scorecardGermany's considering a new tax on meat - but it might not be a model for Democrats who want Americans to eat fewer hamburgers
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Germany's considering a new tax on meat - but it might not be a model for Democrats who want Americans to eat fewer hamburgers

Germany's considering a new tax on meat - but it might not be a model for Democrats who want Americans to eat fewer hamburgers
PoliticsPolitics11 min read
Kids call for climate action at a "Fridays for Future" protest in Leipzig, Germany in August.    Eliza Relman/Insider

  • German politicians are considering raising taxes on meat to boost animal welfare, fight climate change, and improve human health.
  • Progressive politicians support raising the VAT on meat from 7% to 19% - the level at which all other foods are taxed. Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right party says its open to some sort of tax.
  • Environmental advocates say the issue is unavoidable: humans must reduce their animal product consumption in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
  • "If we want to have even a small chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change ... then we have to change the way we eat," one expert told Insider.
  • But farmers' advocates and some animal welfare groups say the tax would hurt farmers, do little to promote better conditions for animals, and would disproportionately impact low-income consumers.
  • Meanwhile, sales of plant-based meat alternatives are surging across Europe and the US - and some say investing in these foods is a better way forward.
  • In the US, Republicans have accused Democrats of wanting to ban hamburgers after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested she'd like to "get rid" of cows to fight climate change.
  • Experts say a meat tax is politically unthinkable in the US today, and suggest a series of other measures to reduce meat consumption, including reducing agricultural subsidies.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

BERLIN, Germany - Paul Pollinger hadn't thought much about the ethics of eating animals until he was 25.

That's when he watched the film "Earthlings," a graphic 2005 documentary about animal cruelty and exploitation. His reaction: "This cannot happen in a civilized world."

Shortly after, the Berlin-based musician and consultant became a vegan. But it was his wife, Sarah Pollinger, who came up with the idea to start a vegan meat shop several years later.

In 2017, the couple opened Vetzgerei, a meatless "butcher" in Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, where young families shop at Veganz, Europe's first vegan supermarket chain, and sip oat milk lattes at the meatless cafes that line its leafy streets.

Germany has one of the highest rates of vegetarianism and veganism in the Western world. The ethical eating movement has picked up steam in recent years and is increasingly tied to the movement against climate change.

The coutry's rate of meat consumption has fallen every year since 2011 and this year, Germans listed environmental issues as their top concern in a national poll in May.

But Germans - like Americans - still consume way more meat than what's considered healthy or sustainable for the planet.

Eliza Relman/Insider

A meat shop in Berlin, Germany.

So politicians are now considering raising taxes on meat products. The goal is to improve animal welfare by using the revenue to help farmers upgrade their facilities, and to fight climate change and boost Germans' health by incentivizing less meat consumption.

The idea - first proposed by Germany's Animal Welfare Association - would lift the VAT on meat from 7% to 19%, the rate at which all other food is taxed. Just like the "sin tax" on alcohol, cigarettes, and plastic bags, meat would be taxed for its negative externalities.

While environmental activists say a meat tax is inevitable given the agricultural industry's outsized carbon footprint and Germany's Paris Climate Accord goals, advocates for both farmers and animals are taking issue with it.

'Absolutely unsustainable': The climate impact

Environmental advocates say the issue is unavoidable: humans must reduce their animal product consumption in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

"There is really no way around it," Marco Springmann, a researcher in population health at the Oxford Martin Program for the Future of Food at the University of Oxford, told Insider. "If we want to have even a small chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change ... then we have to change the way we eat."

Agriculture and other land use accounts for about a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Half of human-caused methane emissions come from agriculture. And methane is 30 times more potent in its heat-trapping capacity than carbon dioxide.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report last month which found that humans must re-forest much of the Earth's agricultural land and shift to plant-based diets in order to prevent dangerous climate change.

Maria Lettini, executive director of the investor group Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return Initiative, argued that the cost of meat should reflect its environmental impact.

Read more: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg want everyone to fly less to fight climate change. Germany and Sweden are already embracing the 'flight shame' movement.

"Meat prices are not a fair price for the amount of land, water, [and] carbon that we are impacting in order to have our 300 grams of protein a week," Lettini said. "It's absolutely unsustainable and we need to find a fair price."


Eliza Relman/Insider

Vegan "butcher" owners Sarah and Paul Pollinger opened Vetzgerei in Berlin in 2017.

Slightly increasing the cost of meat is a necessary part of the solution, proponents say. But even if consumption doesn't fall much, they argue the measure would help dispose of the belief that animal products should be staple foods.

"It sends a strong signal from the state that we won't subsidize an industry which harms the environment, which is really bad for our climate," Lasse van Aken, a German Greenpeace activist, told Insider. "It [could] help change the mindset of people."

The agricultural industry thinks there are better ways to make it more environmentally friendly.

Bernhard Krüsken, secretary general of the German Farmers' Association, concedes that Western levels of meat consumption aren't sustainable for the global population, but argued that rather than dramatically reducing consumption, Germany should pioneer more climate-friendly production methods.

"We definitely cannot have Argentinian and US-American levels of meat consumption for all the 9 billion people we will be in 2050, but it depends on the way you produce the meat and the dairy products," Krüsken told Insider. "Climate efficiency is key."

Reducing meat consumption to save lives

While meat consumption continues to grow in the US, sales of meatless meat and other plant-based alternatives to animal products are surging across Europe and the US.

Fast-food chains like Burger King and KFC have rolled out Impossible burgers and Beyond Meat offerings. Liquid dairy sales are significantly down in the US, while demand for nut and plant-based milk alternatives surged by 9% in 2018.

Germany is leading the world in plant-based alternatives and vegan products. And Berlin alone boasts upwards of 600 vegan and vegetarian food establishments.

The traditional Berlin

Eliza Relman/Insider

The traditional Berlin "curry wurst," but with vegan sausage.

One of the German capital's most popular streetfoods, "currywurst" - bratwurst smothered in curry-seasoned ketchup - is now nearly as common in its vegan form.

Tereza Roshofa, Reinis Alulle, and Robert Schleier tried the vegan currywurst at Konnopke's Imbiss, one of Berlin's oldest currywurst spots, on a recent Wednesday. They thought the vegan sausage was decent, but "not the same" as the real deal. None of them are vegan, but they all welcome the vegan movement, at least for the environment's sake.

Roshofa, who's from Latvia, said she's trying to cut down on her meat consumption. All three liked the idea of raising taxes on meat.

"Something has to happen, right? We can't just let everything continue the way it is," Schleier said.

There are well-documented associations between red and processed meat and coronary heart disease, cancer, Type II diabetes, and stroke.

Read more: Most of the meat we eat won't come from animals by the year 2040, according to a report

Proponents compare a potential meat tax to Mexico's sugar tax, which has markedly reduced the country's consumption of sweetened drinks. France, Norway, and the UK have similarly introduced sugary-drink taxes.

While many plant-based meat alternatives contain as much sodium and saturated fat as the meats they're replacing, experts say they eliminate meat's most significant risks.

"The only thing that's super clear is that eating processed red meat increases the risk of cancer," Timothy Searchinger, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and researcher at Princeton, told Insider. "Anything that's an alternative to processed red meat should be a benefit."

Veganz, a vegan grocery store chain in Berlin, Germany.

Eliza Relman/Insider

Veganz, Europe's first vegan grocery store chain, in Berlin, Germany.

A regressive tax?

A major concern with any tax on food products is the disproportionate impact it would have on low and middle-income people.

Critics say a tax would simply force people to buy cheaper, less healthy meat products. Organic meat producers are pushing to lower taxes on their products as a way to even out the cost for consumers.

But advocates of the tax counter that the relatively low cost of meat in Germany incentivizes consumers to choose it over other products.

"At the moment meat is so cheap that people eat it just like they drink water," Achim Stammberger, a leader of animal rights group ARIWA, told Insider.

One idea that has some support across the political spectrum in Germany is lowering the VAT on fruits, vegetables, and other non-animal products to encourage more plant-based diets.

Read more: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got 2020 Democrats talking about climate change, but their plans to address it diverge wildly

The Farmers' association is pushing to lower the VAT to 7% - where animal products currently are - for all food.

Environmental advocates are also pushing to use some of the revenue from a potential tax for education, including cooking classes in schools. Teaching people how to cook healthy meals would reduce their food costs, Springmann said.

Paul Pollinger, of Berlin's Vetzgerei, thinks education should be the top priority. A tax would be a nuisance, not a teaching tool, he said.

"Even if you make things more expensive, it doesn't make people think about it," he said. "They just get maybe a bit angry … but they don't get to the point where they say, 'Ok it's more expensive because it's bad for the environment and it's bad for me.'"

A sign at a vegan grocery store in Berlin informs customers the shop will be closed during the global climate strike on Sept. 20, 2019.

Eliza Relman/Insider

A sign at a vegan grocery store in Berlin informs customers the shop will be closed during the global climate strike on Sept. 20, 2019.

Animal welfare concerns

Agricultural interests and animal welfare groups agree that animal husbandry standards need to be raised in Germany. Demand is rising across the continent for more humanely raised livestock.

Conservative proponents of the meat tax want to use the additional revenue to subsidize farmers' efforts to improve animal conditions.

"The additional tax revenue should be used to support livestock farmers to help them restructure," Albert Stegemann, agriculture spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic party, told German media.

Critics say raising the VAT is an ineffective way to improve animal welfare, both because the tax would hurt farmers' bottom lines and because its revenue can't be directed specifically to animal welfare investments.

Read more: Germany's far-right populist party is poised to surge in the former Communist East 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall

"We have significant investments to make in order to follow consumer expectations for animal welfare," said Krüsken, of the Farmers' Association. But he argued that the VAT "is not fit ... for providing longterm financing of this process."

Stammberger, the animal rights advocate, said raising the VAT tax would give consumers a false assurance that animals are being treated more humanely, while only "marginally" improving their lives.

"Putting this money into animal welfare would mean people feel better about it," he said. "This would have a stabilizing effect on animal consumption, which is exactly not what people who advocate raising the VAT on animal products want."

Germany's Animal Welfare Federation, the Deutscher Tierschutzbund, is in favor of a meat levy that would allow the revenue to be directed specifically to animal welfare efforts, rather than sent into government coffers.

Vegan sausages and BBQ sauce at the vegan butcher

Eliza Relman/Insider

Vegan sausages and BBQ sauce at the vegan butcher "Vetzgerei" in Berlin.

An American meat tax?

The current political debate over meat consumption in the US today suggests a tax wouldn't go over very well.

Since Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies conceded they wouldn't be able to "fully get rid of farting cows" in a controversial document describing her Green New Deal resolution earlier this year, Republicans have insisted that Democrats are planning to eradicate cows and beef.

Some Democrats now argue the climate debate should move away from talk of meat and plastic consumption and other smaller-scale issues, and focus on industrial and structural concerns.

"This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants us to talk about," Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at CNN's climate change town hall. "They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers. When 70% of the pollution, of the carbon that we're throwing into the air, comes from three industries."

Environmental experts say the idea of a meat tax in the US is laughable at the moment. Some say the concept can only become viable once alternatives to meat are more desirable than meat itself.

"It would be a terrible mistake for anyone to try to do that right now," Searchinger said of the tax. "The opportunity to do things like that will exist only at the point at which there's broad acceptance that there are substitutes that are equally good."

He predicts plant-based alternatives will eventually become cheaper and tastier than meat.

Environmental advocates say there are a host of steps the US could take before considering a tax. For one, the government could simply reduce its subsidies to farmers and ranchers. Experts say subsidizing the agricultural industry discourages it from diversifying its products, which will hurt it in the long run.

"Merely rolling back the government's overactive role in protecting industry could go a long way before a tax jumps into place," Matthew Hayek, an environmental studies professor at NYU, told Insider. "They mitigate farmer risk to such an extreme extent that farmers are immune to market signaling and don't give them the opportunity to see the writing on the wall."

Hayek said an ideal policy would include promoting consumption of legumes and whole grains, as well as fruits and vegetables, as an alternative to meat. He pointed out that foods like beans and grains are cheaper and easier to distribute than both meat and fresh plants.

"These are things that can be produced and served as cheaply as the animal feed that we're currently using to fuel our high meat and dairy food system," he said.

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