The industrial farming industry has a long way to go to clean up its act, but it may not be as simple as not eating meat, writes Matthew Evans, chef and food critic turned farmer, restaurateur, TV star and author.
"I choose to be kind," the woman is saying after she's just told me she's vegan. "Why can't you choose kindness?"
I'm at WOMAD in Adelaide, after talking at a panel session on the environmental impacts of animal production, and I've just explained that I eat meat. That I have looked into the soft brown eyes of a steer on my farm and still ended up choosing to take the steer's life. In her eyes, I'm a monster. A murderer, because all life is sacred, and I have failed as a human because I've chosen to take a life just so I can eat meat.
Having a sensible discussion about meat eating these days is fraught. Vegans are invading farms. Protesting with footage of animal cruelty outside the pavilion at Hobart's Dark MOFO Winter Feast. Closing down the traffic in Melbourne's CBD because they want us to stop killing animals for food. Preachy, loud and antagonistic, the activists are the ones who are right. The rest of us are cruel, barbaric, Neanderthals.
If you believe the headlines, we're all about to go vegan. Or at least vegetarian. Meat is supposedly on the nose as much as smoking, and only the ignorant would consider feeding meat to their friends, let alone their kids. Meat, they say, is single-handedly causing irreversible climate change, heart disease, incredible suffering, and the only people who will eat it in 50 years' time will be totally self-centred gluttons and the heartlessly cruel. It's on the way out because it's unsustainable, unnecessary, compassionless and can be readily replaced.
The problem is, most humans love meat. We eat a lot of it. In Australia, we eat as much, on average, as any nation on earth. More than 110 kilograms a year. It doesn't look like we'll give up meat any time soon. Developing nations, as they become wealthier, eat more meat, not less. Yes, the world's appetite for meat is putting pressure on our ecosystems. But is all meat, as some would have you believe, unsustainable and inherently cruel?
As a chef and farmer and one-time vegetarian, I've long been conflicted about the meat I eat. I read these stories about methane emissions from cattle and animal welfare violations. Stories about the true cost of meat and the rise and rise of the meat-free diet, and wonder what is going on.
From our little corner of the world, a 70-acre (30-hectare) family farm tucked in a gully in Tasmania's Huon Valley, not eating meat doesn't seem to make much ecological sense. The open areas around us have grazing animals – sheep, goats, cattle – munching happily away on grass, turning something humans can't digest into meat and milk and fibre. We use animal waste in our compost for our market garden. We feed ourselves almost entirely from our farm, and I wonder, could we do that so efficiently if we didn't use the animals that help shape the land and grace our table?
For more than a decade I've been growing meat for our kitchen, knowing the direct consequence of my actions on the animals in my care. A few years ago I set out to discover how animals are raised in the more industrial system; a journey documented on SBS's For the Love of Meat. And since then, I've been trying to work out the conflict that is apparent between animal rights campaigners and the livestock industry. The result is On Eating Meat, my personal meat manifesto. In it, I unpick the industrialisation of our animal industry, and try to shine light where there was little. I also try to find the single source of most animal suffering in this nation (the short answer is cats).
Many of us have witnessed footage or photos of battery hens living in misery. You may have seen the bar-biting behaviour of a mother pig trapped in a sow stall, something resembling a pig jail that is so small that she can't turn around or take a full step forward. Does anyone really think putting live day-old chicks through a mulcher because they're boys and the egg industry needs girls is a good use of our resources, our brains and truly shows our compassion? We can do better at farming animals in so many ways.
Films like Dominion show the worst cases, or bad practice. But there are other stories out there, some condoned – albeit in secrecy – by the animal industry. Take minimal disease pigs for instance. These are pigs that are bred in a way that tries to ensure virtually no disease can be transmitted from other pigs, including their mother. The way the industry does this, however, probably wouldn't pass the pub test. On the day the pregnant mothers are due to give birth, they're taken close to the piggery, slaughtered, the piglets cut out alive and plonked into a wheelbarrow or "washing basket" as the Queensland Government website advised, and taken into the piggery. (Since I researched this, the website has been updated, with a vague reference to this procedure called "hysterectomy". Remember, a sow with no uterus is no use to these farmers, so they are still killed, but hysterectomy sounds less brutal.)
This system, which is mostly used in new or restocked piggeries, means possibly less initial disease, but no antibody-rich colostrum, and hence far reduced immunity; immunity which is naturally conveyed by both the colostrum and a normal vaginal birth. We've come up with a "solution" to disease based on badly designed and managed farming systems. As is so often the case, the domesticated animals suffer the consequences of human failings.
It's time for meat eaters to step up and take responsibility for livestock.
While farming has its problems, and some things the intensive animal industry does in secret may not meet community expectations, the ugly truth is that not farming animals won't do away with human-induced death and suffering. Concrete is bad for animals. Growing vegetables and spraying them with pesticides is bad for animals. Driving is bad for marsupials (in Tasmania, an average of 32 native animals are killed by cars every hour), but I don't see activists out trying to stop people driving. Flying in planes is bad for birds. I didn't see Voiceless at the airport last time I flew. Perhaps it's because they'd have to drive there.
Food, for some reason, is considered the big baddy. Perhaps it's because it's the low hanging fruit. The easy thing to consider, where everyone can make a personal change. Or perhaps it's just the easy one to nag people about. The idea seems to have been simplified to "don't eat meat and nothing will suffer".
It's a nice idea, that growing food, any food, can be free of harm to animals. It fits with our storybook vision of farms, the one we carry in our heads from childhood. The only things that die are those we choose to eat.
But let me tell you what else dies. About 40,000 ducks die each year to grow rice in Australia. Ducks die to grow strawberries. I've met the farmers and shooters who tell me it is so. It's not just the birds and bees and slugs and moths that are killed for your vegetables and grains. Mammals die, too. One pea grower I know kills 1500 animals a year – a lot of possums, deer, wallabies and some birds. Yes, for frozen peas. On our farm, we kill more animals in our two-acre market garden than pigs and cattle on the other 68 acres combined: rats, mice, moths, aphids, slugs and snails. We compete with them for food. We're not the only ones killing to produce vegan food. Is it kinder to eat apples that have come from a farm where they shoot possums to protect the crop, than eat meat from a sheep? Sure, some farming systems are better than others, but is growing anything really "kind"?
Nothing we do is without consequence. There's a price to pay every time we use transport, or build a house, or clothe ourselves. A billion birds die every year in the US (where these numbers are collated better than here) just from flying into windows. But we don't ban windows. I haven't found any news reports, either, of animals rights groups working to make windows less dangerous to birds. Does it make you more "'kind" just because you don't know the animal that dies, because you can't pinpoint which animal, at which time, is the victim of your lifestyle or your diet? Take it from a grower – everybody, regardless of what they eat, has blood on their hands.
I think what surprises me most is the passive aggressiveness of people like the vegan at WOMAD. Because I'm actually on their side half the time. I reckon a lot of stuff that happens in farms around Australia isn't kind to animals; things that could be considered cruel. And some of the footage in the movie Dominion, promoted by those who stopped traffic in Melbourne, is a sad indictment on the farming community. I actually agree with those that say unnecessary suffering happens at human hands and that we should do our best to stop it.
But, in the same way that a personal attack puts me offside, the evidence shows that antagonism from activists more broadly hasn't solved anything. Fifty years of animal cruelty videos have resulted in governments (including the current one) and farmers becoming more clandestine. We have worse animal welfare outcomes now than we did before the activists started. That strategy has failed.
Farmers only do things in our name. The only way things will improve is if the general population, not the intensive chicken farm, and not those who have chosen to abstain from meat, are part of the debate. Every time you buy food, you have the chance to move the momentum. It's time for meat eaters to step up and take responsibility for livestock.
Omnivores, those of us who have made a conscious choice to eat meat as part of their diet, hold the power in our wallets and purses. It's our economic clout, and our voice as a community, that holds the key to improving the lives of animals in human care. As thinking eaters, we should expect those who rear those animals to do better where possible. To show kindness. And the only way that will happen is if the ethical omnivores become part of the conversation and not leave it to the radicals on both sides.
On Eating Meat, by Matthew Evans, Murdoch Books, $33.
Choosing better meat
Better meat, meat that more closely suits your personal moral standpoint, may cost more. The simplest way to better impact the animals, the land, the farmer, is to perhaps eat meat less often, but spend more on it. Eat it fewer days a week, perhaps. The nice thing is that virtually without fail, animals that have been better allowed to express natural behaviours tend to taste better and more intense, meaning you probably will want to eat less. Below is a simple guide to better meat buying.
Australian pork is better than imported in ethical terms and chemical use, most of the time, but only 30 per cent of our pork is local. Look on the label or buy pork on the bone because that is always local.
Some pork, labelled "born outdoors, raised indoor on straw", is a mangled, muddled way of saying the parent pigs are generally able to express their instincts by nesting, and the piglets are then fattened in eco-shelters. It's my personal minimal standard, a system that would probably pass the average Australian's pub test.
Certified free range pork, or pork bought direct from a producer or butcher that can show you they're free-range, means a system that will allow the parents and the young to wallow, dig and express their pigness. It's a very good option. Better still is "pastured pork", where the animals are moved to fresh ground regularly. And the top is certified organic, where the grain and other feed meet organic standards, and the pigs are guaranteed free of antibiotic use and similar.
Most chickens in Australia now meet RSPCA approved standards. These are far from gold standards, but do allow the birds complete rest and periods of full light, they give the birds something to do, and a perch to stand on. This is absolute minimum standard from my perspective.
The next level up are free-range birds, which most supermarkets now stock. Above that are certified organic birds, which can range freely and are free from antibiotic use and the feed is grown without the use of pesticides and herbicides. And above that in terms of land use and regenerative farming are pastured chooks, some of which are more flavoursome (ie, having some flavour), which cost a fair bit more, but have far higher potential welfare and environmental outcomes.
Not all beef is born equal. Grass fed beef is better environmentally (grass is a renewable resource), and is best consumed close to where it was reared and processed. Grain fed beef has higher environmental costs, the fat profile isn't as good for human health, and compromises animal behaviour in the process.
This is the safe option 99 per cent of the time, because most sheep in Australia eat grass, like they are evolved to eat, and aren't kept in sheds and fed grain. The animals live a life more closely aligned to their original wild selves, able to express instinctual behaviour. When in doubt when eating out, I choose lamb. Or the vegetarian option.