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July 27, 2021

The Ethics of Eating

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Matthew Evans, author of On Eating Meat, will be at Byron Writers Festival.

By S Haslam

Author Matthew Evans is very media savvy, but even he seems a little rueful about the focus on the chapter in his latest book On Eating Meat that attacks ‘extremist’ vegans, for (among other things) failing to acknowledge the astonishing number of animals killed producing vegan food. But Evans is no boofhead vegan basher. Far from it.

Evans is calling for far greater ethical engagement from meat eaters, and intellectual honesty from vegans. ‘I’ve met the person who would serve the last critically endangered southern bluefin tuna at his restaurant, but meat eaters are not all like that,’ he says.

Many of us in the Byron Shire, including restaurateurs who are keenly concerned with provenance, don’t eat meat at all, or buy organic, sustainable produce direct from farmers at the local market. But as Evans says, that’s a very small percentage of the population, with the vast majority of food being purchased from big supermarkets. Studies show that a tendency to accept cultural traditions and reject non-conformist animal-rights arguments might correlate to a moral disengagement in meat consumption, but Evans’s spotlight on vegans is part of his broader argument for greater engagement.

What has gained a lot of attention is his straightforward attack on the misguided idea that veganism avoids killing animals. ‘The number of animals dying to produce vegan food is astonishing,’ says Evans. The cultivation of 400 tonnes of peas, for example, might kill 150 deer, 500 wallabies, and 800–1,000 possums per year. A heritage apple orchard might kill 120 possums a year, and about one billion mice die per year in WA alone to grow wheat.

He says ‘speciesism’ underlies a refusal to acknowledge this issue, going on to attack PETA or Animals Australia activists who refuse to cull feral cats, a massive killer of native and other wildlife. But a cold commercial refusal to examine what’s really going into producing your cheap supermarket meat is also the focus of Evans’s book.

From the beginning the book is scathing of the hideous practices of beef, chicken, and pork producers, the mindset of the individuals involved, and the secrecy of the three industry bodies who hide the truth from a public who, Evans says, need to know this stuff and become more ‘ethical omnivores’.

‘I’ve been a market stall seller, I’ve bought from people. I know all the bad stuff that already happens,’ says Evans. ‘We have to eat three times a day, so we are all making ethical decisions constantly. Because of the volume of decisions, it’s actually the meat eaters who hold the economic power to change the lives of animals, not vegans.’

Evans is a former SMH food critic, restaurateur and host of Gourmet Farmer, a TV series set on his farm in Tasmania. His earlier SBS documentary For the Love of Meat was devoted to exposing the secret industry practices of farmers who are in it for the money, and believe consumers just want it cheaper, and don’t want to know how that’s done.

‘Secrecy is really counterproductive; if you want people to trust what you do then secrecy can never work in your favour if you want social licence. Accountability and transparency never hurt; there is no reason to avoid scrutiny,’ he says.

‘If you are trying to produce something cheaply, but you have to do it secretly, then something is wrong. But if you want to do something that you are proud of, you’d do it in the light of day. Look at wine producers; they invite people into the process of wine making, and people are spending more on alcohol but drinking less of it. Let’s make an emotional connection and that will make people value our work much more highly – the intensive animal industry has been denigrated as “just farming” but it is amazingly complex.’

In the book, Evans discusses when Britain banned the cruel practice of sow stalls, increasing pork prices. The British public responded by buying cheaper, less ethical, imported pork, reducing the UK’s share of its domestic pork market from 80 per cent to 50 per cent. I ask him whether consumers can be trusted to lead ethical change. The policy needs to be multipronged,’ he says. ‘If there is an ethical standard, this must be applied to imports as well. In that British Pork example, they didn’t tell their story very well. In Australia too, pork producers were selling below cost while Chinese pre-cooked pork was imported using a loophole.’

If there are two issues Evans would like to further highlight, they are the wastefulness of modern farming and feral cats. ‘We let down the earth when we feed grain to cattle, but also by not focusing on the domestic and wild cat problem. This is a suffering, wildlife, and ecology matter that deserves attention. Veganism that comes from purity rather than pragmatism causes absolutism, that fails in regard to suffering. Absolutism cannot be relied upon for policy as it is not nuanced, failing to recognise different ecosystems and situations. Whether we are talking about farming systems, or protection of native animals, we need to be cleverer. We can apply our brains and really do things better’, he says.

Matthew Evans is appearing at the Byron Writers Festival 2–4 Aug on Saturday and Sunday and on Thursday 1 August 10–11am at the Beach Hotel.

See byronwritersfestival.com.

Artificial Meat?

ARTIFICIAL MEAT. Matthew Evans is not at all keen on artificial meat. ‘I love science,’ he says, ‘but the idea that you could replicate the complexity of meat in a petrie dish is ridiculous, especially when a renewable resource such as grass is converted very efficiently by a cow into meat or milk. There is incredible wastefulness in the intensive animal industry, and we should be concentrating on the massive number of deaths of live male chicks, or camels, killed to protect arid ecosystems, without trying to ‘outmeat meat’. Increased production of processed food has only ever helped a company’s bank balance, not our waistlines’ gastronomic integrity, nutritional status, or bank balances. Artificial meat, however good it gets, is still just a processed food.’

Like Pork?

LIKE PORK? If you eat pork, you might know that in sow stalls the mother pig can only stand, or lie down, for 28 days, but you might not know that ‘disease-free’ meat is achieved by cutting the piglets from the mother shortly before birth and placing them in sterile wheelbarrows to avoid contamination from the now dead mother? People know the immune-boosting effects of colostrum, says Evans, so why allow this generally abhorrent practice that, amongst its other flaws, can only make piglets’ immune systems weaker?

Like Chickens?

LIKE CHICKEN? The sheds the ‘free range’ chickens lived in were much the same as those of the ‘intensive’ chickens, so they didn’t want us to see them when we were filming our documentary, because we’d realise how bad a normal chicken shed really is. Unless your chicken is ‘pastured’ as opposed to ‘free range’ it’s not worth buying it, says Evans. And what about the 16 million male day-old chicks from laying breeds killed each year, many tossed into the mulcher?

Like Beef?

LIKE COWS? Feeding grain to cattle is incredibly wasteful, so it has to be grass-fed beef, and dry aged rather than wet aged, says Evans. And if you drink milk, you’re creating an unexpected by-product: the male calf born into a dairy herd is simply killed. Evans suggests if you drink milk you may as well eat the by-product, veal.

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  1. Yes of course animals still die if people go vegan. It’s a matter of comparative numbers though, and the attendant costs to water and climate of humans killing animals for food, not to mention all the extra land and resources that are required. The figures relating to current human consumption of animals are truly staggering. Check out this site which shows the number of farm animals lost every second: http://thevegancalculator.com/animal-slaughter/

  2. I recasll many years ago when the inimitable motormouth musician, Ted Nugent, a committed meateater (who proclaims he hunts his own meat and eats only what he and his family need) and Paul McCartney, a dedicated vegetarian were having a “spat” about their respective lifestyle choices.

    McCartney claimed Nugent’s hunting was inhumane and vicious but Nugent retorted by saying that when a farmer ploughs a field to grow vegetables, the habitat of many small animals is destroyed (he said a fair bit more, but most involved a verbal invitation to McCartney to do certain things!).

    The harsh reality is that feeding humans, however we do it and whatever the diet, is inhumane when done on a large scale. I’m not trying to excuse the havoc we wreak on the world and other creatures, but the modern problem is the world is trying to feed so many people that maintaining a sense of perspective and respect for all living things is all too easily lost and in all honesty, in the same way the well-off don’t generally care about the poor, the vast majority don’t care about how we treat animals – except for the shrieks of outrage when someone abuses a dog and we demand a jail sentence.

    The sourcing of meat and food generally is also a shambles, if not a disgrace. It seems to me that what quality food Australia produces is all too often sold for premium prices into the Asian market and in exchange, the major supermarket chains import cheap products grown in suspect conditions in Asia (try buying Australian-grown seafood on a budget – for most it is unaffordable). There is a reason Asians prefer food grown in Australia over their own home grown products – but apparently, it is still good enough for the Australian market. My wife and I despair when we shop, because we do read labels and finding products that are even mostly Australian-grown or made is difficult.


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