Eco Vegetarianism Part IV: To Veg or not to Veg

So if you have followed the previous several posts you will be aware that I am struggling with my former belief that eating local organic vegetables was the most ecological way to receive sustenance. I no longer think that is true. Perennial pastures build soil fertility, lock carbon in the soil, and grass fed meat can be raised with virtually no petroleum inputs. But I also think that the difference between eating whole, local produce exclusively and getting a percentage of your calories from grass fed meat is very small. If I had to make an unscientific spectrum from least ecological to most, I would have CAFO meat (and if it doesn’t say 100% Grass Fed-it’s almost certainly spent at least some time in a CAFO) and processed foods (if you have to open it- it counts [processing adds another factor of 10 to the embodied energy]), then imported fruits (typically flown in), to processed organic foods, then a huge jump up in eco-friendliness to regional Organic Produce in season, local produce, then local organic foods and finishing with Grass Fed Meats. Further more, raising animals on an integrated farm actually makes local organic produce more ecological by producing the fertilizer on site. Plus animals add enough profitability to actually make a livable farm-only income feasible for a thrifty family. Sustaining a populated rural countryside is very important for biodiversity and our ability to produce our own food as a nation. Supporting these enterprises is a patriotic as well as ecological act.

But here is the kicker. I am still a vegetarian. The largest reason is that, for cattle and hogs at least, there simply are no humane slaughterhouses. Because the USDA and FDA mandate that their must be an inspector in each facility, and those inspectors are expensive, only the big One Size Fits All slaughterhouses can run. Guess who sets the ethical standards for these facilities? McDonald’s. No, I am not kidding. In an effort to forestall PEDA, they have set some ‘minimum’ standards:

Potentially graphic content warning-but if you want to eat meat you need to know this: Readers of Michael Pollan will find this familiar. When the cows are led into the slaughterhouse, they are sent through a chute that has them enter single file. Each cow is then killed by a piston shot into their forehead. When it works, it really isn’t too bad a way to go in my book: brain dead within seconds. But the piston misses. A lot. Because of McDonald’s there are now inspectors watching as the now dead cows are strung up for processing. It is typical that they shake around as their nerves fire, but these are not still alive. However, some of the cows will be visibly trying to get upright again. Those cows aren’t even stunned and they head in to the processing, which starts with skinning, very much alive. McDonald’s standards are maximum 5% still alive. That is about 1 out every 20 cows, and I refuse to support that industry. Though I do not find eating meat immoral, I find immense problems with torturing animals in our care. Therefore I do not eat beef.

Chickens are not as regulated and it is feasible to find local grass fed chicken. I can think of three farms off the top of my head within 10 miles where I could drive up to their door and buy a humanely slaughtered chicken. So why am I not doing it? Frankly, I am not sure if even I know why. Perhaps after all these years I find animal carcasses distasteful. Perhaps I am lying to myself and I do have an ethical issue with eating meat. Maybe it is just culinary inertia. But I do think that there is enough reason that given our current situation we have the means to eat vegetarian so we will continue to do so. I guess it is best summed up that I can think of no reason to start eating meat in our current lives. I also know that if we move out onto a farmette, we will need to keep animals to build soil fertility. At that point I will eat meat-animals will be necessary in our lives and I will personally be able to oversee their ends ensuring a quick, clean death solving most of my concerns. This is still untidy in my mind, which bothers me, but that is where I am right now.

Hopefully this has helped some in their quest for more ecological eating, or at the least spread some knowledge on sustainable agriculture. Those interested in further reading on that topic can check out:
Gene Logdson’s The Contrary Farmer and All Flesh is Grass. Gene is a cool guy.
Joel Salatin’s books are designed for those wanting to farm, but he is a blast to read.
Periodicals to check out include Acre’s USA, and the Stockman Grass Farmer

And those interested in ethical eating shold check out Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book is great, but he gives Whole Foods a raw deal.

Remember-eating is a political, ethical, and ecological act.
Be the Change.

5 Responses

  1. I completely agree with the environmental findings, and continue to question why we can’t get past the results. The more I’ve thought about this, the less sense it’s made. I just keep thinking of the religions that shun eating meat, and that there is certainly something to that. (Even Buddhists will eat meat that is placed in their alms bowls though.) It occurred to me on my drive home today that Pollan talked about the visceral reaction we have to food–disgust–that is an evolved reaction to protect us. I can’t help but wonder if there is something that–I don’t know–that we’ve evolved? That tells us that an excess of meat is not good? I don’t know if there’s anything to it. I just know that I can get all the way up through getting the pasture raised meat onto the table–all ethically in my book, and it still turns my stomach–ethically, to think of eating it. I will continue pondering this for a while, but I think it may be that there simply is no right answer.

  2. I have a theory on this. I don’t know if it’s got legs or not, but in reading this (excellent) series, as well as Pollan’s (excellent) book, this is what my brain came up with:

    Modern society, and in particular, North American and Western European society, is extremely insulated from death. Our average lifespans get longer with each passing year, infant mortality is miniscule, modern medicine can fix a whole range of life-threatening conditions, disease epidemics are rare and rarely fatal, we have very few predatory animals roaming our lands, famine is unheard of, very few people have any involvement in slaughtering or processing meat (nobody I know), and though livestock slaughter happens on an unprecedented scale, it’s completely hidden from view…

    We hesitate to squish a spider. Mousetraps seem cruel. Killing chickens can seem downright barbaric.

    Death is a rarity in our lives. We are not used to it. We so rarely have to confront mortality that when we do, it affects us greatly.

    It’s ironic that as our lifespans have increased, so has our fear of mortality.

    Just a thought or two…

  3. excellent series on sustainable farming. i’m an ethical vegetarian, i believe that there is no morally relevant difference between humans and other animals that gives us the right to kill them. so your approach strikes me as problematic in that it elevates the needs of humans above those of other life.

    if i’m reading you right, the main reason why we have to kill and eat animals – rather than simply living with them on the farm and taking advantage of their agricultural benefits – is that to do otherwise would be unprofitable.

    in other words, meat production is a pragmatic measure forced on us by economic forces that don’t take into account ethical costs like environmental damage, labor abuse, or animal cruelty. if we had a different economy that factored these things in, it might be possible to maintain sustainable farms without the need to kill animals. proposals for an economy that would incorporate these costs already exist – see information on participatory economics. see also the particular mechanism by which a parecon would address pollution.

    replacing capitalism may seem like a wild fantasy, but it may be no more unrealistic than achieving nationwide or worldwide the kind of sustainable agricultural system you’re advocating as long as market forces continue to dominate.

    what i’m saying is that might very well be necessary in the short-term that sustainable farms produce meat in order to survive. but the need for meat is not in the nature of things – it’s a situation that market relations force on us. we shouldn’t give up on meat-free sustainable agriculture as the ultimate goal of a desirable society.

  4. The reason that I stress the economics is that I find small sustainable family farms intrinsically valuable to society. Among a myriad of other valuable contributions, small farms reconnect the community to the land-to their food- which is essential to a sustainable future.

    I can think of a half dozen idealist futures that would not necessitate For Profit farming-but our world, and the US in particular, is creating problems on a level that is unprecedented in human history. The reality of that problem forces us to look for ways to create sustainable solutions everywhere. Those that work within the model will be the easiest sell-organic food is taking off exponentially faster than eco villages are.

    Finally, we’re omnivores so eating meat actually is “natural” for us. However, in my opinion it is the fact that we are different; that we can make an ethical or environmental decision that overrides the fact that we were born with canine teeth. We cab choose to not eat meat that makes us different from other omnivorous creatures.

  5. The next step in slaughtering after stunning an animal is to bleed it. Not skin it. They are all dead after you bleed them. Of course, I’ve never seen a big slaughter house but I can’t *imagine* that they don’t bleed an animal. I’ve done my own. Rabbits, chickens, goats, pigs, cow. And deer of course. And squirrel.

    Vegetarianism is a modern convenience/luxury. My vegetarian best friend loves it when I repeat that, but it is true.

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