Earlier this month, reports indicated that Haarlem, The Netherlands, had become the first city in the world to ban advertisements for meat and meat products from appearing in public spaces such as buses. The city says it adopted the ban, which will take effect in 2024, to reduce meat consumption and combat climate change.
Councilor Ziggy Klazes, the local councilmember who drafted the ban, acknowledged stern opposition. "Of course, there are a lot of people who find the decision outrageous and patronising, but there are also a lot of people who think it's fine," Klazes said in remarks reported by The Guardian. "It is a signal–if it is picked up nationally, that would only be very nice. There are many groups… who think it is a good idea and want to try it."
While Haarlem's ban could herald similar bans, that's not because it should. It's a lousy idea.
The ban is problematic for reasons beyond its attack on free speech—starting with the premise that meat makes some sort of outsized contribution to climate change, a claim that's been challenged. As an NBC News op-ed explained last year, "only about 15 to 18 percent of carbon emissions come from livestock. And that number includes all livestock on the planet as well as the entire process of raising, slaughtering, transporting and eating meat—including the carbon you yourself make while eating and digesting it…. Notably, only a portion of that process involves actual animals. The rest of it is transportation and processes that also produce carbon when growing and consuming vegetables, wheat and practically everything else we eat."
Even if eating meat contributes to climate change and that was somehow a good reason to ban eating or marketing meat—it's not—bans still ignore the fact not all meat has the same carbon footprint. For example, this producer in Manitoba says it's been carbon neutral since 2019. Others—including big American producers—could join that producer if they choose. A white paper published last year by UC-Davis researchers outlined steps the U.S. beef and dairy producers could take to become carbon neutral by 2050.
If the ban itself is dubious, the claim it's the first ban of its type may be as well. In 2017, Australian ad censors reversed course and banned an ad depicting a host of godly figures (including Zeus, Jesus, and L. Ron Hubbard) eating lamb after Hindu protestors complained about the ad's portrayal of Ganesha, a Hindu god (and vegetarian) received "less favourable treatment" in the ad than did the other religious figures.
Some governments have gone beyond banning the marketing of meat and just banned meat itself. For example, some cities in the Indian state of Gujarat last year banned the "preparation and display of non-vegetarian food in public," based on claims that displays of meat led to "traffic jams…. and had a negative impact on people, particularly children."
Calls to ban fast-food marketing—always heavy on meat-centric foods—as here and here, have been around for years and have even become law in places such as Australia. In the United States, ads for meat or any other food are protected by the First Amendment. But even that didn't stop Missouri lawmakers, in 2018, from banning the use of the word "meat" from appearing on any food not made from the flesh of animals.
While I oppose any government prohibitions on meat advertising, I am a staunch supporter of ending government-supported advertising of meat. In the United States, the USDA's beef checkoff program, as I explained in a column last year, is a mandatory, wasteful marketing program that forces farmers and ranchers to participate. I noted the "antiquated, mandatory, collectivist… expensive, pointless, and unconstitutional" marketing scheme forces American farmers and ranchers to spend around $750 million each year on government-approved marketing that may not benefit them (and which many farmers oppose) while raising costs for consumers.
Governments should not be in the business of promoting or restricting meat or any particular diets—including the marketing of such diets—any more than they should be involved in promoting or restricting any religion, hairstyle, or consensual adult relationships. Haarlem's meat-ad ban, despite its supporters claiming it's well-intentioned, is—as its author suggested—both "outrageous and patronising."
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