what I learned from a meat free week

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in Australia’s official Meat Free Week, which to some would be unconscionable – that is, to go 21 meals without animal flesh. Why would you do that? What’s the point? The organisation I work with also supported Meat Free Week. We received a handful of complaints from beef producers. Interestingly, we heard nothing from the chicken or pork industries, at which the Week was mostly aimed...

this is far from a conventional chicken farm, it's a mindful chicken farm in NSW.
Only 10-15% of chicken sold in Australia is free range.
via buenavistafarm.

Let me be clear. MFW was not about turning anyone into a vegetarian. I explain it in this post I wrote for Sustainable Table:

In case you missed it because you had your head buried in a bowl of beef rendang, last week was Australia’s official Meat Free Week. Before you shake your heritage breed lamb chops at us, it wasn’t a campaign designed to turn anyone vegetarian or one designed to take a shot at farmers. 

It was a campaign designed to highlight the factory farming of animals in Australia (particularly common in the chicken and pork industries) and to get us all to think about HOW MUCH meat we consume and WHERE it comes from. The hope was that going a week without meat would make you respect it more. Kinda like how you’d feel about your house if you were forced to live on the street for a week...

I’m not a vegetarian. I love meat. But I see the bigger picture. This is why I chose to support Meat Free Week. It’s why I’m always banging on about why we need to eat less meat. Here’s my two key points:

  1. Our big appetite for cheap meat has driven a ‘farming’ model of efficiency and cost-cutting.We have an insatiable appetite for cheap meat. We (Australia) eat more than 10 million chickens every single week. It’s estimated that 6 million pigs are killed for meat every year (consider ham, bacon, pork buns, dumplings as well as pork fillet and roast). We obviously love it, yet we squirm at paying more than $10 for a whole chicken. Our insatiable appetite for cheap meat has driven meat industries into a model of efficiency and cost-saving. It becomes not only more efficient but necessary to house 20,000+ chickens in one relatively small shed, power it, produce 16 tonnes of feed for them per week and dispose of 30 tonnes of chicken poo at the end of every production cycle (factory farmed birds take 7 weeks to grow to slaughter weight) than it does to run small, mindful pastured chicken farms even though this is clearly better for our health, the welfare of the animals and the environment.
  2. It’s a practicality thing. Meat produced in a manner that is good for the environment, our health and animals’ welfare requires more labour and fewer animals. That’s why sustainably produced meat costs more. Most of us will need to eat less meat overall in order to afford sustainably produced meat. It’s a practicality thing.

The fact of the matter is this –

We drive market behaviour. It’s our consumption patterns that drive factory farming. We drive it with our dollar and our behaviour. Similarly we can vote for a better system of farming with our dollar and our behaviour.

As part of my work with Sustainable Table, I’ve learned a lot about meat in Australia. There are SO many issues and points to cover. I’m not going to cover them all in one post, there’s simply too many. But as part of the My Simple Life series, I will be exploring them in their entirety. Because it’s important stuff. It’s BIG stuff. It’s OUR planet and OUR health and OUR conscience. And it’s within OUR power to change it.

Which brings me back to the issue of how much meat is a sustainable amount for us to be eating. I don’t have a precise quantity. I don’t know that anyone does. But I can tell you these facts:
  • The latest NHMRC Australian Dietary Guidelines and the UN urge us to halve our meat consumption right now. For illustrative purposes - and not because I think we should be weighing our food – I’ll share this - we currently eat an average of 120kg of meat per person per year, or about 320g per day. The new NHMRC guidelines stipulate we eat about 160g per day (as one option of many for protein intake).
  • All the longest lived people in the world, people living in the Blue Zones, get most of their protein from beans. They generally eat meat once a week. Sometimes, I think, we don’t need complex decade-long epidemiological studies to work out how much of this or that is good or bad for us. Sometimes, we don’t need to look much past real-life to capture a hint that something is good. (As a former scientist, I’m allowed to say this.)
  • We’re not eating nearly enough vegetables. In 2012, almost 92% of Australians did not meet the recommended vegetable intake. Put another way, only 8% of us ate enough vegetables to thrive. Interestingly, the percentage of Aussies not getting enough veg in their diet has increased significantly over the last 10 years... 

Like I said above, the issues surrounding meat production in Australia are complex. The implications of our current system are complex. They’re far-reaching (individuals, families, farmers, communities, abattoir workers, restaurants, businesses, exporters etc) and big and heavy. But there are simple, small ways each of us can make a difference:

We can eat less meat. This isn’t just so we can take a bit of pressure off the farmers, it’s also because it’s the only way most of us will afford to purchase meat that has been produced sustainably, ethically and locally. We’re not eating enough vegetables and beans and legumes. We need to learn how to do this!

We can stop wasting food and start making the most of the meat we do buy. Instead of throwing out the roast chook carcass and going out and buying a packet of stock from the supermarket, keep the carcass and make your own stock.

We can re-learn to eat nose-to-tail. It makes me sick to think that farmers are throwing away perfectly edible parts of their animals simply because we’ve unlearned how to cook and enjoy them. I grew up on livers and hearts and brains and necks and all the other less popular (and cheaper) bits and I’m A-OKAY.

We need to pay more for our meat. $7.99 a kg for bacon is not on! We need to realise that there’s no such thing as a free meal. It may cost us less at the consumer end, but somewhere along the line, someone, something – the farmer, the land, the animals – has paid the price for us. Thing is, it’ll come back to bite us hard. We need to support our farmers in producing meat in the most sustainable ways possible. We have to do this so that we and our children and our children’s children can continue to eat happily and healthily well into the future.

We can find out where our meat comes from. Buy meat from somewhere where you can ask questions about how it was produced, how far it had to travel to slaughter, what it was fed... Farmers’ markets, butchers or even online ethical meat suppliers allow us to do this.

When we’re eating out, we can be mindful too. If you don’t like the thought of pigs being raised indoors in concrete barns and never seeing the light of day, then don’t order bacon at breakfast or a pork bun for lunch.

And finally, for now,

We need to respect where our meat comes from. Because we don’t do the killing ourselves these days, we forget that a life was taken to feed us. We forget this because we don’t have to don our loin cloths and spears and head bush to get a feed. We simply pop into the butcher’s shop or the supermarket and pick a neatly packaged chop off the shelf. But in reality someone had to raise an animal, and then kill it, so that we can be fed. And this, we must respect.

On the wrap up of Meat Free Week I wrote this short summary of what I learned and I think it’s a neat way to wrap up this post too:

"I totally dug eating so many vegetables! Yay for vegetables! 21 meals in a row without a skerrick of animal flesh made me realise two things: 1. I don’t need to eat meat every day or even every second or third day. I think once a week is nice and enough, 2. Just when I thought I couldn’t respect meat and livestock and farmers more, I now respect meat and livestock and farmers more. I learned that I value the privilege of eating meat. We should all be treating meat as a special privilege and with the respect it deserves – after all, a life was lost in the process."

I’d truly love to know what you think of this issue. And if you got involved in Meat Free Week, what did you learn?

P.S For more on how to eat meat sustainably, read my post here.


7 comments:

  1. I am a beef cattle farmer ...it's what we do for a living. But I totally support meat free week. I long for the day when consumers drive the market hard enough that people care about eating non factory farmed animals. Our cattle are raised ethically and free range on grass in our paddocks. I dream of the day when consumers come straight to the farmer to buy meat , but as long people keep shopping from supermarkets that support factory farming , that day is a while away yet.
    A great post with lots to think about.

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    1. Hi Kim, huge respect for you. Thank you for doing what you do and for spreading the message that we need to care about where our meat comes from. Thank you!

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  2. Great post again!
    My husband and I chose to become vegetarians 1 year ago and have never been healthier - he had cancer at the time so it was for health reasons primarily. Beside that I feel better about leaving a better world for the next generation. Unfortunately beef (and other meat providers) like Kim above are rare and she's right it is us consumers that drive the market. Look at the poor farmers suffering from the $1 milk in supermarkets.
    I think if people opened their eyes up to how these poor animals are treated they would either give up meat or only buy from people like Kim.
    One thing that does my head in is the "paleo brigade" who say we are just eating like our ancestors. Our ancestors just hunted for what they needed and ate it then and there - their meat wasn't pumped with chemicals and modified like it is now, their chickens weren't cramped in cages, their pigs weren't kept in small spaces where they couldn't stand up and get away from each others defecation.
    I still buy and cook meat for the kids as it's up to them to choose how they want to eat - but I buy organic, ethical, free range etc. Sure it's more expensive but at the end of the day it's worth it on every level.
    Rant over!

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  3. Great post! Since I began meal planning a year or two ago, our family has around 4 meat-free main meals a week. Meal planning has meant I actually use all my cookbooks, and helped me to discover many delicious vegetarian dishes. We don't miss that meat, feel 'lighter', and it saves us so much money on our grocery bill. We shop for most of our produce and meat at a local Farmers market. I'd rather support the farmers than a supermarket.

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    Replies
    1. That is awesome, thank you for sharing!

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