Irish Times Column, September 7th, 2023

I wouldn’t have expected that in 2023, a year that saw multiple climate records topple, I’d spend a column defending a [tweet](,and%20) by the Environmental Protection Agency advising people to “reduce your red meat consumption slowly”. But here we are.

The real story is not the substance of the tweet, whose message was mild relative to the urgency of action required.

The global food system accounts for between a quarter and a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and drives deforestation and habitat loss by taking up half of habitable land. The most impactful dietary changes – cutting back on animal products, especially beef and lamb, and cutting food waste – are well-established scientifically.

The EPA apparently deleted this tweet in the face of pressure from farming organisations, not because it was incorrect.

The EPA is an independent public body tasked with, among other things, providing timely and targeted information to inform decision making, and to advocate for sustainable environmental behaviour. Their message advising the public to cut back on meat consumption is perfectly in line with this remit, the science, and their other social media posts, for example, suggesting people cycle, rather than drive, and put away their lawnmower.

Why do farming organisations feel confident throwing their weight around and succeed in policing the social media feed of our public environmental body? Getting to the heart of this question reveals one of the fundamental reasons that Ireland is such a laggard in climate action, I believe: there is a deep misalignment between on the one hand, farming policies, that have led farmers to specialise in producing huge volumes of some of the most carbon-intensive food products for export, and on the other, a legal commitment to put Ireland’s economy in line with our Paris Agreement commitment to cut our impact on the climate.

This is one of the “unknown knowns” in Irish life that Fintan O’Toole writes about in these pages: the evidence is overwhelming, but we have become expert at ignoring it.

I believe the tweet mainly caused anger because its message conflicts with the prevailing narrative – that Irish livestock is environmentally sustainable – which is promoted by the industry, politicians, advertising and public bodies like Bord Bia. This narrative helps gives a social licence to the sector, which benefits significantly from public subsidies. Countering the narrative of sustainability threatens that social licence.

But education on the sustainability of food choices is badly needed. Building sustainability into national health eating guidelines would be a good start. Safefood recently published the results of an extensive research project which examined this.

They found high agreement among experts that Ireland’s food system is not sustainable, and that sustainability recommendations should be included in food-based dietary guidelines. Three-quarters of experts interviewed believe that it is very, or extremely important to recommend limiting, or reducing red meat consumption through dietary recommendations.

It concluded that “much work needs to be done in reconnecting human and ecological health, building awareness and knowledge of sustainable diets, and in making the more sustainable choice the easier choice.”

Ongoing research in Teagasc and University College Dublin has found that on average, we eat too much protein, and that moderate changes to the typical Irish diet – just meeting the current healthy eating guidelines – would cut greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter.

What we eat (and how much food we waste) has a far larger impact on the climate than where the food comes from – the “food miles” – or how it’s packaged. But that message is not getting across. According to research at the Economic and Social Research Institute, public understanding is poor: “most people underestimate the impact of eating less meat and overestimate the impact of buying local, organic or unpackaged food”.

That is not surprising. Attempts to correct misunderstandings and confront the prevailing narrative are met with enormous resistance.

Moreover, some state funding appears to be used to serve the interests of the sector, rather than public and environmental health. For example, Bord Bia actively promotes a narrative on sustainability to assuage the growing fears in consumers around the environmental and animal welfare impact of beef production. And, the classroom educational resources developed by the National Dairy Council through the EU School Milk Scheme covers aspects of food sustainability focussing on packaging and food miles, emphasising only the positive credentials of Irish food.

The Safefood report warns that “protective measures to limit potential conflicts of interest in [incorporating sustainability into dietary guidelines] will be essential”. I’m not confident a more honest approach to dietary change will happen while lobbying has such power.

That the EPA backed down on its fact-based climate messaging is worrying in many respects, not least because it makes it harder for others to deliver inconvenient truths.