How taxing carbon could encourage healthy eating

Of all the good reasons to eat healthy, here’s one that might appeal to the altruistically minded among us: the production of foods like fresh fruits and vegetables tends to involve lower greenhouse gas emissions than that of foods like red meat. What’s more, turning this relationship into public policy, in the form of a carbon tax on greenhouse-gas-intensive food, could both help people eat healthier and reduce emissions associated with the food system.

In a study recently published in the journal BMC Public Health, researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Reading in the UK fed information on greenhouse gas emissions associated with various foods, food prices and the purchasing habits of British consumers, and the effects of diet on mortality into a computer model.

They used this model to calculate the effects of a carbon tax on foods associated with greater than average carbon emissions that would amount to an extra £2.86 per 100 grams of product per ton of carbon dioxide produced. They also modeled the effects of a 20% sales tax on sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks. Both types of taxes have been proposed in the UK and elsewhere (in fact, several countries have already implemented soda taxes).

The carbon tax would cause people to buy less beef, lamb, and other meat, and more chicken, pork, and grain-based foods, the researchers found. It could also raise as much as £3 billion for the UK government.

On the other hand, this type of tax is regressive, placing the biggest burden on those with the lowest incomes. So the researchers also tested the effect of subsidies for low-carbon foods designed make the scheme revenue-neutral for the government. With both the carbon tax and the subsidies in place, people would buy less cream, cheese, and eggs, and more fresh fruit and potatoes, the model showed.

“Some studies have found that diets low in greenhouse gases are also better for health, mainly arising from people eating less meat and more plants,” says lead researcher Adam Briggs. “However, some foods buck this trend, for example sugar is low in greenhouse gas emissions yet bad for health.”

That’s why the researchers also modeled the effect of combining a carbon tax with a soda tax. They found that the tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could raise an additional £400 million.

All scenarios the researchers considered would reduce people’s fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol intake, and increase their consumption of dietary fiber. But the combination of all three policies – carbon tax, subsidies, and soda tax – would have the biggest health benefits. This scenario would delay or avert 2,023 deaths annually, mainly from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The various scenarios would all decrease greenhouse gas emissions, too, by 16.5 million tons carbon dioxide equivalent (with all three policies in place) to 18.9 million tons (with the carbon tax alone). That amounts to 7.4-8.5% of carbon emissions associated with food in the UK.

But the taxes, while perhaps a helpful nudge, wouldn’t be a panacea when it comes to promoting healthy eating. Despite the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, people’s consumption of sugar in the form of baked goods would increase. The model also predicts a worrisome increase in salt intake, the researchers say.  – Sarah DeWeerdt | 9 February 2016

Source: Briggs A.D.M et al. “Simulating the impact on health of internalizing the cost of carbon in food prices combined with a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.” BMC Public Health DOI: 10.1186/s12889-016-2723-8

Header image: Peter Miller via Flickr.


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