Keynote speech by Joe McNamee for Launch of Food Map January 22 2020
The Power of Knowledge and the Crucial Role it Can Play in Bringing About a Truly Sustainable Irish Food System
By Joe McNamee
Written for the launch of Cork Food Policy Council’s Cork Food Landscape Map, January Wednesday January 22nd 2020 from 6.30pm–8.30pm In Cork University Business School (CUBS) 1, Lapps Quay Cork City.
Then published on the Cork Food Policy Council Website
Has there ever been a better time for Irish food? We grow, raise or catch some of the finest produce in the world: superb fruit and vegetables are eminently achievable in what is one of the most clement growing climates in the world, despite all that rain; our beef and lamb is world class; equally so our dairy produce, best exemplified by the Irish farmhouse cheese sector.
Our seafood is prized all over Europe, so much so that 80% of it is snapped up for export. Our specialty producers and their output are equally prized.
Our restaurant and hospitality sector has taken this bounty and run with it; a growing band of brilliant chefs producing fabulous food and our haul of Michelin stars grows year on year.
Some 80% plus of visitors to Ireland arrive with little or no expectations of Irish food; Fáilte Ireland surveys show they leave professing themselves to be ‘absolutely blown away’ by our national offering.
Travelling elsewhere in Europe, even to those countries traditionally renowned for their cuisines, I regularly have dining experiences inferior to those now being consistently delivered in Ireland.
On a larger scale, our agri-biz and industrial food sector companies are extremely powerful global players, one of only two native sectors—along with tourism—that continued to be a net contributor to our GDP after the demise of the Celtic Tiger. Unsurprisingly, Bord Bia markets Ireland to the rest of the world as ‘The Food Island’.
But then I flip the coin.
Our agricultural land is essentially a chemical cocktail and say the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Eutrophication of rivers and lakes due to phosphorous losses from agriculture continues to be the most critical impact of Irish agriculture on water
quality”, and over 70% of phosphates reaching inland waters emanate from agricultural sources.
Simplified, eutrophication is caused by the run-off of nitrates (fertilisers) from the land into rivers and lakes which leads to the growth of algae which, in turn, leads to the depletion of oxygen in water—without oxygen, there is no chance for life.
The Water Quality in Ireland 2013-2018 report, published in 2019, found just 20 Irish rivers in ‘pristine’ condition, down from 500 in the 1980s.
The report states: “A new sense of urgency is now needed to address the issues affecting water quality, particularly in relation to agriculture and other land management practices, which are key drivers behind the recent increases in nitrates and phosphorus that we are seeing in our rivers and lakes, and the increasing inputs of these nutrients to our marine environment.”
The destruction of biodiverse habitats is at critical levels with almost 90% of Ireland’s habitats classed as ‘poor’ or ‘inadequate’ and between one-fifth and one-quarter of assessed species are threatened with extinction.
The ongoing degradation of the soil is adding another layer of threat to our pronounced vulnerability to flooding and will seriously jeopardise our ability to produce healthy, premium quality food in the future.
US food writer Michael Pollan believes we have systemically destroyed the soil microbe community, which is so crucial to our health and even that this may be responsible for the massive increase in auto-immune diseases in the West.
What of the farming sector and by extension the social viability of rural Ireland? According to a recent Central Bank report, around 7 out of every 10 farms, on average, ‘face significant viability challenges and are heavily reliant on direct payments. Around one- third of all farms are classified as economically vulnerable. Any future negative shock— even one less material than Brexit—would further expose the underlying weaknesses in the sector’.
In a country of such comparative wealth, it is deeply shameful that we still have citizens living in food poverty and it is not just those who are homeless or living on the street, but also people ‘safe and sound’ in their own homes.
That fact considered in the light of national and global food waste only compounds the obscenity: globally, we throw away 1.3 billion tonnes of food each year with about the same number of people going hungry every day—even I couldn’t eat a ton of food each
year. Irish households and businesses waste a million tons of food each year—2 1⁄2 times Croke Park, filled up to the top.
Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, are the leading cause of mortality in the world and Ireland is no different.
Leaving tobacco consumption and lack of physical exercise for another forum, poor diet is the other primary culprit, causing excessive weight gain and, more and more, full-blown obesity, raised blood pressure, raised blood sugar and raised cholesterol.
This is largely preventable yet, over the past two decades, figures for those who are overweight or even obese in Ireland have doubled. Now only 40% of us are at a healthy weight. What’s more, experts predict Ireland has the potential to become the most obese nation in Europe. Each and every child in the land will watch some 1000 plus ads per year for junk food ever before they attend school and right through their school years.
What a journey we have made as a nation: from famine to feast to fatality. And in numbers that if we continue inexorably along this path will eventually dwarf those of the famine fatalities. We are killing ourselves with our food choices and the ‘food’ we put into our bodies.
We now have a food system whereby, for the most part, the industrial agriculture and food production sectors control production of food, and the giant multiples, the supermarket chains, control its delivery to our tables, and all this is enabled by the State and a body politic, elected by the population as a whole yet working primarily for elite vested interests.
Current State agricultural policy was first outlined in Harvest 2020, published in 2010 and superseded by Foodwise 2025, published in 2016.
The members listed on the advisory committee of Harvest 2020 included, amongst others, representatives from most major Irish agri-biz companies and supermarket multiples, both homegrown and foreign, all advising on the future of Irish agriculture. There was one farmer.
A small section was devoted to the organic sector, lending touchy feely warmth. Several years ago, I spent an entire afternoon on the phone being passed around multiple state departments seeking information on the progress of organic goals in Harvest 2020. Nobody could tell me anything, there was no information to be had.
Foodwise 2025 saw two farmers on the committee but the organic sector representative was gone.
The stated aims in Foodwise 2025 are to increase value added in the agri-food, fisheries and wood products sector by 70%, to in excess of €13 billion, and increase the value of Primary Production by 65%, to almost €10 billion, all by the year 2025.
I struggle to comprehend how this can be viable in the context of climate change alone. Atrocious weather in recent years has seen us subsidise the purchase of fodder from abroad as we exhausted all native supplies; the summer before last, we wound up slaughtering substantial numbers of the national herd during the heatwave. Yet, bizarrely, perversely, though we struggle to support the existing national dairy herd, the plan is still to double it.
Economist, philosopher and activist Kenneth E. Boulding once stated, ‘anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.’
Once upon a time, we had a far greater connection with the food we ate. When we shopped for food, we went to a series of specialist shops rather than one single large supermarket. In each shop, we knew exactly what we were after and could tell the difference between good and bad. We often grew or raised our own food, produce and livestock. And we cooked.
Once upon a time, roughly 60 years ago, we devoted an hour and a half per day to cooking. These days, the figure is under 30 minutes and falling, with many dedicating less than ten minutes a day to the preparation and cooking of the very stuff we put into our bodies.
Why did we do this? Because we bought into the idea of convenience. And why wouldn’t we? Why would we begrudge those housewives of yore, those, invariably women, largely left to the never-ending drudgery of housework, when they saw an opportunity for some brief respite. And it was a good thing. We embraced the concept of labour saving and ordinary working people discovered ‘leisure’ time.
But what happens when the balance swings too far to the other side? Convenience and the avoidance of labour whenever possible has now become the Holy Grail, a fundamental ethos of the first world, not just for ‘housewives’, but for all of us. We all want to save on our labour time and capitalise on our leisure time.
But this trade comes at a very high cost.
In exchange for convenience, we have bartered away our repository of food knowledge, acquired over thousands of years and lost in mere decades, those decades being roughly the same period in which our now-epidemic of diet-related health issues began to emerge. This is no coincidence.
Our new-found ignorance means the consumer can be gulled by every player in the food chain. Food scandals such as the horse-meat affair several years ago have a far greater chance of occurring when most modern consumers can barely tell you what type of animal the meat they eat comes from. Once upon a time, our grandparents could go to a butchers and pretty much reassemble an entire carcass from the display laid out before them.
But, we say, look at the supermarket shelves: all year-round, we have choice on a scale our grandparents could only dream of and all in one convenient location. But do we?
Do 20 or more different types of over-salted and over-sugared breakfast cereals, so nutritionally inferior they require fortification, constitute a greater level of choice than a single bag of oats for porridge?
Having to buy a whole bag of carrots when you only want one? Does that equate to greater choice, especially when there’s every chance the rest of the bag will go to waste? Speaking of fresh produce, do you view out-of-season, nutritionally-inferior fruit and vegetables (irradiated to preserve them as they travel halfway around the world to your local supermarket) as a superior option to locally grown, seasonal produce?
Have you ever tasted an Egyptian strawberry in January and considered it the equivalent of a Wexford strawberry in June?
Row after row of freezers full of oven-ready pizzas and a whole host of other processed readymade meal options—is that ‘choice’?
For every sound option available in a supermarket, there are many more items that are much less so. If you believe that cooking nutritionally sound, tasty food involves doing as little as possible to the finest and freshest local, seasonal primary produce, ideally subjected to little or no process at all, then you’ll find supermarkets actually offer the illusion of choice.
Real choice is simply not cost effective for the giant retailers and, behind them, the industrial agriculture sector. But while they prosper, we suffer and even die.
We need State policies that protect all of those within the state, not just the vested interests of the powerful few. We need the state to become proactive, not reactive.
But I don’t see that happening in the immediate future so for now, it is very much in our hands. This Cork Food Map and all its potential for informing serious change is a sterling example of the inherent power of regaining food knowledge but we need to go further.
We need radical reform to achieve a food production system that works with the environment, not against it. We need a food system that adequately rewards the primary producers, the farmers and growers, to feed the people in their community and the entirety of the island of Ireland, only then looking to exporting the excess.
We need a regenerative agriculture that attempts to restore the land and waters to a time before we began their systematic destruction.
We need to eliminate needless food waste, locally, nationally, and globally, a grotesque obscenity in a world where so many people still die each day from hunger.
And most of all, we need to make food knowledge, its growing, sourcing and cooking, a primary pillar of education from the moment our children start school.
But where do we even begin? I can offer ideas and solutions for discussion but I don’t have all the answers but I do know who has a lot of answers. All of us working together, first acknowledging the problems and then brainstorming our way around them. There are even more answers to be found outside these doors in the wider community of this city, even more again in this country as a whole. The world beyond that has more answers again. The entire human race has ALL of the answers; we just need to wake up and start asking the questions.
It works outwards and gradually upwards, beginning with the ordinary individual at the very bottom because this type of change will never come from the top. This would be an appropriate point to refer to a quote from 2016 Slow Food Terre Madre, in Italy: ‘They may be giants, but we are millions.’
We need to begin a national conversation, a very difficult conversation, especially for a people fond of saying one thing and meaning another. We need stakeholders at all levels, from the ordinary citizen right the way up to those operating at the very top of the agri-biz sector and all of their State enablers, to acknowledge the profound environmental and social damage caused by this manic pursuit of Mammon over manna. And then we need to start talking about what we do next, honestly, openly and fearlessly.
Professor Tim Lang, of London City University, the man who coined the term ‘food miles’, once wrote: “Food isn’t just about nutrition, or the environment, or questions of sustainable farming, or food industry practice, or ethics, or trade justice, or affordability. It is all these things.”
Finally and most fundamentally food is not a commodity, it is an essential human requirement along with air, water, sleep and shelter.
It bears repeating, a thousand times, a million times, if necessary, until the message truly hits home: Food is not a commodity, it is a basic human right.
It is time we began making that principle the core value at every level of our food system and a key to doing that is in recovering our lost food knowledge.