TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar could hardly have anticipated the furore he set in motion with his remarks about his new year’s resolution to cut back on eating meat for health reasons and to mitigate damage to the environment. They rendered the farming lobby apoplectic to think that the leader of the country could be, albeit unintentionally, dealing a big blow to Ireland’s struggling meat industry with outspoken retorts coming from Kerry TDs Danny and Michael Healy Rae about the need for meat in people’s diets, especially those engaged in physical labour.
The Taoiseach had to move quickly to diffuse the outrage by reiterating that he was just cutting back on his meat consumption and not giving it up altogether. This got the vegan lobby upset because its members feel that all of us should give up consuming meat and dairy products if there is to be any hope of saving the planet from the ravages of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions given off by our increasing national herd.
While leading environmental group, An Taisce, gave a qualified welcome to Leo Vararkar’s ‘overdue’ remarks and his better-late-than-never acknowledgment of the uphill struggle Ireland faces to reduce its carbon emissions, it was strongly critical of his government’s record in this area. An Taisce cynically noted that it is heartening that the Taoiseach now realises that the environment ‘is something voters and younger voters in particular really care about.’
It described as ‘irrational,’ the backlash against remarks made in the Dáil about Mr Varadkar reducing his own consumption of red meat ‘both for health reasons and for reasons of climate change,’ saying they underline ‘the extremist positions being taken by a tiny minority of TDs, egged on by vested interests in the agri-industrial sector who are attempting to shout down reasoned debate on this crucial issue.’ There are, however, two sides to every story, whether An Taisce likes it or not.
The debate was further enlivened when respected medical journal, The Lancet, rowed in with its assessment of the situation by unequivocally recommending a 90% reduction in our consumption of red meat and dairy products and a 70% reduction of chicken as well as starchy vegetables like potatoes. The EAT-Lancet report justifies this by pointing out that almost one billion people are hungry, almost two billion are eating the wrong food and unhealthy diets account for up to 11 million avoidable deaths per year.
The scientists maintain that the dominant diets of the past 50 years are a major contributor to climate change and are no longer nutritionally-optimal either. So, if we want to save the planet, we are going to have to change our eating habits.
It is said that ‘You are what you eat’ and those who eat foods that are good for the body tend to be healthier and fitter. Notwithstanding the country’s huge obesity problem, mainly caused by processed foods that have an emphasis on convenience, it should still be up to the individual to make choices such as whether or not they are going to eat meat and dairy products.
Most foods are fine if consumed in moderation, but the time has come when people need to look at the bigger picture and consider the effect the production of the food they eat is causing to the planet so that future generations can be sustainably fed. Last Saturday, we saw a Children’s Rally for Climate Action outside the Dáil; they are the generation whose lives will be affected most by decisions people take now and the urgency with which they are acted upon.
On Friday of last week, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Richard Bruton, TD, held a consultation on the development of an all-of-government plan to make Ireland a leader in responding to climate change. This is something that should have been done ages ago, however Mr Bruton is only in the job a few months and he does seem to be giving the issue of climate action the urgency it requires even at this late stage.
His grandiose notion of making Ireland a leader in the area is probably a bridge too far, but if he can set in motion the wheels to, at least, get our commitments to reduce carbon emissions back on track, it will be a good start that can be built on later.
An Taisce was rightly critical of the Taoiseach for describing environmental threats as being a ‘long-term challenge.’ To further back this up, Climate Case Ireland’s legal action seeking to quash the government’s 2017 National Mitigation Plan because of its failure to meet Ireland’s legal obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions opened in the High Court on Tuesday last.
The urgency is not just on the food production front, which accounts for less than a third of greenhouse gas emissions. The problem of emissions in the transport sector is far greater and needs to be tackled with even more resolve by making it more affordable for people to buy hybrid and electric vehicles, and then there are industrial emissions to be addressed also and reduced.
Time is of the essence.