I usually like Richard Murphy’s ideas – but not this one: under his Tax to Save The Environment he is in favour of taxing meat. This is principally, as I understand it, because cattle, sheep and goats, owing to their ruminant stomachs, emit significant quantities of methane. Now I haven’t established whether he thinks horses, as non ruminants emitting much less methane might be suitable substitutes, but of course, in the UK we generally think of them in Grand National terms rather than as meat. But he is of the view that pasture land on which ruminants currently feed should be planted with trees.
I find this quite difficult to understand. First, we cannot eat trees, though they could be fruit trees and if they were, then the old West Country tradition of growing them with sheep grazing in the areas in between wouldn’t upset me at all. But apparently we are talking trees for life – for wood. Of course they absorb carbon and I do understand that is a good thing.
But if you have proper pasture grazed animals then there is recent research to indicate that these can actually be carbon negative. It is true that the animals should be permanently grazed on pasture but there are now some UK herds that do indeed follow that principle. It is in fact the pervasive grain fattening and keeping stock indoors – aka factory farming – that causes the methane and the lack of carbon capture problem. There are numerous studies, largely from rain challenged American states I admit, but since Britain is a pretty wet island I think American studies are likely if anything to underestimate carbon capture effects for British soils.
That suggests to me that the wrong tree is, at were, being barked up. The British Isles is a major producer of good quality grassfed animals – not for nothing do our nearest neighbours call us ‘les rosbifs’, whilst also, let us not forget, being significant consumers of Welsh lamb.
Second and perhaps even more importantly, as taxing helps to change behaviour, I consider this gives much too much of a free pass to arable farmers for whom, in actuality, animal manure should be an important source of soil enrichment without the need to use artificial (green house gas creating) fertilisers. There is pervasive evidence that artificially fertilised arable crops lead to lighter, less complex soils and greater soil erosion, while the most common weedkiller, so widely used for arable crops is highly likely to be dangerous for human health. Arable fungicides are now likely to be responsible for significant bacterial drug resistance in humans. These worrying problems show that the advantages of mixed farming and crop rotation should not be so lightly tossed away.
Third taxing meat suggests that meat is bad – after all there have really not been any taxes on food basics since the nineteenth century. But meat isn’t bad – it’s a little bit more complicated than that…Meat provides vitamins essential to our lives and basically vegan healthy living without artificial supplements is not possible at all and even vegetarian living is still pretty difficult.
So I do realise that taxes can never be perfect but in taxing meat you send a message that meat is less good than veg. Not if we want to have a healthy life it isn’t. Meat is very nutrient dense so you don’t need much of it. Rather than taxing it we would be better off getting rid of factory farming, which is basically feeding farmed grain to animals, which has the same effect as it does on humans – it makes them fat. And also insisting on all year round pasture grazing. This might increase meat prices, meaning that people were able to afford less of it, which is likely to be no bad thing especially if, as it it would, it increases quality whilst increasing carbon capture in the soil.
Permanent vegetarianism is going to be harmful to the health of most people – especially females, who (unless eggs are somehow treated as vegetarian) are likely to struggle with sufficient iron absorption.
In my view if meat is regarded as ‘bad’ people will simply fall prey to substituting it with much of the corporate manufactured lookalike meat substitutes, which are frankly, much worse, and very rarely, if ever, nutritional substitutes. As this video clip, in its inimitable style, suggests…..
So, for me, taxing meat will help reduce carbon emissions only if, simultaneously, we consider it acceptable to continue with factory ‘shed’ farming, when we should, surely, be playing to the strengths of a green and pleasant land.
It further sends an incorrect health message to the consumer. And there are already too many of those.
If we really want to start taxing food (and I’m not really convinced we do) then I suggest that such a plan needs to be much more deeply considered.