Taxing Bad Foods is Good for the Environment

Taking the “food tax” concept one step further has positive implications for the environment.

Originally published 2004

In Taxing Bad Foods is Good for People, I mentioned the beneficial impact of a tax on foods that have had nutrients removed or harmful ingredients added. This post takes that thought a little further and examines it’s implications for the environment.

Creating a New Food Category

In effect, the idea of a tax on unhealthy food creates a new type of food: food that isn’t as good for you as other foods in the same category. For example, a bag of potato chips that uses partially hydrogenated oil is vastly more detrimental to your health than one that doesn’t. But most people don’t know that. They do notice that one costs more, however. So it makes sense to make sure that the unhealthy variety is more expensive, which forces the manufacturers either to lower their profit margins or raise their prices.

Currently, consumers know about several categories of foods:

  • Organic foods
  • Snack foods
  • Regular foods
  • Convenience foods
  • Produce

Organic foods are the healthiest, of course. They also cost the most. But that’s inverted, right there. The people with the most money can be healthy. Everyone else suffers. That’s just wrong. A food tax would help to ensure that the people who eat disease-causing foods are those who are most able to pay for the health problems that result — even more so than a tax on alcohol and tobacco, which know no class boundaries.

Then there are regular foods and snack foods. Everyone “knows” that regular foods are good for you (more or less) and that snack foods aren’t. And recently a new category has been added — convenience foods. These foods (as “everyone knows”) combine the ready-to-eat attributes of snack foods with the “wholesome goodness” of regular foods.

It would be great if all that stuff everyone knows were true. But it isn’t. Some snack foods have more harmful ingredients that others. Some “convenience” foods use the same harmful ingredients (partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and a long list of additives). So some “snack” foods can be relatively benign, while a “regular food” like soup can be loaded with harmful ingredients.

A “regular food” like soup can be loaded with harmful ingredients

In effect, the “food that isn’t healthy” label cuts across category lines orthogonally. In addition, there is a continuum of healthiness: very healthy, not so healthy, really unhealthy, and so on. The result is a table of food quality, with food categories running down the left and degrees of healthiness running across the top:

CategoryVery healthySomewhat healthy…  

Of course, consumers have the information they need to categorize things for themselves — if they know how to gauge the health effect of everything on the label. But that’s a lot to ask of most consumers. In fact, it’s a lot to ask of most doctors, who by and large tend to be as uninformed as the general population on these matters.

With the food tax, however, it becomes less necessary to educate consumers about food quality. All things being equal, consumers will tend to purchase the healthier foods, because they cost less. And all things will be very equal, indeed, because foods created with natural ingredients like butter, instead of partially hydrogenated oil, will tend to taste much better than their less healthy counterparts.

In other words, instead of fostering the sham of “personal responsibility” that requires every individual to know the million and one ways they can be shafted by a corporation that wants their money, we give knowledgeable people in government the power to do what needs to be done. After all, that’s what we pay them for.

The result will be a healthier dietary environment. Best of all, we do it without making things illegal (although some ingredients probably should be illegal), and without creating labels that make consumers pay more for good food. Instead, we let market forces work to our advantage, for a change.

Of course, collecting the taxes is tricky. Different companies have different tax rates for different products, and the taxes apply to what they actually sell, rather than to what they manufacture. Plus, determining the right tax for any given ingredient will take an army of statisticians, medical specialists, and nutritional consultants. No one said it was going to be easy. But we’ll be putting people to work, and they’ll be working on our behalf. Besides, the additional taxes will pay for them!

Taxing Foods to Improve The Environment

Of course, everyone also “knows” that produce you cook yourself is healthier than prepared foods. But there is a range of produce quality that consumers are entirely unaware of. Some are grown with more pesticides than others. If produce were taxed according to the number and quantity of pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, and other harmful substances used in the growth process, there would be a lot of incentive for food producers to avoid those substances. 

Of course, there is already a good incentive to grow organic foods — higher profit margins. But the side effect of that incentive is that the healthiest food is unavailable to the poorest people. And because corporations want to participate in the higher profits, they are mounting concerted, persistent campaigns to weaken the organic label so that it can be applied to their products, as well. Once they succeed, the organic label becomes ineffective as  a quality guarantee.

To succeed, corporations need only continue pressuring until there is a crack in the wall. Eventually, when the time is right and the administration is favorable, they may. They only need to win once. Consumers, as the environmental truism goes, need to win every such battle — and most of them are going on under the radar.

The problem here is that while there is every incentive for corporations to become “organic”, there is disincentive to produce non-organic foods. In other words, time is on their side. They can continue making profits selling what they have, and simply work to weaken the label so they can sell it at even higher prices (until consumers become wise to the scam — which could, unfortunately, take decades).

Taxing environmentally unsound agricultural practices, on the other hand, has several beneficial consequences:

  • Those who harm the environment and produce harmful foods will make less money.
  • The government, acting as voice of the people, will be better funded and stronger, better able to keep a watchful eye on corporations and collect the revenues corporations owe, on our behalf.
  • The quantity of poisons in our food in our soils will be reduced.
  • Unhealthy foods will be more costly, so rates of disease, obesity, and human suffering will go down.
  • Organizations like Medicare and Medicaid will be better funded and better able to deal with the consequences of the unhealthy foods that people are currently consuming.

Prospects for Change

Making a change of this magnitude will not be easy, of course.

With the basic food tax proposal, we made enemies of the large food producing corporations and the fast food industry. We know that they will be opposed to the idea. With the proposal to tax pesticides, herbicides, and other harmful agricultural substances, we add agribusiness and the incredibly powerful dairy farming organization to the list of corporations who will be opposed to the idea.

What are our chances of even bringing such a thing to a vote, much less winning it? The question, once again, comes down to this: Who is in charge? Are we, the people, in charge of our government, our lives, and our health? Or do e have a government of the (giant, conglomerate) corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation?

(The goal of a Voting Advice System is to make sure that you are in charge.)

Copyright © 2004-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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    1. Taxing Bad Foods is Good for People | May 16, 2017 (9:25 pm)

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