Bad Food Habits: Killing Health in More Ways than One?

A friend recently opined that there was a case for a meat tax (particularly red) to help mitigate climate change. Taxes are imposed to discourage consumption, such as hefty taxes for smoking and alcohol consumption. If done right, taxes can be cost effective. This made me decide to go read more whether there could be a case for it.

There might be two good reasons to look at a meat tax. First, it costs the Earth far more to produce one unit of meat than the same unit of plant food. (All data used for the comparison is courtesy of the Guardian) Using freshwater consumption as an example, vegetables would require 322 litres/kg, fruit would require 962 litres/kg, whereas white meat like chicken require 4,325 litres/kg and at the extreme end, beef required more than 15,000 litres/kg! From a resource angle, it is more resource-efficient to produce vegetables than meat. This can be understood when one looks at energy efficiency. Animals are generally inefficient in terms of energy conversion. Because animals move, their respiration expends more energy, which makes them more inefficient. Cows are a particularly inefficient one.

There is a second reason why we may want to look into red meat taxes. Red meat is correlated with a variety of health problems. From a health policy angle, there is also a case to try to nudge people towards healthier options, such as substituting red meats for white meat equivalent, or cutting out on excess processed food in general.

The typical Asian diet differs somewhat from the Western diet vis a vis red meat consumption, so the “meat tax” argument might hit Asian countries less hard for equivalent amount of punitive measures. This made me read up about our hawker favourites, and think about our own dietary habits in Singapore. The signs are not encouraging. We have three problems going for us:

  • Frequent snacking and consumption of processed food items. These can include processed red meats (terrible) and snacks high in preservatives such as salt (terrible)
  • Eating hawker food and finishing up everything. Almost all the hawker favourites were high in sodium (terrible). Many of them also did not look like balanced diets, most of which were devoid of vegetables.
  • Binge-eating on special occasions. A typical Chinese multi-course meal would contain the following (rough order): appetisers, soup, chicken, prawn, pork, fish, vegetable, dessert. This is a carbohydrate and protein overload. Not good if one eats like this daily.

Coming back to a “red meat tax”, it may be sensible to view food consumption from a more holistic angle. Policy-makers can view taxation as a possible move from both an environmental and a health angle. But there are also critics that blunt taxation may simply be not enough; such a tax regime will require difficult conversations on exactly what to impose a tax on. For instance, since we can largely agree processed red meats are bad for health, how should we make the consumer pay for such a negative externality? Tax the product itself, or its constituents such as salt, or the red meat?

While we wait for policy-makers to iron out the complexities of such a tax regime, as individuals, we can try to signal some of these intents. One can see this in a rising trend of availability of tasty vegetarian food options. Individuals are not entirely powerless in solving both a sustainability and a health crisis.

Clearly the thought of a meat tax (and other associated taxes such as salt tax, sugar tax) is compelling. My lack of expertise in both environment and health policy makes it difficult to articulate if it will eventually work out, but I think we need to have this conversation for two important reasons: our Earth is increasingly become unsustainable as our dietary habits shift towards more meat consumption, and our own health is beginning to take a toll on us; it is good news when we read of increasing life expectancy, but terrible once this is accompanied with worsening health. I am not an expert in these fields, so I welcome comments from the experts on these topics.

P.S. (My personal take on food.) I am personally inspired by how the Japanese manage to merge both health and taste into a traditional eating style. One example where these principles are incorporated into Japanese cuisine is teishoku (quite appetising too, don’t you think?). Because of how well-portioned it is, one does not run as much risk of over-eating too! But is my thinking sound for the experts?

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