2017 WILL BE the Year of Sustainability

The Lempert Report
January 11, 2017

Finding a way to make food more affordable that is healthier and does not impact the environment.

ARS Technica reports that a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change suggests that if tax-adjusted food prices are based on the environmental impact of their production, then the environmental costs of agriculture could be substantially lowered. The paper then goes on to suggest that the money from the tax could be used to lower the cost of foods that are healthier and more environmentally friendly. 

The study, conducted by a team of researchers from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, is the first global analysis to estimate the impacts that levying emissions prices on food could have on greenhouse gas emissions and human health. 

The research team modeled the emissions generated by the production of different foods, the climate damages that those emissions are expected to cause, changes in consumption that would result from including the cost of climate damage in the price of foods, and changes in the likelihood of dying from diet-related chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer.

They then compared different pricing schemes, including one in which all food prices were adjusted to include food-specific emissions taxes, and one in which the tax revenues were used to compensate consumers for higher food prices and to subsidize fruit and vegetable consumption.

Dr Springmann, the lead researcher and his team stated that much of the emissions reduction would stem from higher prices and lower consumption of animal products, as their emissions are particularly high. The researchers found that beef would have to be 40% more expensive globally to pay for the climate damage caused by its production. The price of milk and other meats would need to increase by up to 20%, and the price of vegetable oils would also increase significantly. The researchers estimate that such price increases would result in around 10% lower consumption of food items that are high in emissions. “If you’d have to pay 40% more for your steak, you might choose to have it once a week instead of twice,” said Dr Springmann. “Food prices are a sensitive topic,” said Dr Springmann. 

The authors found that a tax on all food commodities would result in 146,000 deaths avoided globally in the year 2020, two-thirds of which would be due to changes in dietary risk. 

ARS Technica’s report on the study suggests that as we move forward into a less environmentally secure future, these taxes may be an important option for governments to consider.