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Kathy Sheridan: Why Mary Robinson’s ‘eat less meat’ line is tough for farmers to chew on

‘Did any of Robinson’s critics reflect on fact she was not addressing a local cumann meeting?’

In a convenience store in a pretty west of Ireland village, the first display inside the door is a fridge piled high with €3 chickens. Three euro. The price of two batch loaves. Or a latte. We may assume that those creatures' short lives were not spent clucking about in the sunlight, being hand fed by a decent son of the soil.

The image of that anaemic pile of chicken meat became a constant companion last week as the waves of anger and mockery tossed around Mary Robinson following her plea to an audience of young leaders, for the sake of their carbon footprint, to "eat less meat, or no meat at all. Become vegetarian or vegan."

Having grown up on a farm and married a farmer, I have an instinctive sympathy for farmers. But after last week’s eruption of mockery, defensiveness, whataboutery directed at Robinson, many of us were left wondering where lies the long-vaunted sophistication in the farmers’ lobby?

What about Robinson's own carbon footprint, asked several farm leaders, as if their own regular commutes between Ireland and Brussels along with the odd, vital, fact-finding mission to sunnier, faraway climes were all covered by bicycle. The response from the Mary Robinson Foundation was that her air miles are monitored and a sum paid for green investment to make up for her footprint. Can her detractors answer the same question?


Top beef eaters

Word also slipped into reports that Robinson herself is neither vegetarian nor vegan. Read again what she said to her young audience: “Eat less meat, or no meat at all.” This sounds reasonable to any non-defensive listener. In fact, “flexitarian” diets – plant-based with the odd piece of meat – have become a feature of Western European eating habits. Euromonitor International has charted the rise of the flexitarian and the vegetarian and reckons the regular substitution of red meat with leaner meats, fish and plant proteins has seen the intake of beef and veal by the average Western European fall by a kilo between 2010 and 2015.

Is there anyone on the planet – apart from the climate-change-denying buffoon Trump – who still doubts that this is a good thing? Or is not to be encouraged from every conceivable point of view? As we all know well by now, high levels of meat consumption are associated with poor health, including obesity, heart disease and colon cancer.

That hasn’t stopped the Irish reaching for the red meat. According to Euromonitor again, we ate the equivalent of more than 70 steaks or 140 quarter pounders per capita last year, giving us the laurels as Europe’s top beef and veal eaters.

In view of those figures, perhaps the most cynical response to Robinson’s words was the one that claimed she was in danger of reinforcing “ underlying dietary problems amongst specific groups like, for instance, teenage girls”. Has anyone witnessed a shortage of teenage customers for McDonald’s? Or for weak, over-milked, over-priced coffee?

Short, brutal lives

If farm organisations believe dietary education is needed, then bring it on. Most western adults who suffer, say, from lactose intolerance (they do exist) or prefer their coffee dairy-free, should know the drill about calcium supplements, but if they don’t, educate them. Tell them about the sound protein value of beans, berries and legumes.

There is plenty of education to be imparted too in inculcating responsibility for what we consume, not just for the sake of our health, but for the creatures that are bred and slaughtered for our pleasure. Will they educate teenage girls – and boys – about the short, brutal lives of those €3 chickens or the reality of the abattoir? Will there be photographs?

Did any of Robinson's critics reflect on the fact that she was not addressing a local, cumann meeting? That her audience of bright, young leaders had come from 190 countries, many with serious climate-change issues? In a TED talk given in California last year, she explained that in 1973, when Ireland joined what is now the EU, parts of the country were categorised as "developing" – as in the "developing world"; yet with all our challenges, none included the threat of the island being submerged by water.

Unlike Kiribati, the island republic in the Central Pacific, whose former president Anote Tong bought land on Fiji to facilitate what he called “migration with dignity” for his citizens, in the event that Kiribati was submerged due to climate change.

This is Robinson’s perspective. Global, connected, steeped in the concepts of human rights and social justice. Yet one critic suggested she “take reality as her starting point”.

Well, we know that, for many farmers, survival is the name of the game. We know these issues are layered and complex and could threaten, for example, the Government's Food Harvest 2020 strategy which includes increasing milk production by 50 per cent and adding 20 per cent to the value of the beef sector. At the same time, a recent report by two Swedish scholars in Food Policy journal, on the challenge of meeting EU climate targets, concludes that "cuts by 50 per cent or more, in ruminant meat (beef and mutton) consumption are, most likely, unavoidable".

Farmers, we need to talk.