It may sound like a radical idea but it's not, not even remotely radical. An environmental tax on meat.
For close to a decade, soil agronomists have been warning that industrial agriculture, the conjuring act by which we made the planet able to grow the human population to 7.5 billion and beyond, was killing the soil itself. Too many crops requiring ever increasing applications of agricultural chemicals (fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides) was depleting the stuff in the soil - the black stuff - that makes farmland arable. We were turning good soil into marginal soil and marginal soil into sterile, useless soil and on into desert.
Eventually in 2014 even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization weighed in with a warning that mankind had about 60 harvests remaining. I suppose that's closer to 57 now. 57, your parents are probably older than that. Maybe you are too. Like so many other existential challenges now threatening our survival our leaders pretend that it's not happening but, sorry, it is.
It's pretty obvious that we're going to have to take a harder look at what we do with our soil and what we get from it. And, as soon as you get into that, you plunge into the debate about livestock - meat.
The global livestock industry causes 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions and meat consumption is rising around the world, but dangerous climate change cannot be avoided unless this is radically curbed. Furthermore, many people already eat far too much meat, seriously damaging their health and incurring huge costs. Livestock also drive other problems, such as water pollution and antibiotic resistance.
A new analysis from the investor network Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (Fairr) Initiative argues that meat is therefore now following the same path as tobacco, carbon emissions and sugar towards a sin tax, a levy on harmful products to cut consumption. Meat taxes have already been discussed in parliaments in Germany, Denmark and Sweden, the analysis points out, and China’s government has cut its recommended maximum meat consumption by 45% in 2016.
Meat taxes are often seen as politically impossible but research by Chatham House in 2015 found they are far less unpalatable to consumers than governments think. It showed people expect governments to lead action on issues that are for the global good, but that awareness of the damage caused by the livestock industry is low. Using meat tax revenues to subsidise healthy foods is one idea touted to reduce opposition.
“It’s only a matter of time before agriculture becomes the focus of serious climate policy,” said Rob Bailey at Chatham House. “The public health case will likely strengthen government resolve, as we have seen with coal and diesel. It’s hard to imagine concerted action to tax meat today, but over the course of the next 10 to 20 years, I would expect to see meat taxes accumulate.”
Meanwhile The Guardian's George Monbiot writes that we're staring at the very real prospect of mass starvation.
By the middle of this century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.
The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.
Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in south Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by the year 2050. Where will it come from?
The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. These predictions could be optimistic. Research published in the journal Agricultural & Environmental Letters finds that 4C of warming in the US corn belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%.
And then there's the hard question, the one that you and I will have to wrestle with.