Author: Luke Muller
Why a South African Sin Tax on Meat Would Be a Bad Idea
More food is produced today than ever before. Most people have access to an abundance of calories and there is a growing appetite for animal products. Spicy chicken, cheeseburgers, pork belly bacon, and dairy yoghurts are available to more people than ever before. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), nearly 340 million tonnes of meat and 843 million tonnes of milk were produced in 2018. Both meat and dairy consumption have risen faster than population growth for decades, requiring ever greater tracts of land. The FAO estimates that 70% of the world’s agricultural land is used for grazing, and one-third of global crops are fed to livestock, yet animal-source foods comprise only 18% of our calorie intake. As Sir David Attenborough said, “We're replacing the wild with the tame”. The disproportionate disruption and destruction to wild ecosystems and species is cause for alarm. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) identifies the conversion of pristine native habitats into agricultural systems and the overfishing of our oceans as the primary drivers of massive global biodiversity loss since 1970. We need less cowbell.
When farm animals are given feed, there is a transfer of energy and nutrients up the food chain. The problem is that this transfer is highly inefficient. Factory farming was invented to try to increase the efficiency of resource use, with little regard for living conditions. Instead of lowering resource use, factory farming has simply led to an increase in our per-person consumption. Intensive farming produced most of the 69 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, and millions of turkeys, sheep, goats and cows slaughtered in 2018. South Africans have a strong preference for chicken and beef, but any laws concerning animal products must also consider all substitutes, including fish. Fish are increasingly farmed as many wild stocks have dwindled. Production from global fisheries and aquaculture was 179 billion kilograms in 2018, and almost half is farmed. In modern times, Old Macdonald might have a fish farm.
It has been suggested that environmental costs justify ‘green taxes’ on meat and dairy consumption. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are also calling for an excise tax on meat to help cover the health and environmental costs. Could such a tax be feasible in South Africa? Taxes can have unintended consequences. People could switch to alternatives such as eggs, dairy, or fish. Attempting to tax all animal products would be a bureaucratic nightmare. There are a huge variety of products, ingredients, and nuances to monitor. Where would policymakers draw the line to avoid substitution? Competition for animal protein is becoming more and more acute. Would krill be taxed? All molluscs, or certain molluscs? Would cows milk move from being value-added tax (VAT) free to having VAT plus green tax?
Lowering tax on plant-based food could be an easier alternative. VAT could effectively be removed from all plant-based products. If there is no tax on cow's milk, VAT should be zero for milk substitutes too. This would allow for fairer competition with dairy milk, as is the case in the UK. Fresh fruit, vegetables, lentils and a handful of other items are already VAT-free, but the poor are still forced to pay VAT if they want to buy a variety of groceries. Lowering the price of all plant-based products would provide people with cheaper meat, egg, fish, and dairy alternatives, and give some much-needed relief to those in poverty. Dropping VAT on plant-based products would be an unpopular option for the state. It might mean less money for South African Airways, but consider that the poor and environment would benefit from such policies. Hiking taxes would not benefit the poor, and it should also be noted that once a ‘sin tax’ or ‘green’ tax is in place, the government then has a perverse incentive to maintain that revenue stream.
Another unintended consequence is that a tax on meat or dairy could create a black market for these products with many adverse effects. South Africans are painfully aware of the black markets created due to the highly taxed (and occasionally banned) sales of alcohol and cigarettes. Black markets proliferate easily, and one in animal products would have serious consequences for animal welfare and food quality. These illicit markets also put money in the hands of criminals. Many African countries already deal with problematic and devastating black markets for ‘bushmeat’, animal skins, and animal parts. A tax would cause many consumers to switch to cheaper, poor-quality animal products, with dire health consequences.
Switching to plant-based alternatives would also drastically reduce humankind’s agricultural footprint. There would be less natural habitat destruction, less faeces to deal with, and less use of antibiotics. Avoiding the overuse of antibiotics and further zoonotic disease outbreaks seem like fantastic ideas during a pandemic. The recent outbreaks of listeriosis, in processed meats, and of African Swine Fever, on some South African farms, is another reminder of this. What is the true price of polony? Tiger Brands sold its processed meats business after facing a class-action lawsuit over its role in the listeriosis outbreak.
Instead of more taxes, authorities should aim for complete transparency in the food supply chain. When consumers know how their food is produced, they can make better choices. Substitutes often require far fewer resources to produce than meat and dairy, especially once they reach a mass market. Many companies are finding that plant-based products are safer and can drive profits. The UK bakery chain, Greggs, saw profits and sales surge after controversially introducing a vegan-friendly sausage roll to customers in 2019. Plant-based products are on a roll. Beyond Meat is a Los Angeles-based producer of plant-based meat substitutes listed on the New York Stock Exchange and is now opening a new production facility near Shanghai.
South Africans value their freedom, transparent markets, and being able to make their own consumption choices. If the state is serious about using tax incentives, they can lower VAT to zero for the sale of all plant-based foods. Authorities should avoid protectionism of the meat and dairy industries and allow the fast-growing markets for substitutes to flourish. The most effective way to change consumer behaviour is with a combination of education and tasty, inexpensive, easy alternatives. Spicy tofu, bean burgers, seitan bacon, and coconut yoghurts will soon be available to more people than ever before.