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Silhouette of a cow

A quarter of all the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming, are caused by food production, mostly from raising cattle and other livestock. These emissions are rising as the global appetite for meat increases.

Research published in the journal Nature Climate Change, evaluated the tax required for each food type to compensate for the climate damage its production causes. Beef has the largest impact, due to the deforestation and methane emissions associated with cattle and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizers.

A team at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food led by Marco Springmann from the Nuffield Department of Population Health, conducted a global analysis of the impact that levying taxes on food commodities could have on greenhouse gas emissions and human health. They calculated that taxes of 40% on beef and 20% on milk on average across the world would deter people from consuming so much of these foods, thus reduce emissions.

Foods with a big climate impact such as beef and dairy are unhealthy when eaten in large quantities. In the US people eat three times the recommended level of meat. If greenhouse gas taxes cut consumption, fewer people would die from related diseases such as heart disease, strokes and cancers. The researchers found greenhouse gas taxes would save more than half a million early deaths every year, largely in Europe, the US, Australia and China.

The study assessed how much less of each food type would be eaten as a result of the taxes and found that increasing the price of beef by 40% would lead to a 13% drop in consumption. Researchers examined different tax regimes and found the optimum arrangement in terms of both emissions and health was to combine the taxes with subsidies for healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables, and payments to people to compensate for price increases. This ensured poorer people did not end up with worse diets as the result of taxation.

This optimum tax plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 billion tonnes a year, the same as the entire global aviation industry.

However, governments are reluctant to introduce unpopular taxes for fear of public criticism and the reaction from the powerful food industry and agricultural lobby, and people’s understanding of the link between diet and climate change is still low.