reconsidering meat

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching a documentary series called “For the Love of Meat”, hosted by journalist turned farmer Matthew Evans. The main point of the series is to make people more aware of how their meat is produced, and how the animals are treated, particularly on “intensive farms”, where the focus is on high output.

In the introductory blurb, Evans says that he is a “dedicated carnivore”, and I actually think this is a really good thing because you’d expect these sorts of documentaries to be hosted by people intent on turning everyone into vegetarians. I feel like this documentary series is more about the question of how to farm meat sustainably and ethically, rather than the question of whether or not we should eat meat at all.

Funnily enough, as reasonably as this documentary seems to be presented, I think this is quite possibly the only point in my life thus far that I’ve seriously considered whether vegetarianism is a viable option for me. I still don’t think this show is going to put me off eating meat altogether, but I certainly thought about it. I suppose I just realised that I don’t really need meat (but I kind of do).

According Evans, Australia has the second highest per capita meat consumption in the world (after the US). I think he said we eat, on average, about 90kg of meat per person each year. If you consider all the vegetarians in the country, this means there are plenty of people eating a lot more than this. Sounds a bit excessive, especially considering that other countries average around 25-30kg per person per year. With this in mind, I definitely agree with the host that it’s important for meat-lovers to know about where their meat comes from.

One of the things I found really interesting was the argument around farrowing cages. Last week’s episode was about pigs, and while the industry has moved away from sow stalls, the move to farrowing cages has brought its own controversy. You see, when pigs are raised free-range, and “nest” naturally (yes, pigs construct so-called nests when they’re about to give birth), you might lose three or four piglets simply because they accidentally get crushed by the mother. However, if sows are put in farrowing cages (starting, if I remember correctly, from just before they give birth until 3-4 weeks afterwards), then the piglet mortality rate decreases to just one or two per litter (typically 12-14 piglets per litter).

So, on average, you’d save two lives. Sounds great, right? But farrowing cages are cramped; the sow can pretty much just stand up or lie down, and not much else. Animal rights groups argue that it’s still distressing for the sow (compared to sow stalls) and, yeah, from what they showed on the documentary, it doesn’t look pleasant at all. On average, a sow bred for farming purposes, might give birth twice per year, so she’d spend around 8 weeks each year in these farrowing cages.

But is it ok to put the mother in significant discomfort if it saves a couple of piglets? Isn’t it ok?

Currently, there isn’t a feasible alternative in Australia. I mean, there are other options, but they’d take up more space, which farmers just don’t have; and perhaps, even if it could be implemented, the piglet mortality rate isn’t greatly improved.

The week before this episode about pigs, Evans investigated chicken farming. At least with chicken farming it’s a bit more clear-cut: free-range is obviously a lot better for the animal than close confinement. In intensive farms, adult chickens are crowded into sheds, and if you do the maths on it, the space that each chicken has is equivalent to about an A4 piece of paper.

The two other facts from that episode that have really stuck with me are (1) chickens are given just four hours of darkness each day for sleep (the rest of the time they’re awake, feeding and growing), and (2) because they’re awake and eating for so much of the day, everyday, it’s not unusual for chickens in these sorts of farms to grow faster than what their legs can handle, so they become too heavy to support their own weight and struggle to even just stand up.

The next episode’s going to be about cattle (I’m pretty sure it’s just a three-part series: chickens, pigs, cows). I already know that cattle farming has a huge impact on the environment – I think most people would know that these days – but I’m still interested in seeing what other revelations I get from this week’s episode.

I was actually going to wait until the end of the series to write a post about the whole thing, but these thoughts have been circulating around in my mind, and I thought, why not get them out, and share this information. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up post…

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8 thoughts on “reconsidering meat

  1. I’ve been watching this series too (haven’t had a chance to watch the pigs one yet). This is another case where I think we, as a society, can do a bit more individually. Initiatives like meatless Mondays are great, but I think it’s not such a big thing in Australia (ironically, I first got introduced to the concept when I was living in the US).

    Personally, this plus health reasons are why I’ve decided to make a conscious decision to eat no meat at least 3-4 nights a week. My alternative is fish but I’m not sure yet how much better that is, environmentally/ethically. I’m not sure at this stage whether I can go full vegetarian, maybe one day I’ll try it for a full week and see how it goes.

    • I suppose “meatless Mondays” and similar initiatives might be more common in more carnivorous countries because other countries don’t need these sorts of prompts to reduce meat consumption (?)

      No meat 3-4 nights a week is a pretty decent effort. When did you start this? Have you noticed any changes to your health etc?

      • It sounds very US-esque. Another slogan to get you involved. Not really sure which countries are more vegetarian than others?
        I started this maybe about 2-3 months ago? I haven’t really noticed many changes to my health? I guess maybe because I’m fairly healthy to begin with?? But I think my digestive system does feel like it’s struggling as much.

  2. I am very ambivalent about eating meat. I was vegetarian for 16 years, mainly for ethical reasons, and then I started eating some white meat again because I was getting anemic. To this day, I eat very little meat and I have learnt to source my proteins elsewhere, mainly because I object at how inhumanely animals are treated. Chickens and cattle have been the recipient of quite a few changes in the manner they are either kept or killed but with pigs, we still have a long way to go.

    • I definitely feel a very strong pull now toward eating a lot less meat, and to being more responsible with what meat I do choose to eat.
      The industry definitely still has a long way to go but, like Evans said in the documentary, it really comes down to the consumer – demand drives production.

  3. Sounds like a very interesting documentary. I’ve had spells of vegetarianism (primarily around Lent) and noticed that after a certain point I really do lose my meat cravings. That being said, I don’t think I’d be able to carry it on for an extended period.

    We’ve also switched to free range chicken and eggs in our home. I had no idea about the pigs. Will have to look more carefully into how I source other meats in our home.

    • Yeah, it’s a shame the documentary series only covered three animals. I did learn a lot, but now I’m wondering about all the other meat I eat, and how they might be farmed…

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