We need to stop romanticising Ireland’s agri-food industry
Is it a coincidence that we are a large producer of infant formula and have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates?
Any criticism of agriculture is interpreted as an attack on rural Ireland. Photograph: iStock
If any part of Irish society can be said to have prospered during the recession, it has to be the food industry.
From the restaurant scene, where new ventures continued to open during the bust on a near daily basis, to the agri-food business, where exports boomed year on year, the food sector has had a good decade.
We think this is a good thing. We take pride in Ireland being a “food nation” exporting green-tinged produce to the four corners of the earth. We lionise the latest celebrity chef and cheer when they win their heavily sponsored awards. We enthuse on our couches at reality TV food shows pitting chefs and ordinary punters against each other.
Food, or more precisely, “foodie-ism”, has come to stand for modernity, sophistication, sensuality, plenty and an outward view on the world. As we become a post-Catholic society, it marks our move away from older values – some of them enforced – of moderation, privation and abstention.
Foodie-ism is also the bling that survived the Celtic Tiger. Diners in Dublin’s best restaurants make their way past soup kitchens and beggars to spend the average person’s weekly wage on a single meal. The latest recipient of a Michelin star is, at the time of writing, booked out until the end of March 2017.
To some extent, it was ever thus. It is also true that the importance of the food industry to the economy – 230,000 jobs and €10.5 billion in exports – cannot be gainsaid. Farmers and farming are, patently, the backbone of rural Ireland.
But this doesn’t mean the pre-eminence of the agri-food sector should not be critically evaluated, both the negative and positive implications. Or that the industry should not be portrayed as it is, rather than the romanticised version we often get.
Irish agri-food is successful precisely because it is highly mechanised, makes extensive use of fertilisers and antibiotics, and is skilled at the business of trading commodities internationally. The organic production we hear so much about is just niche product and doesn’t reflect the mainstream output of the system.
Little enough is heard about the possible detrimental effects of our obsession with food. Is it a coincidence that Ireland is the biggest exporter of food in Europe – and also one of the fattest nations on the continent?
Is it just a coincidence that we are the largest producer of infant formula in the world, while we have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates globally?
Studies show we eat more meat, and less fruit and vegetables, than most other countries. But we also have some of the highest rates of cancer, including those cancers linked to an unhealthy diet. Something similar could be said about our consumption of alcohol and the trail of disease it causes.
Obesity, alcohol and other diet-related disorders exact a huge toll on our health system, one that is growing by the day. Yet there is little debate about this.
One reason is that public discourse is dominated by a “green jersey” agenda on food. What is good for agriculture is good for Ireland. Any criticism of agriculture is interpreted as an attack on rural Ireland.
Just look at the “how dare she?” assaults on Mary Robinson for suggesting that we all, in the name of the planet, might like to consider eating less, or even no, meat. To anyone knowledgeable about the science of food and diet, the idea is a no-brainer, both for the individual and for the future of the earth.
Yet an outraged farming lobby played the man not the ball, by questioning her bona fides rather than engaging with the point the former president made.
Consider too how restaurants get the benefit of an artificially low VAT rate, which was supposed to have been introduced for a year but has been extended annually since 2011.
This is the same sector that has, by and large, refused to provide their customers with simple information about the calorie content of the meals they serve. The very mention of the proposal brought some of the celebrity chefs mentioned above close to apoplexy.
Meanwhile, the industry churns out an unrelenting diet of propaganda in support of the status quo. Conferences are held to which overseas “experts” proclaim the evils of a sugar tax, or the virtues of red meat. Dietitians are retained to spout platitudes such as “It’s okay to eat white bread”, to quote the headline from a recent press release by bread manufacturers.
It helps that nutrition is such a vague science, capable of interpretation in so many ways. University departments depend heavily on the food industry to support their research. It is hard to know how this wouldn’t affect the focus of the work they do.
The Government plays its part through a system of light-touch regulation. Issues relating to salt reduction, product reformulation, folic acid supplementation and marketing have all been left to voluntary regulation, even where it is clear that industry is not playing ball. The new obesity action plan is shot through with the same “softly, softly” approach.
Regulation is promised alright, but has yet to materialise. We still don’t have the much-needed package of measures to counter alcohol abuse, or mandatory calorie posting.
That, of course, may be just another coincidence.