This article comes with a health warning. It’s heavier than my typical article. I didn’t intend for it to be that way but the facts don’t lie. How on earth did our food production processes get so off kilter! I’ve structured the article to lay out the stark reality and then finish with advice on what I believe to be the better option. Before you start I’d like to say that my intention is not to make anyone feel bad about their food choices. The aim of this article is to help people do the best they can, and that will look different for everyone. So don’t stress, try your best and keep lobbying for changes that make it easier to make the sustainable choice.
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I also hope this article doesn’t read like ‘farmer bashing’. Farmers play a vital role in societies and personally I think they’re undervalued and under-supported. I think in many ways they’re victims of the machine that is intensive farming in the same way that we are victims of scourge of packaging on our groceries. This section is merely meant to illustrate the problems that intensive farming methods have created and how we can support farmers who are trying to avoid it.
The Environmental Impact and Ethics of Meat & Dairy
Methane Emissions from Meat and Dairy
In 2017 there were 6,673,600 cattle in Ireland, which is approximately 1.4 times as many cows as people! Cows belch out methane which is said to be up to 86 times more damaging than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, our agriculture sector pumps out nearly twice the amount of transport and more than 3 times the amount of residencies (source: EPA.ie) but it’s unclear if those figures take into account the amount of carbon captured by grazed pastures in this country. I mention this because in 2010 the researcher Soussana found that grazed pastures in Europe absorb twice as much in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than livestock were emitting in term of methane and nitrous oxide from fertiliser. It’ll be interesting to see if drier summers and wetter winters will impact on the length of time cattle in Ireland spend indoors being fed fodder as this could impact on greenhouse emissions from the sector.
Methane emissions from conventional pigs and poultry farms may be quantitatively lower than that of cattle farms but as these animals are exclusively reared indoors there is no potential offsetting of greenhouse gas emissions by pastureland, therefore their environmental damage may well be higher than cattle reared on grass. Researchers in the Netherlands showed how methane from manure storage could be successfully oxidised in soil by methanotrophic bacteria but at the moment it hasn’t been explored commercially. Similarly the use of anaerobic digestors to help capture methane and convert it to energy has potential but with no government funding for such an initiative it’s slow to take off.
Ammonia Pollution from Meat and Dairy
Another concern with intensively reared pigs and poultry, is the amount of ammonia the process creates. In research coordinated by Greenpeace it was found that the majority of ammonia pollution (94%) stems from livestock farming and in 2015 the EU agricultural sector emitted a total of 3.75m tonnes of the stuff. Ammonia can affect air quality, worsening the impact of fine particulate matter. (source: Poultry World) Just to put this information in context ongoing exposure to fine particular matter has been linked to premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing. (source: EPA.gov) Interesting only farms raising more than 40,000 chickens, 2,000 pigs or 750 sows are required to submit data to the register so ammonia emission are in fact higher than reported in the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) (source: Poultry World)
Water Pollution caused by Meat and Dairy Farming
Sometimes the waste from pigs and poultry is applied to the soil as fertiliser. This animal waste fertiliser can contain high doses of heavy metals like copper and zinc, which can end up contaminating our soils and our water supply. Similarly waste high in nitrogen and potassium can overload the soil leading to water pollution and the degradation of the soil. (source: fao.org).
Food Miles and Sustainability of Fodder
I assumed that fodder given to animals in Ireland was mostly grown here but it turns out that Ireland imports 2/3 rds of its animal fodder – most of which is derived from soyabean – and that up to 90% of these soybean products are imported from the USA, Argentina and Brazil (source: Irish Examiner). This is concerning given how unsustainable growing of soy crops is leading to deforestation in South America.
Animal Welfare in the Production of Meat and Dairy
I appreciate that to some the whole idea of eating meat is an exercise in animal cruelty. This section is more intended for readers that don’t think eating meat in itself is cruel, but still want the animals they consume to experience as little stress or pain as possible.
Live Transportation of Animals from Ireland
The cattle, pig and lamb rearing industry in Ireland engages in live transportation of live animals abroad, sometimes on journeys of up to 5 days! If you’ve ever seen a livestock truck on route you’ll understand first hand why so many people find this practice deeply upsetting. Organic farms don’t typically engage in live transportation abroad but if an animal is sold to a conventional farmer then it could end up being transported this way.
Age at Slaughter of Animals on Irish Farms
Most of us don’t think about the age of animals when they’re slaughtered. It’s hard to find specific information on the age of animals sent to slaughter because it’s typically based on weight and not age but it seems that nowadays most cattle are killed for meat between 16 and 24 months. Depending on meat prices farmers can be penalised for sending in animals over 30 months old and the UK market won’t accept bulls of more than 16 months. If left to live out its natural life cows can live up to 15-20 years.
Pigs are killed when they reach a certain weight too and this is to prevent boar taint, a smell given off by some pork from fully grown male pigs when cooked. Some countries castrate male pigs to avoid this issue but Ireland and the UK don’t appear to. It would seem that in Ireland we managed the situation by slaughtering pigs as adolescents instead (source: independent.ie)
A chicken in a conventional broiler chicken farm lives for just 38 days before being sent to slaughter. Chickens on Organic Farms get to live a bit longer, 81 days and laying chickens longer again at 72 weeks. Male chicks from egg-laying hens don’t even get that far, they’re killed the day they’re born. This is because they don’t grow fast enough to be worth fattening for meat. This happens on all egg farms whether they’re organic, free-range or conventional. It is hoped that sexing of sperm in the future can eliminate this practice by preventing male chicks from being born to egg-layers.
Living Conditions of Farm Animals in Ireland
Because of our excellent grass growing conditions in Ireland cattle tend to graze outside for much of the year with sometime spent indoors being fed on fodder. Feeding cattle fodder can be very expensive and so farmers in Ireland tend to keep indoor rearing to a minimum. Cattle housed indoors on conventional farms may only be provided with concrete slabs to lay on, while cattle on organic farms must have a bedded lie-back area.
Conventional pig farms rear pigs in pens which, depending on the number of pigs and age, can be as small as 1sqm per grown pig. Pigs in conventional farms can’t be exposed to noise levels over 85 decibels, which is about the same as the noise of a motorcycle 25 ft away. It is customary to cut the teeth of piglets to prevent them injuring other pigs. Some say this behaviour is down to the unnaturalness of their living conditions and I’m told, doesn’t occur with ‘free-range’ habitats. I put the term ‘free-range’ in inverted commas because the term ‘free-range pork’ does not have any legal status in Ireland and should only really be used in conjunction with poultry or eggs in this country. Unfortunately I couldn’t find much detail on the required living conditions of organic pork but most of the suppliers of organic pork I found give some information on how they’re animals live.
Most of us are horrified at the ‘stocking density’ of 17 – 19 birds per square metre on conventional (battery) poultry farms and imagine that free-range is a world away from that, with birds free to roam as they please. In reality to use the label ‘free-range’ on chicken meat or eggs in Ireland farms only have to keep density to less than 13 birds per m2 and ensure that they have had continuous daytime access to open-air runs for at least half of their life time. ‘Traditional free range’ chicken or eggs have a ‘stocking rate’ of 12 birds per m2 and be allowed continual access to outside while eggs and birds labelled as ‘free range – total freedom’ have to be free to roam, (source: Dept of Agriculture). I couldn’t find information online on the stocking rates and habitats for organic chicken but an organic farmer friend advised me that, for meat, it’s 10 birds per square metre, plus outdoor access of 4 birds per square metre and for egg layers it’s 6 birds per square metre, plus outdoor access of 4 birds per square metre. Also beak clipping, a regular occurrence on conventional and most free-range farms, is disallowed on organic farms.
Antibiotics use in the Meat & Dairy Industry in Ireland
Slightly outside of the remit of this article but for worth mentioning anyway is the evidence that overuse of antibiotics in animal rearing farms is contributing to the development antibiotic resistant super bugs. That said Ireland has amongst the lowest use of antibiotics use in Europe. This issue relates almost exclusively to conventional livestock farming because if an organic animal is unwell, and complementary or natural medicine has failed to work, they can be given pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, but only as a last resort and the farmer must wait a specified amount of time before the animal can be sent for slaughter as an organic animal. Also if the treatment is used for a second time the product (meat or milk) cannot be sold as organic. (source: organicmeat.ie)
The Better Choice
Opt for Plants
The data is clear when it comes to meat and dairy; animal based products emit far more carbon than plant-based alternatives. So the best choice is to avoid animal products where you can. If you want to read more detail on this check out my article titled ‘Does eating less meat and dairy reduce your carbon footprint?’
Buy Organic Food
Not everyone is willing, or can give up meat or dairy completely, so if you need to buy meat or dairy aim to buy the least damaging possible. Organic meat producers tend to have a higher carbon footprint than non-organic but that’s down to the standard and length of life the animals are given, something I don’t think we should sacrifice for carbon. Organic agriculture also doesn’t contribute to the development of antibiotic resistant super bugs, and helps you avoid GM crops, if you’re that way inclined, as organic animals aren’t allowed to be fed them. So my advice is to buy organic wherever possible. To find an organic farmer in your local area check out my list of Organic & Free Range Animal Products in Ireland
If you’re ever buying loose eggs and want to be sure exactly what you’re buying take a look at the text printed on the egg. This code includes the type of egg, the country and county of origin, the producers id and the best before date. In relation to the type of egg the following codes apply; 0 = Organic, 1 = Free range, 2 = Barn, 3 = Eggs from caged hens. The code IE will confirm egg is from Ireland and letter denotes county of origin. You can find more information here.
If you can’t afford organic, and have reduced meat and dairy intake as much as possible the next step is to buy package-free when you can, which in my experience is easier done in local butchers than supermarkets.
When it comes to milk, one way to avoid packaging it so use a vending machine. There are a two dairies running milk vending schemes in Ireland. One is Saltrock Dairy in Wexford, who visits farmers markets with their mobile vending machine and the second is The Milk Shack in Co Louth.
If you’re in the UK you can source your milk from higher-welfare dairies who leave calves with their mothers for longer, like The Calf at the Foot, or The Ethical Dairy. These aren’t organic but they prioritise welfare over profit. I haven’t come across any in Ireland so if you do please let me know.
Sustainable Ethical Arable Farming in Ireland
Loss of Biodiversity
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the farming of plants is a benign practice on these isles. Unfortunately intensive farming has led to the destruction of our soil and the use of pesticides and herbicides has led to the death of millions of insects and the animals and birds that feed on them.
Soil Erosion due to Intensive Farming
We often take soil for grated but in addition to providing 99.7% of our food soil stores more carbon than the atmosphere and all plant life combined, and when healthy large amounts of water, which protect us from erosion, flooding and droughts (source: Save Our Soils). Every minute mankind destroys the equivalent of 30 football fields of fertile soil, mostly due to irresponsible farming and as a result ¼ of the earth’s soils are already highly degraded and we are losing 10 million ha of farmland every year.
Water Pollution caused by Farming in Ireland
As seen above water pollution continues to be an ongoing issue for the entire agriculture sector in Ireland, with 53% of water pollution incidents in Ireland between 2010 and 2012 caused by the agriculture sector and given the increase in agricultural output over the past few years, driven by the governments’ Food Harvest 2020 policy, it’s possible that the level of pollution is even higher now.
Weedkillers, Insecticides & Fungicides
Since 2018 farmers in Ireland are no longer allowed to spray crops with Glyphosate (Roundup) before harvesting to dry them out, as is the case in other countries like America and Canada. However Glyphosate can still be used as a weed killer up to 28 days before harvesting. Also some fungicides can be sprayed on the day of harvest and some insecticides as close as 1 day before harvest.
Manufacturers of these chemicals claim that these products are perfectly safe to use in this way and their approval by the state concurs with that. Wildlife charities would refute that and a study in 2018 reported that Glysophate (the active ingredient in Roundup) changed the gut biome in bees to such an extent as to make them susceptible to lethal infections.
The Impact of Land Use on Climate Crisi
We often don’t consider the impact that using land for farming has on the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Interestingly a study in Sweden determined that, in relation to land use, organic food is worse for climate change than non-organic. This headline stopped me in my tracks and I had to really fight my confirmation biases to read the article without prejudice. The co-author of the study, Stefan Wirsenius, explains that
“The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation. The world’s food production is governed by international trade, so how we farm in Sweden influences deforestation in the tropics. If we use more land for the same amount of food, we contribute indirectly to bigger deforestation elsewhere in the world.”
Okay, so if I’m interpreting the study correctly, the authors are saying that buying locally grown organic fruit and veg is causing deforestation in the tropics because there simply isn’t, and won’t be, enough land to farm organically and feed the current, and growing population, leading us to chop down more forests around the world.
I’m not a scientists so I’m reading the report with an educated lay-person’s eyes and my response to this study is as follows;
- the authors assumes that high farming outputs in Sweden will prevent deforestation in other parts of the world. I think it’s reasonable to assume that a shortage of food would lead to deforestation but would adequate supply prevent it? I’m not convinced that the forest wouldn’t be cleared for something else.
- as the basis of their comparison the authors calculated how much sequestered carbon would be lost by converting forest to farmland. They did not include in their calculation how much carbon is sequestered by sustainably managed farmland.
- the study doesn’t take into account the impact of reduced pollution and nutrient-dense food on population health and any subsequent carbon emission savings that this might bring about.
- the study doesn’t take into account the positive impact of increased biodiversity. This is understandable given the scope of the study but I wanted to note it here all the same.
I think it’s important that we question all of the choices we make and don’t assume that organic is always good or that GMO is always bad. Having considered this study I get a sense of deja vu. We seem to be constantly reviewing research from where we are, not where we need to be. I would question the credibility of a food production system that demands us to engage in a farming methods that have been shown to lead to loss of biodiversity, pollution of our waterways and less-nutritious food. It’s a given that if we continue on the current path of population growth we may need to wring every calorie out of the land to feed our culture massive waste in the short-term . Long-term though, there may be no harvests left in the soil resulting in a natural curbing of the population through famine.
Slavery & Child Labour
Who’d have thought we’d have to talk about these things in relation to groceries? It’s a sad reality that where there is money there will be exploitation. Here is a list of 389 goods that are thought to involve child labour. I bet you’ve bought some of them recently, they’re hard to avoid in conventional supermarkets.
As we travel and watch more and more cookery programmes our appetite (pardon the pun) for exotic ingredients continues, with the requisite food miles in tow. I think living it Ireland this sustainability conundrum can be the hardest nut to crack (another pun!). Anyone I speak to is very reluctant to return to the days of only eating locally grown fruit and vegetables, which would of course have the lowest food miles. The invention of poly tunnels has helped broaden the range of crops that can be grown in Ireland and with drier hotter summers perhaps this issue will be come a thing of the past in future years.
Surprising research carried out in the US in 2008 suggests that food miles only contributes 11% to the carbon footprint of food, with a whopping 83% being down to farming/production methods. This would mean that buying imported food produced in a low-carbon way may be more sustainable than locally grown high-carbon farming methods even if that food is imported.
Setting aside carbon footprint, there are other benefits to supporting local farmers; including a shorter supply chain that requires less packaging, a higher nutritional content in the final product, and the certainty that your food was grown without child-labour and slavery.
Fashion is synonymous with unsustainability and given the inter-connectivity of food production and the environment even more so when it happens in food. With the advent of social media the speed with which new superfoods go viral is supersonic and we seem to be locked in a cycle of discovery, trending, excessive demand, over-production, bans or boycotts, devastation. Take quinoa for example, although there’s been an increase in welfare for farmers in Peru thanks to the popularity of Quinoa, high quinoa prices have incentivised farmers towards bad practices like overuse of pesticides and not respecting crop rotations. It’s the age-old tale of short-term gain over long-term benefit.
The Better Choice
Buy Locally Grown and Organic
There seems to be really only one way to avoid contributing to the problems created by conventional farming methods and that seems to be to buy as much locally grown organic as you can with the latest research showing organic farming can capture 26% more carbon in the soil than on conventional farms, which would go some way to slowing down climate change.
Organically grown food has also been shown to be more nutritious and protective against cancer so it’s a win, win for you. When you have to choose between organic or locally grown then just go with your gut. The only way to really know which is better from an environmental point of view is to do a specific Life Cycle Analysis of every food item, so don’t overthink it.
I’ve written an extensive list of Organic and Chemical-free fruit & veg producers in Ireland, a lot of whom do weekly Veg boxes. You can also source shops that stock package-free organic or locally grown fruit and veg on my Eco Map
One area we often overlook when considering air miles and toxin-free food is pasta. Until recently I didn’t know that a lot of pasta branded as Italian is actually made with Canadian grown wheat, which is sprayed with Glysophate (Roundup) prior to harvesting to dry it out. Another reason to buy organic dry good too!
Over fishing and destructive fishing is the main issue when it comes to sourcing sustainable food. In 1992 over-fishing caused the collapse of Canada’s Grand Banks cod fishery with the loss of over 35,000 jobs and even in contemporary times some fish are caught using explosive or cyanide with devastating consequences for the natural environment, never mind your health.
The Better Choice
Some are now arguing that fishing is so unsustainable and destructive that we need to stop eating fish altogether. In the past I’ve recommended that people should look for fish brands that have been certified as sustainable by an independent industry-specific organisation, such as the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council). but I’ve recently learned that the council certified tuna fisheries in which endangered sharks had been caught and finned; and, in UK waters, it has approved scallop dredging that rips the seabed to shreds. For this reason our family have decided to give up fish completely.
If that’s not something that you’re will to do then consider reducing your fish intake and where you can buying from someone that you can have a conversation with about their fishing methods. You may also be interested in the Marine Conservation Society’s ‘Fish to Avoid‘ list.
The term processed food typically conjures up an image of ready-meals in plastic trays. I’m using this term to describe food that most of us don’t think of as processed, like jam or bread. In this section I’ll just be looking at issues specific to processed food, i.e. I won’t be talking about the pesticides to grow the wheat, just the palm oil that might be used to make it into a loaf. And on that note ……
I’ve written I’ve a specific article on the tricky task of avoiding palm oil.
Slavery & Child Labour
Unfortunately one of our favourite treats, chocolate is, blighted by exploitation, with the number of children in working in the cocoa industry increasing year on year. The website Green Stars Project gives an excellent insight into the problem in their article Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.
The Better Choice
Baking your own or buying bread from a bakery is the only way to avoid packaging, but then it’s not generally the most efficient use of energy, unless you have the oven on for other things, but in my experience this doesn’t happen enough to make bread regularly.
We used to buy our bread package-free from Lidl’s in-house bakery, but having learned that it comes wrapped in plastic to the store, we figured that this fact, plus the energy consumption of running an instore oven didn’t make it the low-carbon choice we originally thought it to be.
Avoiding child labour and slavery is a little easier thanks to independent certification organisations like Fairtrade, UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, Fair for Life and Fair Trade Federation. Aldi and Lidl carry an extensive range of UTZ and Fairtrade certified chocolate and chocolate based products. Unfortunately I have found Irish chocolatiers really far behind on this issue with very few of them offering certified chocolate.
Most of the honey sold in Ireland is imported and is a blend of honey from lots of different sources. Think of all the carbon emissions generated by transporting what is quite a heavy item across continents. Also a lot of the honey sold in Europe has been adulterated with sugar so you’re not always getting what you paid for. It’s the same with organic honey, unless a organic farm is so isolated as to not have non-organic flowering plants within foraging distance there is no way for the beekeeper to sure their honey is 100% organic.
Contrary to what most people think the creation of honeybee hives actually harms the survival of wild bees as they compete with them for food. Also because solitary bees have been found to be better pollinators the increase in honeybee hives may result in less pollination, not more, in the future.
Finally some argue that the whole nature of beekeeping involves quite a bit of unnatural and unethical practices and shouldn’t be supported.
The Better Choice
We’ve decided to reduce our intake of honey in our house but we do buy it occasionally and when we do we aim to buy it from a local beekeeper. To find one in your area check out findyourkeeper.ie
This article has been a real eye-opener for me and it will certainly influence my food choices in the future. I’ve been conscious of a lot of these issues for a while and have been moving towards more sustainable food but now I’m motivated to double my efforts and make changes where I can.
PS – Check out my other food related articles