We are, depending on the year and whose statistics you use to measure it, the biggest or second biggest consumers of meat on earth. While, worldwide, average meat eaten per person per year is around the mid 30kg mark, we eat nearly three times as much; closer to 93kg a year according to OECD figures. In other words, we eat HEAPS of meat. Way more than we need to be healthy. We eat way more than nations more famed than ours for the quality of their food, and we place meat front and centre of most substantial meals when in other places, they don’t.
The reasons for this carnivory are many. It’s cultural - we have had access to lots of good quality meat, for a relatively cheap price compared to other countries, for generations. Our Anglo-Celtic colonists weren’t brought here for their culinary skills, and the dishes they did bring often relied heavily on meat. Aboriginal communities across the nation included meat in their diet (though the amount varied depended on access to other animal protein, such as seafood), and as we replaced native forests with grasslands, much of the country was more suited to grazing animals than cropping (ie. more suited to meat than grains, fruits or vegetables).
We eat meat because, relative to most other nations, we are wealthy. We eat it because we know how to make meals using it in our limited time. We eat meat because we have lots of land with relatively low fertility well suited to grow animals on. We eat meat because it tastes delicious.
We also now know that eating so much meat isn’t good for us. The World Health Organisation has classified red meat – including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat – as “probably carinogenic to humans”. WHO found an even stronger link between processed meat – salami and hotdogs, for example – and colorectal cancer. (You can read more details of the findings by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, WHO’s cancer agency, here.) Eating meat isn’t bad, but eating too much has the potential for increased harm. And in my view – and in the view of the scientists I spoke to – we as a nation do eat too much. (Find out how your meat consumption compares with the national recommendations via the National Health and Medical Research Council's National Nutritional Calculator.)
While I travelled the country and talked to people while filming For the Love of Meat, one thing became clear. The industry bodies want to do one thing: get you to eat more of their meat. That’s their role - to encourage you to eat more beef and lamb. Or more chicken. Or more pork. Sometimes that meat consumption is at the expense of one of the other meats. But mostly it’s just helped to increase our meat eating overall, so in 2016 we are silver medalists in the amount of meat eaten. The peak bodies, the advertising, the message, is all about eating plenty of meat. But they’ve also started to attack those who think eating meat does have negative impacts.
The lamb industry’s ad showing the kale of vegans being torched was considered funny, and its critics lambasted (boom tish) for showing that classic vegan characteristic – a lack of a sense of humour. A meat eating food writer, Richard Cornish, who took a year off animal protein, has written about being mocked mercilessly for his choice. Restaurants joke that when asked if they have something for vegans, it’s the exit door. I know how it goes. I’m one of those unashamed meat eaters that makes those seemingly flippant jokes, despite having once been a vegetarian myself. It’s our culture to consider people who don’t eat meat a bit ‘unAustralian’ and the target of our mirth. These people who probably tread a bit gentler on the earth and are potentially a bit healthier than us.
Meat eating is lauded. Nobody gathers around a big zucchini on a spit, salivating. Vegans and vegetarians are heckled. The industry wants us to gobble up even more meat than we currently do, regardless of the impacts on our health, on the animals, on the planet. The scales are tipped in this nation, towards meat eating. Even asking the question, “Do we eat too much meat?” was enough for some filming to be stopped when making the show.
The fear in the industry is palpable. And with good reason. There are livelihoods of thousands of people tied up in meat production. Families rely on the income generated by meat. Whole communities are built on the ability of farmers to rear and sell livestock. If I earned my money solely from pigs, I’d be more loathe to say don’t eat so much pork. Or eat more vegetables that my neighbour grows. But the scary thing isn’t the industry - we expect them to espouse the virtues, not flaws, of their products. The problem isn’t the actual meat industry’s voice, it’s others with skin in the game.
So every time you talk to a scientist who is funded – even only in part or occasionally – by the meat industry, it seems like they can’t countenance the fact that we may be eating too much meat. The mere question of whether we’ve reached peak meat consumption for the health of ourselves and our land is met with a blank, a muted response, or a request for the camera to stop rolling. Truly independent research into the effects of all this meat eating, on the animals and on the planet, is sparse. Even our lauded CSIRO has studies funded in part by industry. And is the meat industry likely to fund any scientists who question the mantra "eat more meat"? Scientists I've spoken to tell me no.
So Australia’s in a bind. We have a culture and history of meat eating. We’re world leaders in the field. We have buckets of money being spent by meat producers telling us to eat even more meat. The people charged with researching animal welfare and environmental consequences don’t always feel at liberty to consider the unthinkable – that we moderate meat consumption, and produce better tasting meat that we eat less of. Through fear of funding cuts to their research, we run the risk that the scientists self-edit to give answers the industry wants, rather than what it should hear. And yet we know there are repercussions – on our health, on the planet, and on the animals we eat. These are repercussions that could be better managed if we simply ate less meat, wasted less, and used the meat we produce more efficiently.
We could have a grown up discussion about meat consumption and what it means for the animals, for the nation, for the planet, and for us, if only those involved in all aspects of the industry were big enough let it happen.
We eat a lot of meat in Australia – more than most other nations on earth. But do we really know what meat we are eating, and where it’s come from? Find out more with Matthew Evans in For The Love of Meat.