Why Australians become vegans and why it matters to this farmer

According to 2010 Newspoll research sponsored by Voiceless, only 1% of Australians call themselves vegans, with vegetarians accounting for another 5%, but the reasons why people consider veganism reveal some very interesting things about our attitudes towards food.

Overall, 56% of Australians say there are one or more things that would encourage them to become vegan. These are:
• evidence that many farming practices cause stress and pain for millions of animals every year (36%)
• evidence they can be healthy on a vegan diet (35%)
• evidence that being vegan is better for the environment (31%)
• more vegan menu items in cafes or restaurants (25%)
• being vegan costing less than their current lifestyle (23%)
• family or friends that are vegan (20%)
• more vegans in general (17%)

The research also found that “47% of Australians think making cows pregnant every year and taking their calves from them to obtain milk is unacceptable”.

Veganism is the canary of the disconnect between farmers and other Australians. Those who choose to avoid eating the food we produce on the grounds of morality are telling us we are falling short. Some will have made their minds up but most Australians are quite receptive to the true story.

The good news is I don’t think there is a large gap between mainstream dairying practices and what most Australians perceive as “ethical” farming. I do think we can bridge it if we find a way to work with others who share our passion for animals. We must also learn to talk about it with confidence and pride.

Charlie Arnot of the US Center for Food Integrity wrote an excellent post on just this topic today, which includes this comment:

For far too long, many in this discussion have resorted to attacking those who don’t share their beliefs – an “us vs. them” mentality that limits the opportunity for meaningful discussion about complex food issues. This polarizing debate is unfortunate and unproductive. What would be far more beneficial is an informed discussion of food system issues that will allow us to meet the growing global demand for food, while decreasing our impact on the environment and assuring responsible farming.

Just as a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is a sound strategy for good nutrition, a balanced discussion of the complex issues related to food is a sound strategy for making good decisions on food policy.

I learned a great deal from agricultural leaders in Australia and I look forward to learning more. The open exchange of ideas makes everyone better. I pledge to use that same approach to other issues in the coming year. The next time someone raises a concern about today’s food system I’m going to welcome the question, encourage a discussion and learn more about the issue. I’m going to reject the appeal of culinary colonialism and work to assure we all have the opportunity to make informed choices about our food.

Hear, hear, Charlie!

23 thoughts on “Why Australians become vegans and why it matters to this farmer

  1. Great initiative! I’ve been through vegetarian ‘stages’ but am no longer convinced by any of the arguments for a veg*n diet (for example: poisoning of rodents and shooting of kangaroos and birds to protect grain; issues of monoculture and intensive farming, and health concerns around gluten and grain products). However I’m very concerned to minimise suffering and optimize care for both land and beast. So moves towards ethical practice in farming are good news and something I’d vote for with my dollar in the supermarket.

      • At the moment I put my trust in RSPCA branded products, and choose Free Range – even though I know some free range branded products are probably only paying it lipservice, at least it’s a step in the right direction. I also look out for local products. There’s nothing to say that a small, local farmer is any more concerned or indeed capable than a larger scale farmer, but talking to the actual farmer over a market table does tend to give you confidence.

        I appreciate that any kind of accreditation is difficult (for example, when farmers try to be as ‘low toxic’ as possible, but need to use a spray – stone fruit like peaches are a good example – and the organic sprays are worse than the non organic). I like the idea of using social media (I’ve ‘met’ a few farmers this way) to talk about farming practices and share good information – too often we only hear the news-headline horror stories.

        • Just making the choice to support products branded as ethical surely sends a signal to those of us involved in producing food, Helen. The RSPCA has not yet released a similar program for dairy. It might be more problematic as milk from many farms tends to be comingled rather than packaged specifically for one farm. Will be interesting to see how that pans out.

          I agree with your sentiments about social media – it provides an opportunity for farmers and other Aussies to discuss issues outside the normal media parade of droughts, plagues, floods and fires. Please let me know if there is any information in particular you’d like shared on Milk Maid Marian.

  2. I am a vegan, but I do love your blog and while I don’t lecture other people about their food choices I’m happy for the conversation to open up between farmers and consumers. Tammi Jonas recommended your blog to me and I always find it thought provoking.

      • I’m a food historian and spent some time working on animal agriculture. I lived near dairy farms and had a good relationship with the farmers. I interviewed lots of people about their experiences. I chose veganism for environmental reasons and because I had been thinking about speciesism and critical animal theory. I don’t lecture anyone about their food choices and there are many vegans who don’t — people are only aware of the vocal ones. I do talk to people about it if they ask, but I find that many people are uncomfortable with the discussion — they don’t want to disagree with you. Don’t know if you’ve read Tammi Jonas’s blog post this morning but it’s interesting the way that people do respond to differences of opinion. I did try the ‘happy meat and milk’ option for a while and my children drink milk bought directly. I didn’t choose this path for myself, but it is my family option.

        • That’s interesting, Adele, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts here. These can be quite touchy subjects because nobody likes being called “amoral” or “immoral” – whether they’re the farmers who grow the food or the people who choose whether or not to eat it.

          I must admit to being one of those who’s a little bit cautious about engaging with vegans because it seems such an “inconvenient” choice that the person must be quite committed to take that on. Which means they deeply disapprove of my way of life – at least that is my gut reaction. When the reasoning me kicks in, I do understand that tolerance from everyone is what’s needed.

  3. Pingback: Why Australians become vegans and why it matters to this farmer | The #Agvocate | Scoop.it

  4. Correcting misinformation about food, and sometimes this can come across as challenging someone’s choice, particularly if that choice is made on flawed information. For example, this discussion on The Conversation – http://theconversation.edu.au/ordering-the-vegetarian-meal-theres-more-animal-blood-on-your-hands-4659/
    which challenges many assumptions will be uncomfortable for many vegans to read. And while I don’t want to lecture people either, some vegan groups can be very vocal and influential, and their opinion affects public policy, which affects everyone. I respect and admire people who make ethical choices based on compasison for their fellow creatures, but I feel it’s important to rectify the idea that theirs is the superior moral or reasoned choice.

  5. Hi, I’ve actually given this alot of thought in the past few months. I’ve decided against veganism after reading both sides of the argument, but it was Simon Fairlies “Meat, A Bengin Extravegence” that made me a conscientious omnivore. I go out of my way to purchase “happy meat” as I believe the animal has had a life worth living. Overall, I think we really need to move away from factory farming (in relation to pigs, meat chickens and hens) as a priority and that’s why I often think vegan and vegetarians should “vote” for the far lesser of two “evils” (as they believe eating animals is) in order to really pressure our meat industry to shape up.

    In regards to Dairy Farming, I’m inclined to believe most farmers are good blokes after meeting some and they really do care about their dairy cows. In Australia, the vast majority of Dairy Cows seem to be happy as most graze – however, I hear farmers are starting to move towards making majority of cows stay in feedlots which would be awful.

    I don’t think anyone in their right mind could say the taking of bobby calves is an “acceptable” practice; it really is an appalling part and surely we can at least allow the baby cows to live longer and have a “life worth living”. This is why I think we should really be getting behind brands (MMM: edited brand name out because I don’t want MMM to become an advertiser’s nirvana) allows calves to stay for 2 years with their mothers and then sold as veal) or another that allows 2-4 months).

    After doing the math I’ve found out that 1.6 calves (I know it sounds horrible doing it mathematically but I tend to think way) are sacrificed for every 1 dairy cow that goes on to live a relatively “good” life (although I hear when the first calf is taken they bellow for days, the good farmers try and comfort them). That’s how I’ve made my peace with it – I’m not sure if overall it’s an “ethical” practice – at best its murky. I run a restaurant and so I have to buy conventional milk for now and support Murray Goulburn as they support Australian Farmers – but for my personal shopping I always support an organic brand – I wish other dairy farmers would change the horrible practice of killing bobby calves so young. As soon as its a financial option for my restaurant I will buy the organic milk (conventional Murray Goulburn milk is $2.30 – $2.60 whole sale, whilst the organic brand is $4.60 – personally I’m happy to pay the $2.30 extra to know that the calf had a decent life, unfortunately its not really an option for my restaurant at this point but hopefully I’ll get there.

    I hope that helped – coming from a conscientious omnivore.

    • I can tell you’ve done a lot of thinking, Amit, and it’s great to hear from non-farmers who care about cows too.

      It’s also great that you’ve met a few dairy farmers and decided we are “good blokes”. The good news is that there isn’t a move to make the majority of Australian cows live in feedlots. Free-range is firmly entrenched as the Aussie way.

      I don’t think farmers enjoy sending bull calves to market and I’m not sure about those numbers, given that 50% of calves are female and reared to maturity. Our friesian bull calves are raised by a neighbouring beef farmer until they are two years old. On the other hand, I think it’s a big mistake to leave calves with their mothers until they are two – it’s not good for the calves as I’ve explained in another post about why we rear calves away from the herd.

      Thanks again for caring so much!

      • Hi,

        I got the numbers from the RSPCA who said virtually all male calves were killed whilst 80% of females would go on to be dairy cows whilst the rest were also killed between 1-5 days. The post on why you rear calves away from the herd is interesting and I’ll definitely be finding out from farmers who choose to allow the calves to be with their mothers, on how they make it work. Given they operate this way, and they are also a business that is financially viable, I’m thinking they’ve found a way to keep the calves disease-free whilst also allowing the mother and baby to bond. My first impression is that whilst it may contain risks, as you describe in your post, it instinctively seems the fair thing to do given the bond between the mother and calf – but I’ll have an ask around on that and get back to you. It’s also fantastic your bull calves live til the age of 2!!

        • I’m sorry you’ve received incorrect information, AT. It shows there are lots of misconceptions out there about what happens on farm. I will follow this up with the RSPCA. They sometimes do respond to farmer requests for accuracy.

          Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or cure for Johne’s Disease, so those who leave the calves with the cows are taking a risk. This issue just goes to show that farmers face daily moral dilemmas. Most dairy cows may be black and white but their ethical care certainly isn’t, despite some of the rhetoric.

  6. I think your blog is great, because it gives people another perspective who want to be mindful when they eat. There is a lot of vegan stuff on the web and very little ethical meat stuff. Couple questions for you:

    How do you personally feel about killing calves at days 1-5 years old. I know you personally sell yours so they grow till 2, but where do you sit with farmers who don’t have this option? Do you think it’s a sad but necessary aspect, or do you think it can’t be justified?

    Also I’ve heard (largely from vegan websites) that the mothers bellow for days after calves are removed and sometimes never recover. This is what actually made me give up milk for a while – it did seem like we were just stealing the baby and then the milk and leaving a distressed mother to keep giving out milk. I was really surprised at the information about leaving calves with mothers and the risk of disease. Do you recommend that all calves be seperated from their mothers? And what is your personal experience with mothers who are searching for taken calves?

    • Thanks Amit!

      Sending calves to market at less than five days old is not permitted here in Australia. I feel for farmers who don’t have the option of selling their young calves to beef rearers because, yes, it is very difficult (and not always possible) to raise them all.

      We rear all our calves away from the herd for the calf’s own welfare. You may have already read my blog post on just this topic but, if not, you can read why we do at: https://milkmaidmarian.com/2012/02/10/why-we-raise-calves-away-from-the-herd/ It’s not a nice feeling separating them but, then again, it would be selfish to take the easy option rather than do what is best for the calf. We are their custodians and it’s our responsibility to put their welfare first.

      Many cows seem unperturbed about the separation – I think the herd instinct sometimes overwhelms the mothering instinct – but some do miss their calves for roughly 24 to 48 hours. We watch them hang around the gate and feel sorry for them. Never, though, have I come across or heard of a cow that has missed a calf for a very long time (when you think about it, I guess that wouldn’t work in the wild where calf mortalities would be high). The well-being of cows is keenly watched by dairy farmers. We are with them at least twice every day and because there are only around 220 on the average Aussie dairy farm, we get to know the individuals quite well.

  7. There are some comments here that I find distressing. To rationalise that it’s ok to slaughter a cow at around 2 years of age is absurd. Do you think the animal would agree with you? It’s my understanding that the life expectancy of a cow can be around 15 years while the life expectancy of a cow on a dairy farm is at best 10 years. I’m still waiting to hear a farmer or consumer say, “Yes, we exploit animals”.

    • Farmers and cows both benefit from farming, Dennis. An Aussie dairy cow gets to roam in the paddocks, is cared for when she’s sick and, most importantly, doesn’t die a slow, excruciating death as wild cattle often do.

      And you’ll be delighted to know that we are milking 14-year-old cows on our farm, right now!

  8. Minimising suffering is noble. Compassion is a wonderful human quality. Once we have read enough to become aware of the science we see persuasive reasons to replace meat with crop food for the good of land use, for the good of health and of course in the name of compassion. The biggest plus the science has given us is that what has been claimed for so many years is now demonstrably true: humans can thrive on a plant based diet including satisfying protein requirements.
    The problem with minimising suffering is that the most powerful force is maximising profits and this equals maximising suffering. Why minimise an undesirable situation when you can eliminate it?
    As to dairying, your farm sounds idyllic compared to some of the massive factory farms but those farms are where most of the milk comes from. But why drink cow milk or eat cow milk products? Some traditions have a use by date and that date is past for cow milk. The evidence is massive as to why we are better off without it though of course it is great for calves. Calves need triple the amount of protein as baby humans. Calves should have that, not humans. After weaning we don’t need milk at all. I will leave you to find the sources on the web like
    notmilk.com – a site that contains a voluminous amount of research studies that show the damage cowmilk does
    and a site that keeps abreast of cow product and other research:
    http://nutritionfacts.org/index.php?s=milk
    The facts as to the environment, pollution and exploitation of cows, keeping them pregnant, taking their calves, killing the males ( in a lot of farms) etc is enough for some to walk away from cow milk without looking further.
    Kind regards,
    Ralph Graham

    • Hi Ralph,
      You raise a lot of points here. The sad but inescapable fact of life is that everything living has to die. Farm animals suffer less than their wild counterparts.Even so, it is terribly sad to see them go.

      Thanks for the compliment regarding our farm but it’s actually quite unremarkable. We are very average for Australia, where anything approaching the scale of a “factory farm” is incredibly rare.

      Our calves don’t miss out on milk. Cows produce enough to feed them and us as well!

      If you’re interested in finding out why we rear the calves away from the herd, have a look at https://milkmaidmarian.com/2012/02/10/why-we-raise-calves-away-from-the-herd/

  9. I grew up on a crop farm so we only had milking cows for the house. The calves would be penned overnight so the cows could be milked in the morning after which they were reunited with their calves. I never knew about calves being taken away, let alone killed, until recently.

    I very much applaud your reasonable and respectful approach. However, the case against milk on health grounds alone is enough to justify phasing out its use. i realise how that must sound to a dairy farmer but the change will have to come and the good it will do will far outweigh the pain of converting farms to cropping.

    I know people who own massive dairys in Victoria on a corporate level but I don’t wish to to and fro about the aspects of cruelty. Cattle are bred to be
    killed or milked then killed and none of it is necessary for good health or any other reason.
    I do wish you well.

    • It’s great that you care about animals as we do, Ralph.

      I’m not going to comment on the health benefits of dairy foods – people can learn a lot more from experts in the field than from me. My expertise is in the care of our cows.

      You might be interested to know that only 2% of Australia’s dairy farms are corporate – the rest are family operations like ours.

      I appreciate that some people (like you, perhaps) have a philosophical objection to the idea of working with animals and eating meat.

      On the other hand, I look at the well-being of our cows and think they are very lucky to be tended all their lives. And when the time comes, their passing is swift and humane, unlike most wild animal deaths.

      Good luck with your quest to find all the answers.

  10. Hi there,
    A while since i have dropped by. 🙂
    I just feel it should be noted that while you say that factory farms are not numerous in Australia, claims have been made that some 700,000 new born calves are killed in Australia each year. So there must be a lot of farms not doing it the way you do. Even if this figure is incorrect, Dairy Australia, the body that represents your industry admits to 400,000 yearly.
    Sorry. The mind boggles.
    And the heart aches.
    Oh, and cows don’t live in the wild. They have been bred for meat and milk so not sure why a comparison keeps getting made.
    My good wishes,
    Ralph Graham 🙂

Leave a Reply