'It just didn't make any sense': why Australians are turning away from meat

20 July 2019

Australians are among the biggest meat eaters in the world, but that's changing. Recent converts to diets with less meat explain their motives.

There is a scene in the documentary Blue Planet II where a harlequin tuskfish, a 30cm long inhabitant of the Great Barrier Reef, uses a bump on a coral to break open a clam.

The coral is littered with broken clam shells. The fish clearly uses this spot a lot. It strikes the coral repeatedly until the clam gives way.

The scene lasts three minutes and ends with a quiet word from Sir David Attenborough. "So here is a fish that uses tools," he says. "Some fish are much cleverer than you might suppose."

Sitting on his couch in Rockingham, Western Australia, Craig Buchanan was astonished. "It blew me away that fish could do something as complex as that," he says.

It was a few days after Christmas in 2017. Buchanan had never given much thought to the ethical implications of eating meat before, but he couldn't get that little fish out of his head.

"Just the thought that something that small with a brain that small as well could actually do that, I had never paused to think about it," he says.

A few days later he set himself a new year's resolution of trying a vegetarian diet for a week. Both he and his wife thought he would give up after a few days. Two weeks later, he still hadn't eaten meat.

"I just said to myself then: look, if you can do it and you're not really missing anything (other than bacon) can you justify going back?" he says. "And I thought, I probably can't. If you're still enjoying sitting down to dinner then what's the point in reverting?"

Buchanan is probably not who the National party had in mind when it railed against the growth of fake-meat products in Australian supermarkets (although he agrees that it's confusing to shelve such products alongside real meat). A Liberal party staffer and former federal Liberal candidate, he says he is "about as far removed from being a bleeding heart small-l liberal as you could expect to find".

But he is one of a growing number of Australians who have decided to cut down, or cut out, the meat or other animal products in their diet.

According to research by Roy Morgan nearly 2.5m Australians, just over 12% of the population, said they ate vegetarian or primarily vegetarian diets in 2018, up from 2.2m in 2014. Despite that apparent trend, Australians are still the biggest meat consumers in the world: in 2014 the average Australian ate 116kg of meat per year, almost three times the global average of 43kg.

Recent converts told Guardian Australia they were motivated by animal welfare concerns, anxiety over the climate crisis, concerns about factory farming and, in some cases, convenience. A number cited Dominion, a documentary by an Australian filmmaker connected to recent protests and trespass on agricultural properties that has been criticised as "misleading" by the National Farmers Federation.

No truck with fake meat products
Attenborough was frequently cited as the catalyst. The 92-year-old is an amplifier for climate scientists who say beef consumption in western countries like Australia needs to fall by up to 90% to avoid a climate breakdown.

Georgina Laidlaw watched a three-part Attenborough documentary on the Galapagos Islands before booking a holiday there in May 2015. She lives on a small acreage near Ballarat and began killing her own ducks and chickens for meat in 2007. She was "more in touch with the death part of eating meat than a lot of people", she says.

But she couldn't reconcile those habits with her experience in the Galapagos.

"Every day you are surrounded by animals there and you are busy taking photos of them and looking at them through binoculars and swimming with them and spending money to do specifically that, and then I would come back at night and eat the best ceviche of my life," she says. "It just didn't make any sense."

She already avoided mass-produced meat, but returned home as a vegetarian. The hardest part, she says, was overcoming her fear of being impolite by informing family and friends that they might have to cater separately to her.

Thankfully the rise of foodie culture, and specifically the celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi, a longtime food columnist for the Guardian, has eased the way. Gone are the sludgy lentil soups that characterised western vegetarianism in the 1970s. Even meat eaters will happily cook an Ottolenghi concoction, or queue for trendy vegan restaurants such as Smith & Daughters in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy.

But while she has found being a vegetarian easy to manage, veganism is off the cards.

"If I got rid of eggs and dairy I would be eating tofu at every turn, and that sounds like the title of a horror novel," she says.

She has no truck with fake meat products. Buchanan, on the other hand, appears to have tried all of them. He can recommend the best burger ("Linda McCartney, hands down") the best fake fish ("Quorn have just brought out some absolutely lovely fish fillet options") and the best vegan bacon.

The bacon was a sticking point. "Someone swore to me that coconut chips were the way to go," he says. "Little slices of coconut with bacon salt on them? Absolutely ghastly.

"For the first second and a half you get the taste of bacon then you get very much soggy coconut ... I had so much trouble giving the tub away."

(He says Lamyong bacon strips are "pretty close, if you like your bacon overdone".)

Tae Baker has been vegan for three months. She took a 30-day online challenge after seeing the Extinction Rebellion protests that shut down Flinders Street in Melbourne as part of its global day of action on climate. She says she didn't approve of their tactics, but was interested enough to learn more.

While politicians from the prime minister, Scott Morrison, down branded protesters "un-Australian" and introduced new laws to increase penalties for "militant vegans" who trespass on farms and agricultural businesses, Baker was learning to swap Greek yoghurt for coconut or soy.

"I got a fair bit of ribbing from people, especially because it was shortly after the 'militant vegan' media attacks," she says. "I had friends calling me 'my militant vegan friend', and things like that."

The biggest challenge was overcoming her own belief that sticking to a vegan diet would be difficult.

"I always thought it was too hard, and I think you can live your whole life thinking it's too hard if you don't try it," she says.

Instead, she says, it was "almost too easy": vegans are now so well catered for in major supermarkets Coles and Woolworths that you can easily subsist on pre-made or processed foods. There are even vegan fast-food chains. It is easy to be an unhealthy vegan, if you're not careful.

A spokesperson for Woolworths said it had seen "double digit growth for plant-based meat alternatives in our stores over the past year, and every indication tells us this category will only continue to grow".

Coles says sales of its Beyond Meat and Alternative Meat Co products had seen "double-digit growth week-on-week over the past month". The share price of the US-owned Beyond Meat rose 475% in the first month since its initial public offering in May.

But processed vegan and vegetarian options are not without environmental impact. Almond plantations are drawing huge amounts of water out of the overtaxed Murray-Darling basin. Soybeans are driving deforestation. Is it truly better, from a harm minimisation standpoint, to eat tofu than meat if the Amazon was cleared to grow the soybeans? A number of vegan-friendly products, including most frozen puff pastry sheets, use palm oil as a solid vegetable fat in place of butter. Can an orangutan's right to live undisturbed be weighed against that of a dairy cow?

'Not a particularly difficult decision'
For those trying to minimise their impact, each new piece of information must be plugged into a complex personal moral accounting.

"If you're trying to fix all of the inequities of this world through your own personal consumption decisions you'll go mad, because pretty much everything has exploitation and cruelty," Tasman Stacey says.

"But when there are decisions that you can make, where I can make this slight change in the way we live, at no cost or ill-consequence to myself, and it does make an improvement to the world around us, then that's not a particularly difficult decision to take."

Stacey and his family cut down their meat consumption from five or six days a week to one or two days a week last year. The meat they do eat is mostly game like kangaroo or deer, shot by Stacey when he can manage it – a harder proposition since he moved from northern Tasmania to Canberra.

Just as Laidlaw did before she stopped eating meat, Stacey draws a distinction between ethically produced meat, like wild kangaroo or specialist small free-range meat producers, and large scale agriculture. If you're only eating meat once or twice a week, he says, you can afford a kinder product.

It's the same argument run by Matthew Evans, the food critic who starred in the Gourmet Farmer television series, in his latest book On Eating Meat.

The amount that Australians spend each week on meat has dropped in real terms since 1989. Eating less, higher quality and more ethically produced meat would have benefits for people, animals and the planet alike.

"I'm not trying to not eat meat because eating meat is wrong," Stacey says. "We are eating less meat because it's not sustainable. There's enough resources on this world for everyone to live a comfortable and dignified life but the way that we distribute our resources globally at the moment is not sustainable, and we need to change that or get very used to the hordes of people being murdered at the border trying to escape climate catastrophe."

Alice Belin, from Brussels, decided to reduce her meat consumption for environmental reasons last year and adopted a strict lacto-ovo vegetarianism because she says she hasn't the discipline for a more "flexitarian" approach.

"I like to eat and I like to eat meat and I miss it, so I knew that wouldn't work," she says. Christmas in France was spent mournfully looking at the foie gras and oysters and seeking solace in the cheese buffet.

Belin works for a marine environmental organisation and gave up fish some years ago. She says she does not anticipate upgrading to vegan, partly because it would feel "punitive" to remove cheese, and partly because it would necessarily increase her reliance on processed or soy-based products.

"I try to be coherent in my own way of life and these products, if they're made from an industrial process, in an industrial way, and bought in a supermarket in plastic packaging, to me that kind of cancels out the fact that I am not eating meat," Belin says.

It must be a personal choice, she says.

None of the people who spoke to Guardian Australia say they would try to persuade anyone else to give up meat. But if you are thinking about doing it, they say, it's really not that hard.

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