• Sarah Hyland

Boomers on the Barbie

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Four white boomers. A mob of eastern grey kangaroos ©Getty Images

Why this blog?

The challenge to provide protein in a sustainable fashion to the growing popluation is material. Diversification of protein producing enterprises, beyond domestic livestock, needs to be actively considered. Australia is in a unique position to meet these challenges and to simultaneously solve crises in food security, nutrition and biodiversity as well as introducing an additional revenue stream for our producer and graziers.

Economist Ross Garnaut published his Final Climate Change Review for the Rudd Government in 2008. He recommended commercial use of alternative breeds of livestock such as kangaroo as a feasible way to address this challenge. For this to be a succesful inclusion into our grazing and consumption reportoire, Australians would need to embrace kangaroo as a meat option in their diet. That means overcoming barriers such as farm management issues and consumer resistance based on a variety of social and cultural reasons.

It is apparent that other countries have successfully embraced provincial and highly adapted flora and fauna to sustain both their communities and their environment.

Please consider

Many situational and temporal similarities exist between the reindeer of the circumpolar north and the Australian kangaroo. Whilst the popular image of lovable reindeer pulling sleighs for Santa Claus does not stop locals from utilising this indigenous species, Australians appear gun shy to use this perfectly adapted and abundant animal as a source of sustainable food

Feeding the world a nutritious and sustainable diet has never been a more pressing issue. With many more and wealthier mouths to feed by 2050, agriculture’s impact is only going to become more profound. There is a need, then, to look more studiously at how our local and well-adapted food sources might sustain and serve us as they served and sustained the first peoples over the last 50,000 years.

Beyond Santa’s Sleigh

The indigenous Sami live in the northernmost parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia. Their diet has long been comprised of local meat (specifically reindeer and moose), fish and berries. A hardy herbivore, the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are nomadically herded by the Sami and roam semi-wild on pasture. No part of the beast is wasted - meat, hides, antlers and bones are put to good use.

Krasnoye, Russia. Each winter the herders corral their reindeer into open-air pens for sorting and selection.

The species size, multilayered fur coat, respiratory bone structure, adaptive hooves, UV vision, efficient vitamin D metabolism, docile nature and migratory habits are all adaptations that allow them to thrive in areas above the northern tree line in the Arctic tundra without inflicting damage on the ecology.

Reindeer meat is a healthy choice with a low impact on the environment and reindeer dishes are mainstream fare in Scandinavian countries.

Oslo, Norway. Reindeer and juniper berry pizza.

The sustainability of foods are increasingly more important drivers for consumers. As a result, the EU is working to better organise the value chain and develop premium reindeer products for international trade that are sustainable both ecologically to the region and economically to the herders.

Meanwhile, in Australia

Kangaroos are perfectly adapted to not only survive but thrive in Australia’s harsh, dry conditions. They require little water and efficiently manage their energy reserves through their unique locomotion and internal water absorption system. Thanks to agricultural development and associated reduction of dingo numbers, kangaroos live an almost predator free existence. When populations are controlled, kangaroos tread lightly on the environment.

Kangaroo meat’s nutritional profile is strong, offering a good source of lean protein with high levels of iron and zinc and is a good source of B group vitamins. Kangaroos played a critical role in the survival of the Aboriginal people for over 50,000 years and of European settlers in the late 18th century.

Loose in the top paddock.

Kangaroos are now so plentiful in numbers that they are considered to be a pest. Ironically, an overabundance of kangaroos further harm the rangelands by reducing vegetation cover, making small native mammals, reptiles and insects more prone to predation and thereby reducing biodiversity overall.

Conservation culling is a practice designed to reduce kangaroo numbers to protect biodiversity in rangeland areas. The national code is there to ensure kangaroos are harvested in a humane fashion, and that kangaroo populations remain ecologically sustainable.

It would follow, then, that this presents an opportunity for this perfectly adapted and nutrient rich species to be commercially developed at scale. Wild caught, processed, and packaged kangaroo should be on our plates at least twice a week.

Sadly, this is not the case. So what’s the hold up?

‘I’m a kangatarian’ isn’t a pickup line, mate.

Kangaroo (and native food consumption in general) has been fallen in and out of fashion amongst Europeans since settlement. The colonials of the day supplemented their salted meat, flour and tea with fresh ingredients such as fish, oysters and of course, kangaroo.

Between surges of nationalism where native food was back on the menu, kangaroos was considered a paupers food – for those who could not afford butchers meat. Indeed the world wars and alliance with Britain meant a return to ‘Empire food’.

Roo is on the baggy green.So is wheat, lamb and mutton.

Kangaroo was chiefly found in dog food tins until the 1980s when a native food resurgence was driven by gourmet chefs. Today, however, moral opposition exists around the eating of kangaroo, stemming from a nationalistic and perceived cruelty point of view. As an emblematic national icon, the cultural distaste for such an activity can be palpable.

Geography (and history) is destiny but we could evolve

The evolution of the indigenous Sami of the north and their integration with later waves of Nordic immigrants has taken place over thousands of years. Whilst not free of conflict, there are commonalities , shared cultural features and simple necessity that enabled acceptance of local food in the mainstream diet.

The European presence amongst indigenous Australians is not only a comparatively recent event but one of cross equatorial and hemisphere differences. The cultural gap is mind-numbingly vast. So much so, the British explorers of 1770 declared the land to be terra nullius , a legal fiction that was not overturned until 1992.

The first fresh food people. This is a watercolour created by Joseph Lycett in about 1817.

Research designed to investigate drivers, tensions and barriers to kangaroo consumption amongst Australians shows that kangaroos have a complex image. They are seen simultaneously as pests, cute, anthropomorphic, iconic, exotic, specialty, healthy and environmentally-friendly food.

The idea of kangaroo meat simply being an environmentally friendly protein option is not the deal-maker that gets kangaroo on the dinner table in Australia. Some suggested approaches include making a concerted effort to sell it as a high quality exotic meat to Asia or include it more forcefully in haute cuisine domestically whilst addressing the perceived cruel harvesting methods. We forget that respect for culture and social justice forms an essential part of sustainability. Something missing, which may indeed assist in bringing kangaroo meat into the consideration set, would be for those amongst us whom the kangaroo served well for tens of thousands of centuries to be brought into the discussion. The exclusion of Aboriginal people from conversations and policies concerning Australia's wildlife including kangaroos must end. Aboriginal people hold traditional knowledge about kangaroos, and the Australian landscape, which would contribute to improving sustainability and embedding the role of the kangaroo in a uniquely Australian diet.

Sydney, Australia. BBQ kangaroo fillet with roasted vegetable salad.

The opportunity to embrace our supremely adapted kangaroo as our national dish, as the northern Europeans have done with the reindeer, is one we might better grasp. We could learn from engaging with what we have in the well evolved ecology of our unique continent, and make an intelligent protein provision evolution on our own terms.

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