Agriculture has a huge negative impact on the environment, including being responsible for 11 percent of global carbon emissions. Could a carbon tax on food, as proposed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, help make our food system not only more green, but healthier too?
In a report published in the journal Nature, researchers from the institute argue there is immense climate mitigation potential if we just change our diets.
Right now we, as a planet, have an unsustainable food system. We take up huge swaths of the earth for intensive, chemical-laden food production. The least sustainable food, the researchers insist, is red meat. But the problem is that these very foods are, often, the cheapest choices.
This is something all of us experience every day. The true impacts of food are not included in the price we pay at the store, not at all. Go to your local grocery, and you’ll see that organic produce is far more expensive than a factory-farmed piece of red meat, despite the fact that the former has a far smaller carbon footprint. It is why a healthy sit-down, farm-to-kitchen meal is far more costly than a trip to McDonald’s.
Today, in nearly every country, eating sustainably is more expensive than eating unsustainably. For those who are well enough off to choose the sustainable option, that's great. But that is not an option for most people, which is why factory farms are still the norm. When a McDonald’s burger costs 99 cents, that’s what many people will choose.
A carbon tax on food could change this.
“Besides reducing carbon emissions ... a carbon tax could spur innovation to reduce the carbon intensity of future food production, realizing more gains down the line,” three of the report’s authors, Daniel Mason-D’Croz, Keith Wiebe and Sherman Robinson, wrote in a op-ed on Reuters. "Taxing red meat and other carbon-intensive items has the potential to be a global win-win policy."
Even though the taxes in Oakland and Berkeley do not relate to climate, but health, they end up tackling climate challenges too. Institute researchers argue that there’s quite a bit of overlap between carbon emissions and human health, as foods that are unhealthy, such as red meats or processed sugars, also tend to have a disproportionate climate impact.
“A carbon tax on food, if done right, could help nations meet emission reduction targets while improving nutrition and public health,” added the report’s authors.
With the current state of politics in the U.S., it is unlikely that we’ll see a carbon tax on food any time soon. But the idea is there. It’s only a matter of time before some country, or city (Berkeley again?), decides to lead the way.
Image credit: Intermac via Pixabay
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.