Meet The Butcher Who Supports Meat Free Week, But Says Vegetarians Can Harm The Earth More

In this guest post by Laura Dalrymple and Grant Hilliard, who founded Sydney provedore Feather and Bone in 2006, which sells sustainable meat, argues that knowing where your food comes from is more important than what you eat.

Laura Dalrymple and Grant Hilliard from Marrickville provedore Feather and Bone. Photo: Sam Mooy

Nobody told us that being butchers and promoting the idea of eating less, but better quality, meat might be contradictory and lead to commercial suicide so we went ahead and developed a business doing exactly that.

In fact, we’ve followed our love of good food, interest in farming and concern for the environment and found ourselves on a fascinating journey that daily reinforces this idea.

That is, the more we learn about livestock production and meat, the more we realise the bleeding obvious which is that animals are just one component of an interconnected, natural system which is only as strong as the health of it’s component parts. For a cow to be healthy, the vegetation on which it feeds must be healthy. Healthy vegetation can only occur when the soil is healthy and that only happens when the land carries the number of cows it can sustain without intervention. Which generally means less cows which, in turn, means eating less of them.

What you’re actually eating isn’t cow, it’s soil.

Which is itself the result of innumerable, dynamic, bio-chemical processes. Healthy, balanced soil is a cranking engine of microscopic destruction and creation which is brimming with nutrients and pulsing with life, all of which is passed up and down through the roots of the plants it sustains in a symbiotic movement. The best farmers know how to orchestrate this movement to the advantage of the entire system in which the cows, for example, may be seen as merely the horn section.

Once you see things this way, there’s no going back and the world is revealed as a network of natural systems, none of the parts of which can be improved or sustained unless the whole is considered in the process.

So now, eight years or so down the track, we find ourselves scratching our heads and thinking that, instead of selling meat, what we’re really selling is soil – the concentrated essence of the goodness that is inherent in healthy, vibrant soil. Which is a bit peculiar for a butcher.

That brings us to Meat Free Week which started on Monday, March 24, and which, at first glance, looks like the kiss of death for yours truly.

Meat Free Week is brought to you by Lainie Bracher and Melissa Dixon and funded by Voiceless.

Voiceless, along with The Australian Conservation Foundation and Bowel Cancer Australia, is also one of the three recipients of the money raised in donations during Meat Free Week.

The stated aim is as follows.

“Meat Free Week is a national campaign dedicated to raising awareness of how much meat Australians eat and the impact eating too much has on your health, both individually and as a nation. It also intends to directly spotlight the negative effects over consumption of meat has on the environment and the impact it has on the welfare of animals.”

Our problem is that, while we obviously want you to flock to our door and reward us and the producers we represent for our hard work by showering us with gold, we are fundamentally in agreement with the idea of eating less but much better meat.

Australians are the third highest per capita consumers of meat in the world and 90% of the pork and chicken we eat is factory farmed. The health, environment and welfare implications of these statistics are chilling and there’s no question that this consumption is unsustainable from every perspective.

We applaud any initiative to encourage Australians to break out of what Sandor Katz calls the ‘confining and infantilising dependency of the role of consumer’ by questioning where their food comes from and how it is produced.

However, we do have a bone to pick with Meat Free Week because the concerns it’s designed to address apply exclusively to grain-fed and finished ruminants and factory farmed animals. These issues are NOT present in sustainably-managed livestock farming.

In addition, many of these issues – land clearing, biodiversity, water shortages, habitat-loss, pollution – are particularly severe in the intensive, monocultural production of crops.

So, while you might feel pretty proud of yourself for going without a steak for a week, you might feel a little less useful if you discovered that the grains, cereals and vegetables you’ve been eating are produced from inert, lifeless soils and a system entirely dependent on chemical intervention in the form of herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers.

We’d actually go one step further and suggest that, instead of Meat Free Week which directly undermines those of us trying to provide an alternative to the factory farming model, we propose a Where Does My Food Come From Week where the challenge is to trace the provenance of everything you eat and the way it was produced.

This is the quest that led Michael Pollan to write The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Jonathan Safran Foer to write Eating Animals. Actually, most of us would have tremendous difficulty just tracing the origin of what we eat in an hour so it might just have to be a Where Does My Food Come From Day.

If the objective is to make people think, question, become better informed and take more responsibility for the food we consume then we think that the exercise of trying to trace the origin of the food we eat in a day – meat, veg and grain – would be an ideal project.

We suspect most of us would be surprised by the lack of transparency in food labeling and marketing, the inconsistency in food production regulations, the impacts of monocultural crop production and the scale of intensive farming.

Do you know where your food comes from? Photo: Getty/ Dimas Ardian

Most importantly, we hope that Meat Free Week can move us to the point where all of these areas of concern – excessive meat consumption, poor animal welfare, environmental degradation and so on – are understood as symptoms of a discordant whole.

Whether we like it or not, we, all of us, are intimately connected; the bee and the flower it visited yesterday, the cow and the grass she ate today, and you, and me, and the meal we’ll share tomorrow.