Margaret Donnelly: Farming sector needs to learn some lessons from the 'Veganuary' lobby
Let's be under no illusions - the rise of veganism is a serious challenge to the interest of the Irish agri sector. The numbers involved are currently marginal, but the adherents to this lifestyle choice are both noisy and influential.
Just 5,000 people have signed up to 'Veganuary' - going vegan for January - in Ireland this year. That's not a lot of people, but the media coverage would suggest it's hundreds of thousands of consumers who have given up meat and dairy for the month.
But there's no doubt their influence is growing. Weekend newspaper magazines were full of vegan recipes in recent weeks and social media is full of Veganuary.
It's hard to know why people choose to give up meat, dairy and fish for a whole month, but unfortunately too many do so for environmental reasons that just don't add up.
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And 'doing Veganuary' or 'I'm giving up meat' is simply just trendy for the middle classes.
Giving up airplane miles would do so much more to reduce everyone's carbon footprint, but it's not quite so easy and just doesn't have the same ring about it for many self- declared environmentally-conscious consumers.
The same consumers won't bother to check the provenance of the tender-stem broccoli or tomatoes that have magically grown in vast amounts in January and appeared on the local supermarket shelves. Only a small minority are Irish grown, but our vegan friends seem oblivious to the carbon miles they are chomping through.
But it should be a warning to an Irish agri sector that's heavily reliant on consumers continuing to eat meat and dairy products, not just here but globally.
One of the problems the sector faces is that when this topic is debated in the mainstream media, beef and dairy emissions are invariably seen in an overall global context.
Irish farmers need to find a way to decouple our pasture-based, low carbon-intensive production model from far more environmentally damaging production in other parts of the world.
The inability of the sector to drive this message home to date has been a failure of the industry.
And what can be learnt from Veganuary is a master lesson in trends.
Veganuary may be seen as the latest trend or fad, but it would be foolish for the meat and dairy sector to think it's going to go way or that it can be ignored.
It may be a small marching band, but it's got a very big drum that it's not afraid to beat.
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