The Roo Row

KangarooThe notion of eating kangaroos is sacrilege to some; common sense to others. Drew Turney considers arguments for and against serving the national symbol.

For many nutritionists and environmentalists, the question of harvesting more wild kangaroo meat for human consumption is a no brainer. High in protein and with only about 2% fat, kangaroo meat is credited with everything from fighting cancer to reducing body fat.

There’s also an environmental argument: heavy-hoofed cattle and sheep trample topsoil and produce far more methane than kangaroos, which have a with their much drier diet. And once Australia’s carbon trading scheme begins there’ll be even more incentive to move away from European-style farming.

Kangaroos are more suited to Australian conditions. Populations are quick to fluctuate according to hardship or plenty. Peter Ampt, program manager for the University of NSW’s FATE (Future of Australia’s Threatened Ecosystems) program, believes that harvesting kangaroo meat puts land to use sensibly, using conservation-managed areas for commercial use. “It’s a way of achieving conservation through use, whereas a lot of conservation is based around not using it, like putting a fence around it and turning it into a national park.”

It seems that more Australians are now considering the benefits of kangaroo meat. A spokesman for Coles supermarkets says sales of kangaroo meat have grown in “double digits” over the past 18 months. Why? “There’s a perception that it’s healthy and it’s priced competitively.”

While nobody predicts the demise of traditional cattle or sheep farming in Australia, is it possible that more kangaroo harvesting could exacerbate the decline of rural communities? “Kangaroos can provide another source of income,” Ampt says. “Landholders have the choice of generating income from kangaroos, and if the value of the meat goes up it’ll be more viable. I’d like to see our farming become more sustainable irrespective of what happens with kangaroos, but it’s not about getting rid of conventional farming, it’s about integration.”

According to FATE’s research, however, about 20% of us wouldn’t think of eating kangaroo and aren’t likely to change our minds. Then there are the groups who’d like to see all kangaroo products banned. One is the UK-based Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (Viva). Supported by celebrity endorsements and high-profile media protests, Viva has claimed credit for major UK supermarket chains dropping kangaroo products because of what have been portrayed as brutal outback massacres (including the killing of joeys).

Ampt argues that groups like Viva are selective in their use of statistics. “If a shooter discovers a joey in the pouch they kill it, that’s a fact. Obviously, if the mother is dead it has no chance. What’s not true is the overstatement of the numbers… Their claim — that 50% of the harvest is female and every female has a joey in its pouch — is definitely not the case.”

To support its claims, Viva also quotes statistics from the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment website, which estimates the kangaroo population in Australia has virtually halved since 2001. But Ampt says even that is not the whole story. “The commercial harvest (now around 30 years old) hovers at somewhere around 15% to 20% of the estimated population. The population fluctuates because of environmental conditions and the harvest just follows the natural variation.”

The jury is still out on whether eating kangaroo is an insult to our furry national icon or our best chance to fight everything from global warming to childhood obesity. But in supermarkets and on farms across the country, votes are slowly being cast.