The Irish Times view: Making our diets more sustainable

The change called for by a recent ‘Lancet’ paper is enormous, but it does highlight key issues

Beef cattle in Kilkenny. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/Irish Times

Beef cattle in Kilkenny. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/Irish Times

 

If Taoiseach Leo Varadkar needed vindication for his comment about eating less red meat on health grounds and to reduce his carbon footprint, it came a few days later in a major report in the Lancet medical journal.

Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce the environmental impact of humans on the planet, according to the stark analysis. The research by 20 influential food scientists suggests the global food system is unsustainable, driving the Earth towards environmental destruction, while leaving billions of people either underfed or overweight. It calls for a radical reduction in meat consumption – by as much as 90 per cent in the western world – and a sharp cut in the use of dairy products in favour of plant-based alternatives.

The resulting “planetary health diet” does not banish meat and dairy completely, but requires an enormous shift to vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts – with a dramatic reduction in portion size.

Predictably, the Taoiseach faced criticism and was accused of not acting in the national interest, in part by undermining the €2.9 billion Irish beef sector. This, however, was not an isolated study. Poorly regulated, intensified farming is proven to take a terrible environmental toll. Meanwhile, in dietary terms, excessive meat consumption is unequivocally linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The report is narrowly prescriptive. It does not take account of the inevitable carbon emissions that would be associated with compensating rice and soya production. It avoids some key issues, such as the immense quantities of global food waste. The Earth, however, is facing an existential threat from climate breakdown and will soon have a global population of 10 billion, so changing lifestyles has to be faced up in that context. The critical issue is how Ireland should respond.

Meat and dairy produce will continue to be a critical source of nutrition. Importantly, grassland feed systems give Ireland a unique advantage as beef and dairy production is demonstrably sustainable. Ireland can play a lead role in fulfilling the “sustainable intensification” goal set down by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. What’s more, Irish farmers are aware of the need to produce more from less and are addressing their carbon footprint.

There is a lot more to do. A Teagasc blueprint on how to make Irish farming carbon neutral is a roadmap, but stakeholders have not signed up to the necessary timelines. Moreover, there is evidence of a big shift in eating preferences in some countries. Ethical considerations, “peak meat” in high-end markets, and a shift to vegetarianism are new realities. The Irish agrifood industry will not continue to thrive if its first response is denial and a failure to adjust to such marked trends in the best interests of a healthy planet.

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