Does Australia Need a Tax on Red Meat?

The negative impacts of the demand for red meat on health and the environment are costing Australia millions of dollars every year. But would a red meat tax be a good idea, or is the industry capable of regulating itself?

Image by Byron Johnson, via Unsplash

Last month, Oxford University released a study confirming the negative impacts of red meat on public health and the environment.1 With links between high consumption of red meat products (those being beef, goat, lamb and kangaroo meat) to colorectal cancer and other non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, the overconsumption of red meat is contributing to a health epidemic in countries across the world, including in Australia.2

Further compounding these health issues is the fact that the production of red meat from cows, sheep and goats is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, producing more emissions globally than transport.3 This is due to the production of methane and nitrous oxide by livestock, compounds which have a much higher global warming potential than the more common carbon dioxide. Clearing of land to accommodate an increasing global taste for red meat is leading to the loss of forests, from Queensland to the Amazon. To curb consumption, the Oxford study, as well as others,4 5 6 suggest that governments should consider implementing a tax on red meat.

Australia is the highest carbon emitter per capita in the developed world, and our population is one of the world’s largest consumers of meat. This addiction costs our public health system millions of dollars per year and produces more greenhouse gases annually than our entire road transport sector.7But is government regulation really a feasible means of reducing the impact of our national obsession with red meat? The answer, simply, is no. Not yet, anyway.

There are two main barriers that would need to be overcome before a carbon tax on red meat would even arrive on the floors of parliament; culture and economy. Australia has long had a food culture where red meat takes pride of place. The abundance of meat in the Australian colony was used as a lure for early settlers.8 Our television screens, billboards, and supermarkets are full of advertisements telling us not only how ‘Australian’ it is to eat red meat, but also how supposedly good for us it is (without the reminder that it’s only good for you if you eat less than 90g per day).The majority of Australians have little to no awareness of the impacts red meat has on either the environment or our health.10 11 When Australian’s were surveyed about what shopping decisions they consider having the most benefit for the environment, the majority of shoppers pick reducing plastic packaging, with reducing red meat the least chosen option.12

It’s not just in our supermarkets that the meat culture permeates, but in the halls of parliament. Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, had this to say in response to the latest study by Oxford University:

“This is yet another attempt from the PC crowd to tell Australians how they should live their lives. You have to question who commissioned this report. […] Suggestions a red meat tax would result in less overweight people are garbage. […] Government shouldn’t dictate diet. […] If other countries want to follow this madness and tax meat good luck to them but it won’t happen here.”

It’s not just the National Party that are loyal to their steaks. Greens leader, Richard di Natale, was a vegetarian when he started in politics — now, he owns a cattle farm. But, food culture can change. It has already shifted here in Australia. The staple diet of ‘meat and three veg’ has been usurped by stir-fry on Monday, Mexican burritos on Tuesday, and pizza on Wednesday.13 Our taste for red meat has been declining for over three decades, with chicken now our national preference.14 11% of Australians now identify their diet as ‘plant-based’, with veganism on the rise across the Western world.15  With further food education (including how to cook plant-based meals), stronger promotion of regulated dietary guidelines (which recommend less than 455g of red meat per week in order to reduce risk of colorectal cancer), and through the use of campaigns such as ‘Meatless Mondays’, Australia could viably see an even stronger decline in red meat consumption, and that’s without a tax.

But there’s one large counterforce to all of these positive steps: the size and economic significance of Australia’s red meat industry. Domestic consumption constitutes less than 30% of the Australian red meat market. Even though we would see public health benefits from reduced consumption, the industry itself has the majority of customers in countries such as China and India that are just starting to get a real taste for red meat. That means even if all Australians gave up red meat, our overall emissions likely wouldn’t even decrease.

Not only is our red meat industry largely export-based, so there is little national remit in terms of emissions, but the economic and social value of red meat is key in the debate. Red meat contributes $18 billion to Australia’s GDP, employs 405,000 people (directly or indirectly),16 and some regional areas are entirely dependent on the industry for jobs and livelihoods.17 It’s extremely difficult to fight an industry this entrenched in culture and the economy, but we also cannot allow the emissions it produces and the broader environmental degradation it causes, to go on unquestioned. Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), the industry’s peak research and advertising body, is responsible for keeping much of Australia’s red meat culture alive. However, unlike other emissions intensive industries such as coal, it is not wasting time on a denialist campaign. The industry understands the implications climate change will have on its production capabilities and the need for emissions to be reduced. MLA has committed to bringing Australia’s red meat industry to carbon neutral by 2030. This initiative was motivated by the industry itself with little to no government incentive. Whether it will achieve its goal, and how, remains to be seen. But this indicates good graces among red meat producers nonetheless.

With this in mind, the government, not-for-profits, and the private sector could be doing more to help MLA along. Government should be looking into supporting transitions for red meat farmers into less carbon-intensive industries, and ensuring minimal social or economic impacts as the taste for red meat decreases in Australia, and hopefully, around the world. In the long term, a tax on red meat could definitely be viable. Just as with other carbon intensive products, the price should indicate the impact it has. Consumers will learn to appreciate the effort and cost that goes into producing quality meat. But is this the first step? Not in Australia. Trends in meat consumption and industry movements indicate that we are heading in the right direction already, and so instead, we can encourage governments to support the industry in this transition without enforcing taxes too soon.

1. Springmann, Marco, Daniel Mason-D’Croz, Sherman Robinson, Keith Wiebe, H. Charles J. Godfray, Mike Rayner, Peter Scarborough, 2018. Health-motivated taxes on red and processed meat: A modelling study on optimal tax levels and associated health impacts. PLOS ONE 13(11): e0204139 access: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0204139
2. Nagle, C. M. et al., 2015. Cancers in Australia in 2010 attributable to the consumption of red and processed meat. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 39(5), pp. 429-433.
3. Gerber, P. et al., 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation, Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).
4. Raphaely, T. & Marinova, D., 2014. Flexitarianism: Decarbonising through flexible vegetarianism. Renewable Energy, 67(1), pp. 90-96.
5. Wellesley, L., Catherine, H. & Froggatt, A., 2015. Change Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to lower meat consumption, London: Chatham House.
6. Wirsenius, S., Hedenus, F. & Mohlin, K., 2011. Greenhouse gas taxes on animal food products: rationale, tax scheme and climate mitigation effects. Climatic Change, Volume 108, pp. 159-184.
7. Wilcox, S., 2014. Chronic diseases in Australia: The case for changing course, Melbourne: Australian Health Policy Collaboration.
8. Baghurst, K., Record, S. & Leppard, P., 2000. Red meat consumption in Australia: intakes, nutrient contribution and changes over time. Australian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, 57(4), pp. 3-36.
9. Lang, T., Wu, M. & Caraher, M., 2010. Meat and Policy: Charting a Course through the Complexity. In: J. D’Silva & J. Webster, eds. The Meat Crisis: Developing More Sustainable Production and Consumption. London: Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 254-274.
10. Bogueva, D., Marinova, D. & Raphaely, T., 2017. Reducing meat consumption: the case for social marketing. Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing and Logistics, 29(3), pp. 477-500.
11. Lea, E. & Worsley, A., 2001. Influences on meat consumption in Australia. Appetite, Volume 36, pp. 127-136.
12. Lea, E. & Worsley, A., 2008. Australian consumers’ food-related environmental beliefs and behaviours. Appetite, Volume 50, pp. 207-214.
13. Lupton, D., 2000. The heart of the meat: food preferences and habits among rural Australian couples. Sociology of Health & Illness, 22(1), pp. 94-109.
14. Baghurst, K., Record, S. & Leppard, P., 2000. Red meat consumption in Australia: intakes, nutrient contribution and changes over time. Australian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, 57(4), pp. 3-36.
15. Roy Morgan Research, 2016. The slow but steady rise of vegetarianism in Australia, Melbourne: Roy Morgan Research Ltd.
16. Ernst & Young, 2017. State of the Industry Report: The Australian Red Meat and Livestock Industry, Sydney: Meat & Livestock Australia.
17. Australian Electoral Commission, 2010. Dubbo Economic Development Strategy, Dubbo: Dubbo City Council.

Anja Bless is undertaking Honours in Government & International Relations with the Faculty of Arts. Anja’s research explores lessons which can be learned from Australia’s tobacco control policies that can be applied to reducing meat consumption for environmental and public health benefits.