Vegetarianism and then veganism have been increasing trends in our culture in the past few decades. I recently heard an opinion that we are now entering a “post-vegetarian” culture where eating meat is now cool again, as long as it’s “sustainable” and “grass-fed” and (etc, other buzzwords). I believe this is true, and I also believe it’s a good thing. I understand that everybody makes their own personal decisions about these types of things, and if you’re veggie, that’s cool. But I would like to present my thoughts on why vegetarianism might be unnecessary and maybe even counterproductive.
First of all, conscious vegetarianism can be great. Blind vegetarianism is not conscious eating. You’re in a bar in Washington state downing a plate of greasy nachos made from genetically modified, pesticide-laden corn shipped from Iowa topped with mysterious “cheese product” and hydroponically-grown, artificially-ripened tomatoes shipped from Florida, washing it down with a Diet Pepsi, but it’s okay because you’re not eating a cow? Come on. (Whew, there’s my crazy hippie farmer rant… got it out of my system… now I’ll settle down to logic.) (And, I eat bar nachos too.)
There are a variety of reasons I’ve heard for being vegetarian. One: You simply don’t like meat. I can’t really argue with that one – it comes down to personal preference – although I don’t really understand it as a person who loves eating food. I love consuming food and that extends to as many different&new flavors and textures and eating experiences as possible. Except beets. I don’t really care for beets. So I guess some people just don’t care for meat. Okay, I’ll let you sneak by with that one. Although maybe you haven’t had really good meat cooked really well.
Other reasons are given by the animal welfare-conscious: “I’ve seen the films and I know that millions of animals are suffering because of our demand to eat meat.” And by the health-conscious: “Meat is bad for you – it has fat and cholesterol and eating it will make me fat.”
Both statements are perfectly valid! But is vegetarianism the logical conclusion? Let’s talk about how these issues could be addressed. Yes, one way is the straight-up elimination of meat from one’s diet. But is this the only right answer? Is this even *a* right answer? My balance-craving mind thinks this is an inelegant & clumsy solution to the problem, swings too far in the opposite direction, and in fact is more like ignoring the actual problem instead of addressing it. And of course, my food-loving palate rebels against the loss of such a large variety of potential edibles! I would contend that both of the above arguments for vegetarianism are actually better answered by “practicing thoughtful meat-eating”: eating less meat and only that whose origins you know.
I should be careful to say that I myself am not practicing 100% what I preach here — not yet — but I have made steps in this direction and I have thought about what the ideal would look like. So I don’t want to sound holier-than-thou; my committed vegetarian friends are awesome in that they have decided to take up a certain dietary policy for reasons that are important to them, and they have stuck to it. I am only making an argument for a way of eating that I’d *like* to practice, not one that I’m currently living up to.
Be that as it may, let me try to convince you.
Yes, the animal cruelty issue is a HUGE problem. Mass-produced, factory-farmed meat is a thoroughly disgusting proposition from start to finish. It is completely understandable, and admirable, for an individual to take this problem to heart and cut meat out of their diet because they can’t stand to contribute to such an appalling system. And a generation ago, this was probably the only course of action one could take. But with the rise in sustainable meat production, I would argue that there is now another option and it is a *better* option for changing the system. Here it is: Buy and eat good meat, and share it with your friends. By so doing you will support a paradigm shift in the meat industry.
Why is this better than vegetarianism for animal welfare? Well, I don’t think it is in question that people are going to continue to eat meat in this country. A small portion of the population going vegetarian and eschewing meat entirely is not going to change this. Animals are going to continue to be raised to become meat. But *how* they are raised is the important part, isn’t it? There are without a doubt better and worse ways to raise animals, and these result in better and worse meat. People buy $0.40/lb ground beef and disgusting, water-injected Butterball “chicken” at Wal-Mart because they don’t know or don’t care about factory farming practices. Also because this is what’s predominantly available. You have to look a little harder to find the good stuff, and most people won’t take the time. Because people buy this grocery store meat, there is a demand for it, and it continues to be produced following the same-old shitty practices. But I believe that supporting alternative farming can start to change this. There are small scale sustainable meat producers springing up all over, who raise their animals humanely and slaughter them with respect. If enough people create a demand for this type of meat, it will start to become more prevalent and hopefully the demand for the other stuff will shrink.
What people who care about animal welfare can do is support the “good” producers by buying their meat. Help these farmers to succeed and grow, and help more like them get started with small businesses. More and more meat production can be moved away from the old system and into the new. Share your “good” meat with your friends who still eat from Wal-Mart. They will notice the difference. This stuff is better both in terms of the life of the animal, and also in terms of the tastiness of the meat. Dan Barber, the executive chef at a schmancy farm-to-table restaurant in NYC, gave a little talk to the young farmer conference I attended. He talked about how lucky it is that “all the good things tend go hand in hand.” Chefs’ main concern, he said, is deliciousness. Sustainability is great, proper treatment of animals is great, but for a top chef it comes down to an amazing eating experience. Luckily, he pointed out, the absolute best meat and produce taste-wise is also the best in terms of these other concerns. When animals are raised in the most “natural” way possible (allowed to roam and eat the diet they would naturally eat), their meat, eggs, and milk are truly of a higher quality than those raised in confined, unnatural environments. What makes them better can’t be completely described in terms of specific nutrients or qualities, but the whole is simply, unarguably better. As more and more people realize that this is the case and start to make baby steps away from the scary factory food toward more “real” food, the demand will shift. More and more animals will be raised in a manner that we feel comfortable with. Support change by supporting practices you agree with.
Sure, “sustainable” and other keywords are losing their meaning through overuse. How do I know if I’m eating “good” meat? Is it because the package in the grocery store says “cage-free?” No, unfortunately not necessarily. To really know, you have to get as close to the source as possible and learn a little bit about what to look for.
Look for heritage breeds. I can tell you from personal experience that Cornish Cross chickens are scary and disgusting and have been bred almost out of recognition as a chicken. But they are by far the most common breed of chicken meat you can find for sale. Look for “pastured” – read Michael Pollan’s chapter on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm for a much better explanation than anything I can write of why this is the best. Basically it comes down to allowing the animals to live in something as close as possible to their natural habitat and eat their natural diet. The results of this system include healthier animals, healthier land (fewer animals per acre->less damage), and healthier meat (Google for many studies on increased Omega-3’s, etc in grassfed meat). This “good” meat is more expensive. Why? One: land is expensive and it requires more land per animal. Two: since the animal is not being fattened up on “junk food,” it takes longer for it to reach its slaughter weight on this natural diet and it must be cared for for extra weeks or months, incurring more expense.
So the farmers following the best practices do have to charge a higher price — a price that actually reflects the true cost of raising meat. How to deal with the high price of good meat? Eat less of it. This has the added benefit of being better for your health. Many reputable sources have suggested that a healthy way to approach meat as part of your meal is to think of it more as a side dish instead of the main (or only!) dish. Eat a little bit of really good meat along with your veggies, and you’ll enjoy the yumminess without overdoing the animal fats or overextending your pocketbook.
There is no denying that an animal still has to die for me to be able to eat meat. I can understand that some people may not be able to get over that fact. But I found that for me, getting closer and closer to understanding the source of my meat has made it easier, not harder, to eat it. It was awe-inspiring and an extremely valuable though unexpected part of my apprenticeship to learn a little about Betsey’s attitude toward meat. She feels strongly that meat should be eaten with respect, and that you show respect for the animal and realize the full import of meat-eating by doing the slaughter and processing yourself. She made a couple occasions available to us to help her and see the process. Literally voicing your thanks to the animal for its life. Learning the butchering procedures and then putting in the time to do them yourself. It feels real when you eat venison after you skin a deer and and separate its haunch into cuts of meat, seeing how the muscles fit together. It’s not at all like grabbing a shrink-wrapped package of stew meat from the grocery case.
Of course most people won’t have the inclination to learn butchery. They won’t have time or space or desire to raise and slaughter their own animals. Of course not! The logical step is to buy meat from those awesome few who do want to devote their time to raising meat animals in a way you can feel comfortable with. But how to you find these people, and how do you know that their practices are good? My answer would be two words: farmers markets. Ask around. What you’re looking for is, who do the vegetable vendors buy their meat from? I guarantee that most of the veggie farmers are not vegetarians. They might point you to some meat vendors who are there at the market. But I bet they also eat meat that doesn’t even make it to the farmers’ market — meat that their neighbor raises, down the street from their farm. You can get in on that too, if you’re willing to give it a little bit of effort. Food doesn’t have to come from Safeway. Build a relationship with a farmer and you can get your food straight from the source. You will know where it comes from and be able to more thoroughly enjoy and savor it in good conscience.
…. The End!