Episode 7 | The Vegan Factor

There is a joke making the rounds of some restaurants.  Question: How can you tell there is a vegan in the room? Answer: They’ll tell you. That little joke is from a chef in an article in a recent Earth Garden magazine – and not unsympathetically framed. When it comes to talking to people about food preferences, I find I am feeling more comfortable with those who describe themselves - if it comes up - as ‘eating a plant-based diet’, than those who announce that they are vegans. This tells me that even within vegan ranks, some are seeking to distinguish themselves from their more rabid compatriots. Those describing themselves as eating a plant-based diet appear less inclined to rage in the face of other people’s eating habits and do not want to be aligned with those on the activist end of the scale regardless of their beliefs.

In Episode 6 when talking about the roo industry I mentioned the Posh factor: that is, the actions Victoria and David Beckham took that shut down the market for kangaroo leather in Europe: (If you don’t know Victoria, alias Posh is a celebrity singer and fashion designer and David, her soccer champion husband.)

It was something I had heard anecdotally as I was researching the roo industry so I went looking for evidence. It wasn’t hard to find, online, on The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals website I found this from 2007:                                                                  I quote: Posh is a devout vegetarian and just four years after signing a multi-million-pound contract with Adidas to wear and promote Adidas Predators shoes made of kangaroo skins, David switched to a synthetic model after watching a video of baby kangaroos being ripped out of their mothers’ pouches and beaten to death.

 I haven’t seen the video in question, but in my experience professional roo shooters are neither cruel nor homicidal. They take pride in their one-shot kills and have the expertise to recognise and avoid shooting female roos with joeys in the pouch. But there are many cowboys on the job and the industry is extremely vulnerable to this sort of exposure. The taking of an animal life is never going to win hearts.

If you accept that meat-is-murder you have probably already stopped listening to this story – but if you accept that meat is food, I maintain that if there is a choice between the one-bullet-to-the-head, life-on-the-range version of meat versus the farmed animal version, I know the one I would choose on ethical and ecological grounds.


Coming from the perspective of a meat eater who is opposed to cruelty to animals and as someone who would like there to be an alternative to the live animal export trade for domestic producers - I want to have a look at what happened when the government banned live cattle exports to Indonesia in June 2011. If you remember, this ban was a panicked response to a video showing horrible treatment of a cow in an abattoir in Indonesia. The video was shot by an animal liberationist and shown on Four Corners. It created outrage.

The government intervened, clumsily, and the industry collapsed overnight. Up north in cattle country, producers were left bearing the emotional cost of being publicly branded as cruel people who cared nothing for the lives of their animals while, ironically, being left without the capacity to continue feeding and watering these same animals now stranded on country that couldn’t support them or in feed lots minus the cash to pay for their care or further transport.

The live trade industry for sheep also suffered collateral damage from the ban and a lot of people in the Midwest got out of sheep at this time – some with feedlots and those who had gone in for dorpas and damaras, varieties grown for their meat rather than wool, were wiped out financially by a combination of another dry season on top of the ban.

The responsibility of looking after animals and watching them suffer from the combined efforts of bad seasons, bad government policy, plunging credit ratings and a lack of support from all sides has made men and women across rural Australia walk away from meat industry.

Experienced animal truckers left the game for good, and many farmers went into fulltime cropping, accelerating the trend of pulling up fences and instituting road-to-road grain growing, getting out of stock work for good.

Cropping, like good stock work, is a bit of an art, but does not require the daily, hands-on work and emotional ups and downs that inevitably come into play when you are responsible for the well-being of real live animals.

With farm animals out of the equation, less workers are required to run farms and stations. Some big landowners started taking the option of hiring out of towners as fly-in fly- out workers to cover peak cropping times around seeding and harvesting. These workers don’t bring their families with them and have no real stake in the region so the town suffers as rural schools lose numbers, the school bus run becomes unsustainable and shops close with income’s lost....

By taking grazing animals off the farm, soil fertility and biodiversity are diminished in broadacre farming practices.... the consequences ripple out across the land, none of them good.  Much knowledge and expertise was lost to the industry by this ill-considered government decision as people left stock businesses for good- and in the wash up both humans and animals suffered.


Now of course, it is 2018 and the live trade industry is again in the spotlights for the cruel treatment of sheep – as it should be. One livestock shipping agency has been banned and there are concerted moves to stop the trade – or at least ban it during the northern hemisphere summer. I too, think the trade should be banned, but please, read on, there is more to the story……

I have made an assumption that veganism is synonymous with animal liberationists. It seems to me it has to be, it is just up to the individual vegan, how far they want to carry their own convictions into other people’s lives.


I have been arguing that eating meat can be justified on ethical and ecological grounds. But is there  a difference between what’s moral and what is ecologically regenerative? Surely, they are the same thing…When it comes to eating, morality produces its most visible and easy to judge moments in the killing of animals for meat – but does it really stop there?

For true holistic practises, ecological systems need to be nurtured and valued from the smallest microorganism in the soil up through all ecological systems within systems that eventually embrace all living beings and the entire earth.

With this in mind consider the case of TOFU. Can eating TOFU be justified on moral grounds if we broaden the argument away from the most obvious manifestation of morality? Tofu, in WA a mostly imported product, is a stepped-on food derived from the Soybean, a legume grown as a massive, broadacre global crop that represents agribusiness at its worst. The soybean is mostly grown in monocultures: these radically reduced ecosystems are saturated with chemicals that are compromising the health of soil, animals and people – and Tofu, the product, ultimately travels many food miles to find its way to supermarket shelves in Australia.

Where’s the balance, where’s the morality in eating tofu over local roo or lamb to fulfil nutritional needs in the big scheme of things?  (And thanks to Andrew, a  passionate plant-based diet person, for this analysis).


And this brings me to the lives of animals within industrialised agribusinesses. Animals raised for meat on a mass scale in industrialised processes, kept from natural pastures and open spaces, unable to graze a spread of bio-diverse plants, separated from their offspring – that to me is cruelty far greater than the moment of death, a moment which seems to unhealthily transfix those unfamiliar with life and death on farms and stations.

Feed-lotting is not the WA way – and should never be the WA way. The fight should not be about whether we eat meat or not, it should be about making sure the animal industry doesn’t go the way of the chicken industry. This is why we should be supporting WA farmers to grow meat. We have the land, we have a growing band of farmers trialling regenerative farming practices. As consumers, we should be demanding our meat comes from animals treated with respect and care at every step of their lives and death. And we should be prepared to pay for what it costs. If that means eating less meat – fine, we eat less meat, and we make it a point of respect to utilise every single molecule of the animal.


In his fabulous book, The Third Plate, US chef Dan Barber takes us on a global tour– trying to find a working definition for sustainable agriculture and hunting for produce that is both delicious and grown in ecosystems that are healthy, diverse and sustainable. His proof was always going to be literally in the pudding: he ends the book with a comprehensive menu that incorporates all produce – not just the highlights, the glamourous grains and best cuts – that comes from the farm.  As you might be able to guess, meat is on the menu, but it isn’t rump steak, it’s  - in his words ‘poached marrow with a small portion of braised beef shank and richly flavoured Bordelaise sauce made with the bones.’ In other words, the animal products are stretched way further than they usually are in the decadent West. 

Centre stage in this menu is a carrot steak. But he isn’t describing a return to some god-awful lentil stew nightmare of the 70’s – this is the hautest of haute cuisine with an emphasis on the sensational tasting produce that emerges when you grow in soil that is alive and breathing.

We seem to be inhabiting a time when food production and preparation are under the microscope. There is a focus on food-as-nutrition and its connections to ecological health that combined with a growing distrust of industrial agricultural processes – will surely end up placing GROWERS and PRODUCERS right where they belong - at the centre of civilized life. Once food and its provenance in all holistic glory has taken centre stage, then this will surely start driving change in the way that we view disease and wellness. Makes sense to me.


I was an artist before I became interested in growing food and it wasn’t long before I started seeing some striking parallels between farmers and artists. Looking closely at the havoc wrought by the 2011 Live Trade ban it struck me that the farmer was the one taking the biggest risk across the whole of the meat-producing industry.

The relationship between the farmer and agribusiness is analogous to the relationship between the artist and the art market. While it is a given that the primary producer’s input – whether farmer or artist - is the role upon which these whole industries are built, it is also likely to be the role least rewarded.

But to continue haranguing those who in my opinion, are eating the wrong things and making immoral food choices…should we be legislating against parents who allow a child unlimited access to Coca-Cola and tam-tams? I am convinced that the health ramifications for the child as she becomes an adult will impact heavily on the sickness industry which affects all citizens, so why not sue the caregivers? That was rhetorical…..obviously we can’t sue the caregivers for the same reason that vegans can’t legislate against farmers for raising animals for food. Peoples’ choices must be, if not respected at least treated with understanding.

The word Vegan rings alarm bells for me. It signals someone who is urban-based, doesn’t have much of a clue about how food is produced and will happily see lives and businesses wrecked in response to an application of their limited moral code. I’m just saying!  This is what happens: we label each other, dialogue ends, insults are hurled, and the worst possible outcomes occur.

The livestock industry needs to be talked about by everyone, systems need to be monitored and revised at every point so animals are treated with respect.

The issue of the lack of local abattoirs could be looked at and all viewpoints listened to so that the decisions made protect, rather than decimate, the welfare of the animals and the lives of the people who grow the food we eat. Above all, local growers must be protected. It will be a lot harder to influence the way animals are treated if we have to rely on overseas growers to put meat on our plates.

So, you bongo-playing, chardonnay and latte-sipping hippies from the south -  I am now thinking of us all as ‘plant-based eaters’ or, I just heard a new phrase used as an endorsement for reversing climate change by encouraging us all to eating 'a plant-rich diet'. it’s all in the wording. By this skilful relabelling I can differentiate you from those with intolerant and fundamentalist views. There is no issue. We can all move on, our shared humanity intact.

Do vegans know that they are prey?                                                                                                                                                                                            That one day they will look up as a shadow falls on them to see a giant blocking out the sun, and a hand the size of a car reaching down to lift them up and stuff them into a gaping mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth?  Do they think that only eating plants will save them from this fate? Or is this vision of life and death one that is only gifted to meat-eaters?