A RED meat tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could force grazing livestock farms out of the industry, scientists have warned.

The proposed 'meat tax' could cost the UK £242 million a year, and those economic losses are expected not only to be borne by livestock farmers, but everyone in society.

A report from agricultural research institute Rothamsted Research has concluded that taxing red meat to help curb climate change could do more harm than good.

Agricultural economist, Dr Taro Takahashi, who led the research, said: “Solely from the climate change perspective, our results unambiguously support everyone else’s finding – that a red meat tax can reduce GHG emissions.

“But unfortunately, this is only half the story, because the same tax could also force grazing livestock farms out of the industry – even when grassland is actually the most sensible land use at that particular location," he explained.

“As well as impacting consumers and farmers, the knock-on effects will be felt right along supply chains as well as rural communities that support and are supported by farmers.”

The recent National Food Strategy report has called for a 30% reduction in meat consumption but steered clear of suggesting a meat tax, calling it 'politically impossible'.

Dr Takahashi argued that rather than a blanket tax, a better solution would be to look at which areas of the country are best kept as cattle and sheep farms, and which would be better turned to other uses such as crop production for human consumption, agroforestry, and provision of ecosystem services.

“This would involve a more nuanced approach of weighing up the carbon savings against the amount of nutrients produced and the impacts on the economy, both locally and nationally.”

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, modelled economy-wide impacts of meat tax for the first time and estimated that, even under moderate tax rates previously proposed for the UK (19% for meat and 11% for dairy), the country’s economic losses would amount to £242M per year.

These losses resulted from transfer of land and labour forces from livestock farms to arable farms and non-agricultural industries.

Advocates of a meat tax argue that economic models predict a significant reduction in GHG emissions as a result of taxation – climate change causing emissions were predicted to decrease by 2.5 Mt CO2 equivalent per year, equating to a monetised social benefit of £101million per annum under the same carbon price (£41/t CO2 equivalent) used to derive the assumed tax rates.

“However, many of these analyses do not consider wider effects of taxation beyond red meat and dairy markets, and as such the macroeconomic impacts associated with a shrinkage in the livestock industry were mostly unknown before this study,” pointed out Dr Takahashi.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Harper Adams University, Professor Michael Lee – who co-authored the paper – added: “Ruminant livestock are the most efficient provider of key nutrients for human health from land not suitable for growing crops. The study highlights that even with reduced protein consumption levels as advocated in the National Food Strategy, ruminants, given our landscape, should continue to supply high-quality protein from grasslands. This way, more fertile lands can be freed up for provision of fibre and vitamins through vegetables and fruits.”

Moving forward, Dr Takahashi explained that it is critical for the future of UK agriculture to identify when exactly grassland should remain grassland for sustainable food production: “ The question, then, is under what soil, local climate and other geographical conditions are they desirable to society? We absolutely need to answer this question before telling a specific farmer to stop rearing livestock, because otherwise some unintended consequences are very likely.”