The food we eat has a huge impact on the natural environment. Food is responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and half of all habitable land is used for agriculture. Producing animal- sourced foods (e.g. meat) is typically linked with the highest environmental impact and according to the National Food Strategy we should cut our average meat intake by 30% to reach net zero by 2050. However, changing what we eat is difficult, as our diets are strongly rooted in our cultural and social values. Meeting sustainability targets will therefore require policies that make it easier for everyone to consume sustainable food.
|“Our planet is on course to reach tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible” Petteri Taalas – Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, COP27|
Could taxes help to promote environmentally friendly eating habits?
Taxes are often used to encourage positive changes in our behaviour. Sometimes taxes aim to directly incentivise consumers to change their behaviour, such as discouraging smoking or alcohol consumption by increasing the cost of harmful products. But this is not always the case. Taxes can also be designed to encourage industry to develop healthier products. For example, in 2018 the Soft Drink Industry Levy started taxing soft drinks at:
- 18p/L for drinks containing 5-8g of sugar per 100ml; and
- 24p/L for drinks containing more than 8g of sugar per 100ml.
The primary aim of this tax was to encourage industry to reduce the sugar content of drinks to avoid the tax. Since the announcement of the tax, the total sugar sales from affected soft drinks decreased by 34%: from 135,391 tonnes in 2015 to 89,019 tonnes in 2020. This is despite a 21% increase in the volume of sugary drinks sales.
In other words, the levy reduced the sugar intake from soft drinks, without requiring consumers to change their behaviour and, importantly, without reducing industry’s ability to make profit. Research suggests that taxes could also help to promote sustainable behaviours. However, the National Food Strategy dismissed taxation as a tool to reduce meat consumption due to its lack of support among the public.
|“One idea that has been proposed is the imposition of a ‘meat tax’. We quickly realised this would be politically impossible. It was – by a long way – the least popular of any measure we discussed with citizens in our “deliberative dialogues.” National Food Strategy, 2021.|
But might there be a way to increase the public support for taxes?
In our newest study, we explored how to increase the support for taxes aimed at promoting environmentally sustainable food consumption and production. We asked 7,566 adults to read the description of one out of four versions of a sustainability food tax. (Participants were all online delivery app users, representative of the UK general population. This study was conducted online between 22 August 2022 and 11 September 2022). The four versions only differed on two dimensions:
- whether the tax was framed as a way to change consumer choices or as a way to encourage industry to produce more sustainable products and
- whether the tax specifically targeted meat or any food with a high environmental footprint.
Participants then indicated the extent to which they supported the tax from 1 (strongly oppose) to 5 (strongly support).
What did we find?
There were very large differences in the level of public support across the four tax versions.
How much would you oppose or support the introduction of a tax on…
Only 27% of participants supported a tax on meat to encourage consumers to buy environmentally sustainable foods and 51% opposed it.
Presenting the tax as a way to encourage industry to produce more sustainable products rather than as a way to change consumer choices increased the level of support by 6 percentage points (pp) and it decreased opposition by 9 pp. This could be due to a combination of factors. For example, describing taxes as policies targeting consumers could be perceived as a threat to one’s autonomy in making food choices or as disproportionately and unfairly affecting people with lower incomes.
Taxing any food with high environmental impact rather than only meat also increased public support by 15pp (e.g form 27% to 42%) and decreased opposition by 15pp (e.g. from 51% to 36%). This could be because a tax on meat could be perceived as an attack to an individual lifestyle rather than as a measure to promote more environmentally sustainable food choices.
Given the success that taxes have had in promoting health behaviours, we should not rule out the option of using taxation to promote more environmentally sustainable behaviours due to low public support. This experiment shows that depending on the details of how the tax is designed and on how the tax is presented, there can be high public support for the introduction of taxes promoting sustainable diets. In fact, two out of the four tax versions we evaluated in our study enjoyed significantly greater levels of support than opposition. Rather than discounting impactful proposals based on initial opposition, there should be a focus on how a tax can be design to ensure public support.
The Behavioural Insights Team is excited to collaborate with partner organisations on promoting healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets and to explore how we can increase the public support, awareness, and understanding of interventions in this space. If you would like to work with us, please get in touch (or e-mail: email@example.com) and we would be delighted to arrange a meeting.