Farmers follow markets, EU, government, not EAT-Lancet

A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods is a “win-win” for both people and the planet, according to last week’s EAT-Lancet Commission report.

However, the reality is that per capita meat consumption is generally increasing in all parts of the world, but fastest in developing regions.

Global meat market specialists GIRA forecast this trend will take total meat consumption to 318 million tonnes in 2018, 321m tonnes by 2019, and 343m tonnes by 2023.

This trend is acknowledged in the EAT-Lancet report, predicting 50% more red meat consumption and 100% more poultry meat consumption by 2050.

Therefore, their planetary health diet targets of holding poultry meat consumption at its present level, and cutting red meat consumption by about 70%, by 2050, seem to be just wishful thinking.

A more than 100% increase in consumption of foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes seems an equally unachievable target (eating 50 g/day of nuts instead of red meat is suggested).

The report was hardly the most important news for farmers last week.

But it drew an even bigger backlash from Irish farmers than the latest developments in the Brexit saga.

However, it is likely to have little effect on Irish farmers.

It is the latest in a number of similar reports.

But GIRA says strong demand drivers still counter-balance social pressures, such as negativity around meat production, increases in regulatory costs, growing competition from alternative meat products, and the vegetarianism and flexitarianism movement, which is particularly evident in the developed world.

What farmers do is largely dictated by markets, by the EU, and by the Irish government. Therefore, the most interesting response to the EAT-Lancet Commission report was that from Meat Industry Ireland (MII), representing meat processors who set the market in Ireland.

They put forward their own scientific evidence to prove the benefits of meat consumption as part of a healthy balanced diet, and said Ireland’s grass-based farming has a natural competitive advantage in producing meat protein far more sustainably than other regions.

Hopefully they can also justify our pig poultry industries, the former heading into a second year of losses for pig farmers, and the latter set for its biggest ever annual production.

MII said it would be counterproductive to reduce meat production in Ireland, only to import food from less sustainable systems abroad.

Ironically, it is the market controlled by MII that threatens to reduce Irish meat production, rather than the EAT-Lancet Commission report. Beef production here is likely to fall, with rearing of dairy cattle making inroads, because the beef market does not adequately recompense farmers.

As for the No 2 influence on farmers here, the EU does not seem unduly worried about the sustainability of farming, which accounts for only 10% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions. And it is happy with its position as the largest global exporter and importer of agri-food products.

How would the 37 leading scientists from 16 countries who compiled this report change what we eat?

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They say global agriculture policies should incentivise growing of nutritious, plant-based foods in diverse production systems, and increase research on nutrition and sustainability.

Cutting food losses and waste is one of the main calls in this report.

It says the world eats three times more red meat than it should, rising to six and a half times for North Americans.

Europe and Central Asia are combined, and are found to eat at least four times too much red meat, at least two times too much eggs, and at least four times too much starchy vegetables.

The relatively well-off populations of these developed regions have some choice in what they eat, but what about the people in sub-Saharan Africa (one of the world’s poorest regions) who eat seven times too much starchy vegetables, according to the report?

For example, cassava is a staple in African countries, but the report says we should eat less than 50g a day in our diet of starchy vegetables (including potatoes).

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