Why a former sheep farmer went vegan
- Published: 15 March 2010
- Hits: 11229
Vegan science teacher Ian Brothers, a former sheep farmer, is joining the growing numbers of Australians who care about animals, according to a new poll, writes Teresa Savage.
Ian Brothers is a very passionate man with a very enquiring mind. He cares desperately about the health of the Australian nation, and he thinks our health problems are preventable.
“Since the 1960s we’ve been increasingly addicted to the consumption of animal products,” he says. “And we also have increasing rates of cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity and dementia. It’s cause and effect.”
Brothers’ family history, professional skills and working experience have led him on a journey to veganism. “My father died suddenly when I was only 14, he says. “He was 57 and died of a heart attack. I didn’t want to go that way too.”
When he moved from Sydney to acreage just outside Cowra, in western New South Wales, he ran sheep on the property, both Merinos for wool and South Suffolks for meat. At one time he had 500 sheep, “but the drought left me with no water or feed for them, and because I was growing more and more aware of the innate cruelty of keeping farm animals, I decided to give them away, and not replace them,” he says.
Having studied agriculture at university, Brothers’ became a science teacher. “Science equipped me with the skills to research, analyse and understand human physiology and biochemistry, nutrition and epidemiology, and through that study I’ve come to realise that we are dead-set plant eaters.”
Brothers reflects on the ways in which we are hooked into eating meat and dairy products, and the commercial motivation behind – for instance, being given milk at school as a child, which he says sets us up as “customers of the dairy industry from the word go”.
Brothers is now a campaigner for a more healthy and humane lifestyle. He is a member of the Vegetarian/Vegan Society of Queensland, which recently commissioned a survey to investigate how we think about the way we treat and eat animals.
Survey results show Australians are against animal cruelty
Run by Newspoll, and funded by animal protection institute Voiceless, the Pound of Flesh survey interviewed 1,202 people across Australia about their attitudes to vegetarianism, veganism and the treatment of animals.
Most of the results are not surprising. According to the poll, 99% of Australians are against animal cruelty and find certain farming, testing and breeding practices unacceptable; 86% of Australians believe keeping egg laying hens in cages for their entire lives is unacceptable, 74% think castrating animals without anaesthetic is unacceptable, and 72% also say killing male chicks in egg production is unacceptable.
Animal breeding and testing are also subjects of considerable concern: 46% of Australians find breeding animals for pet shops unacceptable, 80% of Australians think it’s unacceptable to test cosmetics on animals, while 43% make an effort to buy non-animal tested products.
But other results from the survey provoke a degree of scepticism. While obviously well intentioned, the claim that overall, 56% of Australians would consider becoming vegan is specious.
When you delve deeper into the report you realise that this conclusion was reached through a line of questioning that asked what evidence or circumstances would encourage a person to become vegan, including evidence that farming practices cause stress and pain for millions of animals every year (36% agreed they would be influenced by this evidence), evidence they can be healthy on a vegan diet (35%), evidence that being vegan is better for the environment (31%), and if there were more vegan menu items in cafes or restaurants (25%).
There are intrinsic problems for anyone conducting research in this field.
Firstly, does an answer in the affirmative to a question about what would provoke a change in behaviour, even where the evidence is widely available to support that change, actually result in any real change in behaviour?
All the way through this report there is a clear discrepancy between what people find unacceptable (making cows pregnant every year, for instance, and taking away their calves, which causes them huge distress) and what they actually do in practice (like enjoying milkshakes, fine cheeses and lattes).
Secondly, there is little agreed definition for the concepts being researched.
The report suggests this common confusion is partly caused by people who call themselves vegetarian but do not have an absolute commitment to the practice of vegetarianism and sometimes eat flesh or fish.
The more recent incarnations of pescatarians (who eat vegetables and fish), pollotarians (vegetables and chicken) and flexitarians (intermittent vegetarians) only add to the problem. This goes some way to explain why carnivores regularly ask vegetarians the curious and sometimes irritating question about whether they eat meat or fish.
Gender differences in attitudes to animals
The unexplored story in this research is the striking difference between male and female attitudes to animals.
Women consistently display more compassion for animals than men – particularly in response to animal testing, animal research, breeding animals for pet shops, and farming practices.
According to the results, many more men than women attend horse racing, dog racing, circuses and rodeos.
The report does not tell us how many vegetarians or vegans are women, but it would be reasonable to expect there to be more women. Why is this so? Further exploration of this difference could be the subject of another piece of research, particularly to test the extent to which women may be able to influence children in their food choices, and what would be needed to translate women’s compassion for animals into societal change.
In the light of the recent banning of the Animal Liberation float from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade it would also be very interesting to look at the inter-connections between sexuality and vegetarianism and veganism, and why a group of people who are broadly progressive about personal, political and humanitarian issues have such a blind spot to the impact of their lifestyles on the other sentient beings who inhabit this planet.
Maybe from this extended research we can work out what can be done.
The full survey report expands on the responses to questions by exploring issues further. In addition to discussing farming practices and animal testing, it addresses the impact of livestock production on the environment, and the various ways animals are used for human entertainment.
In this sense it is a very valuable snapshot, in that it explores rodeos and the inherent cruelty of rough riding, steer wrestling and team roping. Horse racing, dog racing, circuses, pet breeding and zoos are all exposed to the same critique.
But again, if the research finds that 46% of Australians find breeding animals for pet shops unacceptable, why does the industry continue to thrive?
When the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, introduced the Animals (Regulation of Sale) Bill in New South Wales it was met with ferocious opposition by the unregulated pet industry and was eventually defeated in November 2008.
If there is such strong feeling against cruelty to animals, it does not translate into personal behaviour or representation by the body politic.
Which directly leads to the question of what can we do if we understand the link between the oppression of animals and the oppression of people, and are concerned about the welfare of animals in our society.
After all, as the report notes: “Other animals are on the same continuum we are.” The report itself simply recommends, over and over, that if you are concerned: “Don’t support animal exploitation – be vegan”.
Extrapolating from this research, a mere 2% of Australians are vegetarian, and an even smaller 0.06% are vegan. It will take a very long time to achieve the critical mass necessary to impact the livestock industry, the environment and animals themselves.
It’s not enough to simply change our own personal behaviour; pressure must be brought to bear on politicians and the food, farming and pet industries.
And this is exactly what Ian Brothers does. He now spends his time lobbying, campaigning and “generally making a pest of myself” about the health implications of eating animal products, and the health benefits of veganism.
He’s happy to tackle some of our most prestigious and traditional organisations. “Take the Country Women’s Association cookbooks,” he says. “They’re full of recipes which are killing their husbands and children.”
He’s a very passionate and persuasive man. I’ll certainly add the Country Women’s Association Vegan for Health cookbook to my collection if and when Brothers convinces them to publish it.
Teresa Savage is a Sydney-based writer, who has been a vegetarian for over 30 years, has raised three vegetarian children (one now vegan) and is interested in the nexus between our food choices, gender and sexuality.