Gastronomic Glasnost: The EU’s unlikely environmental unfriendliness

Gastronomic Glasnost: The EU’s unlikely environmental unfriendliness

In the shadow of Brexit, Claude Lynch offers a brief parable on the EU’s backwards attitude to a plant-based diet – making an unlikely antihero of the Cornish Pasty in the process.

The EU is bad for your health. One sentence in, and I’m sure I’ve already conjured up images of Daily Mail headlines or banners in the Sun proclaiming the evils of bendy banana bureaucracy or an equally nonsense fallacy. Unfortunately, this piece is not intended as a condemnation of EU food standards; it’s a lamentation of what the EU’s position on agriculture means for our diet, and why it might be one step behind the rest of the organisation’s progressive agenda.

I’m not vegan. Yet. Sorry. But if I was, I’d know I was doing the planet a favour. We know that legumes contain about a third as much protein per serving as red meat, but they’re almost carbon neutral. We know that almond milk is about a third as water-intensive as cow’s milk. This is a scientific consensus; a consensus about as sound as that surrounding anthropogenic climate change, continued racial prejudice, or (god forbid) the notion of a Flat Earth.

And yet, governments are only just cottoning on to the idea of suggesting that we might want to cut down on our consumption of red meat, despite the fact that it’s basically a categorical imperative if we’d like to not all die in an environmental catastrophe. Which incidentally is one of my favourite ways to not die. Hence why I became vegetarian.

But enough with the sanctimonious words; this is just to get everyone up to speed, before we discuss why the European Union, supposed harbinger of progressivism in the face of a traditionalist United Kingdom, is actually a bit backwards. Why? Because its mechanisms inherently promote the diet of the status quo, where we eat too much meat and dairy.

First of all, the notion of protected status (PDO or Protected Designation of Origin) for foods such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Proscuitto di Parma, and the Cornish Pasty (which legally has to contain 12.5% beef) places them in higher esteem. This is intuitive; if you slap a special label on a product, people think it is special; it has to be produced in a certain area, it has to be a certain way. The vast majority of these products – at least those that penetrate the European consciousness – are meat and dairy products. Did you know about “Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb”? How do you force a rhubarb? Me neither. In any case, this perpetuates a certain centrality of these “culturally valuable” goods in the context of the European gastronomic canon. I know, I sound like a bad anthropology student. And we oughtn’t dismiss these foods out of hand; they do pay homage to a valuable tradition, and their protection prevents them losing their speciality. But perhaps we ought to promote vegetarian and vegan alternatives to these products that can pay homage to them without coming with environmental baggage. For goodness’ sake, we already make vegetarian pasties; why can’t they be called Cornish?

Second, one of the key tenets of the Common Agricultural Policy – an EU design that manipulates the free market of agricultural produce to prioritise and subsidise EU goods within its borders – is to “maintain rural areas and landscapes across the EU”. The problem is that many of these rural landscapes are themselves the consequence of human agriculture and are far from natural. For example, the Lake District, which many consider to be a natural haven, is blighted by the destructive effect sheep herding has on ecological biodiversity. The same could be said of many highland areas; between the Alps, or for the crofters of Scotland, while their agriculture is certainly their livelihood, it’s one that wreaks environmental havoc.

The fact of the matter is that both of these cases speak to a certain cultural preservation. “We don’t want makers of traditional Parmesan to face economic instability”, or “we don’t want dairy farmers in the Alps to lose their livelihoods”, are both arguments that would sound very at home in defence of the PDO or the CAP – and, outside of the value of the tariff-subsidy framework, likely speak to the latter’s origins. Yet we would be highly unlikely to be as conservative when it comes to closing down coal mines or tar pits. We realised their environmental cost and recognise their inefficiency in a European context. Perhaps because people famously don’t eat coal, its European origin would have no serious cultural clout, even though one could reasonably claim that the British industrial revolution – one predicated on steam power – created a cultural icon of the humble block of coal. But still, it would be seen as wholly backwards to ‘protect’ the coal mining industry in a modern context.

Instead, the solution was to retrain those working in environmentally unfriendly sectors so they could perform similar, comfortable jobs without having the same impact on the environment. Why don’t we do the same with meat and dairy? Why don’t we find ways to re-harness cultural capital? Why don’t we get the cheesemakers of Parma to compete with the people who are already making vegan parmesan? And why does that very idea suggest we’re distorting our food heritage? Shouldn’t it imply real gastronomic innovation?

Suffice to say, I am extremely pro-vegetarian pasties. But because they contain no beef, they are 12.5% shy of actually being legally Cornish. This is a seriously outdated philosophy, and it stops the EU from being ecologically future-proof. Let’s call a pasty a pasty – before raising the environmental stakes (steaks).

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