Ann Fitzgerald: 'Demonisation of beef is the lazy option in a far more complex food debate'

Roast beef with all the trimmings
Roast beef with all the trimmings
Ricky Gervais (Ian West/PA)
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I can never remember a food come under more sustained attack than beef is undergoing at present and I firmly believe it is unjustified.

Salt, sugar, butter and eggs have all been demonised at different times; the difference with beef is that it's not just being vilified on health grounds but also ethical and environmental.

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When you look past the scare tactics, there is no strong evidence linking unprocessed, properly cooked, red meat to disease in humans.

It's highly nutritious and we have eaten it throughout our evolution as a species.

Although it has to be admitted that most of the beef consumed today is different to the past when animals roamed freely, eating grass and other vegetation.

Lots of foods may not be healthy when they are improperly produced, consumed excessively or prepared poorly.

The ethical side is an area I am slow to address, because I am afraid of causing offence to militant vegans. They seem to feel that livestock farmers and meat-eaters lack morals.

But as the English comedian Ricky Gervais observed: "Just because you're offended doesn't mean you're right."

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Like most farmers, we care for our animals. They are well looked after. They have a better life than millions if not billions of the world's inhabitants.

At the same time, I recognise there are incidents of animals being treated improperly. That is indefensible and our farming organisations should actively address the issue.

Last week, well-known BBC Countryfile presenter Adam Henson called for agriculture to be taught at GCSE level, saying that people need to, "make informed choices" around food.

This was in response to what Henson described as "vegan vigilantes who post horrendous things on social media that aren't true".

"Are you better off eating a lamb that's been bred on my farm, grazed on beautiful Cotswolds' pasture and is full of wild flowers, or something that's been shipped halfway around the world and may have contributed to deforestation?" asked Henson.

On-farm emissions

As for the environment, Teagasc's Dr Sinead McCarthy recently told the Joint Oireachtas Committee that a move by Ireland to plant-based food production would, at best, result in a 10-12pc reduction in on-farm emissions.

This figure is related to land suitability and the higher fertiliser inputs associated with plant protein production.

The same point was made in the USA last week, at the Alltech Ideas conference, by an air quality specialist, Dr Frank Mitloehner.

"By getting rid of ruminant livestock, we would not make use of at least 70pc of agricultural land."

My husband Robin attended the conference and also got to visit a dairy farm, where the workers were earning $75 for a 12-hour shift.

Dr McCarthy also pointed out that sustainable diets are, "protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems," but also, "economically fair".

Is $6.25/hour economically fair in the United States?

Is 29c for a bag of carrots an economically fair price for farmers?

This is something that consumers' eyes have to be opened to.

I have no doubt that a lot of farmers would prefer to raise their animals in as natural and biodiverse an environment as possible if it was financially viable.

Surely what should be more important than whether a food is animal or plant-based, is that it is produced ethically and sustainably in every sense.

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