costs to buyers and sellers. When buyers and sellers make transactions, they take into account only their own costs, leading to them making more transactions than they would if they took into account social costs. Rather than completely banning meat, we should take into account the externality by lowering quantities and/or raising prices until private and social costs are the same. 

This could be done by either setting quotas or taxes on meat products. I would argue that a tax would be the most effective policy. As previously mentioned, it’s possible to make meat more sustainable. A quota would just restrict the quantity of meat sold, but wouldn’t incentivize a shift to the more sustainable production of animal protein. On the other hand, a tax that got higher based on GHG emissions would also incentivize a shift to lower-impact meat and encourage the adoption of more sustainable production methods. As a result, we wouldn’t just achieve a reduction in the quantity of meat consumed but would also make sure the meat we did eat was better for the environment.

Some might argue that such a tax would have negative effects on consumers. There is a perception that vegan and vegetarian diets are more expensive. This can be true, given that veggie burgers, sausages, and other substitutes that try to imitate meat can be considerably more expensive. However, this is not the case when substituting animal protein for foods such as beans, peas, and lentils which are often less expensive. You can get one gram of protein from rolled oats for only 0.7 cents. Meanwhile, dry lentils, chickpeas, and dry beans will set you back 1.6 cents, 1.1 cents, and 1.1 cents per gram of protein respectively. Steak and ground beef will cost you 4.5 and 4 cents per gram of protein. An Oxford study actually found that a sustainable, plant-based diet could be 33% cheaper than a meat-based one. In the long run, a tax shifting consumption to plant-based diets would not generate much negative financial impact. 

In conclusion, a tax on meat products which increases based on their environmental impact is urgently needed. It is vital that we reduce meat consumption to meet climate change mitigation targets. However, outright bans probably wouldn’t last long due to political backlash. Furthermore, they also wouldn’t maximise welfare, as some degree of meat consumption is still beneficial to society. A tax would meet less resistance although it would likely still lead to a strong backlash. It would also have the advantage of incentivizing sustainable meat production, minimising the impact of the meat people still choose to consume, and would be less restrictive of consumer choices. 

Featured image: Pixabay

Sabina Narvaez
Sabina Narvaez
Originally from Mexico, but mostly grew up abroad and has Spanish nationality. Studies Philosophy, Politics, Law and Economics and mostly writes about these topics. Also interested in sustainability.

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  1. Both the meat tax and the meat ban should be implemented immediately if you realise how close our planet is to the brink of collapse.

    You don’t tax drugs to help drug addicts kick their habit. Meat is literally delayed toxicity that will have a negative impact on human and planetary health. The warnings to humanity through climate change disasters in recent years are becoming more severe and more frequent. It will be too late if people/governments still want to play dumb.


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