Where does your food come from?

I have a confession to make. I love to eat meat. I love duck, chicken, pork, beef, kangaroo. I also love to eat fish and other seafood, especially leatherjacket, coral trout, fresh sardines, prawns and oysters. Ditto vegetables and fruit (mangoes! mushrooms!) and herbs and spices. Indeed, when asked, as I often am as a food writer, is there anything I don’t eat, I usually reply “bad food and chicken feet” (no flesh, no taste, although duck feet are another story).

In other words, I am an omnivore: one who eats a bit of everything. Most human beings, with the exception of those who avoid certain foods for religious reasons, are omnivorous. Proof of this is in our physiology.

Our stomachs produce hydrochloric acid, which activates protein-splitting enzymes, something not found in herbivores. The human pancreas manufactures a full range of digestive enzymes to handle a wide range of foods, both animal and vegetable. Our intestines are not as long as those of herbivores, but are longer than those of strict carnivores.

Of course, we can live without eating meat — and, unlike many “vegetarians”, I count fish as meat — but since humankind first appeared on the earth, most of us have chosen not to. And, over the past 8000 years, we have built a complex relationship with most of the animals we eat. But today, we omnivores have a special duty of care. We must ensure that the animals we eat have been treated with care and respect by their farmers.

Food writer and television chef Fearnley-Whittingstall, himself a beef farmer, argues convincingly for ethical animal farming with his concept of “symbiotic dependency”. That is, in return for providing us with meat, the farmer offers the animal natural grazing, shelter, space to roam in and a reasonable life span.

As Fearnley-Whittingstall points out, dying of natural causes is not all that common in the wild, anyway. Life for wild animals is usually nasty, brutish and short. And it was Fearnley-Whittingstall who first introduced me to a theory we’ll briefly examine.

The case for meat eating

As an individual, you are quite within your rights to make the decision to stop eating meat. But if you want to turn your decision into a moral crusade, that’s another matter.

How would we go about stopping human beings from eating meat? It has been estimated that the beef cattle population of the world is around 1,040,000,000. Sheep (some raised for their wool) number 1,200,000,000, goats 94,266,000 and pigs 857,066,000. In Beyond Beef, anti-beef campaigner Jeremy Rifkin estimates that 24 per cent of the world’s land mass is turned over to the production of beef cattle.

I have no figures, but a contemplation of those animal population figures tells me the number of people involved in the raising, slaughter and processing of those animals would run into the millions and the revenue into the billions. Abolish the raising and farming of animals for meat and the human suffering would be immense.

And then there is the close relationship between humans and the animals we raise and eat. Here, I suggest we turn to a remarkable book by Stephen Budiansky, The Covenant of the Wild, which presents a convincing argument for the case that domestication has been a successful evolutionary strategy on the part of the animals.

The subtitle of Budianksy’s book (which I learnt about through reading Fearnley-Whittingstall) is: why animals chose domestication. Hunters and farmers, he contends, “know about the interdependence and competition that ties the species of this planet together because they see it every day … they daily experience the wonder of our shared natural evolutionary heritage with animals”.

Furthermore, he says, “When anti-farming activists say that confining animals to the farm dooms them to a life of boredom, few of us ask whether the cattle would have preferred extinction”, pointing out that wild cattle in Europe died out thousands of years ago.

In his book, Budiansky rails against the sentimentality of those who do not understand this shared heritage. The problem is, his view is itself sentimental in today’s world, where most animals are raised not by farmers who care for their charges, but by corporations who see them not as living, breathing creatures with rights but as units of production. But we’ll get to that in a little while.

So we find ourselves in a bind of moral relativity. Do we campaign to end the slaughter of animals even though we know, if successful, we will cause unknown human suffering? Is the life of an animal worth the same as human life? If so, then should we condone cannibalism?

The real problem the ethical omnivore faces is that most modern farming is done on an industrial scale. Let’s examine some of the sins of modern industrial farming.


Any meat, mainly beef (but occasionally lamb), labelled “grain-fed” should set off warning signs. Cattle eat grass — they’re ruminant herbivores. On feedlots, they’re fed a totally unnatural diet which that is bad for their health.

The one feedlot I have visited — one of the better ones — carries 24,000 head of cattle on a 4700 hectare property. They live in 108 feedlot pens measuring 65 x 55 metres (roughly half the size of a football field) with 250 cattle per pen, 14 square metres per animal, for up to 450 days. Over 300 days — the minimum for Ranger’s Valley (they go up to 450 days) — that works out at around 5–6kg of grain to produce 1kg of flesh.

On most feedlots (not the one I visited) antibiotics are routinely administered because the animals are crowded together and suffer from constant low-level illness. On most, too, including this one, they are routinely fed Hormone Growth Promotants (HGPs) to convert fat into muscle and speed up the process of getting the meat to market. The European Union doesn’t allow this. The Americans do — and so do we — but any beef produced for export to the EU must be HGP-free.

And let us not forget that mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) originated in a feedlot: mixed in with the grain were animal (sheep) scraps. Why? Because they were cheap.

Battery hens

Chickens farming is, if anything, worse than feedlotting. The conventional chicken farm I visited — again hand-picked to show the best face of the industry — held a total of 65,000 chickens at maximum allowable density (for mechanically ventilated sheds) of 40kg per square metre in winter, 36kg per square metre in summer. Each shed is around 980 square metres and holds 15,000 birds, working out at a little over 15 birds per square metre.

And that’s on a “good” farm. Imagine how much space the birds get on the ones we’re not allowed to see.

It’s true they’re not fed growth hormones any more, because there’s no need: the antibiotics routinely fed to most meat chickens do the job of accelerating weight gain and warding off the diseases of overcrowding.


Of the 6 million pigs slaughtered in Australia every year, 98 per cent are reared in intensive — read crowded — conditions described, for breeding sows, as “close confinement”. That means a metal-barred pen called a dry sow stall measuring 600cm x 200cm for 16 weeks until she is ready to give birth.

This space can be so small that often sows cannot turn around, can hardly take a step back or forward and can only lie down with difficulty. It doesn’t get any better when she has to give birth.

Practically all pigs farmed in this country are fed porcine somatotropin — growth hormones. In the 1930s, scientists discovered if they injected cattle and pigs with extracts of their pituitary glands, they would grow faster. But in today’s biotechnological world, such messiness is avoided by isolating the DNA of the natural somatotropins and injecting them into E. coli bacteria, which multiply rapidly and have the same effect. Scientists call it “recombinant DNA technology”. I call it greedy and dangerous. It is also genetic engineering.

Paper after paper will tell you it is “perfectly safe”. Even if it is, why is it done? Why inject these poor animals constantly (it has to be done regularly) with something that offers dubious commercial advantage to the farmer, possible danger to the consumer and unknown problems for the animal?

In 1999, the European Union banned the use of growth hormones, a move that was criticised by the World Trade Organization in April, 2008. They are attempting to force the EU to lift the ban to allow imports of meat from the USA and Canada. At the time of going to press, the EU is considering its next move.

I will agree with ethical vegetarians that our general treatment of animals is deplorable and that the history of inhumanity is littered with dangerous, greedy practices.

Take, for example, the use of diethylstilbestrol (DES), a non-oesteroidal oestrogen, to castrate chickens and as the first artificial animal growth hormone. This is the dandy little chemical that rendered farmers who breathed its fumes impotent and gave the males breasts, not to mention inducing cancer.

In America (and to a lesser extent in Australia), cattle routinely receive oestradiol (for synchronised oestrus), testosterone, progesterone and anabolic steroids — not to mention regular doses of antibiotics in their feed.

The insane and wicked part of all this chemical and biotechnological invasion of the meat supply is it doesn’t really work, as was discovered in Denmark.

Cattle, pig and broiler chicken farmers in Denmark stopped using antibiotics as growth promoters in 1999. This experiment was monitored by the World Health Organization (WHO), which found that any negative economic effect (waiting a bit longer for the animal to grow) is offset by the savings the farmer accrues from not buying the drugs. Only the drug and biotechnology companies profit from this chemical violation of farm animals.

What can an omnivore do?

It’s really very simple. First, eat less meat and pay more for it. And make sure it’s organic or biodynamic. That way, you know for sure no chemicals, growth hormones or antibiotics have been used in its production and that, if it’s beef, it has been raised on pasture.

And remember, when you pay that bit extra for organic or biodynamic food, you’re actually paying the farmer enough to look after the land and his/her animals.

Before leaving this thorny issue, it should be pointed out that the Bible, at least in the old testament, came out on the side of the omnivores. In Chapter 4 of Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel is told. You might remember that “Abel was a keeper of sheep”, but “Cain was a tiller of the ground”.

But when Cain brought the Lord an offering “of the fruit of the ground” and Abel brought “the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof”, the Lord had respect for the offering of Abel, but he “had not respect unto Cain and his offerings”. And it might be remembered that it was the (presumed) vegetarian Cain who did his brother in. I certainly wouldn’t look to the Bible for a justification of any behaviour, but there it is, a curious remnant.

Like most human beings throughout time, I choose to eat meat — but well-raised meat in small quantities. I have no problem with any person who makes an individual and informed decision not to. Praise the Lord and pass the mustard.

Grass or grain?

It’s the big question in beef production today: to let cattle graze or to put them into feedlots. I’ve already touched on it above, but the question could do with a little, if you’ll pardon the pun, fleshing out.

First, why feed cattle grain? The short answer is to make the big grain corporations rich. Three of those companies feed 21 per cent of America’s cattle. Why is there so much corn around? Because successive American governments have subsidised farmers to grow more.

In America, if all the grain currently fed to livestock was consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million according to David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

So grain is grown to feed cattle. And a market has been created for grain-fed beef. But there’s a giant environmental problem with this. In addition to the five to six kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of flesh, grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 litres of water for every kilogram of food produced.

Because cattle are designed to eat grass and not anything else, including grain, it has a deleterious effect on their stomachs: the acid balance is disturbed, increasing the E. coli in the system by 80 times and disturbing the balance of gut flora in the animals, making them sick.

Also, according to research done by Cornell University microbiologists and the US Department of Agriculture, this encourages the growth of dangerous strain E. coli O157:H7, the culprit in many cases of food contamination in America.

Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll get sick from eating grain-fed beef, but it’s a reported unpleasant side-effect from feeding grain to cattle over a long period — and, apparently (according to the same research), easily reversed by giving them hay for their last five days on earth.

Another side-effect is the fat in a grain-fed animal is inferior: it’s high in omega-6 and low in omega-3 fats. In grass-fed beef, the ratio is healthier.

Then there’s the matter of flavour. Grain-fed beef simply doesn’t taste as good as grass-fed beef. How do I know? Well, in the ten Paddock to Palate competitions held between 1997 and 2001 to assess the eating qualities of beef from 1200 cattle, the results were conclusive. The best-tasting beef was grass-fed and the best-tasting grass-fed beef had come from pastures with a high percentage of native grasses. I was one of the “professional palates” in those tests and I came to dislike the greasy flavour and marshmallow texture of the grain-fed beef we had to eat.

Modern methods of beef cattle grazing actually restore pasture and increase the productivity and carbon retention of the soil. It’s called “cell grazing” or “rotational grazing” and it means the farmer has to move the cattle from paddock to paddock every couple of weeks — one farmer I know has divided his property into 30 paddocks from four when he bought it.

There’s one other aspect of this overcrowding of cattle in feedlots. They spend all that time walking on and lying in their own faeces. Professor Lesley Rogers, the founder of the Research Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour at the University of New England, says, “Walking around in their own faeces is something that all animals abhor. Any basic biological mechanism says don’t stay near your faeces, and don’t eat them. Even further down the evolutionary tree from cattle, this holds true.”

So for the environment, for animal health and welfare, for human health and, finally, for taste, choose grass-fed over grain-fed every time.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 02 21t111252.796

Low carb & luscious

Health Literate Sponsored Article

Understanding Health Literacy & Its Impact on Australia’s Wellbeing

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 02 14t134802.702

Kale chips to beat emotional cravings

Wellbeing Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2023 08 22t170637.564

Revamp your health and wellbeing with a new daily ritual