According to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), meat and dairy production accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the same amount as the transportation sector, often deemed as one of the main responsible for climate change and global warming. Cattle ranching is also the single biggest driver of Amazon's deforestation, accounting for about 80% of it, according to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

With that in mind, Netherlands-based non-profit foundation True Animal Protein Price Coalition (Tapp Coalition) promotes the implementation of taxes to make the production and consumption of meat and dairy more sustainable. In an interview with BlastingTalks, Jeroom Remmers, director of Tapp Coalition, says that the price consumers pay for animal products should include its “external environmental costs.”

In addition to reducing the general consumption of animal protein, the project proposes three ways of applying the revenues from the new taxes.

“The first one is paying farmers. The second one is reducing the prices of vegetables and fruits. And the third one is compensating low-income groups,” says Remmers.

Blasting News: What is the True Animal Protein Price Coalition and what does it propose?

Jeroom Remmers: True Animal Protein Price Coalition is an international NGO, a coalition of different groups: farmers, doctors, health organisations, animal welfare organisations, environmental groups, food companies.

It is a large coalition with one goal: that we paid the true price of food, starting with meat and dairy, including the external environmental costs, and then other costs, which are also necessary to pay farmers fair wages and other partners in the food chain. So, this is a movement asking for a correction of too low prices, because the meat and dairy we buy, at least in high income countries, is very cheap, and supermarkets are also making it even more cheap, by having offers and really low prices to attract consumers.

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The farmers are not happy, the environment is treated very badly and also the animal welfare, because we don't pay the true price for it.

So you are asking for a correction of the prices...

This is mainly what we ask for. And we believe governments are the only ones who can make the correction in the price because they are dealing with taxes, fiscal systems, and subsidies.

Our proposal is, on the one hand, make meat more expensive, like 40% more expensive, and then we pay the price for greenhouse gas emissions, other kinds of pollution and biodiversity loss. The revenues of this new tax can be used for several very nice things. We can support farmers to reduce pollution and improve animal welfare, we can make sure that fruits and vegetables become cheaper by subsidising them for consumers or reducing tariffs, like many countries already have done in Europe, like Spain, and we also can pay a compensation for very low income groups, as meat will be more expensive, so that nobody can tell “well, this is not fair for the low income groups, they cannot afford to buy meat anymore.”

The concept behind what Tapp Coalition calls “fair meat prices” is that the price of meat for consumers should include the costs of the environmental impact caused by the production of this type of food.

How would these tariffs work, how would they be calculated and how much would they cost to consumers?

We asked a well respected consultancy firm on fiscal issues to calculate what should be the true price of meat when you include an environmental cost per kilogramme of beef, pork, and chicken. There is a differentiated tariff for beef, which is higher because the environmental cost and the pollution is higher per kilogramme of meat compared to one kilo of chicken. They made the calculations on the average environmental pollution in terms of greenhouse gases, nitrogen pollution, and particulate matter, and they said okay, for instance, one ton of greenhouse gas emission will cost 90 euros, and then they calculated it back into the price of kilogram of meat.

This means that, for instance, beef in the Netherlands should become 5.7 euros per kilogram more expensive, and chicken should become two euros per kilogramme more expensive.

And the way this can be implemented is in the form of an excise duty. It is similar to excise duty for tobacco or for sugary drinks. It is not a tariff increase, it's an excise duty, and this makes it also easier in the future to change the tariffs. Maybe in five years’ time, producers can produce meat in an environmentally friendly way, without causing emissions or compensating them, then the meat price can go down.

Where the revenues would be used? How will the system differentiate producers with a high environmental impact from producers who seek to be more efficient and cause less impact?

We have the proposal to use the revenues of the meat tax in three ways. The first one is paying farmers. The second one is reducing the prices of vegetables and fruits. And the third one is compensating low-income groups.

About the first, we propose that 50% of the revenues will go to farmers to improve sustainability standards and animal welfare standards. We make a distinction between farmers who already made the shift towards environmental and animal welfare. They have to be paid every year an extra amount to promote that kind of product. There are also subsidies for farmers shifting towards this better production system, so it is attractive to make the shift. Also, when they have to invest a lot of money to change their stables, where the animals are, then we also support the farmers by paying this cost for the first year to make the shift.

Together with a lot of animal welfare groups, farmer groups and advisors we made a proposal in our report last year about how we can pay farmers in the Netherlands. It is about 600 million euros per year. We made about 30 proposals on how we can support farmers in different ways, like reducing greenhouse gases, paying farmers when they have a carbon storage in their grows. There are many options which are very good, but farmers don't get paid for it. We want some change. We want that, if farmers do more for nature, they get paid for doing this, for improving animal welfare, for becoming an organic farmer.

The approach defended by Tapp Coalition is very similar to the so-called “sin tax”, which has already shown positive results by overcharging products such as tobacco, alcohol, and foods with added sugar - such as chocolates, ice cream, and soft drinks.

Meat and dairy, however, are part of the staple food of millions of people around the world and, unlike the other products mentioned, its consumption is not easily abandoned or replaced. Do you think this could pose a problem for the proposal's success? How well do you think people are prepared to make the transition to a diet with fewer animal products?

Yes, at least in Europe we see that more and more consumers are prepared to do it, and they have different reasons for it, like their own health. We eat too much meat. Meat consumption is very high in many countries, so you have more risk of having different diseases. Now there are more and more very nice alternative products, meat alternatives, there are lots of healthy protein-rich vegetables, like lentils and beans.

There is a lot of innovation in the food market. But, of course, there is a lot of protest against eating less meat. Not everybody likes this idea of the government telling you to eat less meat or making meat more expensive. We tested this proposal among consumers in several inquiries and we found in the Netherlands, and also in France and Germany, that a majority of consumers support the idea of a meat tax if the revenues are used for the proposals we make: to pay farmers, to help them and make vegetables, fruits, and meat alternatives cheaper.

What I was trying to say is that we have kind of a cultural relationship with meat and dairy, it’s something that is part of our daily routine. Sometimes it is difficult to know how to cook meals without meat or dairy.

Do you think that the government, or NGOs, should try to explain to the people how to live without these products?

I think that governments should also introduce media campaigns about making the shift towards more plant-based proteins and how to cook, how to prepare, what to do with it. There is a lot of information that consumers need to support this kind of idea and understand its importance, like the health consequences of eating too much meat. I think the government can do so many good things, also health organizations could do this.

How do you see the acceptance of this proposal by the population in general and by the political class?

This proposal is politically sensitive, because politicians can be afraid of the public and their voters, so if there is a proposal, then you need to think very carefully how you communicate about it, that you don’t call it a meat tax.

In Germany they are calling it animal welfare levy. We call it just sustainability charge, or sustainability contribution to farmers. You also have to make sure what you are going to do with the revenues. If the revenues are only used for the government to have income, then it will not work, there will be protest. But if you say “well, we want to also help you buy more vegetables and fruits, because this is healthy and good for the environment,” then people would say “okay, one product will become more expensive, the other more cheap, that’s okay.”

Report published in 2019 by think-tank Demos estimates that 20 million adults in the UK cannot afford healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables. One of the points that is criticized in relation to the proposal for a meat tax is that, since it is a consumption tax, it affects people on lower incomes more severely.

To what extent do you think the Tapp Coalition's proposal could affect the diet of this part of the population?

As I said before, we also have a proposal to support the low-income groups with a compensation payment. Can be like 10 euros per month, or like 120 euros per year. In this way, they get more money than the meat tax will cost them extra, so they are overcompensated. Their net income will increase if there is a meat tax. In addition to this, the fruits and vegetables they buy will also be cheaper. In third place, their health care cost will go down because the whole population will be healthier, so there will be less health care costs. I think the low-income groups are so much better off when there is a meat tax, but they don't believe it.

We know that taxes like this, per se, tend to have little effect on consumption habits of people with higher incomes. Focusing again on middle and low-income people, do you think it is possible that this taxation, instead of leading to a decrease in the general consumption of meat, ends up encouraging just a substitution of red meat for chicken and pork, which are usually more affordable?

Many people, especially animal welfare groups, have concerns about this. The consumption of chicken is rising faster than other kinds of meat. So, this is a threat indeed, but according to the scientists who made the tax report for the Tapp Coalition, because also chicken will be more expensive, then the consumption of chicken will also reduce.

To a lesser extent compared to the reduction of beef and pork, but it will reduce as a consequence of this meat tax, because alternatives for chicken will be relatively more cheap when there's a meat tax on chicken. So we expect that the consumption of chicken will also go down.

What practical actions have been taken to put the Tapp Coalition’s proposal in action? What are the next steps?

We are working at different levels. At the EU level, in Brussels, and at the national level, in the Netherlands, and also in Germany. We hope that in other countries there will be similar coalitions like Tapp Coalition also asking for meat tax or fair price on meat.

In the Netherlands, because it is election time, we have asked different political groups to support our proposals, and half of the political parties did so, so they have the meat tax proposal in their election programs. If one of those parties become part of the next Dutch government, and they ask for this proposal, then the Netherlands will have a meat tax in two years’ time. We believe that the political support in the Netherlands is not sufficient to make this come true. In Germany, there is already a similar proposal. So, I think in two years’ time there will be a meat tax in the Netherlands and in Germany.

What about Europe?

At EU level it is more difficult, because the EU cannot impose taxes, it is the mandate of the governments, but they can do several things. They can have an import tax on meat from countries outside Europe, it is called a carbon border adjustment mechanism, which is also used for the industry, to protect against cheap imports from countries where there is no climate policies or no environmental taxes. So, there is an option that Europe in the future will have an import tax for countries like Brazil or Argentina, also from the meat products coming from those countries, because now the policies for deforestation and for climate protection are much lower compared to the European standards. This is something I think that the Commission will do in the future. And they are also active in other ways. They have written a Green Deal for food production, and one of the proposals is to increase the price of meat by asking supermarkets to have a voluntary code of conduct to stop selling meat at too low prices. And if this code will not work in a few years’ time, then the European Commission will make legislation to stop those practices. This is one important proposal and in the beginning of next year we will see the code of conduct, how it looks like. We hope it is a good code and supermarkets stick to it, but we will see. I think the legislation would be better, so we asked for legislation instead of the voluntary code.

There is another thing that the European Commission and the European Parliament could do, is this measure that New Zealand is already doing, putting dairy farmers and meat producers into that emission trading scheme, then the farmers also have to pay for the greenhouse gas emissions.

Do you think that, in a sense, the future of the idea of a meat tax depends on the success of its application in the Netherlands and probably in some other countries in the near future? That this is the first step in order to show the world if it can be successful or not?

I think it is really important that there's a first or second country doing it and showing other countries how you can do it. It is really important also for the international UN summit next year for climate, for biodiversity, for the UN Food Systems Summit, to have those examples of meat taxes as a way to protect the environment and protect the forests.

Thinking about the future, how do you think food production and eating habits will be in ten years’ time?

I think it will look really different compared to the current situation. I think in many countries there will be meat taxes and more subsidies for healthy food, for vegetables, fruits, and there will be sugar taxes, etc. I think also supermarkets will see that they have to change the food they offer to consumers and to also show the true price of food on the labels. There is one supermarket in Germany already doing it, showing the supermarket price but also the true price, which is higher. This is an option. I think that in 10 years’ time, on average, people will eat 20% to 25% less meat compared to now.

What do you think about lab grown meat? Do you think it can be part of the solution?

Yes, it’s part of the solution. Personally, I think it's a bit tricky to eat synthetic food, but for environmental reasons and animal welfare reasons it's a great idea. I support it.

Read the interviews with Svein Tveitdal and Carlos Nobre, all part of the BlastingTalks series about climate change.