Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over a number of years I covered the media reporting on this issue for Village Magazine. An instructive example came from an RTE Drivetime report from Wednesday, 2nd of October in 2013 about the connection between livestock and climate change. It began with presenter Mary Wilson stating: ‘A UN report (‘Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock’) on the contribution of livestock to greenhouse gas emissions has been rubbished as misleading and outdated by JBS, the world’s largest producer of beef.’

In the first instance it would surely be customary to begin with a commentary on the findings of the UN report, rather than the response of an industry representative. There followed a four-minute interview in which Countrywide’s Damien O’Reilly questioned Gerry O’Callaghan the chief Executive of JBS, a Brazilian company heavily implicated in the destruction of rainforests. O’Callaghan was allowed to question the veracity of the report and impugn the credibility of its ‘out of touch, ‘academic’ authors.

O’Callaghan claimed de-forestation was ‘being managed really well’, and ‘only a fraction of it is associated with the meat industry’; claims environmentalists vigorously contest. He went on to claim that the research used in the report was ‘out of date’, and that the industry was making ‘great strides’ in reducing its footprint.

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

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

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

Responding to the then FG-Labour government’s Climate Change Bill Harry McGee wrote in the Irish Times on February 26, 2013: ‘The Government argument is that an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 means annual emissions of 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent, for everything. But agriculture alone accounts for 19 million tonnes at present. That means if everything else was reduced to zero, Ireland would still need to substantially reduce the amount of food produced, or dramatically cull national herds.’

He followed: ‘That is not a feasible solution, practically or politically, it is argued.’ The use of the passive voice tells us what we need to know: unspoken influences prevent deviations from a dominant line. The media bears a level of responsibility for the Irish state facing hundreds of millions in EU fines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Vegans to Farmers: Let’s Communicate

Vegans to Farmers: Let’s Communicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise of Hemp

In Praise of Hemp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reforming Our Food Culture

Reforming Our Food Culture

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

Stuffed and Starved

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

The Green Revolution

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

Pre-domesticated Varieties

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

Food Sovereignty

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

Shifting Diets

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

Peasant Food Myths

Peasant Food Myths

(Spectator Scoff, January 2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Week Working in Mint ended my love affair with food

One Week Working in Mint ended my love affair with food

Sunday Tribune February 10th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

file:///C:/Users/Frank%20Armstrong/Pictures/Mint.pdf

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/)

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)