The righteous onward march of veganism, as promoted by the Environmental Pillar in Ireland who want stringent climate action legislation, has hit some speed bumps recently.

Not just based on the reaction from the farming and agri-sectors to the attempted hijacking of much needed Brexit-related processing capability through planning objections, but in terms of official reports and analyses by state agencies including Safefood and Teagasc, who have real expertise and statutory responsibility in food and agricultural matters.

Safefood report on vegetarian meat substitutes

Safefood – the all island public health body – produced a report in March entitled: ‘Vegetarian meat substitutes: products available in supermarkets on the island of Ireland and consumer behaviours and perceptions’.

 The principal findings of the Safefood report are:

  • Many meat substitute products are not a source of protein… who new?!;
  • Many of these plant-based products are simply highly processed foods;
  • Most of these products should not be used frequently as an alternative to meat, poultry, fish, eggs, pulses, and nuts.

The report further suggests that consumers should “be aware that plant-based meat alternatives generally contain more carbohydrates than meat”, and also that consumers should “include a variety of sources of protein in your diet e.g. meat, eggs, fish, legumes, nuts etc.”.

The report reflects similar analysis of consumer perceptions of dairy substitutes – that the much lower nutritional value of the substitutes is not properly understood, and consumption is based on perceptions of environmental impacts, which themselves are disputed.

Teagasc submission to Oireachtas committee

The Teagasc submission to the Oireachtas committee this week, while presenting a sobering assessment of the correlation of livestock numbers to agriculture emissions, also dismissed some anti-grass-based livestock production myths.

The Teagasc submission in particular re-emphasised that Ireland’s agricultural production system is dominated by grassland and will continue to be so.

The report perhaps most pointedly suggested that grasslands are an enormous store of (soil) carbon, but if this land is converted to crop production, some of this soil carbon is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas (GHG).

For a range of reasons, much of Ireland’s grassland area is agronomically and economically unsuited to crop production.

It’s worth repeating: Replacement of Irish grassland with plant-based agriculture would see increased emissions.

Moreover, in practical terms, there is ongoing healthy demand worldwide for Ireland’s grass-based agricultural output.

“Given the low carbon footprint of Irish milk and meat, Ireland can continue to strive to meet growing international market demand for food, so as to contribute to global food security and avoid carbon leakage, whilst at the same time meeting environmental obligations including those related to climate change.”

The reality being expressed here by Teagasc as the state agricultural and food authority, is that:

  • Demand for Irish dairy and meat is being driven by increasing global demand for sustainable grass-based product;
  • In the absence of Irish grass-based supply, this demand will still be met but from regions with less carbon-efficient production and little or no regulatory compliance;
  • This will lead to an increase in global emissions – carbon leakage is a real factor.

Support Irish agriculture

While there is nothing new in either of the statements concerning climate action challenges, it is important given the onslaught against our meat and dairy sectors, to be reminded that Irish agriculture and its food industry are not only economically vital to the rural and regional Irish economy, but have evolved to their current scale and sectoral characteristics.

This is based on rational optimisation of available natural resources and to meet expanding global demand.

Indeed any fact-based assessment of how Irish agri-food has evolved since EU dairy quotas were abolished in 2015, will highlight that Irish agri-export performance has been phenomenal.

This is in comparison to the quota-based regime, given that at one stage over one third of what was a significantly lower dairy and meat output would have needed an export subsidy or internal market support / intervention to find a market outlet, whereas all exports now are subsidy-free.

Climate action legislation based on science

One would contend, not just hope, that these reports from government agencies have some credibility in representing official government understanding, as well as framing actual government policy in the area of food and nutrition and climate impact regulations, as against the ‘magical’ and ‘mystical’ thinking of the vegan-obsessed Environmental Pillar.

“A one-dimensional anti-livestock approach to climate change and environmental regulation is a ‘lose/lose’ for Ireland Inc. and for global emissions outputs.”

It is important to remind ourselves – those in agribusiness and the ordinary people of Ireland – that the sole reason why Ireland’s climate action legislation may lead to constraints on Irish agricultural output, and specifically constraints on Irish livestock numbers is:

  • Irish agriculture is a much bigger sector in the Irish economy than our neighbours in the UK and in the EU;
  • Ireland produces 6% of EU beef and dairy products and only 4% of EU agricultural emissions;
  • Irish agriculture ultimately sits within a national accounting system that is committed to whole economy emissions reduction targets, that were originally derived from the Kyoto Protocol, then the Paris Agreement on climate change and subsequently set out in EU legislation.

It is important that we reacquaint ourselves with this fact, not least because the Irish public have been bombarded with all sorts of prejudice, propaganda and nonsense recently that has distorted this national accounting reality and attempted to ‘demonise’ our grass-based livestock focused agri-food sector, while eulogising highly-processed low nutrition foods.