I recently returned from a trip to my father's birthplace in County Meath, Ireland, where I took a walk around the village of Athboy. This is the town nearest Kildalkey where he grew up. Like so many villages in rural Ireland it is still owned and run by local inhabitants. There is a quaint little supermarket first opened by Ollie Byrd, my father's boyhood friend. It's now run by his son since Ollie passed away a few years ago.
Just up the sidewalk is Faulkner's men's shop owned and operated by Brian Faulkner, a cousin to my cousin, Sean. Three doors up the street is Faulkner's Fashion House for woman, owned and run by his sister, Ger Faulkner. Across the street is the historic Darney Hotel where you can get a proper meal and a spot of tea in homey, low chic. surroundings . On certain evenings you can go there to enjoy traditional Irish music in the hotel's pub.
There are a handful of other pubs in town named after their proprietors. There is a family owned hardware store, a bakery, a post office that also serves as a general convenience store and a little gift shop run by a mother and daughter where you can buy small gifts for your friends and family on those special occasions.
The village is alive with shoppers. The streets are abuzz with cars, lorries, public buses and farm tractors towing wagons of silage or farm equipment down the main street on their way from one field to the next. It is a place where people still know their neighbors and customers are greeted by their first name more often than not. Relationships are the real treasure you will find here.
It was a striking contrast to the sterile and impersonal world of cookie cutter malls and brand name store fronts in America today. It reminded me that we once had local commerce centered in small towns all across America. We had more civic pride back then, and a deep sense of connection with the people in the community where we shared our time and place. This is a way of living that is quickly disappearing. It is under siege in Ireland as it is everywhere around the globe wherever corporate profits can be extracted from local economies and brand recognition can replace familiar faces. In the process we have lost our connections between farmers and food, craftsmen and products, business owners and commerce.
I was told that all meat sold in Ireland had the name of the farmer and the farm where the livestock was raised. People in Ireland want to know exactly from where their food comes. So I wandered into Brogan's Butcher Shop across from the post office to look for farm names on the products in the meat case. I was disappointed to find none. Had I been misinformed?
I asked the butcher behind the counter about this. He proudly pointed to the wall where a certificate of origin hung on a nail as he explained that all this meat came from his own family's farm. "If you want to see a farmer's name on a piece of meat you'll have to head back to Ollie Byrd's," he said.
Contrast this with the US House of Representatives who on June 11th of this year passed a bill that would eliminate a law requiring country of origin labeling on all U.S. meats. "It sounds like you are heading backwards," he said to me when I told him this. Indeed it does.
I read that over 90% of all American's want to know from where their meat comes, and most people I know would love to know more about where all their food is grown. We can't have real competition in the food industry as long as information like this is hidden from us. So what is behind the passage of this bill to block COOL (country of origin labeling)?
It turns out that Canadian and Mexican meat industry trade groups have sued the United States in the WTO (World Trade Organization) over COOL, saying it constitutes unfair trade practices under international treaties. Specifically, the WTO ruled that:
"The compliance panel found that the amended COOL measure violates Article 2.1 of the TBT Agreement because it accords to Canadian and Mexican livestock less favourable treatment than that accorded to like US livestock. In particular, the compliance panel concluded that the amended COOL measure increases the original COOL measure's detrimental impact on the competitive opportunities of imported livestock in the US market, because it necessitates increased segregation of meat and livestock according to origin; entails a higher recordkeeping burden; and increases the original COOL measure's incentive to choose domestic over imported livestock."
This is what we are up against. Giant international corporations battling each other beyond the reach of sovereign countries to create a world more suitable for their financial conquests. Congressional supporters of the measure to eliminate COOL are seeking to avoid the $3.6 billion in potential retaliatory tariffs sought by Canada and Mexico. In the mean time, the US livestock census is at near record lows while beef prices keep climbing into record high territory. What people want no longer matters.
And so it seems as if my place in the world shrinks in significance. The local culture we once created together is now created for us by a process call "marketing." I fear that one day I will return to Athboy only to find it a hollowed out shell just down the road from a mega-mall that was once the farmer's field. I find myself mourning what will be lost if things don't change. Things can change, I tell myself, if enough of us want it. But right now I find myself wishing I had sampled the meats at Brogan's Butcher Shop.