RTÉ and other media celebrate the current doomed agricultural model as sacrosanct. By Frank Armstrong
No journalist can claim impartiality. We arrive from different vantages, preferences and predilections. To deny this displays a lack of awareness of the specificities of time and place, and encourages fixed ideas in our understanding of the world. It is like saying: ‘I don’t have an accent but everyone else does’.
But individual partiality should not coalesce into an editorial consensus whereby certain points of view go unrepresented that are contrary to a dominant discourse. Often it is the narrow interest of revenue or profit that inhibits enquiry, but attitudes can stem from cultural norms, such as religious conviction. A case in point is the absence of investigations into the conduct of members of the Catholic Church in Ireland before the 1990s. Often cultural and economic factors intertwine.
It is my contention that such an editorial consensus is evident at many levels in the Irish media when it comes to reporting on the livestock industry, and Irish farming in general. Reports on Irish agriculture and food exhibit undue deference, and avoid negative stories unless there is an overwhelming obligation to report. I would be interested to know how many Irish people are aware that at least 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions emanate from livestock production, the highest proportion of any country in the world except New Zealand. Vegetarians and vegan viewpoints are almost entirely unrepresented in the national conversation despite a growing constituency of adherents, and powerful environmental, ethical and health arguments.
This bias extends to newspapers, radio, and television. It is noteworthy that the horse-beef scandal was broken by the FSA and that follow-up investigations derived principally from foreign media especially The Guardian. It is apparent that the national broadcaster in particular extends a protective attitude towards ‘our’ farmers.
One recent example is a report carried on RTÉ’s Drivetime on Wednesday, 2nd of October about the connection between livestock and climate change. It began with Mary Wilson stating: “A UN report [Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock] on the contribution of livestock to greenhouse gas emissions has been rubbished as misleading and outdated by JBS, the world’s largest producer of beef”.
Now why, in the first instance would the presenter not have started with a fair commentary on the contents of the report? There followed a four-minute interview between Damien O’Reilly and Gerry O’Callaghan the chief Executive of JBS, a Brazilian company heavily implicated in the destruction of rainforests. O’Callaghan was given free reign to question the veracity of the report and impugn the credibility of its “out of touch”, “academic” authors. O’Callaghan claimed de-forestation was “being managed really well” and “only a fraction of it is associated with the meat industry”; claims many environmentalists would contest. He contended that the research used in the report was out of date and that industry is making “great strides” in reducing its footprint.
Back in the studio Mary Wilson proceeded to interview Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth. The credibility of the report was immediately questioned again: “Does he have a point. Does it devalue the impact of the report?”, she asked.
Surprisingly Coghlan proceeded to defend the report stating it is in fact a good news story for the industry. Coghlan said: “Better pastures and better grasses – we are seeing that in Ireland too”. Rather than calling for a reduction in production and mitigation through substitution with more environmentally friendly and healthier alternatives Coghlan served up an uncritical evaluation of Irish agriculture. There was little to distinguish between Coghlan’s and O’Callaghan’s contributions.
The news item displayed a worrying lack of balance and the report received no scientific evaluation. Best practice would surely have been for the lead findings of the report to be presented at least neutrally, before the interview with the spokesman for the beef industry who could have no claim to objectivity.
In fact the FAO’s analysis has been criticised by leading environmentalists including Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang for under-representing emissions from livestock production. RTÉ could easily have featured a participant questioning the accuracy of the report from the other side. Perhaps it was anticipated that Coghlan would perform this role, in which case questions need to be asked. Or perhaps they chose an environmentalist who would not demur from the dominant narrative.
Far from being opposed to the industry the FAO report acknowledges a pro-industry inclination, explicit in its title: ‘Tackling Climate Change through Livestock Production’. It argues that “livestock-dependent livelihoods cannot be put at risk when alternatives are lacking”. Note the focus on “livelihood”, i.e. monetary income, rather than adequate nutrition.
The report acknowledges that it “does not discuss possible mitigation options on the consumption side”. Although it cites reports by Stehfast et al (2009) and Smith et al (2013) which “demonstrate the substantial mitigation effect, and its relatively low cost compared with alternative mitigation strategies”. In other words a global shift to increased plant-based nutrition would make more sense, but we aren’t going to examine how to achieve this.
The FAO report claims that by 2050: “The demand for meat and milk is projected to grow by 73 and 58 percent respectively, from their levels in 2010”. Instead of suggesting that the implications of this for humanity will be a stark increase in emissions, the authors blithely claim that: “A 30 percent reduction of Greenhouse Gas emissions would be possible, for example, if producers in a given system, region and climate adopted the technologies and practice currently used by the 10 percent of producers with the lowest emission intensity”. This is rather like saying that if we all changed our economies to be like Luxembourg’s we’d all be wealthy. It assumes that environmental management practices are applicable in varying locations and that the cattle industry which has been responsible for some of the most damaging environmental conduct over the past two hundred years will contemplate any actions that jeopardise its profits.
The report has been greeted by defenders of the industry as good news because it calculates that livestock’s proportion of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have dropped to 14.5% of the total from the 18% figure calculated in the 2003 report Livestock’s Long Shadow. This suggests the emissions have declined by nearly 20%. But even if we take these calculations as correct, and leading environmentalists dispute them, that is still 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2-eq per annum the same figure calculated in Livestock’s Long Shadow. This underlines the importance of avoiding superficial analysis of such reports.
Moreover, throughout the report there is virtually no mention of water which is in increasingly short supply. About 85% of humanity’s water footprint is related to the consumption of agricultural products, with livestock having a far larger footprint per kilogramme or calorific value than crop products. Doubling meat and dairy production could have dangerous implications for the irrigation of crops for direct human consumption, and drinking water. Already, Concern Worldwide estimates that 900 million people around the world do not have access to clean water.
Witness how even a developed country with high rainfall like Ireland finds it difficult to provide clean water for cities like Galway and even Dublin. We don’t know the extent to which our excessive livestock production is causing these problems. In the context of Irish agriculture it has become axiomatic that livestock production is where this country’s comparative advantage lies. This consensus led to the devastation of small Irish farmers in the nineteenth century before, during and after the Famine. We shifted from an agriculture based on tillage and horticulture to extensive pasture, in the late nineteenth century because our export market dictated it, not because it was better overall or in the long-term for the Irish economy which experienced centuries of low agricultural employment, emigration and high food prices at least in part due to this commodity-based agricultural model.
In fact Irish farming could display far more diversity bringing potential benefit to both the consumer and the farmer, especially the small farmer. Moreover, large swathes of the countryside could and should be put into forestry, a resource for the long-term.
The clear losers if we were to change our production patterns would be large companies like the Kerry Group and Larry Goodman’s ABP group whose profits are underwritten by CAP subsidies and avail of extensive government marketing. At present only 37% of Irish farms are economic. The present system is not working but most media commentary displays passivity on these questions. There is no talk of shifting our production or changing the subsidy regime.
In years to come the EU will, in all likelihood, challenge Ireland’s role in climate change as it tries to reduce total European emissions. The €2.39 billion currently received in subsidies will surely be cut, making Irish farming as it is currently conceived unworkable. It is about time we seriously explored agricultural alternatives just as we explore energy alternatives, and acknowledge that our dependence on livestock is part of the problem.
Harvest 2020 involves further commodification of our agriculture into the distinct area of perceived comparative advantage. It ignores the appetite of consumers for locally grown produce, and displays an irresponsible attitude towards climate change.
The argument that by increasing our production of livestock products we will help solve the world’s impending food crisis is disingenuous. Quite apart from how our emissions cause climate change that damages the agriculture of the Global South disproportionately, the livestock products we produce are destined for the tables of the wealthy in countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, not the global poor who generally subsist on restricted diets of grains and legumes. Ireland could produce more food, including plant proteins from hemp, linseed, hazelnuts, grains and legumes, on less land if we grew more crops for direct human consumption. The national broadcaster should be leading the debate on this subject instead of clinging to an irresponsible and ultimately doomed status quo.