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Would a Beef Tax Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

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Leszek Leszczynski / Flickr

By Michael von Massow and John Cranfield

Will taxing meat products based on their carbon footprint reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improve public health? The answer is maybe, but not notably—and it will come with significant costs.

A recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change advocates applying taxes to the consumption of meat as a means of lowering GHG emissions.


The idea is that if meat is more expensive, consumers will buy less of it. In turn, when faced with reduced consumption, farmers will produce less cattle.

Not all meat production produces the same volume of emissions. Since cows produce a lot of methane (a greenhouse gas), fewer cows should mean less methane, which in turn should help lower GHG emissions. Pigs and chickens don't spew methane the way cows do, but there are also the emissions associated with feeding them, as well as with the decomposition of manure.

While it's clear we need to proactively reduce GHG emissions globally, we believe the emissions tax approach is unlikely to achieve success.

It will likely increase food prices for consumers and decrease the prices farmers charge for their products, but it's unlikely to lower meat consumption significantly and therefore unlikely to lower GHG emissions from the livestock sector. There may be other detrimental impacts to taxation too.

Price Hikes Don't Usually Curb Consumption

Food consumption is not as strongly linked to price as one might think. Changes in consumption of food are typically much smaller than changes in the price consumers face in the grocery store. This is a phenomenon that has been recognized and measured for decades.

We would need to implement huge taxes to achieve a small decrease in consumption. As an example, the study in the Nature Climate Change journal suggests a 40 percent tax on beef would only reduce beef consumption by 15 percent.

Because taxes on food at the retail level tend to raise the prices paid by consumers, it's also worth noting that any increase in the price of meat would tend to affect low-income consumers more than more affluent consumers. Low-income consumers would pay relatively more than the rich.

We also need to consider substitution effects. While a high tax on beef and other meats will lower beef consumption somewhat, it may also lead to economizing by consumers through increased consumption of lower quality or more highly processed cuts of meat.

This could actually increase the relative prices of these cuts, making the negative impact of the tax on lower-income consumers even stronger, and would undermine some of the suggested health benefits.

It's worth noting that beef consumption is generally falling in Canada and the U.S., independent of price. Other factors are likely to be more effective at reducing beef consumption than taxation.

All Cattle Are Not Raised Equally

It's also important to recognize that different types of cattle production create different volumes of emissions.

There is a suggestion that any tax on meat should reflect the production system. Those that raise cattle on grasslands or in pastures, for example, would have lower taxes than cattle raised using intensive production systems, like those used throughout North America, which create higher emissions.

While cattle in North America spend their early life on pasture, most beef cattle are finished in feedlots where they are grouped and fed high-energy grain rations to efficiently produce the preferred texture and taste of beef.

A tax based on how cattle are raised, however, would be both politically and logistically difficult.

If grassland and pasture rearing of cattle is favored because of lower GHG emissions, we could see significant deforestation in those countries that produce beef extensively, but not a substantial reduction in consumption as desired.

We could end up in a situation where many differences in production practices, even within countries, create different emissions estimates and therefore cattle producers would seek different tax levels.

Unintended Consequences

There's also a risk that a meat tax would reduce the incentive to initiate research and development that could help cut emissions within the sector.

Examples of such R&D include efforts to improve the feed efficiency in cattle production. At the farm level, feeding more cattle on a forage-heavy pasture diet could increase the costs of producing cattle and change the characteristics of the beef while eroding the incentive to adopt climate-friendlier production practices.

It's worth noting that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has said that emissions could be reduced by 30 percent today if current best practices were broadly implemented. This is beyond the impact of a 40 percent tax. The incentive to adopt these best practices would be removed by the implementation of a tax.

Progress Can Be Made

As experts in food and agriculture economics, we agree that reduced GHG emissions are important for the future of humanity. We also believe that we are likely to substitute plant or insect proteins or cultured meats for traditional meat products over time.

Even if it were possible to get broad-based agreement for a global (or even just a Canadian) tax on meat, however, it is important to look not only at whether these efforts would reduce GHGs, but also at the unintended consequences of these efforts.

In the case of the proposed meat tax, it is not only unlikely to achieve the intended outcome, it is equally likely to create a spate of unintended consequences that would negatively affect not just cattle producers, but also consumers.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.