Since joining the European Economic Community (EEC), and subsequently, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 1973, Irish citizens have increasingly seen lower prices and consistent stocking of dairy products, vegetables, meat and other agricultural products. Under the CAP, farmers receive subsidies and direct payments. In an agricultural-based economy such as ours, this has boosted it to new heights.
To the Irish consumer, the staples in their fridge are fresh milk, butter, beef and of course, potatoes. However, in recent years, discourse surrounding the nutritional benefits of dairy and meat, the ethical handling of animals, and the environmental impact of the agricultural industry as a whole has lead to a growing number of people questioning the staples in their fridge, and the diet they are used to.
Influence of CAP
The CAP supports the agricultural economy through a combination of direct payments to farmers, financial investments in rural development and market support measures. More specifically, it targets funds towards a particular industry that produces a certain range of foods. By influencing the supply and price of food, the CAP influences the buying habits and diet of the population.
A 2017 Eurobarometer Report indicated that EU citizens generally trusted the CAP. “In terms of performance, almost three-quarters of Europeans think that the CAP is fulfilling its role in securing a stable supply of food in the EU, thus supporting the principle of food security as a key objective.”
Looking forward to the challenges facing Europe this coming century, such as climate change and rapid global development, the EU have began to make changes to the CAP and its funding. On May 2, the European Commission will be forced to slash the budget for the CAP, given the net loss of the UK’s €12 billion annual contribution following Brexit.
Farmers are facing increasing pressure not only to provide for their local communities, but also face uncertain prospects of the loss of the guaranteed funding that the CAP provides.
However, farmers, especially those in rural areas, and stakeholders in the agricultural industry adamantly oppose the cuts, estimated to be between 10-30%. Irish Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed states that the revised CAP “must support family farms and underpin the production of food to the highest standards of quality and safety.” Farmers are facing increasing pressure not only to provide for their local communities, but also face uncertain prospects of the loss of the guaranteed funding that the CAP provides.
Agriculture makes up 33.1% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the European Commission. The EU is committed to a reduction of 20 percent under the 2020 Paris Agreement, as well as meeting demands for consumers, taking into account health and nutrition risks. The EU, therefore, has accepted a demanding balancing act.
A report on the Teagasc National Farm Survey 1972 – 2012 stated that “the demand for food is likely to grow at a faster pace than its supply.” Pressures of population growth and a need to meet the demands of the market, comes into direct clash with environmental concerns and the need to reduce emissions.
Specifically in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, “this may curtail Ireland’s ability to expand the livestock sector” and some forecast that environmental constraints may become the new “milk quota”. 75% of the Citizens Assembly in 2017 voted that there should be “a tax on greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.” The Environmental Protection agency reported that “over half of our water bodies are polluted”. Agriculture is the single largest contributor to this.
Pressures of population growth and a need to meet the demands of the market, comes into direct clash with environmental concerns and the need to reduce emissions.
In a survey commissioned by the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, 30% of the general population believe farmers should ensure the “welfare of farmed animals.” Conversations about the welfare of animals raise ethical issues for some, but are of little concern for others.
Arguably, ethical or welfare campaigns bring up facts that simply may not have occurred to people when considering the source of their food. Many people are curious to learn that calves are separated from their mothers after birth in order for farmers to take the milk. It is odd to consider the history of something that you buy in such new, bright packaging.
When the end of milk quotas was announced in 2003, milk production became much less constrained, and the sector produced over 40,000 tonnes more milk between 2003 and 2014 compared to a growth of less than 2000 tonnes between 1996 and 2004. Advertising also grew, with American ads such as ‘Got Milk?’ appearing regularly. If you grew up in the 90s, you’re sure to get the song ‘Them bones, them bones, need calcium’ stuck in your head as soon as you read the words.
A report by the European Commission’s Food Chain Evaluation Committee (FCEC) stated that “Product development, advertising and marketing influence consumers strongly in the choice of products, which if unhealthy may impact on obesity, disease and life expectancy.” The report took into account a number of factors, such as an increasing demand for meat and dairy, increasing prevalence of obesity, threats of climate change and intensifying consumer values in relation to food, among others.
Recently, consumers in Ireland have seen a rise in advertisements both promoting milk consumption, from the National Dairy Council, and questioning the ethical and nutritional basis of milk, from Go Vegan World Ireland. Both companies have been criticised for promoting specific agendas.
Greater emphasis could be placed on making healthy lifestyles “fashionable”, and promoted culturally.
The National Dairy Council promoted dairy milk as being “plant-based milk”, given the cows it comes from eat grass and plants. Several vegan groups raised concern over presenting inaccurate information in a “misleading” campaign. Go Vegan World made claims that cows were treated unfairly under farming conditions, which received a backlash from farmers who operate under welfare regulations set out by the CAP.
The Teagasc report emphasised that many agents of the food chain and their role have an impact on consumers’ dietary intake, “through advertising, and the overall environment in which food is consumed.” In this regard, it was noted that advertising of unhealthy foods may need “stricter policy measures, while incentivising the production of diverse and fresh foods at the primary production level could also be further considered.” It was also noted that greater emphasis could be placed on making healthy lifestyles “fashionable”, and promoted culturally.
However, generally people do not see alternatives to dairy products as even food in themselves, and unhealthy eating is on the rise. For example, a 2011 study from the Toulouse School of Economics concluded that reform of the EU’s sugar market will result in a rise in consumption of soft drinks by more than 1 litre per person per year and an added 124g of sugar consumed per person per year. The study also warned that these increases would be more in households of overweight and obese individuals.
Processed and red meat have been classified as ‘definite’ and ‘probable’ causes of cancer respectively by the Irish Cancer Society. The benefits versus harms of dairy, on the other hand, are more ambiguous. Many studies and reports are funded by dairy companies, making their results arguably biased in their favour and supporting the popularity of their product.
How can the CAP take into account the health and nutrition of consumers by ensuring they receive accurate information, while also ensuring economic stability and environmental protections?
All of this information converges on questions: how can the CAP take into account the health and nutrition of consumers by ensuring they receive accurate information, while also ensuring economic stability and environmental protections? Luke Flanagan MEP has raised concern that 80% of CAP funding currently goes to “the richest 20%”, adding criticism about the necessity of CAP to the majority of farmers.
While farmers are simply doing their job, the food they produce contributes culturally to a nationwide diet, all while their funding is cut and emission prices rise. Consumers, in digesting this information, need to question the information advertised, and ensure they spend their money in the right places.