Meat is not the ‘new tobacco’

The idea of having to pay a sin tax for environmentally detrimental foods is gaining support. For some, eating meat is a sin, and therefore meat products should be taxed like alcohol and tobacco.

A new report published recently by a British group called Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return Initiative argues that a tax on meat is inevitable.

The meat industry, particularly beef producers, has been facing relentless criticism over the last decade. Rarely have we seen reports encouraging consumers to eat more meat.

For one thing, science-based findings linking climate change and meat have been accumulating. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that livestock account for about 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other surveys have suggested the sector may represent up to 18 percent.

Greenhouse gas emissions produced by the livestock industry will only increase as the middle class in India and China expand, and, as such, demand for animal protein is exploding.

And then there’s health.

In 2015, a World Health Organization report indicated that eating processed meat products, such as salami, sausages and other smoked deli meats, increases the risk of developing cancer.

Several meat-producing countries, including the United States, Brazil and Australia, ridiculed the report because processed meats were added to the same category as asbestos.

But several other governments have discouraged their citizens from consuming an unreasonable amount of meat. That’s not a signal the meat industry needs.

The other major headwind the industry faces is related to the ethical treatment of animals. Some believe livestock production is unethical and that the industrial production of meat should be outlawed.

Food giants like Tyson Foods and Cargill are looking at beyond-meat solutions. Yet statistics show that demand for meat in Canada is stubbornly robust.

The average Canadian typically consumes about 87 kilograms of meat products in one year, which is just slightly lower than the amount from five years ago.

This year, beef consumption in our country reached 25.4 kilograms per capita, and some expect demand for the product to increase to 25.5 kilograms next year. Surprising, perhaps, but beef prices have come down, making the product more attractive for the consumer on a budget.

Canadian consumers have largely stayed on the side of our livestock industry, but numbers are showing signs of a change in consumer habits.

Demand for pork is expected to fall to unprecedented levels in 2018, dropping 13 percent from its 2015 level. Demand for chicken, one of the cheapest types of animal protein, plateaued in 2016 and has since softened.

Animal protein still has market currency, but plant-based alternatives to meat are increasingly attractive.

But little can be accomplished by taxing meat. Taxing food in general, any food product, is morally questionable. A retail tax on food is regressive and can potentially penalize the underprivileged who need affordable protein.

Some have floated the idea of taxing meat as a type of sin tax.

Some have argued that meat is the new tobacco. This sensationalist parallel is unwise, since tobacco is not essential to life and food is.

What’s more, many small businesses around the country have offered high-quality meat products to local markets. Many of them are family businesses. Taxing sausages and steaks would compromise the viability of many stores valued by communities across the country.

Meat has played a significant part in consumers’ lives in the West for centuries. Penalizing consumers for continuing a culinary tradition is unfair.

We should let the market evolve and allow consumers to make their own choices.

That said, the livestock industry must start listening to consumers to better appreciate their concerns. Given that they are one of the most trusted groups in our economy, livestock producers are ideally positioned to renew their social contract with the public.

This is an edited version of an article originally published by The Conversation Canada. The full version is available at Sylvain Charlebois is senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for market studies and dean of the faculty of management and a professor in the faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University.

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