Meat Free Week: Whither the farmer?

| March 27, 2014

Australians are invitited to give up meat this week to think about our meat consumption and the impact on our health and the environment. Eleanor Nurse from the animal protection institute Voiceless says it’s time to start having a conversation about the provenance of our food.

This week is Meat Free Week, an initiative which asks Australians to cut out meat for seven days to encourage each of us to think about the amount of meat we eat and the impact it has on our health, the environment and animal welfare.

On average, Australians eat 111.5kg of meat each year, ranking us as the third biggest meat-eating country in the world and well above the world average of 41.9kg per person. This overconsumption, and the huge demand for cheap meat that it creates, has changed the face of Australian agriculture over the past 40 years.

Forget green pastures and pigs rolling in the mud, these days the majority of animals produced for food in Australia are raised in intensive systems called factory farms. Here, mother pigs are confined in sow stalls, unable to stand up or turn around while meat chickens live in close confinement with up to 60,000 birds together in a single shed. These practices happen behind the closed doors of factory farms where they are largely invisible to Australian consumers.

In response, Meat Free Week asks one simple question: when it comes to cheap meat, do the ends justify the means?

This question has attracted the ire of some farming associations and Nationals MPs who claim Meat Free Week is ‘Un-Australian’ and lacks compassion for drought-stricken farmers, even encouraging their supporters to simply eat more meat, no questions asked.

This move wilfully misconstrues the goals of an initiative which is essentially about education and awareness. Moreover, such criticism ignores one simple fact: there is a big difference between traditional farming and factory farming. Too often we hear farm industry associations on the defence, eager to criticise any pro-animal message as ‘lacking compassion’ for all farmers. This familiar catchcry neglects the fact that farm industry associations represent chickpea, wheat and vegetable growers whose products are set to fill the increased demand for plant-based products which Meat Free Week creates.

What’s more, our meat hungry diets could be intensifying our current state of water poverty. A recent article published in the New York Times points out that meat production in the US can consume around 10 times the amount of water as vegetable production. So, reducing the amount of meat we eat should relax pressure on thinly stretched water resources.

Initiatives like Meat Free Week are designed to get Australians talking about meat consumption and to think more broadly about the provenance of their food. Yet because it challenges the status-quo and asks difficult questions, it has been met with strong opposition.

But, isn’t it time we started having the conversation?

There’s still time to sign up for Meat Free Week, or to support one of the thousands of Australians who’ve pledged to go without meat until Sunday. To find out more go to