Slaughter House Rules of the Jungle

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

Ireland is awakening to the environmental impact of its livestock industry. Village has led the way, tackling an unpalatable subject that the O’Reilly/O’Brien press and the Old Lady of D’Olier Street for a long time ignored. RTE has been more craven still in its favouritism towards a livestock industry, often lovingly referred to as ‘our farmers’.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. It is likely that editors and producers fear offending advertisers. I submitted numerous articles to the Irish Times on the subject. Ironically the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times proved more receptive.

Belatedly the Irish Times has covered the issue and ran a series by Conor Purcell, a climate scientist in UCD earlier this year focusing on livestock emissions. More recently on April 2nd they ran a forensic article by Village-writer John Gibbons entitled: ‘Meat is Madness: why it leads to global warming and obesity’ which joined the dots between the environmental and public health impact of meat production.

Nonetheless the public is still largely in the dark as to the manifest unfairness of ‘meatonomics’ in Ireland where landowners receive endowments as rural communities flounder. One positive that could flow from the Brexit debate is that focus will be drawn to the perversion of the CAP which was designed to protect farmers but now leads to concentrations of wealth in few hands and continued rural depopulation.

The Irish media still averts its gaze from the meat ‘processing’ industry, a sinister euphemism that averts the public’s gaze from the reality of millions of animals being slaughtered each year.

This bears out Ruth Harrison’s observation that ‘if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.’

To my knowledge no Irish newspaper has ever sent a reporter in to explore what happens in an abattoir or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). It is only when a case reaches the courts that it will enter the public domain.

One such was reported in the Irish Times in February 2015 in which a pig farmer Rory O’Brien was given a jail sentence of 18 months. Judge Sean O Donnabhain 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 causing them to to eat one another the court was told. O’Brien’s farm, which closed in 2011, held over two thousand pigs. That implicates a lot of breakfast rolls.
Millions of animals are slaughtered in Ireland each year but no journalist to my knowledge has braved the killing floor. The excellent indigenous documentary film Foul (2006) by Andrew Legge explored the poultry industry but it is usually left to the Guardian to investigate what is happening in our killing industries.

Without journalistic coverage here we must draw on accounts of industrial slaughter elsewhere. Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book Fast Food Nation paints a lurid picture that is unlikely to be different in Ireland:
‘On the kill floor, what I see no longer unfolds in a logical manner. It’s one strange image after another. A worker with a power saw slice cattle into halves as though they were two-by-fours, and then the halves as though they were two-by-fours, and then the halves swing by me into the cooler … Dozens of cattle, stripped of their skins, dangle on chains from their hind legs. My host stops and asks how I feel, if I want to go any further. There is where some people get sick’

He continues:
‘The kill floor is hot and humid. It stinks of manure. Cattle have a body temperature of about 101 degrees, and there are a lot of them in the room. Carcasses swing so far along the rail that you have to keep an eye on them constantly, dodge them, watch your step, or one will slam you onto the bloody concrete. It happens to workers all the time.’

Yet more scenes that recall Dante’s scurfy hell are revealed as he presses further inside:
‘I see: a man reach inside cattle and pull out their kidneys with his bare hands, then drop the kidneys down a metal chute, over and over again, as each animal passes by him; a stainless steel rack of tongues; Whizzards peeling meat off decapitated heads, picking them almost as clean as the white skulls painted by Georgia O’Keefe. We wade through blood that’s ankle deep and that pours down drains into huge vats below us. As we approach the start of the line, for the first time I hear the pop, pop, pop of live animals being stunned.’

Schlosser also encounters bestial working conditions usually undertaken by immigrant, unionised labour. ‘For eight and a half hours, a work called a “sticker” does nothing but stand in a river of blood, being drenched in blood, slitting the neck of a steer every ten seconds or so, severing its carotid artery. He uses a long knife and he must hit exactly the right spot to kill the animal humanely.

In the last circle of this inferno he meets the ‘ knocker’ , the man who welcomes cattle to the building: ‘cattle walk down a narrow chute and pause in front of him, blocked by a gate, and then he shoots them in the head with captive bolt stunner – a compressed-air gun attached to the ceiling by a long hose-which fires a steel bolt that knocks the cattle unconscious. The animals keep strolling up, oblivious to what comes next, and he stand over them and shoots. For eight and a half hours, he just shoots. As I stand there, he misses a few times and he shoots the same animal twice.’

One can only imagine the psychological toll that such gruesome work has on those who are compelled to perform it. Another issue that Schlosser refers to is the cumulative trauma injuries in the meatpacking industry which are higher than the rate in any other American industry.

These depredations are by no means confined to America. A recent report in El Pais (18/4) explored the Catalan pork processes sector which mainly employs migrants at low rates of pay. For the sake of jamon and chorizo workers are expected to remove the guts of animals at a rate of seven hundred carcasses an hour: ‘the repetitive nature of the work means that you can’t move your shoulders at the end of the day.’

The report identifies: ‘rampant racism, long hours and inhuman treatment of workers who fall or are injured’ which led to a two day strike in early April. One witness records how one of the Catalan boss ‘aristobutchers’ called him a ‘black piece of shit’ and threatened to send him ‘back to Africa, where you’ll die of hunger. Another worker claimed the same individual threatened ‘to pump them full of bullets. Most workers earn a basic salary of e800 a month, with e50 deducted for belonging to a supposed cooperative along with deductions for work materials, laundry and an e267 social security contribution. This in twenty-first century Europe.

The desperate treatment of workers in the livestock industry goes back to its emergence in American mid-West. An influential novel called the Jungle from 1904 by Upton Sinclair potrayed the appalling treatment of workers. It seems as if the absence of compassion towards animals shown by bosses in this industry extends to the way they treat workers.

Can Ireland really be avoiding these depredations especially when we hear of so many potentially vulnerable immigrant workers, Pakistanis and Brazilians employed in the industry and the litany of illegalities that have occurred from the horse meat scandal all the way back to the Beef Tribunal. One hopes that the Irish media will continue to join more dots.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/take-stock/)

An Enduring Legacy – Lessons from the Great Famine

(Published in Village Magazine, November 2012)

Who was to blame for the Great Famine? This thorny question rears its head with the recent publication of the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine by Cork University Press. We may accept the detached assessment of the American economic historian Joel Mokyr expressed some years ago that ‘Ireland was considered by Britain as an alien and even hostile country… the British simply abandoned the Irish and let them parish’; but we should not ignore how many Irish Catholics profited from this great rupture in our history which led to a population reduction of over two million due to starvation and emigration. The enduring legacy must be explored.

Irish people at the time were treated as second class citizens by their government; relief for desperate hungry victims was not a statutory right under the Irish Poor Law, as it was under its English equivalent. Successive failures of the potato crop 1845-50 caused by the blight phytophtera infestans did not lead to market intervention that occurred where grain harvests failed in England. Irish grain continued to be exported and insufficient cheap maize was purchased on the international market at key points. Moreover, the infamous Gregory clause of the Irish Poor Law denied relief to tenants holding more than a quarter acre unless they surrendered their tenancy which turned it into a charter for land clearance and consolidation.

But in emphasising the inaction of remote authorities in Westminster we overlook the gains made by Catholic Irish farmers holding substantial farms above 20 acres. In one contribution to the Atlas Kerby A. Miller writes: ‘an unknown but surely very large proportion of Famine sufferers were not evicted by Protestant landlords but by Catholic strong and middling farmers, who drove off their subtenants and cottiers, and dismissed their labourers and servants, both to save themselves from ruin and to consolidate their own properties.’

A commitment to laissez faire, as well as a sense of providentialism that cast natural occurrences as part of a divine plan, informed the thinking of the leading British policy-makers at the time, foremost the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan who was responsible for relief measures. He concluded afterwards: ‘The result in Ireland has been to introduce other better kinds of food, and to raise the people, through much suffering, to a higher standard of subsistence.’ To the enduring chagrin of Irish nationalist he was knighted for his services in 1848.

The response of British authorities can be situated within a larger context of a shift in Imperial policy and an ongoing Agricultural Revolution whereby: ‘Farming changed from being an occupation primarily concerned with extraction from the soil into one involving the purchase of raw materials which were processed to produce a saleable product.’

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was the great triumph of laissez faire. In contrast to most European states where protection was extended to farmers, agriculture in the British Isles was thrown open to the free market.
Those who derived wealth from industry rather than land would henceforth guide British policy. Free trade would drive down the cost of food in the ‘workshop of the world’. Henceforth regions of the Empire would specialise in the production of particular foodstuff for sale on the international market, with the development of steamships making this possible. In contrast, in the same period in France a high proportion of production continued to be consumed on the farm or within the locality.

Politically, the occasionally benign paternalism of the landed aristocracy would no longer hold sway. The first editor of The Economist James Wilson, answered Irish pleas for public assistance with the claim that ‘it is no man’s business to provide for another’.

Within this constellation Ireland would supply beef and dairy for its near neighbour; tillage and horticulture, particularly carried out by peasants at a subsistence level, should be abandoned. By 1900 pastoral farming dominated as never before. It hardly mattered that a succession of Land Acts (1869-1904) had transferred ownership to former tenants. Those independent farmers would continue to generate ‘saleable products’ for the market.

An old way of life died for good as a result of the Great Famine. Subsistence communities, known as Clachan, were wiped out. Granted, Irish peasants were unwitting architects of their demise: plentiful potatoes allowed for early weaning which generated exponential population growth; almost 9 million in 1845.

Parts of Ireland had some of the world’s highest population densities, but according to Mokyr was not overpopulated on the eve of the Great Famine. It was the switch to pasture that made it so. Fernand Braudel observes: If the choices of a society are determined solely by adding up calories, agriculture on a given surface areas will always have the advantage over stock-raising; one way or another it feeds ten to twenty times as many people.’

Perhaps improvement in education levels, especially with the advent of free primary education in 1831, could have encouraged family planning and improved employment prospects. A more ordered transition to modernity might have occurred instead of the fearful flight to cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and New York. But this would have required a government committed to the welfare of the population, and a settlement of the land question whereby gross inequalities, the legacy of seventeenth century conquest, were extinguished. However, Kerby observes that even: ‘Catholic nationalist (wealthy farmers and townsmen) as well as the overwhelming majority of the Catholic clergymen were much too conservative to countenance a peasant assault on Irish property relationships.’

A genuine revolution in land-ownership might have achieved this, but the demise of smallholders made the Land War of the 1880s a battle for the spoils of the Great Famine.

Exploring these ‘what ifs’ is counterfactual history, but it is important to recognise that the Great Famine was not inevitable and that the system of land-usage dominated by livestock for the international market that endures to this day is a recent innovation. One Protestant landowner referring in the 1850s to this shift said: ‘the extermination of humans and the substitution of brute animals for the human race on the soil of Ireland, is not an improvement grateful to my mind.’

Prior to the Great Famine Irish peasants were comparatively healthy. Irishmen’s heights were greater than those of equivalent Englishmen in a variety of occupations and situations and life expectancy was greater than most other Europeans except those of Denmark and England.

They had a sparse diet relying primarily but not exclusively on the potato; it actually constituted only one third of the land under tillage in the 1840s. They also consumed oats, especially in Ulster, vegetables, wheat and barley, butter milk, and whatever could be foraged in the form of seaweed, shellfish, berries and nuts. For most meat was a rarity. With a settlement of the land question diets would have become more varied based on the locally-sourced ingredients enumerated with less reliance on the potato.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a dramatic shift in diet away from what was produced locally; beef and dairy were only for the tables of the well-off in Ireland. Between 1859 and 1904 sugar consumption rose tenfold and with it came increasing mortality from diabetes. Baker’s bread became the staple, and sugary tea the succour of the poor. This was Trevelyan’s idea of a ‘higher standard of subsistence’.

In an article written in 1913 George Russell (A.E.) observed of the transition: ‘There is no doubt that the vitality of the Irish people has seriously diminished, and that the change has come about with a change in the character of the food consumed. When people lived with porridge, brown bread and milk as the main ingredients in the diet, the vitality and energy of the people was noticeable, though they were much poorer than they are now… When one looks at an Irish crowd one could almost tell the diet of most of them. These anaemic girls have tea running in their veins instead of blood. These weakly looking boys have been fed on white bread’.

It is worth considering the effect of colonisation on the eating habits of the Irish who transitioned to a diet that was a product of colonisation, a trend that has continued. As Homi Bhaba puts it: ‘Although colonised subjects endeavour to imitate or mimic the behaviour of the coloniser, the mimicry is always imperfect – almost the same but never quite’.’

In response to colonisation we invented sporting codes, but because our colonisers had a stunted gastronomic culture we did not invent one for ourselves. But as this emerged in Britain in recent times there has emerged a pallid mimicry: our versions of Nigella and Jamie are neither as sultry nor as charming.

A self-respecting Irish gastronomy might hark back to the tradition of the Clachan, instead of the present models of taste that favour the livestock produce of land clearances. The food of the Clochan was light, wholesome and ecologically sensible. It should appeal to the contemporary gastronome.
Moreover, recent research by Goodland and Anhang has shown that up to 51% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions emanate from livestock farming. It may be a sad irony of history that Irish livestock-farming will indirectly contribute to famines in the Third World as climate change brings drought and ecological catastrophes.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2012/11/lessons-from-the-famine/)

Wild Law Lecture

Delivered in Anglo-American University, Prague 19/11/15

It is sometimes observed in jurisprudence how Hitler came to power by legal means and continued to govern in accordance with the German constitution. Of course an American might argue that this could never happen there because of the separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and legislature in their constitution. But slavery was allowed to cohabit with the original constitution until the civil war and some describe what happened to native-Americans in the nineteenth century as genocide.
But few would argue that what Hitler did was justified or even, in a sense, legal. That’s because most of us subscribe to a view that human beings have certain rights that are inalienable (cannot be given away) and imprescriptible (do not lapse with time) antecedent and superior to positive law. These include inter alia the right to life, property and one’s good name. Of course most of these rights are limited (although I would argue that a person’s right not to be tortured is absolute). Courts therefore often have to weigh up competing rights. Thus we are allowed to defend ourselves proportionality if someone attacks us and the police are allowed to enter a property if they believe someone inside has committed a crime.
We might conveniently and perhaps confusingly consider such rights to be a part of natural law. But the scope of natural law is limited to human actors and I will argue that we must broaden it to encompass all of Earth and the beings that exist here. I say this not merely because I think that fairness demands that we extend compassion to all life on the planet but also because without radically re-appraisal of our relationship with nature we are endangering our continued existence on the planet.
I believe that what has come to be known as Wild Law or Earth Jurisprudence is not just an intellectual curiosity, a neat concept that gives us a warm glow of satisfaction, but really I predict that this is could be a huge area of work for the lawyers in the future as we consider the competing needs and interests of all the living world and attempt to bring a harmony that will be to the advantage of all including the human species.
Moreover, I argue that the propositions I am making this evening are nothing new and would be recognised by most faith systems especially those closest to nature in the small number of hunter-gatherer communities still existing. But what I am saying is also firmly rooted in science and in former NASA scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. This is the idea is that the earth’s organism interact with inorganic surroundings to form a self-regulating, complex system that maintains life.
Thus for example: ‘around 21 per cent of the atmosphere is made up of oxygen, which is highly reactive, while methane is found at a fairly constant level of 1.7 parts per million. In sunlight, oxygen and methane react to produce carbon dioxide and water. Maintaining methane at this level requires living organisms to produce about 500 million tons of methane a year. If life on Earth were to cease, all its elements would continue to react with one another until no more reactions were possible and the planet would become a hot, inhospitable place without oxygen and water.[Cullinan, p.80]’.
What’s encouraging about the Gaia hypothesis is the assumption that as the Earth is a self-regulating system it will redress any imbalance: this suggests that humans as a part of the earth community will mend their ways and find a more symbiotic relationship with the rest of the life on planet Earth. But this requires a change of heart on the part of many of us leading to radical changes to our behaviour. One author points out: ‘Many of our so-called “material comforts” are not only in excess of, but are probably in opposition to, basic biological need.’ Most of us could easily consume less than we do now, and be healthier for it. Indeed, the global obesity pandemic shows we are consuming too many calories or are relying insufficiently on our own energy for transport and in the manufacture of products that have built in obsolescence.
The laws that govern most of our societies are really a product of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the so-called Enlightenment. In particular the ideas of Rene Descartes have had a powerful effect. ‘Descartes set out to entirely reconstruct philosophy on the basis of mathematical reasoning’. He distinguished between a rational mind and an animal, wild body and understood the physical world as a complex machine ‘that could be understood by reductionist analysis (i.e. by dissecting it and looking at each of the parts to understand how it works)’. In Descartes schema, which was formulated at a time when Europeans were subduing and colonising the rest of the world, only man had the power of reason and as such this placed him above all other animals an idea that was inherited from earlier Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas. The colonisation of the world beyond Europe also brought about the subjugation of nature, as European technologies have allowed ever wider encroachment on regions which often displayed an approximate balance between human beings and the rest of their ecology.
The superiority of men over nature is affirmed in the American Declaration of Independence: ‘ When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind require that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation. We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Prior to European subjugation many human groups saw themselves as being on the same level as other animals. Shamans would communicate with animal spirits requesting that they offer themselves as prey for hunters. This gratitude towards nature is also evident in other religions including Islam where under halal rules thanks is given to the animal for the food they offer to the human community. Even in Christianity until recently meat was off the menu for much of the year. It has been argued that prohibitions during the period of Lent reflect the need to restrain consumption during the months of the year when little meat was available. Today where religions have fallen into decline we have few limitations on our consumption.
Until very recently (and only in Europe and South America) do we find that rights are conferred on anything other than human beings. There is simply no recognition of the limits of natural profusion or the extent to which human actions could be destabilising Earth systems and could have terrible repercussions for ourselves and other creatures.
There is no doubt that human beings have displayed extraordinary resourcefulness and have made up for a lack of physical prowess since they left Africa less than 100,000 years ago. This has allowed them to survive in all parts of the planet, discovering every manner of food source and even overwhelming far larger animals. We may call this intelligence a capacity for reason but if it leads us to consume so much that we endanger most other species and our very survival then that capacity for reason is in fact stupid and self-destructive. In the place of reason what we really need is wisdom.
Since the departure of human beings from Africa where we evolved various megafauna including the woolly mammoth have been hunted to extinction which may have had an effect on the earth’s climate. But the real troubles began when certain high-performing seeds and docile animals were domesticated. This allowed settled humans to create food surpluses for cities that reached over one million people more than two thousand years ago.
This expansion of humanity was amplified by the discovery of fossil fuels starting primarily with coal which rapidly accelerated urbanisation, made travel far easier and led to the industrial revolution and the emergence of consumer societies. All of this was underpinned by the rapid expansion of agriculture which entailed the deforestation of huge swathes of the world (including much of Europe) mainly to make way for our animals to graze. This process was accelerated by the crucial invention of artificial fertilizer (the Haber-Bosch process) in the 1910 which led to the Green Revolution after World War II and an extraordinary expansion in food supply.
It is amazing to consider that in 1901 the world’s population stood at about 1.5 billion with less than 20% living in cities while today we have 7 billion with over 50% living in cities. And it is not just the number of humans that have increased: our lifestyle expectations have altered considerably. Many in the West (and the East increasingly), expect to drive a car. We aspire to travel by aeroplane to far flung places and most people want to eat meat every day whereas before it was a rare luxury and often restrained by religious obligations that have gone out of fashion.
The loss of other species due to this expansion has been staggering. Will Tuttle informs us that 10,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture, free living animals made up 99% of the biomass and human beings made up only 1%. Today humans and the animals that we own make up 98% of the biomass. He says: We’ve basically stolen the world, the earth, from free-living animals to use for ourselves. It is a staggering statistic that over 50 billion animals are killed to feed humans each year. Moreover, since 1970 half of all mammal species have been made extinct mostly because of human actions.
But all our travel, deforestation, domesticated animals (particularly ruminant cattle and sheep) are adding up to one terrifying outcome which is runaway climate change which could create billions of refugees from many parts of the developing world and is already causing great turbulence in our weather patterns. We have seen droughts giving rise to crop failures on a more regular basis this century and this is set to increase as the century goes by. 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change is man-made so denial of it is increasingly absurd.
Scientific questions are rarely addressed in legal settings because as I have noted we are still enduring the intellectual legacy of Descartes where most of us reside comfortably in our respective specialities. But the challenges to the world we are living in requires holistic thinking so that sciences draw on humanities and the humanities draw on science. We need to start thinking of the big picture and connectedness and that is what Wild Law and Earth Jurisprudence are all about.
Moreover, physics the most important branch of science is teaching us to look at the world in a very different way from Descartes’s. Werner Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’ states that the mass and velocity of an electron could not be determined simultaneously.’ Physics is essentially accepting mystery as implicit and that nature does not act in the mechanistic way that Descartes proposed. Quantum physics exploded the view that the universe is a vast mechanism constructed of many tiny ‘building blocks’. This gives further credence to Lovelock’s Gaia theory. As ‘the nature and behaviour of part is determined by the whole rather than the other way round. This point of view is fundamental to what today is often referred to as ‘systems thinking’. If we accept mystery is implicit then simply because we don’t fully understand how observed processes occur should not deter us from drawing lessons from them. The earth is not a machine which we can dismantle into parts but a highly complex system that may always defy human understanding.
So what is this Wild Law that I have been skirting around the edges of? In my view it is an extension of natural law, involving a more rounded picture of the world that encompasses the whole planet. As Cormac Cullinan observes: ‘Probably all human communities once regulated themselves with the purpose of ensuring that their members lived in accordance with the requirements of the wider ecological community.
We have become so powerful that geologists now refer to the Anthropocene the era of human geological time that began around 1945. With this unprecedented power comes great duties and to simply ignore the plight of the rest of the planet is unconscionable. We cannot insulate ourselves from other inhabitants of the planet. We need the diversity of nature for clean water, air and healthy food. A good example is wild bees whose populations across Europe are under pressure, apparently due to the use of certain pesticides. These bees are vital for the pollination of many our food crops. Under our current laws nobody can make a claim on behalf of the bees, though they are crucial to our agriculture. We have to realise that we are part of nature not opposed to it or in competition with it.
According to Thomas Berry, ‘The Universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects’ and every member of the Earth Community has three inherent rights: the right to be, to habitat, and to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.’ That is not to say that human beings should go around policing nature or stopping foxes from hunting rabbits. There is a balance to be struck and most natural processes will continue to go on without us. We are talking about light touch regulation and laissez faire as far as possible but when our own actions start to seriously interfere with the natural world we need to be able to enforce the rights of nature.
The important thing is for us to modify our own behaviour so that we desist from encroaching further on the natural world. One has only to look to look to see the forest fires in Indonesia to realise that there is a crisis of our own making that looms as a threat far greater than terrorism. The destruction of mangrove forests in that area to make way for agriculture is causing an ecological catastrophe, but our media sources prefer to concentrate our minds on far lesser dangers. It has been estimated that each year 2 million people die due to air pollution. Just this week I met a Chinese girl who showed me pictures of Beijing which is now enclosed in a smog that requires people to wear air masks to filter the air.
Of course you might wonder how a change in our ideas about the ambit of the law will make the slightest difference to the world. But there is no doubt that laws influence our behaviour and generate moral outlooks. Just look at the attitude of younger generations to drink-driving compared to their parents, or the positive attitude many people now have to recycling. And although I have been critical of the US constitution there is no doubt that it contained advanced ideas on human rights that are firmly installed in the global consciousness. Other instruments like the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights have had a similar effect. These legal instruments are still very important they just need renewal.
In the Descent of Man Charles Darwin argues that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”: Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals”. It is argued that the history of the law suggests a parallel development. Thus for example a Roman father held power of life or death over his family. But we may question Darwin’s description of “lower animals”; I would argue that there is nothing inherently superior about human beings. We have remarkable capabilities but this certainly does not make us superior to other creatures, especially when you consider some of the things that human beings have done to each through history, and even today we observe terrible things around the world. All creatures have remarkable features or they would not have found their ecological niche.
Let us pause for a moment and consider how we go about creating the new world order that has been proposed. How do we re-frame the legal instruments in order to protect nature? No doubt this will be a difficult process and unfortunately it is impossible for us to understand the earth’s great complexity. We will of course look to science for guidance. Conservationists for example can tell us what will happen if a certain river is polluted and climate scientists can tell us what the effect of a car or a cow is but really what we need is a change of heart and for us to start dignifying other creatures with equality of consideration.
All creatures have different needs and we should acknowledge that humans have needs too and can continue to consume in line with them but in such a way where harm is minimised. This change of heart that our legal system can inculcate must influence those at the top in corporations and governments but it can begin at the bottom and it is worth living by Gandhi’s idea ‘to be the change you want to see in the world’. Any change begins at the level of the individual level. We should try to avoid despondency and never give up hope. Humanity has the capacity to change and can do so very quickly if we pull together. In our technological age we have unique ways of sharing information so that processes that would have taken decades in the past can now happen almost overnight.
One moral question that Wild Law poses is whether human beings have the right to kill other animals for food. I was particularly struck by a description in Laurens van der Post’s autobiography Yet Being Someone Other on this question. As a young journalist van der Post observed a number of expeditions on a whaling vessel in the south Atlantic. He records:
‘I could not deny the excitement and acceleration into a consummation of archaic joy which the process of stalking and hunting, even at sea, had invoked in me, although I was at present now only as an observer. On the other hand, hard on these emotions came an equal and opposite revulsion which nearly overwhelmed me when the hunt, as now, was successful and one was faced with the acceptance of the fact that one had aided and abetted in an act of murder of such a unique manifestation of creation. The only dispensation of the paradox ever granted to me in the past, unaware as I had been of the immensity of it until revealed to me in this moment at sea, was that in hunting out of necessity, all revulsions were redeemed by the satisfaction one felt in bringing food home to the hungry. That such satisfaction was not an illusion, nor a form of special pleading in the court of natural conscience, was proved to me by the profound feeling of gratitude one invariably felt for the animal that had died in order for others to live … [but] what could this possibly have to do with the necessities which were essential for the redemption of the act of killing … in this increasingly technological moment of my youth, when control of life was passing more and more from nature to man, and when there were already available all sorts of artificial substitutes for the essential oils which animals like the whale had once been the only source of supply, what, I asked myself bitterly, could justify such killing except the greed of man for money … Worse still, I was certain that our imperviousness to the consternation caused by such killing in the heart of the nature could be the beginning of an enmity between man and the life which had brought him forth that could imperil his future on earth itself.’ He concludes: every one of us – not excluding the disabled, maimed, blind, deaf, dumb and the bearers of unbearable suffering – matters to a Creation that has barely begun
There are situations where human cannot survive without exploiting other animals for food making them in a sense obligate carnivores but living in developed cities where there are ample alternatives it seems that this argument is less compelling. Some argue that eating a small amount of meat does little damage to the environment but can we tolerate the way most animals that we eat are treated in factory farms and feeding lots? It seems to me that any natural law should not exclude such excesses or prohibit such suffering. Moreover, as the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields.’ It may be that the violence we exert against other animals leads in ways that we cannot grasp to violence in human societies. Moreover extension of compassion to other sentient creatures will extend our compassion to the wider planet as those animals are part of a wider nature. We should appreciate the beauty of a tree, even if there are times when we must chop it down in order to survive.
But of course any lawyer will ask how can all these high-sounding ideas be turned into something tangible in terms of legislation or constitutional expression? In his seminal article on the subject Can Trees Have Standing (written in 1972) Christopher D. Stone explores how wild law might apply. He argues that natural objects could have legal standing by analogy with companies, states, infants, incompetents, municipalities or even universities. Thus a court appoints a trustee when a corporation has become incompetent. He says: ‘On a parity of reasoning, we should have a system in which, when a friend of natural object perceives it to be endangered, he can apply to a court for the creation of a guardianship … The guardian would urge before the court injuries not presently cognizable – the death of eagles and inedible crabs, the suffering of sea lions, the loss from the face of the earth of species of commercially valueless birds, the disappearance of wilderness areas.
He also draws an analogy with the law of patents and copyright: ‘I am proposing that we do the same with eagles and wilderness areas as we do with copyrighted works, patented inventions and privacy: make the violation of rights in them to be a cost by declaring the piracy of them to be the invasion of a property interest.
He even suggests that this could involve modifications to our democratic systems: ‘I am suggesting that there is nothing unthinkable about, and there might on balance even be a prevailing case to be made for an electoral appointment that made some systematic effort to allow for the representative “rights” of non-human life.’ Considering most of our laws are framed in national and regional assemblies this argument could have some merit, although it is hard to imagine how it could actually happen. If it does, it seems very unlikely that the representative for turkeys will be voting for Christmas…
He envisages that a change in our legal culture would have an effect on the wider social norms: ‘such a manner of speaking by courts would contribute to popular notions, and a society that spoke of the “legal rights of the environment” would be inclined to legislate more environment-protecting rules by formal enactment.
He speculates that ‘What is needed is a myth that can fit our growing body of knowledge of geophysics, biology and the cosmos’ and considers ‘that we may come to regard the Earth, as some have suggested, as one organism of which mankind is a functional part’. Another leading author on the subject Cormac Cullinan developed an earth connection when he was on a Buddhist retreat. He records: I suddenly knew with great clarity that I was part of a single whole.’ But it is doubtful whether existing religions offer the guidance required. Even the spiritual beliefs of the Chinese and Indians ‘in the unity between man and nature had no greater effect than the contrary beliefs in Europe in producing a balance between man and his environment.’ Perhaps James Lovelock’s Gaia theory can offer that idea for our time as it is clear that most human beings have a need for some form of spiritual connection but that scientific rigour is also required for us to understand all of the earth systems. Perhaps in the future American money will have written on it: In Gaia we Trust.
Happily there are signs that human beings are coming around to the idea that the natural world has inalienable and inherent rights. Thus in September 2008 Ecuador constitution commits the state and citizens to seeking well-being in a manner that is harmonious with nature and that recognises the rights of nature. It is stated that ‘Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.’ A duty is also imposed on all Ecuadorian men and women “to respect the rights of nature, preserve a healthy environment and use natural resources in a rational, viable and sustainable manner.”
This was followed by the declaration on 17 October 2009 by nine countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America supporting the call for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights. It reads
1. In the 21st Century it is impossible to achieve full human rights protection if at the same time we do not recognize and defend the rights of the planet earth and nature. Only by guaranteeing the rights of Mother Earth can we guarantee the protection of human rights. The planet earth can exist without human life, but humans cannot exist without planet earth.
2. Just as World War II caused a serious humanity crisis that in 1948 led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, today we are suffering the enormous consequences of Climate Change making it essential to have a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights.
3. The ecological crisis which global warming is part of, is showing so palpably an essential principle that has been argued for centuries by the native and indigenous peoples all over the world: that human beings are part of an interdependent system of plants, animals, hills, forests, oceans and air that require our respect and care. The system is what we call Mother Earth “Earth does not belong to man, but man to earth.” The Earth is not a group of things that we can appropriate of, but it is a group of natural beings with whom we must learn to live together in harmony and balance respecting their rights.
It is revealing that this statement was framed in one of the poorest parts of the planet where resources are scarcest. It seems that many of those enduring poverty more easily recognise the limitations of nature and it is simply untrue to suggest that environmentalism is not concerned with human welfare. The opposite is actually the case, it’s just that environmentalists takes a longer term view and see humans and nature as one.
We already have enough resources for the whole planet and the technologies required to change the way we consume. Krishnamurti observed: “If all of us said, ‘Look let’s all get together and solve this problem’ they could do it. Science has the means of feeding people. But they won’t because they are conditioned to function so as to destroy the security which we are seeking.” We need to alter that destructive way of thinking and get people to focus on the outcome of their actions. Significant re-distribution of global income among humans is I believe implicit in our acceptance of Wild Law. Lawyers have tended to shy away from pursuing socio-economic rights but what use is one’s good name or property if one is dying of poverty.
The Declaration also states there is no contradiction between human rights and the rights of nature. In fact they are one and the same as one flows from the other. The challenge of global warming in this the Anthropocene should be the moment for humans to act individually and collectively.
At least it would appear that the Catholic Church is moving in the right direction with Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si. The pope draws on the legacy of his namesake St. Francis saying: “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.””
The recollection of these sentiments is encouraging, but the relationship that the encyclical envisions between humans and nature at large remains essentially hierarchical with humans atop the food chain due to their capacity for reason. But perhaps we simply do not understand the capacity of other species for reason. At least there is acknowledgement that: “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”
It is clear that the notion of Wild Law brings lawyers out of their comfort zone and exposes the limits of our language to define the reciprocal relationships that the complexity of the natural world involves but this should not deter us from the task since as Wittgenstein wrote: ‘Ethics cannot be put into words’ but ‘make themselves manifest’. Cormac Cullinan observed: ‘The language of the universe is primarily experiential. It speaks to us in the language of hot and cold, beauty and fear, patterns of events, symbols and associations. However, we must engage with it to ‘hear’ this language. Book learning and scientific rationality can only take us so far. We also need direct experience of nature, intuition and emotions. Therefore in order to become ecologically literate once more and to regain an awareness of the principles which govern life on Earth, we must strive to reconnect and engage empathically with wildness and nature, and if possible, with wilderness.’
Cullinan also warns that ‘we must beware of succumbing to the temptation of devising the ‘Great Solution’ that will enable all of human theories of jurisprudence to be transformed instantly into a reflection of the Great Jurisprudence’. Too often we have seen utopian ideas being appropriated by dictatorships that justified their actions on the utilitarian grounds that it was for the greater good. Instead he says: ‘doing very small Earth-caring things on an ongoing basis is probably more important than the odd grand gesture (or World Summit), though both can have their place.’ In a revolution such as this it seems to me that change is more likely to come from the periphery than the centre.
Perhaps it is in poetry an art form whose ambiguity puts fear into lawyers that offers the best expression of Wild Law. In writing this lecture the closing lines of a poem by W.B. Yeats were in my mind:
Oh chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you leaf, the blossom or the bole?
Oh body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from dance?
The dance is more than the dancer, the tree is beyond its constituent parts. We are greater than ourselves, connected to an earth that brought us into being and through engagement with the earth, a deep listening, we may start to understand in all our limitations its shifting laws.

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Too Much of a Bad Thing

(London Magazine, December 2011)
So many tears have been shed for sugar that by rights it ought to have lost its sweetness.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat

The English palate, especially the working class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically.
George Orwell

Type: ‘Haiti’; ‘Dominican Republic’; and ‘border’, into an image search on Google. A split-second-cyber-miracle-later a startling aerial photograph of a portion of the island of Hispaniola shared by those countries appears. The Dominican side is blanketed in verdant forest with occasional yellow patches, but to the east in Haiti green has given way to arid yellow.

The stark contrast reveals the environmental devastation that sugarcane agriculture has wrought, dissolving forests as if enamel from teeth. According to the World Wildlife Fund it has ‘caused a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop’. This is compounded by over-population, a legacy of sugarcane’s labour-intensive agriculture, which leaves Haiti with a mere 1% of forest cover. Next door, the Dominican Republic retains 28%.

By the end of the 18th century Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, was the cash cow of the French Empire, accounting for two-thirds of its overseas trade. A plantation system based on slave-labour brought fantastic wealth to its ruling class: ‘rich as a Creole’ entered popular parlance.

The Haitian Revolution 1791-1804 ended that iniquitous system, and former slaves came to power for the first time. But sugarcane’s scars fester on the body politic, as on the landscape, and Haiti was crippled by huge debts from its inception after France compelled its former colony to pay massive compensation to dispossessed plantation owners. Outside interference continued, latterly emanating from the United States. The ills of a system that generated Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoute originate not in the frailty of the Haitian people but the after effects of the insatiable (mainly) European appetite for sugar.

Sugarcane originates in Papua New Guinea but is now cultivated in many tropical countries that enjoy hot and wet conditions. It even reached far-flung Easter Island where archaeologists have discovered the highest incidence of cavities and tooth decay of any known prehistoric people. First processed into solid sugar in India around 350 AD, cultivation and consumption then moved steadily westwards. It is said that sugar followed the Koran.

First treated as a spice it was rarely encountered in Europe prior to 1000 AD, but became a fixture in aristocratic cookery during the Crusades. After the fall of Acre (1291) cultivation moved to Cyprus and soon spread throughout the Mediterranean world.

Desserts were not a feature of medieval banquets with pricey refined sugar used sparingly in otherwise savoury dishes. Only after Catherine de Medici’s marriage to Henry II of France in 1533 did the idea of climaxing a meal with a sweet conclusion become de rigeur for the few who could afford it. Most Europeans would not have encountered it prior to the 18th century, but by 1900 it had become a staple, especially in England. According to anthropologist Sidney Mintz: ‘the diet of a whole species was gradually being re-made’.

Colonisation of the New World serviced Europe’s growing addiction. Settlers, beginning with Christopher Columbus, grew it and more than elusive gold, sugarcane offered a real El Dorado. But production was dependent on slavery, a pernicious system that first exhausted and then extinguished the native Arawak population before Africans were resorted to: approximately 13 million endured the murderous indignities of the Atlantic crossing, and of the 11 million that survived 6 million were destined for sugarcane plantations, in which ‘the deadliest form of slavery’ prevailed. In those appalling conditions a new species of racism emerged where Africans, ‘the sons of Ham’, were often treated worse than livestock. The racist language of the plantation survives to the present day, co-opted by successive political movements that relegate fellow-humanity to the status of inferior animals. Eric Williams argues that ‘slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery’.

According to Elizabeth Abbot: ‘Whites relied on blacks to produce their sugar, counted them as their biggest capital investment, enslaved and mistreated them, vilified their race, sexually assaulted and fell in love with them, and lived dependent on and surrounded by them.’ The cruelty catalogued in Abbot’s book: Sugar A Bittersweet History, is shocking and its legacy is the continued instability of post-plantation societies. With the demise of most of the French West Indies the British West Indies dominated the market, although countries such as Brazil gained increasing market share in the era of free trade that followed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

The Slave Trade was prohibited in 1807, but full emancipation only arrived in the British Empire in 1833. Slavery on sugarcane plantations endured until 1888 when it was finally stamped out in Brazil. Europeans and Americans continued to consume slave-produced sugarcane until that point. Abolition was the fruition of a long and worthy campaign, but the system that replaced it, indentured labour, involving the transport and virtual incarceration of coolie labourers from India and China, was almost as bad. It has left a further legacy of racial tension in the West Indies and places further afield like Fiji.
Humans have a natural inclination towards sweet food and refined sugar (sucrose) is a pure expression of this. In sweetness our bodies recognise easily-digestible caloric value. But as adults we rarely enjoy food that is purely sweet, usually preferring a balance of tastes. It is important, however, for us to be wary of the bitter taste as this may indicate indigestibility or even poison; a child’s aversion to coffee or beer is quite understandable. Over time most of us acquire a taste for strong-tasting bitter substances, often for the stimulation and even intoxication they impart as much as any nutritional benefit.

According to Sidney Mintz: ‘sweet-tasting substances appear to insinuate themselves more quickly into the preferences of new consumers while bitter substances are “bitter-specific”’. Thus, ‘liking watercress has nothing to do with liking eggplant [aubergine] for instance.’ A sweet tooth is not discerning: the taste of sucrose derived from cane or beet is virtually identical, and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has much the same character – witness Coca-Cola’s successful substitution of cheaper HFCS for sucrose in 1984. Trying to substitute the bitter flavour of root beer for bitter cola would be another matter.

The increased sucrose consumption which began at the end of the 18th century at all social levels was predicated on low price but also on a seductive combination with chocolate, coffee, and tea. These bitter drug-foods became cheap and plentiful for Europeans at precisely the same time: the end of the 18th century. Sucrose took the edge off the bitter taste which balanced excessive sweetness. Coffee, tea and chocolate consumption would not have taken off in isolation, but equally sucrose alone would not have had the same appeal.

Mintz says that in England tea ‘triumphed over the other bitter caffeine carriers because it could be used more economically without losing its taste altogether’. In reaction to the heady days of the gin-soaked 18th century the temperance movement lauded it as ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’. For impoverished workers of the Industrial Revolution, tea in combination with sucrose provided calories, as well as stimulation and an enduring social ritual. Mintz argues, persuasively, that cheap sucrose was an important fuel for workers in the Industrial Revolution. Over-worked and under-paid, they now had access to fast food that would get them through the day.

Horrendous slave-labour in the West Indies was providing energy for harsh wage-labour in Britain. Moreover, Eric Williams argues that huge profits generated from sugarcane ‘fertilized the entire productive system of the country’. It also provided jobs directly, manufacturing items required by plantations including iron-collars, handcuffs and shackles, tongue depressors, and ball-and-chains originally designed for medieval torture.

Voltaire’s (d. 1778) dictum that England has 42 religions but only 2 sauces contrasts that society’s piety with its lack of enthusiasm for cooking. Bernard Kaufmann argues that such a hotbed of Puritanism was unusually predisposed to sucrose: ‘religious asceticism is suspicious of anything that is fatty or bloody, but is defenceless against things that are sweet’. At a time when an all-pervading spirit of ‘thou shalt not’ held sway, sucrose, dissolved in water or used to preserve, did not seem a gluttonous indulgence. It could also replace the sweetness of frowned-upon alcohol.

Writing about his countrymen from the vantage of the late 1940s the historian C. R. Fay asserts: ‘Tea which refreshes and quietens, is the natural beverage of a taciturn people, and being easy to prepare it came as a godsend to the world’s worst cooks’. But arguably the very popularity of tea contributed to the decline of English cookery. A pot of tea with sucrose, only commonly accompanied by milk by the start of the twentieth century with the advent of refrigeration, was the urban answer to the cauldron of soup that traditionally sustained rural communities. Its simple preparation, warm re-assurance and even slight suppression of appetite removed the need for hot food in a hard-working society where time was increasingly short. Also, the failure to provide infrastructure to cope with mass urbanization in 19th century England made it necessary to boil water to make it safe until improvements in sanitation arrived in the 1890s. Tea made water potable and palatable.

In many poor urban families an expensive piece of meat was reserved for the male bread-winner while the rest of the family subsisted on sweet tea, ballasted with shop-bought bread and butter or margarine and jam, composed of over 50% sucrose. This under-nourishment of children and babies in utero had long term health consequences. According to Floud et al in The Changing Body, over the course of the 19th century average final heights of men (an important nutritional indicator) in England actually declined slightly from the average at the start of the century (168.6cm to 168.0cm).

Tea, while a diuretic, has some health benefits (particularly if it is green tea) but sucrose is considered nutritionally ‘empty’, apart from as a short-term source of energy. The effects of over-consumption, now defined very conservatively by the NHS in their dietary guidelines as above 10% of daily caloric intake, can be extremely damaging. Henry Hobhouse describes the process: ‘the body becomes used to a feast/famine syndrome in the blood sugar, and this produces an addiction which is chemical, not psychological’. Thus, ‘a vicious circle is created in which the victim becomes hooked on a constant flow of industrial sugar to the bloodstream and cuts down on fibre… as sugar consumption inhibits the production of starch and fibre-converting enzymes’. A preference for less nutritious white bread is coupled with and reinforces a sucrose addiction as the enzymes required to digest whole grains are ‘killed by industrial sugar’. Furthermore, consumption of refined sugar does not trigger the release of the hormone leptin which informs the brain that we are sated. This explains why it is possible to drink highly caloric soft drinks during and after meals without feeling full.

In 1900 sucrose was supplying a whopping near one-fifth of the calories in the English diet, almost double on average the maximum limit recommended today. Despite the virtual end to sustained food shortages, and certainly famines, a series of nutritional surveys conducted among working class families across Britain at that time suggested that not only the urban poor, but also ‘the bulk of the semi-skilled workers, the routine clerical workers, and even those of the skilled artisan class’, were likely to be undernourished. Sucrose was the food of the poor it would seem.

Greater diversity entered the diet after World War I which brought better nutrition (and led to increased average heights and life expectancy) but the English sweet tooth endured. By the 1930s George Orwell still observes an unhealthy addiction in The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘plenty of people who could afford real milk in their tea would much sooner have tinned milk – even that dreadful tinned milk which is made of sugar and cornflour and has UNFIT FOR BABIES on the tin in huge letters’.

Refinement of sugarbeet into sucrose commenced at the start of the 19th century, especially gaining ground during the Napoleonic Wars when France was denied access to the West Indies. By 1880 beet production nearly equalled that of sugarcane. Although it is not environmentally hazardous, the end product is equally unhealthy. From the late 1970s, especially in America, sucrose was joined by another refined sugar derived from maize: HFCS. Farm subsidies, introduced by Richard Nixon in the 1970s maintain its low price. It is even sweeter than sucrose and has identical harmful effects. Sucrose consumption has not declined in the United States, but HFSC consumption now exceeds it. Consumption is disproportionately high among the poor, many of whom subsist on HFSC-laden fast foods in which it forms an unhealthy trinity with saturated fat and salt. Its use is rising inexorably elsewhere. It was recently calculated that of an estimated 47 billion beverage servings humans consume daily, 1 billion of these are in Coca-Cola.

The success of HFSC can also be attributed to the emergence of nutritional advice in the US and elsewhere in the 1970s promoting ‘low fat’ diets. A product could be advertised as ‘low fat’ but still contain vast quantities of cheap HFCS. Big Food has maintained this nutritional confusion through powerful lobbies.

The consequence of large-scale addiction is the public health crisis of obesity. We may now live longer than ever but our potential to live still longer and in good health is threatened. Refined sugar seems to be the greatest culprit. According to nutritionist Patrick Holford: ‘There is no question in my mind that increased sugar consumption is driving not only obesity and diabetes but heart disease and breast cancer’.

Obesity is the plague of our time with most developed countries converging with the US rate of over 50% of the population. The concomitant rise in type 2 diabetes is afflicting children at increasingly young ages. One wonders why governments, medical professionals, chefs and gastronomes have been so slow to address the issue. A zero-tolerance approach should be adopted that advocates a near-total exclusion of refined sugar in view of its addictive quality. The present NHS guideline seems inadequate. According to Floud et al the ‘evidence suggests that the rise in obesity represents one of the major challenges which needs to be faced if European populations are to build on the advantages which a century of economic and social progress have bequeathed.’

Sweetness can be derived from safe sources in which fibre is present. As Dr. Robert Lustig whose lecture ‘Sugar: the Bitter Truth’ (which has been viewed almost two million times on Youtube) says: ‘When God created the poison he packaged it with the antidote’. Natural sugars are accompanied by fibre. The problem arises when the antidote is removed, i.e. when a plant is refined into a slow-acting poison.

Not only is refined sugar responsible for expanding waistlines and a range of preventable diseases, according to Holford: ‘adolescents consuming sugary drinks become ‘more disruptive and less able to concentrate in school’. A variety of mental health problems have been associated with over-consumption of refined sugar.

Refined sugar has always had its apologists. In 1715 Dr Frederick Slare wrote an encomium to it as a tooth-cleaning powder, a hand lotion, a healing powder for minor wounds and, above all, an essential treat for babies and ‘the ladies’ to whom his treatise was dedicated.

Even the iconic Che Guevara was seduced: ‘The entire economic history of Cuba has demonstrated that no other agricultural activity, would give such returns as those yielded by the cultivation of sugarcane. At the outset of the Revolution many of us were not aware of this basic economic fact because a fetishistic idea connected sugar with our dependence on imperialism and with the misery of the rural areas, without analysing the real causes: the relation to the unequal balance of trade.’ After the fall of its main trading partner the Soviet Union, Cuba discovered the cost of its dependence on that monoculture and has only belatedly turned to mixed agriculture to address its needs. Moreover, the requirements of sugarcane sustain an autocratic mode of agriculture that exacts a terrible price on the natural environment, as well as workers. Finally, the end product is nutritionally empty.

Most surprisingly, Margaret Abbot in the closing chapter of Sugar: A Bittersweet History opines that the successful conversion of sugarcane into biofuel in Brazil has ‘a redemptive quality’ in ‘the narrative of sugar’s story’. Here she departs from the thrust of her argument, perhaps wishing to end on a positive note after telling such a harrowing tale. She disregards her own findings about Brazilian sugarcane agriculture’s continued encroachment on ‘former pastureland and ecologically-sensitive wetlands’, as well as the unequivocal findings of the WWF. The siren-sound of refined sugar has no limit it would seem.

It seems quite appropriate that refined sugar and the motor car in which that biofuel is used should join in an unholy alliance. Both were once the preserve of aristocrats but now access is near universal. As the prevalence of each increases any initial benefits decline: cities become thronged with traffic; and energy-dips, or even hypoglycaemia, occur after refined sugar’s brief high. Mechanized locomotion and instant energy are coiled in a warm, corpulent embrace; 19% of American meals, mostly fast food, are eaten in a car.

(http://inpressbooks.co.uk/products/the-london-magazine-december-2011-january-2012)

Protecting Agriculture from Emissions Targets Will Cost the Wider Economy

(Published in the Sunday Times, November 9, 2014)

In a week when the International Panel on Climate Change said that current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have not been seen in at least 800,000 years the European Council agreed to set no specific targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction in the agriculture sector. The move was instigated by the Irish government who persuaded other leaders that agriculture should be given special treatment.
Irish authorities are keenly aware that a startling 32% of Irish emissions emanate from agriculture already. Ambitious targets to expand dairy production outlined in the Harvest 2020 document would be impossible without the deal.
A 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report states that emissions from Irish agriculture will increase by 9% between 2012 and 2020. The EPA report asserts: ‘This is predominantly driven by a projected increase in dairy cow numbers of 14% between 2015 and 2020 following the abolition of milk quotas in 2015’.
The proportion of emissions from Irish agriculture is higher than for any other EU state, and second only to New Zealand’s among developed countries. This is because of the dominance of cattle and other ruminants in our farming sector. There are almost seven million cattle in Ireland, and a mere 8% of agricultural land is devoted to crops, fruit and horticulture production.
Livestock are responsible for significant emissions for a variety of reasons including their digestive process, fossil fuel inputs in feedstuffs, and clearance of forests and jungle for grazing and feedstuffs.
Calculating their global impact is a complex exercise. Estimates will depend on criteria used which could include historic loss of forest cover and mitigation strategies.
A 2014 UN report, that leading environmentalists have questioned, estimated that the proportion of emissions emanating from livestock had dropped to 14.5% of total anthropogenic emissions compared to 18% calculated in a 2003 report.
At first glance this suggests livestock emissions have declined by nearly 20%. In reality an increase in emissions from other sectors in the intervening period has masked the livestock sector’s apparent decline of a modest 5%.
At the other end of the scale, a 2009 World Watch report authored by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang estimates that livestock account for 51% of global emissions.
It might be argued that unlike, for example, air travel all human beings require food, making agriculture untouchable. The Irish government advances the further claim that emissions from Irish livestock tend to be lower than elsewhere, although the intensification envisaged in Harvest 2020 could erode that argument.
This one track, industry-driven approach ignores the value and simplicity of encouraging a dietary shift towards food alternatives with far lower emissions profiles. Essentially this means human beings eating more crops directly as opposed to animals expensively converting grass or grain into flesh.
A 2014 Oxford University study found that an average ‘vegan’ (or ‘plant-based’) diet in the UK had emissions less than a third those of a person on a diet with a heavy share of meat. Considering the near convergence of UK and Irish food supply chains we can assume those figures apply in Ireland too.
A change in the profile of our agricultural production would cost far less than a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Thus, the decision to remove the agricultural sector from the emissions reckoning could harm the wider Irish economy as industry, households and transport sectors will be compelled to bear the entirety of scheduled reductions.
There is an onus on the Irish state to protect marginalized rural communities. But the current arrangement is not even rewarding most farmers. Despite annual subsidies of over €2 billion in direct farm payments, four-fifths of farms actually lose money. Just last week meat packaging plants were blockaded around the country.
Minister Simon Coveney has publicly blamed low European demand for beef on the economic downturn but it could be indicative of a long-term trend as ethical, environmental and health arguments weigh in against meat consumption particularly in more affluent countries.
The global dairy industry has marshaled powerful nutritional arguments that feature in many government’s nutritional recommendations, but nutritional epidemiologists are increasingly questioning their validity. For example the Harvard School of Public Health states on its website: ‘It’s not clear … that we need as much calcium as is generally recommended, and it’s also not clear that dairy products are really the best source of calcium for most people.’
It has become almost axiomatic that Irish agriculture cannot produce anything bar animal products. But our history defies that assessment: only after the Famine did the extensive commodification of cattle for export begin. Today Irish farmers have access to a global seed bank and a warming climate offers prospects for novel crop varieties.
Reducing emissions is arguably this generation’s most significant challenge if we are to believe the assessment of 97% of climate scientists who say that human activity is responsible for climate change and that there will be devastating consequences. It is surely regrettable that any sector should be given a free pass, especially if the food alternatives are healthier and far simpler than implementing reductions in other sectors.
Moreover, there may be a creeping obsolescence in Irish agriculture’s overwhelming focus on producing animal products as opposed to healthy crops for direct human consumption. Irish rural life should be protected but the argument for substantial agricultural reform is compelling.

Defining the Anthropocene

(Published in Village Magazine, January 2013)

This is an interview with environmental historian Professor John Robert McNeill of Georgetown University author of Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (2010); The Human Web (2003); and Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-century World (2000)

Can you define the Anthropocene?  I can, but there are various definitions and mine is no better than the next one.  However, for my part, I like to define it as that time period in which human action has had deep impacts on the basic systems of the Earth.  Those systems include such things as climate and biogeochemical cycles.  Notice I am not saying it is an epoch or an era – the geologists will decide on that.

Can you trace its origin?  For my money, it began only in the mid-20th century.  But many scientists argue for various earlier Anthropocenes, some preferring 1800, some 5,000 BCE, some even earlier.  A great deal depends on which sorts of evidence one prefers.  Paleo-ecologists often like to cite evidence of large animal extinctions in the late Pleistocene as evidence of the onset of the Anthropocene.  That would be roughly 13,000 years ago and earlier.  But for me, that is not enough: one needs the multiple interventions of the last 75 years to justify the term.

What has been the impact of human beings on planet Earth?  They are too numerous and profound to list concisely.  I tried to take stock in a book published in 2000, entitled Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th– century World, but that exercise took more than 350pp.  And more detailed assessment abound at still greater length.  However, I would say one could list among the more significant impacts, from the human point of view, are ongoing changes to the climate, changes to vegetation, especially the reduction in forests, acceleration of soil erosion, the reduction in infectious disease, especially waterborne disease, the advent of intense urban air pollution (and its reduction in some places, including Dublin!)

What changes do we need to make to our lifestyles to ensure the Anthropocene does not become a dark chapter featuring the collapse of many societies?  We probably can’t ensure much of anything strictly speaking, but to improve the odds of a happy Anthropocene I’d recommend changing the energy system away from fossil fuels to something else that does not entail greenhouse gas emissions on any scale; supporting formal female education as a benign way to encourage lower fertility and slower population growth; more efficient urban design, since in the future ever more of us will live in and around cities.

One of your books confronts the subject of malaria. Do you think there is any prospect of eliminating this killer?  No immediate prospect, certainly.  The etiology of malaria is devilishly complex and the plasmodia responsible for infection are capable of evolving so as to sidestep efforts to check their proliferation.  The best bet is mosquito control, but it is not a very good bet because dozens of anopheles species are competent to transmit malaria.

What other contagious diseases will pose a significant challenge to human beings in the future?  This is extremely hard to predict.  At the moment it is hard to ignore the outbreak of ebola, now raging in parts of West Africa and making an appearance in Madrid and Dallas.  Whether that yet counts as a significant challenge probably depends on where you sit.  Influenza is always a threat of sorts, because the virus in question mutates rapidly and could conceivably break loose once again as it did in 1918, when roughly 50 million people died of influenza.  As a category, breath-borne viruses are probably the most worrisome.

In your opinion, what obligations to our natural environment and other species does our dominance of the planet confer?  Everyone has a different opinion on this matter, and mine is no wiser than the next.  That said, I take the (common) view that it confers upon us the obligation of stewardship: our power means we need to take responsibility for the survival of other species (however I’d make an exception for certain mosquito species that spread human disease, even if they too are God’s creatures).

A recent WWF report claimed that 50% of the world’s species have become extinct in the past 40 years. What is the value of biodiversity?  In the first instance, if one accepts the notion that human power confers the responsibility of stewardship of the biosphere, then biodiversity has value in and of itself: we do not have the moral right to exterminate species.  In the second instance, biodiversity is useful for ecological stability.  When it is reduced, the probability rises of dramatic alterations of ecosystems, including ones we rely on.  Third, many species are extremely valuable to us, as sources of medicines, or as pollinators for crops we depend on.  There are probably unknown species that potentially offer us unknown medicines, if they are not first driven to extinction.

Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang in an Earthwatch article in 2009 claimed that animal agriculture accounted for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions. Do you consider this credible?  I haven’t seen the article in question, so I’ll refrain from pronouncing one way or another.

How can human beings feed themselves without fossil fuels?  At the moment, we can’t.  We would need different sources of energy or else a lot fewer humans.

What changes in agricultural policies in the US and EU do you believe should take place?  There are a lot of perverse subsidies in US and EU agricultural policies.  Most should probably go. I’d favour policies that make livestock farming more expensive; wasting water more expensive; intensive use of antibiotics on feedlots more expensive; intensive use of nitrogenous fertilizers more expensive.  All this would make food more expensive, which would be unpopular and is not likely to happen any time soon!

Should governments in Western countries be encouraging widespread adoption of plant-based diets?  Yes, as a matter of human health.  I’d do it by adopting policies that gradually change the prices of various foods.

What role do you envisage for Nuclear energy?  Nuclear power is tempting because the only greenhouse gases it produced come in the creation and destruction of power plants, not in their operation.  However, I am not quite in favour of it, due to the risk of accident (viz. Chernobyl, Fukushima, among others), the risk of the wrong people getting their hands on fissionable material, and the unsolved problem of nuclear waste.  Maybe in future some of these matters will be resolve so that nuclear power becomes a useful possibility.  Not at the moment however.

Do you believe the innovative spirit of capitalism can provide the technological solutions for our dependence on fossil fuels?   Yes, although I would encourage it because it may be too slow to forestall disagreeable climate change.  I would do that by a carbon tax, one that escalates annually.  And by prize money for useful innovation in the energy field.

How can humans restrain the acquisitive tendencies inherent in capitalism?  I don’t think this can be done without some highly improbable ideological/religious transformation of societies.

Do you think that human beings can reach a point of equilibrium on the planet?  More or less.  Equilibria don’t generally endure for long, and upsets of one sort or another normally come along every so often.  But it is plausible to imagine a human population much less ecologically disruptive than what we have at present, and indeed more or less in equilibrium with the biosphere.  That could theoretically happen over centuries by a radical reduction in human population, although I regard that as unlikely.  It could also happen through technological changes that make it easier for a few billion – maybe not 10 or 12 billion – to live much less disruptively on Earth.  The first step, again, is to revolutionize the energy system.

 (http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/02/anthrop-obscene/)

You Can’t Dukan

(Published in the London Magazine, March 2012)

For Citizen-paparazzo, that is anyone in possession of a mobile phone, the photographic Middletons represent fair game.

Statuesque Kate is less the object of coarse desire than polite admiration. Ideal marriage material it was said. She has the prim, faintly virginal appeal we expect of an English queen, starting with the original Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I herself. The Duchess of Cambridge looks as though she would say no to a cream bun or an impetuous suitor. The sanctity of lines waist and royal seems assured.

Kate would never play away but intrigue is provided by bouncy Pippa – a tabloid dream – who projects the cheeky sex appeal relished by a culture weaned on the Carry On films. Even Puritans need a little ‘crumpet’ to munch on.

We scrutinize and will continue to scrutinize their every move: each crevice and fold of flesh will continue to be admired, deplored and imitated. Plastic surgeons now refer to the ‘Pippa butt lift’. The mind boggles.

The reason this concerns an otherwise serious contributor on matters comestible to the London Magazine is that the contents of their ladyships’ larders is in the public domain, and subject to imitation.

At the time of the Royal wedding it became public knowledge that the Middleton girls et mère adhered to the so-called Dukan Diet, a set of prescriptions ordained by a French doctor named Pierre Dukan. Cosmopolitan called it: ‘The Diet Everyone (Including Kate Middleton) is Obsessing Over’; even that venerable publication The Financial Times was recently moved to interview the rather innocuous doctor. Celebrities such as JLo (yes you are reading this in the London Magazine) and someone called Gisele are following it. His book topped the best seller list in Poland and, bizarrely, Bulgaria. Docteur Dukan possibly exerts more influence than the NHS on how consumers make dietary choices. What does he say?

Trust me I’m a French Doctor

Dukan has a dual appeal. First, as a doctor it is widely assumed that no damage will result from embracing his approach. Second, he is French and the image of that country is bound with graceful beauty and fine dining. The tantalizing promise of elegance of form and gustatory pleasure is dangled like Bridget Bardot munching a slice of gateaux before frumpy Bridget Jones.

The diet has four stages. It begins with the Attack which is a pure protein diet. More accurately, this is a pure animal protein diet as vegetable proteins, which abound in nature, are dismissed as too difficult to work out. Thus, large quantities of meat, fish, eggs and low fat dairy produce is ingested. The long term health consequences are unknown, but in the short term the body ceases to function. Significant quantities of water and two tablespoons of oatbran are advised in order to avoid serious consequences. Dukan cheerfully describes the harmful effect of the Attack phase: ‘It finds itself working like a two-speed engine, in a scooter, lawnmower or motor boat, designed to run on a mixture of pure petrol and oil but trying to run on pure petrol. It putters and then stalls, unable to use its fuel’. Unsurprisingly: ‘After two or three days on a pure protein diet hunger disappears completely’. He admits sotto voce that constipation and bad breath are by-products and that dieters should not swim in cold water or ski at altitude.

Dukan argues that this Attack phase is necessary because: ‘An overweight person who wants to lose weight needs a fast-acting diet that brings immediate results’. It as if he does not take on board his own critique of faddish diets that they have a miniscule success rate in the long term. According to an American study cited by Dukan 12% of dieters do lose weight, but only 2% succeed in keeping it off. Of course Dukan claims that his diet is different.

He even seems to be making excuses for the eventual failure of his own approach saying, quite unscientifically, that the ‘body’s biological memory retains the information regarding the maximum weight and this can never be erased’. And: ‘every time you put on weight and reach a new record number on your scales, the way your physiology adjusts means that somewhere in your brain, a sort of nostalgic memory of this maximum weight is recorded which your body will then always try to reach again’. The original sin of being overweight is never expunged it seems, once a fatty always a fatty. Do not blame good Dr. Dukan, blame that greedy shadow that lurks behind you as you take another helping.

The subsequent phases to the Diet: Cruise; Consolation; and Permanent Stabilization, have fairly consistent dietary advice, eat significant quantities of animal proteins, selected vegetables and few fruits and avoid most fats even disease-busting polyunsaturated oils. He identifies 100 favoured foods of which 72 are animal proteins.

Dukan claims that ‘it has been scientifically proved that after eight hours without good-quality protein the body has to draw upon its own muscle reserve to ensure its vital function’. This claim, for which there is no citation, suggests that we begin eating our bodies in the usual 12 hour gap between dinner and breakfast. He also contradicts himself by calling it ‘natural’ for the human ‘predator’ to catch no prey and be forced to fast for a few days.

Dukan’s diet has been slammed by the NHS and goes against all mainstream advice. The risk posed by the intake of so much animal protein could well have serious long-term consequences; the connection between regular red meat consumption especially and a range of preventable diseases is well established. The Dukan diet is not a healthy diet.

According to the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report from 2011 ‘there is not a single health diet… instead there are many patterns of eating around the world that sustain good health. They share these things in common lots of fruit [viewed as dangerous by Dukan], vegetables and wholegrains; healthy fats from fish and plant sources; and few sugars or solid fats’.

Dukan’s disingenuous and dangerous advice lumps all carbohydrates together so that sugar, a slow-acting poison, is placed in the same category as vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, many of which are also significant protein sources.

Dukan’s diet may work but only because it promotes a disciplined attitude towards food and it advocates exercise. There is definitely no silver bullet here.

Take your Time

Dukan’s book does contain smatterings of good sense. First he devotes a considerable proportion of it to recipes which might encourage more people to spend time cooking their meals which would be an advance for many. According to the Food Standards Agency, in 1980 the average meal took an hour to prepare. By 1999, it had dropped to 20 minutes. He also emphasises the crucial importance of walking which Hippocrates described as ‘man’s best medicine’. Taking lukewarm showers, refraining from hot drinks and spending time out of doors is all excellent advice for anyone wishing to loose weight.

He asserts that: ‘Nourishing yourself is not just about taking in enough calories to survive, it is also, and even more importantly, about enjoying eating as part of that process.’ Indeed, the admittedly exaggerated French Paradox (a diet high in saturated fats but with relatively low rates of heart disease) has been attributed to the length which French people take over well-prepared meals. Dukan advocates: ‘EAT SLOWLY and CONCENTRATE ON WHAT IS IN YOUR MOUTH’, and avoid eating in front of the television or while reading.’

He refers to a study which filmed two groups of women, one overweight, the other a normal weight. It was discovered that the women of normal weight chewed for twice as long as the overweight group. The connection between eating quickly and excessively was recognised by the Ancients: the word gluttony actually derives from the Latin gula meaning ‘to gulp down or swallow’.

He also recalls the advice given by a guru in a New Delhi ashram to a person who was overweight. The guru said: ‘At each meal, eat and chew as you would normally, but just when you are about to swallow push the food back in the front of your mouth and chew it for a second time. In two years you will be back to your normal weight’, and so it proved.

Thus, one way of tackling the obesity epidemic is, paradoxically, to put more focus on food by savouring it.

Ethical Considerations

At no point in the book do ethical considerations emerge. How the 72 animal foods and 28 plant foods arrive at the table is of absolutely no concern to him, all that matters is that it is lean animal protein. Environmental impact, animal welfare and the qualitative difference of organically- or biodynamically- produced food is ignored.

Inherent too is an elitism among diners, this is certainly not a diet for humanity. The expense of sustaining a pure animal protein diet for any length of time would be considerable unless the lowest quality produce is selected. Further, particular cuts are defined as worthy whereas others are proscribed. Only lean beef for example is to be eaten. The obese poor who can’t afford the Dukan diet are to be left the fatty cuts that cause heart disease it seems. Or perhaps he thinks they should be thrown away, in which case the cost of the lean meat would be even greater.

He also expresses quite ignorant views on our evolutionary history as meat-eaters, saying: ‘it is possible to live without hunting and without eating animals meals BUT by doing so we give up part of what our nature expects and we lessen the emotional effect that our body is programmed to produce when we give it what it wants’. Hindus and Buddhists argue the opposite, saying the emotional effect of meat-eating is quite damaging.

Moreover, hunting for food in the Western world is generally limited to scouring the supermarket shelves for half-price offers. The proportion of game meat in the Western diet is miniscule. Even fish is increasingly farmed which can cause serious pollution. Conventional fishing is shockingly wasteful with almost half of most catches simply discarded. Many fish species are now under threat.

Apart from French cuisine most popular culinary traditions, including Italian, Arab, Japanese and Indian are predominantly vegetarian. The appetite for animal proteins is mostly a matter of upbringing, and with over seven billion people (and rising) on the planet many living into their eighties we need to alter tastes, and fast. Our health will certainly not suffer, quite the opposite according to the Harvard Medical School Report who say: ‘there are many nutritionally valid reasons to steer towards a vegetarian diet’.

In fact our evolutionary history suggests meat is an unnecessary part of our diet. As primates with relatively long intestines our bodies are more suited to herbivorous foods. Colin Spencer says: ‘Our hominoid ancestors evolved over a period of 24 million years and, for all but one and a half million of these years, the evidence we have leaves little doubt that their diet was almost completely vegetarian except for insects and grubs.’

Our closest relative in nature is the bonobo to whom we are as close as a dog is to fox.  ‘They live in a peaceful matriarchal society, consuming a wide range of leaves and plants, where any disputes are settled by sexual favours homosexual and heterosexual in all possible permutations’ The bonobo is ‘herbivorous in the wild but in captivity, like other primates, will eat almost anything.’

Prince Charming

The Prince of Wales has campaigned for thirty years on questions relating to food. He has written: ‘I have no intention of being confronted by my grandchildren, demanding to know why on Earth we didn’t do something about the many problems that existed when we knew what was going wrong. The threat of that question, the responsibility of it, is precisely why I have gone on challenging the assumptions of our day.’

Charles has placed a big emphasis on the environmental impact of farming and his views align with the principles of Biodynamic agriculture: ‘Genuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply, and in the wildlife – the birds, insects, and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of protecting and enhancing water-catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change.’ There is a wide consensus that radically reducing meat consumption is necessary in order to achieve this sustainability.

Unfortunately, unlike the Middletons, Charles is not suited to the Digital Age. He never became the ‘People’s Prince’ Plastic surgeons don’t talk about the Charles tuck. He has been so mercilessly lampooned that his views exert little influence on the public at large.

One assumes that serious discussions occur at Royal family dinners and that Charles gives vent to his passions. Does he notice that the Middletons are ‘on Dukan’? If so is he aware of the ethical import of that diet? He must know how influential pretty ladies in the public gaze can be. I wonder would he ever be able to persuade Kate and Pippa to start espousing views on food that might take into account the environmental impact of their choices, for the sake of his grandchildren at least. The unethical and unhealthy advice of an exploitative French doctor should be disowned.

(http://www.thelondonmagazine.org/you-cant-dukan/)

Inhuman Folly: The Argument for Veganism

(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2013)

David A. Nibert delivers an impassioned, well-researched and idealistic argument for why humanity should shift to a vegan, or plant-based diet in Animal Domestication & Human Violence: Domescration, Capitalism and Global Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2013). He surveys the impact of meat, dairy and egg consumption through human history and links it to some of our worst behaviour.

Nibert maintains: ‘The emergence and continued practice of capturing, controlling, and genetically manipulating other animals for human use violates the sanctity of life of the sentient beings involved’. He coins a neologism ‘domescration’, used throughout the book, arguing that ‘their minds and bodies are desecrated to facilitate their exploitation: it can be said that they have been domescrated.’

He traces an upsurge in human violence to the practice of stalking and killing animals which ‘began no earlier than ninety thousand years ago – and probably much later’, but fails to acknowledge that this was connected to the expansion of humanity into northern latitudes where edible plants were not available throughout the year, often making hunting a necessity for survival.

His basic thesis is that ‘domescration’ has generated conflict between human societies because the amount of land required for raising animals for human consumption is far greater than that required to grow crops for direct human consumption. He emphasises how ‘domescrated’ animals act as vectors for zoonotic diseases, and displace countless free-living animals.

As an abolitionist he does not envision a scenario where humans could exploit animals in symbiosis with one another and their environment.

He begins his account in 1237 at Riazan near Moscow as the Golden Horde led by Batu Khan lays the city to siege. Nibert links the cruelty of those Mongols to their treatment of animals and shows their reliance on them as weapons of war and mobile sources of food.  Conquest, in turn, was fuelled by a need for more grazing land. They terrorized Eastern Europe and China which saw its population drop from 123 million in 1200 to 65 million in 1393, laying waste to societies engaged primarily in crop cultivation. In all likelihood the Mongols introduced the bubonic plague to Europe which reduced its population by half.

The ‘Greatest Tragedy’

The effect of colonisation of the Americas on its indigenous people was described by Alfred Cosby as the ‘greatest tragedy in the history of the human species.’ Large numbers were displaced to make way for livestock from areas where they cultivated crops or hunted free-living animals; and, with few domesticated animals of their own, they were ravaged by zoonotic diseases, especially smallpox. Their numbers were reduced by two-thirds.

It would be wrong to idealize the lives of indigenous peoples in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. But it seems the virtual absence of domesticated animals curtailed warfare: ‘archaeological evidence suggests that pre-Columian warfare was limited to small-scale raiding, sniping, and ambush’ and that ‘deaths by violence were relatively low.’

Hernán Cortes whose expedition led to the fall of the Aztec Empire in Mexico instantly foresaw the possibility of developing a cattle industry there. Livestock products, especially hides, were integral to the wealth accumulated by the conquistadores.

Nibert contrasts the colonisation of the Americas with the Spanish conquest of the Philippines which is unsuited to livestock production. He says this supports: ‘the thesis that colonisation was much more likely to involve large-scale violence when invasions involved expanding ranching operations.’

Expanding livestock numbers was also the primary motivation for the encroachment of Europeans into North America. The West was won by cowboys who cruelly displaced and often massacred large numbers from nations such as the Creek, Choctaw, Chicksaw, and Cherokee.

In North America the fates of the native population and free-roaming buffalo, vital to their way of life, were intertwined. In the early nineteenth century there were up to thirty million buffalo roaming North America, but by century’s end they had been hunted to virtual extinction to make way for livestock.

Nibert recalls the often wanton violence that accompanied their annihilation. In one account train passengers made a ‘sport’ of it: ‘As they neared a herd, passengers flung open the windows of their cars, pointed their breechloaders, and fired at random into the frightened beasts.’

With the West ‘won’ industrial slaughter houses emerged, especially in Chicago. Rudyard Kipling was horrorstruck by what he saw in the late 1880s and worried ‘about the effect of so mechanical a killing on the human soul’.

English beef

Nibert notes the important role of English capital in the expansion of livestock production into the Western plains of America in the nineteenth century.

He also explores the English colonisation of Ireland and emphasises how Irish salt beef was a critical factor in the ‘profitable sugar production in the Caribbean because it was an important source of food for enslaved labourers on Britain’s plantations’.

In Ireland the nineteenth century witnessed a shift from tillage to pasture which led to depopulation, with the Great Famine the primary catalyst. He quotes Joseph Connolly description of this in Labour in Irish History: ‘Where a hundred families had reaped a sustenance from their small farms, or by hiring out their labour to the owners of large farms, a dozen shepherds now occupied their places.’

Nibert does not discuss the Gaelic Irish mode of food production which was also heavily reliant on cattle. It might be argued that there was some symbiosis in that society between cattle and human beings with animals kept for dairy and rarely slaughtered. But cattle-raiding was endemic in medieval Ireland, and most Irish forests had been removed by the fourteenth century to make way for cattle. The shift to tillage, abetted by the potato that began in the seventeenth century allowed the population to rise exponentially. It was only a change in demand in Britain after the Napoleonic War that caused Ireland to revert to pasture in the nineteenth, a situation that endures.

Unhappy Meals

In 1916 a short order cook called J. Walter Anderson invented the first hamburger in Wichita, Kansas. This product gave a new lease of life to the livestock industry which had come under attack for the poor sanitation and barbarity of the slaughterhouses.

Companies such as White Castle, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC stimulated a demand for meat products through the use of insidious advertising, often targeting minors. Ronald McDonald was thrust upon the children of the United States in 1966 when he made his national television debut during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – accompanied by the “McDonald’s All-American High School Band”.

The twentieth century witnessed the continued expansion of livestock production with consequent species loss and significant implication for climate change. Surprisingly Nibert cites the conservative estimate of 19% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from the UN Report Livestock’s Long Shadow from 2006 rather than the figure of 51% found by Goodland and Anhang in 2009.

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) as animals were increasingly fed on grain in cruelly enclosed spaces. Ruth Harrison observed: ‘if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.’

Aside from the obvious barbarity of putting animals in such close confinement, CAFOs are a significant risk to public health because of the enhanced risk of zoonotic diseases especially a deadly influenza virus developing there. According to Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: ‘An influenza pandemic of even moderate impact will result in the biggest single human disaster ever – far greater than AIDS, 9/11, all wars in the 20th century, and the recent tsunami combined.’

A surfeit of livestock products is also directly implicated in the onset of chronic diseases that are beginning to shorten life expectancies in the Western world. But also indirectly as Nibert links the consumption of obesogenic sodas and meat-eating, quoting Richard Robbins: “The sugar in soft drinks serves as the perfect compliment to hamburgers and hot dogs because it possesses what nutritionists call ‘go-away’ qualities – removing the fat coating and the beef aftertaste from the mouth’

During the twentieth century expansion of livestock continued in Latin America especially Brazil where: ‘cattle pasture accounts for six times more cleared land in the Amazon than crop land; even the notorious [feed] farmers who have ploughed some 5m hectares of former rainforest cover just one-tenth of the ground taken by the beef producers.’

US aid to Latin America was often linked to the extent to which a country could satisfy its insatiable demand for livestock products. Oppressive regimes willing to convert large tracts of arable land and jungle to pasture were supported against political movements, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, opposing it.

Happier Meals?

As an unwavering abolitionist Nibert argues that “new welfarism” ‘actually promotes the continued oppression of domescrated animals and the underlying global injustices’ by ‘appeasing the concerns of the more conscientious citizens, thus blunting movements for more significant social transformation.’

He claims apparently ethical animal products are only accessible to the rich, and states that if the entire population of cows raised for food in the United States were freely ranged, half the land in the country would have to be converted to pasture. Also: ‘the energy resources necessary to raise domescrated animals for local consumption is considerably more than that required to transport plant-based food long distances’.

Controversially he argues that societies that still practise hunting for food should cease doing so. This might sound like excessive interference in ‘traditional’ ways of life: the morality of this hinges on whether we should extend a right to life to other creatures where possible, and if the practice of hunting contributes to inter-human violence.

It also assumes that food will be supplied from elsewhere. Nibbert states: ‘In a more just, vegan global order, a genuine policy of “comparative advantage” could provide nutritious plant-based food and fresh water where it is needed throughout the world, including areas where many now have few alternatives to exploiting animals.’ But it would put societies such as the Innuit in northern Canada at a significant disadvantage and be impossible to enforce. However, of far greater concern is the increasing spread of the Western diet to China and other developing countries.

It is difficult to envisage how a policy of comparative advantage can ‘transcend the capitalist system’ as he advocates. Trade is essential to the realisation of widespread vegan diets and for all its faults capitalism does successfully facilitate the efficient exchange of goods.

It remains to be seen whether a more ethical capitalism emerges. Interestingly Bill Gates has been prominent in funding and advocating ‘analogue’ meat and egg products that could replace the real thing. A company like McDonald’s hardly has an ideological attachment to meat and with sufficient demand, and profit, perhaps a happier meal could be conceived.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2013/10/veganism-makes-us-human/)

 

Dining in Dublin: the good, the bad and the inedible

(Lecture delivered in the Little Museum of Dublin, December 2013)

We humans put a lot of store in food and its symbolic value. In fact our picky and refined approach distinguishes us from other primates who tend to retreat into a hidden corner to devour their fare.

But modern technology such as televisions, smart phones and tablets seems to be changing this. The anthropologist Jack Goody is scathing of the modern habit of avoiding social engagement while eating. A solitary form of consumption he says reverses the customary habit of ‘public input and private output’, making eating alone ‘the equivalent of shitting publicly’.

For that reason alone, meals are a crucial component in our lives and it is puzzling that the subject of food tends to be ignored in mainstream history. Although that is changing as historians begin to recognize the crucial importance of this univeral component of all human life. As the great gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote: ‘it is the common bond which unites the nations of the world in reciprocal exchanges of objects serving for daily consumption.’

Indeed, any religious festival or life event that I can think of is marked by a feast or meal of some description. Food is both symbol and nutrition.

It is interesting to consider the origin of the dining table which is ‘descended from the sacrificial altars that were used to make offerings to the gods.’

French sociologist Bernard Kaufmann argues that its presence in the family-home, dating back to the 18th century, helped to produce the modern family, and certainly the arrangement, often hierarchically and in designated positions, of family members around a single table achieves a sense of togetherness that haphazard seating around a room will never achieve. This is played out in almost every restaurant experience.

We turn now to the emergence of the restaurant in eighteenth century France.

Before it gained popularity there was the simple table d’hote where a traiteur would present a large pot to the assembled diners who arrived at the appointed hour. This presented difficulties as agreed conventions were lacking on how diners would participate. The agronomist Arthur Young, travelling around France at the end of the 18th century, bemoaned the rudeness of greedy table-companions in hostelries throughout that country, saying that ‘the ducks were swept clean so quickly that I moved from the table without half a dinner’. An ascending bourgeois class were looking for something more recherché.

The restaurant was originally a place where medicinal broths were consumed and derives its names from the French verb ‘to restore’ or ‘to recuperate’. These originally specialised in medicinal broths.

The bourgeoisie found the experience they sought through the adaptation of the restaurant In her history, The Invention of the Restaurant (2000), Rebecca Sprang recalls how the restaurants of 18th century Paris differentiated themselves from other eateries by offering sustenance at any time of day, allowing for individualised portions in contrast to the traiteurs. Eventually restaurants began to offer more solid fare, thereby encroaching on the traiteurs.

The strict laws regulating the division of business between the different food guilds in France in the 18th century led to friction, culminating in a landmark court case in which the restaurateurs carried the day. This allowed the restaurant-style of eating, ‘characterized not by commonwealth but by compartmentalization’, to emerge as the dominant form of eating-out in the Western world.

Today, European restaurants invariably ‘plate’ each dish before presentation to the individual customer a style known as service a la Russe which replaced the more medieval display of service a la Francaise at the end of the nineteenth century. The elitist quality of the restaurant experience was part of its appeal. Indeed according to Sprang, the ‘restaurant fantasy implicitly required the presence of somebody outside: some poor devil with his nose pressed to the window’.

Thus, for our purposes a restaurant is more than merely an establishment where food is served. It involves the refinements of individual seating and usually separate portions for each individual. It also involves table service. A restaurant is synonymous with French food, though not exclusively. The dominance of French models is definitely apparent in the early history of Dublin restaurants, though this has clearly changed in recent decades.

Apart from the chefs, waiting staff and often indulgent investors, the most important person to a restaurant’s livelihood is the food critic. A bad review can sink a restaurant while praise can bring customers flooding in to the next big thing.

A food critic is also known as a gastronome and the first of this kind was Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière who wrote his Almanach des Gourmands in the wake of the Revolution.

He issued his pronouncements in the name of tradition as a member of the departed ancien regime. The son of a rich farmer-general, in his early life he displayed liberal tendencies but became disillusioned with the new order, condemning ‘everything that is despicable and vile; there in two words you have the Revolution’. He asserts: ‘I will never be the friend of a democrat. It is atrocious that men of letters should think as the majority do today (MacDonogh, 1997, p.203)’. According to his biographer MacDonogh (1987 p.41), he began to write about food after being told to write about something harmless or give up altogether. In this medium he ‘masked his vicious attacks behind harmless idioms’. Gastronomy became a vehicle for his reactionary views. An awareness of ‘good’ food revealed the true aristocrat. After the Revolution he founded what he referred to as a Jury des Degustateurs, and between 1803 and 1812 set about writing his Almanach des Gourmands. The aristocratic display of pre-Revolutionary France could re-emerge in the new forum of the public restaurant.

The gastronome in his most evolved form is not a professional cook. He is a man of letters. His real table is not the one where he eats but the one where he writes. It is with the flourish of the pen that they achieve success rather than through the extent of their knowledge as ultimately the gastronome is not the one who knows the most but the one who speaks best.

Curnonsky, the pen name of the great French food critic Maurice Edmond Sailland who was elected Prince Elect of Gastronomy by Le Soir magazine in 1927 describes the role as follows:

‘There are those who stare with gluttonous resentment, and those who snap impatient fingers at every passing waiter: those who flap huge newspapers in their companions’ faces, and those who shake defiant powder-puffs in their neighbours soup; those who devour bread to repletion, and those who chat so gaily, to the restaurant at large. But there are others, a chosen few who, having developed to a fine degree the study of physiognomy and, coupling this with a skilled pen or pencil, combine their talents in lightning sketches on the tablecloth.’

Pascal Ory poses the question “Does the chef make the gastronome or vice versa?

While it is clear is that culinary evolution is largely independent of gastronomic evaluation, without an audience chefs are unlikely to innovate. Just like if we cook only for ourselves we tend not to perform heroics, a cook without a responsive audience might take a functional approach. But innovation and high standards become an imperative when the food critic is there to evaluate. Even if they have nothing but contempt for the breed, virtuoso chefs usually require the validation of critical approval, and boundaries are only broken when gastronomes are there to describe them as such. More to the point, the imprimatur of the critic brings great rewards. Perhaps unfairly the pen is often mightier than the kitchen knife.

This lecture will thus include a short evaluation of the role of food criticism, restaurant criticism in particular, that elevated the standard of Irish food. Food criticism also serves as a vital primary source for what these Dublin restaurants were like.

Now, turning to the subject matter of the history of Dublin restaurants. What does that conjure in our minds?

I must admit that growing up in a reasonably affluent Dublin household I did not have a huge exposure. We went to restaurants or trattoria when we were on holidays in France or Italy, there might be the odd meal in restaurant like Da Vincenzo for a special occasion or the odd illicit and sometimes regrettable Chinese dinner but there was no recognisable Irish food culture evident in Dublin until the 1990s. Hiberno-French restaurants like Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud’s or Thornton’s were not family restaurants, although somewhere like Roly’s Bistro did create a wider diffusion of French dining habits, albeit at prices that would have excluded most. However, as time went by I did encounter some of the more fashionable restaurants and I even worked in one called Mint whose chef Dylan McGrath became the enfant terrible of the Irish restaurant scene before he became the sympathetic and health-conscious individual we know today: but more of that later.

As you will know Dublin was the second city of the British Empire until end of the eighteenth century. After the Act of Union of 1801 many of the prosperous land owners departed the city and, indeed, by the start of the twentieth century Belfast’s population was greater. But it retained a residual aristocracy and gentry who formed the clientele for the few restaurants that did emerge toward century’s end. However, the absence, into the twentieth century of a significant bourgeois class meant there was little demand for restaurants for those on middling incomes.

It is also perhaps unfortunate for the gastronomic inheritance of this country to be colonised by the English who Voltaire described as being a nation of 42 religions but only two sauces. It is also worth recognising that Ireland was a poor country by European standards in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. The Great Famine was among the most devastating of its kind in human history. Perhaps in response culinary celebration was muted.

There were of course places where food was purchased and consumed prior to the emergence of restaurants; many French chefs had already emigrated to Ireland to work in aristocratic households and gentlemen’s clubs by the time the first recognisable restaurant emerged in Dublin in 1861.

The Café du Paris on Lincoln Place was intriguingly linked to a Turkish baths on the same premises. They advertised both dinners ‘a la carte and table d’hote; choicest wines and liqueurs of all kinds, [and] Ices.

Any history of Dublin restaurants must linger longingly in the shadow of the legendary Jammet’s which was founded by two brothers from the Pyrennes Michel and Francois Jammet in 1901. They purchased the Burlington Restaurant and Oyster Saloon on Andrew’s Street in 1901 and renamed it Jammet’s.

Michel had been chef to the lord lieutenant so knew all about what appealed to the aristocracy whose descendents continued to patronise the establishment until its demise in 1967.

In 1908 Francois Jammet returned to Paris leaving his brother in sole charge until 1927 when he handed the reigns to his Belvedere educated son Louis. By that time it had moved to Nassau Street to the site of the Porterhouse Central where you can bop the night away. We can only imagine how Jammet’s illustrious patrons would feel about that.

One observer from the 1940s describes the interior of the restaurant: ‘the main dining room was pure French second Empire, with a lovely faded patina to the furniture, snow white linens, well cut crystal, monogrammed porcelain, gourmet sized silver-plated cutlery and gleaming decanters.’ It was the hangout for artists and the literary set such as W.B. Yeats and the Michael MacLiommar and Dudley Edwards as well as wealthy professionals and men of commerce.

The family first lived in Queen’s Park, Monkstown but moved to the sixteenth century Kill Abbey in the 1940s. There vegetables were grown for the restaurant a home grown philosophy that we are seeing increasingly in Dublin restaurant’s today.

A 1928 article in Vogue describes Jammet’s as ‘one of Europe’s best restaurants … crowded with gourmets and wits, where the sole and the grouse was divine.’

It was during the years of the Second World War that Jammet’s really came into its own as being the location for the ‘finest French cooking between the fall of France and the liberation of Paris.’ Like other Irish restaurants Jammet’s managed to evade restrictive rationing and serve customers the fare they were accustomed to.

According to one observer ‘American servicemen, cigar-chomping and in full uniform, were streaming across the neutral border to sample the fabulous food in the prodigious quantities available here.’

If Jammet’s was the location for Allied excess another long-established restaurant the Red Bank was the place of Axis intrigue. On April 22nd 1939 the German colony in Ireland celebrated the birthday of Adolf Hitler there. The Irish Times records: ‘A large portrait of Herr Hitler occupied special position in the special decorations. On either side of it were swastikas and every guest wore a swastika or Nazi party badges.’

Disturbingly in May 1940 as the Nazis Blitzkrieged through Europe, the ‘Irish Friends of Germany’ (aka the National Club) held a meeting in the restaurant that was attended by 50 people. George Griffin, veteran anti-Semite and ex Blueshirt, spoke on the subject of the ‘The Jewish Stranglehold on Ireland’. Griffin mentioned many Jews by name and went onto advocate that ‘… we should never pass a Jew on the street without openly insulting him’.

But Jewish émigrés were themselves involved in the restaurant trade and could dish out their own retribution. It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold but for Austrian Jews Erwin and Lisl Strunz from Vienna it could be salty too.

They escaped from Vienna in 1938 and purchased a premises on Merrion Row which they called the Unicorn. They bought it for a song as Irish people thought the premises was haunted because W.B. Yeats had conducted séances there.

Lisl would cook her mainly Austrian dishes while Erwin entertained at the front of house. He reminisced ‘during Christmas 1940 when all the lights had gone out over Europe I played my guitar in the restaurant and sang Christmas carols and folk songs in eight languages.

But not all comers were welcome. When Edouard Hempel and his acolytes from the German legation visited Erwin became apoplectic with rage. But he kept his wits about him and calmly took their orders. Before each plates was delivered he doused each one with enough salt to clear a frosty driveway. Hempel nearly choked and the whole table walked out and never returned.

After the war the Unicorn was sold to an Italian family the Sidoli’s and it brought exotic ingredients like pasta to its Dublin clientele. It also involved females chefs which was unusual for the male dominated profession in Dublin.

Another immigrant who came to Ireland to work in the restaurant trade was Zenon Geldof a Belgian citizen who set up a restaurant called Café Belge. His grandson Bob retained an ambition to feed the world.

Steeped in the haute cuisine tradition of Escoffier Jammet’s continued to prosper after the war when it was joined by other restaurants including The Russell. Mac Con Iomaire argues that on a per capita basis in the 1950s Ireland was the gastronomic capital of the British Isles. Although this may not have been that big an achievement as by the 1950s English food has reached a nadir. Elizabeth David wrote of her experience in one English restaurant of the time: ‘there was no excuse, none, for such unspeakably unpleasant meals as in that dining room were put in front of me. To my agonized homesickness for the sun and southern food was added an embattled rage that we should be asked – and should accept – the endurance of such cooking.’

Standards do not appear to have been that much higher in Ireland. One chef working at that time recalls: ‘The standard of cuisine when I was 14,15,16,-20 was poor. It was very poor. For instance the Clarence Hotel, they used to have pig cheeks on and the clergy used to come in and eat them. Pigs cheeks, and damn it all you’d get was corned beef or some bloody thing.’

Another chef was shocked when he entered one hotel kitchen: ‘It was horrible, it was the dirtiest and filthiest kitchen I had been in my whole life. I don’t know how anyone got away with it! … there were stalagmites of big black fat all around on the floor.’

This may have been because there was no serious critique of Irish restaurants until as late as the 1980s. Farmar suggests that an absolute rule among the Irish middle class in the 1960s was never to talk about food: ‘to enjoy eating as such was unbecoming to a serious person’. He quotes an American commentator who claimed cooking in Ireland was: ‘a necessary chore rather than an artistic ceremony and that in restaurants ‘nine out of ten ordered steak every time with nine out of ten ordering chips with it’(1991: 180-182).

But Dublin certainly did have fine dining establishments that were considered among the best in the world. The Russell was one of only eight restaurants that received three stars from Egon Ronay in 1963. In 1965 he wrote: ‘words fail us in describing the brilliance of the cuisine and the elegant and luxurious restaurant which must rank amongst the best in the world.’

Declan Ryan describes his time working there:

‘They [the Russell] were the greatest shower that God ever made. They fought like devils and they cooked like angels … I don’t think you’d get away with the sort of tactics he must have used on those guys today, but they could cook like magic.’

Egon Ronay was also bewitched by the retro glamour of Jammet’s ‘As if by magic the turn of the century as been fully preserved beyond the swing of the door … Space, grace, the charm of small red leather armcahairs, fin-de-siecle murals and marble oyster counters exude a bygone age. Ritz and Escoffier would feel at home here.’

But Jammet’s was not cheap. When John Lennon dined there in the early 1960s he drew a self-portrait and commented ‘the other three are saving up to come here’.

But by the end of the 1960s Dublin was changing as many of the old ascendancy who had been the patrons of restaurants like Jammets were dying out, and moreover, structural changes were occurring as an emerging bourgeois moved to suburban homes where they acquired motor cars. This jeopardised city centre establishments like Jammet’s which did not have parking facilities and it closed its doors in 1967. Unfortunately its hope of moving out to the suburbs to another premises was not realised. A form of obituary was written in the Irish Times from 1967 read:

‘The Dublin that most of know is changing. In some ways for the best; but in the process so much that gave its special character to the city has been allowed to rot or has been swept away. Rumours that Jammet’s was for sale fitted into the sad story …  it was as old as the oldest Dubliner and it represented the best of its kind when there were much fewer restaurants than it boasts today … Many who read the news of the sale of the restaurant here and abroad will be oppressed with nostalgic regret … M. Jammet [was] formerly chef to Lord Cadogan when the last but one of the expansive Viceroys returned to England. For 67 years Dublin has had evidence of how well that pro-consul did himself and his guests.’

The decade of the 1970s with its high oil prices and wealth taxes dealt a series of body blows to high class Dublin restaurants and emphasised what a precarious enterprise it is. It is instructive that only five restaurants Beaufield Mews (1950), The Unicorn (1938 but moved premises in 1960), Nicos (1964), The Lord Edward (1969) and the Trocadero (1956) date back to before the 1970s.

The 1970s witnessed a swing in gastronomic gravity to County Cork where restaurants like Arbutus Lodge, and Ballylickey and Ballymalloe houses pioneered a locavore approach that brought critical acclaim.

But Dublin still had some famous, some would say notorious, restaurants at this time many of them associated with Charles J. Haughey who despite a ‘flawed pedigree’ was a more devoted gastronome than his political rival Garret FitzGerald who claimed to eat no vegetables bar peas and white asparagus.

The appeal of these haute cuisine restaurants lay in their exclusivity, the sense that when one dined there one entered an elite world where money was no object. One restaurateur of the time was taken by surprise by the demand for fine wine: ‘They were drinking vintage port by the bottle, they were drinking 1952 brandy or Armagnac by the glass and we were just staggered.’

Perhaps this can be explained by how in an era of brown envelopes restaurant bills could always be paid for in cash.

The Mirabeau (1972-1984) in Sandycove will always be associated with its celebrit chef patron Sean Kinsella who drove a Rolls Royce and wore Louis Copeland suits. He counted Haughey as a friend and attended Christmas parties in Kinsealy, Haughey’s mansion home. Kinsella chose not to trouble prospective diners by putting prices on his menus, warning them ‘you can get by on £10 per head in The Mirabeau, but if you have to worry about the prices don’t go there.’

Kinsella describes how his restaurant operated:

‘the waiters would take the food in, in its natural state, and then I’d come in, and I’d say Mr Smith you are having your usual wine’ and he’d say: ‘oh yes Sean’ , the bloke wouldn’t know what I was talking about, but around the table, they would be saying ‘oh, yer man is a regular here’ It was psychological, now I was not going to give him a bottle of plonk and he’s not going to worry if he pays fifty or a hundred pounds for it if he is able to reciprocate the treatment that he got abroad. And then you get the other side of the coin, a chap phones me up and says to me ‘I hope to get engaged tonight’ and I say no problem come around eight, and he says there is only one problem, my fiancé and I only eat burgers’, and I say no problem, so they arrived and I told the waiter ‘don’t give them the menu, give them a bit of melon, and the main course, and give them a bit of dinner. And in the visitors book, he wrote ‘she said, yes’, and wrote ‘I’ll remember the burger’

[We might contrast this approach with the response of one famous chef to the request for a plate of chips.]

[(Optional) Kinsella continues:

‘We made people feel that they were coming into somebody’s home, either Audrey would meet them or I’d meet them … If you were there at two or three in the morning, the chairs were not being put up on the tables around you and would you mind paying your bill at the reception … We built up a relationship with customers, and if we knew a man’s wife was having a baby, Audrey would go down to St. Michael’s … with a bunch of flowers and a bottle of champagne.]

Others were less impressed by the vulgarity of the large portions on offer and unfortunately for Kinsella the revenue commissioners may not been impressed by his rather opaque financial dealings. The restaurant went into voluntary liquidation in 1984.

Another restaurant associated with CJ was The Coq Hardi (1977) on Pembroke Road. It drew its custom from an emerging corporate class and boasted a wine cellar which was voted the best in Britain and Ireland in the Egon Ronay guide at one point. This was an excellent business strategy as wealthy customers could entertain clients with stupendously expensive bottles wines which would be put on expense accounts.

The Moriarty tribunal revealed in 1999 that Haughey accumulated huge bills at the Coq Hardi that came out of the public purse, including one year when £15,000 was spent from the ‘Leader’s Allowance’ in the restaurant.

At one point the former Taoiseach spent £500 on a bottle of 1967 Chateau d’Yquem when dining with a group of guests, who included the wine critic of a major British newspaper.

An ‘apocryphal’ story emerged about CJ treating his Cabinet to dinner at Le Coq Hardi. The then Taoiseach chose beef as his main course and when the waiter asked him “And the vegetables, sir?”, he is said to have replied: “They’ll have the same.”

But a new broom was sweeping through the Dublin restaurant scene at this time in the shape of an acerbic restaurant critic called Helen Lucy Burke.

We have discussed the importance of the critic in improving standards, and also providing critical approval for unnoticed chefs. The culinary standards of Dublin restaurants were not high in the 1970s and 1980s: it was common practice for even expensive restaurants to plate vegetables before service and microwave them when required.

Dublin restaurant did not have to endure informed and sustained criticism until Burke’s arrival on the scene. She began writing for the Sunday Tribune in 1985 and later in Magil magazine.

According to one chef of that time: ‘Lucy Burke was writing and she was causing such mayhem that people began to take notice … She was the one that really led. A lot followed you know.’

Burke recalls that she used to have to wear disguises and put on foreign accents to avoid detection. A legendary article in Magill entitled The Peacock, the Critic and the Blind Pussy revealed how even a successful chef like Conrad Gallagher could fret over Burke’s caustic pen. [the blind pussy in case you are wondering refers to the critic’s pet for whom a doggy bag was requested].

She described the offering in one restaurant in the following terms: ‘my plain green salad was tired before I started to eat it and I too became tired and left it … [while] the toast melba was like damp cardboard.

But she would praise restaurants she felt deserved it, describing one encounter as an ‘exquisite event’ and even thanking God for another restaurant she could conscientiously praise.

A favourable review could have customers streaming through the door and her words were used to advertise establishments in newspapers.

One devotee of Burke’s was CJ himself who apparently put a lot of store in Burke’s appraisals. He once met her at a party and told her that he always went to the restaurants she favourably reviewed.

When Conrad Gallagher (whose real name is Patrick – he took the name Conrad from the famous hotelier Conrad Hilton) opened Peacock Alley in 1995 he had most critics gushing with praise.

His fusion cooking breathed life into the Dublin restaurant scene. He rejected the city’s gastronomic inheritance just as many people were beginning to reject stifling Catholic morality; it is perhaps no coincidence that the right to divorce was passed in a referendum the same year his restaurant opened.

He said: ‘I use light Mediterranean style ingredients like pepper, basil, olive oil and garlic. I don’t like using cream or butter or heavy sauces. I also use Californian ingredients like rocket salad.

But Gallagher’s demise when his financial affairs and hedonism caused his restaurant to come a cropper was perhaps a foretaste for the future demise of the wider economy.

Another restaurant that suffered at the end of the boom was the new Unicorn. The Unicorn was to the noughties what Jammet’s was to the 1930s, the place where the great and good assembled, including literary demi-gods like Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel. Although the standard of its food does not seem to have reached the level of its illustrious predecessor.

Barry Egan wrote a farewell article in 2011

‘Friday afternoons on the terrace of the Unicorn that edged woozily into the evenings became something of an established ritual — Bill Clinton could even turn up — as he did last year. It was all about the interaction between the group. Friends at one table were sometimes joined by others, who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group. There would always be a model or two, a pop star, a visiting dignitary playing out their role on the stage that was the Unicorn. On a good night, and there were many good nights, it was like a rollicking Noel Coward play at the Gate.’

I should add that the restaurant has re-opened under new management.

A restaurant I was intimately familiar with was Mint Restaurant in Ranelagh where I worked for an unforgettable week in 2006. A few months later after the restaurant secured a Michelin star and its chef Dylan McGrath had come to national prominence after a TV show called Pressure Cooker showed him in action I published an account of my time there for the Sunday Tribune.

I wrote: ‘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

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.’

It is hard to chart the future of restaurants in Dublin. There is less appetite for expensive dining but there is at last a discernible middle market and a good array of ethnic offerings. It remains a very tough business with high turnover. Often it is a labour of love or even a vanity project. The history of Dublin restaurants shows how volatile the market is.

There is also a lot more critical appraisal of Dublin restaurants in all major publications and now, increasingly, online. The issue of food is covered more and more in the media as we explore issues like sustainability, provenance, human health and animal welfare.

One exotic trend that we see emerging is an appetite for raw and plant-based food, a further move away from Escoffier orthodoxy. Dublin actually had its first vegetarian restaurant in 1908 but recent years have seen an increasing demand for more healthy offerings. Dublin now has its first fully raw and vegan restaurant Sseduced in Temple Bar.

We have also witnessed the emergence of pop up restaurants that come and go in the space of a few days. One such is called Living Dinners run by Katie Sanderson. It offers a completely raw menu to its patrons including dishes including a living lasagne made with a pistachio pesto and a cashew nut cream cheese. The customer’s of Jammet’s might baulk at that!

But the dynamism and short-lived nature of the restaurant trade means that new ideas will emerge especially as tastes change. And even if the restaurants don’t stick around the appetite for the food will. It’s amazing to think that rocket was exotic in 1995. Now you’d find it in your local Spar.

We now want to know where ingredients come from and increasingly we want to feel restored by the experience of going out for a meal. This brings us back to the original meaning of a restaurant. The excess of haute cuisine is no longer universally desired and we prefer a more affordable version of the restaurant experience where there are less poor devils were their noses pressed against the window.

Excess and hedonism is increasingly reserved for the Christmas jumper brigade.

Happy Christmas everybody.

(http://www.eventbrite.ie/e/the-dublin-lectures-2013-tickets-5179820984)

Environmentalists in Denial

(published in thejournal.ie 1/10/13)

George Monbiot wrote an article recently opposing a campaign to turn England’s Lake District into a World Heritage site (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/02/lake-district-wildlife-desert-blame-wordsworth). He says we should not celebrate a landscape where ‘the forests that once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green’; by the “white plague” he means sheep which have devoured the woodland native to this site.

He dismisses the description of “a harmonious development of interactions between people and their environment” cited by supporters, despite his admiration for Romantic poets like Wordsworth who eulogized that landscape. He argues convincingly that: ‘Farming has done more extensive damage to wildlife and habitats than all the factories ever built’.

This reminded me of an exchange I had in the Burren in County Clare last year with an environmentalist friend who spoke in glowing terms of the interaction there between pastoral farmers practising transhumance and the craterous landscape which has given rise to a variety of flora not observed in other locations.

But for much of the Burren summit vegetation is deciduous forest, of which little remains due to centuries of pastoral farming. At least a small cluster of hazel trees lie around a grotto associated with Saint Colman, and one can see why the holy man sought the sheltered space below the canopy for prayer and contemplation. Alas, in most of the Burren hazel saplings are removed to make way for cattle, ensuring the landscape remains desolate.

It seems there is little to distinguish between the damage wrought by pastoral farming in the Lake District, and its impact on the Burren.

Indeed, despite a reputation for being a wild landscape the island of Ireland has actually experienced extreme modification to its natural habitats since the arrival of human farming. Prior to this the island was almost entirely wooded with climax vegetation of elm/hazel oak/hazel and pine in upland regions. According to Frank Mitchell in Reading the Irish Landscape: ‘from about five thousand years ago when the first tree-felling axes made woodland clearance possible man’s hands have borne down ever more heavily on the Irish landscape’. Insatiable demand for fresh grazing lands in particular left us with a mere 12% of our woodland by the 1400s.

It seems to me there is a blind spot among environmentalist who harp on about the dangers of climate change but fail to acknowledge the hugely important contribution of domesticated animals. A 2009 study by Goodland and Anhang found this responsible for a shocking 51% of anthropogenic global greenhouse gases emitted, far more than the 18% estimated in the 2003 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow.

Reducing global livestock numbers would be far simpler than converting to a renewable energy infrastructure which would take at least 20 years and cost $18 trillion to develop according to Goodland:  http://www.chompingclimatechange.org/1/post/2013/09/greenwashing-by-the-un-food-and-agriculture-organization.html.

The government’s recent Climate Change Bill 2013 targets an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. This would leave total annual emissions at 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent. But agriculture alone currently accounts for 19 million tonnes. That means with everything else reduced to zero, we would still need to substantially reduce the national herd. Unlike cars, it is not possible to engineer energy-efficient livestock.

Further, the emissions of Irish agriculture do not account for the carbon sequester that could occur through reforestation which would also provide significant resources for generations to come and restore lost habitats.

Irish farming is concerned overwhelmingly with the raising of cattle for beef and dairy. There are 6.8 million cattle in Ireland and a mere 8% of agricultural land is devoted to tillage, mostly crops for livestock consumption. A tiny proportion of the fruit and vegetables available in Irish shops are grown here, and we have no exports to speak of.

Ireland has the capacity to produce a lot more food on less land. Consider that prior to the Famine, without using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides it was possible for 3 million inhabitants to eek out a living on 1 million acres of land, often in marginal locations, out of a total potential farming area of 20 million acres. I don’t suggest that the population lives entirely on potatoes but it illustrates the crop yields possible from Irish soil.

There is growing recognition that we need to increase the level of tree cover which at approximately 10% is one of the lowest in the EU. Opposition spokesman Eamon O Cuiv has advocated that farmland owned by NAMA should be converted to forestry (http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/fianna-f%C3%A1il-opposes-coillte-merger-with-bord-na-m%C3%B3na-1.1541652): an initiative that NAMA to Nature, a group I was involved in, began almost a year and a half ago! http://www.thejournal.ie/nama-to-nature-why-we-are-planting-trees-on-ghost-estates-384378-Mar2012/

The long-term economics of livestock farming in most of Ireland simply do not add up. Despite CAP payments of €2.39 billion, a mere 37% of Irish farms are economically viable with 58% of their incomes derived from the Single Farm Payment last year. For beef farmers it amounted to a worrying 80% of income, and 33% of dairy farmers’.

It is often argued in favour of Irish farming that we earn €9 billion in export revenue through it but we also import €5 billion worth of food to one of Europe’s most rural societies. A combination of import substitution, export alternatives and domestic growing initiatives as well as more attractive landscapes for tourism could make up lost jobs and revenue. We could grow many more crops for the home market by changing our subsidy regime, developing labour-intensive horticulture and raising public health in the process.

The psychology of why many environmentalists do no question our present models of food production may reside in a deep attachment to animal products. This even afflicts climate scientists who should now better. James E. McWilliams states: ‘I can understand climate scientists flying in airplanes to conferences or driving cars to work, because they don’t have the time to walk or bike the distance. But I cannot understand climate scientists deliberately choosing to put meat and other animal foods in their mouths when there are perfectly good, low-impact, plant-based alternatives widely available in every corner of the globe.’ [http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=2760]

The excuse of eating locally ignores that we subsidize certain types of food despite their egregious environmental impact. Studies have shown that food miles are a small percentage of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with food.[http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0602-ucsc_liaw_food_miles.html#UJvSaCr7ghPZfbCC.99]

The terrible beauty of the Burren landscape serves as a warning for the consequences of intensive grazing. The rest of Ireland should take note. Mitigating climate change and habitat loss is reason enough to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.

 

A Recipe for World Vegetarian Day

 

Nut and Seed Roast

Serves: 8

Preparation time approximately 40 minutes

8 ounces (225 grams) of cooked millet (breadcrumbs can be used instead – rye bread works best)

4 ounces (115 grams) of ground seeds (mixture of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and linseed)

4 ounces (115 grams) of ground nuts (mixture of peanuts, cashews, hazelnuts and blanched almonds).

1 tbs of tamari sauce (or soya sauce)

½ teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of nutritional yeast fortified with vitamin B12 (optional)

1 leek (finely chopped)

Mixed herbs, dried or fresh e.g. tarragon, oregano, basil, herbs de provence (finely chopped)

1 cup of water (between 200 and 250 ml)

1 tbs of rapeseed oil or other oil appropriate for frying

Directions

  1. Take one cup of millet and put in a saucepan over a low heat for approximately 5-10 minutes, taking care for it not to burn by stirring regularly.
  2. Add 2 cups of water to the millet and bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes by which time all the water should be absorbed.
  3. Wash a leek by cutting a line down the top and run it under a tap to get the dirt out from inside. Remove any parts that are going bad along with the root at the base.
  4. Finely chop the leek and saute over a low heat for about 10 minutes (do this while the millet is cooking)
  5. Finely chop the herbs.
  6. Measure out the millet and put in a bowl along with the ground seeds and nuts, herbs, tamari, water, leek, salt and nutritional yeast and mix thoroughly.
  7. Transfer the mixture into a baking tin, making a smooth top with a spatula (you can decorate the top with a few cherry tomatoes if you like)
  8. Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 180 degrees, or until well-browned.
  9. Cut into 8 portions.
  10. Serve with a sugar-free tomato relish, potato salad, the remainder of the millet and a green salad.
  11. Multiply the ingredients by two or three and freeze a quantity.

(http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/world-vegetarian-day-climate-change-domesticated-animals-1108748-Oct2013/)