How Irish Propaganda Operates Part I (HIPO I) identifies an ‘essential constituency’ of farmers, which offer an overwhelmingly preponderance of their support to representatives of the political duopoly in rural constituencies. Upsetting this cohort frays a brittle alliance maintaining the dominant consensus of steady economic growth, and rising rents. As a result the media and politicians exercise caution where direct criticism of their interests is concerned, exemplified by Leo Varadkar’s volte-face in response to revealing he was cutting down on his red meat consumption.[i]
To define the ‘farming’ sector as such is, however, misleading: what is really referred to is the cartels, which control the export and domestic trade in livestock products. These have, over decades, manipulated farming opinion, especially through the in-house Irish Farmers Journal and pro-industry IFA, into falsely assuming an alignment of interests. Transnational corporations also influence national nutritional guidelines, and contribute to the state’s ‘laggardly’ response to climate change.
It would be incorrect to suggest that the sector is immune from criticism – habitually referred to as ‘our farmers’ by the state broadcaster – in mainstream Irish media. Any reputable news organisation which ignores compelling stories covered in the international press would lose credibility, and there are conscientious journalists working within these organisations. Moreover, the Irish media must appear to be balanced – ‘facts don’t have opinions’ as the Irish Times advertises – and conscientious. But the paper of record neglects to run investigations – thus the horse meat scandal of 2013 was broken by The Guardian – while subtly shaping public perception.
Veganism, in particular, is treated with a mixture of contempt and fear. This reaction may be symptomatic of an older generation’s contempt for a thrusting, and increasingly environmentally-informed, ‘snowflake’ generation, but anti-vegan invective also advantages many of their main advertisers. A recent article in the Irish Times by Brian Boyd warned: ‘Beware the perils of Veganuary’; quoting ‘renowned chef’ Anthony Bourdain’s description of vegans as ‘the Hezbollah-like splinter faction of vegetarians.’[ii] The article recycles arguments previously made in UK publications likening the philosophy to the dietary disorder called orthorexia – an unhealthy preoccupation with eating healthy food.
Yet the science on the matter is clear, with the American Dietetic Association advising that ‘appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.’[iii] The rise of Veganism is the least of Ireland’s nutritional problems: the country is in the grip of an obesity epidemic, linked to the standard Irish diet. What is striking about the paper’s coverage of veganism is that vegans themselves are rarely, if ever, permitted to speak directly to the reader.
Last month The Lancet published a paper entitled ‘Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems’, which ‘found strong evidence’, indicating ‘food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change by contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater use, interference with the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and land-system change’.
The paper convened thirty-seven leading scientists from sixteen countries in various disciplines including human health, agriculture, political sciences, and environmental sustainability. They argued we can provide ‘healthy diets … for an estimated global population of about 10 billion people by 2050 and remain within a safe operating space’; crucially, however, ‘even small increases in consumption of red meat or dairy foods would make this goal difficult or impossible to achieve.’ This will require ‘unprecedented global collaboration and commitment’ and ‘nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.’[iv] The headline, in the Irish media at least, was a recommendation that red meat consumption should decline by 90% in developed countries such as Ireland.
This radical and timely proposal appeared on the front page of the Irish Times. But a subtle fight back soon commenced, undermining its contents. Was it by coincidence that on the following day a recipe by Lilly Higgins appeared in the paper for sirloin steak?
More substantially, two days on, Kevin O’Sullivan interviewed Professor Alan Matthews; the headline writer emphasising his academic credentials. Matthews argued that ‘Ireland had a role in continuing meat and dairy production, provided it backed up its sustainability credentials with rigorous evidence.’[v] This is a significant proviso given that leading environmentalists have decried the government’s flagship Origin Green as an exercise in ‘greenwashing’.[vi]
The bias of the piece is demonstrated by a failure to canvass the opinion of an environmental scientist who could have offered an alternative perspective (and any number would have done so) to counter Matthews’s opinion. Instead the partisan views of the IFA’s Joe Healy were dutifully conveyed.
The editorial stance of the Irish Times (penned perhaps by O’Sullivan himself?) is made clear a few days later, when it described the report as ‘narrowly prescriptive’.[vii] The message is the equivalent of a ‘fuck you’ to the thirty-seven scientific authors, saying we in Ireland prefer to invert the food pyramid and will continue to devote 90% of our land to livestock.
The Irish Times also misleadingly conflates production with consumption. Allowing (without accepting) that Ireland enjoys a comparative advantage in low carbon-emission livestock production, which we continue to export, albeit within a reduced market: why should Irish consumers adopt a different diet to the rest of the world – especially given the authors are not only exploring environmental impact but also healthy nutrition – simply because we are living in a country currently dominated by pastoral agriculture?
As long as we operate within a global food system – where the bulk of our own agricultural products are exported and we import essential commodities including most of our fruit and vegetables. We cannot have it both ways, and say domestic consumption should mirror domestic production.
The Irish Times, for its part, is not displaying the “unprecedented global collaboration and commitment” the authors have called for. The editors are in no position to question the veracity of the Lancet analysis, leaving their pronouncement in Post-Truth territory.
Change of policy in the National Broadcaster
Hitherto virtually a cheerleader, a perceptible change in reporting policy on climate change is setting RTÉ on a collision course with the agricultrual sector.
The legitimacy of expressing climate change denial is being denied. Shutting down discussion on any subject may seem prescriptive, and a dangerous precedent to set, but considering the overwhelming scientific consensus, and the cataclysmic scenarios painted, the response appears proportionate. This works to the disadvantage of the cartels, which have been expanding the dairy industry in particular, while cloaking its emissions.
The new policy of zero tolerance became obvious on a recent episode of RTÉ’s Liveline, when Tim Boucher-Hayes refused to accept the validity of Michael Healy-Rae’s ‘opinion’ on climate change, before giving him enough rope to hang most political careers. Boucher Hayes exposed the self-styled Kerry man joke, who insisted he was being insulted, but could not say how.[viii]
After many years of watching, and occasionally appearing on RTÉ, I was amazed to hear the dialogue. I fear, however, that advertisers will make their feelings known, highlighting the threat to ‘livelihoods’, ignoring how most farmers’ incomes are derived entirely from EU subsidies. If anything, farmers should be paid to cultivate healthy fruit and vegetables, or re-wild their estates.
The sector makes great play on its importance to the Irish economy, but the input costs, including direct payments to farmers, imported feedstuffs, fertilizer, machinery, and fuel are not acknowledged; nor are externalised costs such as the pollution of waterways affecting the availability of potable water. This points to the long-standing failure of the Irish media to interrogate the structure and impacts of the sector.[ix] In this respect the environmental and agricultural correspondent George Lee has been a serious disappointment.
It should also be emphasised that the environmental argument has moved on from a narrow focus on climate change, which can lead to damaging outcomes, such as encouraging sitka spruce plantations which acidify soils and reduce biodiversity, in order to allow the dairy sector to expand.
The beef industry is more vulnerable to the environmental and nutritional arguments being laid against it, but the challenges to the dairy sector are mounting too, especially in terms of the idea that consumption is essential to human health, or event beneficial: the Harvard School of Public Health say that dairy is neither the only nor the best source of calcium.[x]
The shady global manipulation of nursing mothers who are encouraged to top-up with formula, or give up on breast feeding altogether, is a scandal waiting to erupt. Ireland, as the second highest exporter of powdered milk in the world, will be at the heart of it.
Unsurprisingly to date there has been no coverage in mainstream Irish media of the decision of the Canadian government to no longer identify a specific function for dairy produce in a healthy, balanced diet. Their new guidelines lump dairy in with other proteins. Canadians are advised to fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with carbohydrate-rich foods, and a quarter with protein sources.[xi]
Previously, Ireland’s leading environmental writer John Gibbons – notably writing for DeSmogUK rather than the Irish Times which he occasionally contributes to – exposed the use of fake data by the Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed purporting to show emissions from the sector were not rising as fast as they were in reality.[xii] The plot is curdling, and the message can only be managed for so long, especially with EU fines looming over rising emissions.
‘Two sides of the same debased coinage’
Fintan O’Toole is the Irish Times’s most high profile columnist. Alone arguably in the Irish media, he is permitted to do investigative work alongside editorial commentary. But he has now positioned himself as a global intellectual, rather than simply an Irish hack, devoting himself to the subject of Brexit in particular in publications such as the New York Review of Books and New York Times. His articles condemning Britain’s ‘mad’ imperial hubris increasingly appear like word magnets on a fridge that are shuffled about from week to week. It means one of the progressive ‘slots’, essential to the Irish Times’s distinctive brand of conscientious virtue-signalling, is rarely focused on Irish issues.
Moreover, O’Toole has long displayed a blind spot towards environmental issues. As an urban, literary man he might be excused for playing to his strengths, and avoiding environmental questions, but how these are dealt with is increasingly important to the understanding of any country. His current emphasis is all the more frustrating given during his early career O’Toole forensically exposed the collusion between Charles J. Haughey’s administration and Larry Goodman’s Anglo-Irish Beef Processors, culminating in the Beef Tribunal of 1991.
Goodman’s company APB continues to dominate the Irish beef processing industry. Symbolically at least in 2012 the family of Larry Goodman acquired the former Bank of Ireland headquarters building on Dublin’s Baggot Street.
Yet O’Toole’s subsequent book on the subject claimed that the ‘emerging democracy of the Irish State was in a fundamental way incompatible with the power of the beef industry’; likening Ireland to a Latin American country where conversion from tillage to grassland depopulated the land and brought speculative investment, with the difference that in, ‘Ireland, the land was cleared by emigration rather than the slaughter of the Indians’[xiii]
He went so far as to claim:
The strength of the beef industry has been such as to limit the development of the kind of coherent, confident civil and political society which could control that industry and integrate it into a working notion of the common good. It is no accident, therefore, that the events described in this book are as much about political failure in contemporary Ireland as they are about the behaviour of the beef industry. They are two sides of the same debased coinage.[xiv]
O’Toole effectively conveyed the extent to which that Fianna Fáil government, especially the then Minister for Industry and Commerce Albert Reynolds, did the bidding of a company that exposed the state to a export credit liability of €100 million, and a wanton disregard for human health in the processing of cattle for food.
At one point O’Toole described how the Irish government’s relationship with the company had:
definitively pushed the government beyond the bounds of democratic authority and into the realms of the arbitrary abuse of power. The most basic norm of democratic government – that the state is not above the law – had been breached. And it had been done at the request of Larry Goodman.[xv]
The horse meat scandal of 2013 provided further evidence of a permissive attitude towards breaches of health and safety regulations in Goodman’s company or subsidiaries, yet he has remains untouchable. The mainstream Irish media, including Fintan O’Toole are seemingly uninterested, or unwilling, to conduct further investigations. Instead we get great rollicking tales about English ineptitude.
After independence, pastoralist farmers (including the first Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan 1924-32) have effectively conveyed the idea that their interests align with the population at large. This account has rarely been challenged either by historians (with the exception of the late, Raymond Crotty) or journalists. Yet the pattern of immigration that continued into independence from rural Ireland was a product of a mode of production requiring low labour inputs, as O’Toole pointed out.
Wheat production even for domestic consumption did become uneconomic once mechanization became widely available from the early 1950s. Moisture levels during harvesting of Irish cereals make them unsuited to combined harvesters. The traditional method of tying or ‘bindering’ wheat by hand and drying it bundles before storage had become too labour intensive. It then became axiomatic from the 1960s that Ireland’s comparative advantage lay in livestock production, beef in particular, despite the historic inefficiencies of the sector.
One opportunity cost of relying on beef and dairy for export has been that overall food prices in a predominantly rural society have remained comparatively high, even by comparison with a highly-urbanised country such as Britain. This has worked to the detriment of urban workers, and even those living in rural Ireland, most of whom still live on imported foodstuffs.[xvi]
Furthermore, since independence a lack of variety in the range of crops being grown for the domestic market is apparent. In part this was a consequence of a stunted gastronomic culture. The result has been that the traditional Irish diet is notably low in fruit and vegetables consumption, increasing the likelihood of obesity. An historic missed opportunity was the failure of the state to support an emerging cooperative movement, advocating state-assisted greenhouse construction across the West of Ireland during the 1960s.
Today, with a climate not dissimilar, and a landmass far smaller, the Netherlands is the second leading exporter of vegetables in the world by value.[xvii]
The arrival of EU subsidies in the form of the CAP from the 1970s ossified the structure of Irish agriculture, driving up the price of land, and thereby decreasing the scope for the kind of cutting edge horticulture the Dutch have mastered.
Dig deeper into the substrate of Irish society and one discovers further ill-effects from Irish pastoralism’s inversion of the food pyramid. One-off housing is often seen as the scourge of rural Ireland. In contrast the Clachan of pre-Famine times involved substantial consolidated settlements, where farmers mostly grew crops for direct consumption. The Great Famine came about because of the tiny holdings of so many farmers, which brought intensive mono-cropping, and reliance on a single foodstuff.
Furthermore, extensive motor car reliance is connected to these one-off-developments; also bringing problems with subsequent urban development, as the preference of the pastoralist migrant to the city was for a detached home, rather than an apartment. We now contend with low density, suburban sprawl which has led the European Commission to describe Dublin as a ‘worst case scenario’ for ‘unsustainable car-dependent urban sprawl.’[xviii]
There appears to be little genuine opposition to the political duopoly, with Sinn Fein increasingly occupying the position held by Fianna Fáil in the nationalist spectrum. Sounding off on non-issues such as Venezuela belies a growing accommodation with the dominant consensus. The worst case scenario is that a Far Right party will derive support from the rising discontent with widening inequality, a housing crisis and the ongoing crisis in the provision of publish health.
Until we develop a functioning Irish media, interrogating the economic and social structures, including agriculture, and bringing accountability, the advance of genuinely progressive politics will remain stalled.
[i] Cormac McQuinn, ‘Varadkar dines out on steak amid beef backlash’, January 16th, 2019, Irish Independent, https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/varadkar-dines-out-on-steak-amid-beef-backlash-37716772.html, accessed 26/1/19.
[ii] Brian Boyd, ‘Beware the perils of Veganuary’, January 14th, 2019, https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/beware-the-perils-of-veganuary-1.3757316, 26/1/19.
[iii] Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association.’ Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets.’ J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Jul;109(7):1266-82. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19562864/, accessed 26/1/19.
[iv]Prof Walter Willett, MD, ,Prof Johan Rockström, PhD, Brent Loken, PhD, Marco Springmann, PhD, Prof Tim Lang, PhD, Sonja Vermeulen, PhD, Tara Garnett, PhD, David Tilman, PhD, Fabrice DeClerck, PhD, Amanda Wood, PhD, Malin Jonell, PhD, Michael Clark, PhD, Line J Gordon, PhD, Jessica Fanzo, PhD, Prof Corinna Hawkes, PhD, Rami Zurayk, PhD, Juan A Rivera, PhD, Prof Wim De Vries, PhD, Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, PhD, Ashkan Afshin, MD, Abhishek Chaudhary, PhD, Mario Herrero, PhD, Rina Agustina, MD, Francesco Branca, MD, Anna Lartey, PhD, Shenggen Fan, PhD, Beatrice Crona, PhD, Elizabeth Fox, PhD, Victoria Bignet, MSc, Max Troell, PhD, Therese Lindahl, PhD, Sudhvir Singh, MBChB, Sarah E Cornell, PhD, Prof K Srinath Reddy, DM, Sunita Narain, PhD, Sania Nishtar, MD, Prof Christopher J L Murray, MD, Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, January, 2019. The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788-4/fulltext?utm_campaign=tleat19&utm_source=HPfeature’, accessed 26/1/19.
[v] Kevin O’Sullivan, ‘No need for 90% drop in meat consumption, says Irish professor’, January 19th, 2019, Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/no-need-for-90-drop-in-meat-consumption-says-irish-professor-1.3763038, accessed 24/1/19.
[vi] Manus Boyle, ‘Fine Gael accused of greenwashing over Green Week campaign’, August 24th, 2018, Greennews.ie, https://greennews.ie/fine-gael-green-week-accused-greenwashing/
[vii] Untitled, ‘The Irish Times view: Making our diets more sustainable’, January 21st, 2019. https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/the-irish-times-view-making-our-diets-more-sustainable-1.3764519, accessed 26/1/19.
[viii] Margaret Donnelly, ‘Eating less meat over climate is ‘crazy’, says Healy-Rae’ January 18th, 2019, Irish Independent. https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/eating-less-meat-over-climate-is-crazy-says-healyrae-37723934.html, accessed 26/1/19.
[ix] The cost of inputs https://greennews.ie/fine-gael-green-week-accused-greenwashing/was estimated at over €5 billion in 2017: https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/oiiaf/outputinputandincomeinagriculture-finalestimate2017/ accessed 25/1/19.
[x] Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, ‘Calcium and Milk’, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/calcium-and-milk/
[xii] John Gibbons, ‘Ireland’s Government Using Fake Date to Pretend Dairy Emissions aren’t Rising’, 26th of January, 2019, DeSmogUK https://www.desmog.co.uk/2018/06/25/exclusive-ireland-s-government-using-fake-data-pretend-dairy-emissions-aren-t-rising, accessed 16/1/19.
[xiii] Fintan O’Toole, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch: the Politics of Irish Beef, London, Vintage, 1995, p.11
[xiv] Ibid, p.21
[xv] Ibid, p.202.
[xvi] See Frank Armstrong ‘Beef with Potatoes: Food, Sustainability, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Section C 115(1):405-430 · January 2015, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292163391_Beef_with_potatoes_Food_agriculture_and_sustainability_in_modern_Ireland, accessed 26/1/19.
[xvii] Frank Viviano ‘This Little Country Feeds the World’, September 2017, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/09/holland-agriculture-sustainable-farming/ accessed, 26/1/19.
[xviii] Untitled, Belfast Telegraph, ‘EU using Dublin as example of worst-case urban, 4th of October, 2016, sprawl’ https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/breakingnews/breakingnews_ukandireland/eu-using-dublin-as-example-of-worstcase-urban-sprawl-28409383.html