Davos Agenda

Why a meat tax is addressing the wrong problem

Proponents of a meat tax argue that it could help shift production away from conventional meat into meat alternatives and reduce consumption.

Proponents of a meat tax argue that it could help shift production away from conventional meat into meat alternatives and reduce consumption. Image: Shutterstock

Didier Toubia
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Aleph Farms
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Meat production is under the spotlight as countries in the Global North grapple with how to address issues such as environmental impact and biodiversity loss.
  • The use of taxation as an instrument to achieve behavioral change is not new – alcohol, tobacco, and sugar all provide essential learnings.
  • However, a flat meat tax would conflate all types of meat production as one. Here are some better alternatives on how to make agriculture more sustainable for all.

Despite the recent popularity of plant-based diets, the world is on track to consume more meat in 2022 than ever before. This trajectory has led to many suggestions for a meat tax, in order to reduce consumption of meat and its negative externalities.

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Are the arguments for a meat tax valid?

The use of taxation as an instrument to achieve behavioral change is not new – alcohol, tobacco and sugar all provide essential learnings. These types of taxes are often seen as a win-win because they encourage certain segments of the population to change behavior, and for the portion that does not, the government generates income. However, taxation is a relatively blunt instrument compared with other policy interventions, and there is often an unpredictable relationship between taxation and how behavioral change occurs.

While there is a general acknowledgement of the need to reduce meat consumption for health or environmental reasons, the validity of a tax on meat is far less clear. Moderate meat consumption is still regarded in most cultures as an important part of a healthy diet, and the environmental impact of meat production varies considerably according to farming practices, making a flat meat tax far more controversial and ineffective at accounting for the true costs and benefits of meat products.

Proponents of a meat tax argue that it could help shift production away from conventional meat into meat alternatives and reduce consumption, with the ultimate aim of reducing the overall footprint of meat and its associated impacts on the environment and public health.

Why a meat tax could hinder sustainable farming

However, a flat tax on meat would conflate all types of meat production as one. This means that a large intensive feedlot could be taxed in the same way as a sustainable rancher with fewer head of cattle. By applying a uniform tax, extensive and arguably less efficient systems would find it more difficult to absorb the tax and could be pushed out of the market – achieving the opposite result of attempts to improve sustainability by favoring larger and more efficient farms.

Meat is a core part of many diets, and for a good reason – it's one of the primary sources of complete protein around the world and provides valuable vitamins and minerals. Meat plays a meaningful role in cultures and is tied to many local traditions, so there is a good chance that the meat tax would result - at least partially- in households cutting back elsewhere. In addition, because a low-price hamburger and a high-end cut would be taxed at the same level per pound, the relative price income of mass products would be higher. This would disproportionately affect lower-income families which already have statistically more severe malnutrition and increased inequalities in our food system which are already difficult to address.

Alternative policies to make farming more sustainable

For a tax on meat to be effective at achieving sustainability objectives, it needs to be formulated in a differentiated way and account for a range of parameters. Although a differentiated tax, in theory, could help to better address sustainability challenges than a flat meat tax, it would also be more complicated to implement and would require agreement on thresholds and definitions around what would be qualified as ‘sustainable’. Instead, there are other options that are simpler and may be deployed now.

1. Shift subsidies toward sustainable farming practices

Almost 90% of the $540bn of global agricultural subsidies given to farmers deplete our natural resources and continue to fuel our climate crisis. The UK’s environmental land management scheme is one example of using subsidies to encourage more sustainable farming practices, by paying farmers for environmental benefits, instead of offering payments based on the amount of land farmed.

2. Support farmers to transition to more sustainable practices

Farmers are unlikely to change practices where there is an upfront cost or risk to their livelihood. Governments should share the risk and provide funding or guarantee loans to farmers to make this shift, especially given the wider public good that is achieved.

3. Support all types of innovation

Achieving a just transition in agriculture means promoting (1) tools to improve the efficiency and sustainability of conventional animal farming practices and (2) investment in R&D of new and complementary production systems that are in balance with their use in natural resources.

4. Revamp regulatory framework

Achieving change requires fully reviewing the agricultural framework in every country and in trade agreements, to ensure that language and interpretation of existing laws and policies aren’t working against the stated goals of higher environmental and social outcomes.

5. Empower consumers at all income levels to make more sustainable purchasing decisions

This means investing in education on achieving healthier diets and implementing policies that will create a level playing field around sustainable labelling standards.

A meat tax is not necessarily the right approach to addressing our environmental, biodiversity and public health crises, especially with a range of better options available. Policymakers and wider stakeholders must ensure the tools we use are not "punishing" good farming practices nor unintentionally causing social injustice. Only a consulted effort by all the meat sector players can ensure decision-making is fit for purpose and tailored to actually promote sustainable practices rather than unintentionally causing negative outcomes.

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