Irish policy of promoting ‘efficient’ meat consumption is self-defeating

Plant-based diets are cheaper for consumer and linked to better health outcomes

For the last two decades, agriculture has consistently proven a problem for climate change policy in Ireland as it makes up a large proportion of emissions compared to other countries.

This is complicated by the fact that the potential to reduce agricultural emissions to any notable degree is somewhat limited without fundamental changes to the sector. Irish emissions are projected to marginally increase by 2020 by the Environmental Protection Aagency. The problem happens not so much on that timescale but in the period beyond. Emissions need to be coming down significantly but based on current policy will be becoming more “locked-in”.

The key issue within Irish agriculture is beef and dairy, a small contributor to GDP but a large contributor to emissions. Agriculture policy in Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 seeks strategically to grow output from these sectors with an eye on potential growing markets in developing countries and also the more affluent populations in the EU and US.

The narrative of the Irish argument on agriculture is that domestic beef and dairy production is more environmentally efficient than competitor countries and also promotes food security.


However, it is widely acknowledged internationally by prominent organisations such as the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that consumption patterns must change and efficiency is not enough.

Simply “more production” is discredited as a development option and there is a need to look at the entire food system. We need to look beyond this 20th century model at meeting multiple goals together, including climate change targets, environmental protection, public health, food security and resilient farmers’ livelihoods.

The Irish case unravels when it becomes clear that the intention is to increase export and demand in new and existing markets. The bottom-line is that dairy, but most notably meat such as beef and sheep, are very carbon-intensive per calorie and per gram of protein. Consuming more environmentally efficient Irish meat is a false efficiency. By promoting higher consumption rates the problem is exacerbated and the efficiency becomes overwhelmed.

The argument that demand will be taken up by less efficient producers is debatable. Such “carbon leakage” may actually be small, but more importantly, this can only be resolved cooperatively at the global level not by unilateral actions. This is the very reason for international treaties on problems of collective action.

Attempting to grow demand for carbon-intensive products, particularly in developing countries, is fundamentally at odds with reducing global emissions and avoiding dangerous climate change. It also creates an exceptionalism where international environmental agreements can be punctured by free-riders.

If Irish agriculture is seen as a special case allowed to grow emissions, then why not the German motor industry, Polish power-generation or Australian coal?

There are other issues with beef and dairy production that are also problematic, such as air and water pollution and various impacts on human health and biodiversity. High levels of meat consumption are associated with poor public health outcomes, including obesity, heart disease and some cancers.

Farmers’ livelihoods are also currently under threat from collapsing milk prices and uncertainty in meat demand, and yet these sector are in receipt of significant public subsidies. Irish policy now pins its hopes on using a special dispensation from Europe to offset emissions through increasing forestry.

The future is quite uncertain. We know that change is a coming, but how can we be better prepared?

The key to good policy is to meet multiple objectives and to make it sustainable and resilient to future change. This change must be viewed positively for the many opportunities it presents. The much higher efficiency of plant-based nutrition relative to animal-based, means that we could contribute far greater food production towards food security, while reducing the land area which is used.

Plant-based diets are cheaper for the consumer, associated with better public health outcomes and reduce emissions. The Dutch model of diversified agriculture lead to their tomatoes on our plates, so why not Irish?

Moving away from growth in beef and dairy to seeking a more appropriate balance with cereals, fruit, vegetables and potentially beans as sources of protein, may prove a promising development model.

The impacts of inevitable changes in the Irish climate should be taken into account and greenhouse horticulture should be examined more. Outside of nutrition, forestry and re-wilding as a resource for biodiversity, timbre and tourism, and for the known benefits to public health and mental wellbeing, are other options.

Bio-energy production and locally owned wind could accrue all of the benefits to rural areas.

Last, but by no means least, the farmer would be central to such a strategy. A strategic diversification of agriculture could secure resilient livelihoods for farmers in a volatile globalised market.

Dr Tadhg O’ Mahony is an economist and senior researcher at the Finland Futures Research Centre, and the recipient of a Marie Sklodowska Curie postdoctoral fellowship from the European Commission.