Mar 08 2013

Of Morality & Meat

There's no easy way of explaining my relationship to eating meat.

It was simpler to clarify my eating preferences several years ago, when I was a complete vegetarian. This easily understood identity made for tidy conversation, and even tidier dinner selection. If faced with questionable meat on a menu, or invited over to dinner and asked about my eating stipulations, I could say "Sorry, I'm a vegetarian. I don't eat meat". But now that I do occasionally eat meat, I've yet to find a label that completely captures the nuances of my choice.

In reality, I'm still practically a vegetarian. Rare exceptions to my vegetable focused diet don't spring from laziness, or aching hunger, or an unwillingness to have an uncomfortable conversation.

Rather, the more I learn about meat, farming, and agriculture, the more I understand the vital importance of domesticated livestock in this integrated, holistic system. And as I widen my knowledge about cooking and food culture, I find that in certain cases, eating meat allows me an understanding of a tradition, flavor, or culture that I couldn't gain from a meat substitute--substitutes which hardly fit into an integrated agricultural system. (Read more here and here.)

Self-reflection has helped me clarify my thoughts about the morality of meat eating, but two food writers and farmers whom I greatly admire have helped me from afar. One, Nicolette Hahn Niman, is a vegetarian, yet runs a grass-based ranch with her husband Bill Niman, formerly the founder and head of Niman Ranch. The other, River Cottage's Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, advocates for eating all parts of animals and varieties of fish, but does so by rallying and inspiring citizens to consider how animals are raised and eaten, and to reconsider the culture that surrounds eating meat.

I don't know if Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Nicolette Hahn Niman know each other personally, but I imagine they share a mutual respect for their respective work. Their writing and activism showcase similar views on the ethics of meat eating, and the role of meat in agriculture.

Here's Whittingstall: "Meat should be something precious, always to be savored, never to be squandered. Personally, I think it would make better sense for almost all of us to pay more money for less meat, of better quality."

And even more succinctly, Niman writes: "Eat less meat; eat better meat."

A few months ago, I lugged home Whittingstall's The River Cottage Meat Book from the library; I needed it for another project, and also wanted to read more about his meat philosophy. You’ve probably seen this weighty tome taking up a privileged spot in one or several restaurant kitchens, and its popularity amongst chefs is well-deserved. As I read through the book, I took copious notes, more than once feeling like Whittingstall was talking directly to me. Maybe the next time someone asks me about my meat-eating habits, I can conjure up Hugh to explain!

I read Niman's book, Righteous Porkchop, two years ago. I've since flipped through it many times. Reading through the River Cottage Meat Book led me to recall many of Niman's points both in Righteous Porkchop, and in articles scattered across the internet.

Why do Niman and Whittingstall believe meat eating is a necessary part of sustainable agriculture? How do they address the ethics and morality of it all? After re-reading passages from their writings, I've found that their arguments merge into three overarching themes.

Vegetarians and Ethics

If you don't know much about meat, or feel completely squeamish about eating meat once you do know the intricacies of how an animal goes from piglet to pork chop, I think becoming a vegetarian is a wise choice. You can use vegetarianism as an identity in which to temporarily reside as you learn more, or to permanently reside once you've learned enough. In 2009, I went cold turkey on meat because I realized I didn't know enough about what I was eating; I was no longer willing to eat meat just because I always had. I wanted to understand how animals were raised and slaughtered, and understand my rationale for even eating meat in the first place: was I craving it, or was it just habit?

Now, along with my mostly vegetarian diet, I'm friends with several vegetarians and vegans. Each of these friends has a personal reason for choosing not to eat meat, ranging from quick, gut reactions ("I don't like the taste of meat") to ethical quandaries ( "I think that particular animal is too sentient" or "I don't feel comfortable killing an animal, so I shouldn't eat meat").

I respect and admire vegetarians, but I don't think any of us--vegetarians, conscientious omnivores, or unaware carnivores--should consider ourselves immune to agricultural systems, unethical meat eating, or agriculture's environmental impact. A lack of meat-eating shouldn't mean our agricultural system is invisible, or that there's no need to know how the majority of the meat eaten in the world is raised (and why it's possible to get a 9 stack hamburger sandwich for $12.99. As Whittingstall shares, even vegetarians effect the balance of nature.

Whittingstall addresses some of these uncomfortable ethical quandaries in his Meat Book. He writes, "To maintain that we live in complete harmony with the rest of animal kind is naive."

Whether or not one thinks domesticating livestock is ethical, at this point, studies have found that domestic livestock's dependence on us is "hard-wired": we've domesticated these animals for thousands of years, and none would survive in the wild in their current state.

Whittingstall asks: If we stopped eating these domesticated animals, where would they go? Given that immortality is not an option, how would vegetarians like animals to die? (Uncomfortable options include predation, starvation, drowning, and disease.)

Instead of just deciding to stop eating animals, we need to take a clearer look at how much meat we eat, and how the majority of that meat is raised. Hahn shares that "All food from animals—meat, dairy, fish, eggs—should be treated as something special." And Whittingstall adds, "We MUST offer animals a better deal in life than they'd get without our help. Our current system is more like persecution."

An Integrated Agricultural System that Mimics Nature

The harsh realities that would face domesticated animals should we all become vegetarians provides a stark reminder that nature isn't always kind. "The fact", Whittingstall states, "[is that] animals kill other animals for food; all animals die."

Niman agrees: "Animals generally kill for their own physical nourishment, and they subsist by eating animals of other species. "

Whittingstall and Niman aren't the only writers who have given considerable thought to what the world would be like if we all suddenly became vegetarians. In her book, This Organic Life, author and nutritionist Joan Gussow writes:

"The idea that the earth would be a more fruitful place if all of us stopped eating animals and their products is simply wrong. This is so because ruminants can graze land not suitable for growing crops. Moreover, if we unilaterally declared peace in regard to other living things, they would not reciprocate. If we turned our livestock loose and simply allowed them to roam freely, they would eat our vegetables and we would starve."

On a more metaphysical level, Gussow explains that anytime we eat, we are benefiting from the killing of something. “Death comes to the creatures whose life spaces and local ecosystems are usurped by the vast monocultures of modern agriculture,” she writes. “You cannot control nature without inflicting pain.”

An ethical, mutually beneficial relationship with animals is symbiotic: we breed them, we feed them, and then they feed us. Whittingstall emphasizes that we need to be morally aware of all of our interactions with animals during each of these stages, not just in death.

In Niman's time running BN Ranch with Bill Niman, she's become convinced that the best farming methods mimic nature's ecosystems, and the natural relationships among sun, water, plants, and animals.

A truly organic, integrated, environmentally sound way of farming uses animals: it always has. I've read about it from Joel Salatin and Kurt Timmermeister, and I've witnessed it on farms in New York, Oregon, and Virginia, including a farm that often serves as a model for other farms: Stone Barns. A farm that properly integrates animals and livestock can mean that fewer outside inputs are required. A cow provides milk, and pigs will gladly eat the byproducts from cheese and butter making (pigs are the ultimate composter of food and scraps); grazing cows and cattle keep a field clean of weeds while fertilizing these fields with their manure. Chickens, besides providing eggs, pick through that manure, spreading it and ridding it of bugs. A farm without animals is a farm that requires more outside inputs: fertilizer, pesticides, and feed.

Environmental Impact

It's not hard to find articles discussing meat's environmental impact. Vegan activists and authors such as James McWilliams and Howard Lyman have been especially vocal commentators, and various news outlets are quick to push buzz-worthy phrases linking meat eating with environmental degradation, without examining the full issue. Our current system of raising animals, and our culture around meat eating, IS emission-intensive and detrimental to the environment. An integrated organic system, where meat isn't the main event but rather a supporting player, doesn't have to be. Can an integrated system supply people with as much meat as they want to eat? I doubt it: we need to eat less meat.

We also need to turn away from eating foods that are grown as massive mono-crops, such as corn and soy. All food production has global warming impacts, and some of the worst emitters have nothing to do with livestock.

Niman has written about the environmental impacts of farming methodologies, noting:

”More than three-quarters of agriculture's nitrous oxide emissions result from manmade fertilizers. Thus, raising livestock does not inherently aggravate the problem, because farming that does not need fertilized crops—in other words, pasture-based and organic farming—causes negligible nitrous oxide emissions. Equally important, the animal manure used on traditional farms actually mitigates the need for commercial (fossil fuel-based) fertilizers."

At the conclusion of one of Niman's articles for The Atlantic, she presents a nuanced thought about how emissions are currently viewed. She argues that "just because something generates some global warming emissions doesn't mean it should be categorically condemned. Natural wetlands cause more methane emissions than any single human source, yet wetlands are considered essential water filters and wildlife habitats."

Eating Meat in Portland

Taking into account what I’ve learned about the role of animals in agricultural systems, I’ve come to believe that meat eating isn't unethical per se — but modern meat eating (and our current system of rearing and slaughtering) most certainly is.

But knowing that domesticated animals, ethically raised, perform a vital role in a holistically sustainable agricultural system, unfortunately doesn't make my dinner table decisions any easier. I have a few rules of thumb that I take into account whenever I consider eating meat. Read through this list and you can guess how rarely I actually order off the non-vegetarian side of a menu:

a) I must know for a fact that the animal was raised ethically (and ideally in an integrated farming system with an ability for it to exhibit its natural tendencies.)

b) I must know that the animal was slaughtered quickly, with care and respect.

c) I must actually be craving meat.

Portland is an interesting place to eat meat. It's a city built equally for carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans; in fact, I've found it easier to be a vegan or vegetarian than an ethical meat eater. Portland's emphasis on hyper-locality extends to the meat and dairy served at restaurants and cafes. I have numerous options for buying in-season, sustainably grown produce, but when I'm dining out or cooking at home, I find that I'll rarely even consider ordering meat, as Portland restaurants are dominated by meat cooperatives of which I know very little.

Meat cooperatives provide a way for multiple smaller (ideally, family) farms to pool their product: milk, vegetables, or meat. On paper, I'm in support of coops, as they are designed to shoulder the marketing and distribution of products, allowing a farmer more time to focus on what’s most important: actually farming. Unfortunately, coops can also render a farm powerless, skimming off money for various added expenses and manipulating market prices. But well-run cooperatives exist. In fact, the first one I always think of is the one Bill Niman, Nicolette's husband, helped found: Niman Ranch. While Niman is no longer a part of Niman Ranch (you can read why here), while at the helm he helped to create a network of pork and beef producing farms that were required to follow strict welfare, feed, and health standards. His goal was for consumers to know exactly what they were getting when they bought a Niman Ranch product, even if they didn't know precisely which farm it came from.

In Portland, if you're out to eat at restaurants ranging from Little Big Burger to Tasty 'n Sons to Smallwares, the best meat options you'll find are indeed local: Draper Valley chicken, Cascade Natural beef, and either Carlton or Payne Family Farms' pork. When we first moved to Portland, I was excited to see such a focus on local meat, but in the year since living here, I've had to scale back my enthusiasm. Despite the marketing power of a coop, when it comes to these particular choices, I find myself asking multiple questions that several hours of online research can't answer.

Carlton Farms' website shares that they sell "high quality meat that is antibiotic-free, grown by a hand-picked team of farmers who respect their animals and the environment." I can't find how large an individual operation is (and if there are caps on that size), what a pig's access to the outdoors is like, how old a pig is when slaughtered, and the distance of transport between farm to slaughter.

Payne Family Farms is another hyper-local farm. The owner, Mark, mills his own feed and breeds his own pigs. Unfortunately, the most prevalent item I find in my research is the fact that Payne Family Farms uses farrowing crates, a restrictive and inhumane system for a nursing mother pig and her newborn piglets. And I've found blogs perpetuating the idea that these crates aren't cruel.

If you're looking for a hamburger of known provenance, you're most likely to be chomping down on a Cascade Natural burger. Cascade Natural is a private label started by Portland meat distributor SP Provisions. The cooperative works with 10 Northwest ranches. The most I can find about this meat is that it's pasture raised and grain finished. I can't find any further details.

Eating chicken out at restaurants leads to a similar scenario; if a restaurant is going to list their source, it's most likely Draper Valley. Draper Valley touts that they don't give their chickens hormones (which is illegal anyways, both in pork and poultry; it's only legal in beef production). They've peppered their website with ambiguous phrases like "comfortable housing for a stress-free environment" and "humanely raised in spacious housing with natural light and ventilation." Draper Valley DOES have a free range line (the Ranger brand), but this brand is also not organic.

One of my hopes this year is learn more about each cooperatives' standards: are they uniformly ethical? Why is the language I find online so vague? And since I consistently see these cooperatives' names on various Portland restaurants, how big are these operations? Is there room for a network of smaller family farms that aren't part of a cooperative? Certain restaurants in Portland feature meat that doesn't come from these cooperatives: Nostrana will use Kookoolan Farms' chicken, when available; Ned Ludd will use meat from Afton Field Farm when available; Clarklewis and June use Carman Ranch beef.

All of these questions may sound like a lot of work, or make it seem that I'm treading too closely to the image of the hyper-conscious diners from the first season of Portlandia. But the burden of understanding the source and nature of our food is hardly a heavy task, relative to the work we would’ve needed to perform for such food in the past. Farmers' markets, CSAs, and supermarkets alleviate our need to grow or forage our own food. When you think about it this way, it shouldn't be so much to ask that we take a little of the time saved in our modern system to investigate exactly what we’re eating. Being consumers in our food system does not provide us with an “out” from knowing anything about our food; rather, our burden of responsibility has shifted from actually spending time raising food, to making informed choices about our purchases, fulfilling our role in building a sustainable agricultural system.


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