Taxing meat

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.


  1. Sean Danaher -

    The UK climate is not suitable for all year round cattle grazing – though it might work in Cornwall. If I remember correctly in Ireland in Cork, the most southerly county, cows are kept indoors for about 6 weeks but In Northern Ireland it is for many months.

    Feeding on hay or silage of course will be far more environmentally friendly.

    Grain feeding is probably OK for poultry but not environmentally for cattle. It’s a complex subject!

  2. Robin Trow -

    There are a couple of points that need challenging.

    Firstly, there is no nutritional problem with a vegan diet for adults, providing they pay attention to the protein balance of nuts, grains and pulses, and eat a broad range of foods to ensure sufficient micronutrients are consumed.

    Secondly, as far as I am aware, eggs and dairy produce has always been accepted as part of a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians avoid eating animal product that has been taken from a dead animal. Most bought eggs are unfertilised, so they’re OK.

    I can’t comment regarding animal husbandary, but Sean’s comment rings true

    1. Peter May -

      Regarding a vegetarain diet, you are, for me, correct. But so many vegetarians don’t like male calves being ‘desptached’ and so end up abhorring milk – ditto cock chickens…
      So I think it’s far from clear cut…

  3. Graham -

    The UK climate is suitable for year round grazing, but only in certain parts. Native cattle like the Highland, Aberdeen Angus, Welsh Black can happily stay outside on the right kind of ground and the right stocking densities – the uplands. Stock them densely on low ground and it quickly becomes poached (severely damaged by water-logging and hooves) and therefore the cattle are taken indoors, partly for convenience and partly to protect the ground. We kept a small herd and I was able to put them on a heather hillside over winter. They are also much healthier outside.

    I would ban all intensive cattle production based on grain and encourage extensive rearing on the uplands. We should eat less meat but of much better quality.

    I read Richard Murphy’s excursion into environmental matters and fear hubris has taken him into areas which he knows little about. So I have recently taken a rest from reading his blog.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Graham thanks – very interesting regarding keeping cattle outside all year around. I think the main problem in parts of Ireland is the heavy rainfall and water-logging rather than it being too cold.

      I agree regarding meat – the thought of going towards American standards horrifies me.

      Less meat but of far better quality exactly! My wife was a vegetarian but now eats a little meat but only if it is organic and she knows the animal welfare standards are excellent.

      Richard Murphy is world leading on Tax and excellent on Economics but does seem to shoot from the hip sometimes on other matters. To be fair he has a real passion about the environment and sometimes puts up “strawmen” to get the discussion going.

      1. Donald Manchester -

        I think Richard J Murphy is showing himself to be an expert on neither subject with this foray into environmental taxes.
        He thinks that taxing what he sees as sources of methane output will restrain methane output. It’s a straightforward Pigouvian idea. He thinks that taxing sources of Carbon Dioxide ( i.e. a CO2 tax ) would be a complete failure. And he thinks he’s being entirely consistent.
        He’s being consistent in his wishes. I’ll grant him that.

    2. Peter May -

      Thanks, Graham. My sentiments entirely!
      I think it is also inadequately understood that decent, healthy soil stores carbon. Fertilised, ‘treated’ soil becomes thin and effectively doesn’t.
      Cattle fattened by grain is carbohydrate fattening (which, we now understand, humans also do to themselves!)
      It seems to me that’s also another failure of capitalism. Fattening equals quantity equals income. A simple capitalist sum.
      Less but better may have been more difficult to justify when working on the land was hard and prolonged physical work, but now it is mechanically aided, it really is all down to maximising income. And the market is organised to view quantity as more important than quality. (Tesco shareholders should note- as if!) This could plausibly be argued for widgets but is absolutely crazy for something that life depends on -food!

  4. brian faux -

    You can`t escape the power conversion problem.
    A field may provide x tons of nutrient (grass/veg/whatever).
    If this is fed to animals then they in turn will convert it to nutrient (meat/milk) but only at a a low efficiency – I don`t have the actual figures to hand but 20% would be pretty generous.
    Therefore land used to feed humans directly -ie crops- will be 5 times as efficient.
    Or, we could use one fifth of the land area to feed the same number of humans.
    This is a very simple outline: one quick response is that there are many areas which are only suitable for grazing.
    However if we could use only 20% of our land to feed the populace leaving 80% for re-foresting, re-wilding (and solar panels – which are much more efficient than plants at gathering energy) that`s quite a big margin to play with.

    1. Peter May -

      But, for me, we must realise that some limited meat is essential for human survival. Vegan (properly nourished) life may just be possible for the long term as an adult (I’m personally doubtful) but certainly not as a growing child.
      I agree re the ‘low efficiency’, but then we have the carbohydrate problem, which we now know is far less desirable for human health than animal fats.
      In effect we can be entirely efficient and walking dead, courtesy of the NHS….
      Or less efficient and alive and really kicking. With the NHS required rather less!
      For the UK which has in recent times never been food sufficient, I think using 20% of the land, unless much of Southern and Eastern Britain was to be covered with glasshouses, would be impossible.

  5. C. Hughes -

    NHS: vegan babies and children are fine; key supplement is B12.

    Guardian: scientists behind “the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet” say a vegan diet “is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet” – “not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use”. Brian above is almost bang on.

    On the release of last year’s IPCC report, one of the scientists behind it said on BBCR4 that “if you’re not vegan, you’re not serious about climate change.”

    1. Peter May -

      As far as I can see these reports do not take account of the fact that ploughing releases carbon from the soil, fertiliser for these arable crops contributes to greenhouse gases and invariably requires oil to produce it.
      Soil erosion is caused by long term uses of fertilisers because of the resultant decline in soil quality. Soil in good condition fixes about three times more carbon than trees. Animal waste is a soil improver and the best form of recycling. Methane lasts only for 10 years so unless you are increasing your herd there is the same amount of methane in the atmosphere as there always has been. So I’m entirely okay with eating less meat but not no meat. See for example:
      For me more important is that you’re not serious about climate change if your’e flying.

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