Posted by Jessica Ramsden | 13/12/2019
In this extract from her award winning essay*, Jessica Ramsden reflects on the history of debates about animal agriculture and what they mean for the future of livestock in Australia.
With seemingly endless headlines like “why Australians are turning away from meat” and “the best way to save the planet: drop meat and dairy”, it is easy to feel despondent about the future of animal agriculture in Australia.
Despite the apparent shrillness of daily headlines, alarm about the ecological expense of animal source foods is nothing new. Food historian Warren Belasco traces a history of debates about food futures, revealing the remarkable persistence of concerns about meat in particular – starting with Socrates over 2,400 years ago, who “argued that domesticated meat’s lavish land requirements inevitably lead to territorial expansion and war with neighbours”.
Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, arguments were often framed in terms of the number of people able to be fed on vegetarian diets versus animal-centred diets. These Malthusian-style concerns about overpopulation leading to food scarcity persist today… but according to Belasco, so are similarly persistent themes of egalitarianism (enough food is produced, it just needs to be better distributed) and cornucopianism (humanity’s ingenuity is limitless, we will always be able to innovate our way out of trouble).
And so the cycle of debate continues.
The rapid rise of alternative protein markets also seems astounding, given the amount of shelf space and menu items given over to new plant-based products just in the last year, though it might not surprise some who saw it coming fifty or a hundred years ago. Winston Chruchill in 1932 for example, “envisioned synthetic foods, concocted from ‘microbes’ in ‘vast cellars’ and ‘practically indistinguishable’ from the natural variety,” and in 1953, the idea of synthetic foods was framed “as a conservationist reform.”
The importance of maintaining consumer trust is also not new to agriculture. In an examination of the moral philosophies underpinning modern agricultural debates, Paul Thompson notes that while agrarian lifestyles in ancient Greece “aligned personal and social interests” that gave agriculture a moral significance beyond other forms of commerce – because of the “honesty and mutual respect” required by weekly food provisioning – this was eroded by the advent of Athens as a trading state.
These historical perspectives are not intended to suggest a ‘do nothing’ or ‘business as usual’ approach, but to sharpen our sights on what exactly is different now, to be clear about why animal agriculture is worthy of a significant future, and to help us sort through the complexities of creating futures we can be proud of.
As current challenges are solved, or evolve into new challenges, the cycle of debate about animal source foods will continue, as will the influence of many other complex issues with which animal agriculture intersects – such as foreign investment, energy security, transport infrastructure, biosecurity, digital connectivity, labour, governance of water resources, and geopolitical trade disruptions.
Although it is useful to look at a bigger picture and a shared future, Warren Belasco also reminds us that “life is always lived locally, on the ground, day to day, with great differences, even among neighbours…There are as many futures as there are people”.
*Jessica’s essay won the Australian Farm Institute’s 2019 John Ralph Essay Competition
Belasco, W. (2006). Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food. University of California Press.
Monbiot, G. (2019, Jun.20). The best way to save the planet? Drop meat and dairy. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/08/save-planet-meat-dairy-livestock-food-free-range-steak
Thompson, P. (2012). Nature Politics and the Philosophy of Agriculture. In D. M. Kaplan, The Philosophy of Food (pp.214-232). University of California Press.
Wahlquist, C. (2019, Jul.20). ‘It just didn’t make sense’: why Australians are turning away from meat. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jul/20/it-just-didnt-make-any-sense-why-australians-are-turning-away-from-meat