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Brendan O'Connor: 'Varadkar's comments signify we may be at a tipping point on meat'

What we saw last week was a skirmish between the 'Anywheres' and the 'Somewheres' in a changing world, says Brendan O'Connor


MEAT CRISIS: John Gummer and his four-year-old daughter Cordelia with beef burgers during the BSE crisis of 1990. Photo: PA

MEAT CRISIS: John Gummer and his four-year-old daughter Cordelia with beef burgers during the BSE crisis of 1990. Photo: PA

MEAT CRISIS: John Gummer and his four-year-old daughter Cordelia with beef burgers during the BSE crisis of 1990. Photo: PA

John Gummer's four-year-old daughter wasn't keen to eat the burger. Some people claim she took a nibble. Some claim she refused point blank. A story emerged later that a civil servant had taken a bite out of it in advance. But the Agriculture Minister himself had no issues about taking a big bite out of his burger in order to convince the British public that British beef was safe, despite the BSE crisis raging in Britain in that summer of 1990. The staged photoshoot would go down as one of those great cringey political moments in the UK and would dog Gummer for the rest of his career. It would also emerge later, of course, that BSE-infected beef was in fact linked to human form CJD.

We stopped short last week of making Leo feed burgers to his loved ones in public. But after saying he was cutting down on red meat to do his bit for the environment, he did have to subsequently "man up" as you're not allowed say anymore, and boast about how he had a steak the night before. Though he did, in his clarification that he was a good meat-eating Irishman and not some trendy vegan hippy, mention a link between red meat and cancer.

It was a classic clash of the modern, trendy, liberal, social media values of the Ireland that Leo Varadkar and his gang live in, and the reality of the economy he is CEO of which is heavily reliant on producing red meat. Irish people comprise a high per capita number of the one billion people worldwide who depend on livestock for their living.

Despite clarifying his meat-eating credentials, Leo copped a fair amount of flak from farmers' representatives as the week went on, and of course from Danny Healy-Rae. Leo insulted Danny on multiple fronts presumably.

First there was the implicit suggestion that climate change actually exists which is a red rag to The Bull Danny, and then there was the suggestion that Leo never does a proper day's work. Because, as Danny will tell you, "If you're a hard worker and do a hard day's work, there's nothing to bring you back and to revive you again than a piece of good meat, whether it is bacon and cabbage or whether it is beef or mutton stew. If you don't have that you won't rise out the following day." Indeed Danny suspects Leo of being part of a plan to kill off the humans and leave the planet for animals.

The Healy-Raes would have worse to contend with as the week went on when the already infamous EAT/Lancet report came out, suggesting that if we want to be able to feed our growing population without destroying the planet we all need to cut back our meat consumption drastically, to the equivalent of a cocktail sausage a day, eating more legumes instead. Crazy, and a fad, according to Michael, the more moderate wing of the Healy-Raes.

In his book The Road To Somewhere, David Goodhart coined the terms 'Anywheres' and 'Somewheres', which have now fallen into common usage. Goodhart used the terms originally to explain the divided Brexit Britain, but it could equally explain Trump and even the schism between old economy workers and tech workers that has developed in US cities. You suspected with the Leo meat scuffle we were witnessing a taste of an Anywhere/Somewhere scuffle here in Ireland.

Leo is one of those people who sees the world from an Anywhere perspective. Though a minority of the population, Anywheres are, according to Goodhart, the ones who dominate culture and society, well-educated and living in the capital city or abroad. "Such people have portable 'achieved' identities," he says, "based on educational and career success which makes them... comfortable and confident with new places and people." And, like Leo, these people are plugged into new global trends, like eating less meat. Anywheres don't tend to have a huge attachment to a specific place and value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition.

The Healy-Raes are probably the ultimate Somewheres, and Michael certainly probably represents rural Ireland far more accurately than metropolitan elitists might care to realise. Somewheres are attached to their geographical communities, to tradition. They tend to feel that change is loss. They can tend to feel uneasy with many aspects of the modern world. They are, in Irish terms, perhaps described as the people who eat their dinner in the middle of the day. And it probably involves meat and two veg.

The fact that Leo talked so airily about eating less meat suggests that an understanding of the concerns of the Somewheres in rural Ireland is not uppermost in his mind. If you're an Irish politician, you don't cross the rural community or the farming community. They occupy a sacred space.

But here's the problem. The world is not just changing for Anywheres, it's changing for everyone. The farming lobby may be able to get Leo to back down, but they won't be able to turn back the tide. And the tide is turning rapidly on the related issues of eating meat and the environment.

The meat industry, in fairness, has been effective at adapting to changing trends. Pork was pulled for hipster sandwiches. Burgers were fetishised. Provenance and traceability became fashionable signifiers. People learnt about the breed of pig their rasher came from. Barbecue and smoking have become fashionable and the type of steak you eat has become a status symbol.

But in this age of social media when tipping points come, they can come quickly and ruthlessly, and livestock farming is facing not one but two tipping points - the health and lifestyle revolution and the environmental one. The vogue for eating less meat is reaching critical mass, certainly among the Anywheres.

Leo Varadkar always has an eye for what's hot in the zeitgeist, and when he is casually mentioning eating less meat, then you know it's 'a thing'. Among the kind of namby pamby D4 trendy Anywheres that I know, pretty much everyone has gone a bit more flexitarian now.

A lot of people don't eat much meat during the week, some people even regard it more as a treat for the weekend. Some people really only eat a steak when they are out, as if a steak has a sense of occasion. It's almost as if we are starting to treat meat the way many non-Western societies do. And that's middle-aged people. Go down to people half my age and the trend is even more pronounced.

Things may switch back, and of course the majority of people are still eating a lot of meat. But there's a definite sense, looking at early adopters and thought leaders and those who influence lifestyle changes, that we are on the cusp of big changes with regard to meat eating.

The Somewheres may not want the world to change, and they may rail against all this modern madness, and in fairness, they are probably right when they say that expecting people to cut down to a cocktail sausage a day is madness. But make no mistake, traditional ways of life and ways of making a living are being disrupted left, right and centre, if not by technology then by changing lifestyles.

And while most of us in Ireland value tradition and heritage and the terroir of the place we come from, many Irish people have been growing away from the land for generations now, and even the Aislings who grew up in rural Ireland are adopting all kinds of notions when they come to Dublin or Cork or Limerick or Galway.

Rather than railing against the modern world, maybe the farming lobby needs to focus more on what it has always done so well, which is adapting to new ways of living. As much as Danny Healy-Rae might not want things to change, 'Somewhere' has always changed when survival was at stake.

And as the rest of us can tell them, change is not easy. It's scary and it can seem impossible and hopeless. But you get through it.

Sunday Independent