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One scientist wants to tax the cows.

Danica Lo
Updated May 24, 2017

For decades, scientists have known that cows produce epic amounts of methane—in fact, a 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report estimates that cow farts account for 18 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world (that's more greenhouse gas than transportation!). Marco Springmann, a Oxford University post-doc, has come up with a proposal for how to reduce the amount of cow emissions—by raising prices on meat and milk, thereby compelling people to consume less of it. Sounds pretty master-of-the-obvious, right?

"The global climate change mitigation potential of emissions pricing of food commodities could be substantial," the study concludes, " and that levying greenhouse gas taxes on food commodities could, if appropriately designed, be a health-promiting climate policy in high-income countries, as well as in most low- and middle-income countries."

Springmann and his research team suggest siphoning revenue from these greenhouse gas taxes on food to promote healthy habits and fund pro-health policies that "could help avert most of the negative health impacts experienced by vulnerable groups, whilst still promoting changes towards diets which are more environmentally sustainable."

OK, let's just stop and think about this for a second. The tax percentages on meat and milk being floated around the internet in regards to this idea are 40 percent (meat) and 20 percent (milk). "It is clear that if we don't do something about the emissions from our food system, we have no chance of limiting climate change below 2 [degrees Celsius]," Springmann told the Guardian. "But if you'd have to pay 40 percent more for your steak, you might choose to have it once a week instead of twice."

What I want to know is: Who is eating steak twice a week—probably someone who has the disposable income to do so—and will a steep tax really deter a wealthy person from consuming meat, or will the tax simply punish the poor, keeping meat out of their reach? And milk—which for many families with children is considered a nutritious kitchen staple—increasing the price of milk 20 percent probably won't have much of an impact on a wealthy person's purchase decision, but could drastically impact the budget of a lower-income family.

There's also not a whole lot of evidence that tax-based consumption deterrents work on food products. In 2012, Denmark instituted and quickly abandoned a surcharge on foods high in saturated fat (like butter). And sugar taxes on drinks in countries such as Mexico and France had a very short-term effect on sell-through, but there was no apparent reduction in sugar consumption in the long run.

That said, climate change is a very real threat to this planet, and, unfortunately, food production plays a big role in global warming and deforestation. Springmann is right about the need to shift dietary patterns—both for our health's sake and for the sake of our planet—but taxing basic food groups, making essentials even less affordable for the poor seems like an unfair governmental response. Is it too idealistic to instead advocate for local grassroots eco-awareness movements and improved nutrition education in schools thereby expanding access and subsidies for healthier foods (fruits, vegetables, whole foods and grains) along the way, making shopping for good-for-you/good-for-the-Earth products at the supermarket an easy, wallet-friendly decision?