Immoral food conventions: Time to cut food giants’ toxic power

Joe Healy, Irish Farmers' Association president

For anyone with a reasonable, disposable income there are few fundamentals of life more influenced by the whims of fashion than food and diet. 

It would be unfair to suggest that former president Mary Robinson’s decision to become a pescatarian was driven by fashion rather than a strong personal, moral commitment to try to avert climate change. 

It might be unfair too to suggest that US former president Bill Clinton’s apparent conversion to veganism was driven by fashion rather than a heart attack but for some people, an ever-growing number, diet is a political statement of how they view the world.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar discovered this when he had to qualify recent remarks around a decision to cut back on meat consumption. 

The predictable dismissal of changing views around food production by IFA president Joe Healy at its recent annual meeting, where he attacked “keyboard warriors and lifestyle gurus” is rooted in the same debate. 

It seems the time has come to try to reconcile their positions.

These issues, and many more, are considered in an important paper on food sustainability from former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. 

Yesterday he published a report that put many of our unquestioned orthodoxies in a challenging focus. 

At one end of the spectrum, he pointed out we need access to better, healthier food as up to 80% of Europe’s healthcare costs are caused by chronic diseases due to poor diet. 

That lunacy is exacerbated by the fact that every year Europeans, in a world where billions go hungry, waste over €140bn on food we buy but don’t eat.

Those figures alone seem enough to condemn our policies but Mr De Schutter also points out that the untouchable CAP has failed farmers and consumers equally. 

Highlighting the gross inequity of 80% of CAP payments — single farm payments — going to just 20% of farms, he warned: “Farmers, in particular, are paying a high price: The share of EU food chain value going to agriculture dropped from 31% in 1995 to 21% in 2018, while farmers faced a 40% increase in input costs between 2000 and 2010.”

This, in any man’s language, is unsustainable. 

That we persist with it and tacitly support such a destructive arrangement is simply wrong, indeed it is hard not to see it as immoral — that judgment can be made without even considering the unacceptable role taxpayer-subsidised industrial farming plays in habitat and climate destruction.

Mr De Schutter proposes a solution, one that could not be further from the objective of our increasingly discredited national farm and food strategy, Food Wise 2025. 

European food policy is, he says, “the result of the lobbying that the big players can exercise”, and that, “when the anti-poverty groups met farm organisations... they discovered they were all victims of the same junk food being presented as a viable alternative to strong social policies and to food chains that were more equitable”. 

He proposes that farm subsidies be redirected to help farmers escape the destructive, impoverishing trap they, and we, are in. 

Sometimes great truths are indeed the simplest. All that is needed is strong leadership.

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