Raising rare-breed livestock: A counter-hegemonic project towards an agroecological transition in Australia

This blog started in 2006 as a place to record my musings as I undertook a PhD in cultural studies around practices of consumption (which I did not finish). 15 years later, this is my first post of a new PhD project in anthropology focusing on practices of production – how some farmers are working to radically transform the food system from the ground up.

Below is the minimally edited text of the research proposal seminar I delivered last Friday as a milestone for my PhD at UWA. Feedback welcome. 🙂


I’m sharing this today from unceded Dja Dja Wurrung country in the central highlands of Victoria, the traditional and ongoing lands of the Jaara people, to whose elders past, present, and emerging I pay my respects. I’d also like to pay my respects to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders reading this.

The development of agriculture over the past 12,000 years resulted eventually in what James Scott argues is ‘a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life’ (Scott 2017: 87). As a farmer myself, I find this description of my livelihood somewhat alarming.

Much later, monotheistic religions grew on foundational discourses of human dominion over nature, contributing to the move from more ecologically-sensitive traditional farming practices to the highly mechanised conventions of capitalist industrialised agriculture. This latter form of agriculture has systematised human mastery over nature (Tsing 2012) with devastating consequences, including the sixth mass extinction event in 4.6 billion years (Muir 2014).

In 2019 the UN reported that ‘many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species, and ecosystem levels are in decline’ and that ‘evidence suggests that the proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing’ (FAO 2019: xxxviii). In Australia as elsewhere, the rise of fast-growing, high-yielding industrial genetics has led to a concurrent loss of rare- and heritage-breed livestock. While there is a movement to preserve heritage breeds led by the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia, it is still relatively nascent and unsupported by government policy (Jonas 2017; Iles 2020).

There is in fact a notable lack of research in Australia on the importance of biodiversity in agriculture (Walton 2019). Recent initiatives such as the Australian Farm Biodiversity Certification Scheme Trial funded by the Federal Government and run by the National Farmers Federation (NFF 2018) demonstrate all too clearly how far Australia has to go in understanding the urgent need for a transformation of agriculture, as to date it does not even explicitly include any focus on increasing biodiversity in agricultural produce, only in the landscape surrounding production areas. That is, in work concerned with the loss of biodiversity in agriculture in Australia, none of it appears to be concerned with the loss of biodiversity in the food we grow and eat, and very little addresses the biodiversity in the soil in which it is grown, which we increasingly understand to be of critical importance to all life.

Happily, my PhD is part of a larger project funded by a DECRA grant entitled ‘Raising Rare Breeds: Domestication, Extinction and Meat in the Anthropocene’, led by my principal supervisor Dr Catie Gressier, which aims to address this dearth of research through developing greater understandings of rare and heritage breed farming across Australia.  

My involvement in the broader project around rare breeds is born of my life as a former vegetarian tree-hugging greenie turned pig-farming butcher tree-hugging greenie. My husband and I farm on the ancient volcanic soils of Dja Dja Wurrung country, the traditional and unceded lands of the Jaara people. We moved here a decade ago, motivated by our desire to help grow the movement of ethical and ecologically-sound livestock farmers in Australia. Inspired by the rare breed movement and its biodiverse values, we chose to raise heritage-breed Large Black pigs and a variety of heritage and modern-breed cattle on pasture to fulfil this goal. We were strongly driven by our ethics to raise animals in a high welfare system on pasture, only later coming to realize the full complexity of ecological, social, and political entanglements our path would reveal.

While most these days have heard of regenerative agriculture, agroecology is much less known or understood. A science, a set of practices, and a social movement, agroecology is fundamental to this project (Wezel, Bellon & Doré 2009), with its attention to the role of animals in agroecosystems, the importance of biodiversity, and the socialities of agroecological farmers. Broadly speaking, agroecology is a scientifically and experientially justified practice of agriculture in ways that are sensitive to the ecosystems in which it is situated and that fosters the democratic participation of farmers in the food system.

While non-indigenous farmers who identify as ‘regenerative’ or ‘agroecological’ promote their/our innovations on social media, at conferences, and during farmer field days, Altieri & Holt-Gimenez (2016: 2) remind us that ‘the true roots of agroecology lie in the ecological rationale of indigenous and peasant agriculture still prevalent…’ and the UN provides empirical evidence that, globally, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the best custodians of biodiversity (FAO 2019; IPBES 2019), emphasising the need to look to Indigenous knowledges, and to respect the customary laws and sovereignty of Australia’s First Peoples.

As we have deepened our experience and knowledge of Dja Dja Wurrung country in our relatively short time as custodians, we have also come to better understand the compelling need to ‘decolonize ourselves’ (Land 2015), and to affirm solidarity with First Peoples in order to grow a future for Australia that is ecologically sustainable and socially just for all. Indigenous Knowledges scholar Tyson Yunkaporta (2019: 19) of the Apalech clan of Far North Queensland asserts, ‘We rarely see global sustainability issues addressed using Indigenous perspectives and knowledges. […] It is always about the what and never about the how’.

With interest in Yunkaporta’s ‘how’, the project aims to examine the ways in which Australia’s ‘new peasantry’ (van der Ploeg 2017) can be informed by Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies to combat and adapt to climate change. I ask:

How can small-scale farmers inhabit and care for land in such a way as to maintain healthy agroecosystems and their human and nonhuman communities, while advancing Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty?

What are the discrepancies, and what convergence in Indigenous and non-Indigenous epistemologies is needed (and possible) (Plumwood 2005)?

I aim to contribute to the movement of small-scale non-indigenous farmers as they/we come to terms with our colonial privilege through a process of critical self-reflection alongside ‘public political ally work’ (Land 2015: 164) supporting Indigenous struggles, and to actively promote the ecologically sustainable and socially just work I find.

To explain why I use the term ‘peasant’ in Australia – a country with no history of a peasantry, the 2018 UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas defines a peasant such as to include Australian smallholders:

any person who engages or who seeks to engage alone, or in association with others or as a community, in small-scale agricultural production for subsistence and/or for the market, and who relies significantly, though not necessarily exclusively, on family or household labour and other non-monetized ways of organizing labour, and who has a special dependency on and attachment to the land.

Given my position as a farmer-activist-scholar deeply embedded in the communities of interest to this project, I will undertake multi-sited ethnography as an insider anthropologist. The fieldwork with farmers will be guided by the following broad questions:

  • Why do some farmers choose rare and heritage breeds of livestock?
  • How are these farmers fostering biodiversity and multi-species flourishings?
  • How and where are these farmers accessing agroecological knowledge and experience?
  • Why and how are farmers engaging with local Aboriginal people and their ecological knowledge? (Do they engage with the local Jaara people, or with others outside our bioregion? Directly or indirectly – why?)
  • What are the constraints and enablers of agroecological farming with rare and heritage breeds? (genetic, technical, legislative, economic, social, ecological)

Three farms will be chosen in the central highlands of Victoria (Dja Dja Wurrung country) for participant observation, based on criteria that they grow rare breed cattle and/or pigs for the commercial sale of meat and/or dairy, and that they sell their produce through direct channels. In addition to participant observation, interviews will be conducted with semi-structured questions designed to elucidate data ranging from the values and paradigms that shape the farmers’ actions, through the everyday practices of rearing heritage breed livestock, to farmers’ relationships with other farmers, those who buy their produce, local Aboriginal peoples, and the state. Questions will also focus on the extent to which the farmers are collectivised – are they associated with agroecology and food sovereignty as a social movement, do they belong to any local, regional, or national organisations, and if so, to what end? Observations of land and water use and health, animal husbandry practices and perceptions of animal welfare will help achieve the aims of the project.

Focus group discussions with more farmers of rare and heritage breeds within and outside my region will also be held online and in person, with some questions adapted from the semi-structured interviews with my key participant farmers. Drawing on the work recounted in Chambers (1989) on ‘reality mapping’ and ‘ecological mapping’ undertaken with farmers in the Global South, farmers in focus groups will be asked to draw a politico-biocultural map of their farms to gain insights into their perspectives on the ecological, social, and political contexts in which they farm.

One of the questions that orients my research is revealing the experiences of other heritage-breed livestock farmers:

What is the relationship between a focus on breed conservation and an awareness of the importance of greater biodiversity at all levels of food and agriculture systems?

By examining the grounded practices, decision-making processes, and stated values of farmers who raise rare- and heritage-breed livestock – exotic non-industrial counter-hegemonic animals – this project seeks to uncover the paradigms farmers bring to their work.

What underpins the decision to raise slow-growing, low-yielding animals to earn a livelihood?

Does the choice to raise rare and heritage breeds sit alongside other values and practices that support more ‘multispecies flourishings’ (Haraway 2016) on farms?

A guiding theme will be to ask how farmers are responding to the burden of responsibility carried by the ‘human condition of living with and for others’ (Bird 2004) as they negotiate entanglements with country and human and nonhuman animals. Yunkaporta (2020) asserts the importance of Aboriginal social structures in achieving sensitive community and land management, describing his clan as, ‘autonomous individuals syndicated together in a collective’. With this framing in mind, I seek to understand the importance of existing connections amongst autonomous small-scale farmers that contribute to cultural and ecological reparations and social organisation, and to learn what collaborative and deliberate practices they engage in to diversify breeds (and grasses and crops) within the region, and to advocate for agroecology-friendly policies. I further aim to identify pathways towards a place-based co-management of Aboriginal lands so damaged by colonial mining and agriculture that the Jaara people call it ‘upside down country’ (Dja Dja Wurrung 2016).

My project is in part a response to the UN’s critical assessment of biodiversity loss and its recommendations, which identified the need to conserve breeds as well as the need for multidisciplinary research to understand the role of greater biodiversity in agriculture more broadly. It is also a continuation of a lifetime concern about the treatment of animals in agriculture, and a long history of food sovereignty activism that ultimately led me to where I now farm with Stuart and a like-minded community that has glimmers of Yunkaporta’s ‘autonomous individuals syndicated together in a collective’.

Ultimately, my project aims to identify the ecological, social, and political factors that contribute to the successful practice of agroecology in Australia. My specific focus is on the practice of raising rare- and heritage-breed pigs and cattle in agroecosystems, and the work being done by small-scale farmers to decolonize agriculture with what I propose are counter-hegemonic breeds. Using insider activist anthropology to work with a selection of farmers in Dja Dja Wurrung country, I aim to understand the values, epistemologies, and politics that lead farmers to choose rare- and heritage-breed livestock and to farm agroecologically.

Ultimately, acknowledging that small-scale farmers operate within certain norms and rules of the state, which have material impacts on their autonomous capacity to farm in ecologically-sustainable and socially-just ways (Wolf 1966; Scott 1998; van der Ploeg 2017), I aim to understand and make visible existing state and supra-state instruments and processes that currently constrain farmers’ activities, and those that can enable agroecology and rare-breed farming in Australia.

In the face of a massive global loss of agricultural biodiversity over many decades, this research can provide critical information and recommendations to slow and address losses, and to support increases in biodiversity in farming. I will engage with local smallholder and Indigenous knowledges and practices on Dja Dja Wurrung country to uncover the diverse stories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous custodians of country. The significance lies in actively working to uncover, support, and promote the biodiverse and decolonizing practices of agroecological farmers of rare- and heritage-breed livestock, to serve the urgent need to value and protect biodiversity in food and agriculture systems in the face of multiple threats from climate change and the emergence of pandemics such as COVID-19.

The project is part of and manifests the values of the social movement for food sovereignty and agroecology. In addition to my life as a farmer, I have been president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) since 2014, which is actively working across all six ‘domains of transformation’ to an agroecological future identified by Anderson et al. (2017). The domains include: access to natural ecosystems; knowledge and culture; systems of exchange; networks; equity; and discourse. This project will contribute to AFSA’s ongoing work for agroecology and food sovereignty, including to AFSA’s project Farming on Other People’s Land (FOOPL), which is developing resources to support diverse share-farming arrangements and farming cooperatives, and acknowledging that all non-Indigenous farmers are farming on other peoples’ land in Australia. This research will also contribute to the food sovereignty movement’s efforts to transform policies at all levels of government to support a transition to agroecology. It will contribute to AFSA’s new Agroecological Action Research Network (AARN), established in 2020 to network scholars and farmers across Australia to grow the body of participatory research towards an agroecological transition.

In following the deeply embedded stories, practices, soils, plants, human and nonhuman animals, and microbes on agroecological farms working to preserve rare- and heritage-breed livestock, as well as the rather more abstract yet specific stories and practices of the state, this project will assert an ontological politics – a politics of materiality and not just representation of ‘what is, what should, and what might be realised’ (Law 2018).

Feeding livestock & weaning farmers off industrial grain

This is a cross post from the Jonai Farms blog: The Farmer & the Butcher, originally entitled ‘Feed: Weaning ourselves off industrial grain‘. 

I’ve spent the better part of what will soon be (gasp!) three decades worrying about the ills of industrial animal agriculture, and most of today gathering some of the relevant stats around the amount of feed grown globally to feed livestock in preparation for writing about what we’re trying to achieve in our feeding system at Jonai Farms. Bear with me…

The inconsistencies in data depending on the source have been doing my head in – does the livestock industry contribute 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) or 3%? Which life cycle analysis is accounting properly for all parts of the food chain, and which acknowledges the differences between Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and small-scale pastured animal farming? Is 60% of American corn fed to animals or is it 80%? If 47% of soy produced is fed to animals in the US, how can it be 85% globally?

And then it occurred to me that the numbers don’t matter that much. We simply must stop growing monocultures of grain crops only to process and feed them to animals. Whether it contributes 3% or 18% to greenhouse gases, it’s just bloody unnecessary and entirely a result of industrialised agriculture, which segregates each aspect of production in the most unnatural ways instead of growing food in diverse, integrated, and holistic systems.

Here are some more numbers (sorry not sorry but I spent so much time gathering them): according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) 26% of the earth is used to graze animals, and 33% of the earth’s arable land is dedicated to feed crop cultivation. The FAO also reckons that 50% of all grain produced in the world is fed to livestock, mostly in the wealthy countries of the Global North.

There’s a complicated discussion to be had around the differences between feeding grains to ruminants (such as cattle, sheep, and goats) and non-ruminants (aka monogastrics like pigs, poultry, and people), but that’s for another post. (Fun fact for those who don’t already know this – horses are not ruminants, they’re monogastric herbivores.) In that discussion we could talk about the suitability of a part or whole grain diet for ruminants, and differences in greenhouse gas emissions from different species, but I’ll simply offer this short quote about some of those complexities before moving on:

‘…pork and poultry production currently consume over 75% of cereal and oil-seed based on concentrate that is grown for livestock (Galloway et al., 2007). Therefore, while ruminants consume 69% of animal feed overall, nonruminates consume 72% of all animal feed that is grown on arable land (Galloway et al., 2007). Consequently, while enteric fermentation from nonruminants is not a significant source of GHG, indirect emissions associated with cropland dedicated to nonruminant livestock might be significant.’ Ref.

Like I said, it’s complicated. So this is a slightly long-winded introduction to telling you the story of what we feed our animals at Jonai Farms and why we’ve made the choices we have.


From the outset with our pigs and cattle, we wanted to farm agroecologically – ‘working with biodiversity to provide the farming system with ecological resilience and reduce dependence on costly, often harmful, conventional inputs’. One thing that means is that since obtaining our first pigs, we had intentions to salvage or produce enough feed for a complete diet for them without purchasing grain purpose-grown for livestock.

It’s been five years but last week we achieved that goal!

From very early on, our pigs have been fed primarily a diet of spent brewers’ grain (some of which Stuart ensiles with molasses to stabilize it for storage and increase the energy extracted by the brewing process). We drive twice a week to collect a total of around three tonnes of this grain. The cattle are fed any excess, particularly during the height of summer and depths of winter when nutrient value of the feed on the paddocks is lower.


In addition to the spent brewers’ grain, Stuart has managed to salvage so-called waste stream (or in some cases ‘surplus yield’) feed from the dairy, fruit, and vegetable industries, including post-harvest ‘seconds’ of everything from potatoes to strawberries, colostrum-rich cow’s milk during calving season, and supply-chain damaged or unwanted dairy products such as milk and cheese.

Two summers ago a dairy processor delivered an entire container load of milk – in thousands of plastic bottles – when they had an oversupply due to some kind of logistics failure. We contacted every pig farmer we knew and got them to collect as much as they could haul away but were left with enough milk to feed out for many months. In consultation with our vet, we were confident that spoilt milk is not dangerous nor non-nutritive for the pigs – they continued to enjoy it well past the point where we enjoyed feeding it out.

We’ve only made minor inroads into fodder cropping, with some success at growing turnips and brassicas in the mostly rye paddocks we inherited in our attempts to wean ourselves off purpose-grown commercial grain.


We have, however, planted at least one hundred oak trees and a couple dozen other nut and fruit trees to provide fodder in what we hope will eventually be a full-blown agro-sylvo-pastoral system. Trees take a really long time to grow and they’re hard to keep alive through our hot summers, but Stuart does his best to nurse them through the heat.

While the brewers’ grain is a steady supply upon which we can rely and the paddocks provide a proportion of the happy piggehs regular diet (up to 20% depending on the season), the other salvaged feed has been sporadic – not enough to rely on without ensuring we had a nutritious regular feed on hand to supplement the brewers’ grain.

This other ration has always been a pelletised grain we’ve bought from a Victorian feed supplier. The standard ration we were originally offered was a mix of barley, wheat, peas, lupins, bread mix, mill run, soy, post-industrial food waste (such as bread meal and Smarties off the factory floor to increase the energy), essential amino acids (such as methionine, tryptophan and lysine), and vitamins and minerals. We said ‘no, thanks’ and asked for a custom ration that was just barley, wheat, and lupins and paid an extra $50/tonne for the privilege of keeping all the nutrititive and non-nutritive additives and soy out of it.

The pellets formed anywhere from 15-30% of the pigs’ diet for the past five years (depending on their age and stage, e.g. wet sows get more pellets to ensure they’re getting sufficient proteins to support reproduction). It was convenient, very little wastage, and simple to monitor nutrition as the feed company’s nutritionists did all the knowledge work for us. But it never sat well with our principles – we’ve been relying on the very industrialised food system we rail against!

Last week everything changed when we got a call to collect 23 tonnes of water-damaged rice (only about 2 tonnes of which was actually damaged). It wasn’t lost on us that this rice was sent from a country with much higher levels of food insecurity than Australia only to be condemned on food safety standards when the vast majority of the shipment was perfectly palatable, but much better to at least divert it to feed and keep it out of the landfill. We shared the bounty with some other farming mates, and ultimately collected 14 tonnes ourselves, which we unloaded manually one five-kilo bag at a time into our shed.rice-haul-2016

On the second day of collecting the rice, we were also offered some 14 pallets of milk from the landlord of a distributor who’d gone into (heh) liquidation. Again we shared the love and collected five pallets for ourselves, all of us grateful to the landlord who wanted to see the milk used and not wasted.


The rice stores well, and if we feed it out at 10-15% of the pigs’ normal ration (as advised in the plethora of research articles I’ve read on the topic) we have enough for nearly two years. The milk will last a couple of months if fed out at up to 20% of their ration. We actually live next to a dairy and have been discussing buying milk directly from him as we would pay the same as we were paying for pellets (50 cents per litre, and we pay 50 cents per kilo of pellets) for a higher quality feed, while supporting one of the many struggling dairy farmers in Australia (he’s been paid as low as 25 cents per litre this year). So if more waste-stream milk doesn’t come our way we have another source of milk, a near-perfect feed for pigs as it contains the essential amino acids needed for optimal health, fertility, and growth.

Inspired by all this salvage feed, I contacted a local free-range egg farmer we know and have planted the seed with him to get their egg seconds as well, which he said he’s happy to barter for pork (when the other pig farmers who take some don’t get in first!).

This windfall of salvaged feed sent me back into a whirl of planning for 2017 – I do love a good spreadsheet – and we’ll be adjusting a few priorities now that we’re entirely reliant on salvaged feed.

For a starter, building a shed near the pig paddocks with a 20-foot container to store dry feed in a rodent-proof box has jumped up the list. While we wait for our oaks to produce for the pigs, we’re also keen to collect acorns and chestnuts in autumn and dry store them in the container to feed out, in this case not so much diverting waste as using a wasted resource that is abundant in our region.

The tractor we’ve wanted to buy for a few years but just couldn’t fully justify in a system we are physically capable of running manually (for now – ask again in a decade!) has also climbed the priority ladder. Offloading many tonnes of feed by hand is neither desirable nor sustainable when it’s our regular feed source. One mad week of offloading nearly 20 tonnes made us feel proud and strong, doing it regularly would quite likely make us feel dumb and tired!

A critical point about the shed and the tractor is that we can afford them because we just erased a significant feed bill from our budget – as with all things, taking on more labour ourselves rather than outsourcing it to others frees up more cash to invest in infrastructure and equipment.

But on that labour point – dealing with salvage feed is significantly more labour-intensive, and it also usually comes with a level of packaging waste that ultimately costs us as well. In the case of the rice bags, we have to pay if we need to deliver rubbish to the tip more than once per month. And there’s the extra time and labour to unpackage the rice and the milk, as well as milling and soaking the rice to make it fully digestible by the pigs. Some of this is a nuisance and is a hidden cost if you’re not paying attention. I’ve adjusted our business planning spreadsheet to fully account for the change in motor vehicle use and increase in waste disposal to ensure we know how much this ‘free’ feed actually costs us (financially – we also weigh all financial choices up against the environmental and social benefits of each decision, and salvage feed wins on every count).

The necessity of learning more about pig nutrition and carefully adjusting their rations to ensure they’re getting the best possible diet is some of the real work of farming, something that’s been lost in large-scale industrialised agriculture where the knowledge and competence to source, process, mix and distribute feed has been outsourced to another segment of the ‘industry’.

Stuart and I are both feeling excited and invigorated by our newest milestone and its requisite stepping up our skills and knowledge. It’s got us back on the case of working out an effective and productive mixed perennial and annual fodder cropping system in the paddocks as well.

There are more improvements happening with the cattle I’ll write about soon enough, where I’ll include details on the introduction of the chickens and their eggmobile out on the paddocks providing an incredible ecological service to our soils while nutrient cycling what would otherwise be ‘waste’ from our own boning room. This year we not only quit commercial grain and made it fully onto salvaged feed, we also went from being ‘paddock-to-plate’ to being ‘paddock-to-paddock’!

Bring on 2017!

Postscript: A quick note on waste-stream feed, animal health, and food safety.

Swill feeding (feeding waste feed that includes any meat product or product that has been in contact with meat) is banned in Australia and much of the industrialised world. There are some good reasons for this, as some downgraded food can become contaminated with pathogens that make animals and/or the people who eat them ill. For example, foot and mouth disease, which can be derived from contaminated meat products fed to pigs, has wrought havoc with pig production overseas. A blanket ban on swill feeding is typical of most regulation – incapable of dealing with complexity – and clear guidance and monitoring of use of swill would obviously be preferable for a small-scale farm. Meat meal is actually quite common in most pig feed (they are omnivores after all) – it is heat treated to kill potential pathogens. We have concerns about the origins of said meat (and fish) meal, so always opted out of that option in the pellets.

What I will say about the moral panic around feeding pigs swill, a practice claimed to be thousands of years old, is that it serves to protect the interests of Big Ag (whether intentionally or not) to the detriment of small-scale farmers. Intentionality is to an extent immaterial – the consequences are that a) food is wasted that could have gone to producing more food, b) small-scale farmers are forced to pay higher feed costs rather than use their labour to re-purpose waste, and c) most farms are forced to rely on monocultural grain production.

While we obviously don’t feed any swill to our pigs, we would love to see a day when sensible, safe regulations were put in place to allow swill feeding to reduce waste, increase smallholder profitability, and end reliance on unsustainable grain production for livestock feed.

The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

The New York Times recently ran a competition to write a 600-word essay on why it’s ethical to eat meat. Six runners up have been selected by a panel of judges (Peter Singer, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light), and now the public gets to vote for a winner. There are some good ones over there, and I recommend voting! I submitted the essay below, which didn’t make it into the short list…

I look forward to a rigorous debate in the comments, which I promise I’ll join in on this time (work commitments have limited my capacity to engage lately, my apologies).

The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

You ask why eating meat is ethical, and I retort, ‘the real question is how can we feed 9 billion people by 2050 sustainably and ethically?’ The answer: ‘we must grow our food in an ecosystem.’ Ecosystems are complex, and animals are merely one part of the equation – there are also flora, microbiological organisms, and abiotic components – minerals, energy, water… Restricting ethical arguments to people and farm animals merely contributes to the anthropocentric problem-solving that got us into our current unsustainable, unethical mess.

It’s a bit of privileged righteousness to read Peter Singer, become vegetarian, and debate the finer moral questions of whose interests are served by the killing and consumption of animals, when humans can live without relying on meat. It’s also a damned sight easier than grappling with the complexity of ecosystems.

We’re part of a food chain, not a constellation of highly evolved autonomous links engaged in synchronised swimming. Each link consumes others in an endlessly complex cycle – remove a link, and others must disproportionately bear the weight of the world.

Industrial agriculture has dropped such a burden on us – it is being born heavily across many ecosystems and species, including our own, but the answer is not ‘stop eating meat’, because the more important question is ‘how can we participate in ecosystems without creating massive imbalances?’ The answer is to dismantle industrial agriculture, and to do so the global north must stop eating so much meat (and dairy), stop growing so much grain for too many farm animals to eat, stop growing soy and corn to insert into every industrial, processed food in existence, and eat foods farmed in biodiverse agro-ecological systems. Equally the global south must be assisted to restore their own agro-ecologies.

It’s only by exiting the anthropocentric mindset that we can understand the ethics of ecosystems – while not every component may be determined to be of equal value, each must be considered. The soil must be nourished just as human and non-human animal bodies must, water must be protected from systems of excess, and biodiversity – including crop and animal diversity- must be protected and maintained to provide natural crop protections and increase our food system’s resilience.

The ethics of ecosystems demand we eat so that we are growing our food in concert with the local environment. We would grow what fruit and vegetables are viable locally, and trade to supplement our diets with what can’t be grown locally.

Continue reading The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

Should Animals Be Off the Menu?

Last week I went along to one of the Wheeler Centre’s IQ2 debates, ‘Should Animals Be off the Menu?’ with my usual high hopes of learning something new, and in a way, I suppose I both learned something new and confirmed something old.

New: vegans can stack the Town Hall.

Old: most people don’t actually want to learn, they just want to be right.

So allow me to take you through the ‘debate’, such that it was…

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of Animal Liberation (1975), was the first speaker for the affirmative. Singer is what I usually refer to (perhaps sloppily) as an ethical pragmatist, but I gather he is more rightly classified a secular, preference utilitarian ethicist… (Although I have some training in philosophy, it’s not actually my field, so please correct me insofar as it is useful to the discussion we will have here, but not for the pure pleasure of pedantry, if you please.)

Singer opened with the arguments I would expect from him, and ones I agree with:

  • ‘we can live a healthy life without eating animals’, and
  • ‘misuse of grain to feed animals is wasteful’.

On the first point, I agree with Singer that the majority of the global north could lead a healthy vegetarian life. I certainly did for seven years of my life. I’m not sure it would solve our environmental woes given the state of industrial monocropping, industrial-scale dairy and intensive poultry raising for the majority of the world’s eggs, but he’s right, most of us could be healthy as vegetarians. As for how healthy even we in the global north could be as vegans, there are healthy vegans around (and some less healthy), but I’d be interested in research around how many are taking supplements (especially B12…), and what sustainability would really look like if we all ate fridgeloads of processed soy products.

In many parts of the global south, strict vegetarianism or veganism is clearly less healthy given lack of availability of nutrient-dense foods, but I’ll return to that point later.

Continue reading Should Animals Be Off the Menu?