This blog post is coming with a health warning. It’s heavier than my typical blog post. 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 post 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 blog 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.
I also hope this post doesn’t read like ‘farmer bashing’. I think they play a vital role in any society, 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.
Meat & Dairy
In 2015 there were 6,422,200 cattle in Ireland, which is nearly half 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.
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)
Sometimes the waste from pigs and poultry is applied to the soil as a form of fertiliser but it can contain high doses of copper and zinc, which the pigs are fed to promote growth. Also if the waste too high in nitrogen and potassium it can overload the soil leading to water pollution and the degradation of the soil. (source: fao.org).
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 – 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 – 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: independant.ie)
A chicken in a conventional chicken farm lives for just 38 days before being sent to slaughter. So a chick born today will be gone by Hallowe’en. Chickens on Organic Farms get to live a bit longer, 81 days. 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 – 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 density of conventional (battery) poultry farms who have a ‘stocking density’ of 17 – 19 birds per square metre 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.
Slightly outside of the remit of this blog 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
When I started researching this blog post I was convinced that eating red meat was unquestionably environmentally damaging but now it would appear that if properly managed grasslands could capture all of the greenhouse gases emitted by livestock, if not more. I will remain vigilant for contrary evidence and if you come across any please let me know.
Even putting aside the potential for grasslands to act as a carbon sink it seems clear that organic is the only way to go when you’re buying your meat and dairy. Not only is it less destructive to the soil, it ensures better care for the animals, and doesn’t contribute to the development of antibiotic resistant super bugs. It’s also a great way not to support GM crops, if you’re that way inclined, as organic animals aren’t allowed to be fed them.
I have found the only way to get meat package-free is to buy from a butchers, who in my experience are happy to oblige even if it sometimes means having the stuff weighed in a plastic bag and then emptied into your container.
I buy our organic beef from Coolanowle Organic Farm in Carlow, who attends a weekly farmers market near me. They do not engage in factory farming practices and the animals have lots of outdoor space and fresh air. Other organic farmers that engage in sustainable farming practices include Ardarl Farm in Galway, The Real Meat Cooperative in Cork or or Castlemine Farm in Co Roscommon. If you know of anymore with online websites or farm shops let me know and I’ll add them to the post.
I’m not in a position to buy organic pig at the moment and have been buying package-free ‘free-range pork’ chops from FX Buckleys. Given what I’ve learned about the non-legal status of this term in Ireland I’ve just emailed them for more information on the conditions of the pigs. I’ll update when I get a response.
Similarly I’m not in a position to buy organic chicken, and the only free-range i can buy is packaged. I’m not even sure it’s worth buying free-range given the de-beaking and male chick culling. Same with organic. I think if you can afford organic chicken and eggs it’s kinder to the birds – except male chicks – and is definitely the best way to go. I’m going to try to replace egg in baking so i can keep my egg buying to a minimum given what I’ve learnt researching this post.
Milk and dairy-wise I’ll continue to buy organic where possible. I don’t like the fact that male calves are weaned early or the fact that they can be sold to conventional farms but until such time as my family are willing to give up milk it’s the best I can do. There are a few higher-welfare dairies in the UK, like The Calf at the Foot, or The Ethical Dairy, which although not organic prioritise welfare over profit. If anyone knows of any in Ireland please let me know.
If you decide to opt out of meat and dairy entirely then seek out the Taifun brand of Tofu, which sources sustainable soy from Europe and opt for oat milk. Oat milk is a much more sustainable option than the water hungry almond milk that needs to be shipped in from america or soy milk, which can be grown on farms cleared from native woodland.
Loss of Biodiversity
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the farming of plants is a benign practice in 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.
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. In case you think this is more of an issue in the ‘developing’ world, a study in 2014 by the University of Sheffield predicts that UK soil only has 100 more harvests left in it before it becomes completed depleted.
As seen above water pollution continues to be an ongoing issue for the entire agriculture sector in Ireland, with 53% of incidents 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.
Slavery & Child Labour
Who’d have thought we’d have to talk about these things in relation to groceries in 2018? 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 air 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 air miles. The added benefit of buying locally grown veg is the higher nutritional content, plus the ability to circumvent the risk of child-labour and slavery. 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.
Fashion is synonymous with unsustainability and given the inter-connectivity of food production and the environment even more so. 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. 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.
There are a number of shops offering organic fruit and vegetables now, although finding locally-grown unpackaged ones can be tricky. My local organic greengrocer in Windy Arbour, D14 – Eco Logic – is a blessing to me and I buy all my fruit and veg with him, unless I’m at the weekly farmers market when I buy from organic fruit and veg growers Carracamuch Cottage.
Because my family are so fussy I visit the shop and buy just what i need but it’s more sustainable to buy a box of seasonal veg from the greengrocer or the farm directly. Some farms, like Green Earth Organics, offer a veg box delivery service that you subscribe too and have delivered to your door. In Cork you have Organic Republic and Devoys, in Clare you have chemical-free veg boxes on offer from Good and Green and in Galway you have Beechlawn Organic Farm. Foodture is a great tool for connecting with fair food producers in your area.
Alternatively you could join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme. This system differs from a box scheme in that you’re not just buying from the producer/s you’re partnering with them and the emphasis is much more on local food systems. Another difference is that members take more of an active role in meeting the grower, discussing options, and possibly visiting the farm to help out as the scheme develops
Over fishing and destructive fishing is another problem 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
In the past we were told to look for dolphin friendly tuna, then pole and line caught. My research would suggest that fishing needs to be considered in a holistically manner by well-informed people. Therefore the best route is to look for fish brands that have been certified as sustainable by an independent industry-specific organisation, such as the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council). They run a certification system for fisheries, fish processors and fish sellers and if you’d like specific information on particular species the website of both the Marine Stewardship Council and the Marine Conservation Society offer very helpful guides.
Over 1/3 of Aldi’s wild-caught fish and seafood is MSC certified and they are working with suppliers to increase this. Lidl offer one of the largest ranges of MSC certified products globally and were the first retailer to sell MSC certified lobster in the UK and 100% MSC certified cod in Portugal. Tesco offer more than 120 MSC certified products, while all 656 UK fish counters are MSC approved. They were also the UK retailer to be awarded MSC Fish Counter of the Year 2017 (Source: msc.org). I’ve contacted Supervalu and Dunnes Stores for information on the sustainability of their fish and will update the post if and when I get it.
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 ……
Palm oil is a cheap form of oil used in most processed goods including bread, sauces, biscuits, crisps, ready meals, even ice cream! Here is a list of everyday products that often contain palm oil, along with a list of other names that palm oil often goes by. If you really want to be very thorough there is an even longer list of alternative names for palm oil on the Palm Oil Investigations website. Sometimes it’s just listed as vegetable oil, which makes it impossible for the consumer to find a palm-oil free product without assistance.
Unfortunately it’s popularity as a replacement for more expensive dairy has resulted in vast swathes of native forest being cut down to make way for palm oil plantations. This has devastated the habitats of a huge number of animals including the orangutan, who are a threatened species as a result. There are certification programmes for sustainable palm oil production, each with their own pros and cons. The one we come across most often in Ireland is Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Slavery & Child Labour
Unfortunately one of our favourite treats, chocolate is also blighted by exploitation, with the number of children in working in the cocoa industry actually increasing. The website Green Stars Project gives an excellent insight into the problem in their most recent blog post Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.
The Better Choice
Baking your own or buying bread from a bakery is the only way to avoid packaging. I buy mine from Lidl’s in-house bakery. I’d prefer to buy organic but I can’t currently get affordable un-packaged sliced organic bread in my locality and I’ve use the oven enough to justify the energy cost of making our own.
Palm Oil wise, the best way to avoid it by making everything from scratch or avoiding products that might contain it, but that’s unrealistic for most people. Here’s a handy list of UK brands that don’t use palm oil . Some of the brands are available in Ireland but not all, particularly when it comes to bread and cereals.
There are only a few items that I buy that could have palm oil in them; bread, crackers, breakfast cereals, peanut butter and stock. Thankfully, on the odd occasion that I buy peanut butter, I can get a palm-oil free version made with 100% organic peanuts in my own container in Hopsack, Rathmines, D6. The crackers and cereals I buy in Aldi contain RSPO certified palm oil. Not ideal but I can’t find any crackers without palm oil and homemade ones get too hard in lunch boxes. I am unable to find a list of ingredients in the bread Lidl sells but I suspect the loaf I buy has palm oil in it. Like Aldi, Lidl claims to only use palm oil certified by RSPO (source: lidl.co.uk). The last item i buy stock cubes, come from Kallo, which also claim to only use palm oil certified by RSPO. (Source: Kallo.com)
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.
This blog post 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. Here’s my current Sustainable Ethical Grocery List, I’ll amend it as I change it.