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How can humans save the planet and trim their waste lines at the same time? One recently published study in the United Kingdom-based publication BMC Public Health says taxing unhealthy comestibles such as red meat and sugar-sweetened drinks might do the trick. Researchers determined a sin tax on the UK's food industry would reduce carbon emissions and result in Britons consuming fewer unhealthy items.

The study tested four tax scenarios:

  • A. An adjustable tax on all products with greenhouse gas emissions greater than the mean across all food groups.
  • B. As with scenario A, but with subsidies on foods with emissions lower than than the mean so the effect is revenue neutral.
  • C. As with scenario A, but with a 20 percent sales tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • D. As with scenario B, but with a 20 percent sales tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Each scenario saw a decrease in the purchases of beef, lamb, or "other meat" in the UK by approximately 21, 17, and 12 percent, respectively. In scenarios C and D, purchases of sugary beverages, not from concentrate, dropped 17 percent and 25 percent, respectively. So it seems the health-conscious citizens of Berkeley, Calif., who passed America's first soda tax last year, might be on to something.

Purchases of beef dropped by 21 percent

With the consumption of red meat down, purchases of pork (approximately 12 percent), fish (11 percent), and poultry (10 percent) increased. Though, research shows even when unhealthy foods are taxed, it doesn't result in a total overhaul of clean eating. Across all scenarios, purchases of "cakes, buns, pastries, biscuits," increased by approximately 7 percent.  Purchases of "sweets" increased 4 to 5 percent.

As for environmental effects, the study found greenhouse gas emissions in the UK would be reduced by 16.4 million to 18.9 million tonnes. More than 2,000 deaths could be delayed or averted if Scenario D were implemented. That number is much higher than the other scenarios because of the combined soda tax and subsidies for lower-emissions foods. The subsidy keeps the tax on higher emissions from being regressive, and therefore continues to provide affordable food for low-income people.

More than 2,000 deaths could be delayed or averted

"The social cost of carbon is estimated using all sources of greenhouse gas emissions (from agriculture and elsewhere) and therefore to truly internalize the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, it would be appropriate to raise the price of all food products rather than just those with above average emissions," the study finds. "However, food is a necessity rather than a luxury, and the intention of any greenhouse gas emissions-based price change would be to shift populations to a less greenhouse gas emissions-intensive diet. Therefore ... we only estimated price increases on those foods with above averages, with and without subsidies on food with lower emissions, as this is likely to be a more politically acceptable and less regressive policy rather than raising prices across all foods."

Perhaps plans such as these might have the potential to become a reality in the UK, but it's hard to see Americans and the United States Congress going for them. The red meat lovers of this country may have to rely on lab grown beef if they want to get their fill while reducing their carbon footprints.

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