Cheap food a tasty delusion hiding high costs and lack of sustainability
Fast food chains are notorious for adding umpteen ingredients. Because McDonalds has a policy of transparency, in 2010 the New Economics Forum in Britain was able to work out that “a Big Mac (bun, beef patty, sauce, cheese slice, gherkin, onion, lettuce: seven components) contains more than 56 ingredients. There are 14 in the bun, 19 in the sauce, 8 in the pickle, and 12 in the cheese slice, which is only 55 per cent cheese. The beef patty, onion, and lettuce are all ‘100 per cent pure’, and the salt and pepper added to the burger haven’t been included.”
Fast food culture is now embedded virtually everywhere. As usual, we are trying to have it both ways in Ireland. We are trying to market ourselves as premier producers of “green food” with our “grass-fed beef”, while at the same time killing off the family farm and the local butcher and endorsing food on the run.
While there have been some good innovations, such as Bord Bia’s plans to establish the carbon footprint of every farm in Ireland, can these approaches co-exist with the inexorable trend towards industrialised farming? There are people who believe we need to stop eating meat entirely, if we are to achieve sustainability, which would be rather bad news for our economy.
More realistically, you have people such as Simon Fairlie, author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, who argues that while it is absolutely necessary to reduce meat consumption, small-scale, local livestock rearing can be environmentally sustainable, especially when “animals are reared on non-arable land, fed on unpalatable-to-human grasses or food wastes, and used to transport nutrients locally in the form of manure”.
Some farmers would sneer at this as going back to the 1950s, and unsustainable simply because farmers could not make a living. But even those critics must acknowledge that scandals like dioxins in bacon and equine DNA in burgers are symptoms of a much wider problem that is not going to go away.
By eating less meat, we can both afford better quality meat and support producers who are willing to employ more sustainble practices. But it requires commitment and change – and it is so much easier to reach for a big, cheap, tasteless quarter pounder.