Ireland’s food security on a cliff edge

This week, an Irish TD (member of parliament) claimed vegans had ‘never worked a day in their lives’. The bizarre and idiotic rant isn’t worth arguing against but it does raise some critical issues that Ireland needs to address before we get hit with a serious crisis. Its not a question of ‘if’ this crisis will hit us but only a matter of ‘when’ and threatens Ireland’s food security.

To put it into context, the stupid rant came because the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) was asked what he was doing personally to help global warming to which he replied he was cutting back on ‘some’ meat – which is probably more a political savvy answer rather than a serious one.

Danny Healy Rae, TD, then launched his rant saying;

“Them fellas who are talking about eating meat have never worked hard because if you’re a hard worker and do a hard days work, there’s nothing to bring you back like a piece of good meat, whether it is bacon and cabbage or whether it is beef or mutton stew….If you don’t have that you won’t rise out the following day”.

Mr Rae, who also has voiced his doubt on climate change, said it was irresponsible of the Taoiseach to make such comments given Ireland’s global exports of meat and animals.

A few other TD’s started jumping around the day afterwards questioning whether it was wise to ‘do down’ Ireland’s reputation for beef given our reliance on that sector. All over a prime minister saying he was reducing his personal meat intake…

In a classic case of group think, they’ve all missed the point. Ireland is dangerously exposed to an over reliance on beef and dairy production to the point that we do not have a functioning ability to provide ‘food security’ for ourselves.Farming was traditionally a sector that received state support over all others due to a belief in ‘food security’. There isn’t an industry in Ireland or Europe that comes even remotely close to the grants received by farmers. ‘Food Security’ means it was and is critical to a State to have a food and farming sector that can support the population if ever a crisis broke. Nothing contentious there and good practical thinking. The problem is that over the years, this ‘food security’ issue has morphed into a ‘meat security’ philosophy where Irish farmers are heavily involved in meat and dairy production and other forms of farming have been phased out (or dropped by farmers) because meat and dairy is where the money is.

Today, dairy and beef production are the two largest sectors in farming in Ireland accounting for 60% of agricultural output. We export 90% of our beef which makes us the largest beef exporter in Europe and even one of the largest in the world.

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“I too want to live” – Cows worldwide. Picture from Pixabay.

Even a brief look at the breakdown of farming in Ireland paints a picture of how we are dangerously exposed to beef and dairy production –
80% of Ireland’s agricultural area is given over to pasture, hay and grass silage (i.e. feeding cattle) and another 11% to rough grazing. Just 8% of our agricultural land is used to grow crops, fruit and horticultural production. Past the 60% for beef and dairy output, pigs account for 7.6%, sheep for 4% leaving just under 4.5% for cereals and 15.3% classified as ‘other’.

The mix of farming sectors is completely skewed towards an over reliance on livestock and dairy farming which tend to go hand in hand – hardly food security. These figures should be enough to wake up any Minister serious about ensuring we have a sustainable food security ability. Instead, we have farmers and government looking at how to increase funding to a sector that is leaving us dangerously exposed to a crisis.

Our food security is non-existent in practical terms. If a disease were to hit animal livestock our inability to feed ourselves would be laid bare with catastrophic consequences. Foot and Mouth disease, mad cow disease and bird flu are only indications of the type of damage that can be inflicted on livestock farming rapidly and without warning. Modern farming practices leave livestock completely reliant on heavy doses of antibiotics and it is only a matter of time until these fail. If the crisis with human antibiotics is dangerous, the one with animal antibiotics is on a cliff edge. It means food security, in a crisis, would see the country scrambling overseas for plant based alternatives, unable to support ourselves through a crisis that may well be hitting Europe and the rest of the world at the same time. Yet, we continue building up our exposure to beef and dairy in a heady mix of misguided beliefs that beef and dairy somehow constitute food security.

Poultry Farm - Unsustainable
Poultry Farm – unsustainable. Image from Pixabay

Even if the mantra of food security was to be dismissed altogether, we are looking at a crisis in global warming where the drive to move to a new plant based diet is moving apace. This isn’t something that is being forced on people but rather one that is a ‘ground up’ driven movement – people are waking up to the dangers of meat and modern meat production, its impact on the environment and the impact modern farming methods in these sectors is having on their own health and wellbeing. People are awakening to a new sense of personal responsibility in handling their health, how they affect the environment and how they interact with other beings (animals) and the welfare of those animals. Plant based diets and foods are surging in popularity and it is a trend that is set to continue.

There is a slew of reports linking beef and dairy production to global warming and the dangers red meat poses in terms of cancer and other serious illnesses.

A new report commissioned by the Lancet Medical Journal and released today says globally, we need to drastically alter our diets if we are to save the planet. The report took three years to compile and included work by 36 experts from 16 countries. Saying that our food systems are dangerous to climate and leaving civilization open to crisis (are we not in one already?), it calls for a drastic reduction in meat consumption and a move towards plant based foods.

It said one billion are hungry, two billion are eating the wrong diet and over 11 million people die annually because of the foods they eat. To put that into context, 70 million died in World War Two, a war that took 6 years. More people will die from their diet in the next 6 years than the same period in World War Two. And yet governments – not just in Ireland but worldwide – continue to act as if it is ‘normal’ to have so many deaths from entirely preventable diseases caused by our environment and our food.

A look at Nitrates in Food

The new diet the Lancet study advocates consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, with very moderate amounts of seafood and poultry. It allows none or very low quantities of red meat, processed meat, added sugars, refined grains and starchy vegetables.

Applying the new diet to Ireland would mean cutting red meat and milk consumption by 90%, white meats by 70% as well as significant reduction in eating potatoes and some other vegetables. You can see why farmers are worried and why TD’s depending on farmer votes would be making stupid statements.

This isn’t helped by the CAP payments made to Irish farmers. Ireland received €1.54bn under the EU CAP scheme last year (2.6% of the entire CAP budget) of which €1.2bn was in direct payments to farmers – this despite our population being less than 1% of the EU. This has led to a situation (or exacerbated an existing one) where many farmers are unable to make a living from the land without the support of such payments. The drive towards cheap meat and dairy must have a repercussion somewhere and this is it. We subsidies farmers to produce cheap food so that we can buy cheap food and then pay more in taxes to have this cheap food subsidized. Nice merry go round.

The theory of supporting farmers is a good one, but in practical terms it has been an abject failure in terms of food security.

If we were to be serious about climate change and meeting our commitments we should instead introduce a system that encourages farmers to move towards plant based farming. The effect of this would be threefold – a reduction in our greenhouse gases, better food security and less animals raised and killed inhumanely each year.

A study by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and GRAIN released in July 2018 and titled ‘ titled “Emissions impossible – How big meat and dairy are heating up the planet’, found that large meat and dairy corporations are set to overtake large oil companies as the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Think about it – we are introducing more and more greenhouse gases targeting householders while we ignore the largest emitters of these gases – farmers.

Subsidies to farmers should focus on shifting the over reliance on beef and dairy to other forms of farming. Given the move towards a plant based diet that is taking place worldwide, it makes sense that Ireland should be to the fore in capitalising on this movement and developing new markets based on this philosophy. Ireland could be a world leader if it had the right vision and foresight to develop an organic, plant based reputation.

With the proven scientific research stating meat consumption is literally killing us with every bite, this should be a priority for the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health. Instead, we have farmers calling for more live exports and supports from the Government to continue farming beef and dairy – instead of calling on the government to fund new opportunities in the global plant based markets.

Opportunity knocks but I’m afraid there are very few at home to see it.

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