Eating Meat, Mindfully

Living in the Rocky Mountain West, I am used to breathtaking views. None takes my breath away as much as a 150,000-cow feedlot in southern Idaho. Even before I see it from the road, its stench overpowers me. Then I crest the hill and cattle in bleak pens sprawl to the horizon.

It is a depressing sight, and I feel horrified at a food system that can allow animals -- living beings -- to be raised in such a manner.

I see the products of this food system every time I visit the supermarket: rows of fatty, hormone-injected, often colorless meat -- straight from a factory, not a farm. I'll pass.

But I do eat meat.

This isn't hypocritical. I buy my meat from farmers and ranchers committed to raising animals in humane and healthful ways -- steaks from grass-fed cattle, roasted free-range chicken, elk chili, lamb chorizo, smoked duck -- and so celebrate the lands and the animals of my Idaho home.  

And I want at least part of the responsibility for getting meat to be strictly my own. Each fall I hunt and stock my freezer for the year with elk, deer and duck. For eating, nothing better connects me to the cycle of life and death.

I call this being a mindful meat eater.

Becoming a mindful meat eater means acknowledging that life feeds on life, that regardless of our diet, all of our food has costs. Even those who shun animal products cannot escape this, whether in the loss of wildlife habitat to grain fields, poisoning by pesticide use or animals killed for crop damage on organic farms.

Becoming a mindful meat eater also means getting to know farms that produce animals while being respectful of their nature. At a farm market I buy lamb, chicken and turkey from a farmer just down the road. Unlike industrial agriculture's huge feedlots, her farm is grassy pasture and a spacious barn. The chickens roam freely. These animals aren't pets, but she knows each one.

Even large farms and ranches can raise livestock mindfully. I know another rancher with free-range sheep and cattle on thousands of acres. His animals will never see a feedlot. Herders stay with the animals all day to ensure they don't damage wildlife habitat. The ranch also won't harm wolves, coyotes and mountain lions of the area -- a practice labeled "Predator Friendly."

By supporting these kinds of farms, and knowing them, I connect with the meat I eat in a better, saner way. The supermarket disconnects us, from chickens crammed into tiny, indoor cages, and from acre after acre of cattle packed into feedlots.   Invest some time in learning how your steaks and burgers are produced. Support labels that certify animals are raised in ways healthful to them and the land, and avoid factory farm products. Restore mindfulness to meat eating.

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