Monday, October 15, 2007

Tax the sale of meat!

There are many ethical objections one can have against slaughtering animals and eating them. Vegetarian lifestyles have been around for ages, just like animal rights activists have long and very publicly protested against animals being used in tests of new cosmetics in laboratoria.

Consumption of red meat from cattle, sheep, goats and other ruminants has long been linked to heart disease, colorectal cancer and further diseases.
http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/70/3/525S
http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/148/8/761.pdf
The link between meat and obesity has only recently received much media attention, with a focus on the fat and sugar content of fast food.

Similarly, environmentalists have long protested against the loss of biodiversity, as rainforests are cleared to make room for cattle or for soy plantations to feed cattle, all to satisfy global demand for meat.

Now meat has also been linked to global warming in various ways. As the impact of global warming starts to bite, many crops are at risk, due to more extreme weather conditions such as floods, drouhts, storms, heavy rain and moisture. It takes a lot of fertile land to put meat on the table, land that could otherwise be used to grow crops top feed the poor and hungry. At the same time, energy suppliers are increasingly looking at using bio-mass as a replacement for fossil fuel, so food is increasingly competing with energy in agriculture.

Finally, animals like cows and pigs release huge amounts of methane gas, which is twenty times more potent than greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. A recent study led by Anthony McMichael, professor at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, Canberra, provides some figures. It points out that 22 per cent of the world's total greenhouse gases emissions come from agriculture, as much as industry and more than what transport emits. Production and transport of livestock and their feed accounts for nearly 80 per cent of these agricultural emissions, through release of gases such as nitro-oxide and carbon dioxide, but mainly in the form of methane. A cow can belch up to 300 pounds of methane per day. The study was published by the Lancet, at:
http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673600025642/abstract

Before you try and find more details, note that the Lancet has an elaborate registration process demanding that you name your medical specialty and probably at somepoint your blood type, so if you prefer to bypass such things, you can try BugMeNot, at:
http://www.bugmenot.com/view/www.thelancet.com

In conclusion, a tax on the sale of meat therefore makes most sense. We could leave it up to politics to work out how high such a tax should be, but a flat 10% tax on all sales of meat looks like a good start. The tax could be higher the more methane was released, which would go hand in hand with compulsory disclosure on products of the amount of greenhouse gases that was needed to produce and ship them. Once we've got a good system in place that displays how many greenhouse gases were released in production, we could tax accordingly. There could be different tax rates, even a gliding scale proportional to the emissions. This would encourage research into different diets for cows or somehow replacing the methane-producing bacteria inside a cow's gut.

If the proceeds of such a tax merely used to help the poor pay rising prices for food, then little will be achieved for the environment. Instead, the proceeds of such a tax should be used to create communities without roads, where people can have vegetable gardens close to their homes. We should start building such communities without roads on university campuses, designing small houses for staff and students to live around shops and restaurants. Small houses need less heating and air-conditioning. If we leave out roads, garages and other car-parking spaces, they can be built closely together, so anyone can easily walk or bike their way around. That would be more healthy as well!

Anyway, it makes a lot of sense to turn vegetarian, or even better vegan. Even if you didn't have ethical problems with eating meat and if you lacked compassion for the poor and hungry, you still would help the environment by becoming a vegetarian and thus yourself!

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