Make eating beef taboo again

An environmentalist who happens to eat meat is like a philanthopist who doesn’t happen to give
to charityFrank Armstrong 


It struck me” Ailill said, “how much better off you are today than the day I married you”. “I was well enough off without you”,  Medb said … So began an epic bragging match culminating in ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley.’ In response Queen Medb leads an army to capture Donn Cúalinge, the bull stud, to impress her husband before being thwarted, single-handedly, by Cúchulainn, a supernatural teenager.

Cattle have long occupied an important position in Irish agriculture, especially west of the Shannon. Previously kept for milk or occasionally drained of blood – just as is done by the Masai Mara in Kenya – in Gaelic Ireland they were not raised for meat. That situation obtained until the seventeenth century: referring to cattle, an English observer remarked in the Advertisement for Ireland of 1623 that “the common sort never kill any for their own use being contented to feed all the year round upon milk, butter and the like”. It is possible a taboo emerged about beef consumption on account of the importance of dairy with which there was a sacral relationship.

On his arrival in Ireland in 1171 King Henry decreed that children should be baptised in churches by priests, for it had formerly been the custom in various parts of Ireland for a child to be immersed three times in milk. Just as Japanese people venerated rice, Slavs rye, Mayans corn, and Christians wheat, the Gaelic Irish saw supernatural forces at work in dairy: according to Daibhí O’Cróinín: ‘Goibniú, the artificer-god of pagan times, was still invoked by the butter-makers in the ninth and tenth centuries, and many other pagan beliefs about the ‘turn’ and the ‘luck of the butter’ survived until the co-operative creameries took butter-making out of the hands of the farmers”.

A T Lucas says: “a whole corpus of ritual and magic, of which we know only the dwindling remnants, existed to promote their fertility, increase their milk yield and protect them against malign supernatural influences”.

Deriving beef from this quasi-maternal animal may have been considered immoral as was the case in India, Japan and some Germanic tribes. 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 and winter fodder. This changed with the arrival of 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 that much of our remaining native hardwood forests were felled to make way for intensive agriculture, leading one poet to mourn: Cad a dhéanfaimíd 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 residue of subsistence farming. From the late nineteenth century farmers on ever-larger holdings became producers for the international market.  In post-colonial Ireland 90% of our agricultural land is devoted to pasture. We have the lowest coverage of forestry of any EU, a mere 10% of our total area, and typically biodiversity-inhibiting conifers.

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. Consuming steak regularly might be considered more environmentally-deleterious than driving an SUV.

The Green Revolution which began after World War II has allowed the consumption of meat to reach these unsustainable levels. It doubled crop yields around the world but depended 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% of US grain is fed to animals. Since the 1960s, average per capita meat consumption in many countries, including Ireland, has doubled. On average 6 grams of plant protein is required to yield 1 grams of meat protein. Beef along with meat from other ruminants is the least efficient. 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 decides to eat the same amount of meat that the world’s affluent minority now consumes, we would need 67 percent more land than the earth actually contains.

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, nearly 40% of their diet. Synthetic fertiliser boosts the grass they graze  and pollutes the 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 admits: “Ireland is unique among the EU countries for the proportion of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which originate from agriculture, representing 29.1% of national and 40% of the non-Emissions Traded Sector (non-ETS) emissions”. This is compared to an EU average of 9%.

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. 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 currently attempting to bypass the EU and sell directly to 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 ignores how, if we move away from livestock production, we could plant more forests thereby off-setting our emissions and satisfying long-term energy requirements with carbon-neutral fuel; we would also increase biodiversity and make the country more attractive to tourists; while forest-gardening and permaculture offer sustainable sources of food.

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



The option of developing our dairy sector at the expense of beef production offers some encouragement but the same environmental hazards apply, albeit with greater energy yields. In bygone times, when dairy formed an important component in the 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 fertiliser 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 four percent of visitors come to Ireland for its food.

Perhaps in this time of economic hardship we should not reform a profitable sector. But it is important to analyse 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 featuring 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.

In Ireland we should grow crops for human consumption. The challenge is to re-think the whole model of food production in Ireland. The UN has declared 2013 the 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.

We should embrace it. Without an awareness of methane emissions or health studies our ancestors seem to have developed a taboo against beef consumption. In our complex and unsustainable world that taboo would be wiser still.


Frank Armstrong is a food historian and teacher in the adult education dept. in University College Dublin