Monday, December 11, 2017

Brace Yourselves. Sin Tax on Meat, Coming Soon.

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.

The first global analysis of meat taxes done in 2016 found levies of 40% on beef, 20% on dairy products and 8.5% on chicken would save half a million lives a year and slash climate warming emissions. Proposals in Denmark suggested a tax of $2.70 per kilogram of meat.

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%.

All this would be hard enough. But as people’s incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein. World meat production has quadrupled in 50 years, but global average consumption is still only half that of the UK – where we eat roughly our bodyweight in meat every year – and just over a third of the US level. Because of the way we eat, the UK’s farmland footprint (the land required to meet our demand) is 2.4 times the size of its agricultural area. If everyone aspires to this diet, how exactly do we accommodate it?

And then there's the hard question, the one that you and I will have to wrestle with.

The next green revolution will not be like the last one. It will rely not on flogging the land to death, but on reconsidering how we use it and why. Can we do this, or do we – the richer people now consuming the living planet – find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?


Toby said...

There was a documentary on the TV that showed a poor man in a poor place lamenting that his family had outgrown the ability of his two acre farm to produce enough to feed all the mouths. The poor of the world are responsible for 97% of world population growth. There are statistics over here:

As you posted above, Mound, we simply cannot continue feed the world's present population on the heavy meat diet (or fish for that matter). Feeding another two or three billion is out of the question. People will starve.

What has always disappointed me is that Europeans came to North America and killed off the native large grazing animals (buffalo, antelope, elk, caribou, etc.) in order to make room for cattle which to this day are ill suited for their new environment. The native animals thrived all by themselves while cattle have to be provided for.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm coming to think it's an odds-on proposition that our younger generation, our grandchildren, will be around to witness a massive human die-off. We cannot put out all the fires that are now ablaze. We might have the means but we don't have the will to accept the sacrifices that would demand. Research from the Global Footprint Network several years ago suggested that mankind entered "overshoot" back in the early 70s when our numbers first passed the 3 billion mark. Since then we've grown substantially not just in numbers but in per capita consumption/over-consumption. To get back to a sustainable human population we would have to shed more than 4 billion of our numbers while simultaneously curbing the consumption of the surviving number. How do you stay sane through something like that?

Toby said...

Ultimately, we have a garden planet. We should be care takers. At present we are miners intent on taking until we have exhausted everything.

Anonymous said...

Anyong.....2:42 Over half the population in India still doesn't have toilets and they poop in the rivers. They ought to be sterilizing it and putting on the land. The human die-off that is expected is a set up. How better to get rid of half the population....another genocide. As for the l% wealthiest people...guess what...? They will have a great life having got rid of all the riff-raff. Then they can begin to kill themselves off. Perhaps by then the world can replenish itself with something else until the sun burns itself out. Hurrah! Hurrah! No wonder there are those people who want to find another planet to begin all over again....lovely!