Talking food, culture and politics with Seamus Sheridan
by Ronan Lynch
Seamus Sheridan doesn’t want to talk about cheese. “I love what I do and I know the jobs it supports but this isn’t really about me or Sheridan’s Cheesemongers”, he says. As an advocate for Irish food producers and the slow food movement, Sheridan could talk for Ireland on the subject of food but today he is wearing his political hat as the Green party spokesperson on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This year he will run for election to Galway city council and he believes that Ireland is facing in to a struggle over food and agriculture that will have broad long-term consequences for the country.
Starting from a market stall selling cheese in 1995 Sheridan’s Cheesemongers has evolved into a well-regarded business with shops in Galway, Dublin, Waterford, and a shop and distribution centre in Meath. In recent years they’ve added a new business making brown bread crackers in Cork and they now employ a total of 45 people. These days, ‘Sheridans’ and Irish farmhouse cheese are virtually synonymous, but he says it’s a workaday struggle for small food producers.
‘Agri-food’ and fisheries is Ireland’s biggest indigenous industry and under the Food Harvest 2020 initiative, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries aims for a 33% increase in the primary output in agriculture, fisheries and forestry, and a 40% increase in value added. Sheridan believes that this massive expansion of food production can only come about by ceding control of our food to a handful of multinationals. “What worries me is that we – and particularly this government – seem to have developed very close links with large multinational food producers. Fine Gael is supporting and promoting the agri-food business to the exclusion of artisan and craft food producers and small and medium farmers”. He believes that the government is taking the hard-won reputation of Ireland’s traditional food producers and handing it over to food corporates chiefly interested in producing processed food.
Last year, Sheridan challenged Minister Simon Coveney’s characterisation of the opening of the Kerry Foods’ research facility outside Naas as “probably the most significant announcement ever” in Irish agriculture. “I welcomed that investment and the jobs it created, but the most significant announcement ever?” says Sheridan. “Make no mistake, a lot of food science – even though people start in it with good intentions – is used not to feed the world but to generate maximum profits at a maximum price targeting the less-well-off in our society who can least afford it. Look how many ingredients are synthetically developed to mimic flavours – that seems to be the holy grail of Irish food development. But let’s look at what end products they develop. Is it real or synthetic ham?”.
Sheridan marvels at the facility with which the corporate food sector has borrowed the language of artisan food production and green policies. “I’m now watching the entire Irish agricultural sector which looks like an ad for the Green Party”, he says. “You’ll see this language: Origin Green, sustainable Ireland, ‘Farm to Fork’. But our green image is not just a marketing tool. It has to be based on an ethos. We’ve seen disgraceful examples in the horsemeat scandal. Some of the protagonists’ websites were claiming to be fully-traceable from farm to fork”.
Sheridan contrasts government support for multinationals and food corporates with support for small food businesses. “When you take away raw agricultural produce and the multinationals, we have the smallest amount of indigenously owned exporters in Europe. It’s very difficult for small businesses to survive unless you export so we have to be an export-led economy if we are to generate sustainable jobs particularly in relation to food and crafts. As a business person, let me say that we need far more support for small businesses”.
Sheridan wants to see more people from business and other areas of the social economy getting involved in politics. “It is possible to be involved in business and be on the left, and we need to strengthen the left wing, in a modern sense. Labour are doing admirable work in social reform but they are letting Fine Gael and multinational corporations run rings around them”.
Sheridan’s involvement with party politics began in the late the 1990s when he got involved in a court case to defend the rights of Irish cheesemakers to produce cheese from raw milk. “That case was really my first political involvement with the corporatisation of food”, he says. “Fighting the raw cheese case also gave me a real appreciation for the importance of science in politics and it gave me great faith in the judicial system. Protest all you want, but if you believe your case is valid, go to the district court. In a way that’s what brought me into contact with the Green party, because the only TDs willing to help me at that time were Trevor Sargeant and John Gormley”.
“Food” says Sheridan, “is wrongly portrayed in Ireland and the UK as an issue for the middle classes, or even as an elitist issue. Food and the quality of food is a left-wing issue all across Europe. The Slow Food movement [which emphasises the connections between food, community and environment] had its origins in the Italian communist party. Carlo Petrini, who founded the Slow Food movement, asked ‘why shouldn’t we eat good food, and support our local farmers?’ There is a misinformed idea that Greens are anti-farming. When you go to the South of France, you’ll find that José Bové, who is one of the most outspoken Green party members and MEPs, has built his entire base among small farmers”.
“So, if I was from the left in Spain or Italy or France, the issue of access to butchers and markets and good food is part of political conversation”, he says. “The only food that we debate about in Ireland is new potatoes”, he says, laughing, “particularly if you’re from Kilcrohane or Kinvara. Then you hear food being discussed with fervent local nationalism”. Sheridan thinks that our relationship with food suffers from a historical hangover. “We had a total landownership by the aristocracy, often in absentee form, and the cultures of things like smoking and curing and cheesemaking disappeared. When you look back to Horace Plunkett and the establishment of the co-operative movement, we set up creameries but we had no cultural production to draw on, in terms of what to produce, so we copied what was being done in Europe”.
He observes that gastronomy has yet to take its place among the arts taught in Irish universities. “I know there are degrees in culinary arts but that is still half-practical and half-theoretical. Gastronomy is the basis of so many political movements and upheavals, from our own history to the political history of India – with Gandhi and salt – to the Basque area to cod-fishing in Canada. So gastronomy has been instrumental in political nationalism”.
Travels in Europe opened Sheridan’s eyes to other food cultures and movements. He recalls having a ‘Eureka’ moment when he visited a butcher in Paris who was selling seven different types of chickens ranging in price from €5 to €30. “You could choose from a broiler factory chicken, a farmhouse chicken, a Poulet de Bresse or a Capon, the massaged castrated cockerel from Brittany. My choice wasn’t a class statement. It was just about what type of chicken I wanted to eat that weekend”.
“If we only have one or two types of chicken on sale here, that’s bad for the consumer because the choice isn’t there and it’s bad for the producer who only has one outlet and one method of production. Whereas in France, there’s seven different options to produce chicken. When those choices are there you can create employment whereas if we live in a food monoculture, we’re dealing with the corporatisation of food”.
THE MODEL ENGLISH MARKET
Shortly before Christmas 2013, farmers protested in Dublin to highlight the fact that supermarkets were selling bags of vegetables for pennies, and Sheridan sympathises with them. “If you are a farmer in Ireland producing vegetables, your only access to markets is through these large multiples who have so much control over shape, size and chemical use and are pushing down the price so that farms have to become bigger and bigger and employ less people, usually migrant workers, on smaller wages”.
Sheridan wants to help develop alternative routes to market for small and medium mixed farms and has been pushing to develop a network of civic markets in the larger towns and cities, citing the example of the English Market in Cork. The idea was well-received in Galway, he says, and he contrasts the lack of civic markets with the zeal for shopping centres. “In Galway there are 23 shopping centres, with plans for another. The money spent in those centres is just leaving the country into trust funds in Switzerland or the Hamptons”.
His plan is for municipally-owned covered markets that are open seven days a week, where stall-holders pay rent and rates, and where farmers can sell produce directly to stall-holders. He’s optimistic that even smaller towns can support municipal markets. “I’m talking about a proper facility, with a florist, one or two bakers, a couple of butchers, fishmongers, a couple of cheesemongers. Then you create jobs where money will stay in the economy. The physical transaction is one thing but it goes deeper as it’s a social interaction for the farmers, and that’s vital”.
“I love the old tradition of buying meat where you spread your business across the three butchers in town, because you don’t want to annoy any of them; where you buy your sausages in one place, the bacon in the next and your steak in the third. Let’s have that in a municipal market, where you can visit all three butchers under the one roof. Of course, markets such as this would be a fantastic shop window for for Bord Bia. The other thing is to provide a space for people who want to sell granola or even some high tech food ingredient to try out some product, so a new idea is not reliant on an all or nothing deal with the multinationals”. Why, I ask, are there so few municipal markets in Ireland? “Because there’s no lobby from the large food businesses calling for this”, he says.
HAVE WE MISSED THE BOAT ON FISHING?
While wary of what he calls ‘mythical’ goals of the government’s Food Harvest 2020, Sheridan insists that there are alternative ways to grow our food economy. Fishing policy also falls within Sheridan’s brief, and along with the potential for developing shellfish, he points out the efforts in Denmark, Scotland and Canada to develop ‘on-land’ organic salmon farms. “There are now companies investing millions into on-land fish farming. If they succeed in this, they will take the mantle of organic and sustainable salmon production, which of course commands a higher price. With on-shore farms you have a much more targeted use of feed, and you’re not as susceptible to disease. There are five or six very decent harbours around the west of Ireland that have the access and infrastructure where we could create fantastic sustainable local employment by locating on-land fish farms beside the harbours. BIM should have been investigating this future for aquaculture instead of dismissing it out of hand, and my big fear now is that these on-shore companies will be the most sought after in Europe, leaving Ireland in second-place”.
These on-land farms could be an alternative to the controversial fish farm planned for Galway Bay. “The government intends to locate the world’s largest offshore fish farm 4km off the coast of Inverin. This will be a traditional open-net or open-cage model, farming the fish in the open environment. Let’s clarify a few issues: Norway produces 1.1 million tons of salmon. Scotland produces 100,000 tons of salmon. We produce just 14,000 tons, so it’s reasonable to assume that this could be a massive industry, but it’s not as simple as that. For a start, the whole basis of aquaculture is that you must feed the fish. It takes at least 3kg of wild fish to produce 1kg of farmed fish. So there are issues of sustainability in terms of where we get the fish to feed the fish farms”.
“Sea lice is another huge problem. There is irrefutable evidence that even small fish farms can devastate fish populations. If this huge fish farm gets a lice infestation, it would be catastrophic. There is another problem because the only way to treat sea lice is through the fish feed and there is a secondary disease called amoebic gill disease which puts fish off their food. So if fish develop this disease at the same time as they get sea lice, there is no way to treat the sea lice”.
The location of the proposed fish farm is another issue. “Can you imagine if one of these enormous pens off the Aran Islands was blown open by the type of storm we had around Christmas? If those fish escape up our native rivers, they could devastate our native fish stocks. Now, if we grant this licence it can be taken up by some multinational that can use our waters for five or ten years and won’t care if it has to walk away leaving an environmental catastrophe”.
THE CORPORATISATION OF NATURAL RESOURCES
Sheridan fears that the political left in Ireland has accepted the corporatisation of national resources in exchange for progress on social issues. “Ireland has too small a population to survive the corporatisation of our resources”, he says. “Our economies of scale cannot produce the profits that they expect so when we corporatise national utilities such as water, the profit margins expected by multinationals will increase what we have to pay to meet the margins that they think they deserve. We can run utilities profitably, but at least let’s have the profits going into our education system and into our healthcare system rather than into trust funds”.
“The great example now is pylons and wind. We import 90% of our fuel at a price that is only going to go up and we have the potential to generate energy through wind. I’m very aware of the huge advances possible with sustainable energy and nanotechnology but for the foreseeable future, the next 20 years, we need wind energy. Yet it’s become such a nightmare”. He is adamant that the ESB should be in charge of wind energy, concentrated on three or four sites. “The idea that someone should be able to build a windfarm just because they own a specific piece of land, and that they can build it against their neighbours’ objections, and with their neighbours having no equity in it, is wrong on many levels. The local people should have an equitable and perpetual stakeholding in wind farm sites. Then, as a nation, we won’t see them as ugly but as something that is creating jobs and supplying our power”.
“I can understand why people oppose wind energy, when your neighbour has a wind farm exporting energy with the profits going to some international fund while you have no equity in the farm and yet you have to look at it every morning”. “Why are we teeing up our most valuable national resources to be sold? Look at Irish Water for example. The simple solution is to have four water authorities based on the four water basins in Ireland, run by a lead county in each area. That won’t create entities that can be easily floated or sold off to corporations or pension funds”.
THE FOOD HARVEST PLAN FOR 2020: GIANT FARMS?
Yet it’s the corporatisation of food that most concerns Sheridan. Under the Food Harvest 2020 plan, Ireland will need to import huge quantities of feed, he says. “If you want to understand farming, follow the feed. This is soya feed coming from South America. Under this corporate model, we will end up with a low-based commodified food product that is susceptible to world feed shortages or the prices going up and down”. The irony of the food market going the way of other industrial processes, with Ireland as a kind of fattening station, is not lost on Sheridan.
“I’m a believer in the free market, but it behoves governments to address the imbalance. Someone has to take on the job of differentiating between grass-fed dairy and beef and industrial products of milk and beef. We can have both types of production, but we can’t put everything into the same basket”, he says. Sheridan praises the quality of Irish milk, particularly from the small producers, but he says that the abolition of milk quotas next year will mean that big companies producing milk will be able to undercut the small producers. There are plans already underway for many super-farms to be based in Ireland, holding between 2,000 and 3,000 milking cows exclusively indoors. “There will be scientists saying that there is no difference between the two qualities so there won’t be any way for the government to say that there is a difference between the products”.
The alternative model, he says, is to develop different qualities of meat products, cheese and dairy, reflecting different terroirs and regions they come from. “It goes back to that realisation I had in the butcher’s shop in Paris. Let people have factory chickens if they want, but let’s offer every other type of chicken as well”.
Our supermarkets offer a vision of abundance, but Sheridan maintains that the future food security of the country is a real issue. “If we allow total corporate control of our food production, we face the destruction of small and medium farms. Then if there was a collapse in the price of food commodities, we would be left with a country with no skills in agriculture or food production”. Industrial scale production of food throws up other challenges. “The biggest threats globally are disease and lack of water. In Ireland we are blessed with a certain climate where water will not be an issue for the foreseeable future, but disease is here and my biggest concern over the next ten years is resistance to disease in our arable crops and white meat – pork and chicken. We are currently over-reliant on antibiotics and probiotics, particularly on our industrial farms”.
Sheridan, who has served on the Food Safety Board, has a keen interest in science and he’s excited about the potential alliance of scientific research and sustainable food production. He’s keen for parties of the left to engage in these areas. “Take the area of GM (genetically modified) food”, he says. “When the debate of GM came about, I was ringing Sinn Féin and the Labour Party and nobody could give two hoots about GM. All they wanted to talk about at that time was the property tax. Their attitude was, it’s GM, let the Greens talk about that. It is so important for parties of the left to get beyond populist issues and start addressing things like our food security, GM, aquaculture, the pylons and wind energy – and I say that particularly to Sinn Féin and People before Profit”.
Sheridan is not totally opposed to GM technologies but considers that GM is a weak tool in fighting disease and fighting pests, and he’s concerned about planting GM crops in the open environment. In any case, he continues, GM is being rapidly bypassed by other developments in science. “We could become world leaders in the ethical legislation of nanotechnology and the promotion of molecular science and synthetic biology”, he says. “We have great universities that have not yet been totally compromised by corporatisation, and we have a fantastic culture and history of science. We have potential to become leaders in the humane genome project, in synthetic biology and biochemistry”.
I know I’m meant to stick to the subject of food, but wouldn’t it be great if Ireland was renowned around the world as a country that protected its environment, produced quality food and advocated the use of science for the betterment of mankind?”
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