“Let’s have a European tax on meat” - 4 reasons not to be fooled by this simplistic narrative!

Early September Eric Lambin, one of the Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission gave an interview for the European Science-Media Hub about his vision for sustainable food consumption in the EU. I found that several interesting challenges were tackled in this article, but the headline was clearly intended to be sensationalist; Prof. Lambin is in favour of a tax on “heavy red meat eaters”.

Nothing new here, as such a proposal comes back from time to time – but with regular recurrence. In 2020, a Dutch NGO called Tapp Coalitie, came up with the same idea intending to inspire the EU Farm to Fork Strategy as, most probably, this recommendation is for the forthcoming initiatives of the European Commission post-2024.

But in the meantime, we’ve learned from the Farm to Fork experience that just launching big slogan-led campaigns in agriculture without any proper impact assessment of the campaign asks invariably leads to a dead end. Did Eric Lambin carry out an in-depth EU study on the subject before making such an assertion? The never produced/never found study by the European Joint Research Centre on Farm to Fork leads us to consider the possibility of a negative answer to that question. As I strongly believe that history is not destined to repeat itself, for European Livestock Voice, I identified four specific reasons for opposing the simplistic idea of a “European tax on red meat (or for any other colour by the way)”.    

Taxes on everyday consumer products have never had a very good track-record

A tax on meat would primarily aim at discouraging consumers from opting for meat products. Imposing such taxes on everyday foods has never had a very good track record in terms of effectiveness. Taxation is a relatively blunt instrument compared with other policy interventions, and there is often an unpredictable relationship between taxation and behavioural change. Meat is a staple commodity; its demand is not elastic to price fluctuations. For the consumer, the only real substitute for one type of meat is… another type of meat. This is the reality of the market, which stems from a deep and vital need for this product. Heavily taxing meat would be seen as an injustice, preventing the classes struggling to make ends meet from having access to a nutritious component of a balanced diet.

A meat tax would not help low-income families choose better food. Economists and researchers[1] point out that the limited choices low-income families already face often means they can’t respond to a product tax by substituting with a healthier food choice. As the rising cost of living already drives the low-income families towards cheaper low-nutrient, high-calorie food sources, a meat tax will only exacerbate this nutritional gap and multiply rates of obesity and diabetes amongst these vulnerable populations[2]. According to some studies[3], consumption taxes will cost low-income households much more than their wealthy counterparts. Within a context of continued inflation, how could such a measure not be viewed as a double penalty for those impacted the most?

Proponents of this tax have the solution to this: redistribution! A share of the revenue collected would feed “sustainable food choices”. But what criteria could be used to do this without making it completely unfair? Replacing meat products is also expected to benefit plant-based imitations products, which, in many cases, are highly processed products, offering much juicier margins to a handful of companies.

Europe is not one single homogeneous plateau, we need both crops and livestock farmers

An additional argument put forward by the proponents of meat-taxes is the need to reduce livestock production and re-orientate towards plant-based types of production. This is a simplistic and polarized[4] vision of agriculture and is therefore dangerous[5] in more than one aspect. Today, 29% of agricultural land in Europe is marginal land where it would be virtually impossible and extremely costly from an environmental and climate point of view to plant arable crops. The European continent is not one single homogeneous plateau, its countryside is diverse and varied! European livestock farmers are the leading actors in maintaining pastures and bocages, in preventing mountain countryside from becoming overgrown and preventing the spread of forest fires in the summer. Livestock is also essential to maintaining a circular flow of materials in agriculture by recycling the large amounts of inedible biomass generated, as by-products, while producing foods, fertilisers and energy.  

It should never be forgotten that European livestock farmers have never been passive! Day in, day out we are taking steps to transform our farms. A tax on meat products would cripple all these efforts! It will act as a market signal that would simply make any investment unprofitable! This would exacerbate the already critical problem of rural exodus and generation renewal starting with the smaller of our family farms. How can Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission forget such basic economic facts like this one?

How can we defend exporting the problem to third countries?

This “meat tax” proposal becomes even more problematic when we put livestock farming in a global economic context – which is almost always forgotten in these kinds of discussions! Such a tax would certainly lead to our production being relocated to third countries. At a time when Europe is increasingly going down the bilateral trade agreements route, with Mercosur countries for example, how will we manage to get Brazilian poultry producers to accept a tax retroactively? How will we avoid using cheaper meat products from abroad to compensate for the costs of such a tax? When our livestock farms are lost, how will we ensure that our standards and control systems are respected?

Former EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger already discouraged national measures to tax meat. Commenting on such a proposal for the Tagesschau in 2019, he simply indicated that if meat should become significantly more expensive in the EU, it would remain equally as cheap in neighbouring countries and in the end such a proposal would result in “purely symbolic action”.

Such a tax would simply go… against the spirit of EU treaties!

Another basic fact overlooked in this discussion is that such a tax could not be applied at European level without going against the spirit of EU treaties. Taxation powers rest with the national authority. Moreover, Article 39 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union clearly states that the objective of the Common Agriculture Policy is to assure the availability of foodstuff supplies and to ensure that foodstuffs reach consumers at reasonable prices.

At a time when the average price of a basket of shopping is regularly increasing throughout the Member States, when we already know that existing Farm to Fork proposals will lead to additional price increases, how could we encourage an additional increase in prices with a tax exceeding 10% on all meat products? How can we ensure that national taxes won’t lead to dumping between member states, which runs counter to the very idea of a common EU market? 

Looking back, I see this debate as a continuation of what has been happening in Brussels over the last few years around Farm to Fork. We see many marketing concepts with a strong narrative, but without any in-depth research beforehand. It’s particularly disappointing when such an assertion is taken over by an academic lead in the European Commission known for his support for plant-based and lab-grown meat[6]. Does this approach correspond to the desire for depolarization on agricultural issues expressed by the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen? I don’t think that’s the case. Let me conclude with a quote I like very much, “All the political ideologies that have tried to change the farming community have failed because farming cannot be managed by theories, it is governed by reality“.

Opinion Piece by Jacek Zarzecki, Vice-Chair of the Copa-Cogeca Beef Working Party

[1] Burlacu, S., Kažemekaitytė, A., Ronzani, P. et al. Blinded by worries: sin taxes and demand for temptation under financial worries. Theory Decis 92, 141–187 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11238-021-09820-5

[2] Scrinis, G. 2020. Ultra-processed foods and the corporate capture of nutrition – an essay by Gyorgy Scrinis. BMJ. 371:m4601.

[3] https://itep.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/whopays-ITEP-2018.pdf

[4] Tubb, C., and T. Seba. 2021. Rethinking food and agriculture 2020-2030: the second domestication of plants and animals, the disruption of the cow, and the collapse of industrial livestock farming. Ind. Biotechnol. 17:57–72. doi:10.1089/ind.2021.29240.ctu.

[5] Rod Polkinghorne, Mohammad Koohmaraie, Collette Kaster, Declan Troy, Andrea Rosati, Challenges and opportunities for defining the role and value of meat for our global society and economy, Animal Frontiers, Volume 13, Issue 2, April 2023, Pages 75–81, https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfad002

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/aug/18/gigantic-power-of-meat-industry-blocking-green-alternatives-study-finds