Have farmers got all eggs in one basket?

THE news that the World Health Organisation (WHO) will publish a report on Monday that will show that eating some processed meats exposes consumers to cancer risks on a par with misusing alcohol, asbestos, arsenic or cigarettes will hardly encourage a light-hearted breakfast mood on Ireland’s 140,000 or so family farms this morning. Most of them are, after all, directly or indirectly involved in meat production.

The same report, from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, will also advise that eating too much red meat heightens cancer risks. This will hardly be a champagne moment for the 8.8% of the country’s workforce employed directly or indirectly through agriculture.

The report will add to the growing body of evidence that suggests our almost insatiable appetite for meat is an environmentally unsustainable health risk. This suggestion will of course be anathema to the meat industry, as will the WHO suggestion that we should eat processed meats like ham, bacon or salami as infrequently as possible. The safety threshold suggested by the WHO — that we should not eat more than 500g, just over a pound in old money — of red meat each week represents a huge challenge for farmers and meat processors, especially as the WHO net is thrown pretty widely. The agency describes hamburgers, minced beef, pork chops, some sausages and lamb and mutton as red meat.

Plans to increase the national dairy herd by something around 30% in the next few years are well advanced — and very many dairy farmers have assumed considerable debt to expand their milking operations — and are unlikely to be reviewed because of this report, but it might be unwise for the industry to ignore shifting consumer sentiment whether driven by a new health awareness or environmental concerns. There were 6.2m cattle — not including sheep or pigs — in Ireland according to the December 2014 livestock survey and even if this represented a 1% decline on previous year levels, 583,000 tonnes of beef were produced last year.

The sector will weather this particular storm, but as there is an ever louder demand, especially in the US where meat production methods are very different to ours, that subsidies to the sector be cut, thereby making meat more expensive and less attractive to consumers and provoke what some see as a win-win situation: reduced meat production hence reduced environmental damage as well as reduced cancer risks.

These findings are a huge challenge for all of us, especially as we are products of an ancient culture where wealth was judged by cattle ownership. But already change is afoot. Just last week, a vegetarian restaurant — Cork’s Café Paradiso — was named best restaurant in the country by an international jury. This speaks to an international trend as figures show an increase of 94% of vegetarian restaurants in Spain, where they once to regarded a dead pig as a vegetable, since 2011 and an increase of 60% in the UK in the same period. The Irish agri-sector has shown it can be progressive and flexible, but in light of this changing mood and this serious health warning, it should ask itself if it has all its eggs in just one basket.


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