Sport offers mythology for our time.

Sport offers mythology for our time.

Across the world, every week, millions of men and women descend on stadia in homage to sporting spectacles. Countless others, of all ages, slouch before TV sets, and even squint into smartphones to satisfy a compulsive appetite, which I know too well. In Ireland we have a particular grá for team sports, as participants but mostly as viewers, or even as virtual participants, with the advent of video games.

The rewards for sportsmen, in particular, are stupendous, but the inequalities increasingly stark. For all the heroes receiving the adulation of the assembled masses, there are countless others left on an unforgiving scrapheap, sometimes even injured for life by the ruthless demands of their professions.

The popularity of sport as entertainment stretches far back into history, of Europe in particular. The gathering of crowds for sporting occasions was a feature of societies during Classical Antiquity, where spectacles were linked to religious worship. Dedicated to Zeus, the Panhellenic Olympics of Ancient Greece ran from 776BC until 393AD, attracting participants from all the Greek cities, affirming a collective identity in the process. Today the divine survives as sporting metaphor.

Later, Ancient Romans were fanatically devoted to circus, involving gladiatorial duels to the death, to which the impressive ruins of the Colosseum attest. It was the poet Juvenela (d.c. AD100) who witheringly identified bread and circus as the means by which the political temper of his countrymen was becalmed.

On a less impressive scale, sport continued as an important feature of life in medieval Europe, where knights tested their valour in vainglorious jousts, often for the edification of damsels. Moreover, an obsession with hunting, steeped in ritual rather than necessity, was also evident among those at the apex of the feudal pyramid. Pursuit of animals was not motivated by their utility as food, still referred to, revealingly, as ‘game’: its consumption conferred a status beyond gastronomic pleasure. The hunt habituated men to the sight of bloodshed, and the thrill of the kill.

Pre-modern sports bore a close resemblance to warfare, and the conditioning of a participant overlapped significantly with a warrior’s training. Tests of physical prowess such as wrestling – advantageous on the battlefield – have long been popular, but also skills such as archery, or javelin, drawn directly from warfare or hunting. An audience could experience the thrill of battle without risking dismemberment; lurid passions sublimated in the gruesome spectacle. Whether this appreciation whetted or becalmed a thirst for blood is debatable.

George Orwell assumed the worst claiming: ‘sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will’. But to deny the pleasure that an audience derives seems curmudgeonly, and sport is often a source of community in otherwise lonely circumstances, that need not depend on antipathy towards the opponent. Such animosities as do arise may express underlying tensions; as when Hooliganism in Britain came to prominence after Thatcherism ripped apart the social fabric of that society.

The nineteenth century incubated most of the world’s sport in Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began in earnest. There, mass attendance of sporting events by a new working class originates. Stadiums that could accommodate tens of thousands sprang up in fast-growing cities to satisfy a new-found appetite for weekend leisure activities. During the nineteenth century in Britain we find the codification of sports such as Football, Cricket, Rugby (Union and League), tennis, and field hockey all of which now have a global reach. We also see games such as golf, and motor racing emerging in more rarefied circles. Interesting, it is mainly in the Anglosphere that alternative sports emerged to confront the British invasion; in the United States, basketball, American football, baseball and ice hockey; while in Ireland the GAA developed its own distinctive codes. This demonstrates the importance of sport as a source of identity in an English-speaking world where other culture markers, such as gastronomic appreciation, were less marked. In James Joyce’s Ulysses the character of the Cyclops is generally identified with the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack, who spouts the xenophobic bile Orwell would expect. It is striking that most non-English-speaking countries have had far less compunction about absorbing originally British sports into their culture.

The popular sports in our time depart from Classical and medieval precedent – notwithstanding the revival of the Olympics in 1896 – in the skills demanded of the participants. Although most contemporary sports still require serious athleticism, their skill set would be of no particular use to a soldier, especially one engaged in modern, technological warfare; perhaps a gamer might be more useful. Nonetheless, modern sport remains tinged with martial fervour, accessing, and perhaps controlling, that primal instinct to compete and, for men especially, to discuss the competition. Orwell opines that: ‘At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare’, but in the 1940s when he wrote most men, unlike today, had military training and were simply reverting to type when they took to the field.

Confrontations are not as anarchic in most sports as they once were. Even in the 1970s a high profile rugby match could easily descend into an all-out brawl involving every player on the pitch, as with the British and Irish Lions notorious ‘99’ call against South Africa. Most sporting authorities now clamp down heavily on violence that is not permitted within the rules of the game, and the television camera makes it difficult for serial offenders to escape detection.

The demonic ‘Judge’ Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s blood-stained novel Blood Meridan (1985) describes war as ‘the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence’. He proposes that:

Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them.

Indeed, the higher the stakes, the more gripping a sporting fixture becomes, and the worth of the participant may be defined by his success or failure at crucial moments. But ‘the Judge’ is correct only to a point. Sport is never a zero sum game as a crowd will also honour a team or individual who loses with good grace, and sport is not simply about victory; ‘greatness’ is also measured by how a loser conducts himself in defeat. Moreover, cheats that betray the Corinthian spirit of fair play and endeavour to win at any cost are generally loathed. Users of banned substances in particular are treated as latter-day devils.

As we enter a phase of history when a capacity to kill another human being is, thankfully, rarely called on, sporting traditions have developed a scale of excellence individual to themselves, albeit atavistic tendencies still lurk in their appreciation. It is striking that Carl Jung regarded games as being of the utmost importance to the wellbeing of societies. He said that ‘civilisations at their most complete moments … always brought out in man his instinct to play and made it more inventive’. Sport, he proffered, connects us to our ‘instinctive selves’.

Ancient epics, the Greek Iliad, Odyssey and Roman Aeneid all feature games as an essential ‘heroic’ expression. In the Iliad after the funeral of his comrade Patroclus, Achilles offers prizes to competitors in a number of events. The first is the chariot race in which Diomedes emerges as the victor. Afterwards Achilles reveals his sympathies for Eumelus whose chariot fell apart due to the intervention of the goddess Athena, saying: ‘The best driver of the lot has come in last. Let us give him a prize for it is only fair. Make it the second, for of course Diomedes came in first.’ But this only leads to disputes among other participants, who then have to be mollified by Achilles. Throughout the games we see resentments boiling over into disputes requiring mediation. This might lead to the conclusion that our “instinctive selves” should, insofar as possible, be kept in check. But by avoiding sport altogether do we risk such instincts emerging in fields where resentments can less easily be contained?

Sporting success can raise the morale of a whole society, such as Ireland’s after the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The connection that people many feel with a team or individual should, therefore, not be dismissed lightly. Even in defeat, fans can summon a spirit of togetherness that is not necessarily oppositional. It is not clear that defeat diminishes morale to the extent that victory raises it. As JFK said: Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.

The popularity of sports is often attributed to the decline of religious worship, but the religious side to sport has not faded entirely – the homage is to an ideal of bravery, self-sacrifice and togetherness, virtues often associated with spiritual traditions.

Moreover, with lives increasingly sedentary and indoor, sport returns us to the idea of a challenge that is based on an athletic skill that is both a natural gift, and the product of training. The audience is also mesmerised by the mental dimensions to any game, pitting their wits against the likelihood of an outcome, and plotting how a team or individual might triumph or fail. It can also be the subject of discussion between strangers leading to camaraderie, rather than conflict.

Sport has become a stronghold for mythology at a time when the fantastical, and even the religious, operate on the margins of a generally rational culture. Commentators are given free rein to extemporise, and journalists rhapsodise, about the divine characteristics of participants. We bow before sporting gods, satisfying a generally latent desire for non-rational explanation, and even attribute occurrences to supernatural interference; deus ex machina. Commentators, unencumbered by the usual constraints imposed on ‘serious’ reporting, vent superstitions and casually avert to magical qualities. ‘Legends’ gleam from the gilded pens of lead writers.

This enhances the appeal of ‘titanic’ battles, but sadly we are, increasingly, lured by the theatre from examination of the vexed political questions of our time. Juvenal’s concern finds a clear contemporary echo: ‘The People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.’

The former manager of Liverpool Football Club Bill Shankly (1913-81) may have been speaking somewhat tongue in cheek when he said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’, but he identified a prevailing obsession that had become the stuff of transcendence. It was fitting, then, that when the current manager of Manchester United F.C. Jose Mourinho (b.1963-) arrived in British football to manage Chelsea F.C. he chose to present himself as the ‘Special One’. For a time the confidence trick worked and he carried all before him, helped in small part by the unprecedented patronage of a Russian billionaire.

Sporting occasions now offer an outlet for Dionysian exuberance in lives increasingly constrained by social conventions. In what other arena of life can a grown man scream and shout with unrestrained fervour? Or dance half-naked arm-in-arm with fellow fans? Attendance imports a communal sense of belonging, evident in the crowd at an enormous stadium, and among transnational fans of football ‘clubs’. Support for a national team also affirms a sense of belonging to what Benedict Anderson described as the ‘imagined community’ of the nation.

The medium is, no doubt, the message. The collapse of distance achieved by televisual communication allows individuals, often living thousands of mile apart from their heroes to connect with one another. This process is accelerated in the era of the Internet where streaming bypasses the traditional providers. Furthermore, debates rage in the comments sections below articles and video clips.

Sporting spectacles fill an imaginative void as mythological themes are played out in real time. The truly great teams, it is said, are those that learn from defeat, just as the heroes of epic returns from the trial of Hades the wiser. We also encounter the tragedy of the flawed hero whose indiscretions are captured by the ravenous paparazzi, and often taken as a wider symbol of the failings of youth, or of the insidious foreigner.

Yes we can have too much of a good thing, and our attention to sports has now reached pathological intensity. Slick marketing has moved an instinctive pleasure into a compulsive and easily-satisfied desire; sports footage operates in a way similar to how pornography substitutes for what is real. In particular, the multi-billion euro football industry uses every opportunity to lure child and adult alike into purchasing television channels, and merchandise that is gaudily flaunted. More troubling is the expansion of online gambling that distorts further the relationship with the spectacle.

Young men are now paid unconscionable fortunes to play games, many would happily participate in for much less, or nothing at all. Televised sport used to inspire kids to imitate their heroes, now with gaming technology they don’t have to leave their couches, and assume their form on the screen; just as the obesity pandemic gathers pace.

The appeal of sport extends beyond the plebeian masses who seek bread and circus. Rupert Murdoch recognised long ago that sport would act as a ‘battering ram’ for his pay TV, an example most newspapers have followed. Sports coverage underpins the Neoliberal zeitgeist by providing an alternative, apolitical, space with elements of tragedy and farce; villains and saviours; loyalty and betrayal.

Latent passions are evoked through metaphors such as the ‘trench warfare’ of a tight contest or the ‘phoney war’ of a friendly fixture; ‘citadels’ are ‘stormed’, and where ‘no quarter is given’; along with specifically supernatural ideas such as ‘demons’ being ‘exorcised’. Stress is laid on the grandeur and importance of the events unfolding, and too much of our lives – mine included – are absorbed by these duels.

With the degree of psychic energy devoted to the affairs of the circus, it is hardly surprising that political involvement is increasingly the province of the paid-up professional, and that the percentage of the electorate voting has declined precipitously. Now politics, including elections, is explained by analogy with sport: as when the leader of the Irish Green Party was told he was playing senior hurling now by a member of Fianna Fail, after his party entered government. This widespread obsession is barely questioned by a media that feed on the fervour, or by politicians who feel compelled to display their colours, and appear as ordinary guys. Nevertheless, sportsmen can use their profile to alter prejudices, and even lead protests such as recently in the NFL, where players demonstrated their ill-will towards President Trump by kneeling during the US anthem. Moreover, at least today sports are no longer seen as preparation for war.

Green should mean Red

Green should mean Red

The leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan has written an article for Village Magazine on the origins and current orientation of his party. I welcome references to seminal influences such as Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring (1962) drew attention to the environmental damage wrought by industrial farming; and to 1960s ‘systems thinking’, culminating in the Club of Rome, which used the latest information technology to measure future use of resources, thereby showing the finitude of economic growth.

As a lifelong supporter, however, I bridled at his contention that Green economics ‘is not easily categorised on a left/right ideological divide’. In my view Green ideas build on Red for a better world, but with crucial differences.

Left-wing ideology has tended towards over-reliance on narrow socio-economic data, which underplays the wider human experience, and often diminishes empathy. As Isaiah Berlin puts it:

the calm moral arithmetic of cost effectiveness which liberates decent men from qualms, because they no longer think of the entities to which they apply their scientific computations as actual human beings who live the lives and suffer the deaths of concrete individuals.

That is not to diminish the value of carefully-collated statistics, but selective citation of economic data was a recurring failure of the Old Left, as was denial of natural capital, and the value of individual wellbeing.

A problem with Marxist theory, and ‘historical materialism’ more generally, is a view of the progress of man, and his happiness, in isolation from Nature, and divorced from a spiritual life, which Marx castigated as an opiate. The idea of anything being sacred, including Art, is generally dismissed. Thus Terry Eagleton writes: ‘Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value distinguished by certain shared inherent properties does not exist’.

Communist regimes caused enormous damage to the moral fabric of societies of Central and Eastern Europe. Rather than fostering empathy, they had the opposite effect of incubating materialism, and more selfish behaviour than might otherwise have arisen. The response of people brought up under Communist regimes to the plight of Syrian refugees has been instructive, and a theoretical dislocation from Nature permitted wholescale ecocide, including Chernobyl.

Eamon Ryan makes a valid point that Green ideology: ‘values our quality of life rather than just increases in the quantity of goods that are consumed’; and the pleasure my 85-year-old English friend Richard (pictured above) derives from his life bears out this point.

Richard prefers to spend the summer months living out of doors in a tent, and chooses to wrap up and take plenty of exercise, rather than pay heating bills during the winter months. Having given up driving long ago, he takes public transport or cycles, and has been a Vegan for over thirty years. Despite not flying, he is on holidays much of the time, including a recent four-month stint in the French Alps, where his advanced years gave him a free ski pass! He’s mostly joyful, and in rude health, while living off a meagre income.

While not everyone would accept the perceived privations that Richard happily embraces it has been established that monetary wealth only brings an individual to a fixed point on a graph of happiness. But everyone’s wellbeing, and survival, is now threatened by something far deeper, which is the devastating impact of mostly Western consumption on the planet. Richard himself is outraged and wants to organise a mass march on London to protest against government inaction.

Vast wealth now co-habits with shocking poverty in Ireland, and in fairness to Eamon Ryan he acknowledges this with his criticism of the American economic model. This battle against inequality must be put centre-stage, however, as merely focusing on environmental questions without first addressing social context risks making the party an irrelevance to the majority of the population.

Government parties argue that the population enjoys adequate social supports, notwithstanding the current housing crisis. But this is useless when lives are beset by anxiety over economic status, after sophisticated advertising techniques manipulate our behaviour towards ever-greater consumption. Many luxuries are now seen as necessities – not least owning a car – to the benefit of a declining number of beneficiaries, whose wealth is virtually untouched.

Marxist theory, relying on David Ricardo’s labour surplus theory of value, is correct that a free market leads to accumulation of wealth. That is the important justification for taxation of individuals and companies.

Seen ecologically, we have allowed a situation to develop wherein a small number of individuals are leading the despoliation of the Earth’s resources. Picture humanity as a forest that has spread over most of the biosphere, but within this forest there are certain trees that draw a disproportionate share of the water and minerals that sustain life, like Giant Redwoods towering over the rest, while everyone is running out of resources, and time.

That is not to say there isn’t a role for individuals, like Richard, who minimise their impact on the planet; but we need top-down structural changes to bring the giant interlopers down to a manageable scale.

Much of the power of capital now resides in a capacity to dominate the media space; we can see this in our own country where the white noise of news agendas infects the body politic, producing politics of incoherence and theatrical bile. To Eamon Ryan’s credit he is one of the few politicians who rarely engages in ad hominem attacks, and concentrates on addressing the important issues.

I believe, however, he must go further, and not simply in order to harness the anger over homelessness, and the absence of housing policy. Green politics arises as an extension of Marxist critiques of wealth and power, while acknowledging the limits of natural capital, and a human yearning for meaning through spiritual and artistic practice.

The influence of unchecked capital is evident in the deficiencies in our health system, which does nothing to promote health as opposed to treat diseases. As one general practitioner friend of mine forlornly observed: the health industry is indistinguishable from the wider capitalist economy. It is dominated by avaricious pharmaceutical companies and private insurers that sow fear. Leading Irish oligarchs such as Denis O’Brien (the Beacon) and Larry Goodman (the Blackrock Clinic) have stakes in a sector displaying the same wage disparities as in the wider economy.

Unsurprisingly, the government’s response to the obesity pandemic has been no more than a long-delayed, and tame, tax on soft drinks, which I called for four years ago. Moreover, the Irish Livestock-Industrial Complex has been allowed to dictate dietary recommendations, and the burden of disease grows each year. There is an important role for Green approaches to the health of society, as living Green invariably confers health, as Richard’s example shows.

Today a Neoliberal discourse holds sway which says that a conniving state is inherently inefficient at spending resources. This was articulated by Sunday Times columnist Niall Ferguson in his book Civilization (2011): ‘Private property rights’, he says, ‘are repeatedly violated by governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for taxing our incomes and our wealth and wasting a large proportion of the proceeds.’

The use of the seductive “our” is revealing: Ferguson is really manipulating the low paid worker into a low-tax alliance with the Super Rich. This is a formula that the Republican party have turned into an art form in the United States. That is not to say that there aren’t serious problems with the way an étatiste elite wields power in Ireland. The salaries of many state officials are still disgracefully high. This is the legacy of the failed policy of the Tiger – boomenomics – and the grave planning failures that concentrated too many jobs in the capital city, driving up property prices as a result.

Green economics would embrace degrowth, and an aggressive response to the consumer economy, focusing initially perhaps on ending the use of plastics made from crude oil. That is a battle requiring more than a consensual approach, but it will be to the ultimate wellbeing of the collective, and Nature.

I share Eamon Ryan’s enthusiasm for a revolution in energy, which will bring an end to the use of fossil fuels, but the understandable worry is that the fruits of any windfall will not be shared evenly. In rural Ireland people don’t feel invested in alternative energy, and continue to fuel their cars with toxic fossil fuels that generate horrendous overseas conflicts, while many continue to extract peat from the precious remaining peatlands.

We need more than a technological revolution. A revolution in mindsets is required such that acquisition of monetary wealth ceases to be an overwhelming ambition. This will only come about when we alter a destructive relationship with the natural world, and see wealth in river banks not bank balances. A radical change in the way we ‘do’ education is called for, with far greater focus on human development than non-sensical state exams.

I welcome Eamon Ryan’s acknowledgement that we are losing the battle to save our natural world, including in Ireland, and I believe we cannot concede any more ground on this. The Green Party is primed to take on the Livestock-Industrial Complex and it should not shirk this challenge. To be an extremist in this cause will be a badge of honour to wear before the generations that follow: ‘What did you do in the Great War against Climate Change Grandpa?’

I anticipate a time when the Green movement becomes a mainstream political force committed to ending an exploitative relationship with Earth, and the patriarchal structures that underlie this. For this to occur we must take on the oligarchs, and their drones in mainstream media. We require a mass political movement that reverses the course of the great battle we are facing to save Nature, and humanity.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn showed that a leader imbued with principle, and poetry, can speak directly to a population when given the opportunity, especially through social media. The Green Party should be ambitious enough to take on the Byzantine political parties that dominate our dysfunctional system. These parties stand for nothing, and as we see this week, can fall out over anything.

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.

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.

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/)

The Body and Shame

The Body and Shame

Review of The Body and Shame: Phenomenology, Feminism and the Socially Shaped body by Luna Dolezal. Lexington Book, Lenham, 2015 (Village Magazine, July 2015)

In Ireland philosophy rarely features in mainstream discourses. We seem more comfortable in either the narrow empiricism inherited from our former colonial overlords or the lyrical engagement found in poetry. The unflinching analysis of concepts found in philosophical enquiry is not part of secondary educations: it still does not figure as a Leaving Certificate subject.

It remains a specialist course in university, but only featuring in the study of law as jurisprudence rather than being seen as the foundation for all positive law as it ought. Philosophy of education is a mandatory course in teacher-training but again is treated in a rather desultory fashion by institutions and students alike. Those who pursue scientific study at third level are given no philosophical grounding which might explain a lack of nuance among cheerleaders of science. Arguably this general lacuna tilts us towards a conservatism born of failure to interrogate widely held assumptions.

In a cogently argued and accessible work TCD philosopher Luna Dolezal discusses the concept of body shame through a number of lenses. She arrives from a phenomenological perspective especially identified with Maurice Merleau-Ponty who emphasised that we encounter the world through the lived experience of our bodies and not simply our conscious minds. He rejected the dualist view which has dominated European thought since Plato right through to Descartes and beyond.

Dolezal engages with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre who conceived of an “Other” that generates a self-reflection intimately connected to a feeling of shame. According to Sartre: “By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other.” This can lead to alienation or estrangement from what Dolezal refers to as “the possibilities of the self.” This recurring evaluation of how we are perceived has become a more pressing concern in a world of intrusive social media.

Dolezal argues that other thinkers have advanced on Sartre’s ideas to show that objectification is experienced to a greater extent among marginalised groups. In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir argued that in our patriarchal societies women experience this feeling far more than men. Another layer is added by Frantz Fanon who observed the alienation caused by perceived racial hierarchies. Fanon argued: “This is because the white man is not only the Other but also the master, whether real or imaginary.” It is probably a fair generalisation that women, racial minorities, as well as gays and disabled, are more subject to shame than straight white men with full physical capabilities.

Dolezal also explores the socio-cultural and political framework in which power relations are embedded drawing on the insights of Michele Foucault and Norbert Elias. Perhaps Foucault’s most useful idea was his revival of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as a metaphor for the constant surveillance seen in modern life. The Panopticon was conceived as prison made of glass allowing every action to be observed, in theory leading to the observance of all rules. The inmate is shamed into conformity, just as today there lurks a latent perception that our every move is subject to the unrelenting gaze of cameras leading to a sense, especially among women, that her physical appearance is constantly being assessed.

In his seminal work The Civilising Process Elias traces the evolution of manners and other forms of personal comportment. The story of the fork is particularly informative. It arrived in Europe with the Byzantine bride to a Doge of Venice and its use was initially dismissed as a prissy affectation. But soon courtiers succumbed to its utility and it became such a fixture across Europe that by the nineteenth century one writer could describe those that ate with their hands as cannibalistic. Elias shows that such quotidian habits are socially constructed.

Since time immemorial shame has been used to enforce conformity. But Dolezal is emphatic that shame plays a critical role in how we learn and socialize among our peers. She argues that it plays a key role: “in skill acquisition, self-presentation, bodily management and the formation of the body schema.”

Put simply, without the experience of shame there would be little inducement for self-improvement in a range of spheres. This feeling may however lapse into a chronic condition where we feel ourselves, especially our physical bodies, to be the source of that shame. Chronic body shame: “can lead to a diminished bodily experience where a constant preoccupation with the body affects one’s self esteem and self-worth.” This seems to be the plight of many women today: one only has to look at the weight of column inches and advertising devoted to beauty “treatments”, an interesting choice of words ascribing pathology to deviations from conventional notions of beauty.

Thus, according to Dolezal: “Women, compared with men, spend more time, energy and material resources in trying to achieve a socially pleasing body that conforms to prevailing normative standards.” Further “Women far outnumber men in incidents of eating disorders, chronic dieting and cases of cosmetic surgery.” Dolezal’s draws on sociological observations from the cosmetic surgery industry which preys on these securities inducing women to alter their bodies to conform to societal expectations. Yet, as she points out, this is increasingly impossible as the body ideal found in the innumerable forms that flash before us are often digitally-enhanced or surgically-altered.

Unfortunately according to Dolezal: “Beauty regimes are becoming more punishing, more painful, more expensive, more intrusive, more extreme and, as a result, more disempowering.” In the United States alone, over eleven million cosmetic procedures included injectable such as Botox, laser skin resurfacing and chemical peels. Americans spent almost $12 billion on cosmetic procedures in 2013 alone. Our own Celtic Tiger spawned a cosmetic surgery boom.

The next generation faces ever more sophisticated marketing techniques that position these illusory forms in increasingly intrusive ways. The Internet is increasingly used for this marketing and beleaguered parents cannot possibly keep track of their childrens’ engagements.

The changes that are made to bodies through cosmetic surgery have profound
philosophical implications, for as Dolezal points out it “presupposes some sort of Cartesian self, where the body is merely a container for and commodity of the true inner self.” Here the phenomenological view of the body could have a redemptive quality as it comes to be seen as “much more than something we ‘have,’ but fundamentally as something that we are.” By acknowledging the body as the location of our true selves we accept perceived deficiencies or limitations in our bodies.

One challenge to this potentially redemptive realisation is posed by the perception of being born with the “wrong body”: a feeling common among transgender individuals. Here Dolezal points out “there seems a clear distinction between one’s authentic ‘inner’ self and one’s physical body, seemingly confirming the dualistic paradigm.” It would appear there are exceptional scenarios where cosmetic surgery or even biological alteration may prove liberating, but an overall context of bodily obsession that may cause this dissatisfaction should be acknowledged.

Thus according to Dolezal “cosmetic surgeons play out the common formula of neoliberal consumer culture: they cultivate profound anxieties about the body and then present themselves and services as the only means to eliminate or alleviate the very shame and guilt they have themselves helped to produce.” The message to women is that their bodies are “wrong” but that a solution is at hand, for a price of course.

Dolezal identifies redemptive qualities offered by the practice of yoga which is open to all age groups and body types. She claims it provides “an alternative and compassionate vocabulary with which one can regard the body and the self.” And that “The body’s uniqueness is not compared to some ideal and through these practices new ways to understand and relate to one’s self and the body can be established, and transformation and healing can take place.”

If this is so, it is heartening that the practice of yoga has witnessed extraordinary growth in Ireland in recent times. To some extent it fills a spiritual void left by the decline of the Catholic Church. This perceived threat may account for a Donegal priest’s claim in 2014 that it was “putting souls in jeopardy”.

If however it has the potential to liberate women, and men, from demoralising relationships with their bodies then it should be viewed as a way for society to restore a lost balance. But we might question whether it has not already been co-opted by the dominant neoliberal culture as one more means of self-improvement that is purchased in the yoga studio or through going on an exotic yoga holiday. It may be however that Buddhist ideas that guide the practice of yoga do indeed contain the redemptive qualities that will help individuals overcome the ambient noise that points a finger at perceived deficiencies.

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)