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Why I ate kangaroo and how it could save us from swine flu

They’re killing kangaroo again in Australia, conservationists Down Under are mad and I- with firsthand knowledge of the taste of roo- am thinking if we cared more about pig welfare, we might have a bit less pandemic flu.

Let me back up a bit… to when I first heard that people even ate kangaroo. I was prepping for a trip to Australia (the one that threw off my carbon footprint for 2007) and had just written a post about food waste, when I read a new comment from my Sydney-born brother-in-law questioning whether we’d value food more if we had to grow it, catch it or kill it.

“Where I live, the land abounds with kangaroos. These were a meat source for the indigenous people before us Europeans happened along. We supplanted cattle as a meat source. Cattle are heavy, compact the ground, wreck water holes, have fatty meat and generally are not meant to be here. Kangaroos evolved here, are light, the meat is extremely lean – 98% fat free and incredibly nutritious.”

Roo meat sounded strange to me, and even my brother-in-law admitted “how can I eat such a cute animal that is on the nation’s coat of arms”, but a month later the merits of the meat made international news. Since cattle are the largest contributors to Australia’s methane emissions, a Greenpeace campaigner was arguing that if Aussie’s could switch from cattle to kangaroo consumption, it could help in the fight against global warming.

Kangaroo don’t fart methane

t wasn’t a totally novel concept- roo is commonly found on the menu at upscale Australian restaurants and even more often in European or Russian kitchens-, and in 2002, Aussie scientists suggested kangaroo could help offer a solution to help cut CO2 emissions. Besides being better adapted to the life Down Under than cattle- they have a lighter impact on the soil, need less water and are more efficient at processing native grasses – unlike cattle and sheep, which are responsible for about 15% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, kangaroo don’t emit methane.

The big news in 2002 was that researchers had isolated bacteria from kangaroo stomachs and were hoping to eventually use it in cows and sheep so they too could produce methane-free farts.

Given the huge advantages of kangaroo over cow meat- as my brother-in-law outlines: “they are abundant, they are native, they are great source of fat free animal protein, they have low impact on the land, they require little management (fences are useless to bounders), they can eat a far wider variety of grasses”- and the fact that I had not totally given up meat eating, from the moment I landed in Australia I began to scout an opportunity to eat a bit of roo.

The moment arrived while staying at the beach community of Coogee, where a local restaurant- the Deep Blue Bistro- offered to let me come film the cooking process: with only 2% fat, it is a delicate operation and involves searing to avoid any drying out of the meat. After listening to chef Jean Paul Bruteneau excitely explain how he helped advocate to change the laws to allow kangaroo to be eaten by humans (regulations were changed to allow for it in the entire country in 1993), I finally sat down to try a bit of this now much-hyped animal.

Why a flexitarian ate roo

Instead of going into detail on the flavor (you can watch me eat it on a video my husband shot), I want to now qualify that I’m not advocating eating meat. I know I’ve taken 8 paragraphs to get to this, but I have mostly cut meat out of my, and my family’s, diet (see video on our family becoming environmental flexitarians). What I’m trying to prove with my stunt is that our food system is so out of whack that one of the best options, if we are going to eat meat, is to eat things like kangaroo.

Given that I will still eat it occasionally, and about 97% of Americans and a similar percentage of Australians do on a regular basis, rather than simply try to espouse the benefits of eating less meat (see my blog for more on why going vegetarian, even just for part of the week, can help save the planet), I think it’s important we simultaneously work to shift to eating “greener” meats.

This week when I noticed a report that animal conservation protestors were up in arms about a planned cull of 6,000 kangaroo on government land, I had trouble sympathizing. I’m not promoting hunting or even meat-eating, but why is it that the killing of a few thousand of an animal that is putting at risk endangered plants, insects and reptiles (too many roo are eating too much of the scarce native grass shared by all these at risk creatures) garners so much more attention than the millions of pigs, cattle and chicken living lives of confinement, malnutrition and certain death on CAFOs (confined animal feeding operation) across America.

The ongoing kangaroo culls continue to raise international attention nearly every year. In 2008, Paul McCartney stepped in to condemn a cull of 400, arguing “there is an urgent need for action to protect kangaroos from a barbaric industry which slaughters them for meat and leather”. A death by tranquilizer darts and lethal injection after a life with complete freedom to roam across Aussie grasslands seems infinitely less barbaric than an existence confined indoors at such high densities that hormones and antibiotics are necessary to ensure survival.

Who cares about caged pigs

I’d read plenty of critiques of CAFOs- Michael Pollan explains in Omnivore’s Dilemna how they’re not only huge sources of pollution (from waste lagoons and antiobiotic runoff), but how the very nature of feedlots guarantees lives of sickness for cattle-, but given that industrial systems now produce the majority of our poultry and eggs (74% and 68%, respectively) and half our pork and 43% of our beef, I was curious who is protesting this objectively cruel and polluting system?

With swine flu still making headlines, I typed “hog farm” and “protest” into a google search to see what kind of demonstrations- pre H1N1 flu- had been staged against these big, messy operations. On the entire first page of results, the only ones demonstrating were South Dakota’s `Yankton Sioux tribe who, a year ago, had begun protesting a new pig farm near a Native American Head Start Program. Understanding the health concerns associated with living near thousands of closely confined pigs and their waste, protestors like Tony Garcia argued last month: “Wait until they start dumping (waste) and it gets into the water table. It’s going to be a health hazard in the future here.”

Garcia’s comment hit the press on April 11th, 2009, three days later the first case of swine flu was confirmed by the CDC.  A few weeks later, the CDC confirmed that the swine flu outbreak was linked to U.S. factory farms. As Wired Magazine reported, “scientists have traced the genetic lineage of the new H1N1 swine flu to a strain that emerged in 1998 in U.S. factory farms“.

Factory farming as a “serious public health threat”

It seems it’s the scientists and public health officials who, for years now, have been the biggest, though rather unflashy, demonstrators against factory farms. In 2003, the American Public Health Assocation, called for a moratoriam on CAFOs. In 2005, a United Nations task force advocated that “governments, local authorities and international agencies need to take a greatly increased role in combating the role of factory-farming“.

Last spring a Pew Commission warned about “serious public health threats” from industrial farm animal production (IFAP). “Due to the large numbers of animals housed in close quarters in typical IFAP facilities, there are many opportunities for animals to be infected by several strains of pathogens, leading to increased chance for a strain to emerge that can infect and spread in humans.”

Besides the scientists and the Sioux, I was able to find a few other pig farm protestors with a bit more googling. But neither a PETA protestor stripped naked and confined on all fours while very pregnant for Mother’s Day 2008 in London (see photos) nor the ex-Mrs-McCartney Heather Mills’ nighttime raid of an industrial pig farm to photograph and denounce their farrowing crates as “prisons” served to stimulate international debate like the killing of roo.

The Bambi effect

Perhaps our lack of perspective on the real evil in meat production is due to the Bambi effect. While living in New York where deer run rampant in many tri-state forests, I remember hearing about protests against deer culls aimed at controlling overpopulation and protecting ecosystems.

The culling of one New Jersey Park in 2008 had been protested for 8 years by those like Carol Rivielle who, echoing Paul McCartney, called it “a barbaric slaughter of our animals“. McCartney, at least, is a lifetime vegetarian, but I’m not sure about Rivielle and the 135 others in her group protesting the killing of free range animals whose meat was destined mostly for area soup kitchens and food pantries.

Obviously, our supermarkets allow us to keep our distance from the death involved with eating meat. As my brother-in-law wrote on that comment on my blog a couple years ago, “I wonder how many new vegetarians there would be if you had to kill your own meat. I don’t think I am unique in thinking that if I raised a chicken from the egg I would have great difficulty killing (murdering?) “Cheeps” and then, talk about adding insult to (fatal) injury, devouring the little beast… However, a stranger chicken, found in supermarket I can munch on without too much distress, or any at all. It’s in my head.”

While I’d love to advocate that we all just give up meat- it could cut our greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a fifth (according to the UN’s FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow-, it’s unlikely we’ll take such a drastic leap without beginning with some of the baby steps being advocated by foodies and activists alike. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman calls it “less-meatism” or “less-meatarianism“. Michael Pollen advocates “eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants“. And activists like Friend of the Earth Scotland’s Duncan McLaren summarizes: “It is becoming ever clearer that eating less meat and choosing more environmentally friendly meat – such as kangaroo – can be a significant step to cutting carbon as well as improving health.”

The problem with choosing more environmentally friendly meats: that Bambi effect. We may not always recognize it, but it’s there in the roo protests and in our own carnivorous choices.

In Australia, most kangaroo meat- while low in saturated fats and high in the anti-carcinogenic CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)- goes to feed animals rather than the nation’s more skeptical humans. My brother-in-law admitted to his own prejudices after eating roo for first time in his 50 years. “The meat lived up to all expectations for tenderness, etc. but I have not gone back for more. I am back eating stranger chicken. I have a lot of brainwashing to undo.”

Whether we live in the land of roo or simply one where factory farming is the norm (nearly all countries now), we all have a lot of brainwashing to undo.