More Non-Meat Choices Are Better Than Meat Taxes or Bans

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new study suggests changing food menus to include more fruits and vegetables and less meat options may be an effective and more appetizing way to reduce meat consumption than more restrictive or punitive policies, The Guardian reported this week. The study found that offering fewer meat options and more vegetarian options resulted in a decline in choices that contain meat. The Guardian says the study “showed making it easier to choose meat-free food can be effective and could be a more acceptable approach than other proposals, such as taxing meat or banning it on certain days.”

The study, authored by four Oxford University scholars and published this week in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity, examines ways to “increase[e] availability of meat-free meals to promote more sustainable purchasing.” The authors support such an approach, arguing that “reducing meat and dairy consumption… could lead to substantial benefits both in terms of health and environmental impact.” They conclude “that changing the availability of meat-free options may be a promising intervention to reduce the selection and purchase of meals containing meat.”

I don’t care one lick whether people eat more meat or less meat, raw meat, fake meat, or no meat at all. I’m highly skeptical of dietary, animal-rights, and environmental arguments against eating meat. I believe government policies should neither promote nor hinder eating meat. I’ve consistently argued that people should be free to make their own food choices. If I’m evangelical in any way, it’s that I preach this: eat what you want.

Others clearly disagree. The urge to tax meat, along with the spread of so-called Meatless Mondays, is an increasingly popular policy proposal—particularly in Europe. Supporters claim anti-meat policies will cure people, animals, and the environment of a host of ills. For example, a 2020 study suggested high taxes on meat (up to 30 percent), coupled with subsidies on fruit and vegetable purchases, would yield a host of improvements in human health and environmental sustainability.

While taxing meat at all—or, particularly, at a time of record beef prices—seems particularly cruel and regressive, meat taxes are gaining traction in some corners. For example, a 2018 study by (other) Oxford researchers called for a global meat tax. Leading British health and environmental groups have urged the government there to adopt a meat tax that would increase the price of beef by 25 percent. Other European countries have weighed taxing meat. Not surprisingly, anti-meat group PETA supports meat taxes. Some advocates have even suggested the spread of meat taxes is “imminent”—and something the United States should adopt.

“I do think that we should seriously consider a meat tax in the U.S.,” Prof. Jeff Sebo of New York University told MarketWatch last year. “The meat industry causes massive and unnecessary harm to animals, workers, public health[,] and the environment, and the cost of meat is artificially low because of subsidies and deregulation.”

While I disagree with Sebo that the meat industry isn’t highly regulated, he’s right that it’s highly subsidized. (That said, those subsidies have often taken the form of payments to farmers who raise plants—i.e., corn and soy—that many livestock eat). But the urge to tax things that taxpayers already subsidize, and to do so in a regressive way, basically suggests borrowing a page from the broken playbook of those who argue we should tax soda even while the federal government supports the sugar industry. (I won’t explain again why it’s a bad idea to force taxpayers to support an industry and then punish those taxpayers—with more taxes—for buying that industry’s products, instead of simply implementing neither tax in the first place.)

Other critics of meat taxes have also weighed in

“A tax on red meat would be a retrograde step, both for overall diet quality… and for health inequalities,” Carrie Ruxton, a public health nutritionist and dietitian in the United Kingdom, told CNBC in 2018, in an article on the proposed global meat tax. “There is no high-quality evidence linking red and processed meat with heart disease, stroke[,] or diabetes, and a risk of bowel cancer only applies when weekly intakes exceed 700g. As few people in the U.K. are at this level of consumption, a general meat tax would be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

If it’s true that more restrictive policies such as meat taxes are less palatable to consumers than ones that involve no government intervention, and that the latter voluntary approach is effective, then just what does the new Oxford study confirm? Ultimately, it suggests food sellers that want people to eat less meat (or, as the study puts it, sellers that want to make more “sustainable purchasing” decisions) should simply change their menus to include more vegetarian options.

Is that a good business decision? Maybe not. Maybe so. The study authors note that a key barrier to the success of their preferred approach is that it would require “chefs implementing a shift towards greater availability of meat-free meals when baseline meat consumption is high.” That may be a tall order. But since it’s one that requires no government intervention, it’s also one that—unlike mandatory taxes—preserves choices, and allows food sellers to choose to embrace or avoid it. I’m cool with that.

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