Environmental Aspects of Vegetarianism: The Australian Experience

A talk by Robert Fraser, President of the Vegetarian Society of Western Australia and IVU Regional Secretary for Australasia
When I was first invited to address this Congress, my initial thought was "Why me - what could I possibly say that anyone at this Congress would be interested in?". But as I am part of a panel discussing the environment, I decided to talk about the vegetarian aspects of this topic from an Australian perspective. My original professional training was in Chemistry, and I was interested in the problems of environmental pollution and the chemistry of it long before I thought of becoming a vegetarian. I feel that this is the part of the vegetarian argument that gets less than it's fair share of publicity.
Before I start, I should make clear to you that I am not Australian by birth and a relatively recent convert to the vegetarian lifestyle. So who am I to address you on this subject? What I have to say is my own opinion, with material and research provided by people who are qualified to know.
Like most "developed" countries, Australia has an active conservation and environmental movement, ranging from relatively well-known nation-wide organisations to smaller more local groups. We also have political movements that include the environment in their policies. They all have their particular objectives; be they the global problems caused by the Greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer, or campaigns against uranium mining, logging or the destruction of native bushland. But as far as I am aware, very few of them specifically advocate the vegetarian option as an approach to the environmental movement. Some conservationists like to point fingers at other people: large corporations for creating pollution and toxic waste, feral cats for killing native animals, rabbits and other introduced species for their parts in destruction of natural ecologies, or mining companies for habitat destruction.
All too often - in fact I would suggest, most of the time - activists and supporters of these movements continue to eat a traditional Australian meat centred diet, without considering its environmental cost. So if we really want to minimise our harmful impact on the ecosystem, we must critically examine our daily behaviours -- and no behaviour is more important than what we eat.
Before I continue, I'd like to spend a few minutes in setting the scene. Australia is a large island continent. Its climates range from cool and temperate in the south, to warm and tropical in the north, with considerable arid regions and desert in between. Australia is known as the driest of all the continents, with the result that some of its ecologies are very delicate. Nevertheless, the continent contains a vast animal population consisting of both introduced species and native species.
The best-known of the native species is probably the kangaroo. When Europeans arrived in Australia, there were 48 different species of kangaroo. It's our national symbol; it's featured on the Australian coat of arms. Yet many Australians happily eat kangaroos. This has, sadly, almost been elevated to a patriotic act.
The arguments put forward are that kangaroos are plentiful; and that if we didn't eat them, they would over-run the country and destroy farmers' crops. These are old arguments, and applicable not only to this Australian situation. Unfortunately, under this principle, kangaroos, and other animals, are regarded as tourist attractions, often as pests, but always as resources. If you can make profit out of them, fine.
Recently, movements have been started in Australia to exploit other native animals - such as the emu. The emu is another national symbol which appears on the Australian coat of arms along with the kangaroo. Emus are large flightless birds, and are being promoted as healthy food, because the meat is considered to be low in cholesterol, and they are being sold in so-called gourmet restaurants. And even camels are being killed for food. Camels were introduced to Australia in the last century as pack animals, but they escaped into the wild, and now roam the open spaces, mainly in the north of Australia. Most of the introduced species - sheep, cattle, horses, donkeys, camels - are hoofed animals which are not suited to the delicate, dry natural countryside in the same way as the native, soft-footed animals. They trample and churn up the soil and contribute greatly to the destruction of the fragile environment.
It isn't my intention to pitch large quantities of statistics at you, but let's just look at a few that relate specifically to Australia. Australia has an area of nearly 7.7 million square kilometres. Incidentally, this is about the same size as the USA. So please don't write off Australia as just a little island somewhere at the bottom of the world. According to the 1996 Year Book of Australia, approximately 60% of this land is listed as agricultural", but only 4% of this is cropped, growing everything from garlic to potatoes and wheat. Almost 1/2 of our crop land is devoted to wheat, and about 90% of that wheat is exported.
So what about the remainder of the 60% of Australia used for agriculture? It comprises sown pastures or rangeland. We export about half of the animal products we produce. In round figures, meat eating requires that about 30% of Australia be used for grazing -- either of natural or sown pastures. If the whole of the Australian population were vegetarian, then less than 1% of land would need to be cropped.
Australia was originally populated by various tribes who were collectively known to European settlers as "Aborigines". Aborigines had inhabited Australia for perhaps fifty thousand years, and were intimately bound to the land by spiritual ties, with a great awareness of plant and animal life cycles. The land provided them with everything they needed for a healthy life. They were nomadic and learned to manage their country in such ways that its resources renewed themselves and were not used up.
Aborigines were generally not vegetarians; they speared kangaroos and caught fish or dug in the mud for crabs. They killed just what they needed, unlike the "mass murder" practices of the more recent white settler. But a large proportion of their diet included naturally occurring fruits and plants, most of which are even today unknown to the average white Australian. At least half of the food eaten by Aborigines came from plants; root vegetables, greens, fruits and seeds. These foods were only available during their appropriate seasons, but roots could usually be dug up all the year round, because the earth acted as a natural storage cupboard. Important foods were replanted.
The regular digging-over of the soil, and the thinning out of clumps by collection of plants, together with burning to provide fertiliser, is not very different from what we do in our own gardens, and the whole country was in a way a sacred Aboriginal garden.
Even in the dry arid zones of Australia, such plants were there for the finding. Nuts, seeds, fruits, tubers; they were all there for the taking, and the natives had great respect for their land and it's bounty. Sadly, reports by the Australian Medical Association have shown that people in remote Aboriginal communities are forsaking traditional foods in favour of fast food, promoted through slick marketing campaigns. Soft drinks, fish and chips, pies and hamburgers are taking the place of hunting and gathering.
Australia was settled, or invaded, according to your point of view, by Europeans only about 200 years ago, and it didn't take them long to clear-fell large tracts of bushland, annihilating many native animal and plant species, and to import cattle and sheep. Originally these sheep and cattle were "free range". As settlement spread across eastern Australia after 1830, sheep numbers increased to in excess of 100 million in 1890, a size never again attained. A prolonged dry period from 1895 and a slump in the wool price led to the subsequent drop to less than 50 million sheep by 1903.
The sheep population behaved like any other herbivore occupying an empty but favourable niche. Under these circumstances, growth of the invading sheep population overshoots the resources, leading to a population crash with severe consequences for the native vegetation and the native animals who depend on it to survive. In fact, some 190 million hectares of Australian land is considered to be vegetationally degraded, largely due to sheep and cattle grazing in arid lands that were never intended for small footed European animals.
The growth of the sheep population in Australia was aided by the wholesale conversion of the savanna woodland to pasture. But as the sheep population continued to rise, the palatable grasses were eaten down and unpalatable woody shrubs and young trees increased. This sequence of ecological change had profound long-term effects on the land. The overgrazing of sheep 100 years ago is still affecting plant regeneration today. Habitat alteration was also the main driver of the extinction of small marsupials in the grasslands and dry woodlands. Large tracts of land have been rendered almost useless due to salt contamination.
It seems likely that these profound changes also allowed the spread of the rabbit (a species introduced for the sport of hunting as well as for food) across Australia between 1870 and 1'0. If so, the rabbit was part of the response to, rather than the cause of, the decline in productivity. One can still see sheep and cattle grazing in paddocks around the country, but intensive animal production is taking over. It is already the norm for pigs and chickens.
The figures on the massive waste of the world's food resources - land, water, energy - from feedlotting animals are well known, and I don't intend to labour the point. I first came across these statistics several years ago whilst reading Jon Wynne-Tyson's book "Food for a Future", and they'd been around for a while then.
If you want to find the major culprits who are helping to degrade the Australian environment, just go to your local supermarket and look at the people buying beef and lamb. People who want meat and who want it as cheaply as possible, are the true and unwitting cause of environmental degradation.
What is the population of Australia? What should the population of Australia be? What population can the unique Australian environment sustain? At the 1996 ANZAAS conference, prominent scientists argued that Australia's current human population of about 15 million was already consuming nearly all available resources. They predicted an inevitable drop in living standards as an increasing population competed for decreasing resources. Personally, I think that less meat is an increase in living standards, but their message is clear. It is the same message that has been heard around the world for quite some time. The world is overpopulated and the environmental tensions are well and truly evident. They are evident in fisheries disputes and in genocides, in water disputes, in mass refugee movements.
It's easy in Australia to turn a blind eye to the symptoms of world overpopulation which are daily apparent. But they are there. Obviously, changes must be made, and a move to vegetarianism is one effective change
Australia's 26 million cattle and 120 million sheep represent a massive environmental burden on the country. They also outnumber humans by about 16:1, compared to about 5:1 in most other countries. In Australia, the cattle population peaked in 1976 at 33.4 million. Drought in the early 1980's reduced the population but it has been growing steadily again since 1989 to its current level. It is clear that the sheep and cattle industries in Australia are becoming an environmental disaster.
And so is the pig farming industry, which currently has some 2.7 million pigs. They produce about 14,000 tons of mature daily. And this is relatively small scale stuff, compared to other countries. In Holland in the late 1980s, it was calculated that intensive animal industries were producing 94 million tonnes of manure per year, but could only safely use 50 million of it as fertiliser. And just one State of North America, North Carolina, has a pig population of 10 million hogs, producing 19 million tons of waste every year. That's 52,000 tons daily that must be recycled or disposed of.
I'd like to give one factual example of the way the pig industry directly impacts on the environment. Not far from Perth, where I live, an inland waterway that drains out into the Indian Ocean, was recently declared an environmental disaster area. It's known as the Peel-Harvey Inlet, and it had a major algal bloom problem. Algal bloom results from over-rich organic nutrients ending up in the river system.
The Peel Inlet and Harvey Estuary and nearby lakes are so important that in 1990 they were listed as Wetlands of World Importance. Almost a century ago local people warned that potentially damaging changes were occurring in the largest estuary on Australia's western coast as a result of changing human activity.
About 20 years ago, 150,000 birds were recorded using these wetlands. The se included 67 different species of ducks, swans, waders and other birds. It is a very important resting place for many of these, as they migrate long distances around the world. These waters also have a large number of fish, crabs and prawns.
By the early 1980s scientists were describing the Peel-Harvey as almost biologically barren. Why? The rural land to the east of this area has many dairy farms and piggeries. The concentration of people91s activities, especially dairy and pig farming, has caused a build up of nutrients in the wetlands. Several agricultural drains enter the water bodies, so that animal waste products drain into the water. The water in this wetland system was naturally flushed through the narrow estuary, but silt frequently clogged it, and the nutrients (especially phosphates) increased, causing a change in the balance of living things in the water.
Nitrogen and phosphorus serve as fertilizers but, in excess quantities, can pollute water and air. When nitrogen and phosphorus get in the wrong place at high concentrations, they stimulate algal growth which leads to "low dissolved oxygen levels" (i.e., robs the water of oxygen). Low dissolved oxygen can kill fish and other aquatic life. The main organisms to benefit were the algae, and especially the poisonous blue-green algae known as Nodularia. Very large blooms of algae have increased over the last 25 years. These cause several problems. As the massive amount of algae decays, it uses most of the oxygen from the sediments. This starves many of the other plants and animals and upsets the normal food chain. The Nodularia is a health hazard for human beings, as they work or play on the water, causing severe rashes or worse. Other animals also can be badly affected.
The answers to the problem of algal blooms are those which stop the nutrients from getting into the water in the first place, and those which help flush the nutrients from the system. A vegetarian would argue that the former approach to the problem; that is, to stop the source of the pollution, is preferable. But the local farmers claimed that they could not easily reduce the materials that cause the problems.
So the government of Western Australia adopted the second approach to the problem. Most effort has gone into improving the flushing of the wetlands.
A channel, known locally as the "Dawesville Cut", was built, and opened in January 1995. The Dawesville Cut is a canal which was dug through the land so as to provide a direct link between the inland lagoon and the ocean. It is between 130 and 200 metres wide, 2.5km long and varies in depth from 4.5 to 6.5 metres. It extends some way into the ocean and follows an old (thousands of years) river path to the sea.
Since the channel has been opened, the tidal level in the estuary now rises and falls about three or four times as much. It now takes about 50% less time for the estuary to flush. Time will tell whether this solution is sufficient and appropriate for the future of the Peel-Harvey estuarine wetlands.
As far as I am aware, the runoff from the local piggeries and dairies has not ceased. The present government is anxious to avoid opposition from the farmers, which have a powerful lobby in Australia, as no doubt elsewhere.
As recently as a few weeks ago, the State Minister for Water Resources released the results of a major study into the ecology of the area. This report concluded that amongst the effects of the project, fish populations had increased, the algae were no longer to be found in the waters and tidal flushing had improved. However, negative effects have also occurred. Populations of mosquitoes have increased, which is being countered by spraying. Also, bird habitats have been affected, especially pelicans and black swans, which are WA's emblem. One effect already in evidence, is that the increased water movement is causing the small fishlife to be flushed out into the ocean, and this, together with the increased boat usage and tourist industry, is causing the local birdlife to move elsewhere for their quiet retreats.
Groundwater can also become polluted from over-use of fertilizer to grow crops. One recent water quality publication has commented on the massive number of fertiliser trials around Australia demonstrating improved yields from fertiliser, but the trials don't measure or mention the pollution problems. My interpretation is simple. The pig farmers (and feedlotters generally) are working hard to build a market for their waste, possibly without adequate safety testing. This is normal. Their prime product -- meat -- is a health hazard when taken in typical doses. Their secondary product -- waste -- will be likewise.
As a summary, I'd just like to mention a concept known as "Local Agenda 21". My wife, Gina, who is a town planner in local government, brought this to my attention only recently, in fact just a few days before we left Perth to attend the Congress. It's a process that aims to involve local people and communities in a way of life that can protect the quality of life for future generations. It originates from the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janiero in 19' which led to the agreement of an Agenda 21 document detailing a series of strategies for action worldwide. The process aims to integrate the social, environmental and economic aspects of development in order that all future development is sustainable at a local government level, and requires all of us to consider the effects - on the local economy, the local environment and the local community - of every policy and project and then to seek a solution that achieves a realistic balance. Perhaps this might be a future aim of the IVU and it's member societies to encourage our local governments to consider the effects on the environment of the meat industries they generally encourage in the name of employment and industry promotion.