Farming

Darragh McCullough: Growth hormone beef is not the monstrosity you might think – so why does the EU ban it?

Brexit is getting real in all kinds of ways. I have been planning a foliage orchard for months, complete with a permanent plastic weed barrier called Mypex.

owever, Mypex can’t be got for love nor money in this country, because the main UK supplier still hasn’t figured out how to operate without an EU Vat number.

I ordered plants from Holland before Christmas, thinking that finishing touches like weed barriers would be straightforward to source.

The field is tilled, and the plants have been delivered and are crying out to be replanted, but we have been waiting and waiting for one input that we have been told over and over “should be here in the coming week”.

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I know the local merchant is starting to look to European suppliers to avoid this kind of messing, and it’s just one tiny example of the mass pivot by businesses away from the UK in an effort to simplify day-to-day operations.

It’s ironic, given that Boris Johnson and his Tory mates promised that Brexit would give Britain the freedom to do business with anyone in the world without being encumbered by pesky EU rules.

The only product where he can credibly stick with this mantra is beef. Johnson’s plan to give Australia full access to one of the most lucrative beef markets in the world has farmers and consumers up in arms.

With their huge ranch feedlots, and use of growth hormones in 40pc of the herd, the Aussies are able to pump out beef at a fraction of the cost of any European farmer.

Hormone use is often made to sound Frankenstein-like, but UK consumers are beginning to ask whether beef produced with supplementary growth hormones is really such a bad thing.

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Why is it that billions of people have been happy to eat beef produced with growth hormones for decades?

We’re not talking about the starving developing world or even first-world poor here. The wealthiest Americans, Aussies, Asians, and pretty much the rest of the planet bar Europe are happy to chow down on beef that has been supplemented with hormones.

There’s no brewing class-action suits from mothers of babies with two heads, no environmentalists howling about the ill effects on the planet (quite the opposite actually), and no animal welfare groups weeping over the impact on the poor bullocks.

Instead, the WTO ruled decisively in favour of the US’s contention that the 1989 EU ban is just a trade barrier dressed up in supposed health concerns.

Scientists point out that you’re likely to consume 10 times more oestrogen from eating an egg than you’ll ingest from beef that has been produced using growth hormones.

Environmentalists might even concede that the growth hormones reduce livestock emissions, because the cattle have already been slaughtered while their EU counterparts belch and fart their way around fields and sheds for another few weeks and months in an effort to reach their target weights.

The EU banned growth hormones after residues of the cancer-linked diethylstilbestrol (DES) hormone were detected in meat during the 1970s and ’70s.

But like most chemicals used in agriculture in the ’70s, things have moved on.

Despite the billions of kilos of hormone-treated beef consumed in the interim, health concerns about growth hormones used in beef feedlots today have failed to emerge.

Yes, the slurry from these feedlots may need to be stored for up to 200 days to allow any hormones degrade. But if the efficiencies gained by 15pc faster weight gains pays the farmer to go that way, then it should be do-able.

Sure, some supermarkets in the US and Australia make a big deal about the fact they have de-listed hormone beef, in the same way that some chains there make a big deal out of going 100pc organic.

It doesn’t mean that the conventional alternative is going to make you sick. It’s just a matter of consumer preference.

Which is exactly what growth hormone beef should be for EU consumers. Not a diktat from Brussels dressed up as some safety issue.

On this, and GM crops, the EU leaves itself wide open to opportunists like Boris Johnson.

What a shame, when everything else the EU stands for is so much more noble and forward-thinking than anything Brexiteers have ever offered.

Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farm enterprise in Meath; www.elmgrovefarm.ie

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