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Stirring the possum - eat to save the planet

By Geoff Russell - posted Thursday, 13 November 2008

Adelaide’s Hilton Hotel recently (October 30) hosted another in the South Australian Department of Environment’s “Stirring the Possum” series. “Eat to Save the Planet” was a hot topic and booked out within days of its announcement. The main speaker was Hilton and TV celebrity chef Simon Bryant. Others on the panel were permaculturalist Annemarie Brookman, Outback Pride co-creator Mike Quarmby and Balance Carbon Director, Dr Tim Moore.

Bryant was fascinating. I don’t watch his TV program, but this guy has thought about food a great deal. Among his more perceptive comments was that eating local is a two-way street. We live in a country that has milked the Murray down to mud to increase food exports. Should our motto really be “eat local, export global”? Of course, it is one thing to produce food to alleviate global food shortages but quite another to take that food and transform it into marbled beef for rich overseas consumers.

Quarmby and Brookman both have interesting personal stories of building solid businesses out of food in ways that are vastly different from the agribusinesses which fill our supermarkets. Think bush tucker and farmer’s markets. Moore was introduced as a boffin to add some now familiar graphs of greenhouse emissions to the mix.


What was missing from the event was almost anything relevant to the subject matter of the title.

Bryant gave “food miles” plenty of air time, but, as a questioner inconveniently pointed out towards the end of the event, food miles are just 10 per cent of greenhouse emissions. Missing was any discussion about whether organic food production, clearly favoured by the panel, can both save the planet and feed its inhabitants.

So why can’t organic farming cut it? Plants need nitrogen to make protein and there is a gap between the amount of nitrogen sucked from the sky by bacteria in some plant roots and the amount of protein consumed by the 6.7 billion punters. The gap is currently filled by artificial fertiliser, anathema to organic farmers, but without which scientists estimate that 3 billion people would not just be hungry, but dead.

Instead of serious attention to big issues, we got a focus on personal actions with no consideration of their scalability.

Consider kangaroos, praised by Bryant as having a small eco and welfare footprint and very much flavour of the month following their mention in the Garnaut review. Missing was the tiny gotcha that the yield of meat cuts from a kangaroo is just 1.5 kg with the rest being fit only for the kind of processed meat which the World Cancer Research Foundation is advising people to totally avoid because it is an even more potent cause of bowel cancer than ordinary red meat.

Apart from providing little food, we rarely manage to kill the annual quota of around three million kangaroos anyway. Why not? It seems that driving round all night in a 4WD shooting roos in the middle of nowhere isn’t high on the list of cool jobs. As for the eco-padprint, those kangaroos may indeed have soft pads, but try kicking the tyres or paying the fuel bill of a ’roo shooters 4WD sometime.


By contrast, we easily manage to kill 455 million chickens annually and each one produces a similar amount of meat to a kangaroo. Would kangaroos be environmentally benign if we had the 2.5 billion animals that would be required for an annual kill of 455 million to replace chickens? Absolutely not.

Then there was the cheese incident. The Hilton Foyer was filled for the event with organic food displays with a number featuring cheese. Given that the dairy industry is far and away the biggest milker of Murray Darling Basin water, and a grass fed dairy cow can produce three times the methane of a grain fed feedlot beast, organic or not, it was no surprise when an audience member asked whether this was a contradiction.

This prompted a spirited defence of the Hilton’s cheese supplier by Bryant and then Tim Moore dropped the “V” word. He revealed he’d like to be vegan but just couldn’t resist cheese. Once the “V” word escaped, the rest of the panel shinnied up the rigging and prepared to repel borders with the usual irrelevancies: “We have always killed and eaten animals”, “We are at the top of the food chain”, “The food chain is brutal”. Any pretence at objective consideration of the real issues vanished.

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An ABC podcast of the event can be found here. Geoff has a critique of Tim Flannery's recent Quarterly Essay, "Now or Never", which will appear in the next Quarterly Essay, due out in early December.

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About the Author

Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. He has been published in The Monthly, The Age, Australasian Science, Independent Weekly and Dissent. His latest book GreenJacked has just been published.

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