In Denmark, the debate about taxing the farmers as an incentive to lower greenhouse gas emissions is raging as a government-commissioned committee concludes that there are 3 ways to achieve reductions with the best being a tax of up to 750 DKK per metric ton.

But is taxing the farmers the right answer? Have the right questions even been raised?

Let me present you with an alternative thought, where the focus is not solely on greenhouse gas emissions but also on the local environment and general health of the public: Tax ultra-processed food instead.

And here is my argument:

Our modern food system seems unsustainable. Packaged, processed foods line the shelves of every grocery store, convenience coming at the cost of nutrition and the environment. As climate change threatens our future, could a shift toward simpler, more locally sourced home cooking be part of the solution?

Every day, we make choices that impact the planet. The food we put on our tables is no exception. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) like ready meals, chips, and sugary drinks have become dietary staples. However, there are hidden environmental costs associated with their production.

A recent study in The Lancet Planetary Health examined the climate impact of UPFs. They found that these foods require more energy and resources at every stage – from manufacturing to transportation. The processing and packaging alone emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases. When shipping is added, the carbon footprint multiplies (Scherer et al., 2021).

In contrast, fresh fruits and vegetables typically have a lower carbon footprint when sourced locally. Produce avoids long transportation distances and excessive packaging. Cooking staples like rice, beans, and root vegetables also demand less energy-intensive manufacturing.

This suggests that a diet centered around simple, locally sourced home cooking could offer climate benefits. But to what extent? And would the average person be willing to make the switch?

Locally produced food also carries a significantly smaller environmental footprint than its mass-produced counterparts from macro-agriculture and global corporations. Small- to mid-scale organic local food systems typically use fewer pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, relying instead on crop rotation, natural pest predators, and organic composting methods to maintain soil health and plant vitality. This approach reduces harmful chemicals entering the ecosystem and enhances biodiversity and soil quality, resulting in a more sustainable form of agriculture.

For many of us, convenience is king. UPFs are designed to be grabbed on the go. But the time required to cook from scratch pales in comparison to the time it would take our planet to recover from the climate impacts of our current food system.

If experts argue that we need radical changes to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, transitioning toward less processed, more locally sourced diets deserves consideration. However, policymakers and businesses must also play a role in enabling and incentivizing more sustainable food choices.

Access to fresh, affordable produce is a barrier for many communities. Education in cooking skills and nutrition is also lacking as generations have grown up using UPFs. Overcoming these obstacles will be critical to making home cooking a realistic option for more people.

The health implications provide additional motivation. Studies show that diets high in UPFs are linked to obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Shifting toward whole foods could yield significant public health dividends alongside environmental benefits.

A balanced diet that includes sustainably produced meat and dairy in moderation may also fit into a more sustainable pattern. While plant-based diets have a lower carbon footprint on average, research shows that ruminant livestock can play a role in regenerative farming systems when managed properly.

Locally sourced meat and dairy products tend to have a lower carbon footprint due to shorter transportation distances and prioritizing locally sourced grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry and pork could help reduce the environmental impact of animal agriculture.

Ultimately, reconnecting with real, whole foods and relearning the art of cooking offers an opportunity to nourish people and the planet. Simple changes in our kitchens could go a long way toward addressing the climate crisis – but achieving this transition will require collective action, innovative solutions and political will. The time for change is now. Any shift toward more sustainable diets must consider cultural traditions, food security, and equity. Simple, locally sourced home cooking offers one path forward – but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Policy interventions like taxation of UPFs may also be needed to incentivize more sustainable choices at scale.

In conclusion, achieving a balanced diet that includes sustainably produced meat and dairy in moderation, as part of a shift toward simpler, locally sourced home cooking, may offer the best path forward for a more sustainable and climate-friendly food system. To reach this goal taxtation of the production of UPFs would make a lot more sense than taxing the farmers directly. Further research and policy interventions are still needed to fully realize this vision, but reconnecting with whole, unprocessed foods is an important first step.

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