Why are more Australians going vegetarian?

by Annelise Mitchell May 04, 2017

Why are more Australians going vegetarian?

The topic of meat, how it's produced and its effects on human health, as well as the health of the planet, has been a hot topic in my household for the past three years.
 

We once viewed using animals for food as "normal" or "necessary."

But when my husband was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a form of bowel disease, we started to look into his diet. We found a lot of research that pointed to the consumption of animal foods, especially processed meats as responsible for the disease. There were many doctors and nutritionists recommending a Plant-Based Diet to reduce the symptoms that my husband was going through. On his worst days, he could spend most of the day on the toilet. Because animal products increase inflammation in the body, we found that reducing acid-producing foods like meat, milk and cheese led to a  reduction in his symptoms.
 
My husband's health improved and so did our family's lifestyle. We all felt better. But the change to a plant-based diet was a slow process - over several years. We felt really alone on our journey.
 
At gatherings with family and friends, it was hard to explain why we were not eating meat. When we did explain, it seemed like our reasons were not being heard. It was very much a case of trying to explain something to people who were not going through the same experience, and eating animals, for many, is seen as "just the way things are." If you are unhealthy, you take medication, you don't remove animal products.
 

But staying medicated for the rest of my husband's life was not an option.

The steroids that he needed to take during "flare-ups" were putting him into the early stages of osteoporosis. The drugs gradually leach the calcium from your bones. For my husband, they also caused him to break out with skin conditions; he was unable to sleep properly and he was facing the possibility that one day he would have to get a part of his colon removed.
 

It wasn't until our older son, now 21 years old, told us that he was going completely "plant-based" that my husband and I followed suit.

My son had been watching videos on Youtube about the impact on animal agriculture on the planet and on human health. He decided he was not going to contribute any more to the problem. After watching the videos, my husband and I agreed. My younger son, 19 years old, changed when he saw that the rising tide was too big. We all researched widely, looked at the evidence and decided that if reputable scientists, doctors, and everyday people are turning away from eating animal meat and animal-based products in general, there had to be a good reason.
 

Thankfully, we were not alone in this trend.

In 2016, a report by Roy Morgan Research revealed that there is a "slow but steady rise of vegetarianism in Australia." About 54% of Australians are either reducing or eliminating their intake of animal meat, particularly red meat, such as beef and lamb.
 

What has caused some people to move away from eating animal meat?

There are 6 major factors that have put eating meat under scrutiny.
 
Increase in cardiovascular and heart disease, diabetes and other diseases
 
There is evidence of a direct link between eating animal foods, including lean meats, with diabetes and heart disease. The Australian Heart Foundation, Diabetes Australia and the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines outline how "eating less meat" is beneficial to health. The recent recommendations by the American Dietary Guidelines (2015-2020) also outlines how a diet "high in saturated fat and transfats can increase your total and LDL cholesterol levels." These organisations highlight how foods that are high in saturated fat and transfats should be eaten in moderation or limited within the die.
There is also evidence that heart disease - the building up of fatty deposits in our arteries - begins in childhood but it can be reversed by a plant-based diet. People who are diagnosed with elevated cholesterol levels or have witnessed health problems in loved ones are choosing to eat less meat and when possible, replace red meat, especially processed meats (i.e. sausages, ham or salami) with plant-based foods.
 
Increased links to carcinogens
 
After the World Health Organisation published its 2015 report that there was a "probable" link between eating animal meat and cancer, many people are choosing to eat less red meat, especially processed meats, like sausages and bacon. The American Dietary Guidelines outline that "moderate evidence" indicates that eating patterns that include "lower intake of meats" is "associated with reduced risk" of "some types of cancer".
These types of cancer include the second biggest killer from cancer: bowel cancer.
The link between bowel cancer and processed meat has been known by researchers for many decades. Study after study support limiting red and processed meat from diets, and is some cases, the completely elimination of these foods altogether.
 
Use of antibiotics and other drugs
 
The use of antibiotics to keep animals disease-free and plump has changed the way the animal agriculture industry, especially its factory farming operations are perceived by the general public. It is well-known that the animal agriculture industry, particularly factory farming, uses antibiotics in all its feed to help prevent diseases in the animals that are being prepared for slaughter.
In recent years, scientists have provided consistent warnings of an impending crisis or "antibiotic apocalypse" from "drug resistant superbugs." These scientists report that the antibiotics used in farm animal production are to blame for the crisis. The overuse of antibiotic drugs to keep animals free of diseases in the industrial process has led to the spread of anti-microbial-resistant micro-organisms. It has also led to many health conscious consumers reducing their intake of animal meats.
 
Increased awareness of meat industry's impact on global warming
 
There is also evidence that reveals the meat industry's devastating impact on the Earth's climate, its biodiversity and its entire ecosystem. We have known since 2006, that the production of animals for food contributes 30% of current CO2 emissions, and this is projected to increase with the world's population growing to 9 billion people by 2050. Having a diet rich in animal meat will no longer be sustainable or possible. The Earth only has a limited amount of grazing land, and the land that is left is quickly disappearing.
Livestock production, the growing of animals for food, and feedstock production has been identified as the single largest drivers of deforestation, habitat loss, soil erosion, freshwater use and pollution as well as multiple other areas of degradation to our ecosystem. Scientists and researchers assert that feeding massive amounts of cereals and beans to animals is a highly inefficient way to produce food for our plates. To produce 100 grams of red meat, it requires 23 times the level of grain and 660 gallons of water, or for every calorie of beef, it takes 23 calories of grain to grow it.
 
Increased awareness about abattoirs and their practices
 
The use of drones that provide a birds-eye view of what is happening on the ground reveals real-world footage of the conditions around abattoirs, as well as the amount of land that is cleared for grazing. These drones provide aerial footage of open-air pits where the waste from factory farms end up, and how this waste contaminates the local ecosystem. The drones also play a role in highlighting the deforestation crisis in Australia, where in the last three years 850,000 hectares of Queensland bush has been removed in preparation for cattle grazing. Rapid clearing at this rate is not sustainable.
 
Video footage of the live export trade, as well as the conditions inside Australian abattoirs, has also been exposed by hidden cameras. The use of these cameras in 2011 exposed the cruel treatment of Australian cattle by Indonesian abattoirs. Since then, raw footage of Australian abattoirs also show workers mistreating, and in some cases, violently torturing and killing cattle, pigs, and turkeys in abattoirs located in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. The incredibly tight and boxed-in conditions of factory farming have also caused many people to opt for either "free-range" animal meat or to opt out of the meat industry altogether.
 
Increased technology, especially youtube and social media
 
The medium is the message, and in the 21st century, new technologies have made everything transparent. With video sharing, what was once only vaguely understood is now out for all to see and decide for themselves. Youtube and Facebook have endless videos revealing the treatment of animals in slaughterhouses, as well as citizen-journalism, where everyday people are creating videos to highlight the environmental and health consequences of producing animal meat.
These individuals and groups are also using social media to expose meat industry plans and practices, causing widespread awareness about the conditions of factory farming or its impact on the environment. For example, "Say No To Blantyre Farms in Harden" Facebook page that has started a petition on Change.org to stop "cruel, intensive pig farming" in Harden, New South Wales.
 
A combination of these factors is most likely responsible for the decline of animal meat in some Australian diets. It was for my family.
 

How are food companies responding to this change?

With drops in sales of red meat at supermarkets, the animal meat industry is fighting back and demanding that any recommendations for less meat consumption be removed from dietary guidelines. Meat and Livestock Australia, the body that represents most animal meat producers in Australia, is contesting the recommendation by the Australian Government that the public eats only a "moderate consumption of red meat". To date, these recommendations have not been removed.
 
Despite the reaction of meat companies and their representative bodies, entrepreneurs in Australia and America are creating foods that look and taste like meat, but without the negative health or environmental consequences. They, like others in the general population, are creating change by replacing animal meat with products that taste as good or even better.
 
Fry Family Food Company
 
The founder, Wally Fry, created his plant-based company after witnessing the conditions that pigs endured in piggeries. After a visit to a factory farm that he himself had helped design and build, Wally decided to become a vegetarian on the spot. He, along with his family, created a "transition" food for people who were seeking to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal foods. He could see that eliminating animal meats from the diet was tough and that anything that his company made would need to taste as good or even better to appeal to the general public. The result is plant-based sausages and burgers that have the same texture and taste as animal meat but without the negative impact on human health or the health of the planet.
Beyond Meat
 
The founder Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat wanted to eliminate "some of the downsides" to the meat industry. Growing up around animals on a family farm, Brown saw first-hand the effects of the industry on animals. The harsh impact on dairy cows and the effect on the agricultural practice on the environment made Brown realise that the Number 1 thing that could positively impact climate change was the replacement of animal meat with plants. His mission is to replace animal protein with plant-based proteins in every country around the world.  
 
Impossible Foods
 
Determined to solve the world's largest environmental problem - industrial animal agriculture - Impossible Foods founder Patrick Brown decided he wanted to play a role in eliminating the demand for animal meat. Brown is quoted as saying: "Today we rely on cows to turn plants into meat. There has to be a better way." With a team of scientists, Brown recreated the natural heme that gives blood its colour and taste, and is also found in plants, and used this to create a burger that "looks, cooks, smells, sizzles and tastes like conventional ground beef." The burger, in comparison to a similar hamburger patty has no cholesterol, antibiotics or synthetic hormones. It also uses 95% less land and 74% less water than equivalent animal-based patties. The company is now on a mission to recreate chicken, pork, fish and dairy.
 
Memphis Meats
The founder of Memphis Meats, Uma Valeti, a cardiologist and medical professor at the University of Minnesota was alarmed by the growing demand for meat across the globe and the health risks associated with meat consumption. Valeti, along with his co-founder Nicholas Genovese, a cell biologist, decided that they would apply their knowledge of animal meat biochemistry and create the very same meat but without the antibiotics, artificial growth hormones and pesticides. Their "clean meat" is intended to produce real animal meat that has less cholesterol and is disease free. It also produces 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, land and water than producing animal meat the conventional way. In comparison to producing beef, clean meat will require just three calories of energy input for one calorie of meat. Their mission is to create a food system that is sustainable, for both animals and humanity.
 
With the rise of plant-based meat companies and increasing awareness of how animal meat is produced and its effect on human health and the health of the planet, this vegetarian trend is likely to continue.
 
"However scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity." Ralph Waldo Emerson
 

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Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell

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