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Column: Make no mistake - it is time to make beef-eating taboo

Being a regular steak consumer should be considered more environmentally egregious than being an SUV driver, writes Frank Armstrong.

Frank Armstrong

CATTLE HAVE LONG occupied an important position in our agriculture, especially west of the Shannon.

Previously kept for milk or occasionally drained of blood – just as the Masai Mara do in Kenya – in Gaelic Ireland, they were not raised for meat until the seventeenth century. It is possible a taboo was emerging around beef consumption on account of the importance of dairy with which there was a sacral relationship.

Just as Japanese venerated deities connected to rice, Slavs rye, Mayans corn, and Christians wheat, the Gaelic Irish saw supernatural forces at work in dairy. Deriving beef from this quasi-maternal animal may have been considered immoral as was the case in India, Japan and some Germanic tribes. AT Lucas asserts: “There are no beef-eating heroes in Irish mythology”. Fattening cattle for meat was a wasteful use of resources especially in the absence of refrigeration for a large carcass, and winter fodder.

This changed after renewed English colonisation in the seventeenth century after which Ireland became a source of beef for the Empire; the introduction of barrelling allowed it to be preserved and Ireland became the leading exporter in Europe. It was in this time too that much of our remaining native hardwood forests were felled to make way for intensive agriculture, leading one poet to mourn: Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? Ta deireadh na gcoillte ar lar? – “Now what will we do for timber, with the last of the woods cut down?”.

The Great Famine removed the last vestiges of subsistence farming. From the late nineteenth century farmers on increasingly larger holdings became producers for the international market, and so it has continued.

In post-colonial Ireland 90 per cent of our agricultural land is devoted to pasture. We have the lowest coverage of forestry of any EU, a mere 10 per cent of our total area, and much of it is coniferous which inhibits biodiversity. The island of Ireland is a mass production site for livestock with dangerous environmental consequences.

The New Caviar

A 2006 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow outlined its startling contribution to climate change; rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars. Being a regular steak consumer should be considered more environmentally egregious than being an SUV-driver.

The Green Revolution which began after World War II has allowed the consumption of meat to reach unsustainable levels. It doubled crop yields around the world but depends on finite fossil fuels: herbicides and pesticides are by-products of oil; synthetic fertiliSer is produced by burning natural gas; the harvesting, planting and drying of grain all demand significant energy inputs. Much of what is cultivated is not consumed directly: 80 per cent of US grain is fed to animals. Since the 1960s average per capita meat consumption in many countries, including Ireland, has doubled.

The energy conversion of beef offers a pitiful return of 1g for every 40g of grain. With a rising population and peak oil on the horizon a calamitous future may await, especially as Third World diets converge with those in the First. Vaclav Smil estimates that if the world’s growing population decide to eat the same amount of meat that the world’s affluent now consume, we would need 67 per cent more land than the earth actually contains. Thankfully, at least the Indians regard the cow as sacred.

In his book Just Food, agricultural historian James E. McWilliams reaches a stark conclusion:

Every environmental problem related to contemporary agriculture that I’ve investigated ends up having its deepest roots in meat production … Monocropping, excessive applications of nitrogen fertilizer, addiction to insecticides, rainforest depletion, land degradation, topsoil runoff, declining water supplies, even global warming – all these problems would be considerably less severe if global consumers treated meat like they treat caviar, that is, something to be eaten rarely, if ever.

Howard F. Lyman goes so far as to say: ‘To be an environmentalist who happens to eat meat is like being a philanthropist who doesn’t happen to give to charity”.

Green Delusions

It is incorrectly assumed that Irish beef is a pure product of terroir. In reality, grain, most of it imported and one million tonnes of it genetically modified, forms, on average, 40 per cent of their diet. Synthetic fertiliser promotes the grass they graze, and pollutes our water. But apart from external inputs, grass-fed cattle actually produce four times more methane through enteric fermentation than their feedlot cousins.

Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority admit:

Ireland is unique among the EU countries for the proportion of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which originate from agriculture, representing 29.1 per cent of national and 4 per cent of the non-Emissions Traded Sector (non-ETS) emissions.

This is compared to an EU average of 9 per cent. Among developed economies only that other island of livestock, New Zealand, has a higher proportion of emissions associated with agriculture.

Teagasc’s submission to the derailed Climate Change Bill disclaims any responsibility for Irish agriculture:

The impact of rising food demand means, other things being equal, that a reduction in food production in Ireland to meet national GHG reduction targets would result in increased food production elsewhere. This can result in a net increase in global GHG emissions, if the countries expanding food production were unable to produce food with an emissions intensity that is as low as in Ireland.

But this argument ignores that the production of Irish beef is heavily subsidised. McDonalds purchases Irish beef because it is cheaper than the alternatives, not because it is has a better environmental record or is higher quality. Undoubtedly, an artificially low price increases demand for hamburgers. Moreover, Irish beef is aggressively marketed at home and abroad. The Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney is presently attempting to bypass the EU and sell it directly on the Chinese market. With each new trade deal his popularity rises and he is seen by many as a future leader of Fine Gael.

The EU could curb demand for beef by increasing tariffs to take account of its contribution to global warming. In certain scenarios embargos could be applied. Third World production can be curbed by reducing demand in the First. Europe can be a beacon of responsibility.

Teagasc also ignore how if we move away from livestock production we could plant more forests thereby offsetting our emissions and satisfying long-term energy requirements with carbon neutral fuel; we would also promote biodiversity and make the country more attractive to tourists; forest-gardening and permaculture offer a sustainable source of food.

Furthermore, it seems likely that consumers, in the developed world at least, will alter their consumption patterns in years to come to take greater account of beef’s environmental impact and health consequences. Our agriculture model may become obsolete just as British coal mines did.

Alternatives

(AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)

The option of increasing our dairy sector at the expense of beef production offers little encouragement, as the same environmental hazards apply, albeit the energy return is greater on milk than beef. In bygone times when dairy formed an important component in the Irish diet the population was below one million and most consumption was on a subsistence level; low level production preserved many of our woodlands.

We can certainly maintain that sector but instead of moving towards mass production we should focus on quality, nutritious produce: artisan cheeses and non-homogenised even raw milk should be promoted instead of being stymied by over-regulation. These will have more value added and can create greater employment than the powdered milk produced by multinationals that our government flogs to the Chinese. Cattle should be integrated into agriculture allowing their manure to be used as fertilizer in mixed farms, rather than generating further methane as it decays in feedlots.

Diversifying production would certainly benefit our tourist sector: a recent poll found that only 4 per cent of visitors come to Ireland for its food. A post-colonial agriculture generates little variety for domestic consumption.

Arguably at a time of economic hardship we should not reform a profitable sector. But it is important to analyse its wider costs. The government’s promotion of domestic beef consumption is potentially injurious to the health of the population, thereby increasing medical costs and reducing productivity. The author of a recent study of the Harvard School of Public Health involving 100,000 men and women concluded that ‘regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death’.

Human health will not suffer if we abandon meat consumption altogether. On the contrary, the China Study (2005), a comprehensive epidemiological survey conducted over twenty years, revealed that a plant-only, wholefood diet minimises or reverses the development of chronic diseases. Contrary to the nutritional myths that abound, plants provide ample protein sources.

Ireland’s future

In Ireland we should grow crops for human consumption. Although we have a cool summer season our mild winters and regular rainfall compensate. The Netherlands has a huge horticulture sector with a temperate climate similar to our own. There, vast greenhouses compensate for their northern latitude; they also deploy cutting-edge aquaponics which allow freshwater fish and vegetables to be farmed symbiotically. This might have particular appeal on the Western seaboard where soil quality is low.

The challenge is to re-think the whole model of food production in Ireland. The UN have declared 2013 the ‘International Year of Quinoa’; known as Mayan gold, it contains all our essential amino acids and grows well in temperate conditions just like the potato, another Andean crop.

A further benefit of horticulture is that it is labour-intensive. With unemployment close to 15 per cent and rural areas full of vacant housing higher employment in agriculture would be a boon.

By altering our consumption patterns and placing greater emphasis on plant-based nutrition there will certainly be cultural loss, just as the smoking ban brought difficulties to pubs. But the consequences of continuing to raise livestock in vast herds could be devastating. Increasing rainfall which seems to be a consequence of climate change in Ireland may ruin our grasslands in any case. We can do our bit to halt this trend.

Even if we are unwilling to reform our practices, inevitably peak oil will drive the price of beef beyond the budgets of most households. It would be better to adapt early, and begin to tackle global warming.

Without an awareness of enteric fermentation or health studies our ancestors seem to have developed a taboo around beef consumption. It is about time we do too.

Frank Armstrong is a food writer and lecturer at University College Dublin’s Adult Education Centre. This article appears in the latest edition of Village magazine.

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