It’s easy to argue that the intensification of animal farming puts food on the average Aussie battler’s table at a price they can afford. By suggesting we eat less meat, or better-quality meat, it’s easy to be accused of favouring the rich: perhaps only they can afford the grass-fed, organic, free-range alternative?
So let’s take a look at the numbers. The average Australian spends about 14% of their income on food – down from about 19% of income 30 years ago. According to government statistics, total annual expenditure on meat and seafood was only $650 per person in 2015-16 compared with $734 in 1988-89, allowing for inflation (the data for seafood and meat were compiled into one number, unfortunately). We spend less on meat than we used to, and buy more of it. So now, according to the most recent numbers available, each week households spend an average of $13.70 on vegetables and $9.60 on fresh fruit. Compare that to the $40 or more we spend each week on takeaways, fast food and confectionery. Or the 31% of our food budget we spend eating out, a 50% increase on three decades prior. Or the $13 we spend, on average, per household, per week, on our pets.
In short, we’ve never spent less, as a proportion of our income, on food in general, and meat in particular. Saying we can’t afford proper food, when only some of the poorest in the nation may have trouble affording it, is disingenuous. What’s more, while up to 50% of what fruit and vegetable farms produce is discarded at or near the farm, about 40% of what we buy at the shops gets thrown away at home, a totally squandered resource.
The truth is, we can spend more on food. We used to spend more on food, and historically have never spent less. We can support better farming systems, more sustainable farming, better animal welfare – but most of us just don’t, or choose not to. Or perhaps, because for so long farmers have said “Don’t worry” and “Don’t look”, we’ve not fully realised the choices we could make to help make the world a better place.
Farmers don’t grow food you want to eat. They grow food you’ll buy. They’re running businesses, not charities. So if you want a farmer to do something, then you need to make it attractive to them in a financial sense. For too long there’s been this condemnation of farmers on the one hand for unsavoury practices, and a complaint about the cost of food on the other. Yet as we’ve just seen, the cost of food is a furphy. Twenty years ago nobody would’ve believed we’d all find an extra $100 a month for internet and phone access. Today we just wear the cost.
And if we want better animal welfare outcomes, if we want more sustainable environmental management, if we want great-flavoured meat from animals that have been able to express their instincts, then we’ll have to pay for that, too.
It’s important to realise that animals do die in our name, whether or not we eat meat – but probably we have more control now as consumers over the lives of the animals that end up as meat. And it’s important to recognise that no system is perfect, but if we eat less meat, as a nation that eats so much meat and leads the world in this respect, then we’ll probably be doing less overall harm.
To make substantive change there are real issues to overcome. We know that consumers expect better animal welfare, but are motivated by money more than their scruples when they see the price difference at the checkout. In the United Kingdom, which brought in high welfare standards for pigs, the net result was a loss of local pork producers. So it can go wrong.
The UK experience is sobering. In the 1990s, a group called Compassion in World Farming started to campaign for the removal of sow stalls (called gestation crates in Britain). These crates are where the sow lives her whole life, from insemination to just prior to birth, when she is moved to a farrowing crate – a similar cage, except with more room for her piglets (not her) once they’re born. Essentially the sow is kept in these crates her entire adult life; wire cages that allow the animal to stand and lie down but not turn around or express normal behaviours. The crates have to be at least 1 centimetre bigger than her in length and girth, so the sow doesn’t have the bars touching her the whole time. Most people, myself included, find the use of sow stalls confronting, the complete denial of motion and natural animal expression too much to bear. But they’re really common globally, though the EU has moved away from them in recent years.
The UK decided to lead the world in ridding their pork industry of sow stalls, an element that didn’t meet consumer expectations, in the late 1990s. All the surveys showed loyal British consumers would support the local farmers in that endeavour. But it didn’t pan out that way, as other events got in the way. The British pound happened to rise in value, making imports cheaper; there was also a glut of pork in Europe, the UK’s favoured trading zone. Britain suffered from outbreaks of mad cow and foot and mouth disease. The major supermarkets didn’t champion British pork growers – and consumers made the most of cheap imported pork meat. In a decade, the number of pig farms in Britain dropped 40% and instead of producing 80% of their own pork, they now produce only about 50% of demand.
Cheap meat trumps animal welfare once we’re at the checkout and once we’re at the dining table, despite all the research pointing to a huge interest in the ethical origins of our food.
There are lessons to be learned from the UK experience. Some of these have to do with attachment. One of the best ways to change behaviour is to remove the simple financial transaction and replace it with an emotional one. So, yes, you’ll still have to pay for your beef, but if you’ve met the farmer, or a farmer like the one you’re buying meat off, you are more likely to support them in their endeavours.
Economists know that self-reported surveys about spending habits are unreliable. They know that our behaviour at the checkout has little to do with our value system – unless we have some emotional attachment to making a better decision. Australian pig farms, like the British ones, could struggle against cheap, poor-welfare imported pork, unless they engage with their customers and open their doors. Unless they show us that they’re doing things we give wholehearted approval to and gain an emotional attachment to. If farmers hide their operations, we figure we might as well buy meat from an equally appalling system and just pay less for it.
Australians, as we’ve seen, are heavy meat eaters, consuming on average just over 110kg each year. This is more than three times the global average, which is a mere 34kg per annum. It’s not out of the realms of possibility for Australians to eat less meat, which would be good for us, good for the environment and good for the animals we rear.
How much more will a bit of minimum animal welfare cost us? Well, nothing at all if we just eat less meat, like our doctors recommend, and like the rest of the world already does, with the exception of the United States. Not everybody has to have pastured chicken, but we can all do with raising the bar on the lowest standards we accept. Take eggs as an example. A dozen free-range eggs from Coles cost $4.20 for 700 grams when I checked their online shop. Cage eggs, from battery hens, cost $3. Cage-free, one brand at least, was priced at $3.75. Organic Coles eggs cost $8 (though that carton was only 600 grams).
You can see there is a price to pay for higher animal welfare. But a dozen cage-free eggs only cost 75 cents more – a paltry six cents more per egg. For most people, it isn’t too big a price to pay: 15 cents more per omelette, 18 cents more for a cake. Community standards don’t dictate free-range or organic eggs; those are consumer preferences. But do cage eggs actually meet the expectations of the average person in the street? Does the complete negation of any access to normal behaviour (besides breathing, eating, pooing and laying) justify the meagre savings in such a wealthy nation? I don’t think so, but it’s not up to me. It should be up to all in society, not me, and not the battery-hen farmers alone. Not the animal rights campaigners either. It should be the egg eaters who are also given voice – the strongest voice – in this debate.
Good, ethical meat and animal products should stack up to community standards. We need a moral baseline for the animals that are in our care, a baseline that extends across the farming divide right into the domestic kitchen. It’s important that some of these decisions are made before we head out to the supermarket.
I see the approach as multitiered.
First, legislators need to realise that community standards are vital for trust in the food system. If cage eggs from battery hens don’t meet that standard, then let’s make that system illegal. Ban it, and then we’ll know that all the laying hens in Australia will meet minimal consumer expectations.
Legislators should look further afield, too. If it’s not OK to rear an animal a certain way in Australia, products from overseas that don’t meet our national ethical standards shouldn’t be allowed in either.
I also think the big customers should take their role seriously. Most Australians buy meat and animal products from our biggest supermarkets: Coles, Woolworths, and increasingly Aldi and IGA. These supermarkets should lead from the front, ensuring that what they source meets society’s minimum ethical standards.
The big customers should also include takeaway firms. The clout a fast-food chain like KFC could wield, if it chose, in driving the big companies to produce legitimate free-range poultry is enormous.
One word from them, and our two biggest chicken companies, Baiada and Ingham’s, who produce 70% of chook meat in Australia, would suddenly take notice.
There are all sorts of medium to large businesses, from hotel chains to catering companies, from casinos to high-profile restaurants, that can drive change by the purchasing power they wield. All of those companies are influenced not only by those who use their services, but also by those people who work there, and those workers’ moral compasses.
While big companies can drive change quicker, it’s actually the little guys – you and me – that can effect change in the long run. Every time you ask the hotel buffet if the eggs are free range, if the pork is sow stall–free, you make it known you value higher welfare standards. Every time you invest a few more cents in an RSPCA chicken, or grass-fed corned beef, you wield economic power.
Farmers do things on our behalf. They’re a business. They’re in the game to make money, not make pigs happy. If they make the same money, or more money, meeting higher animal welfare standards, they’ll be willing to oblige.
But we can get those companies to change if we, as a society of mostly meat eaters, demand it of them. If they make the same money, raising fewer pigs or chickens, in a higher welfare system, then it’s a win all around. Better for the animals, better for the workers on those farms, better for the environment, and better for those of us who want to believe we should be able to eat good-quality meat while decreasing the amount of suffering that happens in our name.
This is an edited extract from On Eating Meat by Matthew Evans. (Murdoch Books, $32.99), out now