Matthew is a former chef and now farmer, so uniquely placed to write about where our food comes from, and the ethics around eating meat. A hugely emotive topic, that is hitting headlines at the moment, but Matthew manages to convey all angles and sides to this complex issue with empathy, wisdom, and objectivity, while still maintaining his core message that
‘Meat eaters need to confront the reality that something dies in their name, and that they should be comfortable with the way it’s done. But that non meat eaters need to reconcile the fact that more suffering happens outside the farm gate than inside.’
Utterly compelling this is an extraordinary book and one that is sure to spark intense conversation and debate.
Matthew Evans on Eating Meat 8 July 2019
*Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim (C), Karen Hardy (K), Matthew Evans (M)
*Location: National Library of Australia
C: Good evening, everyone. A hush of anticipation fills the crowd. Welcome to the National Library of Australia, it’s wonderful to see a full house here tonight in July in the middle of winter in Canberra. Not everyone’s hibernating at home.
I’m Cathy Pilgrim and as we begin I would like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet. I pay my respect to the elders of the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people past and present and thank them for sustaining this land we are privileged to call our home.
Welcome again. I’m delighted that we do have so many of you here tonight to listen to Matthew Evans speak about his book On Eating Meat. Matthew was the presenter of the Gourmet Farmer series on SBS which is in its sixth season including a spinoff series, Gourmet Farmer Afloat. He is also the presenter of two documentaries, what’s the Catch? An eye-opening documentary into the truth behind Australia’s seafood industry, and For the Love of Meat, focusing on Australia’s meat industry.
The National Library’s delighted to be able to provide a space for topical conversations like this one tonight and we’re very happy to work alongside Matthew who manages to convey the complexity of this meaty issue, pardon the pun, with empathy, wisdom and objectivity.
Tonight Matthew is joined by Karen Hardy. Karen is the Canberra Times Good Food editor and has been contemplating the ethics of eating meat since her daughter chose a vegetarian diet two years ago. So please join me in welcoming Matthew and Karen this evening.
K: Welcome, everybody. It’s always lovely to catch up with Matthew. Over the course of a few years we’ve managed a few interviews.
M: Usually on the phone.
K: Usually on the phone so it’s finally nice to meet face-to-face. Matthew has a great connection with Canberra, many of you might know, going back to the restaurant days.
M: Yeah well I grew up here, I lived here from the age of five to 25, something like that.
K: Then the restaurant you had in the city was -
M: Yeah, I didn’t own it, I was the head chef for a restaurant called The Republic. I don’t know if that – anyone’s old enough to remember that one? Yeah.
K: Well I suppose we were talking out the back before how you might approach a restaurant kitchen -
M: Oh you’re going in with that question.
K: Yeah, we’ll go in with that question, in a different way after doing all this research, do you think?
M: Yeah, I should have thought more about that, I thought I’d have the whole interview to think about that one. Karen just threw that question at me just before we came in and said oh that’d be a good one to ask but I thought we’d get to that in the end. I have thought about what I would be like as a restaurant critic, having written this book, and I think I would be judging restaurants on different criteria – the same criteria but more criteria having written this book.
As a chef I would be much more dogmatic with my suppliers about what, where, how, why the stuff I was getting, what it was fed, where it lived, how it lived, where it’s from, how it died. So yes, I’d be very dogmatic. I’d also be more dogmatic, I have to say, about all the vegetables and grains and nuts that we’d use because I think this book is an extension of my philosophy around being a little bit more aware of what you eat generally.
K: I think that’s kind of what came through, it’s about whether you choose to eat meat or not eat meat or you’re somewhere in between. It’s about making that conscious decision and kind of thinking more about where your food comes from.
M: One thing in the book – I try not to do in the book, I have no interest in converting anyone to eat meat if you don’t eat meat. If you're vegan, don’t want to eat any animal products, that’s fine, that’s a valid choice. If you’re vegetarian so you eat some animal products, that’s fine, that’s your choice and if you – but I also want omnivores to feel that it is possible to eat meat for various ethical reasons and I lay out the arguments for that I guess at length in the book. So I’m not trying to demonise or take anyone from their position of what they choose, I’m saying they’re all valid personal choices, they’re up to you. I don’t care really what those choices are but I want to help you make better choices within that perhaps and make you feel better about the choices that you have open to you and that you can make.
K: Do you think there’s enough information out there for people to make those choices?
M: Oh yes and no. I think no, I don’t think there’s enough information. That’s partly because it’s their own fault like 1% of the population grows food for the other 99% so we’ve - all very separated from food production and so if you go back 5,000 years most humans were farmers. Five thousand years before that pretty much all of us were hunter-gatherers so we’ve been very separated from the impacts of our actions on the animals and the land around us only for a very short period of time, really. It’s only the last couple of hundred years that most people are separated from yeah the impacts of what they do in terms of growing food and housing themselves and clothing themselves and all the other things that we do, it’s only recently that we’ve been separated from that.
I think what’s happened is the 1%, the farmers who grow the food have gradually said as people have become more urbanised and don’t grow their own food, they’ve said oh we’ll look after it and then eventually some of the people in town are going oh hang on, you do what? The people growing the food going oh look, don’t worry, we’ll look after it, we’ll do it for you and that’s not got to the point where you’ve got a very shouty end of the spectrum – well both ends a bit – very polarised. So you’ve got the shouty end of don’t any meat, all meat is murder, we should love all animals the same and an industry cloaked in secrecy that has a lot to hide which is why it’s cloaked in secrecy.
K: I suppose in the book you kind of outline some of the places that you went to. Was there anything that kind of gave you hope that we’re beyond factory farming and -
M: Yeah oh look, I guess – I grapple with the issues of trying to feed the world like can we produce enough food, the right kind of food and people getting the right kind of food? ‘Cause we can – it’s very easy for us to sit here and talk about meat but I think it’s 200 million people are vitamin A deficient of which there’s the first – the best 20 options aren’t vegan, they’re mostly meat. So it’s very easy for us to talk about these things and it’s very different for different parts of the world but I guess I’m interested in how we feed ourselves, what humanity can do better, what are impacts on the animals? What are the impacts on our societies, on our community and our culture?
K: We were talking out the back about – I suppose it’s that disconnect that’s kind of happened between the plate and the production and how we can kind of educate. In my case my daughter watched a Paul McCartney video and decided she’d never eat meat again but how – can we educate kids that some people are getting it right?
M: Yeah, I mean we used to think of it as food, didn’t we? Didn’t sort of have the lines of what – it was food, it nourished us and we were all involved in the process of getting it and we could see the impacts of what we did on everything around us. Now yeah, it looks pretty grim especially if you look at slaughter, the actual moment when an animal dies, it looks really awful and it’s fairly grim. But I guarantee you, it doesn’t matter what you eat, farmers are shooting possums to grow apples, they’re shooting ducks to grow strawberries, they’re shooting cockatoos to grow pistachios, pretty much – we compete with animals, we grow crops that are really nutritious and things want to eat them and we compete with those animals for food and so when they get in the way we tend to kill them.
Farmers do that on your behalf every single day of the year, it doesn’t matter whether you eat meat or not and it’s how we look at those lives, value those lives and whether we just go well that’s the cost of agriculture but do we add an extra life to that by then rearing an animal for the table as well?
K: Is it about I suppose educating people to that, you do have to pay for quality meat?
M: Yes well look, there’s a cost, there’s always a cost and so just to put it in context we eat more meat than we ever have – Australians eat the most meat of any nation on earth, we trade places with the US every couple of years but it’s only by a kilo so we eat 110kg per person per year. It’s a lot of meat, a lot of meat. I don’t eat that much and I know a lot of people who don’t eat any and don’t eat much so if they’re not eating much someone’s eating an awful lot of meat so we’re eating a lot of meat. We’re eating a lot of meat, it’s nearly three times as much as they eat in Europe, that hotbed of veganism like not. They’re not known for their – for abstaining from animal products so we eat way more than we probably need to. We actually spend less as a proportion of our income than we ever have on meat and when you don’t pay the true cost something can suffer and that can be the environment and it can be the farmer and it can be the animal or it can be all three. If we don’t pay enough the true cost – or an amount that covers the welfare of all those three things then something has to suffer and in a lot of cases we don’t pay the true costs currently.
K: I mean you go to the supermarket and you’re thinking well I’m going to buy this chicken that’s 9.99 a kilo or I’m going to buy this chicken that’s $15 a kilo. How do people weight that up?
M: This is where I really try to in the book give some information so you can make better, informed decisions when you’re standing there at the checkout. The sad thing about all of us, myself included, is that we are really – like in my community I’m always working tirelessly for charity and I’m a devoted parent who always pays my son lots of attention and never shouts at him and I – I am such a good person in my head but I can tell you I fail all the time and we all fail.
So if you show people – caged eggs is an interesting one. It’s not meat but they’re still animals so caged hens, battery hens that lay eggs, particularly they’re in cages. Most Australians, something like 98, 99% of Australians look at that and go that’s not good, that system ain’t good. But sadly 98, 98% of Australians, it’s not 1 or 2% who buy them, it’s way more than that and the reality is when we’re at the checkout at the supermarket or heading to the checkout we go yeah, that system’s awful. Oh they’re 6c cheaper per egg or whatever it is and so we fail our own standards.
So look, I guess there are a few things. I think we - and this is only an issue for people who have food security, I don’t want to – like for people who don’t have enough to eat this is such a ridiculous conversation and there are people within Australia who struggle to get enough food on the table. This is only a conversation for people who have the privilege and are lucky enough to have food security and that’s around the world as well. But once you’ve got food security and you feel that you can get some joy from breaking bread at the table with people then what can we do better?
Maybe you could spend a bit more on your meat and aim for something that’s a bit of a higher welfare standard so you might think I don’t think chickens in sheds is good enough, I want them to be able to free-range, I want to buy the more expensive chicken. That’s the choice that you can make when you’re at the supermarket. You might pay for that by not eating 110 kilos a year, you might only eat 100 kilos a year ‘cause it’s such a sacrifice. Or you might – the average Australian throws out 40% of the food they eat. It’s hard to separate out the meat.
K: That’s the topic for your next book.
M: Yeah so maybe just throw out 20% of the food you buy rather than 40% of the food you buy and spend a bit more on the meat that you do buy so you can afford the free-range chicken. But the other option is yeah, maybe eat a little bit less meat – eat meat less often but when you – you can buy a high welfare animal and -
K: Would you eat meat seven days a week?
M: No, I eat meat – I don’t know, four days a week but I don’t make a distinction like if I make a pastry using lard is that eat meat? It’s the rendered fat of a pig from my farm. Yeah, it is, I guess, from a vegetarian/vegan point of view but I wouldn’t see that as eating meat. Or if I fried a tiny bit of – piece of pancetta that big to flavour my pasta, it’s not really eating meat but – I would only put meat in my food probably four nights a week, five nights a week, not every night.
K: I guess for a nation that kind of grew up on meat and three veg this whole discussion has made us rethink where we stand and what goes on our tables.
M: Yeah and look, we’ve been very lucky. It’s partly our geography. We have a lot of land that’s suitable for animals in Australia and so our high meat diets – we’ve always eaten a lot of meat, we just haven’t eaten quite as much as we do today but we’ve always eaten a lot of meat and that’s partly because we’ve had access to relatively cheap meat. The reason that is, and this is the interesting thing when you look at land use, is there’s a whole bunch of different land. There’s arable land and there’s grazing land, it’s different land so when someone says if we all stopped eating meat we could grow – we’d get all this farming land and we could grow all these different things, farming doesn’t work like that.
There is land that’s arable so you can grow fruit and vegetables and nuts and stuff like – maybe things like that there and there’s grazing land which is grass land and they’re different patches of land and so how you use them is – you get different products from them. So not everything can grow peaches, not everything can grow tomatoes and not everything can grow sheep so it’s how you use land that really matters.
K: I guess in your travels talking to farmers and stuff do they feel they’re being victimised or do they feel -
M: Yeah well farmers do feel victimised. Yeah look, I think this is part of the problem. What I’m trying to do with the book is bring the conversation into the middle and take it away from the really intensive farms who want to do things often without social licence which is why they have the doors locked and then – and away from the people who are adamant and militant that we should avoid meat. Take it to the middle, the 95% who are saying well we’d like to eat meat – and farmers only do things on your behalf, they don’t want to be demonised for doing stuff that – because you don’t want to pay the price. I don’t mean you as individual but you as a community don’t want to pay the price. Farmers – most farmers I know, and they’re like any group, they’re like – I mean they’re like doctors, lawyers, barristers, possibly even journalists.
There’s the occasional bad egg but generally they’re just normal people trying to do a decent job but they’re a business, they’re not a charity so you need to pay them enough to do something and then if you want them to do a certain thing, and that’s community standards, then there might be a cost involved. But they really – they don’t want to be demonised just because they’re trying to grow you some food, they’re just trying to do it and make a living running their business but growing food for the 99%.
K: I recently came across this farmer in the Shoalhaven, I was down there on a – kind of a food trip and he has these Wagyu cows. Are they Wagyu cows?
K: He’s on this property outside of [Jarengong] 17:31 and he actually has these solar panel-driven speakers in his paddocks to play them classical music and he has these like brushes that the cows can walk up against and -
M: Those brushes, they look amazing. If you want to be entertained – I don’t know what you look, you just - yeah like cattle scratching on these brushes thing and it’s the most amazing -
K: Yeah and it’s solar-powered and they go around the paddock and the cows brush up against them but one of the most interesting things apparently he does is as – he slaughters them there on the farm and he has like a video or a film – like a screen with a picture of the paddock they’ve just come out of in the screen so when they come in they still think they’re in the paddock and they’re all calm and then he slaughters them. I kind of thought that was a good thing but maybe it wasn’t but then I read in the book about the lady who – in the pens in the slaughtering -
M: Yeah, whose name -
K: What was her name? What was it?
M: Temple Grandin, yes, Temple Grandin. Yeah so in the book I actually talk about – so Temple Grandin’s a really interesting person and we’re sort of way off the track here but Temple Grandin’s really interesting and I talk a little bit about her in the book. She’s very autistic, she couldn’t communicate as a child and she ended up at a farm when she watched these cattle being put into a squeeze chute where they had this thing pressed on their flanks and a lot of the animals relaxed. She was so heavily autistic and she felt really scared in open spaces and didn’t like hugs and all that kind of stuff and then – but she made her own little squeeze box and it works really well to relax her and calm her nerves. Anyway she eventually – she’s now a professor in animal science or something. Anyway she designs abattoirs but she’s a woman who essentially - I think the BBC documentaries – the woman who thinks like a cow.
She’s one of the few people who seem to be able to understand the animal’s perception of the world and it’s interesting that someone who probably understands how the animal is perceiving the world better than you and I because she has very heightened anxiety and simplistic emotional responses and that’s her way of putting it. It’s interesting that someone who probably understands how cattle think better than you and I designs the places where they go to die. She cops a lot of flak for that but it’s sort of an interesting – yeah, just an interesting idea. She doesn’t – even though she can imagine how the animals feel she doesn’t anthropomorphise, doesn’t put human emotions and attachments on them.
K: But we were saying before too though is kids, we – our schools went to visit abattoirs and chicken farms and you just can’t imagine that happening these days.
M: No, I don’t think so. Does anyone know if it happens these days? It does? Do they still take kids to abattoirs and –
A: [unclear] 20:24.
M: Oh they do, yeah, great. Yeah ‘cause I tried to get into lots of them and they wouldn’t let me in which I was really surprised. When I’m a meat eater I was really surprised about yeah the lack of access to farms. Well not to all farms but to – certainly to the shedded farms. Yeah but they do have a few things to hide generally, I think so – yeah, I think part of the problem is the more militant and angry people get and the more people get their farms broken into then we get more secrecy and more people just saying look, trust us, we know what we’re doing but you don’t need to see – you won’t understand is what they say.
You won’t understand what we’re doing over here and I think that’s a real – it’s an insult to the intelligence of Australians that the intensive animal industry wouldn’t think that the people who eat their meat wouldn’t be able to understand that it doesn't look like a Julia Lester book or whatever. Modern agriculture doesn’t resemble a storybook that we’ve got in our head, that it actually does look a little more complicated and a little more high tech but it still should meet general community expectations, the middle ground.
K: When you moved to the farm can you remember the first animal that you slaughtered that you’d raised? Did you think any different about the process then?
M: Yeah, it was chicken. Yeah, I’ve got a chapter in the book. It was a former vegan who taught me how to kill because the women who taught me how to kill were both former vegans and yeah so it’s an interesting idea that you want to take the life of something that you’ve raised and I found it very, very confronting. I hate that to this day, I mean I don’t – I really don’t think most people need to be there at a kill but I think they should understand - at least understand that something dies in their name. But I really don’t like the process but I think all of this death is merely about our attachment to it, that’s what it all boils down to.
It’s relatively philosophical, does a mouse dying in a wheat field in Western Australia, do I care more about that than my dairy cow that I’ve been milking for seven years? No like I care about my dairy cow that I see – that I press my head against her flank every day for seven years. That’s just natural that we care more about stuff that we have an attachment to. Do you care more about your dog than the chicken whose necks you’re about to feed your dog ‘cause people like chicken necks to feed their dog, that’s a very normal human thing.
K: Do these ladies who taught you how to kill, did they kind of reassess their own I suppose ethical view on -
M: What was interesting is how we both ended up at the same place and that was that they had – like 84% of vegans and vegetarians had decided not to be vegetarian or vegan anymore, that’s what kind of happens. I was vegetarian for a while and – for a couple of years and I wasn’t very good at it but - obviously in the end but even at the time. Not from my own – it’s when you go to someone’s house and they go oh you’re vegetarian, I’ve just cooked you chicken kind of thing. But no, they ended up at the same place because essentially – and I think that’s what the – where I end up in the book is that I’m probably more closely aligned with a vegan view of animal welfare than I am at an industrial farming end because they ended up there because they wanted to know what they were putting on the plate and they couldn’t bear the fact that something might have been fed antibiotics and raised in a shed where it couldn’t express its instincts and they wanted it - to know what it had eaten, that it had lived a good life and that it died quickly.
They didn’t feel the system provided that so they set up their own farms to rear their own animals to put on their own table and then took the responsibility on their own shoulders to take the life of those animals which is kind of next level. But people who define themselves by their diet often are next level.
K: What’s your thinking -
M: Well they’re pretty committed, they are.
K: What’s your thinking on I suppose getting rid of the word vegan and people talking about plant-based diets?
M: Yeah -
K: Do you think there’s some stigma attached to veganism or meat eaters attaches stigma to veganism?
M: Yeah, I do think there’s stigma but I also think – yeah, I think plant-based isn’t a bad way to put it because – ‘cause vegan has very strict sort of good and bad. Plant-based is – like you can have a risotto that’s plant-based that you’ve fried something in butter to put on the top like it’s still plant-based. I think it’s not a bad form of language because it’s sort of suggesting that it’s okay to do this with your diet and with your – as opposed to being strict and to some extent arbitrary because when you say – to be vegan – things still die for you to be vegan and you still eat animal products when you eat vegan foods so it’s kind of an arbitrary thing we’ve only come up with in the last few decades, really but couple of hundred years maybe but – yeah. So to make it less arbitrary would be – and people can just make their own decisions on a daily basis about what they want to put in their mouth without sort of trying to demonise or define things through a – something that’s a little bit hard to define.
K: Yeah, there's a chapter in the book on fake meat. We discussed that briefly about – to me that’s kind of the ultimate disconnect from the origins of food. What’s your thinking about fake meat?
M: Yeah so fake meat takes – have people heard that term? Clean meat is a nice marketing term because meat’s obviously so dirty, we’ve only been eating it since the dawn of time so we’re not really evolutionarily evolved to – deigned to – and evolved to eat it. But look, it takes two forms. One is I guess plant-based stuff that’s trying to pretend to be meat and meat cells, muscle cells grown in a lab. Look, I’m pretty hard on it, I got to be honest like I can be really frank about this. Like you can make your own decisions about what you eat in terms of vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, Paleo, whatever.
I would hope that you would consider the animals that are affected by your diet and the farmers and the environment, how they’re affected by your diet but fake meat? Man, I got a really strong emotional connection to this because I grew up – like I love science. My dad was a chemist, believed with his – not quite his dying breath but his nearly dying breath that science would save the world and save him, which it didn’t in the end, but I don’t really need scientists in the kitchen. Now – and the reason I say this, growing up in 1970s Canberra I had to eat margarine.
Now this is really important. I'm trying to simplify this ‘cause when you look at the list of stuff that’s in these – even the one that’s cultured in a lab, the muscle cells, doesn’t taste like much until you add stuff to it, you got to add a whole bunch of stuff to make the cultured muscle cells taste like anything. But if you take the plant stuff it’s at least this long. All of human ingenuity, all of the money, all of the time and effort that we have spent coming up with a substitute for butter and all that we’ve come up with is margarine? It’s 82% fat, it’s simple, it is so simple compared to meat. Like the chance of you being able to replicate meat through scientific process, go ahead, give it a crack but like if we haven’t nailed something to be a genuine substitute for butter after 80 years and all that money what’s the chance? What’s the chance?
Just – I want you to think about this for a sec. We could put all this time, effort, oh yeah to make this fake meat stuff but you got to think about what we already do. We kill 30,000 camels a year in Australia every year to protect the desert, we kill tens of thousands of pigs every year to protect wildlife, Kakadu and the rainforest in Queensland, we are – we live macerate or gas, but usually live macerate 16 million chickens a year because they’re the wrong sex. So when you go to get laying hens half of them are boys and they throw them into essentially a mincer, live macerate, it’s a quick death. Sixteen million a year.
We humans created those lives, we humans go bugger it, wrong gender. The chicken industry is so good at producing meat so cheaply there’s no point having a laying breed hen because laying breeds and meat breeds are two entirely different sort of variations on the original species. There’s no point fattening that rooster or bringing that rooster up for any length of time ‘cause we can’t compete in price with your $4 or whatever it is, $5 chick – frozen chicken so let’s kill 16 million of them through live maceration.
So this is the thing that we humans have created, a problem we have created. We kill – I forgot the numbers, 40,000 – no, it’s more than that, 400,000 - I can’t remember - bobby calves, dairy calves that are boys every year. Anyway thousands and thousands and thousands of them every year with a blunt force to the head, hammer blow to the head if they’re left on farm or they might be sent to an abattoir at five days old.
Wouldn’t we be better as humans, as humanity with all our ingenuity and all our nous and all our science saying well rather than waste those 30,000 camels that we’ve already killed and then rearing another bunch of animals that we can kill as well for meat, or why macerate those 16 million chickens when if we were clever enough we could raise them and use them at least to some way provide high-quality protein? Even if they were boiling hens like providing some quality of – to our dinner table. Why would we spend all that time and effort trying to out-meat meat when we already have these other things that we could putting our effort into?
The other side of that is if you want to create beef I’ve got – on my farm I’ve got this really cool thing. It goes through the paddocks and it consumes a renewable resource in the form of grass which is essentially cellulose which is indigestible to you and me. I have lots of my farm that I can’t grow stuff on except grass so it’s not somewhere I can plant anything else and I have this thing that walks around and turns that cellulose that is no value to me as a food source and turns it into milk within 24 hours. It also at the end of its life or its progeny turns it into beef so you’re in a lab somewhere trying to create this thing using fossil fuels and God knows what sort of chemicals and yet we already have something that makes meat and it’s quite efficient at it.
I really – I don’t understand the concept. I also don’t understand processed food, what’s it done for us? Has it made us thinner? Healthier? Richer? No, none of those – well yeah, it’s made some of us richer, hasn’t it? Yeah. Yeah, that’s the thing, it’s made some of us richer, not you and me probably.
K: I suppose that’s how you open the book, though, where the farmer said it smells like money. That’s the -
M: Yeah, I wanted to call the book Smells Like Money but it wasn’t a good title, they said. No, I walk around these farms, you know these farms – you probably have been to them but yeah, where they say look, bring clothes that you can burn when you leave ‘cause you’ll have to burn the clothes. They’ll stink so much you’ll never wash the smell out. Or farms where you couldn’t breathe in too deeply when you first arrive ‘cause you gag from the ammonia and stuff and pretty much all the farmers would go – I’d go [coughs] and they’d yeah, smells like money. Yeah.
K: I suppose there was a bit in the book too about the – at the piggery where the fellow had to shower 16 times a day to go through different parts of -
M: That’s the most – I think that’s the most difficult story in the book. That was actually part of the genesis of the book that was one of the ones – this is a story that – it might put you off pork but so be it. So they have these things called – I thought I’d seen a lot like I’ve got pigs, I’ve researched pigs, I’d been to some piggeries, I’d seen all the awful footage that people take when they break into pig farms showing the worst case scenario and I kind of had an idea of how pig farms were run. Then I met this guy and he was running a feedlot, not a piggery at the time and he said mate, oh I’ve got – you got pigs, haven’t you? I said yeah and he said I love pigs, I love pigs, I love pigs, they’re great, aren’t they?
I’m like yeah, they’re good and I’m thinking – I’d just been walking around his feedlot sort of noticing he hadn’t put up a lot of shade for his cows and where he had put shade they were all under it. I thought that’s interesting, he’s interested in pigs and I was thinking about how social they are and how they play together and they’re a pretty interesting animal in lots of respects. But then he proceeded to tell me a story about a piggery he set up and he set up this piggery and he set it up and they wanted to have a piggery free of disease. There are certain diseases transmitted from pig to pig. When you put a lot of animals together like when you put humans in a city, when we first put humans together in cities and created massive outbreaks of disease, same thing that happens when you put other animals together if you can’t keep hygiene under control, whatever. So they have disease that can be a problem.
So he wanted to stock this piggery with minimal disease pigs, they call them, or specific pathogen-free pigs. The way they do that, he proceeded to tell me - oh aren’t pigs great? Is that you take all the mother pigs and you’ve got your piggery, it’s either a new piggery. In his case it was brand new but it could be a piggery where you’ve just emptied it out and cleaned it to make sure there’s no disease left in it and what you do is you bring all the mother pigs up outside the piggery on the day they’re about to give birth and then you kill them all and you cut them open and you take all the piglets, put them into a cereal wheelbarrow – that’s what he told me they put them in but the Queensland Department of Primary Industries’ website used to describe it as a washing basket but anyway, either either, I guess. Put them into a wheelbarrow, wheeled I think it was 60 mother pigs, whatever that is, 60 x 13 whatever piglets into the piggery to set up his disease-free piggery.
I find that story – I didn’t believe it ‘til I read about it on the Queensland Department of Primary Industries’ website. They call it hysterectomy now, it’s obtuse because it sounds like just a medical procedure but a mother pig without a uterus is not a live pig, I can tell you that. For those farmers, they don’t have any use for a mother pig without her uterus so they kill them. I think that abhors me because we created a problem with the disease and we came up with such a base system for getting rid of the disease like that is – those piglets get no colostrum. Twenty-five per cent of – you know the colostrum, the first milk that all mammals produce, it provides all these antibodies. Twenty-five per cent of a mother pig’s milk when she – in the first 24 hours is protein and so the vast majority’s antibodies, it’s the thing that provides immunity. A normal vaginal delivery provides immunity, dirt – normal environment that a pig would be born in provides immunity.
So once you’ve set this piggery up the pigs essentially are immunocompromised so the piggery that this was based on was a piggery in Japan where they – which was where the parent company was and they wanted to create the same system. That piggery, you have 16 showers a day because when you go into each section you don’t want to take disease so they make you shower and change your clothes, go into a section and then when you leave that section another shower. Then when you go into another section so eight sections, 16 – he went into all the sections in one day, 16 showers in a day. Pure – to me it’s morally bankrupt but its dumb farming and it’s done in Australia and it’s done in our name.
K: But I guess for all the horror stories in the book and you could read it and you could never eat meat again but I think you come away at the end of it with a sense of hope that there are people doing the right thing and they’re the people we kind of have to support.
M: Yeah. I think the big thing that I try to think about which is good to think about I guess when you think about meat is the most important animal, the most important animal is human because there are good farmers, there are people trying to do really good things. It doesn’t matter what they grow, whether they grow plants, whether they’re growing fruit or vegetables, grain or livestock, there are good farmers trying to do good things there, out there. I think the industry has – does objectionable and sometimes abhorrent things, the intensive animal industry but part of the reason is because there’s been no normal people in there going what the – you do what?
Like a normal person would look at a farrowing crate, these things that mother pigs give birth in and they would just see it as a jail, just like a pig jail. The average person would just go man, that system looks - stinks, there must be something better you can do than that. But when they’re in the industry they just do, do, do, do, do and it’s behind closed doors because they want secrecy, they want privacy, don’t worry, trust us, we’re doing the right thing. But there are so many great farmers out there doing such good things and – but the only way they can make a living is if you can support them.
K: Yeah so that’s – what can we do? What can the individual do?
M: What can the individual do? So the most important thing, food is your friend, don’t be frightened. I know -
K: Be frightened of fake meat but don’t be -
M: Yeah, be frightened of fake meat. If you don’t want to eat meat what’s wrong with an eggplant, I mean? Or chickpeas but processed food, Jesus. Any kind of processed food is bad, processed meat in particular but food’s your friend. Food is supposed to be a joy like it’s supposed to be something that – you break bread with your family, it binds communities, it – you fall in love over the dinner table – I did, a few times and it’s to nourish us and fortify us and all that kind of stuff so that’s the most important thing, don’t be frightened and don’t beat yourself up for all the bad things that are done that you can’t control. But when you have a chance to change the momentum, when you have a chance to make a better decision – so if you’re standing there in the supermarket and you see some pork that says – ‘cause supermarkets now have free range pork quite often and it says free range pork or nothing, nothing specific, well if you’ve got the money and the cha – the opportunity to buy the free range, buy the free range.
But don’t beat yourself up when you don’t have the money or you’re in the wrong place. There’s lots of times where your shopping just doesn’t have the options and there’s no point in beating yourself up about the decisions you can’t – that you can’t really make, that you have no capacity to make because you might not have the money or the geography or the - or whatever. But when you have the opportunity to make a better decision, when you see something that suits your moral standpoint better, grass-fed beef versus grain-fed, free range versus shedded, whatever it is and you take that opportunity then you support someone who’s trying to do a better thing for the world.
K: Thank you, Matthew.
K: We’ve got some time now to get some questions from the audience. I’m sure there’ll be lots.
C: Thank you very much, Matthew and Karen, for that thought-provoking conversation tonight. I’m glad we ended on a more positive note.
M: I know, sorry, I shouldn’t have gone there.
K: The book does end on a positive note.
M: Yeah, I hope you end the book feeling empowered to make better decisions and there’s only – we touched on a couple of grim things but there’s actually lots of like empowering things in there.
C: Yes and I think the story of how you found love over the dinner table multiple times is a story for another day.
M: That’s not in there.
C: We do have some time for questions from the audience and I'm sure that there’s many people who have a question to ask so please raise your hand tonight and a microphone will be brought to you. We do ask that you use the microphone for people using the hearing loop and for our audio recording tonight.
A: Thanks so much, Matthew, for a wonderful talk. My question is, and you may not be prepared to address this but I was very impressed with your series that you did on TV about the fish in Tasmania and I was wondering how far that has come now since we’ve advanced in a number of years since then because it seemed to me that the amount of imported fish is growing, not diminishing and I’m not sure whether that’s right or not.
M: Yeah, when you said advanced I thought that was an interesting expression. Yeah, no, we don’t produce enough seafood in Australia for our demand so we’re always going to have imports and it has gone up. But what’s been really interesting, there was no legislative change. It was very hard with – we had Barnaby, I think Agriculture Minister, didn’t know what a species was, a little hard to get the nuance happening there. But what’s been really amazing is cultural change so the Sydney Fish Market now runs sustainability courses, lots of wholesalers said to me that the chefs are asking better questions and they’re really useful ‘cause most people when they eat seafood eat out and the consumers are asking better questions. That’s all being fed back to me by the industry and I get hugs from fishermen now around Australia, it’s really kind of creepy. So there has been a change, there has been a change in buying habits.
A: When it comes to provenance as you mentioned to start off with where are we as consumers in relation to the provenance, whether it’s Brussels sprouts or whether it’s chicken on the shelf? The other thing too is you mentioned nourishment and nourishment doesn’t necessarily equate with food satisfaction. Also are we looking at corporate cartels successfully selling the name of farming?
M: Right. Do you want to feed those to me one at a time ‘cause my brain can’t cope with – okay so I’ll go to the nutrition one first. So the modern chicken has a third less protein than the old-fashioned chicken. Most of the time nutrient density is very closely related to flavour. We are all gifted with this ability to tell nutrient density and that is a more complex, more interesting, more delicious flavour. Who knew that evolution would provide that little trick? So something that has more inherent nutrient density tends to taste better, certainly with vegetables and most meats. Omega 3s, if you grass-feed or give pigs and chickens less grain - ‘cause in sheds they’re always fed grain - if you give them more greens so leafy greens like we would eat ‘cause they’re both omnivores, they put down more omega 3s and omega 3s are better-tasting. Same with grass-fed beef, the omega 3s in grass-fed beef help to give it a better flavour as well.
C: There’s a question about corporate cartels.
M: Corporate cartels buying farms. Yeah, it’s an issue. It’s very hard in Australia. I don’t really understand the dynamics in Australia. Worldwide, 70% of the world’s – the food is still grown by smallholders which is interesting ‘cause we kind of tend to think of it as monolithic companies and monocultures so – and most of that’s grown by women, actually, the smallholders growing most of the world’s food so it’s quite an interesting thing. The third question?
M: Provenance. Yeah well I’d rather that debate was – I shouldn’t say this ‘cause I’m trying to flog a book on meat but I’d rather the debate was about real food, unprocessed, provenance and nutrient density and eating seasonally close to the source because they can relate to everything that we eat that we should be sharing at the table.
A: Could you comment please on the variation between types of plants? You haven’t talked about that one.
M: The variation between types of –
A: Types of plants, which ones to eat, which ones you prefer.
M: Wow, that’s a big topic. How long have we got? Okay so plants really briefly, in agricultural terms, environmental terms – let’s go back to a little bit of biology. You’ve got annuals and perennials, agriculture. You’ve annuals and perennials, things that you plant and harvest every year which - annuals and perennials which are things you plant and you don’t kill them every year so you don’t have to keep planting them every year. So in terms of soil structure we lose two to three tonnes of topsoil per person per year ‘round the world. The worst thing you can do is cut down a forest that already exists and if you cut down a forest the second worst thing you can do is grow annual crops which are carrots, lettuce, most vegetables that we eat. Perennials are things that live on year to year so your fruit trees, nut trees, things like that. Artichokes are perennial but a lot of vegetables aren’t so that’s a very broad one on plants.
A: Thank you for the talk, it’s been really fascinating. One of the things I’m interested in was Karen, you mentioned – it’s Karen, isn’t it? Is that right? You mentioned the beef being slaughtered on the property. I buy my meat at the farmers’ market and speaking to the producer of lamb, asking him how the lamb’s slaughtered and he said it’s illegal to slaughter and then sell meat off – to slaughter on the property, he has to take it – is that a thing? Has to take it to a – but he -
M: Yeah so animals have to go through a licensed abattoir, to be a licensed abattoir is quite onerous so you can have an abattoir on your property but you’ve got to meet a lot of criteria. The number of abattoirs around Australia has shrunk rapidly, I think we had 40 or something in Tasmania a couple of decades ago, we’ve now got sort of three or four because the regulations are quite onerous. So anybody who’s ever had a farm and killed animals onsite will tell you that an animal that hasn’t had to be transported, that has been doing what it would normally do and then suddenly he’s no longer with us is a much better-tasting animal. Sadly all the great work that goes into the breed and the feed and the animal welfare system before the animal dies, and all the great work that can happen in the butchery and the processing and care of the meat, dry ageing, whatever after the animal dies can all be -
M: Undone by that little window in the middle, the day and minutes around the animal’s death. We aren’t allowed to kill on our farm except for our own consumption and because we do that we can see very clearly the difference in quality. We think - the rules are there because they – not for animal welfare reasons but because it’s too hard to regulate small abattoirs and get around them all in our view. There is a mobile butcher just set up, Provenir, just started in southern Queensland, I can’t remember where they started in the end, which have set up where they can go to farms but it’s still quite a big operation. They need to do a number of animals so it’s not good for three pigs or seven sheep, you have to kill a whole bunch of animals at that farm on that one day but that would be the ideal ‘cause it’s – and that was set up by – one of the people who set it up was a vet, to reduce stress.
A: [unclear] 51:24.
M: Everything you can, yeah.
A: [unclear] 51:33.
A: Yes, hi. Now you mentioned the millions of baby chickens that get killed. Now I’m heavily into waste reduction and management. Would they get sent onto the fertiliser and something good happen to those?
M: I presume they are, they might – yeah, I mean I don’t think they get turned into salmon food but they could be. They use chicken bone and feather meal in salmon food but I would presume that if you're creating that those hatcheries would – it would end up as blood and bone or something like that.
C: Any further questions? There’s one right up the back, Sue, in the back row. One here, okay then one up the back.
A: Hi. Look, I don’t want to get into anybody’s industry but is there any difference between butchers and supermarkets when it comes to buying meat and things like that? I know that you buy bacon from the butcher and it just tastes so much better than what you get in the supermarket like is there anything that we should know about that?
M: Yeah look, 70% of the bacon and ham you’ll get in Australia is imported so whenever it has got a bone check the label. There’s one in the book I quote where they – it’s 20% local ingredients which’d be ham, processed ham which’d be the water. Yeah and supermarkets are – yeah, from my perspective even butchers sadly don’t do a lot of it these days but some butchers still get whole carcasses so they value the whole animal the same and so they’re keen for you to understand how to use all the bits because every animal comes with all the bits and they’re trying to minimise waste and they can help you with that.
A good butcher, I mean they’re in the meat business. I would hope that a good butcher actually knows where all the stuff comes from so they can explain that they’ve got those free range chickens or they’ve got that pork which is not free range but they are from this - there’s a system that is better than just being in a concrete shed, all that kind of stuff. They should know, I mean it’s their job.
A: Just going back to the male chick maceration, so there are some companies in northern Europe that do rear those male chicks but unfortunately consumers don’t like the taste of them, too gamey, taste too much like chicken so the alternative is to go into sex selection for eggs but that would require probably being labelled a GMO product which again consumers don’t want. So I’m wondering how you think that we can encourage Australian consumers to actually eat those male layer hen chickens in future?
M: Yeah, chicken. Like -
K: That’s what I got from the book, I thought you’re not a fan of chicken.
M: Yeah so the stated aim of the industry is to produce bland, tender meat – of the chicken meat industry is to produce bland, tender meat so essentially they want something that has a certain amount of chew, that doesn’t really have any flavour and certainly is never tough. They’ve pretty much achieved that, I mean they’re successful but I kind of go 650 million chickens a year to produce animal tofu like I just don’t – that’s how many chickens we produce every year. I don’t really get that. But it’s an interesting point about the flavour because I was talking to someone the other day who had – it was a meat bird but it was an old breed [late] 55:19 meat bird and served at their family and the kids went holy moly, what’s that? Oh I’m not used to that. We’re kind of not used to food with flavour like it’s a really interesting thing, isn’t it? You take these birds that have got inherent flavour and people go oh Christ, what’s that? Yeah, bit of a sad indictment on us.
I hadn’t heard about that before, that’s an interesting one so – well yeah, I don’t know. How do you convince people that – the whole point of a good-flavoured meat, and this is what we find on our farm and I think probably anyone who’s had good meat, it has so much flavour you eat less of it. You kind of go oh wow, there’s the flavour like there’s the flavour and so – well actually my starting point is eating less of it and my chickens go a lot further like I’m getting a lot more meals, particularly out of the broth, because of that extra flavour. So I would guess maybe that’s it, it’s like yeah, you should maybe – not half your plate is chicken, maybe an eighth of your plate is chicken or something.
C: Well thank you, I think that draws the conversation to a close tonight. I hope you have enjoyed our discussion and please again thank Matthew and Karen.
C: But the conversation doesn’t have to stop right here. Please do join us upstairs in the foyer, Matthew’s kindly agreed to sign books tonight and they’re available in the bookshop for 10% off. Book Plate is also opening a cash bar so should you feel like a drink and a conversation please do continue upstairs in the foyer. Thank you, we’ll see you again next time.
End of recording