Cheap meat comes at a high cost, and it’s American consumers who foot the bill.
According to data provided over email by research firm Technomic, the average fast food cheeseburger costs $4.02, but that price tag doesn’t take into account a number of invisible external costs, also known as “externalities.” These include poisonous methane emissions from cows that accelerate climate change and higher health care costs associated with unhealthy diets, which are ultimately paid for by society.
In hopes of offsetting the external environmental and health costs of meat, federal agencies and councils in Denmark, Germany, and Sweden––as well as a member of parliament in England––are calling for a meat tax.
It just might work.
In the U.S., cigarette taxes have incentivized smoking cessation, and taxes on sugary beverages have nudged Americans to drink more water and less soda, leading to improved public health.
Curbing our meat consumption could do the same, which is why organizations like the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American College of Cardiology advise centering our plates on plants to reduce risk of chronic illnesses. According to researchers at the University of Oxford, if Americans switched to vegetarianism en masse, we could reduce our health care costs by up to $223.6 billion each year by 2050, as vegetarians typically have lower rates of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain forms of cancer.
The same experts found that widespread vegetarianism could cut environmental costs by $35 billion, as meat’s role in exacerbating climate change, as well as its contribution to soil erosion, water pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, is well documented.
It’s clear that the environmental and public health consequences of our meat consumption demand more scrutiny and, according to some governments, taxation.
It’s time American policymakers started a discussion on taxing meat too, because rather than reform its practices or scale back production, the meat industry has fought tooth and nail to fend off environmental regulation and commonsense nutritional standards, leaving citizens to deal with its mess.
Take, for example, North Carolina’s infamous pork industry. On any given day, families unfortunate enough to live near a pig factory farm—often low-income people of color—might suffer respiratory distress, decreased lung function, or nausea because facilities pump pig waste through sprayers onto fields. This waste can carry over to residential property and nearby schools. Even if these families had the means, suing wouldn’t be worth the legal fees because state legislators passed a law barring citizens from winning compensation for damages related to health, quality of life, enjoyment of property, or lost income caused by factory farms.
Revenue from a meat tax, levied on producers at 15%––comparable to sugary beverage taxes––could be used to clean up rural communities like those in North Carolina suffering from lax regulation. It could also fund environmental restoration projects, such as cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes, bodies of water that states depend on for tourism but are polluted by factory farm runoff.
To ensure this tax doesn’t negatively impact Americans’ grocery bills, meat tax revenue could also be used to increase availability and affordability of healthy plant-based foods.
The high cost of cheap meat, one that many of us have the luxury to ignore, is undeniable. But ultimately this cost will be paid by future generations, who will have to cope with the harmful effects of a changing climate that we compound every time we eat meat––unless we act today.
Kenny Torrella is the director of communications at Mercy For Animals.