Meat’s the new tobacco

November 23, 2009

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.

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