What matters more to consumers: improving animal welfare, or mitigating climate change? The answer was revealed in a new study, which showed that consumers are more likely to support a meat tax if they know the extra money will be used to improve the living conditions of farmed animals. The promise of climate mitigation measures on farms, on the other hand, did less to inspire consumers’ enthusiasm.
The German researchers on the new Nature Food study had a real-world reason for their investigation, because German policymakers are currently discussing a meat tax. As in many countries, their thinking is that this could help ease the large climate, welfare, and human health burden caused by excessive meat consumption. But, they need insights into what would give it the best chance of success—i.e. what makes consumers tick?
Off the back of this, the researchers designed an online survey of almost 3,000 German consumers, which explored how the amount of tax, and what it was used for—welfare improvement or climate mitigation—would affect consumers’ support for the idea. The survey also explored the effect of a uniform single tax applied across all meat types, compared to a ‘differentiated’ tax, which would tax meat differently depending on the estimated intensity of its environmental and welfare impacts.
The participants were also informed that their responses would be shared with the German parliament, which the researchers think helped encourage participants to respond genuinely, to increase the legitimacy of the results.
The first thing researchers noticed was that a tax to improve animal welfare received significantly more support than a tax to help farmers reduce emissions on their farms—averaging at around 10% more support across the different tax scenarios.
There could be many reasons why. But the researchers speculate that it might come down to the fact that their competing tax schemes clearly stipulated how the tax would be used. Knowing your money is going to concretely improve animal lives may be more potent than the idea of measures that reduce emissions and less tangibly tackle global climate change.
However, it wasn’t just the use of the tax that mattered to consumers. The researchers found that support was also highly dependent on how much they would be charged per kilogram of meat. Unsurprisingly, the higher the tax rate rose, the lower support dipped—meat decreasing by about 2.6% for each increase of €0.10 (about $0.11) per kilogram of meat.
But, there was a sweet spot: a tax of about €0.19 (about $0.20) per kilo of meat had support from 62% of voters. This majority support remained in place for this tax rate, regardless of how the other factors changed.
The study also found that how the tax was apportioned across products made little difference in either the welfare or the climate levy scenario. Whether a uniform tax was applied, or products were taxed variably according to impact levels, it barely influence consumers’ level of support.
Overall, what all this suggests is heartening: consumers largely support a meat tax. “But only under certain conditions that policymakers would benefit from taking into account,” the researchers note.
For one, the striking sensitivity to price is a strong warning to policymakers to design a tax that starts small and slowly: “Following a ratcheting-up strategy is likely to receive more support than trying to go full scale initially,” the researchers write. It’s also clear that framing it as a welfare tax and not a climate levy could win more voters. On this front the researchers recommend that consumers know exactly how their tax will be used on farms, to tap into the emotive power of animal welfare concerns and therefore improve support.
Knowing that consumers don’t have strong preference for a blanket or variable tax is useful too, because differential taxes have been shown to succeed at both bringing down consumption of higher footprint products (like beef with its higher footprint), and also reducing meat consumption overall. This high-impact, low-risk approach is therefore likely the better choice, the researchers think.
Such pointers might be useful for other countries like the UK, where the idea of a meat tax is still treated as highly taboo. Knowing that there could be latent support, and also knowing the specific conditions of that support, might encourage policymakers to pick up tax as one tool among the many we need, to help moderate our relationship with meat.
Schwickert et. al. “Animal welfare is a stronger determinant of public support for meat taxation than climate change mitigation in Germany.” Nature Food. 2023.
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