A Beef with Britain

Aug. 24, 2022

British experts consider a tax on meat, but acknowledge it's just about impossible.

I can’t think of a country that’s more associated with meat, especially beef, than the United Kingdom. They even call the guards around the Tower of London “Beefeaters.”

So when the Brits start sounding the alarm on meat consumption, maybe the rest of the world should listen.

A couple of news stories out of Britain caught my eye in that regard. The first was an interview in The Guardian with the UK’s “lead non-executive board member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs,” more colloquially known as the nation’s Food Czar. (Or Tsar, which seems to be the preferred British spelling.)

This man’s name is Henry Dimbleby, and he is a former restaurant executive who apparently is well-thought of in British conservative circles. In his Guardian interview, Dimbleby pointed out that meat has an outsized environmental impact, especially when its nutritive value is considered.

“It’s an incredibly inefficient use of land to grow crops, feed them to a ruminant or pig or chicken which then over its lifecycle converts them into a very small amount of protein for us to eat,” he said. He estimated that for Britain to meet its climate-change targets, its citizens would have to consume some 30% less meat.

The second story comes from Oxford University, where a professor co-authored an op-ed in Fast Company calling for taxes on meat consumption – steep ones.

Cameron Hepburn, a professor of environmental economics at Oxford, and Franziska Funke, with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, propose taxes ranging from 19% for lamb and pork to 56% for, yes, beef. They suggest mitigating the effects with governmental relief for low-income households, which sounds suspiciously close to government taking money with one hand and giving back some of it with the other.

Dimbleby raised the possibility of meat taxes in his Guardian interview, only to dismiss it out of hand: “The government would fall within a fortnight if it implemented a meat tax. There’s no point recommending impossible things.” Even the authors of the Fast Company article acknowledge that “a meat tax is currently unthinkable in the current political environment,” before going on to suggest that “it may become inevitable” if the UK is to meet its climate goals.

Well. If it becomes inevitable, it will only be because the world has arrived at such desperate straits that it will be willing to try anything to put out the global fire.

Where will meat rank on the list of things that consumers, especially in wealthy countries, are willing to give up? Ahead of air conditioning? Cars?

It’s an interesting question, to which I really hope I never find out the answer.