This is a story about Jane, a cute, cuddly, trusting and innocent 10 month-old real life koala. It’s not so much about her life directly as it is about a major disconnect—and a necessary reconnect that I’ll begin to weave for you. Jane’s life has been affected by the food choices we make on a global basis. “How can that possibly be,” you would surely ask—after all, the food we eat comes from a grocery store or a restaurant.
Similar to its effect on many other species living on our planet, the beef you are eating today has a profound impact on Jane and other koalas in two ways. First, since the U.S. is the second largest importer of Australian beef in the world (following Japan), the meat you are eating may have actually come from Australia—part of the 200,000 tons ($1 billion worth) we import each year from their country. Second, even if the beef on your plate today is not directly from the grasslands of Australia, it is one of the building blocks of the meat and dairy industry that casts its ominous shadow over our planet. With every bite of beef you take, it is effectively stamping another vote of support and creating the demand for more and more livestock to be raised and slaughtered throughout the world. This then perpetuates Global Depletion (see the book, Comfortably Unaware) of our planet’s resources and creates substantial increases in risk factors for loss of our own health. As we continue to demand more meat, dairy, and fish products to eat in our country we are also closing our eyes to the true costs to produce those animal products—whether here in the U.S. or in other countries. Until we recognize the true value of the resources and health implications of eating animals, irreversible losses on many fronts will continue to occur. We need to impose an eco and health risk tax on all animal products that are produced, purchased from other countries (such as Australia), and sold to consumers who want to continue eating them. We need to make the entire chain of responsibility pay for the real cost of producing that food. Accountability needs to be established by affixing an appropriate economic value to animal products that reflects all resource (eco) cost during production and to us (health) after consumption, is long overdue and it should be translated into a mandatory tax. For instance, if the habitat and lives of koalas (or biodiversity anywhere on Earth) are lost by the production of an item consumed by humans, then that loss should be paid for by all those responsible.
As with nearly every other country in the world, Australia is a major cattle producer and consumer, expected to become one of the top beef producers and exporters in the world by the end of 2012 along with Brazil and the U.S. (among other things, we have the distinction of holding the #1 spot for beef production in the world in 2011). With the importing of over 2 million head of cattle and 800,000 tons of fresh beef and veal in 2011, the U.S. also has become the world’s second largest importer of beef, following only Russia.
Australia is considered a grass fed wonderland because most of their 200 million sheep and cattle raised annually are being pastured. Even so, Australia is seeing an increase in cattle going to feedlots and being “finished” on grain prior to slaughter, expecting this trend to grow to 31% of all cattle raised by the year 2020. In the U.S. there is heavy marketing and media coverage about grass fed/pastured livestock products, however, the USDA predicts our country will see a 4% increase this year (2012) in cattle that will be raised, or at least finished, on grain in feedlots instead of being 100% grass fed. This is largely due to the demand for grain fed meat by Mexico, the largest importer of U.S. grown beef, who favor the ‘marbled’ taste of grain fed cows and the obvious fact that grain fed cattle in confined (concentrated) feed operations are simply more efficient to produce and with much less land usage than in grass fed situations—which is still a few thousand times less efficient than using land to produce plant foods for us to consume.
As you drive the roads through any cattle district in Australia, you will see many, many cattle and sheep, a few kangaroos, and an occasional wallaby among other things. One sight that you will not see, though, is the one of miles and miles of corn or soybean feed crops as can be typically seen along any stretch of highway in the U.S. (especially in the Midwest). This is because cattle raised in Australia, do in fact, graze for most their lives—but it is with heavy land use and an irreversible toll on wildlife. The loss of biodiversity is blatant and measurable and, unfortunately, it is with an apathetic view.
Among the many livestock operations I am visiting in Australia, there is a region in Gippsland, Victoria that represents one of those very few areas in the world where resources such as water, land, and even their climate are considered ideal for ‘sustainably’ raising livestock. Streams and spring water are abundant and pasture can grow year round, so it has become a prime location for grass fed livestock operations such as cattle, pigs, sheep, and even goats. It is also Australia’s premier area for grass fed dairy operations. The trend seen in Gippsland and across Australia is to produce smaller cows and in less time by keeping them milking at their mother’s side in pastures and then letting them grass feed until 10 to 11 months of age and slaughtering them at an average weight of 265 kg (583 pounds). This method is, of course, fueled by demand—in this case, by Japan and the U.S. for meat from smaller, younger cattle. Interestingly, from a land use standpoint, this method of “sustainable” agriculture occurring in the most favorable conditions in Australia, and perhaps in the world, still uses minimally 2.5 acres to raise just one cow. When it is all said and done, that one cow will provide 300 pounds of meat, which results in 120 pounds per one acre of land used in one year. For reference, an organic vegetable farm, just down the road from these livestock operations in Gippsland, produces on average 5,000 to 10,000 pounds per one acre of food such as tomatoes, fast growing greens, and herbs, that are infinitely healthier for us to consume.
Although throughout Australia, the total number of farms has decreased, the size of an average farm (by “size,” I am referring to the number of livestock raised as well as acreage of land) is increasing, similar to what is occurring in the U.S. However, cattle farm operations in Gippsland remain smaller, averaging 50 to 500 head of cattle per farm and they adhere strongly to ‘grass fed/pastured’ philosophies of operational methodology and marketing protocols.
The concept of ‘humane’ is largely relegated to disease reduction in livestock, with all governmental agencies such as the Department of Primary Industries, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), Australia Department of Agriculture and Food, etc. being more concerned about the quality of meat as the end product than the true physical, mental, and emotional state of an animal. For example, the very small section allocated to the welfare of animals raised for food that can be found in Western Australia’s Animal Welfare Regulations for the Pig Industry (adopted from the Australia Department of Agriculture and Food) states that the floor space in a stall for a sow should “not be less than 0.6 meter wide by 2.2 meters long” and that a sow with piglets should “not be confined for more than 6 weeks at a time in a farrowing pen less than 5.6 square meters.” This means that a sow can have the luxury of being confined to a space 23 inches wide by 6 feet long without being ‘inhumane’ and if with piglets, can be kept up to one and a half months, without being let out, in a pen 6 feet by 9 feet with its 10-12 piglets. Try that yourself sometime (with or without piglets) and then revisit this definition of ‘humane.’ Also, there are minimal enforceable measures. This year (2012), the MLA voiced weak concern about the method of slaughter for their transported sheep ending up in the Middle East (99% of all exported sheep from Australia end up in Middle Eastern countries). With this small exception, there is a conspicuous lack of concern or regulation about the need for humane transport and humane slaughter of any livestock—knowing, of course, that there is ultimately no ‘humane’ method for us to slaughter another living thing.
As I pointed out earlier, Australia is among the largest producers and exporters of beef. This, of course, is at the expense of the health of their country—loss and inefficient use of their resources and the declining health of their citizens.
Although beef consumption is slightly declining within our own U.S. population, we are the second largest importer of beef from Australia, which is contributing to deforestation and loss of biodiversity in that country. Grazing livestock currently use over one billion acres of land in Australia, or more than 56% of the entire land mass of this country (http://www.anra.gov.au/topics/land/landuse/index.html) The rate of deforestation in Australia is increasing as quickly as anywhere else in the world with 600,000 acres lost in 2011. The majority of this forest destruction is in areas where koalas live, or once lived, therefore the world demand for beef equates into more land needed to raise cattle which results in forest loss, turning this land into pastures, which destroys the natural habitat of koalas—it’s all connected.
Hence, Jane’s family and thousands of other koalas are killed yearly primarily from direct habitat loss but also indirectly when they are hit by cars and attacked by dogs while moving on the ground in search of eucalyptus trees that were cut down in order to raise cattle. Jane is left orphaned, ending up in a remote sanctuary fighting to regain her health and parameters of life that had gone fairly undisturbed for the previous 25 million years and yet taken away in a matter of minutes by an invisible, insidious force called food choice. Jane represents species everywhere on our planet that are being devastated by livestock operations that are fueled by our demand to eat animals.
We need to think about Jane when you see beef or any other form of animal product that is considered ‘food’ for us to consume. Whether it has come directly from Australia or any other country, plucked out of our oceans, or even raised in your own back yard—meat is not ‘food’; it is a destructive human induced process. Ask Jane.