Why you should care

Because that juicy hamburger costs much more than you’re paying for it.

Taxes are like spinach. You might not like them, but they are good for you. We tax vice, like cigarettes, and use the money for virtue, like education. It makes perfect sense until we touch on something we truly care about, like bacon.

Deliciousness aside, red meat has many hidden costs. As we all know, those ribs might send you faster to the grave and, as a Harvard study puts it, contribute “substantially to a premature death.” Yes, we’re talking about heart disease, which is linked to red meat and remains the No. 1 killer in the United States.

We’re not thinking only about you, either. We’re thinking of the climate, which is heating up so fast that we’ve basically missed all of our goals concerning greenhouse gas emissions. What’s the connection? Farts and belches, basically. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization says cows, pigs and other livestock release so much methane that they’re responsible for 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. There are plenty of other environmental arguments. Livestock accounts for 8 percent of all human water usage, and overall, a pound of meat requires many more resources — from land to medicine — than a pound of grain. Indeed, cultivation of soybeans for animal feed has caused massive rainforest destruction.

Cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline are taxed to offset their hidden health or environmental costs. So why not meat … ?

Lisa Lange, senior vice president of communications at PETA

We’ve long used taxes for policy goals, whether it’s to discourage smoking or coal production. But meat gets special treatment; not only does the United States not tax meat, it facilitates meat production via generous subsidies for the corn and soy that are fed to livestock. “Cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline are taxed to offset their hidden health or environmental costs,” argues Lisa Lange, PETA’s senior vice president of communications. “So why not tax meat, which is toxic to both the planet and human health?”

Of course, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association can find plenty of reason not to. Its position: Producers’ interests are aligned with environmental ones. “No one has more incentive to care for the environment than those that depend on the land for a living,” says president Philip Ellis, who is also a Wyoming rancher. More effective than taxing a burger, he argues, is better stewardship, which the beef industry is focused on.

Also there’s the matter of the public. New Yorkers remember well the grief former Mayor Michael Bloomberg got for trying to crack down on big sodas. Imagine if he were cracking down on, say, Nonna’s bolognese or Jack’s summer barbecues? Even some t
ax experts balk. “Not all meat causes these externalities,” says Annette Nellen, a professor at San Jose State University. Implementing fines for particularly polluting farms or educating consumers about the negative aftereffects of their dietary choices could be better options. Indeed, meat consumption is already decreasing as people become more eco-friendly and health conscious.

Ultimately, it might be easier for many to change cars than to give up the bacon. But that doesn’t change the fact that paying the real cost of what we eat might be the only way to avoid a tragically watery future. And that’s an idea worth chewing over.

The stakes have never been higher, our writer argues. Do you agree?

Photography by Shutterstock.

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