Tax top of the food chain for environmental sustainability
provided by Cornell University
pplying the polluter pays principle, a Cornell University ecologist and author suggests a way to improve the environmental sustainability of agriculture: levy taxes according to food-chain ranking so that products with the worst environmental impact cost the most.
We should internalize the costs of dietary preferences. If one chooses to eat high-impact food, one should pay the full costs of such a choice, says David Pimentel, the professor of ecology and agricultural science who is a coeditor and coauthor of the newly published book Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health (Island Press, 2000, ISBN 1-55963-807-9).
At the top of the ecologist's tax table - and highest in his ranking of foods that require the most resources to produce while wreaking more environmental degradation - are meats from factory-farmed mammals, such as beef, pork and eggs. The same foods are the least healthy when consumed in excess, Pimentel notes.
To be taxed the least are products at the bottom of humans' food chain - foods that are more efficiently grown while causing less environmental impact - such as legumes, grains, vegetables, starch crops, fruits and nuts. People eating plant-based diets generally consume fewer health-care resources, the author maintains.
Pimentel's beef with beef and other mammalian food products at the top of the food chain centers on efficiencies of production and their true costs, including long-term degradation of the environment. Writing a chapter on agricultural sustainability with Robert Goodland, the tropical ecologist and adviser to the World Bank, the Cornell professor offers statistics to spoil the appetite of filet mignon fans:
The new book, with 23 coauthors and three coeditors, represents the synthesis and findings of the Global Integrity Project. Since 1992, that project has brought together leading scientists and thinkers from around the world to examine the combined problems of threatened and unequal human well-being, degradation of the ecosphere and unsustainable economies. The contributors examine key elements of ecological integrity and consider what happens when it is lost or compromised.
For his part, Pimentel notes that a powerful trend to eat lower on the food chain has started in many developed nations. US beef consumption, after peaking at 95 pounds per person a year in 1976, has dropped to around 65 pounds today. Beef consumption in Europe and the United Kingdom never reached those levels and is now falling even faster than in the United States.
But the countervailing trend is for people in developing nations to eat more meat as they become richer, Pimentel says, noting that China's pork consumption jumped 14 percent in 1995 alone. Pimentel and Goodland called on international aid agencies such as the World Bank to phase out investments in intensive livestock production in Third World countries, especially grain-fed livestock, and leave it to the private sector. Such groups, they write, should ensure that good economics prevail, including accounting for full environmental and social costs.
The authors would make exceptions in their tax plan for small-scale meat and milk production, such as natural range-fed cattle, the family cow or pig and scrap-fed chickens. But they know where the food chain tax collection should focus for the greatest bureaucratic efficiency. In the United States, they write, beef sales are the single-largest revenue source within the whole agriculture sector. Only four meat packers in the United States hold 82 percent of the market, suggesting a low-cost place to tax.