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Sustainable food: the effects of an environmental tax on animal-based products

Greenhouse gases, nutritional quality and social equality

Sausisses fumées et andouillettes.. © INRA, MANSION Nathalie
By Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemann
Updated on 06/27/2016
Published on 05/17/2016

In France, the agricultural and food industries account for around a third of greenhouse gas emissions (Source: ADEME). In terms of mitigating climate change, reducing these emissions constitutes a key challenge to which national governments, including that of France, only recently committed themselves at the COP21 conference.

Animal products, and particularly meat, weigh heavily in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.  As sources of saturated fats, they are also associated with pathologies such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.  Greenhouse gases, nutritional quality and social equality are all elements that ultimately question the sustainability of these products.

In this context, where budgetary measures are one of many means to promote sustainable options in different sectors, including that of nutrition, INRA economists sought to evaluate the usefulness of a tax on the consumption of animal-based foods.

A typical shopping basket: household expenditure and sustainability

The scientists analysed the food purchases made by French households between 1998 and 2010, based on data from an national survey.  They evaluated the environmental impacts based on three criteria - greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (CO2), air acidification (SO2) and eutrophication (N) - and the nutritional characteristics of foods (notably energy, sugars, lipids, and animal and plant proteins). These analyses took account of social variations in food purchasing by considering both the income of households and the age range of reference individuals within the household.  Thus, during this study, the sustainability of food was approached via three dimensions: the environment, health and social equality.

The economists measured the effects on the environment, nutrition and food budgets of implementing two taxation scenarios which simulated a 20% rise in the price of animal-based products; this rate, obtained from the literature, has been shown to be necessary to achieve favourable effects on health.  The first scenario focused on the environmental aspects of food sustainability, so all animal-based products were targeted by the tax.  The increase concerned meat, fish, animal fats, cheeses and other dairy products, as well as prepared dishes.  The second scenario also took account of the nutritional aspects of these products, and the increase excluded fish and dairy products other than cheese - more virtuous in nutritional terms, and particularly with respect to fats.

Taxing animal-based products by reconciling the environment, health and social equality

The team thus demonstrated that, as a general rule, consumers are sensitive to variations in the prices of animal-based foods: a 20% increase in their price encouraged them to restrict the consumption of these products.  These modifications to food purchasing influenced both levels of greenhouse gas emissions and also the content of the diet in essential nutrients.

Compliance with nutritional guidelines was assessed as a function of the proximity or distance of behaviours relative to the recommendations in the National Nutrition and Health Programme (PNNS) in order to judge variations concomitant with nutritional quality.

When the prices of all animal-based products were affected by the tax, the scientists observed a reduction in CO2 emissions of 7.5%, or 99 kg equivalent CO2/year and per household. This is close to the emissions generated by a 700 km trip in an average-sized saloon car. Indicators relative to air acidification (-14.5% for SO2) and eutrophication (-8.4% for N) were also lower.  However, the resulting quality of the diet was poorer.

When fish and dairy products other than cheese were excluded from this price rise, the team observed in contrast that the quality of the diet improved, while the environmental impact of animal-based products was still reduced (-7.0% for CO2, -13.2% for SO2 and -6.6% for N).

The second scenario limited the loss to the household food budget to 4%, or the equivalent of €61/year and per household.  It also affected social equality, because this tax induced greater losses in low-income households, and particularly those where the reference individual was aged between 31 and 45 years.  In the latter case, the accrued monetary cost of food was not compensated for by the improvement in nutritional quality.  These scenarios were therefore not able to achieve a true reduction in nutritional inequalities between households.

During this study, taking account of the environmental, nutritional and social dimensions of sustainability necessitated certain compromises between environmental benefits and nutritional quality, at the price of additional costs for consumers.  As a general rule, a fiscal policy would be able to achieve the objectives of both improving the environment and nutrition, and would constitute a strong signal to consumers, encouraging them to modify their diet.

This is the first study to have examined an environmental tax on food in France, and to have explored its social dimension through a detailed analysis as a function of income and age.  It also raises several questions, notably by revealing the limitations to such policies in terms of social equality.  In this context, the scientists suggest supplementing these environmental tax scenarios with targeted grants that could compensate for the lack of purchasing power; for example, by re-injecting the income from a tax.  These are several issues that should inform public decision-makers with respect to a sustainable diet.

Find out more

France Caillavet, Adélaïde Fadhuile and Véronique Nichèle. 2016. Taxing animal-based foods for sustainability: environmental, nutritional and social perspectives in France. European Review of Agricultural Economics 1–24. doi:10.1093/erae/jbv041.