Thursday, 28 January 2010

Going Meatless - What's Your Reason?

by Kate
Living A Frugal Life

There's a lot of talk on green-themed blogs about vegetarianism and reducing meat consumption. People come to this topic out of many different concerns - health, ethics, environmental degradation, and frugality, among others. All of them are valid motivations. Nonetheless, diet is a very personal topic, and it can be a very divisive one as well. I've yet to meet anyone who enjoys being lectured about their dietary choices, their financial affairs, or someone else's religious convictions.

But a meatless meal seems to be fairly free of contention, so long as we don't get on a soapbox and assert that our own reasons for eating less or no meat are The Right and Proper Worldview. As I mentioned, I believe there are many good reasons to abstain from meat consumption at least for some meals. It doesn't matter to me very much why people eat less meat. I'm happy to discuss any good reason for doing so, as long as it doesn't put people off the idea altogether. So let's talk about some of those reasons.

I found that having a large garden and keeping laying hens naturally steers me away from preparing meat-centric meals. With a lot of effort invested in growing vegetables and producing our own eggs, you can be sure it's a high priority for me to use up those ingredients. Preparing meals centered on vegetables and eggs naturally crowds out some opportunities for meat-based meals. In this case, reduced meat consumption is an unintended consequence of taking more responsibility for our own food production. It's an unintended consequence we hardly notice, and don't mind at all. Eggs supply plenty of protein, so we're never at risk of running low on that nutrient. We eat better because we enjoy the superior quality of our homegrown food, not because we're dutifully giving up something we enjoy in order to settle for "health food."

Out of both a desire to save money, as well as a sense of respect for the taking of animals' lives, I think it's important also to stretch meat as far as it will go. Meat can be an accent and a contributing ingredient just as well as it can dominate a dinner plate. No part of an animal need be wasted. Making stock from animal bones give you a "second helping" of the meat that would otherwise be lost. A vegetable soup made with meat-based broth but no other meat is sort of veggie, but also sort of meaty. We get that bonus animal protein without the need to raise, feed, and kill another animal. Consuming the (unjustly) less celebrated bits of an animal, such as the organs, tongue, cheeks, tails, etc, not only stretches a budget, but it also precludes the travesty of killing an animal only to consume a few select parts.

It's also costing the planet too much to produce the quantity of meat that the current human population chooses to consume. If there were only 500 million humans spread around the world, we could probably eat all the meat we wanted with few repercussions to the planet. That simply isn't the case with nearly 7 billion of us. Not only are we despoiling the environment through the incredible concentrations of manure concomitant with factory farms, but the grain that goes to feed industrially raised animals, bought and sold as it is on the global market, literally deprives the poorest of our human family the ability to feed their children. There is indeed enough food at the moment to feed all the people on this planet, but not if we feed a huge proportion of that food to animals (or worse yet, our cars).

Then there's the human health angle. Those of us in over-developed societies eat too much industrial meat for our own good. We're suffering from excessive levels of heart disease, colon cancer, obesity, and any number of other diet-related diseases. Almost all meat sold in the US comes from animals on industrial feedlots fed genetically modified corn, which raises a whole host of other insufficiently understood human health concerns. Not to mention, GMO crops are doused with incredibly high levels of pesticides which critically threaten honey bees. Honey bees provide crucial pollination for one out of every three bites of food the human race consumes. Pigs and cattle are routinely pumped full of sub-therapeutic antibiotics. (In other words, they are all given antibiotics routinely, just to keep them alive in disgusting conditions, rather than on an individual basis if a single animal happens to get sick.) This gives rise to alarming strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Eating a hamburger every other day may mean that there's no effective treatment for the pneumonia your grandmother comes down with. It may mean that the life-threatening food poisoning your toddler contracts after eating ground beef can't be treated with any antibiotic we now possess. Industrial meat undermines not only human health, but also our medicine.

I've been reminded by the Meatless Monday Challenge that it takes a relatively small change in the diets of millions of people to add up to huge knock-on effects on a global scale. If every US resident who now eats meat went meatless once per week for a year, it would result in a savings of 12 billion gallons of gasoline and 13 trillion gallons of fresh water, while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollution. The idea of going without meat one day per week is hardly radical or new. Indeed, it was for all intents and purposes the law in Europe for many centuries. The Catholic church now holds Catholics to meatless Fridays only for six weeks out of the year. For many centuries Catholics were required both to fast and to abstain from eating meat on Fridays year-round, and on many other holy days. And for much of European history, what the Catholic church dictated had all the force of state law. The Orthodox churches likewise required periods of dietary restraint of their adherents. Though there were variations to this rule by region and era, no person in Christendom was a stranger to fasting or meatless meals. If you're of European descent, your ancestors lived this way for many generations. Would it be a true hardship for us to do the same?

Don't get me wrong - I don't ever envision myself as a vegetarian, and I'm not asking anyone to become one. I believe that animal protein is something that Homo sapiens sapiens evolved to consume. Healthy, natural meat is good for us. There have been human cultures that subsisted almost 100% on animal flesh and animal products. While I very much respect the ethical choices of vegetarians and vegans, I have no personal qualms about killing animals for consumption, and have done it myself. (Raising them in unspeakable conditions, treating them cruelly, and the callous wasting of any part of their bodies are the things I can't stomach.) As Sharon Astyk pointed out recently, there is no such thing as a bloodless human diet which is also sustainable. Without animal manures, or massive inputs from petroleum-based fertilizers, no soil on this planet can indefinitely support grain or vegetable cropping. We are all responsible, whatever our dietary choices, for the deaths of other creatures. Yet there are still ways to mitigate the harm we must do to keep ourselves alive.

How do I resolve these issues? My personal choice for the time being is to buy meat only from local producers who keep their animals on pasture, treat them humanely, never use hormones, and only use antibiotics when an animal actually needs veterinary treatment. In this way I can and actually do know the people who raise my food, and I know they give a damn about what they sell to their customers. I pay a fair price for this meat, which is significantly more than I would pay for industrial meat purchased at the supermarket. This means my money stays in my community and supports practices I believe in, and that meat makes up a smaller portion of our diet than it would have ten years ago. I waste no part of any meat we buy, even to the point of burying the bones in my garden to add nutrients to our soil. On the rare occasions I eat out, I usually opt for a vegetarian meal unless I happen to know that the meat comes from a local ethical farm. When we do eat out, I prefer to patronize restaurants that carry such meats, and I make a point of ordering them. Eventually I would like to take more responsibility for the meat we consume by hunting and/or raising meat rabbits.

I'm curious to hear from all of you about your approach to eating meat, or not eating it. What are your dietary choices, and how did you come to them? Have you changed your diet in response to concerns about food safety, frugality, ethics, or for other reasons? Are you currently in the process of changing your diet? If so, what challenges are you facing? Please share in the comments.