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Column Raising animals for food contributes to climate change

On World Vegetarian Day, Frank Armstrong asks why we refuse to see the relationship between farm animals and climate change.

ENGLISH WRITER AND activist George Monbiot wrote an article recently opposing a campaign to turn England’s Lake District into a World Heritage site. He says we should not celebrate a landscape where ‘the forests that once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green’; by the “white plague” he means sheep which have devoured the woodland native to this site.

He dismisses the description of “a harmonious development of interactions between people and their environment” cited by supporters, despite his admiration for Romantic poets like Wordsworth who eulogized that landscape. He argues convincingly that: ‘Farming has done more extensive damage to wildlife and habitats than all the factories ever built’.

This reminded me of an exchange I had in the Burren in County Clare last year with an environmentalist friend who spoke in glowing terms of the interaction there between pastoral farmers practising transhumance and the craterous landscape which has given rise to a variety of flora not observed in other locations.

But for much of the Burren, summit vegetation is deciduous forest, of which little remains due to centuries of pastoral farming. At least a small cluster of hazel trees lie around a grotto associated with Saint Colman, and one can see why the holy man sought the sheltered space below the canopy for prayer and contemplation. Alas, in most of the Burren hazel saplings are removed to make way for cattle, ensuring the landscape remains desolate.

An environmental blind spot

It seems there is little to distinguish between the damage wrought by pastoral farming in the Lake District, and its impact on the Burren. Indeed, despite a reputation for being a wild landscape the island of Ireland has actually experienced extreme modification to its natural habitats since the arrival of human farming. Prior to this the island was almost entirely wooded with climax vegetation of elm/hazel oak/hazel and pine in upland regions.

According to Frank Mitchell in Reading the Irish Landscape: ‘from about five thousand years ago when the first tree-felling axes made woodland clearance possible man’s hands have borne down ever more heavily on the Irish landscape’. Insatiable demand for fresh grazing lands in particular left us with a mere 12 per cent of our woodland by the 1400s.

It seems to me there is a blind spot among environmentalist who harp on about the dangers of climate change but fail to acknowledge the hugely important contribution of domesticated animals. A 2009 study by Goodland and Anhang found this responsible for a shocking 51 per cent of anthropogenic global greenhouse gases emitted, far more than the 18 per cent estimated in the 2003 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow. Reducing global livestock numbers would be far simpler than converting to a renewable energy infrastructure which would take at least 20 years and cost $18 trillion to develop according to former environmental advisor to the World Bank Dr Robert Goodland.

The government’s recent Climate Change Bill 2013 targets an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. This would leave total annual emissions at 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent. But agriculture alone currently accounts for 19 million tonnes. That means with everything else reduced to zero, we would still need to substantially reduce the national herd. Unlike cars, it is not possible to engineer energy-efficient livestock.

Further, the emissions of Irish agriculture do not account for the carbon sequester that could occur through reforestation which would also provide significant resources for generations to come and restore lost habitats.

Overwhelming focus on raising cattle for beef and dairy

Irish farming is concerned overwhelmingly with the raising of cattle for beef and dairy. There are 6.8 million cattle in Ireland and a mere 8 per cent of agricultural land is devoted to tillage, mostly crops for livestock consumption. A tiny proportion of the fruit and vegetables available in Irish shops are grown here, and we have no exports to speak of.

Ireland has the capacity to produce a lot more food on less land. Consider that prior to the Famine, without using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides it was possible for 3 million inhabitants to eek out a living on 1 million acres of land, often in marginal locations, out of a total potential farming area of 20 million acres. I don’t suggest that the population lives entirely on potatoes but it illustrates the crop yields possible from Irish soil.

There is growing recognition that we need to increase the level of tree cover – which at approximately 10 per cent is one of the lowest in the EU. Opposition spokesman Eamon O Cuiv has advocated that farmland owned by NAMA should be converted to forestry – an initiative that NAMA to Nature, a group I was involved in, began almost a year and a half ago!

The long-term economics of livestock farming in most of Ireland simply do not add up. Despite CAP payments of €2.39 billion, a mere 37 per cent of Irish farms are economically viable with 58 per cent of their incomes derived from the Single Farm Payment last year. For beef farmers it amounted to a worrying 80 per cent of income, and 33 per cent of dairy farmers.

It is often argued in favour of Irish farming that we earn €9 billion in export revenue through it – but we also import €5 billion worth of food to one of Europe’s most rural societies. A combination of import substitution, export alternatives and domestic growing initiatives as well as more attractive landscapes for tourism could make up lost jobs and revenue. We could grow many more crops for the home market by changing our subsidy regime, developing labour-intensive horticulture and raising public health in the process.

Questioning our present models of food production

The psychology of why many environmentalists do no question our present models of food production may reside in a deep attachment to animal products. This even afflicts climate scientists who should now better. James E. McWilliams states: ‘I can understand climate scientists flying in airplanes to conferences or driving cars to work, because they don’t have the time to walk or bike the distance. But I cannot understand climate scientists deliberately choosing to put meat and other animal foods in their mouths when there are perfectly good, low-impact, plant-based alternatives widely available in every corner of the globe.’

The excuse of eating locally ignores that we subsidise certain types of food despite their egregious environmental impact. Studies have shown that food miles are a small percentage of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with food.

The terrible beauty of the Burren landscape serves as a warning for the consequences of intensive grazing. The rest of Ireland should take note. Mitigating climate change and habitat loss is reason enough to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.

A Recipe for World Vegetarian Day

Nut and Seed Roast

Serves: 8

Preparation time approximately 40 minutes

8 ounces (225 grams) of cooked millet (breadcrumbs can be used instead – rye bread works best)

4 ounces (115 grams) of ground seeds (mixture of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and linseed)

4 ounces (115 grams) of ground nuts (mixture of peanuts, cashews, hazelnuts and blanched almonds)

1 tbs of tamari sauce (or soya sauce)½ teaspoon of salt½ teaspoon of nutritional yeast fortified with vitamin B12 (optional)

1 leek (finely chopped)

Mixed herbs, dried or fresh eg tarragon, oregano, basil, herbs de provence (finely chopped)

1 cup of water (between 200 and 250 ml)

1 tbs of rapeseed oil or other oil appropriate for frying


  1. Take one cup of millet and put in a saucepan over a low heat for approximately 5-10 minutes, taking care for it not to burn by stirring regularly.
  2. Add 2 cups of water to the millet and bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes by which time all the water should be absorbed.
  3. Wash a leek by cutting a line down the top and run it under a tap to get the dirt out from inside. Remove any parts that are going bad along with the root at the base.
  4. Finely chop the leek and saute over a low heat for about 10 minutes (do this while the millet is cooking)
  5. Finely chop the herbs.
  6. Measure out the millet and put in a bowl along with the ground seeds and nuts, herbs, tamari, water, leek, salt and nutritional yeast and mix thoroughly.
  7. Transfer the mixture into a baking tin, making a smooth top with a spatula (you can decorate the top with a few cherry tomatoes if you like)
  8. Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 180 degrees, or until well-browned.
  9. Cut into 8 portions.
  10. Serve with a sugar-free tomato relish, potato salad, the remainder of the millet and a green salad.
  11. Multiply the ingredients by two or three and freeze a quantity.

Frank Armstrong teaches an open access course in UCD on the Politics of Food.

Read: Meteorologist vows to never fly again after climate change report>
Read: ‘Extremely likely’ humans caused over half of global warming in the last 60 years>
Column: What does the climate change report mean for Ireland?

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