October 17, 2016, by Kieran Cooke
Beef burgers for sale at a cattle market in the west of Ireland. Image: Plashing Vole via Flicker
Cattle farmers in Ireland object to former president’s suggestion that people must stop eating meat to help battle climate change.
LONDON, 17 October, 2016 − Mary Robinson was Ireland’s first female president when elected to office in 1990 and quickly became a popular figure, both nationally and overseas.
But now she is coming in for strong criticism from Ireland’s politically-powerful farming community for remarks she made about the dangers to the climate posed by meat eating.
“We have to change, we cannot go on with business as usual,” Robinson told a gathering of young people in Canada at the annual summit of the One Young World charity. “We need, each of us, to think about our carbon footprint. Eat less meat, or no meat at all – become vegetarian or vegan.”
Farmers in County Mayo in the west of Ireland – the county of Robinson’s birth – have been quick to respond, calling her views disingenuous.
Damien Ryan, a local councillor, says: “I have experienced nothing but uproar and annoyance from the people in the county since that was said. Agriculture is the backbone of County Mayo, and it is an industry and enterprise that deserves support.
“In relation to what effect agriculture in Mayo is having on our carbon footprint, her jet-setting around the world in the last 20 years has done a hell of a lot more damage.”
Another local councillor described Robinson’s comments as glib and pointless, saying: “Mrs Robinson must surely realise that the issue [of climate change] is much more complex than simply urging individuals to reduce their carbon footprint by becoming vegetarian or vegan.”
“Agriculture is the backbone of County Mayo, and it is an industry and enterprise that deserves support”
Since finishing a seven-year term as Ireland’s president in 1997, Robinson has held a number of high-profile international posts, including being appointed a UN special envoy for climate change.
She also has her own foundation, the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, which focuses on the human rights and access to justice of those affected by climate change.
Cattle farming and meat production are an important part of Ireland’s economy. In recent years, the government has launched ambitious plans for a big expansion in beef and milk production, aimed at increasing export earnings and also providing employment in poorer, rural areas of the country.
Ireland is struggling to achieve European Union (EU) sponsored cutbacks on climate changing greenhouse gas emissions. And if targets are not met, the country could be forced to pay millions of Euros in fines to the EU.
Between 30% and 40% of the country’s emissions come from agriculture and food production − from methane produced by the flatulence of an estimated seven million cattle, and from nitrogen fertilisers spread on grasslands.
Environmental groups in Ireland say government policy has to be reversed if agriculture is to become sustainable in the long run – and in order for Ireland to play its part in tackling climate change.
Farmers argue that Ireland’s grass-fed cattle do far less damage to the environment than cattle fed on wheat because they do not use up valuable food resources and they spread natural fertiliser on the land.
The organisations representing farmers have traditionally played an important lobbying role in Ireland’s politics. The country’s agriculture and food processing sector currently accounts for about 9% of jobs and 11% of the total value of exports. – Climate News Network
Kieran Cooke, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and Financial Times. He now focuses on environmental issues