Meat’s the new tobacco

Lord Stern, who last month suggested we should all become vegetarian for the good of the environment, has an ally in Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princton University.

Writing in the New York Daily News under the headline, Make meat eaters pay: Ehicist proposes radical tax, says they’re killing themselves and the planet, he says:

. . . the reasons for a tax on beef and other meats are stronger than those for discouraging consumption of cigarettes, transfats or sugary drinks. 

First, eating red meat is likely to kill you. Large studies have shown that the daily consumption of red meat increases the risk that you will die prematurely of heart disease or bowel cancer. This is now beyond serious scientific dispute. When the beef industry tries to deny the evidence, it is just repeating what the tobacco industry did 30 years ago.

There is a lot of evidence which suggests too much read meat is bad for the health. But eating moderate servings of lean meat a few times a week is not generally regarded as dangerous and insufficient protein, iron and B vitamins, of which red meat is a good source, can be.

Singer uses examples of animal cruelty to further his argument then gets to the environment:

Third, industrial meat production wastes food – we feed the animals vast quantities of grains and soybeans, and they burn up most of the nutritional value of these crops just living and breathing and developing bones and other unpalatable body parts. We get back only a fraction of the food value we put into them.

This is a valid criticism but he is talking about the United States. In New Zealand almost all sheep, cattle and deer are pasture reared and much of the land on which they graze is not suitable for cropping.

The clincher is that taxing meat would be a highly effective way of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding catastrophic climate change. . .

. . .  So let’s start with a 50% tax on the retail value of all meat, and see what difference that makes to present consumption habits. If it is not enough to bring about the change we need, then, like cigarette taxes, it will need to go higher.

Singer appears to miss a vital difference between cigarettes and meat. People who stop smoking don’t have to replace the tobacco with anything else. People who stop eating meat have to replace it with other food.

A 50% tax on meat would not only increase the price of meat it would increase the demand for alternative food sources which would become more expensive, at least in the short term until the supply increased.

If a lot more grains and cereals were needed to replace meat, there is no guarantee that production methods would be without negative environmental impacts.

Singer’s suggestion would add to world hunger and associated health problems with no guarantee of helping the environment.

4 Responses to Meat’s the new tobacco

  1. Even in the US and Canada, the criticism isn’t entirely correct. There exist feed and food grade oats and wheat, for example. Animals get the grain crops that don’t quite make grade for processing into people food. Perhaps we could find some other use for feed wheat if animals weren’t to eat it, but it’s unclear that such use would be more efficient than having animals eat it. Lots of corn is grown deliberately for silage, but not all animal feed is of that sort.


  2. Rimu says:


    Funny you should say that, because the duplicity used by the right wing think tanks that churn out climate change denial literature remind me strongly of the tobacco industry’s attempts to prove that smoking doesn’t cause cancer


  3. Andrei says:

    Funny you should say that, because the duplicity used by the right wing think tanks that churn out climate change denial literature remind me strongly of the tobacco industry’s attempts to prove that smoking doesn’t cause cancer

    The duplicity occurs when any activist group (usually leftist and authoritarian) pollutes science to advance an agenda. While there is little doubt that smoking elevates an individuals chance of developing lung cancer there is a lot more doubt that smoking significantly decreases an individuals life expectancy a subtlety that I am sure you will fail to grasp.

    Likewise it seems probable that who consume a great deal of meat are more likely to develop bowel cancer whereas those whose diets are high in grains are more subject to stomach cancers.

    There is not a thing in this world which you cannot demonize as a health hazard using epidemiological research if you so choose to – whether or not your demonization has scientific validity let alone reality might be another matter entirely.


  4. murrayg1 says:

    The biggest duplicity is that being perpetrated by those of us currently living beyond our means, on those who will come after us.

    Those who lead that duplicity are those who argue for everything that they are and do, to be continued.

    Only by random chance will that be the same as good governance.

    We should be collectively more intelligent than that, and the ‘life expectancy’ comments above are exactly what I’m talking about.

    Oner can assume that the above poster will be a climate denier, a peak oil denier, a limits to growth denier, and a person with a vested interest in the status-quo continuing.

    Me, I investigate from first principles and applied math, trying to leave heuristics and emotion where they belong.


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