Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

By 2009 I was ‘tripping the light fantastic’ as a journalist in the UK. I had landed a gig reviewing restaurants for the Spectator Magazine that once involved flying on a four-seater jet to France to sample the full range of Courvoisier’s Cognac. But as much as I reveled in luxurious dining a sense of guilt gnawed at the inequalities all too apparent on the streets of London: leaving the warmth of gastronomic hot spots, human misery was there for anyone to see.

Interrogating the environmental impact of the global food industry gave me further grounds for concern. In particular, Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma opened my eyes to the damage done by industrial farming, especially of livestock. Anyway, beneath a veneer of glamour I was being paid pittance for my writing, and with an increasingly threadbare wardrobe I was looking for a way home to Ireland.

On the back of teaching experience, and articles that were offering a more scholarly angle on food, I was given an opportunity to teach a course in UCD on the history of food. I also managed to get in on reviewing Irish restaurants for a well-known publication. The more I learnt the more my unease grew with the way the Irish food ‘story’ was being communicated through the media.

So six years ago I decided to quit eating meat. But in order to keep going as a restaurant reviewer – arbitrarily I see now – I continued occasionally consuming dairy products. I managed to get through a few reviews by carefully selecting restaurants with plenty of vegetarian options at a time when there were still no exclusively vegan restaurants in Dublin. But my decision came to a head when I visited Aniar in Galway which purports to present a menu based almost exclusively on Irish ingredients. Their head chef J.P. McMahon is a columnist for the meat-promoting Irish Times Magazine.

By then I had almost completely excluded dairy, and after the meal in Aniar I developed a sickness in my body, which reflected the unease of my soul. So I decided to assert the harsh truth: ‘In recent times native chefs have begun to forge an awareness of the best of Irish, but the gastronomic limitations of our agriculture which places focus on a limited number of commodities, mostly for export, is apparent.’ I then let slip that I had already given up meat and fish.

It is fair to say that my review got a bit caustic after that. I said chefs should not confuse vegetarians with ascetics, and that the lesser caloric value of most plants means that portions should, if anything, be larger than their meat and fish alternatives. I complained that I had received sufficient barley to thread a pearl necklace, which at €18.50 seemed pretty steep.

After filing the review I got no reply from the editor, and was saddled with the expenses from the outing. I did later recover them when my sister, a fellow journalist, met the editor of the magazine, still a well-known food writer, and demanded I should be paid.

It was a form of liberation to be able to write without fear of losing that little sinecure, and I was free to adopt a fully Vegan diet, or philosophy to put it more accurately. I could then let fly with a series of articles drawing attention to the grave damage that Irish farming is doing to our environment.

Not long afterwards I lost my job in UCD. I have no idea whether this had anything to do with my increasingly radical critique of Irish food and farming. So I had to develop career alternatives after that.

Over five years have passed since then, and I have passed through a number of stages as a Vegan. First came self-righteousness. The first Christmas I went to war with the rest of my family over having a turkey on the table. I reduced one of my sisters to tears, and even refused to sit down with them for the meal. It wasn’t pretty, and I realised that approach did nothing to advance my cause.

Next came evangelical zeal. I have long been an enthusiastic cook, so having worked out a number of interesting recipes I began hosting concerts in my parent’s home accompanied by suppers. I hope I opened up a few minds to the possibility of making really delicious meals purely from plant-based ingredients. Some incredible Irish musicians performed in the house, including the late great Louis Stewart – a short film was made of his first concernt. I went on to organise national tours for another band the Loafing Heroes who played in the house.

New interests arrived, and I passed into another stage that of Denial. I no longer wanted to be associated with Veganism, even though I maintained the philosophy, and the hours slaving in the kitchen for little reward brought little satisfaction. I had had enough of being the evangelist and moved to Prague for a year to focus on other writing and teaching.

Having returned to Dublin the stage I have entered is a more integrated form I call Acceptance. I no longer see attitudes to Veganism as a moral index – there are many other worthy causes – but I still earnestly wish that more would adopt the abolitionist philosophy, for the sake of the billions of domesticated animals cruelly incarcerated, and the damage animal agriculture does to the environment, not to mention human health.

Not long ago, a friend who recently converted to Veganism said something quite telling to me: ‘I would have gone Vegan ages ago, but I felt like you would have won the argument’. It shows that it is not good enough simply to win an argument. Everyone should hold on to their principles, but we can accept that even close friends and family may need time to adjust their moral lenses. You don’t need to give up the fight, but don’t target individuals for systemic failings.

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

It may come as a surprise that a Republican President, and former Allied commander-in-chief, Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the term ‘the Military-Industrial Complex’ before leaving office in 1961. Throughout the Cold War, and beyond, the US arms industry has exerted profound influence on political decision-making. This has yielded vast federal investment in manufacturing operations, and brought sinister deals with tyrannical foreign governments, including, recently, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. society has been weighed down by this relationship with the industry, as Michael Moore poignantly showed in his documentary ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002). Moore pointed to how the presence of the arms industry in small towns incubates states of fear that can have terrible consequences, including mass shootings.

The Military Industrial Complex has been defined as: ‘an informal and changing coalition of groups with vested psychological, moral, and material interests in the continuous development and maintenance of high levels of weaponry, in preservation of colonial markets and in military-strategic conceptions of internal affairs.’

Replace “weaponry” and “military” with “livestock”, and “agricultural”, and it could describe the “informal coalition” of interests operating to preserve the livestock-farming sector in Ireland. This country is similarly dominated by the concerns of an industry that would hardly survive in a free market. This has long been evident in media reporting on Climate Change, and even when it comes to nutritional guidance from professional bodies.

Since the Great Famine (1845-52), Irish agriculture has been dominated by cattle-rearing for beef, and dairy; although Irish farmers have been no laggards in adopting CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), mainly for pigs and chicken. Michael Pollan described one such CAFO in the United States as ‘a place I won’t soon forget: a deep circle of porcine hell.’ He adds: ‘Specialisation makes it easy to forget about … the hog that lived and died so I can enjoy my bacon.’ Adding: ‘however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity’.

Ireland operates facilities on a similar scale as those in the United States. One such was found to be in violation of what are very limited animal welfare provisions. In February 2015 the Irish Times reported on a case in which pig farmer Rory O’Brien was given a jail sentence of 18 months. Judge Sean O Donnabháin said: ‘This is cruelty on an industrial scale by one of the biggest pig farmers in the country. On a continuous basis he knowingly and without regard acted in this way’. Inside the rat-infested piggery, animals were left to starve leading them to eat one another. O’Brien’s farm held over 2000 pigs. That implicates a lot of breakfast rolls.

A curious psychology appears to operate whereby, since the Great Famine, Irish farmers have equated growing crops with poverty. The first Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan (1922-32) was a substantial cattle farmer, and an export-led strategy left a deep impression on state policy thereafter.

During the 1930s, and especially the Emergency years of the Second World War, government policy necessarily shifted towards a more diversified agriculture, designed to feed the populace. However, since the 1950s, livestock agriculture has become increasingly dominant, and a host of semi-state organisations including Teagasc and An Bord Bia, intertwine with multinationals such as Larry Goodman’s ABP Food Group and the Kerry Group, to create an “informal coalition” with tentacles reaching deep into media and politics.

Successive governments have supported these companies, including, most obviously, the extension of state benefits by Charles Haughey’s administration to Goodman International in 1990, after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, which caused losses to the company estimated at £70 million. The Middle East remains the preferred “colonial market” for the Complex, including the disturbing live animal trade.

It is at least symbolic that while Minister for Agriculture (2011-2016), Simon Coveney’s brother and political supporter Patrick was CEO of Greencore, while another brother Rory was Strategic Advisor to the Director General, and Head of Strategic Partnerships, in the national broadcaster RTE. The alignment of business, media and politics lies at the heart of maintaining the informal coalition, and Coveney’s new role as Minister for Foreign Affairs, leading Brexit negotiations, should be scrutinised closely for his efforts on behalf of the sector.

European subsidisation from 1972, through the CAP, essentially keeps cattle farming afloat in Ireland. Accounting for over half of Ireland’s c.85,000 farms, the vast majority of dry cattle (“beef”) farmers actually lose money on their enterprises, relying on Direct Payments (subsidies) for income. Government intervention in the market has long caused distortions. In 1966 then Minister for Agriculture Charles Haughey claimed: ‘agitation directed only to getting higher prices may develop a kind of dole mentality which would eventually make agriculture subservient to the state.’ This “dole mentality” is now ensconced in a subsidy-dependent sector.

Prior to the introduction of the CAP in 1971 the economist James Meenan had claimed: “the small farmer cannot profitably raise beef on his limited acreage”. He contended that it is: “…increasingly recognised that price supports are of most benefit to the large farmers who as a rule, are least in need of them, and that such supports do nothing to provide a lasting solution to the problems of small farmers”.

Far fewer in number, dairy farmers (c.15,000 out of c. 85,000), also avail of EU grants, but tend to be profitable, while operating on the best lands in the country. Cleavages have opened up between the two – with the advent of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) in 1993 – although it is convenient for the more profitable farmers to maintain an illusion of unity through the far larger, and industry-supported, Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), at least for the moment. If nothing else, this allows the Livestock-Industrial Complex to associate itself with embattled small farmers.

The Livestock-Industrial Complex operates via a number of pillars in both the public and private sector, which have brought successive governments to heel and maintained a spooky allegiance to the “farming way of life” in mainstream media, especially through the state broadcaster. The Agricultural-Industrial Complex faces its greatest challenge in a generation, however, as the state is committed to reducing its carbon emissions at a time when the sector wishes to expand with the ending of EU milk quotas.

Over a number of years I covered the media reporting on this issue for Village Magazine. An instructive example came from an RTE Drivetime report from Wednesday, 2nd of October in 2013 about the connection between livestock and climate change. It began with presenter 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.’

In the first instance it would surely be customary to begin with a commentary on the findings of the UN report, rather than the response of an industry representative. There followed a four-minute interview in which Countrywide’s Damien O’Reilly questioned Gerry O’Callaghan the chief Executive of JBS, a Brazilian company heavily implicated in the destruction of rainforests. O’Callaghan was allowed 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 environmentalists vigorously contest. He went on to claim that the research used in the report was ‘out of date’, and that the industry was making ‘great strides’ in reducing its footprint.

Back in studio Mary Wilson proceeded to interview Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth. The credibility of the report was immediately raised: ‘Does he have a point. Does it devalue the impact of the report?’, she asked.

As is still usually the case, the environmentalist was placed on the defensive. But the psychological and moral influence of the Livestock-Industrial Complex seemed evident in his response. While defending the report, Coghlan said in effect that it was a good news story for agriculture: ‘Better pastures and better grasses – we are seeing that in Ireland too.’ Placed on the defensive, Coghlan failed to use the opportunity to advocate a significant production towards environmentally friendlier and healthy alternatives.

Our ‘paper of record’ the Irish Times has also been slow to highlight the responsibility of farming for emissions, and still tends to slide away from doing so. Certainly its food coverage emphasises meat and dairy cooking; while sympathy for small farmers seems to extend to an unwillingness to meaningfully confront the industry. The Irish Times also contends with the interests of significant advertisers such as National Dairy Council and An Bord Bia.

Responding to the then FG-Labour government’s Climate Change Bill Harry McGee wrote in the Irish Times on February 26, 2013: ‘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 followed: ‘That is not a feasible solution, practically or politically, it is argued.’ The use of the passive voice tells us what we need to know: unspoken influences prevent deviations from a dominant line. The media bears a level of responsibility for the Irish state facing hundreds of millions in EU fines.

We also find the interests of the Livestock-Industrial Complex entering nutritional discourse, especially through the National Dairy Council. Maintaining consumption in the home market is clearly still a priority, perhaps for symbolic reasons as much as anything else.

The funding of research and development, including through charities, plays an important role in maintaining government nutritional advice that is not necessarily best practice, but ensures dairy in particular is consumed at high levels.

The Osteoporosis Society of Ireland was founded in 1996 by Professor Moira O’Brien as ‘a patient support organisation for those suffering with Osteoporosis and their families.’ Two of its leading sponsors listed on its website are Avonmore and Yoplait, and it has collaborated in the past with the National Dairy Council. As regards dietary calcium their website states:

“The richest sources of calcium in the diet are yogurt milk and cheese. Three servings a day will help meet calcium needs of an adult or child, five servings are recommended during adolescence and pregnancy. Smaller amounts of calcium may be obtained from other food sources, such as green vegetables, bread and sardines. It should be noted however that the bioavailablility of calcium from non-dairy sources is lower. Calcium intake can be boosted by including dairy foods in a variety of ways such as in smoothies, hot chocolates, pizzas, cheese sauces, lasagne etc. For some, milks fortified with extra calcium and vitamin D can be useful.”

This is at odds with the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) which say: ‘studies suggest that high calcium intake doesn’t actually appear to lower a person’s risk for osteoporosis.’ The authors refer to the Harvard studies of male health professionals and female nurses in which individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no greater risk of breaking a hip or forearm than were those who drank two or more glasses per week.

The HSPH states bluntly: ‘Calcium is important. But milk isn’t the only, or even best, source.’ They recommend: ‘Look beyond the dairy aisle. Limit milk and dairy foods to no more than one to two servings per day. More won’t necessarily do your bones any good—and less is fine, as long as you get enough calcium from other sources. Calcium-rich non-dairy foods include leafy green vegetables and broccoli, both of which are also great sources of vitamin K, another key nutrient for bone health. Beans and tofu can also supply calcium.’ One may fairly speculate as to whether sponsors influence the Osteoporosis Society’s recommendations.

The informal coalition of the Livestock-Industrial Complex operates at the highest levels of Irish society, and its role is rarely interrogated in mainstream media. A moral dimension flows form the Industry’s capacity to associate itself with historically downtrodden small farmers, now locked into the “dole mentality” Charles Haughey anticipated. Environmentalists should be prising small farmers away from this model and arguing for progressive re-rurification that will increase opportunities for employment in labour-intensive tillage and horticulture.

On a personal note, I would add that the “complicity”, which Michael Pollan alludes to, operates where the vast majority of the population eat, and enjoy, livestock-derived foods produced in Ireland. Nobody likes being told what they should eat, but until a greater proportion of the population shifts away from foods that have traditionally been considered an aspect of the pleasures of life – the butter melting on your toast in the morning; the Sunday roast; the turkey at Christmas; it seems unlikely that the Livestock Industrial-Complex will meet significant opposition.

Offering alternative dietary perspectives – a plant-based gastronomy – is therefore an important role for environmentalists. My own experience of shifting from a traditional gastronomic diet in my mid-thirties to a plant-based regime might perhaps be instructive. Contrary to carefully cultivated propaganda this was not an exercise in asceticism. I found my taste buds shifted considerably to a point where I began to derive enjoyment from different, usually healthier, foods. More importantly, I found my eyes opening to injustices that I previously took for granted.

Feirme-geddon. Ten reasons why Irish farming as we know it is on the way out.

Feirme-geddon. Ten reasons why Irish farming as we know it is on the way out.

We have already seen two agricultural revolutions in Ireland, now we are set for a third. This presents opportunities to farmers who are willing to adapt.

After the last Ice Age, the agriculturists who arrived in Ireland brought with them a tool kit of grains and domesticated animals that had spread from the Middle East into Europe. Irish conditions could sustain both, with pastoralism more evident in the rainy west. But before mechanization a living off cattle only allowed a semi-nomadic existence, forestalling the development of state structures.

It is said the Romans never colonised Ireland because they could not be sure of taking back a harvest surplus. Nevertheless, the arrival of Christianity coincided with innovations in water milling showing that grain was widely grown – wheat, oats, and rye – especially in the south and east.

Ireland’s first agricultural revolution coincided with the second wave of English colonisation in the seventeenth century. From that point, land ceased to be held as a common patrimony of clan or tribe, and individual ownership and possession – landlord and tenant – became the norm.

Colonisation turned Ireland into a bulk supplier of both grain and livestock for the Empire. But it was the arrival of an ambrosial New World crop, the potato, which was the game changer. Small tenant farmers, even in the rainy west, could survive on miniscule holdings, while much of the better land was devoted to cash crops and cattle for export.

The second Irish agricultural revolution began after the Napoleonic Wars when grain prices collapsed due to renewed European access to the British market, culminating in the Great Irish Famine. Geometric growth in the peasant population brought a monoculture that was susceptible to disease. The potato blight (phytophthora infestans) is reckoned by economic historian Joel Mokyr to have brought the worst famine to afflict any European country in the nineteenth century. Up to a quarter of the population either died, or were forced to emigrate.

Out of the devastation, pastoralism became increasingly dominant. That is an extensive system, however, which depends for profitability on low labour inputs: population in Ireland continued to decline for a century, and has still not reached the heights of the 1840s, which makes Ireland unique in the world for having a higher population then than now.

Membership of the European Community in 1972 fossilised this system, guaranteeing an income even when a farm is losing money, and keeping the price of land artificially high, thereby hindering the development of alternative agriculture, including horticulture. But large cracks are apparent, and a third agricultural revolution is required for the following reasons.

Carbon Emissions: thirty-three percent of the country’s emissions come from agriculture which is overwhelmingly livestock-based. We have the highest proportion of our emissions coming from agriculture of any developed country apart from New Zealand. Hundreds of millions in fines are on the horizon if we don’t hit EU-mandated targets. Overall we are the least Climate-friendly country in the EU. It seems unlikely that the EU will continue to finance a form of farming that is inherently carbon-intensive. Carbon sequestration is the Holy Grail of earnest livestock apologists, but there is little evidence to support this approach, and it seems like a chimera delaying necessary changes to production, and consumption.

Brexit: Ireland is about to lose favourable access to its traditional trading partner, and tariffs may be placed on Irish agricultural products. A weak sterling is already making life difficult

Peak Oil: our mechanized system is utterly dependent on oil and other fossil fuels such as natural gas, which is necessary for the Haber-Bosch process that produces the artificial fertilizers which are intensively used on Irish grasslands. Fracking may have bought some time, but the end of this finite resource will arrive eventually.

Climate Chaos: already we are seeing an increase in catastrophic storms passing over our exposed island. When it comes to defences cities will be the first priority for the state to protect; rural areas will be far more exposed as freakish weather becomes the new normal and oceans rise. Low tree coverage increases susceptibility to flooding.

Food Sovereignty: if we were to rely entirely on Irish products we would face severe food shortages, unless we adopted diets comprised almost entirely of animal products. Little grain is grown for human consumption, and knowledge of a traditional method of harvesting – bindering – in our wet conditions has been lost. The horticulture sector is almost non-existent, meaning most of our fruit and vegetables are imported from countries such as the Netherlands, which has conditions not dissimilar to our own.

Biodiversity Loss: the intensification of agriculture in Ireland is leading to extinctions of numerous native species. Agricultural authorities seem oblivious to the plight of other animals native to the island. Thousands of badgers are exterminated each year for a spurious connection to bovine TB. Loss of biodiversity could lead to ecological breakdowns affecting water and air quality. The present pace of ecocide cannot endure.

Disease Risk: the prophylactic use of antibiotics in Ireland has been documented, but this is not all. In factory farms antibiotics may be used to increase the weight of animals’ carcasses. Over-use of antibiotics in agriculture is a major factor in the emergence of superbugs that have already led to thousands of deaths across Europe, and threaten much worse.

Consumer Preferences: in almost every supermarket in the land there is a ‘free-from’ aisle. In particular the number of vegans is on the rise, which seems to have led the National Dairy Council to market their milk as ‘plant-based’, as if a cow can photosynthesize! Even meat-eaters are becoming increasingly uncomfortable at images of incarcerated animals having parts of their anatomy cut off in industrial farms, and dairy calves being taken from their mothers at just one day old.

Carcinogens: the WHO has defined red meat as a ‘probable’ carcinogenic, and processed meat as simply carcinogenic, which is placing a burden on our beleaguered health system. There is also compelling evidence that adoption of a plant-based diet diminishes the possibility of heart disease, and may actually be better than any pill. Meanwhile the dairy industry insists on the necessity of milk products to our health, despite the advice of the Harvard School of Public Health that dairy is neither the only, nor the best, source of dietary calcium.

Availability of Alternatives: billions are being invested in plant-based alternatives to animal products, including analogue meat and genuinely plant-based ‘milk’, which reduce environmental impact, and can be better for human health, besides avoiding a cruel system of production. The advance of laboratory meat technology also endangers the current model.

Ireland will not have to fall back entirely on its own resources immediately at least in the short term, and contrary to popular notions, becoming a locavore actually has a higher carbon footprint. Nonetheless we need to make our food system sufficiently diverse to withstand the challenges that lie ahead, while adopting best environmental practice.

We should be preparing for a third agricultural revolution on this island which can accommodate enhanced biodiversity through afforestation. We can also harness alternative energies in production. Old-fashioned greenhouses may be one of the best ways of diminishing the Greenhouse Effect. A widespread dietary shift towards plants is both necessary and desirable, for all concerned.

 

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A New O’Reilly?

A New O’Reilly?

2017 has been an annus mirabilis for shock jocks around the world. Stateside, their doyenne, Bill O’Reilly was given his marching orders by Fox News, after claims of sexual harassment.

In Ireland George Hook was given an extended stay in the Sin Bin by Newstalk for laying a degree of blame on rape victims. Only months earlier his kindred provocateur Kevin Myers was also shown the door by the Sunday Times for comments perceived to be anti-Semitic.

The art of the shock jock is to shock but not to breaking point. As a character from a Woody Allen film puts it: “if it bends it’s comedy, if it breaks it’s tragedy.” The shock-jock skirts the boundaries of taboo, but can easily fall off the precipice.

Ultimately it seems to be the advertisers who decide where the red lines lie. During the Hook affair, in what was a masterstroke of public relations, Tescos let it be known they would no longer be advertising on Newstalk, getting a good splash on the front cover of the Irish Times in return. The following day the mighty Hook had fallen.

With so many heads rolling it begs the question: who will fill that angry space? One candidate might be RTE’s Damien O’Reilly who recently came to public attention for receiving a payment of €1,500, plus expenses, from An Bord Bia – Origin Green junket to Dubai.

RTE authorities were apparently aware of the payment, but O’Reilly has earned the enmity of leading environmentalists who see him as being to the fore in ‘greenwashing’ the role of agriculture in Climate Change.

On a recent Countrywide show he described anyone who advocated a reduction in beef and dairy production in Ireland as “critics on the extreme”; precisely the kind of imbalance we expect from a shock jock, who subtly shifts the political ground towards approval of de-regulated markets and personal responsibility; though not necessarily what we should expect from an employee of the national broadcaster.

O’Reilly has also taken aim at the tried and trusted target of cyclists in his Farmers Journal column, claiming the average Irish cyclist looks like he is heading off to compete in the Tour de France dressed from head to toe like Bradley Wiggins, before (he) “arrogantly screams to the rest of us: ‘Get out of my way”. There follows the standard, “I’m not really a racist” apology: “I am sorry if this sounds flippant, and of course there are law-abiding cyclists out there.” Again, the cyclist is the extremist.

But our own O’Reilly is unlikely to move on from his Montrose meal ticket, and sure why would he when he can moonlight as he pleases, and build up enough goodwill from agri-business for a lifetime of guest appearances and endorsements.

Then again he might find life increasingly uncomfortable in RTE as the cold winds of austerity blow through the campus, and media attention begins to focus more closely on the farming sector with the state facing hundreds of millions in fines from the European Commission. Already the Citizens’ Assembly have called on farmers to pay their share of the emissions bill after listening to expert evidence. But who listens to experts anymore?

Vegans to Farmers: Let’s Communicate

Vegans to Farmers: Let’s Communicate

No doubt farmers will dismiss out of hand someone who believes that animals have rights. But I hope you’ll hear me out.

I am not saying you are going to hell for raising animals for slaughter or for trying to make a living from your land, and to take care of you and your family. In my view all of society is complicit in a system that I consider wrong from the point of view of animals, the environment and human health.

My father comes from the West of Ireland where his father was a part-time farmer mostly raising cattle. My uncle took over the farm and today keeps cattle and sheep. He’s one of my favourite people in the world. I simply cannot regard him as a bad person for what he does, and nor do I consider most of my friends who are meat-eaters bad people.

So let me explain how I adopted my position. Some years ago I met an English gentleman who is now in his mid-80s who was in extraordinary that he attributed to a plant-based diet that he had adopted some thirty years beforehand. I was intrigued to see what the effect would be on myself and started incorporating foods he recommended like millet, sea vegetables and miso. Slowly my tastes changed. I began to really appreciate vegetables as never before and felt my health improve.

Subsequently my own father who had grown up with the standard Irish diet featuring plenty of red meat and dairy produce developed heart disease and had to undergo a distressing heart bypass operation in his late 60s. Slowly and with some reluctance he switched to an overwhelmingly plant-based diet. The health benefit was remarkable. It reached a point where he no longer needed to see his heart specialist. The change of diet and increased levels of exercise had brought about almost a complete recovery.

But health considerations was only the beginning of my journey. I began to examine the environmental impact of meat and came across reports like the UN’s Livestock’s Long Shadow which attributed 18% of human emissions to animal agriculture. I also found out that 32% of Irish emissions were coming from our livestock agriculture.

Yet the health and environmental arguments alone were insufficient for me to turn vegan. It was knowing the violent origins that meant I could no longer stomach animal products. This caused some ructions in my family, especially at Christmas time when I argued against the age-old tradition of Christmas turkey. Tears were shed, but we survived as a family and I learnt to be less shrill in my criticism of others.

My story may seem of little relevance to farmers and I don’t expect too many to go down the road I have travelled. But from a business point of view it might be useful for farmers to recognise that the global market could change and the number of vegans, especially among the younger generations, is gathering a global momentum. Already products such as Beyond Meat are hitting the shelves of Walmart in the US. In the UK some 12% of the population, rising to 20% among 16-24 year-olds, are now vegetarian at least. Where the US and UK go we tend to follow.

What would the implications be for Irish farmers if a fast food retailer such as McDonalds decided to use ‘meat’ from plant proteins that was cheaper, healthier and less offensive to the increasing number of vegans? Do Irish farmers who overwhelmingly raise livestock have contingency plans for a significant dietary shift, especially if pressure is put on the European Union to withdraw subsidies on food that creates high emissions? Animal products can never be an environmentally conscientious choice, no matter what the marketing spin.

What opportunities are there for innovative Irish farmers to produce crops for direct human consumption? Could crops like hemp or peas represent great opportunities? Is dulse seaweed the healthy bacon of the future? Would vegan-friendly labelling shift more of a product? Fundamentally, do we need to look at adapting a subsidy regime that gives minimal flexibility to Irish farmers?

One of the remarkable things about the world today is the pace of change.
Through social media especially ideas diffuse very rapidly. There is no doubt that veganism is on the rise in Ireland and elsewhere and it’s important for conversations to occur between vegans and farmers. There is no point sitting in our respective bunkers. We might have more in common than we anticipate.

Oh Really O’Reilly

Oh Really O’Reilly

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed Damien O’Reilly, the presenter of RTE’s Countrywide and occasionally Liveline, received a payment of €1,500 to act as Master of Ceremonies at An Bord Bia-Origin Green trade event in Dubai earlier this year. This casts serious doubt over O’Reilly’s objectivity in regard to that controversial campaign.

Origin Green projects an image of Irish agriculture as sustainable and harmonious with nature, but greenhouse gas emissions from the sector remain at 33% of the national total. The programme includes 90% of all Irish beef produced, and 85% of all dairy farms in the country. A mere 0.5% of applicants have been refused admission.

This has brought accusations of greenwashing. The Irish Wildlife Trust recently called on the Government to scrap the Origin Green certification scheme on the basis that “some of the country’s worst polluters are among those certified.” The IWT’s campaigns officer Padraig Fogarty claimed it was a marketing label promoted by An Bord Bia, which should be “exposed for the sham that it is”, and scrapped. Fogarty’s recent book Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature reveals how an unprecedented range of species native to the island are facing extinction, including the legendary curlew.

A submission by An Taisce to An Bord Bia on Origin Green, from October 2016, stated: “Judging the sustainability of Irish agriculture under the three key environmental headings targeted by Origin Green, namely Climate, Water and Biodiversity reveals that, far from being sustainable, Irish agriculture is actually a major environmental pressure and threat”.

Origin Green has emerged during a period of expansion and intensification in Irish agriculture under Food Harvest 2020 and Foodwise 2025, which are at odds with a carefully cultivated image that has seen celebrities such as Saoirse Ronan feature in its advertising campaign.

The executive summary of the Harvest 2020 document lays bare the strategy: “Green. Capitalising on Ireland’s association with the colour ‘green’ is pivotal to developing the marketing opportunity for Irish agri-food. This will build on our historic association with the colour and highlight the environmental credentials associated with our extensive, low-input, grass-based production systems… consumers in key markets will learn to recognise implicitly that, by buying Irish, they are choosing to value and respect the natural environment”.

However, what is happening across the country is “completely incompatible with the purported aspirations of Origin Green” according to An Taisce. In terms of climate change they dismiss it as “a glossy PR campaign supporting Irish agriculture’s “sustainability illusion.”

The country faces up to €610 million in fines from the European Commission unless emissions targets are met by 2020. Revelation of this cash payment call into question O’Reilly’s capacity to interrogate Origin Green and An Bord Bia meaningfully, as his role on Countrywide reporting on agriculture should entail.

On March 2nd of this year Irish Food UAE (@irishfoodinuae) tweeted a picture of a beaming O’Reilly arm-in-arm with lovely ladies in green dresses. The tweet read: ‘Damien O’Reilly assisting in the promotion of Irish food in the Middle East @RTERadio1 @RTECountryWide @BordBiaMENA.’ Clearly there was no attempt to conceal his involvement, but the payment of €1,500, and the cost of the trip which came to €2,600, apart from calling into question his objectivity, and may be in breach of RTE’s Staff Code of Conduct.

An Bord Bia stated that O’Reilly acted as Master of Ceremonies at the event: ‘which included a panel discussion on Ireland’s sustainability story and Origin Green.’ This coincided with a Ministerial Trade Mission to the Middle East bringing together regional buyers, importers and distributors.

In a statement An Bord Bia sought to distance themselves from involvement claiming the Irish Business Network in Dubai invited O’Reilly, and paid for his flights, and that it was a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event, and that they were only one among a number of sponsors. But why then would An Bord Bia make a payment to O’Reilly and take care of many of his expenses? It should also be noted that An Bord Bia’s response to the Freedom of Information request described it as an ‘Bord Bia Origin Green trade event’, not a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event.

The payment and costs may seem small beer, but RTE’s Code of Conduct for Employees states: ‘Staff are responsible for ensuring that they maintain the highest standards while involved in dealings with outside agencies’; and that ‘staff should never solicit or accept personal advantages or gifts of material value from firms or persons as a result of the staff member’s association with RTE.’ At the very least O’Reilly does not appear to have exhibited the “highest standards” in dealing with An Bord Bia – Origin Green.

When contacted a spokesperson for RTE said: “this was a paid engagement which falls under the Personal and Public Activities Guidance”, and that permission had been sought and granted.

When pressed the spokesperson said the manual containing these guidelines was not a public document. It seems unusual that RTE would have one document open to public scrutiny regarding the relationship of their employees with external businesses, and another entirely for internal consumption.

The spokesperson further rejected the idea that Damien’s journalistic objectivity was either undermined or affected by this engagement

Especially in the wake of Hurricane Ophelia, we should be wary of any greenwashing by the agricultural sector as we confront the unique challenge of Climate Change, and the prospect of hefty fines from the European Commission.

The national broadcaster must engage in a full, frank and transparent assessment of the Origin Green programme. Ultimately this will be to the advantage of farmers who confront adverse weather conditions, especially those seeking alternatives to the dominant use of land for grazing livestock. This makes Ireland’s agriculture sector the least efficient in the EU in terms of revenue per ton of CO2 produced.

When RTE’s leading journalist covering agriculture receives payment, however construed, from an organisation promoting a misleading picture of Irish agriculture’s sustainability, it stretches credulity that an objective analysis of that campaign will be undertaken.

Countrywide has already offered an outlet for outright denial of human responsibility for Climate Change when Michael O’Leary appeared on the show in April. O’Reilly is too polished a performer not to have challenged O’Leary’s barmy assertions, but it is inappropriate that a platform to ventilate these views should have been offered in the first place. Such debates only serve to confound the public, and delay action.

A few months later in July, in another of his moonlighting roles as a columnist in the Irish Farmers Journal, O’Reilly expressed admiration for Ryanair and its managing director saying: ‘It’s become a bit of a national pastime to criticise Michael O’Leary and his airline but I’m a fan of how they do business’.

Naturally, there was no mention of O’Leary’s views on Climate Change which goes some way to explaining why that criticism has become a “national pastime”.
A bizarre coda to this story comes from another debate on the role of agriculture in Climate Change on Countrywide in August in which O’Reilly welcomed John Sweeney as ‘Emirates’ Professor in Maynooth. Could it be that flying to Dubai was still on his mind?

In Praise of Hemp

In Praise of Hemp

(Published in the Sunday Times, 19/10/14)

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar a marauding mob scour the city for the Emperor’s assassins. They chance upon Cinna the Poet, namesake of one the conspirators. On being asked his name, fatally he replies ‘Cinna’ at which point the First Citizen cries ‘tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator’.

Understandably vexed Cinna wails: ‘I am Cinna the poet; I am Cinna the poet’. One of the mob responds: ‘It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.’ And that was the end of the unforunate Cinna the poet.

What could we have learned about this indignant chap if the mob had not descended? Perhaps, through his presumably mellifluous verse we would have gained great insight into human nature. Poor Cinna the poet’s crime was to have the wrong name, and he winds up in historical limbo in a box marked ‘fictional potential’.

Alas a similar fate seems to have befallen hemp a crop variety with unrivalled versatility. A guilty name has brought undeserved suspicion. Hemp’s failing is that it comes from the Cannabis family, varieties of which are strongly associated with loafer students and malcontent adolescents.

Innocent Hemp with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels insufficient to get any kind of Rasta party started was caught in the hysteria against reefer madness. Farmers are effectively prohibited from growing it in the United States, and a certain taboo might exist here too. Our UK neighbours are not so wary: commercial growing began in earnest in the 1990s, and one farm in Northern Ireland has grown it since the seventeenth century.

This wonder crop offers an incredible array of uses: serving as a nutritious foodstuff, a fibre for rope, clothing and other materials; a building material that produces concrete-like blocks; an alternative to petroleum-based plastics (BMW among others are now using it in their cars). It can also be made into paper: ironically, the US declaration of independence was signed on it. Its US opponents should put that in their pipes and smoke it, so to speak.

The nutritional potential of hemp is impressive as it contains a full profile of the essential amino acids. It can also be rendered into a milk, prepared as a tea and its flour can be used in baking – one of the contestants on last year’s the Great British Bake Off used it in a cake mixture. Hemp oil is renowned for its healthy properties, containing 80% essential fatty acids – vital to our health – only a small proportion of which is saturated fat.

The last Teagasc study into Hemp conducted in 2007 concentrated on the oil and the fibre, but not the seed. According to their findings one acre of hemp yields an average of 700 pounds of grain, which can be pressed into 50 gallons of oil and 530 pounds of meal. That same acre will also produce an average of 5,300 of straw which can be transformed into about 1,300 pounds of fibre.

Despite Ireland having a climate suited (and set to become more so with climate change) to the production of this crop none is grown on an industrial scale. The main problem for potential Irish hemp farmers is the absence of a processing plant to dehull the seed in order to get at the inner kernel.

One food producer Deidre Collins of M. D. Dee’s Wholefoods indicated that she is paying €8000 a ton to a German company for hulled organic hempseed. She would be delighted to support local farmers and provide local employment but there is no option of doing so as things stand. Naturally any extra transport costs have to be born by consumers of her healthy meat-free sausages and other plant-based products.

The absence of Irish hemp is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in Irish agriculture which is dangerously reliant on external subsidies that reinforce an environmentally egregious and unsustainable system of food production which keep the cost of healthy plant food for human consumption at unnecessarily high prices.

It strikes me that one solution to the impasse would be to adopt the approach of the French agronomist Parmentier who was responsible for making the humble potato acceptable to his suspicious countrymen and women.

As a prisoner of war of the Prussians in the 1760s he subsisted happily on a diet of potatoes for some time. On being released he was determined to make them acceptable in his native land. His first task was to end the prohibition on cultivation as their consumption had been associated with leprosy. The Paris Faculty of Medicine finally declared them edible in 1772.

Next he began a marketing drive that would impress any contemporary practitioner. First he used product placement to associate them with the rich and famous, his masterstroke however was to have armed guards surround fields of ripe hemp just outside Paris. But the guards were ordered to accept even the slightest bribe to leave their posts. Soon potatoes were all the rage. French cuisine would not be the same without them.

It would seem that hemp needs a similar makeover allowing Irish farmers, food producers and manufactures to avail of this wonder crop, and thereby rescue it from the anonymous fate of Cinna the poet.

Reforming Our Food Culture

Reforming Our Food Culture

Steven Poole declares that ‘Western culture is eating itself stupid’. His book You Aren’t What You Eat (2012) pokes fun at the snobbery, fads and celebrity culture that attend ‘foodie’ culture.
The term ‘foodie’ emerged in the 1980s, but the idea of discussing the enjoyment of food is much older. In France it goes back to the start of the nineteenth century when it became socially acceptable to do so.
We dispense with that ‘gastronomy’: ‘the art and science of delicate eating’, at our peril. Gastronomy enjoins restraint and reflection and is ‘the common bond which unites the nations of the world’, according to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin one of its prime movers.
A gastronomic sensibility is valuable to our health, motivating us to consume a wide range of nutrients. But there is a challenge to reconcile our enjoyment with considerations of environmental impact and our health. Exploring our pleasure should make us sensitive to those who live with insufficiency.

Stuffed and Starved

In the West we eat too much, and in the South they eat too little. Despite increasing globalization we have not addressed that contradiction. A billion are now overweight or obese in the developed world where, shamefully, 50% of food is wasted. Alas almost that number are undernourished or starving in the developing world.
It should be a straightforward matter of handing over our excess. But with the best will in the world this approach will not work: transport networks, functioning bureaucracies and peaceful conditions are all required, and dumping our surpluses removes income from Third World farmers and an incentive to innovate and improve.
Moreover, much of what gives rise to obesity in the West is connected to over-consumption of junk foods. A world cannot be fed on soft drinks. Our working class neighborhoods are often ‘food deserts’ without access to fresh, healthy and competitively-priced food. There gastronomy cannot take root.
Meanwhile in the Third World, real deserts are expanding as droughts become more prolonged and land resources mismanaged. Exponential population growth and failing states leaves much of sub-Saharan Africa in food insecurity.

The Green Revolution

The seemingly limitless supply of food we have in the West can be explained by the so-called Green Revolution which occurred in agriculture after World War II. It involved the deployment of high-yielding strains of common cereals in combination with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels. A hectare of wheat which previously yielded two tons can now yield eight. Similar feats were achieved with other common grains.
Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is regarded as its instigator. He and his collaborators corrected a structural deficiency in the stalk of wheat which could not support heavy grains. Previously the most fruitful plants collapsed under the weight of their own seeds before maturity. Borlaug’s group developed dwarf strains that could stand up to the weight of bulbous grains, thereby doubling yields. Today, almost every kernel of wheat consumed by man and beast is derived from Borlaug’s selective breeding.
But the resulting monocultures have increased vulnerability to disease; according to the authors Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food: ‘Today our landscape is a lot like that of Ireland and Sri Lanka immediately before the famines. We devote much of our earth to a very small number of crops’. Borlaug strains depend on polluting and finite fossil fuel to survive.
Much of our increased yields are fed to livestock; only 20% of US corn is eaten directly by humans. The Green Revolution has made animal products affordable but the cost of maintaining this in terms of global warming and energy use is becoming apparent.
Last year’s disastrous corn harvest in America is bringing the issue into sharp focus. A choice is unfolding between maintaining the affordability of two icons of American life: the hamburger and the motor car. The livestock industry are petitioning to weaken or abolish the ‘ethanol mandate’, requirements Congress set on the use of corn as automotive fuel, on grounds that it could bring about a collapse in meat production.

Pre-domesticated Varieties

Research conducted by Unilever may have revealed the nutrition of the future. Many pre-domesticated varieties of plants reveal significantly higher levels of nutrients than varieties currently grown. An older variety of apple, the Egremont Russet, has up to 10 times more of a phytonutrient than some modern varieties. The researchers hypothesise that this finding will be just one example of older plant varieties being richer in nutrients and fibre.
Dr Mark Berry, who led the research said: ‘The plants we eat today like fruits and vegetables have often been bred and selected on their weight-based yield per acre of land, and not necessarily on the nutrient content of the produce.’ He adds: ‘Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight, but on their nutrient content.’
This view reflects research into pre-domesticated cereal grains which have strikingly more protein content compared to modern cultivars.
A gastronomic sensibility prizes this variety. Instead of artificially manipulating conditions with synthetic inputs, we can isolate a wide variety of strains deemed suitable to particular locations. Different regions can express distinctive terroir from carefully selected crops.
This diversity will make our crops more resilient. Biodiversity can even be harnessed to increase productivity through permacultures and forest-gardening.
These varieties can even play a role in addressing the obesity epidemic. The decreased nutritional-value of many foodstuffs is affecting satiety levels. We can consume hundreds of calories of sugar in a soft drink without the hormone ghrelin being released which lets our brain know we’ve had enough. Foods richer in nutrients and fibre confer greater satisfaction.
By shifting away from the production of animal product which requires far greater use of land, energy and water resources we can easily find room for lower-yielding, nutrient-dense varieties. With a raised gastronomic awareness we might waste less.

Food Sovereignty

But how can the cultivation of lower-yielding strains have any relevance for developing countries which confront the challenge of scarcity?
Many scientists argue that GMO technology offers solutions and are attempting to develop biological nitrogen fixation in crops such as wheat which would allow them to survive without synthetic fertilizers. They dangle the prospect of decreased energy dependency and pollution, but admit successful adaptation is many decades away, and may never be achieved. But the advance of GMO also decreases diversity and could have unforeseen effects.
A more sensible approach is for farmers to develop a wide variety of strains suited to different conditions. Lower-yielding varieties might prove more bountiful as the ensuing diversity would be less susceptible to disease and less dependent on polluting inputs derived from fossil fuels. Decrying a prevailing ‘industrial’ model of development in the Third World, Concern Worldwide argue: ‘smart site-specific agroecological approaches that increase production, conserve natural resources and are tailored to specific human and environmental conditions should be favoured’.
It may be that in the Third World raising education levels, gender equality and increasing access to the internet will bring great rewards to farmers there. Indigenous development can occur rather than the familiar story of Europeans bringing progress.

Shifting Diets

Complete self-sufficiency for most countries based on a wide variety of pre-domesticated and native crop varieties would be difficult to achieve, but increasing diversity could benefit our agriculture and improve nutrition.
A global community must retain surpluses to confront shortages. By shifting away from livestock production in the developed world we can produce more food and improve its nutritional quality. A reduction in the consumption of animal products should bring health benefits.
A shift in global diets is required to confront the challenges of obesity, global warming, peak oil and growing populations. A gastronomic sensibility can help inform our choices.

Peasant Food Myths

Peasant Food Myths

(Spectator Scoff, January 2010)

If you are reading this article the likelihood is that you are university educated, your parents owned the home you grew up in and you’ve travelled extensively. Food enthusiasts fall into a cohort of the population that is, undoubtedly, the antithesis of the Chav, and his successful cousin Mondeo Man.

We have to face up to the close association between the food we eat and the class we aspire to, whether it be trustafarian bo-ho, haute bourgeois or plain aristocrat. Just as many of us wouldn’t be seen dead in a football strip, likewise, we cringe at the thought of enjoying the proletarian flavour of char-grilled burgers bought from chip vans or, worse still, the suburban lull of ham and pineapple on take-out pizza.

Yes indeed, food snobbery is alive and well, and I must say I do succumb to it myself, closely surveying the tawdry purchases of the hoi polloi on the rare occasions I venture into large supermarkets.

Equally, I grow weary at the nonsense spouted by food enthusiasts. My latest bugbear is the elevated status accorded to ‘peasant food’ which is now closely associated with the ideals of a lost agrarian authenticity. The difficulty I have with this depiction is that it ignores the ‘nasty, brutish and short’ realities of a peasant life characterised by food shortages, even famine, and petty paternalism.

Devotees, such as Rick Stein, bemoan a mythical lost heritage where agricultural workers enjoyed a diet of Cornish pasties, Bakewell tarts, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Cumberland sausages washed down with lashings of Real Ale. This picture is, of course, far from accurate. As Stephen Mennell author of All Manners of Food, the classic rendering of the divergence between French and English culinary traditions, tells us, pies, puddings and conserves were the food of the gentry, rarely eaten by the lower orders.

Instead, as with the rest of Europe, until the nineteenth century at the earliest, the food of the great bulk of the population was soups, stews or porridge cooked in one pot over an open fire, or worse: Sir Frederick Eden’s 1797 publication The State of the Poor shows how labourers in the south of England were ‘habituated to the unvarying meal of dry bread and cheese from week’s end to week’s end’.

The kind of ‘traditional’ English food that I encounter invariably contains meat, yet, this constituted only a tiny part of that diet: as recently as a century ago, the average annual consumption per capita in England was 25 kilos, a figure that has risen to 80 kilos today. This carnality is connected to urbanisation, leading Carolyn Steele to the conclusion that ‘the inexorable rise of burgher and burger go hand in hand’.

In anguish at the loss of ‘tradition’ in this country, food enthusiasts have sought rifugio in Italian cuisine, which is generally portrayed as being suckled on the teat of Mother Nature herself.

But a recent publication Delizia – The Epic History of Italian Food by John Dickie, explodes many of the myths surrounding Italian food: Marco Polo did not bring pasta to Italy from China, and there is no evidence for the contention that Catarina de’ Medici brought about the export of Italian culinary expertise to France.

Dickie contends that ‘Italian food is city food’ and says that ‘until the middle of the twentieth century ordinary people in the Italian countryside ate very badly – countless documents tell us as much’. He supports this by recalling a number of popular sayings; among my favourites were: When the peasant eats a chicken either the peasant is ill or the chicken is, and Don’t tell the peasants how good cheese is with pears.

Yet, as Dickie tells us, Italians now embrace the idea of ‘peasant’ food wholeheartedly: ‘the surest way to get a product moving off the supermarket shelves is by putting “peasant tradition” on the packet’.

This contemporary ‘peasant’ food is, however, far distant from the gruel of yesteryear. Until recently, even pasta, that most identifiable of Italian foods, formed only a minor part in the Italian diet compared to polenta (yellow maize) especially in the north of Italy. So in the 1950s each Italian man, woman and child was eating 60 grams of polenta per day, but by the 1980s the figure was too small to register statistically.

The point often forgotten about so-called peasant food is that food preparation for the peasant was, for the most part, a question of careful husbandry of scarce resources. There were no food fads, just survival. To quote Mennell again: ‘Judged in relation to basic physiological needs, virtually the whole history of cookery would have to be considered a study of luxury’.

One Week Working in Mint ended my love affair with food

One Week Working in Mint ended my love affair with food

Sunday Tribune February 10th, 2008

RTE’s documentary Pressure Cooker aired on Monday night provided an interesting portrait of Dylan McGrath, the enfant terrible of Irish gastronomy. It was instructive to observe the chef return to his West Belfast working class origins, then journey to London where pain still registered across his face when confronted with the appalling environment in which he learnt his trade. This is a man forged in truly tough circumstances.

I had already enjoyed my own direct insight a year and a half ago. After a summer of leisurely cooking and continental gastronomic sampling I naively decided to embark on a career as a chef. Already, I had uncovered the mystery of preparing gnocchi, and could make fresh pasta in my sleep. Cookery books were my reading staple.

At thirty, undoubtedly I was too old for the profession, and an over-fondness for student life did not suggest that manual labour would offer fulfilment, but I blithely reckoned I could handle the work, and that dreams were to be followed.

Unfortunately, I had no experience. It hardly seemed possible that I could get a job. The positions advertised all sought two or three years experience, but, undeterred, I applied for one post which seemed to hold out hope for the uninitiated. The advertisement inquired “Are you a foodie?” What is your signature dish?” “What months are figs in season?” “Why do you think you would be suited to this job?” I felt I handled these questions with scholarly aplomb. For the record my signature dish was ‘gnocchi with wild garlic’ (I have to admit, this was somewhat disingenuous as I had never prepared the two together but I felt they would make a delicious combination).

To my surprise the next day I received a phone call. My age was not well received, while in response to the question “have you any experience?” I was a little economical with the truth, exaggerating a few days work in London as an impoverished dishwasher where I had risen to the level of blow-torching peppers. I was told in no uncertain terms that it would be bloody hard work but I told him that I was prepared for that. Unbelievably, I was asked to come in the following Tuesday.

I was greeted by Dylan’s glowering stare, a mixture of intimidation and compassion: “So you want to work in my restaurant? We are trying to create the best restaurant in Ireland and we work fucking hard. Where’s your uniform?”
“… Uniform” – my first major blunder, I was already a laughing stock. Any chef worth their salt knew that a chef brought a uniform to work, but unfortunately my solution was lacking in the saline department. I had at least taken the precaution of bringing one of my mother’s best knives, but this appeared faintly ridiculous beside the arsenal of metal that the other chefs were slashing about with.

Immediately, I was issued with instructions. “Get some shallots and start chopping.” Now, the shallots that I was accustomed to were small, similar to garlic, rather than the larger restaurant variety: I could not locate the shallots. Humiliation was amplified as I used the borrowed knife in decidedly amateurish fashion; wielding it in jazz like rhythm compared to the refined motion of the practised chef.

A short lesson later and I was chopping in a slightly more professional manner, but beside me the other chefs were working like dervishes and this was at eight in the morning. There was no idle banter, no music, no Morning Ireland, no crumpled copies of the Metro lying around, just the whirl of knives and the endeavour of the thousands of task that were going on within the tiny confines of the kitchen of Mint restaurant.

“Get some chervil?” I knew of chervil, I had probably used it in the odd Jamie Oliver recipe but inside the walk-in fridge I had no idea what precisely it looked like beside all the other, unpackaged herbs. It is remarkable how one can sweat in a fridge.

All morning I tried as anyone does on their first day to make a good impression. But despite this, Dylan displayed the charm of an S.S. officer – “Move, move, move”, I was told besides far more salacious exhortation. By midday I couldn’t wait for lunch break, with all this great food I was looking forward to a hearty meal and perhaps a peak at a crumpled Metro, but it never came, the work just went on and on; human dynamos at work. I kept my head down, peeling what was put in front of me, and frantically running around on the orders of the chefs. At last, I was taken outside for a pep talk.

He had strangely kind eyes for such a fierce character that suggested a soul of depth and creativity struggling to emerge. “You have the right attitude, but you aren’t working fast enough – you have to work faster.” “Yes chef” I replied – It was remarkable how quickly I adjusted to the military discipline of the regime. “Chef” was unlike any boss that I had experienced, his authority was more like that of an Oriental ruler of yore; his word was law. When he passed by, you heaved harder at your task.

The first lunch showed that the morning of monotonous hard work was a mere prelude to the real pain. Service! As the newly installed kitchen slave, I was at the beck and call of all the chefs who ordered me from fridge, to freezer, and then to dry stores. I had lost my hunger now, the sight and smell of so much food at various degrees of preparation turned my stomach. In any case how could I eat, I had tasks to complete otherwise the mighty ruler would shriek at me. Of course, worse was still to come the next day when I experienced my first dinner service.

By the end of the day my back was aching. I had never really known before what back-breaking work meant. For relief, I lied down flat on the asphalt outside my house, the cool ground easing the burning agony.

As the week went by the chefs around me began to greet me with more than a contemptuous grunt. This might have owed something to the fact that I was becoming a veteran. Most new chefs didn’t last the day. Only a chef who really wanted to learn from a master could possibly endure the invective levelled at them. Also, as the week wore on, I was asked to work longer hours as my body adjusted to the bowed back and repetitive chopping, though each night I would still return home to lie on the cold asphalt. But I could hardly complain, given that Dylan and the other chefs worked harder than me. They all arrived before eight in the morning and only finished late at night.

There were many terrible moments during that week. Worst of all was the pain of squeezing the razor sharp legs of crayfish for the slightest morsels of flesh contained within. My fingers pricked with a thousand cuts; all for the filling of a few pieces of ravioli that were doubtless gobbled down in a few seconds.

By the end of the week, I had come to realise that I could derive no satisfaction from work of this monotonous cruelty. I felt a certain macho pride that Dylan urged me to stay when I announced I was leaving, but this kind of acceptance came at too great a price. I had fallen out of love with food.

I have never before seen such feats of strength and endurance as I witnessed in this kitchen. A lasting image is of two chefs hauling a giant stock pot, like ants scurrying along with burdens three times their weight.

But those who I felt most sympathy, and indeed respect, for were the kitchen porters. Dylan, wisely, tended to avoid haranguing these prized assets who had to perform the truly horrible tasks of a restaurant. These smiling Mauritians and stern Chinese, whose hands seemed de-sensitized to heat, could grasp saucepans that would make me yelp with pain.

There is no doubt that Dylan McGrath is an artist, and predictably ruthless in the pursuit of his creations, but unlike the work of a painter or a writer, the chef-artiste relies on the collaboration of his team. Dylan expects the same inhuman level of commitment from his staff that he imposes on himself, and this kind of work can only destroy a person.

The food Dylan McGrath concocts is a visual extravaganza, Jack Yeats on a plate, and he provides an almost intoxicating array of tastes, but I could never bring myself to enter Mint’s front door, even if my wallet permitted. Like some magnificent edifice created by cruel labour, a meal there could only conjure the brutality of its creation.

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