Kangaroo has a reputation unrivalled by any other meat. Healthy and lean, with impeccable green credentials, it’s successfully muscling its way into mainstream Australian cuisine. But the campaign for the good meat often disguises the more nuanced arguments underpinning the harvesting and consumption of kangaroos.

Selling kangaroo meat for consumption first became legal in 1992, but harvesting received particular attention during the drought in 2002, when the NSW government pushed through a motion to cull local kangaroo populations with the intention of reducing the competition for pasture land between kangaroos and livestock.

Kangaroo meat and leather has since been welcomed as a local, sustainable solution to an otherwise problematic situation.  Touted as a leaner alternative to other red meats — with only 2% fat compared with 6% in beef — studies from Southern Cross University have also found kangaroos to be better suited to human stomachs, on account of the low “human interference factor” in the rearing of the animals.

Environmental reasons, however, have become the biggest drawcard for those feeling ambivalent about meat. Whereas livestock accounts for 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and 90% of grazing pressure on land, kangaroos release much less methane and need considerably less water.

Environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and the Australian Wildlife Services have shown support for a shift from livestock farming to kangaroo harvesting. The Garnaut review, commissioned by the federal government, has also recommended giving farmers incentives to switch to kangaroo in order to tackle climate change.

Following this consensus, a new breed of ethical consumer has emerged. Formerly vegetarians — now kangatarians — they generally refrain from eating meat on the grounds that it is environmentally unsustainable. That kangaroos are unfarmed, and need no extra feed or water, appeals to consumers who would otherwise disagree with traditional farming practices. Kangatarians also consider the practice to be relatively humane — kangaroos live a natural life up until their death, which is administered with a single shot to the head.

But other environmental and animal groups are questioning the strength of these arguments.

Although the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water maintains that kangaroos cause damage to grazing lands, a report by THINKK, a research group at the University of Technology, Sydney, has found that kangaroos rarely compete with sheep and cattle for pasture — calling into question the legality of culling animals on the grounds that they are competing for food.

The report, published last year, also questions the feasibility of implementing the recommendations found in the Garnaut review. It argues that even if Australians were to replace one meal a week with kangaroo meat, this would be unsustainable and populations would be devastated; government data already shows a 50% decline in kangaroo populations since 2010.

Achieving the objectives of the review, then, would require the kangaroo industry to shift to farming techniques, but this would be in breach of kangatarian values. And a CSIRO report has dismissed kangaroo husbandry as a tedious and costly endeavour, on account of the animals’ nomadic habits, their low reproduction and slow growth rate, and behaviour patterns that generally prevent herding.

Others argue that a lack of regulation in the industry comes at the expense of animal welfare. Animal rights organisation Voiceless claims that although shooters are expected to adhere to the federal government’s code of practice for the humane shooting of kangaroos and are required to complete animal welfare training through TAFE, poor visibility, the difficulty of targeting kangaroos properly and the shooters’ limited skills often lead to animals being injured, not killed. Furthermore, a 2002 report from the RSPCA found that it was common practice within the industry to bludgeon pouch joeys to death, with a large proportion of at-foot joeys dying from starvation, predation and exposure.

But the biggest opposition may come in the form of a court ruling. An indigenous organisation, the Australian Alliance for Native Animal Survival, that last year launched a Federal Court challenge to stop an increase in kangaroo export quotas on the basis that the indigenous community was not being consulted over the treatment of native animals, has argued that Aborigines have a cultural and spiritual link with kangaroos that is not being observed. The politics surrounding the harvesting and consumption of kangaroos may therefore end up being as much about the cultural implications of eating a national symbol as the ethical, environmental and financial trade-off of replacing livestock production with kangaroos.