Opinion: Time to take a lead on meat?

Graphic by Matteo Di Maio

By Peter Matthews

The biggest manufacturer in the world of plant based meat is called Beyond Meat. The founder of Beyond Meat is called Ethan Brown, and he has said a tax on meat (animal meat, that is) would encourage people to cut their consumption of animal-based products. He says it could help emerging markets to invest in plant based protein.

When I read this earlier today my first thought was that any politician or public figure who made such a suggestion in this country would find themselves in very hot water indeed. The recent ‘Howl of a Protest’ would pale into insignificance by comparison to the flames of outrage which would be ignited even by the proposition, at government level, of a tax on meat.

Then I wondered whether it might, in fact, already have been suggested, and it turns out that it has. In January 2019 a panel of international experts, co-chaired by Professor Boyd Swinburn of Auckland University and Professor George Dietz of George Washington University, called for a tax on red meat. The report claimed that such a tax would address the greatest threats to human and planetary health – obesity, under nutrition, and climate change.

Big companies make big profits by encouraging consumers to behave in ways which are not good for them, or the planet. On the other hand, many farmers work tirelessly to ensure their farms produce the best food possible in the most sustainable way they can. The trouble is – if that food is meat and dairy – they are, according to many experts, on the wrong road.

According to Professor Boyd Swinburn, agricultural production accounts for 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand, and foods high in saturated fats, sugar and salt, including red meat, are the biggest cause of ill health and premature death.

This is not a popular subject in this country – and with good reason; agriculture is the backbone of our economy, and there are many individuals and communities who would suffer if production were to be cut whether by taxes on certain produce or a drop in demand.

However, it is clear to anyone who takes an interest, that with regard to food production, things cannot continue as they are. Perhaps meat and dairy farming in New Zealand will be able to ‘fly under the radar’ for a while, or maybe our meat and dairy produce could be seen as ‘premium’ on the world market, thus attracting higher prices during the coming time of falling demand. And fall it will, if the current zeitgeist persists.

Would it be heresy to suggest that now might be a good time for those involved in agriculture in New Zealand to begin to investigate alternative crops? I’m sure this is happening already, but I wonder if the momentum needs to pick up a bit. Kiwis are generally pretty good at this stuff, taking the lead, setting the trend. Is this an opportunity for New Zealand agriculture to take the lead, or are we not yet ready?

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