Good Counters to Sustainable Meat Arguments

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Today I have been delving into some vegan/vegetarian writings on the holes in the arguments for grass-finished ruminant meat and animal-cycle farms.

Joel Salatin’s farm is usually used as a “shining example” for those in the “sustainable meat camp” that I could say I more or less belong to. This blog did a really great job pointing out the inconsistency in Michael Pollan’s argument that Polyface is closed loop. The author is right! It is not: Salatin gets outside feed for his chickens to compensate for where the meat ultimately ends up: in septic tanks! The solution there, however, is far to come to pass–until human begins start eating a truly evolutionary diet and stop taking prescription drugs, there is no way we could use “humanure” on our fields (my opinion on first thought; please correct me if I am wrong).

The same blog, “Say what, Micheal Pollan?” does calculations of energy inputs on a similar post. I’m pretty impressed. I haven’t seen anything like this before. Very thoughtful analysis. I would like to see it next to the energy inputs of a factory farm, though. The point is well taken, however. The author went on in another post to detail Joel Salatin’s reponse to his direct questioning. That was an excellent question, I really commend the author of this blog.

A more recent follow-up post makes the excellent point that I cannot disagree with:

“Keith calculates that ten acres of pasture farmed Polyface style can produce enough calories to feed nine people. That might sound impressive at first, but it’s decidedly less so when you consider that this would require grain that could feed even more people. Bringing that feed grain to Polyface Farm depletes more topsoil and requires more fossil fuels than growing and harvesting grain (in smaller amounts) to feed directly to people. More generally, any bad things one might say about grain production will apply even more strongly to the Polyface meal than to a meal of grains with comparable caloric content, and thus support a conclusion opposite the one that Lierre Keith reaches.”

I found today that I agree with all of the things that I read, and I do believe that eating less meat for those that can healthfully do so is of the utmost importance. I do not believe that a fully vegetarian (and especially not a fully vegan) diet is best for everyone, myself included (this is from personal experience and experimentation; let me say I did not give up easily nor for these health reasons). I always believed in the “every person able to reduce meat consumption should” argument strongly as a vegetarian, and I must admit fell back from it a little as I brought pastured meats into my diet, and especially when reading heavily on paleo diets. Paleo diets, however, only peripherally look at ethics, and I let them reel me in when they cannot put ethics first–it’s all about optimal personal health. Optimal personal health, to me, is very important, but not as important as my love for people and for the healthy future of humankind. After extensive reading today, I am coming back to that paradigm again more than ever. However, I am not quite willing to throw pastured meats out of my diet. This is for several reasons:

1. The pastured meats that I buy from my neighbor-farmers here in Appalachia are the most nutrient-dense, local food available in the winter time. They are the best way for me to get all my nutritional needs as close to home as possible. Regional self-sufficiency is a must in the future. The pastured meat will have to cut out grain to do this, but I believe they can do this eventually, but not if they go out of business. Vegetarians (me in the past did this) are often humane meat’s greatest supporter morally but economically. Capitalism doesn’t translate this transaction well for the farmers.

2. If widespread vegetarianism is going to happen, it is not going to happen soon. I want to infuse as many of my food dollars as I would on other proteins into locally-raised pastured meats to grow that market and offset factory-farmed meat demand to the greatest extent an individual can.  I have not seen the calculations, but I would strongly estimate that the marginal “grain cost” for pastured meats is far and above less than that of factory farmed animals, which eat grain all of their lives directly. If we are going to have meat consumption at all in our food system, we need to transfer as much of it as possible to pastured meats and away from factory farmed meats. This means a transfer of demand from factory meats to pastured meats for every person that eats meat (that is possible). This includes myself.

3. For the same market offset reasoning reasoning, I want to offset the gross cruelty of the factory-farmed meat industry for a better alternative. Enough said. There are far too many resources on the reasoning for this than I need to cite (Eating Animals the book is one of the most popular).

4. My ultimate idealistic goal, and the system I eat for on a personal level is not one that feeds the most people possible. It is to feed everyone healthfully and well. I do not believe that everyone can be fully healthy with a vegetarian or vegan diet. This includes myself. Yes, I choose vegetarian when no pastured meat is available, but I am not fully healthy when eating this way for an extended period of time (poor mood, weight gain, acne, depression…) This “healthy and fed” food system includes, in my idealist vision, an ethical stabilization of the world’s population (i.e. through women empowerment and family planning education) coupled with a decentralized, reliable, and food sovereign food system.

I must admit I occasionally was eating conventional meats lately, but I am inspired to cut these out except for extreme instances once again (i.e. hospitably offered to me in good faith, going to be thrown out). Thank you veg community for this. I am so often inspired by communities like the veg one because of their strong grounding and sacrifice according to what they believe to be right and good in (and for) this world. Any reduction I can give to my contribution to agriculture as a whole is a good one.

I still think that there is a disparity between making the distinction between pastured meat and factory farmed meat, but these articles are ways the veg community addresses this in some sectors.

Ultimately, I would have to agree with Lierre Keith in that any kind of agriculture available now for as many people as we have is unsustainable and cannot feed us, so it’s easy to argue the holes in any kind of agricultural system. Coming away from this, I still believe that our number one challenge as the human race is to slow population growth so that we can reduce our impacts and ultimately make our “patch disturbance” smaller so that the Earth can recover. When we decided to civilize, we invited so many ills of the modern world. The good question is, what do we do now? I try and answer this question as best I can ever single day. What is the way that I can act on an individual level that works toward the best future for mankind?

Right now my answer is to infuse my local food system economy with as many of my food dollars as I can; to support local growers. In my region of the country, that means eating meat in the winter time (in 2011..that may be different when more food preservation facilities are built in the future). It means doing this to the best of my ability with keeping in mind the health of my community: and to me that means eating some meat for everyone that wants it. I was a “good vegetarian” for years and I still could not get everything I needed from my local community nutritionally without meat. As soon as I started to eat meat again, my weight stabilized and my frequent depressive cycles lessened. My mood improved. I care about humans; I want us to endure, but I also want us to endure healthfully. If this means eating meat for some or many or all, so be it. May we stabilize our population in an ethical manner so that we aren’t rushing to feed too many billions enough, but so many people well. I dream of a world where not only is everyone getting enough to eat, but they are also healthy. That’s what I pray for and do my best to act for. May it be so.

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