The Case for Sustainable Meat

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 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.

Because it's inefficient to raise ruminants on grain, the consumption of these animals as a food source has been criticized by some as a ruinous misuse of cropland. The calculated ratio of the amount of grain an animal requires to gain a pound of weight is called the conversion factor. When grain is fed to fish, the conversion ratio is about 1.25 to 1; in other words, for every 1.25 pounds of grain product fed to a fish, there is a pound of weight gain. The conversion ratio for chicken is 2 pounds of feed per pound of gain on the bird. Pork requires 4 pounds per pound of gain. And when ruminants enter the equation, it skyrockets: estimates vary, but generally lambs require 8 pounds of feed for a pound of weight gain, and beef cattle consume some 9 pounds of feed per pound of gain.

When assessed by this factor alone, red meat does present a serious ecological problem. Grain production is extremely taxing on the environment, particularly when considering the impacts of industrial practices: soil degradation, nitrous oxide emissions, the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of fossil fuel-intensive mechanized farming and transport. Not to mention, a lot more people could be nourished with that grain if it weren’t being dumped into livestock first.

But there is a problem with relying solely on this equation to evaluate the efficacy of meat production: Ruminants are not designed to eat grain. Their digestive systems are actually better suited for foraging. They can even convert crop waste inedible to humans, such as corn stalks, into food. Industrialized agriculture relies on grain-feeding, not because the animals require it (in fact, it is harmful to their health), but only because it makes cattle gain weight uniformly faster. When raised on properly managed pastures, ruminants don’t compete with humans for grain-producing acreage; in turn, they supply us with bountiful nutrients and leave the earth better for having walked upon it. On intensively-managed pasture, they have been shown to restore vegetative cover, increase biodiversity, and improve soil fertility, thereby making our fields more resistant to both drought and flood.

As awareness of climate change increases, methane emissions have become an important concern about ruminant livestock production. Enteric fermentation, the fermentation of forage in the rumen (the first stomach chamber), is a natural part of the digestion process for ruminant animals. Because their diet is naturally high in roughage, grassfed animals will belch more than their factory-farmed counterparts (the process is unnaturally suppressed in factory farming due to a coating of slime that grain-feeding causes in the rumen). But grassfed animals are still far more climate friendly: their food doesn't require fossil-fuel based fertilizers, chemical pesticides, or miles of transport. Add in the carbon sequestered in the soils and plants of well-managed pasturelands, and some studies suggest that grassfed cattle ranching can be carbon neutral, if not carbon negative.

While they don’t forage the same way as ruminants, omnivorous animals, like pigs and chickens, can also play a part in regaining global sustainability. Raised in concentrated factory farm settings, these animals require large amounts of grain (which could more efficiently be fed directly to people) to be processed and trucked in. Kept in these horrific densities, their accumulated wastes are also a potent source of pollution. But dispersed on small farms and backyard or urban farm settings, these animals have a greater purpose. Their grain requirements are minimized because they forage and also recycle human food waste and turn it into more food.

The backyard pig is a common phenomenon in rural communities all over the world. Allowed controlled foraging, the pig will eat fallen nuts and acorns, dropped apples, insects, weeds, and household food scraps. In exchange, they yield meat, skin for cracklings, bones for stocks, and lard for cooking and making soap. Chickens perform similarly, if on a smaller scale. The backyard hen converts household food scraps into eggs. Later, when her egg-laying begins to fail, she adds sustenance to the soup pot. Both animals produce nutrient-rich manure, which then invigorates household gardens—and the surplus of those gardens then goes back into the livestock. These animals help us to round out our household and local ecosystems, enabling us to constantly regenerate nutrition on a local scale.

The Union of Life and Death

While I hope the above points will reassure the human omnivore eager for a pasture-raised pork chop or some free-range eggs and hash, I suspect they might ring hollow to those who are averse to the killing of animals for meat, period.

Any vegetarian who has ever challenged the morality of a livestock farmer (especially one involved in the sustainability movement) face-to-face can probably report receiving a touchy and defensive retort. This is because -- contradictory as it might seem -- farmers choose this life because we like animals, and not because we enjoy killing them or see slaughter as a means to a profitable end.

Sadly, those of us who make our lives farming have become a national cultural anomaly. From my own view from my family’s land, it seems that mainstream American culture harbors incongruous ideas about life and death, adoring one while abhorring the other. When daily life is directly tied to the ebbs and flows of nature, as it is in agriculture, one cannot help but observe that life and death are forever in service to one another. We cannot have one without the other. We nurture the newborn livestock, and we process the ones that are ready for market. We harvest one crop, we plant seeds for another.

I believe that all beings, whether human or other-than-human, have an inherent right to a natural existence in the world, and each has a way to contribute to the welfare of the greater whole. Inevitably, a time will come when every life must give way to sustain balance on the Earth. On the farm, there is an understanding that nothing we eat to sustain ourselves comes without sacrifice from another living being, be it animal, plant, or microorganism. Thus, we take all food, whether it is a hamburger, a pork chop, a carrot, or a spoonful of yogurt in moderation and gratitude. Nothing is eaten without an understanding of the sacred life and spirit that created the nourishment, or of the ecosystem that was required to sustain it.

I understand that there are many vegetarians out there who will disagree with me. Our divergences are a necessary, important tension. Conscientious eaters long before the locavore movement, vegetarians can be thanked for helping draw attention to the ecological havoc and animal welfare abuses that have come to define our conventional livestock production system. Their criticisms and questions have also assisted small family farms, like my own, to devise ways to improve our practices and to reflect deeply upon the nature of our work. The lessons taught by vegetarians have entered my own kitchen. Meat will always be a part of my life, but I believe that it should not be used in the extreme and wasteful way our culture has defined as acceptable. We cannot produce such tremendous volumes of meat sustainably, and wasteful and nonchalant consumer habits fail to honor the sacrifice of the animals’ lives.

I understand that no amount of explanation of the hows and whys of grassfed livestock production will convince a person opposed to killing animals that eating meat is OK. Life on my family’s farm and in my own household is informed by and is reflective of the concerns of such folks; I remain thankful that those perspectives and questions continue to come forward. But back to the question: Can animals and humans sustainably live together? My personal vote is “yes.”


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