Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why the meat industry's "resonably practicable" standards are not good enough

I've been dismayed by the national outpouring of grief in the past week or so over "our" Aussie cattle being treated cruelly by a bunch of (if you believe the hype) sub-human Indonesians. For anyone who missed it, the media storm began when the Australian ABC's Four Corners program showed "an explosive expose of the cruelty inflicted on Australian cattle exported to the slaughterhouses of Indonesia", where they have their throats cut in a manner that panders to Islamic religious beliefs (i.e. halal slaughter).

I won't add any fuel to the current fire by inserting my atheist opinion of all religious irrationality (that is to say, all religions) here.

One of the (numerous) things that bothers me about the Australian public's hysterical response to this story is that the ill-treatment of livestock is very old news - at least it is for people who genuinely care about, and give any thought to, farm animals.

For example, I've been talking to my friends about the mind-bending cruelty of Australia's live sheep export industry since I was in year 10 at school, in 1990 (the actual live sheep export from Australia to the Middle East has been going on since the 1960s, but I only became aware of it when I started taking an active interest in the source of my food as a 14 or 15 year old).

1990 was the year that I became vegetarian. My friends mostly laughed at me then, and teased me about being a hypocrite because I wore leather shoes to school. They also used to think it was hilarious to try to trick me into eating meat. In other words, they were totally unsympathetic to the plight of our nation's sheep and cattle twenty years ago.

But now, those same friends are weeping and wailing all over Facebook about how awful the newly-infamous Muslim abattoirs in Indonesia are.

Why now?

And, why point the finger of moral superiority at the Indonesians? Why not speak out against the Aussies who trained those Indonesians? Or the Aussies who supplied the slaughter boxes? Or how about the Aussie farmers who sent their cattle to Indonesia without (they claim) bothering to find out how those cattle were being treated?

The answers to those questions seem pretty obvious to me: it's very easy, and indeed comforting, to criticise an abomination that has absolutely nothing to do with you. It's satisfying to criticise foreign abattoirs, because it means you can feel good about yourself without having to change your own behaviour one iota (except maybe taking 30 seconds out of your busy-busy schedule to add your name to an online petition).

But the reality is that livestock are quite often treated with comparable disrespect and cruelty right here in Australia. The biggest difference is that we Aussies tend to use a less hands-on approach than the Indonesians. For example, the Indonesians hit and kick cattle, whereas we Aussies just leave cattle to bake in often treeless paddocks; then we truck them over long - sometimes vast - distances in "cattle trucks" (a term which is synonymous in our language with extreme discomfort); and when it comes to getting the beasties to move when they baulk at the abattoir, we use electric prods: a far more civilized approach! (I'm using the term "civilised" here in much the same way that Derrick Jensen uses it, i.e. not as a term of endearment). 

I've addressed this issue before on my blog, at which time I provided a few examples of the unpleasant things that many of our farmers routinely do to their land and their livestock.

The response to the type of criticism I'm levelling here is almost always along the same lines (the following quote comes from Becca): "If an animal was stressed in life then it has an adverse effect on the meat quality, so it is in the best interest of the processing plant to assure the animals go as calmly as possible."

The old argument that "people always do the right thing because it's really in their own best interest!" is about as fresh and as watertight as a rotting carcass. 

It is true that acute pre-slaughter stress in animals does cause tougher meat.

But, a quick Google search reveals that tough meat is not exactly unheard of out in consumer land. In fact, plenty of people routinely buy tough, cheap cuts of meat from supermarkets all over Australia, without ever giving a thought to the mental state of the animal (which, of course, is completely and conveniently unrecognisable once it ends up in a neat plastic package on the supermarket shelf).

Furthermore, Australian scientists D.M. Ferguson & R.D. Warner readily acknowledge that "Stress is the inevitable consequence of the process of transferring animals from farm to slaughter". This observation was published in Meat Science - a peer-reviewed journal of the American Meat Science Association, which is hardly a hot-bed of animal rights propaganda.

Ferguson and Warner also state that "ongoing improvement in stock handling, handling facilities and stock management must be encouraged" - even though such improvements are "dif´Čücult to achieve because of economic and behavioural (human) issues".

Money talks, and many (probably most) Australians are content to support inhumane farming, transport, and slaughtering practices with their hard-earned cash. 

If humans are treated badly at abattoirs ... imagine what the animals are likely to experience.

Here's a slightly different way of thinking about the Australian meat industry:    

Work-related injuries and illnesses in the Australian meat industry occur at a rate of four times the average of all workplaces

If the Australian meat industry's employees experience such a poor outcome - what does this imply about how the industry treats the animals that go there to be killed?

One of our local abattoirs is renowned for (inadvertently) breaking the legs of sheep and goats prior to slaughter (I've been told that the problem is caused by poorly maintained wooden ramps). When one of my friends spoke to an employee of the abattoir about this problem, his response was dismissive. As he pointed out to her: the animals would be dead in 48 hours anyway, so what's the problem? In any case, he said, a certain percentage of broken legs was inevitable.

Another abattoir (where a 17 year old slicer died in a bizarre incident involving a sharp knife) was accused of "substandard training, understaffing, lax safety procedures and bullying".

In response, the abattoir claimed that the training and supervision it provided was ”reasonably practicable”.

"Resonably practicable" behaviour has many chilling implications when it comes to killing animals for profit (and let's face it, modern abattoirs exist to kill animals for profit).

It seems apparent that most (if not all) of the horrific accidents that happen at abattoirs are entirely preventable. But these accidents continue to happen anyway.

So, I can't help but wonder: if abattoir workers frequently injure themselves horrifically by accident - then what on earth do they do to the animals (either by accident, or through carelessness, or as a result of fatigue, or poor training, or stupidity, or malice, or because the facility is poorly designed or maintained or whatever).

From what I've read, modern abattoirs typically kill and process about 250 head of cattle per hour, or about 1 every 15 seconds. I've never met anyone (and I'm not sure I'd want to) whose ambition in life was to slaughter hundreds of animals every day, but I imagine that doing such a job would either attract, or be left to, people for whom the welfare of farm animals is not a pressing concern.

It's no coincidence that the footage of some of the most grievous cruelty to animals - which just occasionally leads to public outrage, and some kind of action - is usually filmed covertly by animal welfare groups such as Animals Australia. (Animals Australia reportedly provided the "explosive" footage of the Indonesian abattoirs which was screened by Four Corners).

Inevitably, the meat industry cries foul and claims that the animal welfare group was somehow unfair in their (mis)representation of the issue.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the meat industry never seems to cop any accusation of animal cruelty on the chin. Rather, they typically blame some "rogue" element within the industry, or, as in this latest Indonesian incident, they use the pathetic and implausible excuse that they were ignorant of the true situation. (Ignorance is not accepted as an excuse in a court of law, and, in my opinion, it's an equally lame excuse for sending the animals you claim to care about to a fate that could fairly be described as torture).

So, here's what I think could be a partial solution to a number of problems within the meat industry: the provision of 24 hour webcams in abattoirs.

The provision of live footage means consumers could see precisely what they're buying; animal welfare groups could monitor the operations to their hearts' content; unions and Workcover could keep an eye on labour conditions; and the meat industry could prove itself to be as clean as the driven snow (or, alternatively, it could be motivated to lift its game quick smart).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Extreme Weather": now playing at a venue near you!

I watched Gardening Australia last night, and was struck by the comments of two of the presenters - one who's been experiencing record dry in the west, and one who's been experiencing record wet in the north of Australia:

JOSH BYRNE: When I laid out my native garden in April of last year, I wasn't expecting it to be the driest winter on record in Perth, followed by the hottest and driest summer on record. [...]

LEONIE NORRINGTON: I created this [garden] bed in preparation for the dry season and optimistically planted some vegies. However in the meantime, Darwin had its biggest wet season on record - more than 3 metres of rain. Sadly none of the vegies I planted survived.


Back in 1991 (which was twenty years ago, for anyone who might be in a time warp) a report on agriculture by the Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Group was submitted to Australia's then Prime Minister, RJL Hawke.

Page xii of the Preface of that report (which has been sitting on my bookshelf for two decades) yields some pure gold political rhetoric (a.k.a. total bullshit):

"The Prime Minister requested that the deliberations of the Working Group be guided by four fundamental goals to which the Government was firmly committed:
  • improvement of individual and community well-being and welfare that does not impair the welfare of future generations;
  • the provision of equity within and between generations;
  • recognition of the global dimension; and
  • the protection of biological diversity and the maintenance of ecological processes and systems."
I first read the above as an impressionable and idealistic teenager. I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry or scream or commit suicide when I think back on how naive and optimistic I was then. But I digress ...

The Working Group's 14 members included scientists, farmers, envioronmentalists, trade unionists, and public servants.

The report's findings are extensive and detailed (the document is 240 pages long, and it covers a range of topics), but, to cut a long story short, the Working Group accepted the IPCC's findings that anthropogenic global warming is real.

The Group turned to scientific studies by the CSIRO to determine the likely effects of greenhouse gases and global warming on Australian agriculture. Some examples of "the nature of changes associated with global warming" that the Working Group highlighted were:

  • an overall increase in heavy rain events over Australia
  • an overall decrease in the number of annual rain days
  • longer and more intense periods of soil aridity over large areas
  • reduced viability of fruit production areas in WA, NSW, and Vic
  • changing and unpredictable climatic patterns
  • a southward movement (to the Southern Ocean) of the climatic conditions in WA that are suitable for wheat growing
  • a worsening of already severe soil degradation problems such as soil erosion and nutrient loss
  • increased frequency and intensity of fires
  • varied regional effects, such as:
    • an increase in annual rainfall in most of northern Australia
    • a decrease in annual rainfall in south-western Australia
Just to repeat myself one more time: these were careful predictions that Australian scientists made more than twenty years ago. This information has been available - in plain English - to our national leaders for twenty years, which covers five Prime Ministers, of both genders, and from both sides of the increasingly flimsy political fence.

But, the frightening reality is that we have now passed the point in time where "record-breaking" extreme weather events are just theoretical: they've already happened in 2009, 2010, and 2011; and my money's on more extreme weather events in 2012 and beyond, both in Australia and across the world.

The reality is that "record-breaking" weather (both wet and dry) is already ruining people's gardens, destroying food production, and, in some cases, it's actually killing people, in a dramatic fashion (I'm thinking of events like the February 2009 "Black Saturday" bushfires in Victoria, and the January 2011 floods in Queensland).

Incidentally, "the rainfall that caused the January 10 2011 flooding in Toowoomba was extreme, with some rain gauge stations recording 500 year to 1000 year rainfall events" according to hydraulic engineer Neil Collins in his recent submission to the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry

And what are we doing about this situation? As a nation, we're bickering like pre-schoolers over the introduction of a measly tax on carbon, which, I might add, we've been pondering for at least 20 years. (The same 1991 report quoted above notes that "a national policy response to global warming which has received some attention is the imposition of a carbon tax" which would "vary according to whether the tax was levied on the production or consumption of fossil fuels" (p.208). Where did this "policy response" go? Straight into the dustbin of history).

I was 17 in 1991, which means I've been actively engaged with issues like climate change for my entire adult life, plus a few years. Now, twenty-something years on, I'm about as cynical as it's possible to be. I certainly can't see this latest flurry of noise amounting to anything more than the usual fart in the wind.

One day I'm sure I'll be wrong in my pessimistic predictions: serious action will finally be taken ... probably at roughly the same time that it's just. too. late.

To all the people who are opposing serious and immediate action on climate change: don't expect your children to thank you. Arseholes.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Secret Women's Business (some musings on menstruation)

Menstruation is far from my favourite topic of conversation. However, in the past six months I've had two friends (who don't know each other) each tell me excitedly about their discovery of re-usable menstrual cups. Both times, I've had to admit that I'd been quietly using this fantastic product (mine's a Keeper) for about five years. They both wanted to know where I'd first heard about the Keeper, and why I'd never mentioned it. So, I thought it was about time I joined the club, and started spreading the word.

I first heard about menstrual cups in a discussion about Female cycles over at the forum on Aussie's Living Simply in 2006.

It seems that, once women try menstrual cups, they never go back to using disposable products.

Menstrual cups represent a huge evolutionary leap from the disposable pads and tampons that advertisers would have you believe you should be screaming in the supermarket aisles for. Unfortunately, disposable feminine hygiene products are amongst the most heavily-advertised products in consumer land, with ads ranging from the embarrassingly euphemistic to the downright offensive. In fact, I think this Libra tampon ad is SO bad that it's worth sharing:

Here are some stats:

For Australian women, the average time from menarche to menopause is about 40 years (average age at menarche: 12 years; average age at menopause: 52 years).

That equates to 480 months, which, multiplied by 25 tampons per month, equates to a potential lifetime usage of 12,000 tampons. 

That, in turn, equates to a big old pile of used tampons that most (Western) women just send "away" to landfill, or worse, down the toilet.

As an aside: any woman who's heard a plumbing horror story about a sewer or septic system backed-up by tampons should be overcome with dread at the very thought of flushing one of those cotton devils down the dunny!

Furthermore, at a cost of about 25 cents per unit, 12,000 tampons cost a total of $3,000, which is not exactly small change.

Enter, re-usable menstrual cups.

I bought my first menstrual cup - a Keeper - from The Natural Company in 2006, for $55 (postage included). Five years on, my Keeper is still as functional as the day it was purchased, and it's cost me less than $1 per month.

And, since 2006, menstrual cups have only improved: they're now cheaper than they were 5 years ago (no doubt due to their booming popularity), and they come in a range of brands, sizes, colours, and materials (the original Keeper was rubber, but because some people are allergic to latex, most menstrual cups are now made of silicon).

Better yet, many of the businesses selling menstrual cups (including The Natural Company) have so much confidence in them that they offer a money-back guarantee. So there's absolutely nothing to lose by making the switch. 

If you need any more convincing, I recommend Leanne's recent blog post over at Hazeltree Farm: Bloody hell...Menstrual cups versus tampons

Now for something a little different: here's the official trailer for the Baukschow Vampire, the story of a recently turned vampire who can't bring himself to kill so he feeds on menstrual blood. It's a period piece. Mwahaha ...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A rainbow of photos: a slice of life, through my eyes.

It's cold, windy, and wet outside today.

Because it's such nice weather for snuggling up inside, I thought I'd post a semi-random selection of photos I've taken, arranged roughly by colour.

(I'm not certain how Blogger deals with large images, but I'm hoping that you'll be able to see the larger versions by clicking on the small versions below).

Many of these photos were taken within 20 metres of where I'm currently sitting. Others were taken further afield, such as the stained glass window from St Mary's church in Mudgee, and the Abercrombie caves at Trunkey Creek.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

0 to 60, in about half an hour

As a youngster, I loved colouring-in. Luckily for me, I grew up during the hey-days of the 1980s, when the prizes on offer for colouring-in competitions were, frankly, amazing.

These days, a kid would be lucky to win a corporate fridge magnet as a prize - but as a teenager I won an actual fridge (plus a washing machine, as well as literally dozens of other awesome prizes, including a flight in the blimp over Sydney harbour, and a Dragons rugby jersey signed by the team).

Anyway, one of the best prizes I won was a solar hot water system to go on the roof of the family home. That was in 1987, when I was 12, and that baby is still producing hot water for my mother to this day. (My Mum reckons that the fancy paint set she bought me for my 10th birthday - which seemed extravagantly expensive at the time - was one of the better investments she ever made).

A blast from the past: "Samantha's in hot water" (and in the local paper). I'm sure my Mum was proud, but I got teased pretty badly about this at school. Nevertheless, I was chuffed.
Now, 24 years later, I've finally got a new solar hot water system of my own, and I couldn't be happier with it.

We chose an evacuated glass tube system this time - and the tubes are fantastically effective at gathering heat from the sun's rays.

This was about 30 minutes after the evacuated glass tube collectors had been installed - and even on such a gloomy afternoon, the exposed section of the outlet pipe was too hot to touch. Love it!
One of the many things I'm enjoying about our spanking-new set up is that solar hot water systems have become a lot more interactive over the past quarter-century. In 1987, the interaction we had with our solar system was basically limited to flicking the electric booster switch on if the water felt too cool. Now, we have a fully interactive control panel which, among other things, shows you the precise temperature of the water at the collector, and in the storage tank.

The Solar Controller - for hours of interactive fun! (This reading indicates that the water in the tank - "T2" - is at 55C)
At 6.30 this morning, the tubes were icy, and registering a temperature of -1°C, while the water in the tank was 55°C. The maximum temp in the tank is 60°C (to avoid burns) - thus, the hot water in the tank lost 5° over night (for the record: nobody used any hot water after sunset yesterday). This overnight heat loss is not ideal, but, then again, 55°C is quite hot enough for a generous hot shower should a person happen to want one in the morning - using rain water collected from the roof, naturally!

At 6.30 this morning the evacuated glass solar collector tubes were icy - but not for long!
And, as soon as the sun peeps over the escarpment in the morning, the collector starts ticking up through the degrees, generally (at least while I've been watching it) at two or three degrees celsius per minute.

The sun, arriving for work at 6.30 this morning
It's now 1.00pm, and I've just checked the readings again. Although the day is currently overcast, the collector is sitting at 100°C, and the tank is sitting at its maximum temp of 60°C.

I'd almost forgotten how much fun data collection can be!