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Becoming a Compassionate Carnivore
"Just as boats of various designs leave very different wakes in the water behind them, so too do various approaches to living send out different waves of reverberating influence on the world."
Life as a carnivore used to be simple. Our choices were straightforward: Original Recipe or Extra Crispy? Pork Ribs or Beef Ribs? Chicken Pot pie or Turkey Pot Pie? Today, however, in the Brave New World of increased awareness of environmental impact, health concerns, and animal welfare, the choices are no longer just between specific dishes, but between different ways to raise, feed, and butcher the animals who become the meat in those dishes. The choices are so dizzying that, as Dr. Emilio Lazardo said in The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai, ‘It’s enough to make the ganglia twitch.’
At the grocery store, do I pay $.99 for the regular eggs, or $4.00 for the cage-free eggs? How can I eat out if I can’t find a restaurant that serves meat raised the way I want it raised? Do I spend time finding farmers who raise meat animals humanely, or do I close my eyes and buy the stuff at the store that’s been raised in a factory because I don’t have time to look for anything else? Should I buy grass-fed or grass-finished meat? Corn-fed? Pasture-raised or feedlot-raised? No antibiotics? No growth hormones? Do I buy organic meat shipped 1,000 miles, or non-organic meat shipped 60 miles? Should I buy meat from a small but conventional farm? Heck, should I even be eating meat at all?
Unfortunately, I don’t believe there are clear answers to any of these questions. For example, researchers have found that most of the food we eat has traveled at least 1,500 miles before it reaches our plate, and because that transportation consumes a great deal of fossil fuel and emits plenty of carbon dioxide, the conclusion is we should all eat locally. But an op-ed piece in the New York Times raised the opposite idea. New Zealand researchers now claim that the process of raising lamb on a clover-rich New Zealand pasture and shipping it 11,000 miles to Great Britain emits much less carbon dioxide than the process of raising a lamb on grain right in England.
I can feel my ganglia starting to twitch already. On my cynical days I wonder if there are any truths about becoming a more compassionate carnivore that I can trust.
On my less cynical days, I know there are. As I waded through what it means to be a carnivore today, I kept coming back to the one thing that I know to be true: the animals themselves matter. Treating animals with respect and consideration is an act that sends out ever-widening ripples into the world. To begin down this path, all we need to do is pull our heads up out of the sand.
Pulling My Head Out of the Sand
For me, it’s all about the animals because I am a farmer, and I raise animals for meat. I wasn’t raised on a farm, and had no dreams of farming, but in the mid 1990s, my partner Melissa confessed she’d always wanted to be a farmer and asked if I would help her start a farm.
What happened when I said ‘yes’ is a long story, but the short version is that today we run a small, sustainable farm and raise sheep. We have three guard llamas for protecting the flock, and sometimes have goats. We sell lamb, ducks, and chicken eggs. Melissa is in her element, repairing the tractor, fixing fences, and taking care of the animals. I tend to resist getting my hands dirty (an endearing phobia apparently began as a toddler when I refused to fingerpaint), but I provide valuable backup when the sheep get out (and chaos ensues), and I help with the farm’s management and planning. Over the last fifteen years, my perspective has shifted from city to rural, from consumer to producer, from livestock-ignorant to livestock-familiar. I am fiercely proud of the farm we’ve created, and how we raise our animals.
Until Melissa and I started our farm, I’d lived in the city, where I happily wore clean clothes, kept a tidy house, paid no attention to the changing seasons, and was content to completely ignore that my meat used to be an animal’s muscles. While ostriches don’t really stick their heads in the sand to hide (they stretch out flat against the ground), the whole-head-in-the-sand thing beautifully described my approach to eating meat. Meat came from styrofoam trays covered in cellophane, all traces of skin and blood and guts removed so I could easily forget the meat used to be an animal. I didn’t want to know that Bessie in the barn had become the burger on my bun.
But now I know. And as I’ve learned more about farming, and about eating meat, and about raising animals humanely, I’ve learned there is no right way to become a more compassionate carnivore. I love meat and am not going to give it up. There’ll be no 100-mile or 250-mile diet for this chick, although I commend those willing to take on the challenge. No feeding myself entirely from my garden, which I do not have and do not intend to plant because, truth be told, I’m not all that wild about vegetables, only eating them because my mother tells me I must. I don’t enjoy cooking. As comedian Carrie Snow said: “I prefer Hostess fruit pies to pop-up toaster tarts because they don’t require as much cooking.”
Because of my concern for the environment, the lives of animals, and my own health, I’ve spent the last ten years exploring how to make better choices in the meat I buy. Hopefully my experiences will help you bridge the yawning gap between the Ideal, and the Real, since our realistic choices may be very different from our philosophical choices. This book is not a declaration of war against farmers, since I am one. It’s not a plea for everyone to become a vegetarian, since I will never be one.
This will not be one of those cheerful self-help books that makes change sound so ridiculously easy—“Become a Compassionate Carnivore in Just Ten Days!”—that you feel like a total loser when you’re not able to pull it off. At the other extreme, it’s not intended to be one of those books about factory farming so depressing that you can’t get out of bed for a week. There’s only one rule you need to keep in mind as you approach the idea of becoming a more conscientious, compassionate carnivore, and here it is: The first being on whom you must practice compassion is yourself.
So what’s a compassionate carnivore to do when faced with new choices and conflicting information? We can learn more about our choices, then decide what’s important for us and our families. Scattered throughout the book are ideas for steps you can take, and when I’ve herded them all together at the end, you’ll have a good range of choices from which to select.
Here’s a heads up, though: Becoming a more compassionate carnivore requires change, and change requires time, the one thing most of us lack. How can we possibly change how we eat when we barely have enough time to eat?
Carl Honoré said this about today’s fast pace of life: “The more everyone else bangs on about how fast the world is, the more we assume that slowing down is impossible.” Yet by the end of his book, In Praise of Slowness, we learn that slowing down isn’t impossible: “The Slow philosophy delivers the things that really make us happy: good health, a thriving environment, strong communities and relationships, freedom from perpetual hurry.” I’m hoping that by the end of this book, you’ll want to slow down a bit. You’ll want to pay more attention to where your meat comes from and how it was raised.
Most of us have distanced ourselves from our meat, protecting ourselves from the truth that we are eating animals. Yet we don’t need to protect ourselves. Ignorance is not bliss. Being a carnivore who’s asleep at the wheel means someone else is driving. Being a carnivore who wakes up, looks around and engages means you’re in charge. Being in charge is good.
So in this book I’ll explore some of the basic issues—why it might be hard to change how we eat meat, and what it means to pay more attention to the animals we eat. Next will be a brief look at our current meat-eating habits, and whether that’s a good place in which to be.
There’s no avoiding a discussion of some of the nasty effects of factory farming, both on animals and the environment, and some of you will feel so guilty you’ll put the book down and be done with the whole thing. Enough with the guilt. I’ve struggled with it for years, and have finally accepted it’s a total waste of time. Instead of giving in to guilt, resolve to stay awake, and accept that you can do nothing about what’s happened up to this point. We start from here, from today.
I’ll discuss sustainable and organic alternatives to factory meat, and how what an animal is fed will affect meat taste and quality. I’ll cover what we all want to avoid, and that’s the transition from animal to meat. For a break, I’ll take you on a relaxing pasture walk, then we’ll get creative about finding sources for the kind of meat you want to buy.
This is an exciting time to be both a carnivore and a farmer, and I’m optimistic we’re approaching a tipping point when it comes to buying meat from animals raised humanely. Of course, I might just be the optimist Gretel Erhlich once described, the guy who fell off a ten story building, and as he passed each floor, said, “Well, I’m all right so far.”
Let’s hope not.
Farmers and consumers have finally found each other. Thanks to farmer’s markets, the internet, and other methods, you and I can connect more easily than ever before. We can support each other by totally bypassing today’s food distribution system, and in doing so, I’m positive we can create better lives for meat animals, farmers, and consumers alike.