And "the great majority due to agricultural and industrial pollution. Meat consumption is growing fast, encouraged by low prices that do not reflect the true costs... if the costs of pollution, habitat destruction, losses to fisheries and tourism, climate change and impacts on human health were fully accounted for, meat would be a luxury food." An extract from the Guardian of 4th August 2017.
Now I can almost hear the groans, yet more 'farmer-bashing'. But is it? Is it too easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to this, or should we be taking a pause and looking a little deeper and thinking about it?
Yes, it highlights meat production again and that is a cornerstone of Ireland's farming industry. Focusing on cattle has become standard practice when raising environmental and climate change issues, but this is about much more than methane from cattle.
Cattle-bashing is a common viewpoint that ignores the vast use of soybeans for poultry, pigs and direct human consumption. The cattle-are-bad dictum also ignores the role of grazing ruminants in carbon sequestration and soil restoration; the latter something that is urgently required due to over-exploitation of tillage lands for plant production, only a proportion of which are used for animal feeds; the rest goes for human consumption and biofuels. It also misses the connection between sourcing high-quality foods from correctly-biodiverse, forage-based farming and a rapidly expanding alternative to animal-derived-products food-stuff, namely palm oil, that also comes with a significant side-dish of externalities.
So yes, the issue is complex and it is far too easy to point the finger at farmers. It is also easy to respond along the lines of 'people must eat and farmers provide food for 7 billion people and to do so means externalities'. Far better that we encourage people to take the time to understand the multitude of farming systems that exist on our Planet. Some are climatically and resource-using benign and some can even be argued as positive for the environment. Yes, some farmers are striving to create the perpetual-motion answer to food production. They need to be recognized and supported and helped to feed the growing human population. Is there an alternative?
Farmers are feeding the issues-aware campaigners. They consider that in return many environmental and animal welfare lobbyists are not giving them a fair hearing while they feed the very mouths that criticise them. Yes, it is easy to focus on the headline and the soundbite, to promote the sensational and to use industry-tarring advertising. Yes, it may raise awareness of an issue, but is it really being supportive of those who are trying to develop the necessary food-producing alternatives. Strangely enough, very many farmers are also aware of the issue and quietly trying to revolutionize the food system to address them but just how much support are they being given, by anyone?
It is also easy to overlook the fact that very many farmers are themselves victims of what is happening. Just to what degree are rural dead zones being created by the industrialisation of our food systems? The marine dead zones are a major externality of society's desire for cheap agricultural products [I am not going to say meat as it extends to plant-based products and biofuels] but so are the social costs being inflicted upon our rural communities. Family farms have been driven to the wall by industrial agriculture's mega 'farms' and rural economies have been decimated by the centralization of food processing; they literally have their raw materials extracted from them and processed elsewhere, it is more 'efficient' and 'profitable'. And if that sounds familiar, yes, it is an agri-food strategy that is contributing to Ireland's very own rural dead zones.
When one looks at family farms in Ireland and family-farm household incomes and the need to subsidize them from public and off-farm sources, one fears for their future. Production expansion is touted as one answer. Efficiency gains are another. The truth is, however, that the system chosen and the products it produces are not the ones that can deliver the needed farm-gate price to sustain family farms. The mantra is that they should get bigger. Fine, but that means less farms and fewer family farms. Simply, Ireland is chasing an industrialized agricultural model that is wholly unsuitable to the needs of its farmers and its rural communities. So even before we respond to the wider questions raised by activists, are we being too passive about a food system that some are advocating for Ireland even though, so far, it seems to only benefit a few?
I have no doubt that there are solutions being developed to create a truly sustainable food system. It is, nevertheless, being done on the periphery of the industry. It is being farmer driven and by farmers who are extremely environmentally aware, technically highly competent and personally motivated. Their ideas are, nonetheless, often in conflict with those of the agri-industrialists, possibly to the degree that their actions are as great a threat to the agri-industrial complex's future profit streams as the actions of the World's eco-warriors. The sad point is that there are many farmers around who are being alienated by an 'anti-farming' lobby that needs to be far more selective. The lobbyists need to do a wee U-turn and they need to start actively and TANGIBLY supporting farmers who, like themselves, are seeking to drive change.
As I repeatedly say, there are farmers and 'green' lobbyists out there who need to become allies, as strange as that may seem, because, if they do not, our planet will just become one single dead zone.