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FEATURE : Put Kangaroos on eco-menu, scientists say

MEAT SOURCE The idea of farming kangaroos for human consumption is distasteful to some, but many health-conscious Aussies already have kangaroo meat in their diets

AFP , SYDNEY

Coen Blackwood, age six, strokes a Western grey kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus) at Pebble Beach on April 17. Environmentalists say the national animal should become a dietary staple in place of cattle and sheep as part of the fight against global warming.

PHOTO: AFP

Saving the planet by eating kangaroos and wild camels may seem like pie in the sky, but the offbeat menu comes with a scientific stamp of approval in Australia.

The aim in both cases is to reduce damage to the environment, but the reasoning behind the push to put the animals on the menu is sharply different.

In the case of kangaroos, environmentalists say the national animal should become a dietary staple in place of cattle and sheep as part of the fight against global warming.

The farm animals make a major contribution to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions simply by belching and farting, while kangaroos emit negligible amounts of dangerous methane gas.

In other words, there should be more kangaroos and fewer farm animals.

“For most of Australia’s human history — around 60,000 years — kangaroo was the main source of meat,” the government’s top climate change adviser professor Ross Garnaut, said in a major report on global warming recently.

“It could again become important.”

In the case of camels, scientists say eating the imported animals would be one way of reducing the million-strong feral herd — one of the largest on earth — running amok in the fragile ecosystems of the outback.

“Eat a camel today, I’ve done it,” says professor Murray McGregor, co-author of a three-year study on the humpbacked pests presented to the government last month.

In each case, the scientists admit they face a struggle to change Australia’s eating habits, but believe strongly in the need to somehow cut the numbers of sheep, cattle and camels.

Garnaut’s study concluded that by 2020, beef cattle and sheep numbers could be reduced by 7 million and 36 million respectively, allowing for an increase in kangaroo numbers to 240 million by 2020, from 34 million now.

He acknowledged, however, that there were some problems in this plan, including livestock and farm management issues, consumer resistance and the gradual nature of change in food tastes.

The idea of farming kangaroos — which appear on the Australian coat of arms — for human consumption is distasteful to some, but many health-conscious Australians already eat kangaroo meat.

“It’s low in fat, it’s got high protein levels, it’s very clean in the sense that basically it’s the ultimate free range animal,” says Peter Ampt of the University of New South Wales’s institute of environmental studies.

A similar argument was put forward last month in an attempt to whet Australian appetites for camel meat.

A three-year study found that Australia’s population of more than a million feral camels is out of control and damaging fragile desert ecosystems, water sources, rare plants and animals.

The Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Center, which produced the report presented to the federal government, said a good way to bring down the number of camels is to eat them.

“It’s beautiful meat. It’s a bit like beef. It’s as lean as lean, it’s an excellent health food,” McGregor said.

Unlike the native kangaroo, camels were introduced into Australia as pack animals for the vast outback in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but were released into the wild as rail and road travel became more widespread.

With few natural predators and vast sparsely populated areas in which to roam, the population has soared to around a million and is now doubling about every nine years, the center’s Glenn Edwards said.

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