What’s at stake when it comes to giving up meat?
Pricewatch: In a household of four people the annual spend on meat could come in at over €1,600
Meat has been getting a lot of bad press of late. First Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was trying to cut back so he could do his bit for the health of himself and the planet. Then a major piece of research was published which made it clear that people in this part of the world will have to reduce their intake of meat and dairy by as much as 90 per cent if we are to avert a climate catastrophe and reverse the current obesity epidemic.
The research by 20 influential food scientists, published in the Lancet Medical Journal, said the global food system as it is currently operating is unsustainable, and driving the planet towards environmental destruction while simultaneously leaving billions of people either hungry or obese.
If it was to be widely adopted, the Lancet’s “healthy, sustainable reference diet” would see the average Irish person’s beef and lamb consumption reduced to just 7g a day, which is equivalent to roughly half a meatball.
People would also be limited to 7g of pork a day, equivalent to a single cocktail sausage, and just 29g of chicken or one and a half chicken nuggets.
Dairy consumption would also be curtailed to just one glass of milk a day (250ml) or less if you partial to the occasional slice of cheese in a cracker or dab of butter on your toast.
Under the guidelines people would be allowed to eat 200g of fruit, 300g of vegetables as well as beans, pulses, wholegrains and nuts.
The report’s recommendations, if adopted, would have major implications for the Republic’s €12 billion food and drink industry, which is heavily centred on beef and dairy production. Beef is the single largest component of this trade worth €2.5 billion annually to the Irish economy.
But what implications would it have for our pockets? The Lancet people think we should be paying more for the luxury of eating meat. To promote the shift to a “healthier” diet the Eat-Lancet Commission – which is a collaboration of the Oslo-based Eat foundation and the medical journal – proposes measures including the introduction of a meat tax akin to the sugar tax, and the withdrawal of certain products altogether.
“The environmental and societal health costs of food supply consumption should be fully reflected in pricing by introducing taxes,” the report said.
That is not good news, obviously, but by giving up meat – or dramatically cutting back – people could save themselves a packet.
Around 87,000 tonnes of beef are consumed in Ireland each year, which is around 19kg per person. A further 45 000 tonnes of pork is consumed, which is around 10kg, with a further 10kg of chicken consumed annually. Lamb consumption is around 3.5kg per capita.
If we price beef at €13 per kg – steak is dearer, mince is cheaper – Irish people spend around €250 on it each year. Pork is considerably cheaper, and if we give it an average price of €7 per kg, the cost per year is €70. Chicken is worryingly cheap in Ireland, with many roasting chickens priced at €5 or even less. If we give it a per kg price of €3, the annual cost is just €30. Lamb varies in price significantly, but if we assume a price of €15 per kg, then the annual cost per person is €52.
If a household is made up of four people, the annual spend on meat alone could easily come in at over €1,600.
Spending on milk, cheese, butter and fish add considerably to that cost, so as it stands a typical Irish household is probably spending more than €2,000 each year on products the Lancet people think we should stop eating.
Shannon Forrest is ahead of the curve.
“I gave up meat around four years ago when I was travelling in India and Pakistan. I loved meat, and was one of the people who would happily have had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but in that part of the world I was afraid of getting food poisoning so I decided to stick to the vegetables. I noticed I had more energy, my skin was clearer and I was sleeping better, but I didn’t think too much about it.”
When she got home she started eating meat again and her skin worsened and she felt more lethargic. So she joined the dots and gave up meat for good.
“I’ve definitely saved money as a result. Anyone who says you don’t spend less when you are not eating meat is just wrong. If there are no visits to the butcher’s counter you are going to spend less, and you are going to be able to buy more fruit and vegetables. That is just a fact. Mind you, the money I saved I ended up spending on other things, so it’s not like I still have it,” she adds, somewhat ruefully.
She says she would never force vegetarianism on others, but describes attempts by hard-core omnivores to ridicule non-meat eaters as absurd.
In the wake of the Lancet report being published, Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae said bluntly that “them fellas that are talking about stopping eating meat never worked hard”. Forrest describes that comment as “insane”.
“I am not an activist or the type to go on Peta marches, but when I hear people saying that people who don’t eat meat can’t function as well as people who don’t it makes by blood boil.”
Almost by coincidence, Forrest ended up running a vegetarian and vegan cafe in Tramore, Co Waterford, called Bia and Brew with her chef partner. “People said we were mad opening where we did when we did, but since we started last November we have been getting busier and busier.”
Nuala Ní Chonghaile is a long-time vegetarian who decided to do Veganuary and she has not bought any products which have come from animals since the beginning of the year, and she too says she saved money. “I did it for moral and ethical reasons and for the environmental reasons,” she says.
“Before Christmas we would have bought a lot of premium meat, things like organic chickens and wild fish, and we have definitely saved money since we stopped buying products like that. I cook and bake a lot and have been using a lot of dried pulses and they are very cheap, but I think if you buy meat substitutes they are more expensive.”
She says she uses Flora Vegan for baking and that costs the same as the regular Flora. “It is no Kerrygold but it is fine.”
She also uses oat milk for her porridge, and while it is more expensive than regular milk it does last longer.
And last week she made vegan pizza using vegan cheese. “It was more expensive and not all that nice.”
She has chickens so has not given up eggs, and can have honey from bees she also keeps.
She says that anyone looking to dramatically cut down on their meat and dairy consumption should do it in stages, and try not to swap in meat substitutes. “It will be more expensive and will disappoint.”
There are some meat substitutes that may not disappoint. Marks & Spencer, for example, has been rolling out some very good meat replacement products in recent months, with many almost as nice as the real thing.
There is a significant price differential however. A kilo of “vegan mince” in M&S is €16.67, which is around twice the price of meaty mince, while its sweet potato and red pepper sausages cost €13.70 per kg compared to €7 for Kearn’s old school sausages.
While the price of meat-free alternatives are high now they will fall as such products become more mainsteam, while the consequences of continuing to eat meat like there’s no tomorrow are only ever likely to climb.
CUTTING MEAT AND DAIRY OUT COMPLETELY REQUIRES SOME EFFORT
Sarah Keogh is a one of Ireland’s leading dietitians and nutritionists, and she is certain that people who dramatically cut back on meat and dairy will see significant savings, although she says that for it to happen in Ireland will require a huge cultural shift.
“We could dramatically reduced the level of meat we consume, but I think it will be harder in Ireland because of how much we rely on meat and dairy, and because of an absence of education.
“It is definitely cheaper, there is absolutely no doubt about that. Beans and lentils cost a lot less that meat, particularly if you buy dried and soak them. Even the supplements that might be needed are not overly expensive.”
She says, however, that cutting meat and dairy out completely requires some effort.
“The big issue is protein, and how to get all of you daily protein requirements you if you are on a vegan diet. It is something that needs to be approached with great care. You need to look at beans and pulses and lentils, and you need to eat a lot of them.”
She says she has noticed a significant shift in how veganism is approached in recent years.
“When vegans came to me 20 years ago and asked what they needed to do to ensure they had a healthy diet without eating meat or dairy I would tell them that they had to take supplements, particularly Vitamin B12.
“Some people would also need extra Vitamin D, and others might need additional calcium. The vegans I advised then were happy to take the supplements but I have noticed that many vegans now are reluctant to do that, and they are refusing to take supplements because they don’t perceive them to be natural products.”
She suggests the reluctance will lead to problems further down the road for many people. “A deficiency in Vitamin B12 can damage the nervous system and that damage can be irreversible, so I would be most concerned about that cohort that are really anti-supplements.”
She also suggests that people need to take care when it comes to their protein intake. While pulses and beans provide plenty of protein they need to be consumed in higher quantities than meaty equivalents.
“I would also be careful about some of the meat substitutes on the market, and some vegan burgers and pies. People can eat them instead of meat and think they are getting like for like when the reality is some of these products do not have the required level of protein. It varies wildly between brands, but some products I have seen have no more than 3g of protein in a serving when a person needs 20g of protein in their main meal.”