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North Melbourne Books: Australians eat roughly three times more meat than the global average. The main argument of On Eating Meat is that Australians should eat less meat, of a better quality that is also ethically produced. This would provide a win for the environment, animals and human health. Sounds easy, but there are many impediments to achieving this goal, mainly seductive cheap prices and a lack of information about how commercial meat production works. What are the most effective steps consumers can take to bring about the sort of change you advocate?
Matthew Evans: The nice thing about this change is that we are all (well, all meat eaters), empowered through our purchases. And because we eat three times a day, and have to eat, we’re all given this opportunity to make better decisions quite often. I think the first thing to recognise is that all meat isn’t equal, that all farming systems aren’t the same, and that every time you make a better decision you encourage better farming.
That’s true whatever you eat. Farmers only do things because we ask it of them. If we want better quality housing for pigs. If we want less antibiotic use. If we want animals to be able to express their instincts, then farmers will do that on our behalf, but it might have an in built cost. That cost can be offset by buying less meat, but better quality higher welfare meat. It might involve wasting less of what is produced. But ultimately, it’s small decisions by meat eaters that has the greatest potential to change the momentum in our farming systems.
For most of us, eating less meat won’t destroy our gastronomic and cultural well being, it could well be better for our bodies, and it is potentially a great thing for animals, the planet and the farmers who grow things in our name.
NMB: It was alarming to read how much secrecy there is around intensive animal farming. You tried to get access to these big farms but were frustrated at every step. So much secrecy makes you wonder what there is to hide. Isn’t there enough government regulation to ensure intensive farming operations are being run to community standards, or do we need more?
ME: Government regulation is about keeping industry running, and the day to day inspections and checks are governed by people who are part of a very small clique. What their standards are don’t necessarily match community standards. Most Australians would be appalled at how some of our animals are raised, how confined they are, how restrictive the conditions are in terms of normal, instinctual behaviour. Leaving it to the industry groups, who hold power in many settings relating to regulation, and the people who don’t necessarily share general community standards because they are steeped in the industry, is a recipe for disaster.
A good example is the sow stall, essentially a tiny pig cage that doesn’t allow the mother pig to turn around or walk, but only stand, eat, defecate, and lie. These are still used routinely in about 30% of Australian piggeries, and the mother pigs live in them virtually all their adult lives. You and I would see them as a cage, a jail. The industry sees them as a way to stop sows fighting.
Do they meet general community expectations? No, according to research, and according to one of our largest supermarkets, Coles, who insisted that all pork sold under the Coles brand was sow-stall free a few years ago. The industry resisted, but Coles knew their customers cared, so forced the change on the farms. There is no way this would’ve happened if the industry was left to decide it for themselves. Because of this change, based on small customers (you and I), and large customers (Coles), 70% of mother pigs in Australia are now more able to express social behaviour and at least move in more ways than just standing and lying down.
NMB: Your book has a wealth of fascinating research that will amaze and shock eaters of all persuasions – carnivore, vegetarian and vegan. As a consequence, the book also raises a lot of ethical questions, giving On Eating Meat a philosophical aspect. Did you change your mind about anything during the writing process, or learn anything that came as a complete surprise?
ME: I think the biggest surprise came in the complexity of farming systems, and discovering the research which points to animals being part of a good farming system in some cases, and able to produce more variety, more nutrient dense food, in the broader picture. I guess it makes sense that an ecosystem, which a good farm should be, is reliant on animals as well as plants, and that to exclude animals is arbitrary and goes against ecological principles. But to see it on our farm, and in the research that is now emerging, made more sense of our historic and cultural attachment to using animals for food.
All farming land isn’t the same, and while we’ve ignored basic principles in much of the way we grow food (both plant and animal based) in recent history, the future is not necessarily meat free. But it has to include a much cleverer use of land and fossil fuels than we currently practice. The other thing that really surprised me along these lines is that 70% of the world’s food is produced by smallholders, small farms, (and much of this by women). We tend in Australia to think of big monoculture farms as the norm (partly through our geography and partly because so much of the media and talk around animal production is tainted by American stats), but the reality is small, multi-species farms are often the norm, feed much of the world, and can provide a blueprint for how we can feed a growing population nutrient rich food in the longer term.
NMB: It seems like you have a love-hate relationship with vegans, as they are both praised and criticised in your writing. In essence, you’d like to work with the vegan community to bring about better animal welfare standards. Are you confident the book will open out the debate a bit more on this front?
ME: Not really love/hate relationship, but yes, I do bring up some criticisms of some vegans. I also praise and criticise farmers. I think some vegan principles are great, but I don’t see militant veganism as helpful. It’s a belief system, just as some paleo people have strident belief systems, and as do Buddhists and Christians and Hindus. But trying to force your belief systems on someone else is doomed to failure. Some activism is helpful in motivating those already converted, but it’s a proven strategy that attack, threats, and anger don’t change minds.
The problem isn’t that some people don’t want to eat meat, and some people want you to eat a whole lot of meat, it’s about those at the radical ends imposing beliefs on others. We don’t force people to ride electric bikes (probably a lot better for the environment than a car). We wouldn’t put up with people lying on the street in Melbourne stopping traffic to condemn all those that don’t use wood that is Forest Stewardship Council approved. It wouldn’t be okay for 2% of the population to insist that we all home school our kids because moving kids around in buses and cars lead to wallaby deaths and greenhouse gas emissions. It isn’t appropriate for me to write death threats and abusive emails to people who eat processed food no matter how much I think it’s an abomination, and I don’t think that people who practice anti-social behaviour in the name of veganism should be let off the hook either.
Meat eating is a small impact in terms of all human impact on the world, and if you want to have no impact on animals and the environment, the only way is to not exist. We have to recognise that everything we do has an impact, and that we all have different priorities, based on our income, our geography, our ancestry, our history. We can all make our own choices around ethics, based on our own belief systems, but being preachy about someone else’s meat eating while you’re wearing non-organic cotton, or have bought cherries where the nets kill thousands of birds each year, smacks of the hypocrisy that those very people rail against.
The great news is that most vegans, like most of the rest of us, don’t define themselves by their diet or one aspect of their belief system. Most vegans define themselves as humans, who would like to see us do better for the animals in our care. And so it’s easy to work with people willing to have grown up conversations about the best way forward, about lives won and lost, and the best way to build communities, societies, nations, while not buggering up the world in the process.
NMB: What books are you enjoying at the moment?
ME: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, a brilliant look at what we do, and don’t, know about plants. Like how they talk to each other. How they emit sound. How they tend to sick neighbours. How they have memory despite no recognisable central nervous system. It’s a good way to start to understand what we don’t understand about forests and the environment we so readily take for granted. A more esoteric read is Thus Spoke the Plants by Sydney based researcher Monica Gagliano, which explores some similar themes in a more personal, mind altering way (and yes, while Monica is a scientist by trade, she does take a few mind altering things along the way).
Rusted Off, by Gabrielle Chan, about how the bush feels alienated from the city, and from the political cycle. Written by a journalist who moved from the city a long time ago, she has insights into the widening gulf between the bush and the suburbs, and what that means for all of us.
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. Well, I’m excited about it in anticipation! I'm just about to launch into this one. I reckon Tim captures the landscape of WA beautifully, and he paints characters so well that there’s hardly a book of his that hasn’t left me really moved. He captures our flaws, our hopes, our strange alliances so well, and does it with a good Aussie voice, which is all too rare.
On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It, by Matthew Evans. Murdoch Books. $32.99