It seems hunters are not the only ones with a taste for wild meat anymore. Eating wild meat from game and pest animals is becoming more and more popular among new and often unexpected groups of non-hunters. According to Dr Catie Gressier, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Melbourne, this is very good news. Dr Gressier believes that with an ever-growing population, harvesting and eating wild meat will help make our food supply more sustainable.
So who are these non-hunters who appear to be ditching traditional farmed meat offerings and taking a bite into wild meat? Well, there’s more than you might think.
“Obviously hunters are the biggest group with about 25,000 deer hunters registered in Victoria alone. But in terms of those who are purchasing the meat, who aren’t procuring it themselves, that’s mostly health-conscious people,” says Dr Gressier. “That includes anyone from body builders who like wild meat for its leanness to paleo-dieters who have a very restricted diet. Also, lots of people who have struggled with allergies report improvements when they get back to basic food sourced straight from nature.”
According to Dr Gressier, health-conscious people are turning to wild meat for the extra vitamins and minerals. For example, kangaroo meat is widely regarded for its high B-vitamin count and for containing healthier omega-3 fats than traditionally farmed meats. This group of people are also particularly concerned with the use of antibiotics in traditional farming, preferring wild meat that has had less intervention.
Some consumers have decided the best way to reduce the impact pest animals have on the environment is to eat them. ‘Pestatarians’ therefore only eat animals that have been declared as pests and are having a negative effect on the environment, such as rabbits which destroy habitat for native animals. “Generally speaking, they [the environmentally conscious] are very ethically engaged with where their meat comes from and don’t eat any non-pest meat,” says Dr Gressier.
Pestatarians believe they are helping the environment one bite at a time. Cuisine queen Maggie Beer believes it’s the duty of all Australians to eat pests and that we can save the environment by just eating. Maggie notes that her cooking was partly inspired by gaining revenge on the rabbits that used to eat her vines.
“There’s so much media on the impact Australian livestock has on the environment. There’s the huge amount of water required to produce beef, then there’s climate change and there’s also concerns about the salination of soils,” says Dr Gressier.
This has led to a push to eat more farmed and wild native animals that tend to be less destructive to our environment compared to imported cattle and other non-native species even when they are farmed and controlled.
Another major group becoming more interested in wild and game meat are foodies on the hunt for something new and interesting. They generally have passionate or refined interests in what they eat and are happy to try new animals and new cuts cooked in different ways. Sometimes the more exotic the animal, the more willingly they will try it.
“Historically humanity has eaten nothing but wild meat. What we’re seeing now is a push back to what we see as ‘natural’,” says Dr Gressier. “Programs like Masterchef have done a lot to inspire people to explore different foods and try different animals.”
Companies such as Macro Meats have also helped pave the way in utilising kangaroo and other game meats and finding their way to supermarket stores both in Australia and around the world.
While some Australians may think of rabbit as a ‘poor persons’ food, in parts of Europe it’s considered a delicacy. The stigma from being a staple in a depression diet has had lasting effects on how we eat rabbit today. This sort of mentality is similar to how consumers hear ‘game meat’ versus ‘feral meat’ - game meat sounds a lot more appetising than pest meat. Perhaps if koala meat had the right name, the koala cull in 2015 could have led to koala meat ending up in supermarkets, creating a new industry and letting nothing go to waste. Similarly, kangaroo meat has essentially been accepted as a healthy, lean and sustainable meat in the Australian psyche and is cementing its place on dinner tables around Australian and the world.
The way we refer to different meats and animals has a huge effect on how and whether it is consumed. “I think the language itself is loaded...‘feral’ has the implication of something that was once contained and has now gone wild. In terms of meat it raises questions about things like hygiene,” says Dr Gressier.
While hunters appreciate all meat comes from the same place [a dead animal], it can be hard for an average consumer to make the connection that ‘supermarket meat’ and ‘wild meat’ is the same thing.
It’s worth mentioning another small group of people who identify as ‘locavores’. Locavores try to meet their dietary needs from their local ecosystem. It’s a demonstration of sustainability and reflects the amount of energy we put into transporting food around the world. “It’s bizarre to think about how far our food travels,” says Dr Gressier. “Given we export so much it’s strange that we still import so much food.”
In Dr Gressier’s research paper Going feral: wild meat consumption and the uncanny in Melbourne, Australia, she describes a man called Dylan who is a (very extreme) locavore. Dylan wanted meat but had trouble sourcing it because he lived in an urban area. Dylan is car-free and doesn’t eat farmed meat, but does hunt possums with a bow and arrow despite it being illegal in his state. Dr Gressier summarises Dylan’s discussion with a vegan, as follows: “[Dylan] says he requires meat for energy and could not readily survive without it considering what is available in his walk-able range. He argues that it is meat eating that has allowed for the development of the brain tissue that provides the capacity for complex thoughts in humans, including ethics. He critiques veganism on the grounds of the animal violence that is the inevitable outcome of mass-crop agriculture. He sees it as diminishing guilt rather than effecting real change. He somewhat patronisingly describes vegetarianism as an ‘immature’ response to the realities of predator/prey relationships and cycles of life and death. He sees it as a highly privileged form of anthropocentrism that, despite being critical of industrialisation, is very much the product of it.”
Dylan is a part of a growing body of ‘greenies’ that seem to be on a closer page to most hunters. Dr Gressier contends that perhaps environmentalists and hunters are not so different after all. “I think that it’s wrong that environmentalists and hunters are seen differently because in my experience of working with hunters, they are profoundly concerned about the longevity of the environment,” she says. “Hunters were amongst the first conservationists and it’s wrong to think that hunters would intentionally harm the environment.”
So what’s holding us back from eating more wild meat?
All signs point to the benefits of eating wild meat but there are still a few roadblocks in the way. Dylan’s bow and arrow hunting highlights one of these difficulties because at the end of the day, it takes a lot of skill to harvest wild meat. Years of practice and skill go into successfully hunting, shooting and field dressing a deer for instance. And of course, there’s the legislative red tape in the first place to obtain a firearms licence, a licence to shoot pests, a licence to shoot game - and the list goes on. It’s a mystery how something so straightforward and natural like harvesting food from nature has become so complicated in the modern age.
The future of wild meat
Wild meat, both pest and game, is becoming more accessible for everyone. However it is still often considered boutique for most of the public. For instance, the price of game meat per kilogram far exceeds that of supermarket chicken. But the fact that Coles and Woolworths have a (limited) game meat section is a step in the right direction.
One example of a growing trend is Michael Hermans, from the Royal Mail on Spencer in Melbourne, who draws in crowds through a ‘roadkill night’ each week. Michael says chefs prepare different game meat from possum, wallaby and kangaroo to venison, buffalo and crocodile to wild duck, emu and many others. Clearly, the public is moving towards wanting to be closer to their food and more traditional ‘greenies’ are showing an interest in wild meat consumption. It’s a step forward and away from the pure ‘protectionism’ that has become part of the meat-eating discourse.
“I think we have a huge resource potential from harvesting more pest animals from the wild in Australia,” says Dr Grassier. If nothing else, a rising interest in game meat could lead to better and more accessible hunting laws in the future.
Who eats what?
Vegans: Do not eat any animal meat or animal by-products.
Locavores: Eat food sourced from a local area whenever possible.
Pestatarians: Eat meat but only animals considered an environmental pest.
Paleos: Only eat foods that were available to Palaeolithic humans (between 2.6 million to 1.7 million years ago).
Gastronauts: Eat anything as long as it tastes good.