Why the UK needs a ‘meat tax,’ and how we go about getting one

 Last week there were two big stories about diet and climate change. The one you probably saw was that the IPCC made its recommendations for tackling the issues and suggested  – you guessed it – a move to a more plant based diet. This follows on from a report earlier this year from City, University of London, which  said developed countries need to eat 80 percent less meat to safeguard the Earth from environmental disaster.

The other got less coverage, but in the long run might turn out to be just as important. In Germany a group of politicians have come together to suggest that the country looks again at its level of taxation on meat.

Whereas in the UK there is no VAT on food bought from supermarkets and stores, in Germany consumers pay different levels of different food products. So, for example, on meat they currently pay seven per cent tax, whereas on other products it is a lot more

Friedrich Ostendorf, agricultural policy spokesperson for the Greens, one of the groups backing the move, told The Local website.

“I am in favour of abolishing the VAT reduction for meat and earmarking it for more animal welfare.” 

He said it made “no sense” that meat was taxed at seven per cent while oat milk is taxed at 19 per cent. 

Encouragingly Albert Stegemann, agriculture spokesperson from Angela Merkel‘s party Christian Democrat party, which leads the governing coalition, was open to the plans put forward by Germany’s Animal Welfare Association. He described them as a “constructive proposal”

What can the UK do?

So if Germany is contemplating a meat tax to reduce consumption – what about the UK? Surely the benefits are obvious. The country would significantly reduce its carbon emissions while at the same time improve the health of citizens.

The last Labour government used to harness its soft power to encourage others to make active global change – in their instance leading the way in canceling developing country debt.

Even the Tories have legislated when they felt it appropriate to put a levy on plastic bags bought from supermarkets which has dramaticlly reduced usage rates.

So why not a meat tax? The benefits are obvious. The UK would become a global leader in tackling climate change and thereby encourage other developed countries to follow it – and in this instance Germany’s – lead. It seems pointless after all, lecturing India and China about their lack of sustainability, when we are not making positive change ourselves.

Kerry McCarthy, one of a handful of Vegan MPs.

The first problem is that politicians in the UK are terrified of introducing legislation that they know will be unpopular and will smack of notions of  the nanny state. Some left wing commentators have argued that the tax would be regressive as it would be a tax on the poor – which in an age of significant food bank use sounds more than a little callous. The fact too that unlike Germany it would mean introducing a new tax, rather than upgrading an existing one, would also make selling the tax tricky.

Sure these are problems, but they are not insurmountable and what it needs are imaginative politicians who can think creatively about how to introduce a meat tax and how to sell it. At the current time only Caroline Lucas and the Green party have discussed a meat tax, but surely now it should be on the agenda for every vegan, veggie and climate-aware flexi in the UK.

I wonder if sometimes we focus too much on macro, theoretical issues  – like climate change and animal rights. Maybe what we need as movement is a single issue that we can unite around that also give us a platform to talk about the bigger picture too?

Carrot and stick

How we get politicians to consider and ultimately adopt a meat tax requires cunning. Firstly, it has to be rooted in climate change – we are asking people to pay more for meat as existing levels of meat farming are unstable and we need to make positive change to reduce consumption. Secondly there needs to be a carrot as well as the stick. Linking the meat tax to climate change would be a smart way of achieving  this, perhaps using the income to set up a fund to help communities, mainly in the UK, but perhaps in developing countries too, where freakish weather has led to flooding or drought and ultimately the spread of disease.

There could also be war chest for the NHS in tackling the key issues of the age – obesity and dementia both of which have links to poor diet – and too much consumption of meat.

I would also love to see an emphasis on sustainability. Replacing those EU subsidies that we are about to lose and give them to farmers who create food in the UK for British citizens. As much as I love Oatly, how on earth is the UK’s biggest oat milk brand imported? 

Maybe too the process should be staggered. Introduce a 5% tax now with the idea that it doubles within five years and trebles in fifteen. Or focus on red meat, or processed meat to begin with. Maybe that isn’t ambitious enough but at least it would give UK meat farmers a chance to prepare for the change.  

Finally we need to take the lead on education. We need to be constantly banging on about how great plant based food is and showing the alternatives. We could work with The Trussell Trust who run many of the food banks, helping them to offer much more plant based food to their clients – hint hint.

I really believe that the meat tax is the issue we have been waiting for. Tackling climate change seems so big and impersonal. Asking people to change their habits and focusing on a lever to enable this to happen seems much more practical and achievable.

Sure in Brexit Britain, where parties are desperate for any votes to tip the balance their way, the meat tax is unlikely to feature highly in anyone’s manifesto.

But we need to start a movement that brings in that change. There have been a run of meat tax petitions, none of which has taken off. Maybe it is time for new one. We need an organisation and the ear of sympathetic MPs. Most important of all we need the government to set up a research group to discover how a meat tax would impact the UK.

Time isn’t on our side.

Photo by Jack Sloop on Unsplash