Earlier this month, people travelling to work in Melbourne’s CBD were delayed when around 150 activists blocked traffic in front of the busy Flinders street station. Trams and busses were disrupted as vegan protestors sat down in the busy intersection while holding signs promoting the anti-meat documentary Dominion. Meanwhile, in coordinated attacks, protesters blocked entrances to Victorian abattoirs, and chained themselves to equipment at Queensland meatworks.
The protests were organised by multiple activist groups and headed by the documentary makers to mark the one-year anniversary of Dominion’s release. Responding to comments from politicians, the leader of the protest and documentary maker Chris Delforce hit back saying Australian agricultural industries operated in secrecy and hid behind terms such as ethical, humane and free-range. Delforce said it was time for an informed national conversation about what Australians were doing to animals. Delforce was also responsible for a map which identifies farming operations he deems to be cruel on the “Aussie Farms’ website.
The protesters were heard, receiving blanket media coverage while the protest dragged on. But they may not have earned much support for their cause. Dr Tyler Paytas, an expert on vegan activism from the Australian Catholic University, said protests such as this may cement views that veganism is a fringe movement that can be dismissed. Comments on media articles and social media discussions were largely dismissive of the protestors, while politicians were quick to label the activists “criminals” and “un-Australian”.
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) said it doesn’t have an issue with people’s right to consume whatever they want, but objects to activists associated with the protests this month were breaking and entering into farms and businesses “in a malicious and invasive way.” The NFF have instructed its members to begin filming activists, just as they are being filmed should protesters trespass on their land.
Whether or not these protests achieve their aims of “raising awareness” and recruiting vegans, it has revived an always contentious discussion about livestock farming practices and cruelty. Farmers and their representative organisations are perhaps rightly outraged that they are being accused of being uniformly cruel. But have they also missed an opportunity to talk to those reconsidering their meat and dairy consumption over concerns about animal welfare or climate impacts?
These activists may be an extreme minority, but they are the tip of an iceberg of consumers who are questioning how animals are treated in farming systems that they are increasingly told resemble “factories”. The livestock sector needs to take these opportunities to leverage the trust the community has traditionally had in “salt of the earth” farmers to humanise meat and dairy production which is still largely carried out in small family operations. It won’t change the minds of the vegan hard-liners but it could give those questioning their love of steak and cheese permission to keep enjoying it.