Red meat: to eat or not to eat?
Lillian Radulova investigates the impact of red meat on Australian health, diet, industry and the environment.
Nobody adores animals more than Professor Mike Archer does!
According to the University of New South Wales (UNSW) scientist from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental sciences, animals play a pivotal role in society.
Photographs of Australian marsupials hang from the walls of his home, and two cages alive with Australian native birds, squawk along to his fond personal stories of housing swamp wallabies and kangaroos, whose personalities he compares to puppies.
But people have to eat, and eat meat they will; it is what they have naturally been doing for over eight million years.
“The only time any ancestor of ours ever stepped into the herbivorous vegan zone was Paranthropus boisei who has got to be one of the ugliest humans that ever evolved on the planet,” Archer says.
“It had a flat head, these gigantic cheeks, tiny beady eyes; this is a horror out of the worst nightmare you can imagine,” he describes.
“It was what happens to humans if they try out to be herbivores. And it’s extinct. It didn’t go anywhere. Our line; the omnivores, are the ones that have continually survived and done well.”
But following our natural instincts or our taste buds is not always the right choice.
It is proving increasingly difficult to ignore the ongoing flow of conflicting information claiming meat is necessary for wellbeing, and yet contributes to bad health.
Most recently, a US study released by Harvard University in April this year, found that people who consume more processed red meat have a 20 per cent higher chance of dying earlier.
The study, completed over 20 years and focusing on over 120,000 people, summarised that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality.
But using U.S. literature to look at Australia is the equivalent of “comparing apples and oranges” according to professor Felice Jacka from Deakin University in Victoria.
Australian livestock is largely grass fed and thus lean, while U.S. raised meat has a “far less healthy fatty acid profile” and more saturated fat due to being “almost exclusively grown on feed lots,” as Jacka explains.
According to her study, which looked at the overall quality of female diets through a wide sample of women in the Geelong area, has added to the conflicting mass of literature on meat consumption by linking its effects to mental health.
The study, released in March, found women who had less than the recommended intake of red meat every week were at least twice as likely to have a depressive or anxiety disorder.
“We looked at other forms of protein intake to see whether this was to do with protein and not to do with red meat specifically,” says Jacka.
“We looked at white meats like chicken and pork and we looked at vegetable protein…It was only red meat that was clearly and consistently associated with these mental health problems.”
Consumer options seem slim from this summary of literature; dying young with health complications versus being depressed throughout a very long life.
But balanced health can be achieved with balanced plates, according to accredited practicing dietician Lisa Renn, who recommends following the National Health and Medical Research Council’s dietary guidelines.
They recommend eating lean red meat three to four times a week with serves between 100-150 grams, the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand.
Red meat is healthy because its essential nutrients like iron and zinc are easily available for absorption.
According to Renn, the problem lies in the fact that “we’re having twice as much protein or red meat then we actually need each day.”
Having this higher level of protein consumption over a longer period of time is when health problems occur.
“Levels of red meat consumption has been linked with colorectal cancer and there’s also suggested evidence of other cancers,” Renn says.
“We know that 86 per cent of people did not achieve the five serves of vegetables per day that we’re hoping to get in. So if we’re having too much meat then potentially we’re not getting enough vegetables.”
But of the red meat we do eat, Archer believes there is more than just the health of people to think of. The environment and Australia’s biodiversity are both significantly effected by livestock consumption patterns.
The UN’s 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, revealed the livestock industry is responsible for 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, amounting to more than transport.
Furthermore, livestock production takes up 30 per cent of the world’s lands surface, which was formerly wildlife habitat.
But Queensland cattle farmer, Stuart Barrett, says there is a misconception around livestock production and environmental damage in Australia.
One of his strategies involves planting leucaena, a native taproot which retrieves moisture from lower in the ground and fixes nitrogen in the soil for other grass to feed off, while providing high protein for grazing cattle.
“I’ve actually seen real kilogram figures, dollar figures improving my business, and I’ve also seen environmental improvement in areas that were struggling,” Barrett reveals.
Barrett is one of many farmers taking part in the Target 100 campaign, launched in March by six Australian meat industry bodies including Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA).
The campaign’s aim is to achieve sustainable cattle and sheep farming by 2020 through its 100 proposed initiatives involving research and promotion of sustainable ideas.
“[Target 100] is a social networking medium, I guess, where people can actually come and see the truth about what’s happening there,” Barret says.
“I think the best way to get that information is to go straight to the horses’ mouth, so to speak, and make a connection with a real farmer.”
Despite the campaign deserving a “pat on the back”, Archer believes it’s not enough.
Industries should be looking at what has worked previously for our ecosystems in terms of meat production, and that involves looking back to the methods of Indigenous Australians.
“Wildlife is increasingly not safe in the wild. It’s increasingly important to find ways to get people to value the wildlife. And that often means a dollar value,” Archer says.
His solution is to wild harvest one of our most undervalued resources; kangaroos.
Although valued as a healthy lean meat, he believes the potential to depend increasingly on kangaroos needs to be extended and valued for its environmental potential; kangaroos do not produce excess methane, do not damage the soil with hoofs and do not tear out the roots of the plants they eat.
The outlandish suggestion of farming more kangaroos makes CSIRO’s deputy chief of business development, Greg Harper, openly laugh.
With less meat on them and the difficulty in herding them, Harper doesn’t see it as a valid solution.
“That’s a big jump,” Harper says.
“We’ve been developing the methods we use to domesticate and husband animals for at least 10,000 years, so a lot of these things are well developed and well thought through.”
Harper, also a non-executive director of MLA, does believe kangaroos can improve the livestock industry, but in an unexpected way.
The Reducing Emissions from Livestock Research Project (RELRP) is researching how microbes in kangaroos allow them to digest grass without releasing excess methane, a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
This could lead to genetically selected or altered cattle, which release less of the gas.
Harper’s solution is for the meat ‘industry to maximize efficiency’, and continue focusing on specifically selected feed which quickens livestock’s rate of growth.
But ‘efficiency’ comes with a cost which Dana Campbell, CEO of Voiceless, says comes in the form of shortcuts.
Trimming chickens beaks and castrating pigs without pain relief are just a few ‘shortcuts’ taken by factory farms, which Voiceless campaigns against.
For Campbell, there’s a clear choice, and it’s not economics, but opting to pay more for meat that guarantees ethical production, or reducing consumption altogether.
“The way we treat our animals is an indication of the way we treat each other,” Campbell says.
“It’ll be better for [consumers] health and better for the planet.”