Is Your Fantasy Cow a Horse?

Ever wondered what modern drovers do? And what this has to do with towns in transition?

Drovers fired my imagination when I was a girl. They are the horse riders in outback Australia, who herd vast numbers of cattle from the outback ranches to the sale yards in urban areas. It took weeks if not months to drive the cattle through the vast Australian outback, a perilous trip that relied on finding water before the cattle died of thirst, and finding grass for the cattle to eat on the way. This is my Australian culture, one built on stories of one-armed cooks who made beef patties with one hand, of lonely men who chose solitude, billy tea and cows above the sweet life of a country town. I can smell the bushland they traveled through, I can hear the crackle of dried gum leaves under their feet, I can see the camp fires burning at night. It’s all in my imagination. Its part of why I like being Australian and why, despite my years of absence, I would never want to give up my Australian citizenship.

And now, in Europe, where a beef steak is possibly a juicy slice of horse rump, I watch the news and notice how disturbed people are at their loss of innocence. They too have a cultural identity in their beef eating. In their imaginations, while biting into a burger, they are biting into an animal that was once on the hoof, eating grass in a meadow, paddock or field. OK, so research has brought some of us eye to eye with the truth: the beef industry in the US is corn-fed, factory produced, and hormone inflated. In Europe we can read on the packing of the food the TV is flashing at us that this ‘food’ is full of emulsifiers and lots of E ingredients that make it look more like poison than anything else. All this information is not enough for the consumer. Now that we are discovering that this package contains not beef, but horse, we are upset.  

HORSE. A thing of beauty. Many little girls dream of owning a horse.  Dashing knights ride on them. You don’t EAT them.

So here lies the clue, documentary makers and food activists. This is how you catch the imagination of the consumer. Take away the innocence, the dream. They don’t want to hear that vast areas of forest are cut to make beef farms, and that the cattle live in windowless retreats where their stomachs are opened up to feed them corn (which they can’t digest) and the farmers are getting below survival wages from the wicked fast food stores that own the farm.  No, they want to hear that the thing they thought they were eating is not a cow, but a horse. That gets them sitting up.

And in Australia, where beef is beef, the drover has given way to the cattle train. This train consists of 17 trucks with 3 trailers and 2 decks per trailer; that’s 102 decks of cattle, with 28 cattle per deck. A total of 2,856 head of cattle are streaming their way to the cattle yards in this picture. When one of these vehicles passes you as you are cycling on a back road, in another one of your lifetime fantasy experiences, duck for cover. Otherwise you will be splashed by the excreta that slops out of each deck in a constant shower. I’ve been there.

Cry if you like that your fantasy world doesn’t exist. Or get real. Eat the food you know. Grow your own vegetables. Eat local meat. Join the transition towns network. I will be going to my first meeting this month.

Lin McDevitt-Pugh

Lin McDevitt-Pugh is the founder and director of NETSHEILA, a company dedicated to working with organisations and individuals to expand their ability to transform the networks of relationships they already have into resources to improve the quality of the workplace. Call +31 6 150 68468 to discuss how your organisation can benefit from working with NETSHEILA  or write to info@netsheila.com.

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