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What’s your beef, horse?

The media, politicians, the IFA and the CAP promote beef rather than plant foods, to the detriment of health, the environment and the poor – Frank Armstrong 


The horsemeat scandal has been dismissed as a labelling issue. But ‘mystery meat’ is symptomatic of a wider crisis in meat production that fuels pathology, sullies our environment and treats other creatures with unnerving brutality.

The issue of food is often consigned to the lifestyle columns of newspapers but its importance cannot be overstated as we attempt to feed a bulging global population of over 7 billion. Effective and secure nourishment for us all remains the most burning political question.

To address this we must curb a growing worldwide appetite for animal products. A developed country like Ireland needs to undertake a dietary and agricultural shift. The alternative offers cheaper food, improved nutrition and wellbeing, as well potentially as mitigating the catastrophe of climate change.

The environmental indicators are stark. Estimates of the anthropogenic emissions that emanate from livestock production range between a conservative 19% (FAO: Livestock’s Long Shadow) and a startling 51% (Goodland and Anhang, 2009) of the total.

Every environmental watchdog under the sun, apart from eccentric or industry-paid-up exceptions, is calling for reduced production and consumption of meat. Most recently Professor Mark Sutton of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, called on people in rich countries to become “demitarians” – eating half as much meat as usual.

Per capita meat production is almost twice as high in Ireland as it is in the United States, and the well-rehearsed argument that curbing our production will only lead to increased production elsewhere is disingenuous. There is little to distinguish the environmental impact of our cattle from that of production elsewhere, especially as grass-feeding actually produces four times more methane than grain-feeding. A new paradigm would see much of the barren west of Ireland profitably revert to forestry with food production, based primarily on horticulture and tillage, clustering around the main population centres in the fertile south and east. We would lose one industry but others would take its place and potentially offer greater employment opportunities.


Obesity and Wellbeing

In terms of the obesity epidemic it is clear that high consumption of meat correlates with increased body mass index (BMI). A Johns Hopkins study [2009] led by Dr Youfa Wang analysed potential connections between meat consumption and obesity. Wang’s team found participants who consumed high amounts of meat were 27 percent more likely to be obese than participants who ate less meat. This corresponds with findings of the ESRI in their study Determinants of Vegetarianism and Meat Consumption Frequency in Ireland (2011).

Nutritional surveys are notoriously unsatisfactory: simple correlation as opposed to causation is usually established, but the bare statistics reveal those who eat meat to excess (the World Health Organisation says we should not consume more than 500g of meat a week) are often overweight, and unhealthy. This may not simply be a product of meat’s high caloric value. According to Paul Pitchford: “when protein is grossly overstated in the diet, one will crave concentrated carbohydrates in the form of refined sugar, sweets, pastries, polished rice, and the white-flour breads and pastas. Alcohol also enters the equation, as it is essentially liquid sugar”.

Fast-food companies seem to exploit this meat/sugar combination as much as they can get away with. Almost every dish on McDonald’s meaty menu, sweet and savoury, contains refined sugar.

Beyond obesity, excessive meat consumption (especially of red and processed meat) is correlated with the onset of various cancers. Furthermore, long-term Chinese studies sponsored by Cornell and Oxford Universities showed that Americans, particularly American men, had a 1700 per cent greater incidence of heart disease than Asians eating a grain and vegetable based diet.

Barnard, Nicholson and Howard [1995] studied the medical costs associated with meat consumption in the USA, estimating it to be $30-60 billion per year through higher prevalence of hypertension, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, gallstones, obesity and food-borne illness among omnivores compared with vegetarians.

The figure for Ireland (where meat consumption is only just below US levels) has not been determined but we could make a conservative pro rata estimate of €1 billion per annum: roughly the saving secured recently by our government with great fanfare on the relief of our bank debt.

The plight of our fellow creatures in meat production is usually disregarded in any debate, but this brutality can be linked to conflict between human beings. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth?”.

A peaceful or at least respectful relationship with other creatures, especially those similar to ourselves, engenders harmony. Thus every spiritual tradition preaches restraint or even abstinence from meat consumption.

The brutality of modern mass production and slaughter, now hidden from view in giant feeding lots and abattoirs, must exert a terrible strain on those who work there; this probably accounts for why, despite high unemployment, there has been a labour shortage in this sector. According to the FÁS website: “The work is smelly, noisy and dirty at times” and “You cannot afford to be squeamish or sentimental about animals”.

If the wider population were exposed to reality would they continue to eat meat in the same way?


Limp Response

The decline in religious practice has removed many of the constraints that once prevailed. At a time when food is cheaper than ever, over-consumption is encouraged by companies seeking to maximise profit.

It is left to politicians and the media in Ireland to make counter arguments. But they have not delivered. A determined minority of large landowners is allowed to dictate national food policy. Few people are aware of the environmental impact of meat, and assume it is healthy to eat it in large quantities – a notable failure of our education system.

Perhaps one of the shocks of horsemeat is that it connects the consumer directly to the actual animal as opposed to the meat. It is interesting how many words for animals derive from the robust Anglo-Saxon while their associated meats derive from the effete Norman-French or Latin (sheep, mutton, mouton; pig, pork, porc) and how the non-Anglo-Saxon descriptions ‘equine DNA’ and ‘cheval’ emerged to counter the vivid animality.

Perhaps one of the shocks of horsemeat is that it connects the consumer directly to the actual animal as opposed to to the meat

The IFA primarily represents large farmers whose ancestors inherited much of the land after the Great Famine and the Land Acts of the late 19th and early 20th century. The old agrarian cry: ‘The land for the people and the bullock for the road’, was ignored as farming became synonymous with livestock production as opposed to growing crops for direct human consumption.

In his seminal work Irish Agricultural Production (1966) Raymond Crotty argued that “within the existing institutional framework, the interests of farmers, or landowners, and the nation are essentially conflicting”.

Crotty showed how Ireland’s switch from tillage to pasture after the Napoleonic wars, due to changing demand in Britain, set in train a cycle of emigration of which the Famine was the high-water mark. Low employment in agriculture saw the population of the country decline to under three million by the early 1960s, having risen to over six million in the 26 counties before the Famine.

Profit in extensive dry cattle afarming was maintained by keeping production costs as low as possible, thereby reducing employment opportunities. The end product was expensive and most of it intended for export. This system kept the cost of food as high in sparsely-populated, rural Ireland as in the densely-populated, urban United Kingdom throughout the twentieth century.

Crotty argued that the high cost of food acted as a brake on the development of other indigenous industries. He advocated a land tax that would force the sale of extensive farms, with cheap loans made available to suitably-trained individuals wishing to start their own intensive farm enterprises. He based this on a Danish model which brought great prosperity there.

Irish crop yields compare favourably with our European neighbours’: during the Famine three million were living at a subsistence level on one million acres of land, often in marginal locations, out of a total potential farming area of some 20 million acres. Crotty said: “with twenty million, instead of one million, acres of land available for the production of the population’s food requirements even with the worst conceivable crop failures, an abundance of food could have been grown to feed eight or more millions of people”.

When protein is grossly overstated in the diet, one will crave concentrated carbohydrates. Fast-food companies seem to exploit this meat/sugar combination

It has been estimated that a small (0.225ha) garden can produce two tonnes of food a year for 350 hours of work, generating three times the energy put in. It will produce more food per unit of area than a farmer growing heavily-fertilised and sprayed potatoes. We may not be able to grow all crop varieties in Ireland but we can produce significantly more than we do now, increase employment opportunities and improve health outcomes.

We can devote far less land to agriculture and restore woodland if we just eat less meat. But this country is adopting a largely irresponsible attitude and brooks no dissent. Harvest 2020 looms large.

Responding to the government’s new Climate Change Bill Harry McGee wrote in The Irish Times on February 26th: “The Government argument is that an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 means annual emissions of 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent, for everything. But agriculture alone accounts for 19 million tonnes at present. That means if everything else was reduced to zero, Ireland would still need to substantially reduce the amount of food produced, or dramatically cull national herds”.

He continues: “That is not a feasible solution, practically or politically, it is argued”. In Irish politics pastoral farming is the sacred cow, and no alternatives are imagined.


The media

The reaction of the national broadcaster to the horsemeat scandal has been superficial at best, and often quite craven. Most commentators accept as axiomatic that the interest of pastoral farmers is identical to the interest of the nation at large.

There has been no discussion on the wider issue of livestock production or the over-consumption of meat. Debates revolve around how ‘we’ restore the reputation of Irish beef, and blame the perfidious supermarkets for promoting cheap food. No commentator has advocated a serious reformation of our farming.

The promotion of meat can be insidious, as when it involves celebrity chefs on shows such as Pat Kenny’s: regular contributor Catherine Fulvio (a Bord Bia representative), for example, often touts recipes containing significant quantities of red meat.

Kenny repeatedly stated on air that the discovery of horse meat in beef products was a labelling issue rather than a health concern until finally disabused of that notion after it became apparent that horsemeat could contain traces of the painkiller Bute whose consumption by humans is linked to anaemia and leukemia.

Most startlingly, within days of the story emerging, the John Murray Show hosted the owner of a stall that sells horsemeat (legitimately) in Temple Bar. Live on air, John munched his way through a horsemeat kebab pronouncing favourably on it. With Murray breaking that taboo, it seemed as if listeners were being habituated to the consumption of horsemeat lest they should be turned off their beef.


From the horse’s mouth

The horsemeat scandal shows that regular consumption of beef is becoming unaffordable for those towards the bottom of the socio-economic scale. Average weekly household expenditure on food in 2009-10 is €221 in the richest households but just €66 in the poorest. Clearly in the Recession the poorest are going to come under pressure to skimp on food – to choose products created out of horse (around €800/tonne) rather than beef (€4000/tonne) for example. Although recent research is showing that high-processed-meat consumption leads to a 72 per cent increased risk of dying from heart disease, and an 11 per cent increased risk of dying from cancer, supermarkets and fast-food chains have long promoted it, bulking up their products with cheap fillers.   It seems the rising cost of feed commodities in the wake of the failure of the US maize harvest and heavy rains here last summer pushed the industry over the edge.

Per capita meat production is almost twice as high in Ireland as it is in the US

Money was saved by allowing horses to enter the chain. In a murky business where millions of animals are slaughtered each year, ‘Black Beauty’  sentimentality does not figure. Given the scale of abuse, it is hard to credit that those at the top did not have any knowledge of what was occurring.

The reason dry-cattle production has endured in Ireland is because of the inflexibility of land ownership which has meant that potential new farmers cannot get land. Through the nineteenth and twentieth century the model required low employment to be profitable. It also kept food prices high as many of our staples had to be imported, and allowed for little variety in the diet. Raymond Crotty’s solution was to tax this form of agriculture through an export levy. Instead we do the opposite and farmers are now subsidised through the CAP. Perversely, the bigger they are the more they get.

Subsidies should be linked to low-impact production and the delivery of healthy, cheap food for the population. The Irish farming model promotes the opposite.

Instead of promoting beef consumption in order to help cattle farmers and the beef industry, the national media and politicians should be encouraging cheaper and healthier plant-based nutrition.

Until then many of the poorest in our society will be subjected to low quality, ersatz versions of what the rich can afford. Horse-beef is another lamentable chapter in the woeful tale of modern meat production.