Unthinkable: Can a steak tax tackle climate change?

Food ethics has more to do with property rights than what we eat, says American philosopher Paul B Thompson

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock


The COP21 climate-change deal agreed in Paris last month has presented a new ethical dilemma for Ireland. Planned growth in the beef industry means that Ireland will fail to hit targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Government justifies this on the basis that beef in Ireland is produced in a more sustainable and less intensive fashion than in many other countries.

But environmental groups such as An Taisce say the long-term sustainability of the planet should take priority over what is, by international standards, a luxury dietary option.

To try to settle the matter, Unthinkable sought the view of American philosopher and environmental expert Paul B Thompson, author of the recently published From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone (Oxford University Press). Thompson argues that “ethics should be viewed as a discipline for asking better questions”, and therefore shies away from simplistic solutions.

“When we move into the intersection between climate ethics and food ethics, we find ourselves needing to juggle some complex trade-offs,” he says. “We might meet targets such as those agreed to in Paris by reducing livestock production, but from the standpoint of obligations to our grandchildren we would be doing much less than we should be to really address climate change.”

A broader point he makes is that changing consumer behaviour is less important than changing production methods. Or, as he puts it (providing today’s idea): “We should not think that we can shop our way into a solution to climate change.”

To what extent should greenhouse-gas emissions enter our thinking when we choose what to eat?

“I would say that they are in the mix, but should not be dominant considerations. Emissions are handled better as public-policy issues than as dietary choice issues.”

Some environmentalists advocate the introduction of a ‘steak tax’ to factor in the cost of carbon emissions from beef farming. What do you think?

“To start out with a milk or cheese tax might actually be more effective (remember, a lot of those cows are for dairy production). I suspect that there is a bit of strategic thinking in the advocacy of a steak tax, which might seem more palatable than a tax on milk. (After all, don’t children drink milk?)

“Given what I’ve just said, I would endorse a steak tax only within the context of much larger and more richly considered climate policies. It could be part of the picture, but people would be misinformed if they thought it was making a major contribution to climate policy by instituting a steak tax in the absence of other, additional measures.”

Is it okay to damage the environment in order to achieve food security?

“Well this is really a crucial ethical question that I take to be much more substantive than the climate questions. My short answer is that food security takes top priority, but even within the food security discussion there are complexities that are seldom appreciated. My book discusses how a naive urban-centred approach to food security actually harms food security for many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, who as farmers would actually like to get a higher price for what they are producing.

“So in fact I don’t endorse the ‘feed the world’ rhetoric that comes out of many agribusiness firms. If push comes to shove, people need to be fed, but the whole point of food ethics should be towards more subtle, long-range thinking that avoids the situation where push comes to shove.

“I do endorse more environmentally oriented approaches to agriculture, and I think of environmental sustainability as an area where dramatic and effective changes are within reach. So to repeat, as a strictly moral point, people come first, but as a practical matter, environmental improvements may hold the greatest promise for an effective food ethics.”

What’s the most ethical way of eating?

“I’m tempted to be facetious, undertaking a comparison of knife and fork to chopsticks, for example. My book makes the point that we are really talking about buying and selling rather than eating when we get into food ethics, which suggests to me that we should be having a hard look at the way our current configuration of property rights, market structures and public policies affect a wide range of social and environmental values.

“I’m not going to quibble with someone who tries to make the best of a bad lot by trying to make food purchases that do the least harm, given the current structure of our food system, but I would take issue with those who define food ethics strictly in terms of ‘the most ethical way of eating’.

“We could develop more ethically satisfactory food systems, and we have an ethical obligation to try and achieve this goal. Purchase decisions make a contribution to that end not so much by bringing about a particular good consequence as by sending a signal that these things matter.

“So in a nutshell, any time you buy a product at a premium price and the premium is linked to environmental, animal welfare, social justice or better health values, you are making a contribution to a more ethical food system by telling the food industry and our public policymakers that you care. What you buy is less important than the fact that you are sending that message.”

  • philosophy@irishtimes.com
  • Twitter @Joe Humphreys42


Question: Can we really feed the world and save the planet?

Oscar Wilde replies: “The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist sees the hole”

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