A Global Meat Tax: The future of Pandemic Prevention

Policy Brief by Pablo Mhanna-Sandoval

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused tectonic shifts in various policy fields, from public health to municipal services. In response to this new reality, Professor Allison Christians from McGill University along with her research assistants, Julien Tremblay-Gravel and Morgane Larnder-Besner, argue in favour of a new domestic and international tax policy focused on pandemic prevention. The above-mentioned authors of the recent Sustainability article propose that countries should collaborate to create a global meat and wild animal tax policy system (1). In an interview with KPR, Mr. Tremblay-Gravel also expanded on their proposal.


By reflecting upon the impacts of COVID-19, the impetus for such a proposal becomes clear. An International Monetary Fund (IMF) report published in June 2020 estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in 40 million deaths worldwide and reduce global economic output by trillions of dollars by the end of 2021 (2). As the authors of the proposal note, COVID-19 is not unique; infectious diseases have become increasingly frequent in the 21st century and this is a trend that is expected to continue (3). The main culprit responsible for this trend is a zoonotic disease, which is an illness transmitted from animals to humans (4). This transmission often occurs because of commercial activities. In a 2019 release, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a list of the most concerning zoonotic diseases in the United States. The list consisted of diseases such as Lyme disease, salmonella, the West Nile virus, the plague, and “emerging coronaviruses” like SARS and MERS (5).


The authors of the proposal endorse the recent calls for implementing international zoonotic disease spread tracing and a response mechanism to zoonotic disease; this is a solution that would cost an estimated $4.5 billion US every year (6). While that may sound expensive, the estimated cost of such preventative measures pales in comparison to the alternative scenario which is an estimated $60 billion US per year in pandemic costs, argues Tremblay-Gravel (7). Regardless, $4.5 billion US is a large sum. How should states divide the load?


To answer this question, Tremblay-Gravel and his co-authors turned to tax. “At the basic level, taxes can raise revenue and seek to modify behaviours,” explained Tremblay-Gravel to KPR (8). Both functions are necessary in this case. First, funds are necessary for the proposed international mechanism to function. Second, the plan for dividing the tax load can modify behaviours by targeting high-risk activities such as animal meat consumption and importation. This is based on the international law principle of common but differentiated responsibility. Common because all countries benefit from pandemic prevention as a public good and differentiated because a country’s responsibility depends on their culpability regarding meat consumption, their needs, and their capacity to respond (9).


According to the proposal, countries that import and consume more meat would pay a proportionate contribution to the global system. Naturally, these countries would then have to decide how to offload these costs domestically. The authors recommend that these countries utilize domestic taxes to target risk-taking citizens and firms involved in meat production and consumption (10). The policy, therefore, seeks to internalize the cost of agricultural and wild animal meat commerce—i.e., the policy seeks to minimize the risk of zoonotic pandemics.


However, the proposal also carries consequences for emerging economies whose meat consumption has surpassed that of the developed world in the last decade (11). When asked

about these challenges, Tremblay-Gravel highlighted that the biggest culprits in animal meat consumption are the United States and China. According to Tremblay-Gravel, this fact is also supported by the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) data on food supply.


“We can argue that China is a developing nation, but it’s coming along,” explained Tremblay-Gravel (12), implying that China would not be eligible for an exemption under the proposed plan. “And we can make exceptions for developing [countries] and find them alternative sources of protein. I understand there are some cultural aspects to wild animal consumption, but at some point, there is an irreconcilable clash between [this and] a global interest in avoiding pandemics...” (13). Tremblay-Gravel further explained that exceptions for many developing countries could be made on a statistical basis dependent on their share of global meat consumption, but that these countries would also be blips in comparison to U.S. and China.


The article also analyzes the proposal’s compatibility with trade law and considers possible enforcement mechanisms. One enforcement solution recommended was to stretch the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) mandate. The authors argue that similar to how the WTO can “authorize member states to seek redress against internal state policies that break international trade rules or adversely affect trade” like industry subsidies, it can also address the externalities of agricultural and wild animal products (14). If a member state fails to make its yearly contributions to the international pandemic prevention plan, other member states would have the option of collecting on this outstanding contribution—calculated using a punitive rate—through countervailing measures such as tariffs or withholding tax on exports to the state in question. The authors recognize that the WTO is currently in no state to carry out this responsibility, but recommend that future, reinvigorated versions of global trade institutions dedicate some focus to pandemic prevention. In the immediate, other avenues like the OECD or existing tax treaties could serve a similar role (15).


To summarize, authors Dr. Christians, Mr. Tremblay-Gravel, and Ms. Larnder-Besner have advanced a convincing solution to the defining policy challenge of our time: pandemic prevention. Through the revenue-raising and behaviour-modifying powers of taxation, their proposal seeks to enhance the global zoonotic pandemic prevention capacity. Furthermore, the plan will achieve this by internalizing the cost of agricultural and wild animal meat consumption. It remains to be seen if the global community will seek to avoid a repeat of the disastrous COVID-19 pandemic through cooperation.

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(1) Morgane Larnder-Besner, Julien Tremblay-Gravel, and Allison Christians, "Funding Pandemic Prevention: Proposal for a Meat and Wild Animal Tax," Sustainability 12, no. 21 (October 30, 2020): 9016, https://doi.org/10.3390/su12219016.


(2) International Monetary Fund, "World Economic Outlook Update, June 2020: A Crisis Like No Other, An Uncertain Recovery," International Monetary Fund, last modified June 1, 2020, accessed August 26, 2020,

https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/06/24/WEOUpdateJune2020.


(3) Larnder-Besner et al. 2020.


(4) Centers for Disease Control, "8 Zoonotic Diseases Shared Between Animals and People of Most Concern in the U.S.," news release, May 6, 2019,

https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/s0506-zoonotic-diseases-shared.html#:~:text= West%20Nile%20virus,Rabies.


(5) Ibid.


(6) Larnder-Besner et al. 2020.


(7) Julien Tremblay-Gravel, interview by the author, McGill University, March 2021. (8) Ibid.


(9) Larnder-Besner et al. 2020.


(10) Ibid.


(11) Getachew Nigatu and Ralph Seely, "Growth in Meat Consumption for Developing and Emerging Economies Surpasses That for the Developed World," USDA Economic Research Services, last modified July 6, 2016,

https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2015/july/growth-in-meat-consumption-for-devel oping-and-emerging-economies-surpasses-that-for-the-developed-world/.


(12) Tremblay-Gravel. 2021.


(13) Ibid.


(14) Larnder-Besner et al. 2020.


(15) Ibid.