The Case for Sustainable Meat
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I recently released a new book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. The result of three years of obsessive research, the book is something of a manifesto for a movement of Americans who believe that they can live happily and equitably, influence social and ecological change, and minimize their reliance on a consumer culture by reviving their domestic skills and redefining what constitutes “having enough.” The people I met found that a household can survive -- thrive, in fact -- on a single income or less; they were single and married; with children and without; rural, urban and suburban; vegetarians and omnivores.
While the book has received a delightfully warm reception, that last description -- omnivore -- has raised the eyebrows of a few folks, particularly when they consider my personal and professional background. It involves a lot of meat. My family raises and processes our livestock. I have written two books about cooking sustainable meats. I maintain grassfedcooking.com to answer people’s questions about working with local livestock farms and purveyors of local meats. I’ve achieved some regional notoriety, if not for my writing, then for my artisanal sausages. Every Saturday from mid-May through mid-October, I can be found at a farmers’ market in the Catskill Mountains, standing beside my husband, selling my family’s meats.
Not surprising, then, that since the book’s release a common question I have been asked regarding sustainable living can be paraphrased this way: "I agree with your premise that Radical Homemaking is possible and important. But, really, do you honestly think animals and people can live together sustainably?"
Anyone who has ever leaned their cheek against the side of a dairy cow, breathing in her sweet scent while squeezing her milk into a pail; who has watched a crowd of spring lambs prance across pasture, punctuating their dance with spontaneous four-footed leaps; who has witnessed the amazing fertility of a manure-nourished garden; who has wiped grease off her chin after secretly feasting on cracklings before presenting a fresh roasted leg of pork to the family at Easter dinner; or who has reached under a hen and found a warm fresh egg after delivering a bowl of kitchen scraps to the flock might ask a different question: Is there any sustainable way that humans and animals could not live together?
Meat as a Community Affair
Historically, in my community, humans and livestock have been nearly inseparable. West Fulton, N.Y., is a series of frosty hollows surrounded by forested hills and rocky, steep pasture lands. When agricultural industrialization swept through the country, our small fields and pitched slopes made machine cultivation not only problematic, but treacherous. A previous owner of our own farm was killed by a tractor rollover decades ago, not an uncommon death for earlier generations around here. But even after local farms were deemed nonviable decades ago by agricultural officials who saw the ground couldn’t be adapted to big technology (our eleven months of frost didn’t help), many farms stayed in production. And although most incomes were well below the poverty line, people in West Fulton could feed themselves by maintaining hand-cultivated vegetable patches and small herds of livestock. Cattle, sheep, chickens, goats, and pigs are well adapted to our landscape and difficult climate. And they can produce food on fields that never saw a plow.
In an era of fossil fuel shortages, climate change concerns, swelling population, dwindling food security, and economic hardships, the symbiosis between animals and humans becomes even more important to understand.
Ruminants and the Environment
The consumption of meat has come under increasing scrutiny for a variety of ecological reasons, from resource efficiency to water pollution to climate change. Livestock, particularly ruminant animals, like cattle and sheep, play a critical role in all of these current global problems. Managed improperly, as we’ve seen, they are a big part of the problem; but stewarded properly, they can also be a part of the solution.