- Owen Gunden
In Defense of the Meat Tax
In February last year, Animal Ask published a study "Investigating whether a meat tax campaign could be a recommended intervention for improving the lives of factory farmed animals". Faunalytics posted a synopsis entitled The Downside of Meat Taxes.
I feel concerned. The meat tax is a potentially exciting and impactful policy goal which represents a unique approach. It deserves further research and consideration, but I'm afraid that isn't happening because of the impact of the aforementioned publications and the value being placed in their arguments.
The key argument being put forth for why we shouldn't consider this intervention is the "small animal replacement problem", or SARP. In a nutshell, the idea is that if we tax meat, we are going to drive consumers away from eating cows and pigs and towards eating chickens and fish. This is bad for welfare overall, the argument goes, because larger numbers of smaller animals will be raised and killed. By espousing the well-intentioned meat tax policy, we could be doing more harm than good. Ain't science counterintuitive sometimes!
The problem is, this argument relies on a whole bunch of shaky ground: (1) it's speculative and inconclusive because we've never actually seen a meat tax in action, and even if we had, it would be hard to measure the impact on markets; (2) the research didn't actually demonstrate conclusive results; (3) it's based on a made-up model for measuring suffering, which has problems and probably shouldn't have the last word on strategy; (4) it appears to discount the possibility that plant-based alternatives will be the replacement instead of smaller animals, and the fact that plant-based alternatives still benefit even in the presence of SARP effects; and (5) it doesn't account for the positive yet non-direct effects of a meat tax, such as the narrative, framing, and signaling effects that it would have on citizens and consumers.
What makes the Meat Tax unique and promising?
The meat tax operates primarily under an economic theory of change that says if we can increase the cost of animal-based foods and decrease the cost of alternatives, the market will naturally migrate towards the alternatives. (It may also operate under collective action and evolution theories of change as well, but for the purposes of this section I'm focusing on the economic theory.)
One way to divide up possible policy interventions to promote change under the economic theory of change is into demand-side interventions and supply-side interventions. The meat tax is somewhat unique in that it's a negative demand-side intervention.
- grants for cultured meat research
- plant-based procurement policies
- subsidies for plant-based agriculture
- meat taxes
- prop 12 (sort of)
- stricter welfare requirements on producers
- stricter environmental regulations on producers
- legal action against producers
- slaughter bans
- factory farming bans
Whether or not you think government does a good job with positive interventions (some might say the government does things inefficiently compared to private industry), most would agree that when the government taxes or bans something (negative interventions), it's generally pretty effective.
Supply-side interventions can be countered by producers simply moving the location of their production. Even if we managed to ban factory farms across the United States, as long as the demand is still intact, you can bet that 99% of Americans' meat will be coming from Brazil, Mexico, and China.
Demand-side interventions don't have this weakness. Prop 12 is interesting because while it is a welfare requirement on suppliers, it is the fact that California made a stand at the point of sale rather than point of production that made it so controversial. Perhaps Prop 12 was challenged in the Supreme Court precisely because negative demand-side interventions can be so intensely threatening to big ag. Maybe we should be looking hard at other negative demand-side interventions, such as the meat tax.
Why I'm skeptical about the SARP with respect to the Meat Tax
1. It's speculative, and the research wasn't conclusive
The report itself admits that it's very difficult to predict what would happen, and there are no examples of a meat tax in existence so far for us to study:
The difficulty of predicting the outcome of a meat tax The most salient finding from our detailed analysis is that the predicted outcome of a meat tax can vary significantly. Some of the modelling studies predict that a meat tax would result in overall benefits to farmed animals, and some predict that a meat tax would result in overall harm to farmed animals.
- Meat Tax Campaigns (Ren Springlea)
In fact, in 5 of the 9 models put forth (more than half!), a meat tax resulted in a net improvement (decrease) in suffering overall. How then is it responsible to conclude, as Faunalytics does, "that meat taxes should not be a focus for animal advocates" when the evidence was merely mixed and even in favor of meat taxes on balance?
2. It's based on a made-up model for suffering that glosses over a lot of serious difficulties with measuring suffering, and then draws conclusions based on this model.
As an example of the challenges with this kind of thinking, the report concludes that a reduction in egg consumption might be a bad idea because it could cause more animals to be bred as pet food:
Whether you think this is a valid analysis or not, it's certainly not a foregone conclusion if our intention to shift the food system away from animals.
Furthermore, even if the SARP is true, it may not be the last word in terms of morality. Steven Rouk wrote an interesting critique of the SARP using a framing of moral circle expansion. Basically, the idea is that people often change their diets by eliminating larger animals first for ethical reasons, and that this may be a natural psychological/ethical progression towards a plant-based conclusion.
3. Plant-based alternatives could be helped the most by a meat tax, more than offsetting the SARP.
The SARP argument goes that any meat tax will be based on climate or health impact, and as such, red meat will have a higher tax than chicken and so people will start to eat more chicken. There are some unspoken assumptions built in here that need to be teased out. First, chicken isn't healthy and it might actually be worse than other meats for things like obesity, so it's not clear that a nutrition-based policy would favor poultry consumption. Similarly for the environment, there are good arguments for why chicken is not much better for the environment than beef, and in all cases plant-based is better than any type of animal meat. We as animal advocates know these things, so why are we assuming that any meat-tax policy that gets passed will be favorable to chicken when the facts don't support that conclusion?
But no matter; even if the meat tax is implemented based on climate or health and the highest taxes are levied on cow bodies with lower taxes on chicken bodies, we can still expect that the lowest (probably zero) tax would be on plant-based alternatives. So relatively speaking, the alternative we want is actually bolstered.
It's important to remember the theory of change that directs us to pursue this policy in the first place: raise the cost of the things we don't want (animal foods) relative to the cost of the things we do want (plant foods).
This is an example of the problem with focusing too hard on measurable welfare outcomes. We can get so caught up in the fact that an intervention might have a relative welfare impact that we lose sight of the bigger picture. In this case, the meat tax will likely move us towards the outcome that we really want, which is to bolster the relative position of plant based alternatives in the marketplace.
4. There's so much more to a meat tax than just the direct economic impacts.
If we allow ourselves to take a break from the direct quantitative effects for a moment and consider the social and cultural outcomes of the policy, we can see that the meat tax can have additional benefits which are difficult to measure but which could be highly impactful:
A meat tax would signal to the consumer that eating meat has collective negative social externalities. This is so important because it frames the issue as a collective social transformation as opposed to an individual change problem, which is a more effective narrative.
A meat tax would signal to the consumer that eating meat is unnecessary, like smoking or drinking which also often carry excise taxes as well.
It is a huge symbolic victory, framing the collective direction of society as moving away from meat.
The Meat Tax - let's give it more consideration
I think the SARP, while it is worth at least a passing consideration, should definitely not be considered the last word on meat taxes. The meat tax could be an extremely powerful and effective tool, and it is something we'd definitely like to see get more research and examination.