Your ethical farming and animal welfare guide
Never has there been a more hot-button topic in the food industry than the ethical farming conversation. As Australian consumers seek to learn more about food politics and demand transparency around the way food is grown and treated, the nation’s ethical farming practices have moved firmly into the spotlight.
That’s because the sustainability movement towards buying local, reducing food miles and eating simply and organically is a growing one that has been proven to support the health of people, animals and the planet. And one of the key food sectors where people are driving change through their purchases is farming.
Now, more than ever, people are considering the impact of the purchases they make at the checkout on ethical farming and animal welfare. People are wising up to the fact that, while they may purchase organic or “free range” meat, dairy or eggs under the natural assumption that these labels also equate to the animals being pasture fed, raised in an ethical environment and treated humanely, there are no guarantees.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) requires businesses making organic claims to be able to substantiate those claims; however, when it comes to “free range” there are, by and large, no national standards in Australia to identify just what the term really means. The industry is left to develop its own codes.
The sustainability movement towards buying local, reducing food miles and eating simply and organically is a growing one that has been proven to support the health of people, animals and the planet.
The exception is eggs. In March 2016, following lobbying by Australian consumer affairs group CHOICE, the federal government announced a national labelling code for free-range eggs allowing farms with up to 10,000 birds per hectare free-range status, as long as the hens have “meaningful access” to the outdoors. This is a much higher stocking density than the 1500 birds/ha recommended by the model code of practice for chook welfare — and not quite what you’d expect from the label “free range”.
Australia has moved to more intensive farming practices in recent decades thanks to government and industry moves to cut costs, streamline practices and so be more economically competitive in the global market. An example of this was the deregulation of the dairy industry in the early 2000s. This has resulted in fewer but larger operations that sacrificed animal welfare for cost efficiencies.
Now the tables are slowly turning. Popping up around the country are ethical farms where farmers use traditional methods that benefit the environment, animals, farmers and health. However, farm animals are not out of the woods yet.
When we accept that animals have the ability to feel and suffer, don’t we have an ethical obligation to protect them from harm? The current state of farming in Australia means that, in fact, very much the opposite is true. Few people realise that animals raised for food are denied the same legal privileges as domestic animals such as dogs and cats.
Internationally, around two-thirds of farm animals are raised in factory farms, and close to 500 million animals are factory farmed for food each year in Australia. Unfortunately, such farms are the norm with nine out of 10 pigs kept in factory farms and more than 450 million chickens — as well as 13 million layer hens — factory farmed in Australia each year.
It’s not much different in the dairy sector, either. Australia has one of the highest rates of dairy consumption in the world — the average Aussie consumed 107 litres of milk, 13.5kg of cheese, 3.7kg of butter and 7.6kg of yoghurt in 2012-13 alone — and this appetite has led conventional dairy farmers here to find ways to increase production.
Since the deregulation of the dairy industry in 2000, which removed state and federal government sourcing and pricing controls, the trend for dairy farms has been towards fewer but bigger operations. Over the past two decades, the number of dairy farms in Australia has more than halved.
In 2013, the average annual milk production per cow was 5525 litres, while in 1979–80 the average annual milk production per cow was just 2848 litres.
Lower prices for milk put pressure on every resource, and farmers looked to methods that could maximise milk production. One method was feed. Eighty per cent of Australian dairy farms are pasture fed; however, half of these also feed their cows over one tonne of grain/supplementary feed each year. The remaining farms are semi-feedlots and feedlots, in which cows are housed in sheds and fed a “mixed ration” for part or all of the year.
Ramping up of production began earlier than 2000, however. According to Australian animal protection unit Voiceless, a comparison of a dairy cow’s milk production in 1979–1980 with that of 2012–13 shows the impact factory farming has had on the industry over the past four decades. In 2013, the average annual milk production per cow was 5525 litres, while in 1979–80 the average annual milk production per cow was just 2848 litres.
Unfortunately, these profit-driven gains have been at the expense of the welfare of dairy cows. In order to produce milk, a cow must give birth to a calf and, while newborn calves feed up to 10 times a day, modern milking techniques occur only twice a day. This can lead to mastitis and other painful infections in cows.
Then there’s the problem of dealing with the unwanted by-product of dairy farm breeding: young male bobby calves. Figures reveal as many as 800,000 of these calves are killed in Australia every year.
There’s also the environmental issue. According to non-profit organisation, Sustainable Table, agriculture accounts for 16 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and dairy farming is responsible for one-fifth of them. The more milk produced, the higher the emissions. Organic dairy farming is better for the environment than conventional farming, but organic dairy sales account for just under 10 per cent of total dairy sales in Australia.
Farming & health
Ethical farming is not only about animal welfare. One of the other major reasons to support ethical farming is because there’s a huge number of positive health benefits that come with eating animals raised ethically. The reality is that when animals are raised naturally they experience far less stress and, as a result, the quality of the meat is better.
There are many kinds of fats in the body. Some of the most crucial fats are those with compounds that make up the cell walls of all the body’s cells. Scientists have isolated these fats and determined that, if the ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats exceeds 4:1, people have more health problems. What’s great about ethically raised, grass-fed products is that they are proven to be far richer in health-enhancing fats and contain less of the damaging fats that are linked with disease.
Grass-fed beef, for example, has a ratio of around 3:1 of omega-6 fats to omega-3s, while grain-fed beef can have ratios that exceed 20:1. Grass-fed beef is also packed with vitamins and minerals and is a great source of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a fat known to reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, obesity and some immune disorders.
The same logic applies to eggs. The eggs from chickens that are free-ranged and eat lots of vegetables high in omega-3 fats, along with fresh grass and insects, have been shown to have an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 1.5:1, while eggs from chickens fed grain have a ratio of 20:1.
Pasture feeding of hens has also been shown to significantly increase the vitamin E content of their eggs. In a recent study comparing caged hens to hens foraging on grasses and legumes, the amount of vitamin E in the yolk of eggs from hens that foraged on pasture was about 200 per cent greater than the vitamin E in the yolk of eggs from caged hens.
The nose-to-tail concept is one that’s been used by traditional cultures for centuries and is a way of honouring the animal.
As with beef and eggs, there are also many health reasons for choosing organic dairy or looking for alternative sources, such as nut milks.
A key health issue with dairy is that many people suffer from reactions to it, ranging from lactose intolerance to far more severe allergic and physical reactions, with allergenic commonalities running through families. Milk can also cause sensitivities in people who are gluten-free.
It’s the milk proteins that have been proven to cause reactions in many people. These proteins include casein, whey, milk butyrophilin (a protein found in the membranes of milk fat globules) and casomorphin (a morphine-like compound that can render dairy a highly addictive and/or immunoreactive substance for some).
If the milk you are drinking is further pasteurised, the denaturing effect that super-heating process has on milk proteins makes it even harder for your body to digest. And, if the body can’t digest these milk proteins, it thinks they are foreign and mounts an immune response. This is called immunoreactivity.
That reaction is why both gluten and dairy are known as gateway allergens. The types of casein in dairy and the type of gluten now present in modern grains are particularly hard to digest and have been shown, countless times, to increase intestinal permeability. Having a “leaky gut” increases chances of digestive disorders, inflammatory conditions and immune disorders. Think reflux, colic, constipation, diarrhoea and painful wind.
That’s why choosing milk alternatives like almond or rice milks, or perhaps having your own source of raw milk (see breakout box below) not only supports ethical farming practices but may also be better for your health.
A note on raw milk
Raw milk is rich in beneficial bacteria and vitamin C but can also harbour disease-causing micro-organisms, such as Salmonella spp., E. coli, Campylobacter jejuni and Listeria monocytogenes. These can cause anything from gastrointestinal upsets to life-threatening illnesses. Some bacteria may end up directly in the milk from cows and goats, especially if the animal has a disease or condition like mastitis. Bacteria may also contaminate milk during the milking process or during transport, processing, packaging and storage.
Due to these potential health risks, milk is widely pasteurised and it’s illegal to sell raw milk in Australia; however, raw milk is sometimes labelled and sold as “cosmetic milk”, “bath milk” or “pet milk”, though these may be subject to some state regulations requiring them to contain bittering agents so they are not palatable.
Since 2009, New Zealand has permitted farmers to sell up to five litres of unpasteurised milk at a time from their farms to people buying it for themselves or their families, as long as the farmers follow an approved, highly regulated risk-management program.
If you choose to drink raw milk, WellBeing suggests you make sure it is from a good hygienic, preferably organic, source — your own healthy cow or goat perhaps! Be mindful that these precautions reduce, but don’t eliminate, the risk of contamination.
Another great way to support ethical farming practices is to bring ethical cooking practices into your kitchen. Trying to eliminate unnecessary food waste is crucial when it comes to cooking ethically.
One way to do this is to follow a nose-to-tail philosophy of eating, which involves consuming not only the muscle meat but the skin, bones, cartilage and organs as well. It’s only in very recent times that modern-day, Western societies have moved towards eating only muscle meat, and the nose-to-tail concept is one that’s been used by traditional cultures for centuries and is a way of honouring the animal.
Ask any chef and they will tell you that the tastiest cuts might be the cheapest (meaning nose-to-tail eating is also great for your wallet!) but they are also the most delicious. This type of ethical eating also ensures you get a rich balance of essential nutrients, as well as getting the gelatin from the bones and cartilage of the animal. Gelatin has been proven to play a significant role in gut health, skin health, sleep quality and even weight loss.
So next time you buy your meat — and, for that matter, your eggs and dairy — stop to think about what it is you’re buying, where your money is going and what type of industry it’s supporting. Sure, convenience is important in our busy lives, but health is far more crucial.
Choose to be an ethical consumer. Opt to buy local, support those farms that follow ethical practices, enjoy amazingly different culinary experiences by eating the whole animal and save money into the bargain.
After all, it’s good for your health, the health of the animal and the health of the planet. What could be a better food choice than that?
In a nutshell
- Choose to buy meat from small-scale farms practising organic or biodynamic methods that take care to minimise their impact on the environment. If a meat is widely available in supermarkets, the animal was likely to be from a large-scale or factory farm, and likely to be grain-fed at some stage in its development.
- Make visiting your local farmers’ market a regular Saturday morning activity. A farmers’ market is a great place to buy your meat as you can speak directly to farmers who have often chosen to raise heritage breeds in smaller numbers.
- As a general rule, chickens and eggs sold in large supermarket chains under the free range label at a similar price to the conventional equivalent are unlikely to meet strict ethical standards.
- Eat from nose to tail. Choose less popular cuts of meat like neck cuts, liver and ears. After all, if an animal has to die for us, we should respect it enough to eat all of it.
- Choose milk alternatives or source hygienically produced raw milk, as it’s a great source of nutrients (see box for precautions).
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