Most taxpayers loathe seeing dollar after dollar taken out of their paychecks, but what if taxes could be used for greater good? Researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Reading, in a study published in the journal BMC Public Health, have shown the significant health and environmental benefits of taxing carbon dioxide-emitting foods and sugar-laden drinks.

"Agriculture is responsible for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and those arising from food production have negative effects that aren't borne by the individual buying the food, but by society as a whole,” said the study’s lead researcher Adam Briggs, from the University of Oxford, in a press release. “Examples include the health effects of global warming from extreme weather, changing global disease patterns, and airborne pollution, as well as changes to food production patterns and overall availability of energy resources. ”

Carbon dioxide is an essential greenhouse gas produced during photosynthesis, which is the chemical process of converting light energy into sugars for plants to grow. The more carbon dioxide produced, the more carbon is emitted into the atmosphere. But meat production, including cattle, also contributes to the gases — the 1.5 billion cattle throughout the world are responsible for 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, more than all forms of transportation put together.

Because carbon dioxide makes up nearly 85 percent of emissions, taxing foods that produce above-average carbon dioxide levels will reduce overall greenhouse gases, and therefore, global warming. Researchers believe limiting the emissions could improve overall health because people would consume less animal proteins, and more plants. Beef, and similar high-emissions products, would be taxed at higher rates.

Sugary drinks, which get their sweetness from sugar cane and sugar beet farms, don't produce high emissions and therefore would be exempt from the high emissions rule, so researchers proposed taxing them as well to cut down on consumption.

"Some studies have found that diets low in greenhouse gases are also better for health, mainly arising from people eating less meat and more plants,” Briggs said. “However, some foods buck this trend, for example sugar is low in greenhouse gas emissions yet bad for health. To counter this problem, we modeled the effects of a food carbon-tax alongside a 20 percent tax on sugary soft drinks. We estimated the effect on food purchases."

For the study, researchers designed four theoretical scenarios to demonstrate which ones produced the greatest health benefits. The first situation involved a carbon tax of $4.12 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions that came from foods and were higher than the average. The second scenario had the same carbon tax on all foods that produced emissions higher than the average, in addition to a subsidy for any foods that were below the average. The first and second scenarios were tested again, except this time they added an additional 20 percent tax on all sugary drinks.

The team of researchers found that if taxes are implemented, there would be a decrease in the purchase of beef, lamb, and other meats, while there would be an increase in the purchase of pork and poultry. This would lead to a decrease in death rates from heart disease and cancer due to a diet lower in fat, they found. The scenarios that included subsidies for foods that emitted fewer greenhouse gases resulted in an increase in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, with a decrease in cream, cheese, and egg purchases.

"Our study demonstrates that a food carbon tax could have meaningful effects on greenhouse gas emissions without harming health,” Briggs said. “Small tweaks to the design of the tax, such as a tax on soft drinks, can result in significant improvements to population health without dramatically reducing the effect on emission reductions. A well designed carbon tax could be an important addition to policies aimed at reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions."

Source: Briggs ADM, Kehlbacher A, Tiffin R, and Scarborough P. Simulating the impact on health of internalising the cost of carbon in food prices combined with a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. BMC Public Health. 2016.