Saturday 23 February 2013

A Meaty Mess - On How to Reduce Europe's Meat Consumption

Meat is yummy. We cannot deny it. Living in Liverpool for a couple of weeks, we have found it hard to resist the British ‘delicacies’ gleaming at you in the shelves of Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Bacon, Cumberland sausages, burgers – you name it, we’ve probably eaten and loved it (with the exception of black pudding, which Harald loves, but which Alex finds disgusting). Nevertheless, at the same time we have attempted to reduce our meat consumption significantly over the past couple of years. Rather than eating meat every day, we try to limit ourselves to smaller quantities, once or twice a week, although we do occasionally give in to the local kebab shop. You could make this decision for a number of reasons: the horsemeat scandal that is currently reminding Europe of the way the meat industry works; the strong correlation between intestinal cancer and meat consumption; or the vast amounts of resources consumed for the production of meat. Each one of these reasons is probably sufficient to either reduce one’s consumption of industrially-produced meat, or to stop eating meat altogether. For us the most important reason is the abominable treatment of animals. Rather than shocking you with statistics and images right here, we will attach some graphs at the end of this post.

Not all cows are as happy as this one.
Europeans must drastically reduce their meat consumption. This is a moral responsibility. Halving out meat consumption of currently 82kg per year will cause a drastic reduction in carbon emissions, a significant improvement in cancer risk and thus life expectancy and it will hopefully cause the meat industry to overthink its ways of treating animals. What we disagree about is how this can be achieved. For that reason, rather than offering a single solution, we will present three possible responses: 1. to introduce a meat tax; 2. to increase the regulation of the meat industry; 3. to raise public awareness causing metanoia.

The first method of getting people to reduce their meat consumption works via the price mechanism: if you increase the price of a product, less people will buy it. Seems logical, right? After all it worked with cigarettes. What you could do is to introduce a meat tax on all products containing meat, either processed or fresh. A meat tax of 100% would double the meat prices, and demand would plummet. People would still buy meat, but in smaller quantities, and not out of principle, but because it is too expensive. The revenue from this tax could be used to modestly subsidize organic meat, making it only marginally more expensive than non-organic meat. It is likely that demand for organic meat will skyrocket, which will again drive up the prices, requiring further subsidies. In the long run, you could achieve that people will eat more organic meat, which the overall meat consumption decreases. However, there is of course a downside to all of this. The cattle farmers themselves have been struggling for years with a trend that is driving prices down, and sudden reduction in meat consumption would inevitably cause thousands of cattle farms to close down. Perhaps this is inevitable if Europe is to reduce its meat consumption. Nevertheless, some time should be allowed for farmers to transition to the new food economy.

The second method that we have discussed in some detail is heavier regulation of the meat industry. A meat tax would do little to improve the living conditions of the animals involved. One could thus enforce a limitation to farm sizes, allowing for example only 150 cows, 500 sheep, 300 pigs or 1000 chickens per farm. A modest meat tax could be introduced (5%?), allowing subsidies to flow into the transition to the new farming system. One could enforce that all animals have to be kept outside for at least 6 hours per day, and that they have to have a sufficient amount of space, that is far greater than what is currently allocated to them. The organic model could be adopted on all farms within ten years. Again, meat prices would vastly increase as a result, but revenues from the meat tax could be used to ensure farmers’ survival. The mechanism causing a reduction in meat consumption is the same as in the first case, as prices would go up. However, the public debate resulting from these regulations would also increase public awareness, allowing for more responsible eating habits.

Finally, it could be argued that the planned approaches mentioned so far would inevitably fail due to resistance from the European meat industry, which is able to exert huge amounts of influence on governmental institutions such as the European Commission. School curricula could for example be adopted to educate pupils about the life of a cow or a chicken. Those citizens who want to get involved could launch public awareness campaigns about healthy eating and the living conditions of animals. The intention would not be to turn everyone into vegetarians, but to get them to think about where they purchase their meat. It is a thousand times better to get meat from a local butcher than from the supermarket, be it Tesco, Kaufland, Carrefour or Delhaize. What is certain is that this process would take a while to be implemented, and until a true change of mind takes place. Despite one meat scandal after the other, meat consumption in Europe remains high, or even goes up.

It’s up to you to decide now which method you favour. They each have their pros and cons, and perhaps a combination of all three would get the job done best. Next time you buy meat, which might be today, think about where your meat comes from, and if possible, try to buy from your local butcher.

Alexandra Athanasopoulou & Harald Köpping

PS: Here are the graphs we promised!