Lost in the midst of the green energy revolution and the efforts to reduce water usage (especially here in California) is the role that agriculture plays in our modern economy. In the end, our individual impact on the world is most determined not by what car we drive, or if we have solar panels on our roofs, but simply by the food we eat day after day.
Of those foods, nothing has as much of an environmental and social cost as meat, defined here as any form of animal flesh. At the same time, no food signifies wealth, development and gourmet as well as meat. Think foie gras, caviar, filet mignon or even sushi.
Americans eat more than 200 pounds of meat per-person, per-year, the most in the world and more than double the global average. Meat consumption rose dramatically in the United States alongside the growth in factory farms, fast food and the use of antibiotics in meat – all of which made meat cheaper, and all of which have large negative environmental impacts, few of which are factored into the price of meat today.
The frank truth is that the cost of meat is much, much more than what we pay for it in the store – and society is bearing those invisible costs. This includes: polluted run-off from factory farms, diseases (remember swine flu?) created by keeping animals in such close quarters, carbon emissions from cow farts (a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide), transportation, and the degradation of land by said farms.
The thing is, we already pay a de-facto meat tax, but it's not on factory farmed meat. It is on meat that is produced more ethically. Farms that reduce these external costs end up having to charge more in markets. That is why organic meat, which has a smaller impact on the environment, is more expensive than factory-mass-produced meat. This is what is keeping organic foods available only to the well-off, as the poor cannot afford to pay this de-facto tax.
“Animals actually provide a very inefficient way of producing nutrition. Plants need just a tenth of the same amount of land to produce the same amount of nutrition," said Kristina Persson, Sweden's Minister for Strategy and Future. "Today, grasslands and embankments are cultivated to feed cattle throughout Sweden, but these areas could also be used for creating biogas and fertilizers.
"This means we have the opportunity to produce a lot of bioenergy if we reduce our reliance on animals. This could be vital in making Sweden less dependent on fossil fuels in the long run and would help future-proof Sweden’s agricultural industry.”
A meat tax would go a long way to helping us change our food system into a more sustainable one. I'll be watching Sweden closely – if their tax turns out to be a success, perhaps it is only a matter of time before America comes aboard. The sooner, the better.
Image source: Wikimedia