thomas m wilson

Conversation with Bob Beale

November 16th, 2006


This afternoon I was walking across Murdoch University campus, where I’ve temporarily been doing some work, when I came upon this big Zamia palm’s spiky fruit. 170 years ago my English ancestors had the misfortune to have their livestock munch on this thing and go belly-up. A couple of hundred years before that, the odd Dutch sailor came onto these shores, ate the fruit, was violently sick, and died. For forty or so thousand years before that the original Australians took the fruit, soaked it in a stream for a couple of days and buried it in the ground, leaching the toxins, and then sat down for some good tucker. This afternoon, perhaps understandably, I wasn’t game to pick any wild food before I got on the bus back to Fremantle. Back in England, foraging for wild foods is a contemporary reality: read this lovely little article about one forager called Fergus Drennan by Paul Kingsnorth. But here in Australia, I feel like I need a guide to show me the ways of the sclerophyl woods.

The discourse of environmentalists can often over-shoot itself. Carbon dioxide emerged as the global villain of 2006, and our struggle to spread the word about the current climate crisis continues apace. This spreading of the word is good stuff, however, let’s not forget the bioregion we’re standing in right here and right now.

So where am I? I’m standing in front of this strange looking zamia palm fruit.

Small-scale mixed farming, what is usually ‘organic’ agriculture has much to recommend it environmentally, as all of us thinking people already know (in relation to this I really suggest reading this short piece by Colin Tudge).

However, organic isn’t the whole story when it comes to doing the right thing with food in Australia. What follows is a online conversation I’ve had over the last few days with Bob Beale, co-author of Going Native, along with Michael Archer, and based at the University of New South Wales.

I have read your book Going Native and learnt much from it, and would like to thank you for it. I have given a copy to the head chef at one of Australia’s only organic restaurants (The Sandcastle), and he has read it with pleasure.

However I have a question for you. Recently I was at a talk given by Peter Singer on his new book The Ethics of What We Eat. I asked him during question time why he does not advocate the consumption of native species in the Australian context as an important ethical act. He replied that only perhaps two million of the twenty million Australians alive could be fed using native species available, even if we were to farm them more. Is he right?

I don’t know on what basis Singer makes this claim but it sounds like a specious argument that I’m not going to get drawn into any further than I must to respond. How does he arrive at a figure of 2 million? What does “farming them more” mean? How much more? If we developed productive native grains that could be farmed instead of wheat, our wheat farmers have already shown that with current production methods they can produce enough wheat to supply the Australian population several times over. He also seems to be trying to cast it as an either/or argument: we’re suggesting a gradual process of supplementing our largely exotic diet with native foods. If you’ve read our book, you’ll see that surely that is the ethical and sustainable way to go. We’re not suggesting “farming” kangaroos or breeding stumpy-legged emus, just making more of what we’ve got with foodstuffs that fully sustained millions of human beings for tens of thousands of years before we got here. One challenge I pose to people is to set a date, say six weeks from now, and plan and create a three-course meal for six people that uses only indigenous Australian ingredients (no marine foods, please, since they are not strictly Australian). It’s a great discussion subject around the dinner table, especially when you relate to your guests the processes you must go through to find your recipes and ingredients. It’s irrelevant whether Singer’s figures are right or wrong: the more interesting question to me is: why do we know and eat so little native fare when the ethical and environmental arguments for it are so strong?

It seems that you have basically confirmed what I thought: Australia’s most well known philosopher has made a major omission by not emphasizing the importance of native species in his latest book on what we eat. What a pity!

Peter Singer is well aware of the kangaroo harvesting issue, so it would appear to be unlikely to be an oversight, especially since he had a ready answer to your question. I guess you then have to ask why the topic is omitted (no conspiracy theories here, just a fair question)..

[So I wrote to Peter Singer in America]
Tom to Singer:
Recently I was at a talk given by you at the Fremantle town hall on the ethics of what we eat. I asked you during question time why you do not advocate the consumption of native species in the Australian context as an important ethical act. You replied that only perhaps two million of the twenty million Australians alive could be fed using native species available, even if we were to farm them more.

Peter Singer:
Sorry, I assumed you were referring to eating native animals. I know nothing about native grains, and can’t comment on their advantages or disadvantages.

Tom to Bob:
So this is Peter Singer’s rather cursory response to my question – professors at Princeton are busy men!

[I don’t want to give the impression here that I don’t respect and admire the work of Peter Singer. I do, and his book How Should We Live? is on my list of essential reading.]

I suppose you could argue that he wrote his recent book with the US as well as Australia as a target audience, and as there are 300 million yanks and only 20 million Aussies, it was not the ideal platform to talk about Australian native species. All the same, I do think he should read your book considering what he writes about.

Bob to Tom:
Thanks Tom. I would have hoped for a more considered answer. We’re all busy.
We still don’t know the basis of his assertion about native species feeding only two million people. Even if he were referring to animals only, I can just as easily hypothesise that if we actively bred bustards instead of turkeys (or, say, mallee fowl instead of chicken) we’d have plenty of poultry meat to go around. If we also bred emu, possum, yabbies and say, crocodile specifically for human consumption and sustainably harvested selected kangaroo species likewise, I’d have thought there’d be a rich and varied supply of delicious protein to fill many stomachs (not to mention securing the existence of some currently threatened species). Of course, Singer’s focus is more on production methods, which is a different take on the question. I wonder where he’d stand on eating koala, echidna, goanna, snake and the myriad other animal foods utilised by Aborigines.

Have at look at pages 18-23 of this document on the Aboriginals of Port Stephens.. I first read it almost 25 years ago and it made quite an impact on my thinking about issues like this. It puts modern lifestyles, animal liberation, environmental sustainability, organic farming and so on in a different perspective, even allowing for hindsight and the filtering eye of the observer.


One other thing Bob, in thinking of a three course meal for six I didn’t come up to the high standards of the Port Stephens mob!

In fact I only could think of getting some kangaroo from Coles (which comes from South Australia), some macadamias (again, not local) and some native tomato chutney (the brand I know is made in NSW), all of which means that the food miles of the meal would be enormous. Help?


The light is beginning to dawn . . . seek and ye shall find brother! That’s the point of the exercise. Google it man:

This page has some pictures of some Australian food.

[End of dialogue.]

And there you have it. After I read the first link Bob sent to me about the original Australians of Port Stephens, I was really interested and pleased to learn a bit more about what the food, pets, and generalized attentiveness to nature of these people looked like. I have yet to organize that three course meal for six, but the walking boots are ready to go.