For years, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has advocated for an excise tax on meat, dairy, and eggs. But the animal rights organization’s proposal is making headlines again. This week, PETA urged the Indian government to tax meat, while the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) Initiative suggested jurisdictions slap a “sin” levy on animal products for environmental and health purposes.
PETA expatiates that such a tax would enable consumers to adopt a healthier vegetarian or vegan diet. FAIRR avers that the tax would combat deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, global obesity, soil degradation, and the rising rates of cancer and diabetes.
Ashley Byrne, a PETA spokesperson, told 770 CHQR in Calgary:
“People who eat even a moderate amount of meat actually face many health concerns that vegetarians and vegans have lower rates of.”
It is true that a plant-based diet is much better for your health. But using the coercive tools of the government to achieve this aim is iniquitous and fallacious. This is yet another Activism 101 lesson on how to tax something you don’t like: claim it’s terrible for you and the planet, cite experts who know better than you, and reassure everyone that the minority buys the product, not the majority.
Like every other feel-good policy, a meat tax will lead to a myriad of unintended consequences.
A Regressive Tax on the Poor
PETA is probably an entity that cares deeply about the poor. They likely lend their support to causes that encourage the government to just do more for the impecunious, whether it is redistributing the wealth or implementing a new policy that is meant to aid society’s most vulnerable.
But why would PETA, and others, endorse a regressive tax that will inevitably hurt the poor?
Low-income consumers are already having a difficult time at the grocery store. As middle-class and affluent shoppers purchase nutrient-rich foods to ensure they have a balanced diet, other families do not have that luxury, often selecting cheaper and poor-quality products at the supermarket.
In November 2011, the National Institute of Health (NIH) wrote:
“When incomes drop and family budgets shrink, food choices shift toward cheaper but more energy-dense foods. The first items dropped are usually healthier foods – high-quality proteins, whole grains, vegetables and fruit. Low cost energy-rich starches, added sugars, and vegetable fats represent the cheapest way to fill hungry stomachs.”
If a chicken breast, piece of steak, or slice of tenderloin becomes more expensive, will these customers suddenly transition to kale, cashew milk, and lentils? No. They will shift towards even cheaper selections, like canned meats, which is worse for your health and the animals.
Consider this, half of consumers’ food budgets are spent on convenience foods, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since consumers are more time-constrained, they have less time to prepare meals at home, and these convenience foods are a lot cheaper. A vegetarian or vegan diet requires you to cook fresh meals at home that are often time-consuming.
Would a meat tax suddenly encourage consumers to make time and spend an hour or two learning about a chickpea coconut curry dish?
Meat Taxes Would Hurt Animals
Thankfully, there is a growing trend among food producers to treat their animals more humanely. Everything from cage-free chickens to free-range turkeys, farmers are doing the right thing – but it comes with a premium at the store.
Last year, USA Today reported that a dozen white cage-free eggs cost $2.99, compared to $1.29 for 12 conventional options. In 2015, Consumer Reports went across the U.S. comparing the prices of grass-fed organic and non-organic beef to traditional supermarket beef. The results? Consumers can expect to pay up to $3 more per pound for specialty beef.
The website writes:
“The reason grass-fed beef is pricier has to do with beef producers’ profit margin: It can take a farmer up to a year longer (and an extra year’s worth of food, care, and labor) to get a grass-fed animal to reach slaughter weight than for a conventionally raised one. Grass-fed cattle also tend to be smaller at slaughter, so there’s less meat to sell per head.”
Let’s say PETA gets its way, and policymakers agree to impose a 10% sin tax on every pound of beef. Would impoverished shoppers or even cash-strapped middle-class consumers buy the meat that comes at a significant premium? Unlikely.
If farmers are noticing a substantial decline in sales of grass-fed beef, cage-free eggs, or free-range turkey, then they will return to their old practices. And who would want that to happen? We have witnessed the heart-wrenching horrors of several chickens stuffed inside of a small battery cage, or beautiful cows imbibing gummy worms and marshmallows.
Because shoppers aren’t buying the high-grade beef, there is no incentive for farmers to maintain these pristine standards, particularly when profit margins are thin. On the other hand, with a duty on meat and shoppers resorting to canned meats, farmers or corporations would notice higher demand for something like mechanically separated chicken.
It might be counterintuitive, but a meat tax would harm animals, not help them.
Is Almond Milk Next?
A cup of almond milk or a glass of quinoa beverage is incredible for your health. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, and plant chemicals. These non-dairy products have also been shown to reduce risks of certain illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
But what about the environment?
California is home to the world’s biggest almond crop. The state has also been suffering from a water crisis, thanks to the failure of big government – Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) imposed fines on those found using too much water, but farmers were exempt.
Why is this a big deal for almond milk? It takes 1.1 gallons, or 5.5 liters, of water to grow one almond.
With almond milk being the most prominent alternative beverage, and overall almond consumption on the rise, farms, many of which have been overtaken by financial companies, are making colossal well investments. And this is impacting everything.
Mother Jones explained the situation in a 2014 piece entitled “Your Almond Habit Is Sucking California Dry”:
“The ecological implications are potentially dire. In a huge swath of the almond-intensive San Joaquin Valley, the ground has literally been sinking by an average of 11 inches per year, a 2013 US Geological Survey study found. The culprit: over-pumping of aquifers. Such subsidence, as its known, threatens vital infrastructure like bridges, roads, and irrigation canals.”
This isn’t to say that cow’s milk is sublime for the environment.
If PETA and FAIRR are genuine about their environmental concerns, then shouldn’t they also be supporting a tax on almond milk? If a meat tax somehow cures Mother Nature, then an almond milk tax should cure California’s eco problems.
Sin Taxes Rarely Meet Objectives
Burt Lancaster said in the great 1960 motion picture “Elmer Gantry”: “Sin, sin, sin! You’re all sinners! You’re all doomed to perdition!”
The government feels the same way. Politicians think you’re sinning when you smoke cigarettes, drink soda and alcohol, gamble with your own money, and eat hordes of fat and sugar.
Their solution for your repentance? Taxes!
In recent years, money-starved governments have pulled the trigger on adding sales taxes to soda and junk food.
Denmark, for instance, became the world’s first country to institute a fat tax on foods that contained at least 2.3% saturated fat – it later considered a sugar tax. What happened? Disaster. Many Danes crossed the border into Germany and stocked up on food, a 250-gram pack of butter rose by 35 cents, and consumers changed over to oils and margarine. One more thing: the overweight and obesity rates remained unchanged. Denmark abolished the tax and scrapped plans for a sugar levy.
Livelihoods are destroyed, too. In 2016, the Philadelphia city council voted to pass a law that would establish a tax of 1.5 cents per ounce on soda. A year later, Pepsi announced it was laying off 20% of its workforce in The City of Brotherly Love at three distribution facilities.
Moreover, sin taxes metastasize law-abiding citizens into felons. You only need to look at New York and its black market for cigarettes. The state excise tax rate in New York is $4.35 per package of 20 cigarettes. This is the highest in the country. When you factor in New York City’s cigarette tax of $1.50, smokers can expect to pay nearly $6 for every pack. It has hardly been a success: the state is losing money ($1.63 billion), and more than half of the cigarettes consumed in The Empire State are smuggled in, which is the biggest in the entire nation. Simply put: New York produced a black market and turned some of its citizens into criminals.
The data hasn’t deterred jurisdictions worldwide. The province of Ontario, the state of California, and the city of Chicago are all in the beginning stages of passing some government-meddling legislation.
Free Market is Already Going Vegetarian
All over the world, there are developed countries that have experienced a boom in vegetarian and vegan numbers. Since 2014, veganism has risen 500% in the U.S. A 2015 poll found that 33% of Canadians are either vegetarian or trying to consume less meat. In the UK, there has been a massive surge in people slashing meat, fish, and dairy out of their diets.
In response to the soaring demand, grocery stores, food suppliers, and restaurants are offering a plethora of vegetarian and vegan options. Everything from cashew brie cheese to tofu steaks to pistachio milk, the market is already telling us that consumers are ditching pork meatloaf in favor of lentil loaf.
Entrepreneurs, eyeing a great opportunity, are investing in 24-hour fast-food outlets and all-vegan diners. For example, in June, Canada-based vegan fast-food restaurant Globally Local is launching a second location that will serve vegan versions of the Big Mac and the Whopper – McDonald’s is also testing a vegan Big Mac.
A stroll around Whole Foods will showcase a large number of vegan products at affordable prices.
Whether it is out of health anxieties or ethical worries, humans do not need to be taxed to change their dietary lifestyles. It is already happening, and the market is assisting in this transition.
Besides, it isn’t the government’s responsibility to regulate and change our bad habits and behaviors. If John Smith wants to eat a 1,200-calorie meal of hamburger and soda, then that is his prerogative. If Jane Doe salivates over a Kale Salad with a cup of coconut-cashew milk, then let her. Stop trying to impose your holier-than-thou standard of living on others.
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