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Nithin Coca headshot

Research Center Proposes Carbon Tax on Unsustainable Food

By Nithin Coca

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."

The best part? Evidence shows that food taxes do work in changing people’s habits. Some places are already taking steps to pass the kind of taxes the institute wants, though they’re not focused on climate. They’re focused on a closely connected issue – health. My current hometown, Oakland, California, approved a soda tax earlier this month. It is a model that is proven to work, as researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found when analyzing that city's soda tax.

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.

So, a carbon tax on carbon-intense foods could have a double benefit: helping our planet while reducing adverse health impacts. Ideally, such a tax could be revenue neutral by subsidizing environmentally-friendly, and healthy, foods such as organic produce, regenerative agriculture or even new products like Beyond Meat.

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 headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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