Meaty Matters – and our insistence on having beef with vegans

Meaty Matters – and our insistence on having beef with vegans

By Rosalind Moran

What gets us so riled up about diet and veganism?

I have often pondered this question, particularly since my mother mastered tragicomedy with the phrase “If you loved me, you’d eat this lasagna.” Discord based on diet is commonplace in contemporary Australia, not least due to divisive rhetoric that paints vegans as terrorists and farmers as wilfully ignorant of the ethical, health and environmental problems perpetuated by the meat industry.

In Australian culture wars, meat-eating is one of our most topical issues. With this in mind, therefore, I decided it would be well worth attending the Canberra Writers’ Festival panel ‘Meaty Matters’.

Meaty Matters purported to explore “if it is at all possible to be an ethical carnivore in this day and age.” And, in some ways, it achieved this aim. Guided by moderator Dr Norman Swan from ABC Radio’s Health Report, the four panellists each brought their own perspectives and expertise. Vegan author and entrepreneur Katrina Fox discussed her motivations for adopting a vegan diet nearly 25 years ago; former chef and food critic Matthew Evans talked about his smallholding and his scepticism of plant-based diets; nutritionist Lisa Donaldson discussed the health considerations associated with different diets; and Israeli culinary journalist Gil Hovav offered insights into perceptions of meat-eating from beyond Australia.

I confess, however, that by the time the panel was over, the most striking element of it proved to be not what was said, but rather how the panellists and moderator responded to one another and how the audience – the audience! – responded to them.

The discussion opened with Fox explaining how the logic behind her veganism comes from the desire to do the least possible harm – to herself, to animals, and to the environment. “If we can eat healthily and ethically,” she posited, “then why wouldn’t we?”

An interesting beginning, and one that could have led to an engaging discussion of cognitive dissonance, cultural values, the way government invests in and subsidises certain industries, and how much responsibility an individual has to live sustainably within an unsustainable system that gambles with finite resources. Yet what followed was a frustrating discussion that was, at times, borderline uncivil. The audience groaned and hissed at the mention of veganism, particularly when Fox was talking. Strawman arguments often went unchallenged and the ethics of meat-eating in the 21st century were barely discussed.

Indeed, it puzzles me that there was no ethicist or philosopher sitting on the panel. I was also disappointed by the way the panel turned into a thinly-veiled pile-on in which the sole vegan was continually placed in the position of the contrasting opinion; the nag; the party pooper; the one telling us we might all have to pull our heads in. It seemed a baffling choice on the part of the Canberra Writers’ Festival to include only one non-meat-eater on the stage, and a woman – liable to being belittled and talked over – at that. In this sense, the panel was deeply unbalanced: the very fact that Fox was the only non-meat-eater there made her views immediately easier to dismiss as ‘fringe’ or ‘extreme’. This was not conducive to a healthy or productive discussion.

The strawman arguments put forward were also frustrating. Keen to defend farming, Evans repeatedly emphasised that insects die in the growing of fruit and vegetables – supposedly rendering vegans’ efforts to avoid animal cruelty pointless and hypocritical. Yet he failed to engage with Fox’s point that eating ethically is not about being perfect; it’s about doing the least possible harm, both to animals and to the environment. Animal agriculture is resource-intensive, environmentally unsustainable, and frequently cruel – and, for what it’s worth, also entails the death of insects in their natural habitats. Planting crops, meanwhile, may still displace some insects, but it does notably skip the slaughter of 520-620 million animals each year in Australian abattoirs alone.

This point, however, was not one Evans acknowledged – and he also failed to adequately distinguish between the operations of his own smallholding and the nature of widescale animal agriculture in making arguments for ethics and sustainability. Regrettably, such oversights in logic went largely unquestioned.

Donaldson was also too quick to embrace logical fallacies when discussing diet and health. She made valid and valuable points about the importance of eating a balanced diet and the need to educate the public about food; however, she also repeatedly raised concerns about veganism based on anecdotal experiences in which she had encountered malnourished clients on vegan diets composed primarily of chips and fast foods. What her argument patently failed to recognise was that people can be unhealthy on any diet, and grow unhealthy through eating fast food as a vegan or otherwise. A healthy vegan diet is very different to a diet that eliminates meat and replaces it with deep-fried falafel. Similarly, a balanced diet that includes meat is different from a diet consisting only of sausage rolls and party pies. Therefore, attempting to debunk the health benefits of veganism through examples of vegans eating poorly as opposed to eating well is an inherently flawed argument. Indeed, when asked point-blank whether a vegan diet could be healthy, Donaldson acknowledged that vegan diets done well are among the healthiest options we have – but she was quick to follow this statement with warnings about eating unhealthily while vegan. This meant her comments were interesting, but often excessively bogged down by warnings tangential to the broader discussion surrounding healthy ways to eat ethically and sustainably.

Hovav, meanwhile, used humour to buoy and cajole panellists and the audience in what was rapidly becoming a heated discussion. He offered some amusing anecdotes about his love of food, the growing vegan scene in Tel Aviv, and how plant-based diets are perceived in Israel. One anecdote in particular had the audience laughing: the fact the religious edict declaring pork must not be grown on Israeli soil has led to Israeli farmers breeding pigs on land covered by raised platforms. Through such stories, Hovav proved an engaging panellist and helped diffuse some of the tension in the room.

Hovav’s arguments, however, were regrettably as fallible and emotive as those of Evans. He exclaimed how much he loved cheese, for example – to cheers and applause – and concluded that he just couldn’t imagine the world going vegan because meat was just too delicious. What is frustrating about such arguments, however, is that they are not actually arguments. “But cheese! :)” and “mmm, bacon” – meme-like comments frequently used to close discussions about diet and sustainability – are neither wisdom nor truth, and effectively mean nothing other than that the person speaking is unwilling or unable (consciously or unconsciously) to engage in a discussion about the ethics of how they eat. And on a panel billed as an exploration of whether it is possible to be an ethical carnivore in our forest-burning, temperature-soaring day and age, such an emotive, uncritical response by a panellist was deeply disappointing, and only served to further cheapen the discussion.

In reviewing this event, my own frustrations and biases are not difficult to spot. I attended the event to learn more about the intersection between ethics, sustainability, meat eating, and moral obligation; it irked me that these questions were explored so little. I also found the event striking and unsettling due to the audience’s response to the panellists: as previously mentioned, there were groans and hisses particularly in response to mentions of veganism. I even heard a woman near me mutter “shut the f*ck up” when Fox was speaking. These extreme reactions suggested to me that much of the audience had come along to see ‘vegan terrorists’ be roasted onstage, rather than to engage with the disquieting idea that humans may have a moral obligation to transition to more sustainable ways of eating – particularly people such as those of us living in affluent Canberra as opposed to in a food desert.

In short, the panel had an interesting premise, but this premise was not explored as fully as it could have been. It was also notably disappointing to see how often the sole vegan on the panel, who also happened to be a woman, was shushed, talked over, and even mocked by fellow panellists. The panel was meant to be a discussion; but in reality, it was bear pit.

Writing a review such as this one makes me wonder whether some quiet Australian will label me unpatriotic (rude), farmer-hating (false), or insist on leaving raw slabs of meat in my mailbox (pls no). In response to such a possibility, my leafy green vegetables and I have but one answer, which is that if this article – or the Meaty Matters panel topic – made you uncomfortable, perhaps you should take a look at this recent article by Dejan Jotanovic or this First Dog on the Moon cartoon. To quote First Dog: “You may think you are fine with eating meat – but if vegans make you angry then you are not fine with it at all…”

Food for thought? That depends on how easy it is to swallow.

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