Meat is as ingrained in Australian culture as VB, thongs and kangaroos. Ask any foreigner to utter an Aussie phrase and chances are it’ll have something to do with throwing a meat-based product on the ‘baahh-bee’. So when this devout vegan starts touting the idea of removing meat from your diet, you could be understandably forgiven for flicking the off switch.
But please keep reading – I assure you, this isn’t one of those articles.
Many believe that humans are carnivores, that meat is an essential part of a healthy diet and vegans are emaciated, malnourished hippies. But the reality to which so many people are coming to is that animal products at large are unhealthy – to our bodies to the planet and, hmmm, just a little bit to the animals slaughtered.
That’s not to say we must all become quinoa-munching, kale-crunching vegans tomorrow, but it is vital for us all to become more aware of the significant environmental and health impacts of this industry and of a diet high in meat and dairy.
Melissa Dixon migrated northwards from Sydney and the fast-paced world of media. The fashion industry, celebrities, the glitz and glamour and the unethical lifestyles of that scene can induce a certain blasé ignorance, an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality that overlooks the reality of a given issue.
“Working in publishing, there’s a lot of leather,” Melissa recalls. “It’s just written off as a by-product. As a vegan, it was the first time that I thought, ‘what are the consequences of the choices I’m making?’ I was really outraged.
“I began ranting and raving and carrying on. My husband, Larry, said, ‘you’re not going to convince anyone carrying on like this, you need a different approach.’”
Melissa’s initial thoughts were to lobby restaurants in her newly adopted home of the Byron Shire to develop more vegan options on their menus. Working with friends Sheri Hutchings and Lainie Bracher, she developed a business plan and proposal for the concept. But the idea would unravel before it had even got off the ground.
“I was having dinner with a friend of mine who happens to be editor-in-chief of Delicious and Masterchef magazines,” Melissa remembers, “and she said to me, ‘no one cares about you (as a vegan). You’re one percent of the population, these are business people – it’s just not going to fly.”
A different tack was called for. But how could Melissa and her team convince the meat-addicted population of Australia that what they were doing was wrong?
When Melissa first launched Meat Free Week, with a grant from Voiceless, the Animal Protection Institute, it was from a personal perspective. A vegetarian herself, she was keen to advocate an end to animal cruelty and this was her impetus. But for this, only the second year of Meat Free Week, she realised that, to connect with a wider audience, she would have to put her own scruples on hold.
Meat Free Week isn’t about converting people or preaching animal rights. Yes, cruel, industrialised farming, battery hens and so on are taken into account, but this is only part of the three-fold message.
“What Lainie always says, that I love, is that, ‘it’s our job to start people on their journey.’ Different people will hear different things. Some people will hear a more extreme message, without a doubt, but others will begin to investigate for themselves. So if Meat Free Week can start people on that journey we’ve been successful. If you’re going to drink dairy, eat meat or wear leather, do it – that’s fine – but do it knowing the full ramifications of what’s involved.”
More and more scientific research is proving beyond question that a diet high in meat and dairy is unhealthy, leading to obesity, heart disease, cancer and many more health problems. Added to this, the environmental impacts of this grossly over-commercialised industry are horrific; toxic runoff from pig farms destroys aquatic ecosystems, massive tracts of old-growth and rain forests are clear cut for livestock and their food and greenhouse emissions from factories, transport and over-gaseous cattle are higher than in any other single industry worldwide. We eat three times as much meat today as we did less than a century ago – and it’s killing us.
“I just received a beautiful email from a personal trainer. She’s going to sign up her and her clients to do the challenge. She said, ‘my father died of bowel cancer 35 years ago, just before I was born.’ This year, we were questioning whether we made the right decision in broadening the message, but when we receive emails like that we realise that we’re reaching people we never would have before.”
There is another dimension to Meat Free Week, and that is as a fundraiser. Those signing up to the Meat Free Week campaign are asked to raise sponsorship from colleagues, friends and family to donate to their choice of three worthy causes that embrace the three aspects of the event: Voiceless, for the animals, the Australian Conservation Foundation, for the planet, and Bowel Cancer Australia for the health issue. This is a very strong and poignant aspect of the event, bringing much-needed funds to these upstanding organisations, but there is an ulterior motive, as Melissa explains:
“The reason we have fundraising is that if people sign up, it’s not really about the money. It is that, if they are just doing a Meat Free Week for themselves, then do they need to talk to anyone about it? Probably not. But if they’re having to ask people to donate their money to a cause, they’ve got to tell them why. One of those messages, whether it’s the environment, health, the animals or all three, has got to have resonated with them, they’ll be passionate about it and will want to talk to people about it.”
The two-girl team of Melissa and Lainie has poured countless volunteer hours, gallons of stress and gigabytes of thought into Meat Free Week, and it’s paying dividends. With the support of celebrity chefs, TV stars and media figures, Meat Free Week is expanding, rising through print and social media to reach the greater Australian public, not to make them give anything up, but simply to make them think. As for next year, they have global domination in their sights and Britain will roll out it’s own Meat Free Week.
For our own sakes, we need to become more conscientious of our food sources. Meat Free Week endeavours to be that trigger, to give the public access to information, education, alternatives and reasons to reduce our consumption, take a breather for a week and, if they haven’t embraced a vegan diet, to return to meat eating with a far greater awareness of the effects on themselves, the animals and the earth.
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Mar 16, 2014