In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond provides us a chilling historical anecdote of the Greenland Vikings: faced with an increasingly harsh climate in the early fifteenth century, a large swath of the population died out from starvation. Greenland Inuit, however, continued to live during this period. Unlike the Vikings, they harbored no cultural taboo restricting them from eating fish, which remained abundant as the climate became too cold for the grazing herds maintained by Vikings.1
In very much the same way, cultural preferences in Australia, concurrent with changes in climate, may limit local capacity to maximize long-term prosperity. So-called heritage preferences livestock—that is, cattle and sheep—are resource-intensive species. With increasing anthropogenic climate change, the cost of this investment may prove too much to sustain Australian populations, just as natural changes in climate proved too much for Greenland Vikings.
The Cost of Ill-Suited Species
Close to two-thirds of Australian land has been modified since European colonization in the late 1700s, with conversion to pasture accounting for more than half of the changes.2 Of 195 million head of livestock in 2011, 52 percent of these were sheep or cattle—non-native grazing animals that have presented new physical pressures, like trampling, into Australian environments.3,4 Their introduction has led to a loss in available habitat for existing ecosystems, and, more concerning, the erosion of soil quality through increased salinity, top soil loss, and changes to soil hydrology.2 Australian livestock also average 100 days a year in feedlots, and around 7 million head of livestock are supplied with feed additives—investments that highlight the inability of Australian environments to provide enough feed, water, and nutrients for these species even at current levels of production.3
Australian agriculture is also taxing the country’s natural resources. Overall, farming practices required more than 8,174 gigaliters, or almost 2 trillion gallons, of water during the 2011-12 fiscal year, with nearly a quarter of this applied on pasture and pasture feed alone.5 Put into context, while pastoral agriculture is considered a relatively low-water farming method, it still required more water than all of national household use over the same period.
Added to this mix are the mounting pressures of human-caused climate change, which will directly affect which crops can be grown, and which animals raised, where. The fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report suggested that Australian agriculture has very little coping range under scenarios of increased warming, though a window of opportunity now exists for adaptation.6 The report also concluded that warming will increase water insecurity. Heat stress will favor many crop pests, such as the Queensland fruit fly, and invasive species, such as the gum Arabic tree.6 And heat stress that already affects livestock, notes the report, will very likely worsen in years to come.
Alongside these escalating problems, feral animal management presents a considerable investment and ecological challenge. In 2010 it was estimated that there were more than one million feral camels in rangeland ecosystems of Australia, a number that is expected to double within a decade if left unmanaged. There were also roughly 2.6 million feral goats. Both species warrant culling due to the negative impact they have on native ecosystems—something similar to grazing livestock.7,8 It has been estimated that the damage done by camels to conservation and pastoral land comes to several million dollars annually, and the Australian Government has announced that it will provide $19 million over four years for a management project.7 Unmanaged feral goats, it’s conservatively believed, cost almost $8 million annually. The goat population also hinders cattle and sheep production and requires control and research costs.9
The collision of these struggles presents a hefty management challenge to Australia’s current agricultural practices, leaving a difficult question: what do we do?
In thinking about the decline of Greenland’s Vikings, one partial answer emerges: learn from their folly and look beyond our plate.
Current livestock and crop choices reflect the western cultural heritage of modern Australia. Yet few of these species would persist in their current range without a significant crutch. At the same time, invasive species like camel and goat thrive in Australia at the expense of native ecosystems. Though the cultural preferences of most Australians favor cattle and sheep, the country has two species that are demonstratively better suited to the climate and likely to fair better with increasing climate change.
Goats are better able than sheep to survive on low-nutrient fibrous vegetation and convert it into meat protein. The diet of goats, noted for its pressure on native ecosystems, could also potentially provide ecological services.9 As rather indiscriminant eaters, goats could be used in heavily degraded environments to suppress invasive weeds long enough to reintroduce native vegetation in protected patches. Where this works, these areas could afterwards be destocked of goat herds. In the areas where it isn’t successful, goat rearing could continue, using cheap feed supply (as opposed to the grain feed supplied to cattle and sheep) for continual meat production. Camels, meanwhile, are better suited to arid pastoral activities—and are able to provide meat that is of comparable quality and nutrient content to beef, though with lower fat content.10-12 Harvesting these species for food would also link management opportunities with explicit economic incentives.7,9
It is also worth noting that both camel and goat milk are highly nutritious and provide a promise of being better suited for human consumption than cattle milk.
One key challenge to this proposal would be the need to overcome widespread cultural aversion to camel and goat meat. This would require preemptive measures of the type that Greenland Vikings did not take. Though difficult to achieve, such changes would not be impossible. In fact, kangaroos, the most iconic Australian animal, can offer insights into why that is.
A Culture of Kangaroo Meat
The introduction of kangaroo to the Australian plate provides a useful case study in which market-based incentives were used for population management. Since European settlement, kangaroo and wallaby species have been culled for a number of reasons, including leather and meat production. First legalized for consumption in South Australia in 1980, other parts of Australia opened up to kangaroo meat by 1993. (Australia has exported kangaroo as game meat since 1955.13) The meat’s leanness, along with the generally exotic magnetism of “bush tucker,” has allowed some market penetration. But kangaroo has a number of disadvantages compared to camel or goat.
For instance, because kangaroo meat relies entirely on wild harvesting rather than husbandry practices, production levels are relatively low: In 2012, only about 1.6 million head of kangaroo were harvested in all of Australia.14 Camels and goats, on the other hand, can be farmed, providing a larger and more stable supply while avoiding the ethical concerns now held about kangaroo hunting. Goats have the additional advantage of being somewhat familiar to Australians through use in Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines.
And though surveys have found that Australians often don’t know how to prepare kangaroo meat, they are aware of kangaroo’s health benefits compared to the staple red meats.15,16 These results are promising, as they suggest that Australians are receptive to the introduction of new food sources, particularly if suitable education—from production practices to recipe ideas—is provided alongside. Additionally, discussing the ecological benefits from reduced cattle and sheep stocks could help prod behavior change.