There could be a meat tax on the horizon. So where’s the beef?

Richard Wallace

Cows are brilliant: docile, gentle, adorably vacant. But for those of us who value things like the environment and being alive, there’s an uncomfortable downside to our Friesian friends: those gentle beasts are secretly an existential threat. Despite the undeniable deliciousness of a fine rib-eye, we now know that bovine digestive tracts have an adverse effect on climate change. Their meat is a high carbon emission foodstuff, and breeding them on a mass scale is pretty much ecologically indefensible, especially as scientists now believe that the climate change problem is even more severe and immediate than we initially feared.

But what can we do? You can’t just make meat illegal overnight. But we can do what we usually do when we want people to stop consuming something that’s bad for them: tax it out of existence. That’s what we’ve done with cigarettes, and to an extent with cheap booze, and we’re about to do it with sugary drinks too. Experts have suggested that levying a steak tax will yield results – perhaps with similar success as Australia’s tobacco tax (Australians now pay the equivalent of around £25 for a pack of smokes.) Thus, collectively easing the burden we’re placing on our planet’s delicate atmosphere with our nation’s penchant for roast beef sandwiches.

There’s no shortage of critics for the proposal, who say that it is doomed to fail (although others argue that the proposed tax is more useful as a thought experiment, a red flag for the severity of the global warming situation, than as a workable policy. In other words, an exercise in Unframing.)

But there’s no reason to believe that this tax is any less viable than other successful taxes levied in an attempt to change thinking and behaviour. British people will complain about the tax, sure. The political climate in the UK is hostile to any form of taxation, specifically taxes designed to influence behaviour. We’re very wary of the so-called “nanny state,” and despite our brief dalliances with postwar socialism, extremely hostile to the tax man—perhaps understandable, considering our history. In 1696, England taxed people for having windows, and didn’t repeal it for five years. Suddenly a tax on sirloin doesn’t sound all that unreasonable.

But, despite initial resistance, most people would very possibly accept the changes eventually. We are waking up to the dangers of fizzy drinks and fast food, as well as smoking and binge-drinking. There are plenty of problems with the actual method of taxation—it affects low-income families more than high earners, for example, and overall generally comes off as judgemental and fussy—but in theory, taxes designed to change behaviour are an effective innovation which use existing utilities to slowly funnel people into a gradual re-evaluation of their priorities. It’s not necessarily fair to say that this method of social engineering is justified by the end result, but it certainly shows that public thinking can be changed at a small individual level as a result of smart innovation, and it also goes to show that some things of which we’re often certain—for example, that we will never give up our Coca-Cola and Marlboro lights, no matter what—might not always be true, when new conditions make us re-evaluate our thinking.

We are collectively always open to seeing the world differently in the right conditions – we often find that we’re unwilling to leave our comfort zones, but are grateful once we do. So while some have said that the meat tax will be doomed to fail, there’s always the chance that our national character—even when it comes to our beloved Sunday roast—is open for a rethink in the face of a changing future. And while we may love our roast beef, vegetarianism and environmental awareness is growing—it’s very possible that we’ll see a future where we radically unframe how we see our relationship with food. Where’s the beef with that?